These days it’s easy to think of Tibetan Buddhism as an international religion. We usually see this as something that came about in the second half of the twentieth century, when so many Tibetan lamas fled the country. Before that time, Tibetan culture is often presented as if it was enclosed within the mountain fastness of Tibet, taking its own path in splendid isolation.
But if you know a bit of history, this picture doesn’t look quite right. Tibetan Buddhism was very popular at the courts of the Mongols and the Manchus, becoming for centuries the religion of choice for the ruling classes in China. And the religion of the Mongolian people is also essentially Tibetan, as a result of great missionary efforts on the part of Tibetan lamas.
And then there are our Dunhuang manuscripts. Dunhuang was, of course, located at the northeastern end of Great Tibet, the old Tibetan empire, and even after the fall of the empire many aspects of Tibetan culture remained. But while neighbouring areas like Tsongka and Liangzhou had a large Tibetan population, the residents of Dunhuang were always mostly Chinese.
So questions arise — Who actually wrote the Tibetan manuscripts found in Dunhuang? Who was practising Tibetan Buddhism there? There are no simple answers, but I think we can say that most of the time it wasn’t the Tibetans.
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Let’s take an example. The Questions and Answers on Vajrasattva is one of the great tantric treatises of the early period of Tibetan Buddhism, written by Nyan Palyang, an important Tibetan tantric scholar of the ninth century. The questions are all about the Mahāyoga class of tantric practice (and shed some light on the early role of Dzogchen, as I discussed some time ago). This treatise was preserved in the Tibetan canons, as well as in several Dunhuang manuscripts, one of which (IOL Tib J 470) is signed by the scribe, like this:
Though it’s written in Tibetan this is certainly a Chinese name. The first part of it is a rank, rather than a proper name: phu shi which is almost certainly Fushi 副使, an official title (found elsewhere in 10th-century Dunhuang) for the third-highest ranking district official in the Chinese government of tenth-century Dunhuang. So, this Tibetan treatise on the practice of Mahāyoga meditation was copied down on an (incidently rather nice quality) scroll by a Chinese official at Dunhuang.
Other Tibetan tantric manuscripts are written by Khotanese, by Uighur Turks, sometimes, even by Tibetans. Tibetan Buddhism was clearly by this time a genuine international religion, a cultural point of contact between a great many ethnically diverse people.
How did this happen? Well, when the Tibetans occupied Dunhuang (and other non-Tibetan speaking areas) they forced the locals to learn Tibetan. Official correspondence and legal documents had to be written in Tibetan, and the mass-produced sutras that the emperor Ralpachen funded (see here) were mainly written by Chinese locals. After the Tibetans were kicked out, locals carried on using Tibetan to draw up contracts and write letters. The Tibetan language became a lingua franca for Central Asia — one of our Tibetan manuscripts, for example, is a letter from the (Chinese) ruler of Dunhuang to the (Khotanese) king of Khotan.
And these locals, like our Chinese official, found that their second language, Tibetan, was also the ideal language for learning about the newest developments in tantric practice (which had only a very limited circulation in Chinese translation).
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Why does this matter? Well, consider that when the Mongol leader Godan Khan met Sakya Pandita in order to agree of Tibet’s status vis-a-vis the Mongol Empire, they met at Liangzhou — a few days journey from Dunhuang. The Mongols were inheritors of the Tangut practice of appointing Tibetan monks as imperial preceptors, and the Tanguts just formalized previous power relationships between Tibetan Buddhists and minor Chinese rulers in Dunhuang and the surrounding areas. Let me quote Christopher Beckwith, who says it better:
The Tibetan successor states in Liangzhou and neighboring areas were pro-Buddhist. When the Tanguts finally occupied this region they simply continued to support an already long-established Buddhist church. Furthermore, Tibetan monks were quite active at the court of the Sung dynasty in China, where they assisted in the translation of several important Buddhist texts into Chinese. When the Mongols finally supplanted the Tanguts, they did not disturb the existing Buddhist establishment; on the contrary, they supported it as strongly as their predecessors had.
And the tantric patron-priest model that the Mongols and Tibetans used to conceptualize their political relationship was hugely important for later Tibetan history. But rather than trying to draw a dubious causal line between the interest of a local Chinese official in Tibetan tantric Buddhism and Sino-Tibetan political relations, I will just express the hope that the Fushi’s scroll (and others like it) can give us an insight into the otherwise forgotten lives of the ordinary(ish) people within these grand historical movements. As Leo Tolstoy wrote in War and Peace:
The movement of nations is caused not by power, nor by intellectual activity, nor even by a combination of the two as historians have supposed, but by the activity of all the people who participate in the events…
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1. Christopher Beckwith. 1987. “The Tibetans in the Ordos and North China.” in Christopher Beckwith (ed.), Silver on Lapis. Bloomington: The Tibetan Society. pp.3-11.
2. Gray Tuttle. 2007. Tibetan Buddhists in the Making of Modern China. New York: Columbia University Press.