Tibetan Buddhism, the international religion


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.

*  *  *

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).

*  *  *

Tangut coinWhy 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…

*  *  *

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.

9 thoughts on “Tibetan Buddhism, the international religion

  1. Yes, it definitely looks like a Chinese name — Meng Hui I would think (Meng is probably the common family name 孟, but there are a number of characters that could have been pronounced Hui).

  2. Dear Andrew,

    That tallies with a suggestion I had from another person, who also (tentatively) suggested Huai 壞 for hwa’i, and (even more tentatively) Yu 玉 for gyog. You might disagree…


  3. Ah, thank you.

    Interestingly, we have another signature from a Meng on a Tibetan copy of the Uṣṇīṣa-sitātapatra. This fellow is Meng Hwa’i kyim. He seems to have been proud of his written Tibetan, because he writes: “this is the calligraphy of Meng Hwa’i kyim” (meng Hwa’i kyim gyi sug bris).

    The manuscript is here.

  4. You can find this at OTDO (link below), but here’s a ref. to a printed version of the text where another Meng family member appears, Pelliot tib. no. 1092. It’s a letter by Meng Phug-wen to Shi-shug and Shug-shug:

    Tibetan Documents from Dunhuang, Old Tibetan Documents Online Monograph Series vol. 1, Research Institute for Languages & Cultures of Asia & Africa, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies (Tokyo 2007), p. 138.

    Try searching for “Meng” here:

    See what pops up.

    Cheers all around!

  5. Dear Dan,

    Thanks for the letter reference. It’s all about a donkey (bong bu) apparently, as Lalou says: “Histoire d’âne pris ou conduit par à Sha-cu par Bin Shi-shi.” It almost sounds like a joke, though I don’t think it is. There are some letters among the Dunhuang documents that were written as a joke. One of them in fact is by Meng Hwa’i kyim (the one with the fancy calligraphy). It’s addressed to King Ranala (Rama?) and Princess Sita…

    There’s also a contract in which a Meng (dar tse) appears as a guarantor. Interestingly, this manuscript (Pelliot tibétain 1203) also mentions a loan to the abbot Hongbian, one of the most famous figures from Dunhuang. He was the head abbot of the Buddhist community of Dunhuang during the final years of Tibetan rule, and then continued in that position after the Chinese Guiyijun army took over in 848. The ‘library cave’ at Dunhuang was originally his funerary shrine.

    I don’t know where this takes us vis-a-vis the Meng who copied out the Questions and Answers on Vajrasattva, but it seems at least that we can say that several members of the Meng 孟 family held middle-ranking positions in Dunhuang society in the ninth and tenth centuries, and learned and used the Tibetan language for the purpose of writing letters and contracts, before using it to write tantric treatises.

  6. Meng Hwa’i kyim must be Chinese Meng Huaijin 孟懷金. Huaiyu 懷玉 “cherish jade” and Huaijin 懷金 “cherish gold” are matching names, so should belong to brothers or cousins.

  7. Ah, that’s interesting, and gives more credence to my idea that a Meng family (rather than disparate individuals sharing a family name) was involved in official business, and hence the Tibetan language, in Dunhuang.

    thanks again,

  8. I hope we’ll hear more about the jokes. Humor has been getting some attention of late (a ‘Humor in Buddhism’ conference in Berkeley in 2007), but deserves more. Is it actually funny? Or would it be if we were there then?

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