The Decline of Buddhism V: A prayer for the dark age

Dunhuang watchtower

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.

* * *

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…

* * *

See also:

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.

Tibetan text
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 Pu.hrang: According to mNga’.ris rgyal.rabs by mkhan.chen Ngag.dbang Dharamsala: Tho.ling gtsug.lag.khang lo.gcig.stong ‘’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]

11 thoughts on “The Decline of Buddhism V: A prayer for the dark age

  1. I think it’s OK to translate kheng-log as ‘uprising’ as you do. But who are the kheng who are doing it? That’s the tough question. I’m sure you know that the Marxists are taking it as meaning the ‘peasantry.’ But I haven’t seen any indication they were doing farm work, Vitali argued against this interpretation very nicely, and Dotson’s dissertation goes for the translation ‘servant.’ Indeed, Dotson translates one of those bits of the Old Tibetan legal code that sounds so awful to our (in words, at least) more egalitarian times, the part about not teaching the divine Dharma to the kheng-po. Any thoughts on all that? Sorry if I seem to be trying to stir up trouble here.

  2. Dear Dan,

    Of course ‘uprising’ is a provisional translation (isn’t everything?).

    Which is the article with Dotson’s translation of the legal code referring to the kheng po? It seems that most dictionaries prefer ‘servant’ as a definition (e.g. the Brda rnying tshig mdzod has bran g.yog). And what about that analogous term gyen log? Doesn’t gyen mean ‘upwards’ and if so, is this an even more literal ‘uprising’?


  3. Dear P,

    I can’t see a reference or clue to the specific ritual cycle that this prayer might be derived from. Unfortunately we only have one folio of this manuscript, and it’s in a pretty sorry state. Perhaps somebody knocked over a butter lamp…


  4. I think you help advance my argument a little. It’s not that translations are not provisional. They all are, I guess (along with meanings…) But there are often ideological predispositions that swing translation choices one way or another. Your Brda’ rnying tshig mdzod entry, as well as the Yisun Chang (et al.) dictionary (the former simply copies from the latter, I’m very sure of it), are translating this way precisely because this Marxist reading had already been done.

    I was referring to B. Dotson’s 2006 dissertation or D.Phil. thesis if you prefer, “Administration and Law in the Tibetan Empire.” I’m thinking B. Dotson ought to be visiting us about now! Hello?

    The very word ‘provisional’ implies that eventually a more perfect rendering will pop up to solve all the problems. I don’t really see that happening here, do you?

    I think if there is a Tibetan etymology for the word (and if it isn’t a borrowing, which I think it could be… any ideas?), then it simply must be associated with a verb meaning ‘to fill,’ or more exactly the ‘intransitive’ form of it, ‘to get full/be full\be filled.’ Not the ‘up’ in uprising.

  5. Thanks. I’m sure Brandon won’t mind if I extract the relevant passage here:

    “As for the three non-deeds, they are: [1] do not teach the divine [Buddhist] religion (lha-chos), the condition (rkyen) of nobility, to servants; [2] as the secret mantra is the cause of Buddhahood, cherish it in your heart and do not sell it for wealth; [3] do not set up a servant as a ruler.”

    mi dzad pa gsum ni/ lha chos ya rabs kyi rkyen kheng po la mi bstan/ gsang sngags sangs rgyas kyi rgyu yin nor du mi btsong snying la bcangs/ kheng po rje ru mi dbyung/

    I wonder whether lha-chos really refers to the Buddhist religion here, or if an older meaning is intended, that is, the ancestral gods and funerary rites of the Tibetan kings and nobility — that might make more sense. Or perhaps I am just making excuses.

    This also brought to mind the Skar cung pillar inscription, which seems much more egalitarian in approach: “And when for the Tibetan subjects from the nobles downwards, the gate leading to liberation is never obstructed and the faithful have been led towards liberation, from those among them who are capable there shall always be appointed abbots to carry on the teachings of the Buddha.”

  6. Sorry to come late to the party again. For source value, I think the royal edict trumps the legal codes in the Section on Law and State. And I admit that I have trouble imagining what context would provoke the sentiment that passage (about not teaching the lha chos to the kheng po) seems to express. Perhaps you are right, Sam, that lha chos may refer here to divine conventions privy to the aristocracy and not to Buddhism.

    As to the kheng, I think we are dealing both with the aristocracy and with a spectrum of society. The Tangshu says that Khozher declared himself tsenpo. It seems he opposed the ‘Bro and other segments of the maternal aristocracy because they effectively crowned one of their own when Langdarma left no heir (again from the Xin Tangshu). This fragmentation and devaluation of the kingship is part of what I see behind the desecration of the tombs not only of the kings, but of the aristocracy as well. We see this sort of anger against misrule also in the narrative of the kheng log in g.yo ru, where the ruler abides in the shadow (grib) of the mt. and asks that his subjects cut its top off. Instead they cut his head off–a popular motif in tales of nasty kings. So there’s pretenders fighting amongst themselves in the aristocracy, and normal people getting fed up with it.

    That doesn’t really answer the etymology question, but overturning a cup that’s full is surely a waste.

  7. Thanks for coming to the party Brandon, though be advised that anyone who deliberately overturns a full glass will be asked to leave.

    The sources do seem to suggest a combination of conflicts at the top level of Tibetan society as the primary cause of fragmentation, and unrest at the lower levels as a secondary problem. This is a terrible generalization, but it seems that popular unrest has usually occurred under weak and ineffectual regimes rather than a strong and oppressive ones. Then there is also the issue of climate. The Chinese annals report crop failure and famine around this time, and an interesting recent study of a giant stalagmite in Gansu province seems to back this up:

    Click here, and have a look at their timeline…

    Worth thinking about?

  8. Dear E,

    Yes, I definitely think it’s worth thinking about. Nothing upsets farmers more than bad crops, and droughts are the most likely of the usual culprits (blight, hail, early frost, insects, soil erosion, bad gov’t policies, loss of seed grain, social unrest, fires, etc. etc.).

    Droughts produce changes in the general economic picture. So even if we were to blame the fall of the Tibetan Empire on economic factors — like the collapse of the Eurasian silver standard used for trade in luxury goods primarily in those days — those big economic problems might largely be laid at the feet of droughts. I wonder what the drought situation was on the Euro side of the continent in those days?

    A lot was happening all across Eurasia in 840 & 842 CE (see C. Beckwith’s old article in CAJ [1977], pp. 94-5 for a list of incidents that led to a breakdown in ‘internationalism’ on many levels).

    I think we’ll have to think more, and more, and more.

    Going to go do some right now if I can. Hope the weather is fine where you are these days.


  9. Dear D,

    Thanks for thinking about this, and prompting me to think about it again. A little bit of googling turned up this paper, another quite appealing fusion of scientific and social history:-

    Click to access mccormick_07.pdf

    The main culprits this side of the Eurasian continent seem to have been “volcanic aerosols” — apparently a natural phenomenon and not a piece of technology found in medieval deodorants. I haven’t had time to read it thoroughly, but here is a bit of the conclusion:

    Perhaps the single most important methodological conclusion of this study concerns the detecting of intelligible patterns of cause and effect in what has hitherto been viewed as unintelligible, or at least patternless: the occurrence of a climate anomaly with serious economic and human consequences.

    This also sounds interesting:

    Some years ago the distinguished American historian Bernard Bailyn anticipated the growing integration of what he called “latent” and “manifest” history. “Latent” events are deep developments whose effects contemporaries felt but of which they were unconscious. “Manifest” events, like our extreme winters and famines, are those that contemporaries perceived.

    I like the idea of “latent history” though I’ll have to think about it a bit more before deciding if it makes sense.


  10. Dear S,

    Your little joke about medieval deodorants is so bad it just stinks. Somebody had to tell you! And who better to tell you than an old friend?

    Thank gods it’s raining today. Less water could have meant fewer baths?


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