I’m a little worried that I might have suggested in previous installments of this “Decline of Buddhism” series that the downfall of the Tibetan empire was a direct result of the assassination of the Tibet emperor Lang Darma. This may be true in a sense, but many Tibetan historians (and most modern ones) see this as just one stage in a series of unfortunate events. The next stage was the division of the empire between two disputed successors. Almost every previous succession to the Tibetan imperial throne had been disputed, but one side had always come out on top. This time neither side was strong enough to subdue the other, and so the country was split in two.
The next stage of disintegration was a series of uprisings (the Tibetan word is kheng log) against the prevailing authorities, setting Tibetan clan against clan. The first of these uprisings happened just around the corner from Dunhuang, the home of our manuscripts.
While Tibet was splitting in two in the mid-ninth century, a civil war broke out in the Gansu region, near the border with China. An aristocrat from the Ba clan called Khozher gathered his own army and set himself up as a local warlord. He spurned the authority of the local Tibetan governor, claiming that the governor’s clan (the Dro) had orchestrated the murder of Lang Darma, and that it was his duty to take revenge on such rebels.
Khozher also portrayed himself as a kind of nationalist, fighting against the resurgent Chinese forces in the area, but in his brutality (he had every male in the whole region put to the sword) he left little hope of a better alternative. The people turned against him, and most of his army deserted.
The incorrigible Khozher set out for China, boasting that we would return with hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers. But when he offered his submission to the Chinese emperor in return for an imperial post, he was rejected. Khozher was finally ousted when the a local Chinese warlord swept through Gansu province. Though no longer a force to be reckoned with, he continued to cause trouble, and when he was eventually, and inevitably, put to the sword, his severed head was taken to Chang’an as proof that this troublesome warlord was finally dead.
Such was the first uprising, and the end of Tibetan rule in Gansu.
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All of which brings us to another prayer for Tibet…
Recently we looked at a prayer for the protection of Tibet that seemed to date back to the Tibetan imperial period. This time let’s look at a prayer that seems (to me) to date from the troubled period of the uprisings and the ‘dark age’ that followed.
This prayer is actually part of a Vajrayāna empowerment ritual (IOL Tib J 752). That in itself suggests that it probably comes from the tenth century, when most, if not all, of the tantric manuscripts at Dunhuang were written. This time, instead of a prayer to eliminate the opponents to Tibet, we have a prayer to pacify the troubles within Tibet itself. “Please bring peace swiftly,” is the plea, “to the conflicts in the kingdom of Tibet.” The key word here is “conflicts”, which is khrug pa in Tibetan, defined in various dictionaries as a fight, dispute or conflict, and particularly in the Great Treasury of Words, as “a mixing up of the established order”. This is, I think, comparable to the idea of “uprisings” (kheng log).
So here are the tantric practitioners at Dunhuang, surrounded by clan-on-clan violence, praying for peace (and failing that, a firm helmet):
Please bring peace swiftly to the conflicts in the kingdom of Tibet. And then please grant long life and a firm helmet to a king who protects the dharma. As for the enemies who threaten us (such as the enemies of the Vajrayāna and those who obstruct the virtuous ones gathered here in our maṇḍala, and all of those who harbour poisonous thoughts), please subdue them with the appropriate one of the four enlightened activities…
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The Decline of Buddhism I: Was Lang Darma a Buddhist?
The Decline of Buddhism II: Did Lang Darma persecute Buddhism?
The Decline of Buddhism III: Why should the secret mantra be kept secret?
The Decline of Buddhism IV: Keepers of the flame
And here you can read about a prayer for peace in Tibet in troubled times a thousand or so years later.
IOL Tib J 752, verso: /bod rgyal khams khrug pa yang myur du zhI nas//chos skyong ba’i sgyal po sku tshe ring dbu rmog brtsan bar gyur cIg//gzhan [yang] rdo rje theg pa’i dgra bgegs su gyur pa dang//bdag cag gI dkyIl ‘khor ‘dir ‘dus pa’I dge ba’I bar cad byed pa la bstsogs pa//gnon gyI dgra bgegs su gyur ba//gdug pa’i bsam pa can cI mchis pa thams cad/ /’phags pa’I sa ‘phrin las rnam bzhi gang gIs ‘dul ba bzhin du/ /’dul skal du bzhes nas zhIng zhing zlog gyur cig mdzad du gsol …
* Note that calling Tibet a “kingdom” (rgyal khams) is not unprecedented, and we also find the same phrase bod rgyal khams in the prayers for the Dega Yutsal monastery (PT 16). The phrase that is translated here as “a firm helmet” (dbu dmog brtsan) also appears frequently in PT 16, as well as in some of the pillar and rock inscriptions from Central Tibet. It has powerful resonances of the divine right of the Tibetan tsenpos, difficult to communicate in translation. I detect in this prayer a hope that the tradition of the Buddhist tsenpos will be revived by some unnamed king.
On the uprisings in general see:
- Vitali, Roberto. 1996. The Kingdoms of Gu.ge Pu.hrang: According to mNga’.ris rgyal.rabs by Gu.ge mkhan.chen Ngag.dbang grags.pa. Dharamsala: Tho.ling gtsug.lag.khang lo.gcig.stong ‘khor.ba’i rjes.dran.mdzad sgo’i go.sgrig tshogs.chung.
- Vitali, Roberto. 2004. “The role of clan power in the establishment of religion (from the kheng log of the 9-10 century to the instances of the dByil of La stod and gNyos of Kha rag).” In The Relationship between Religion and State : (chos srid zung ‘brel), in Traditional Tibet, edited by Christoph Cuppers. Nepal, Lumbini International Research Institute.
On the conflicts near Dunhuang, see:
- Petech, Luciano. 1983. “Tibetan Relations with Sung China and the Mongols.” In China Among Equals: The Middle Kingdom and its Neighbours, 10th–14th Centuries, edited by Morris Rossabi. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press: 173–203.
- Iwasaki Tsutomu. 1993. “The Tibetan Tribes of Ho-hsi and Buddhism during the Northern Sung Period”. Acta Asiatica 64: 17–37.
And for a nice account of both see Chapter 2 of:
- Ronald Davidson. 2005. Tibetan Renaissance: Tantric Buddhism in the Rebirth of Tibetan Culture. New York: Columbia University Press. [pp.67-68]