Buddhism and Empire IV: Converting Tibet


How were the Tibetan people converted to Buddhism? And who did the converting?

Tibetan historians always say that the conversion happened during Tibet’s imperial period. Butön, for example, says that that the Tibetans were converted to Buddhism when Songtsen Gampo set down the new royal laws based on the ten virtues of Buddhism. Other histories consider the real conversion to have been carried out a century later by the trio of Trisong Detsen (the emperor), Śāntarakṣita (the monk) and Padmasambhava (the tantric adept).

But sources that can be dated back to the time of the Tibetan emperors are not so clear about this, which has lead some modern scholars to argue that Buddhism at the time of the Tibetan Empire was a religion of the nobility, only found at the Tibetan court (see the comments to the previous post). Modern scholars have also argued that the adoption of Buddhism by Trisong Detsen and his successors was an act of international diplomacy. Buddhism, after all, was an international religion and many other major powers of the period — the Chinese empire, Central Asian city-states and Indian kingdoms — were Buddhist.

Then it would hardly have mattered whether the majority of ordinary Tibetans were Buddhists or not. The point was that Tibet should be perceived as a Buddhist country. So most Tibetans would have had little or no experience of Buddhism in the imperial period.

But was this really the case?

*  *  *

I’ve recently been looking at some of the early records of the Tibetan tsenpos to see whether any of them expressed the aspiration to convert the Tibetan people in general, and not just the nobility.

The second edict of Trisong Detsen (dated to 779 by Hugh Richardson) records the way in which Buddhism was made the state religion of Tibet. Looking very much like the official minutes of a meeting, it describes various discussion during which the court deliberated on how to establish Buddhism in Tibet, beginning with Trisong Detsen’s own account of how he was converted to Buddhism:

Then with the help of teachers of virtue I listened to the dharma was studied and the texts were brought before my eyes. Then I deliberated upon how the Buddhist religion should be practised and spread.

So, by his own account Trisong Detsen did want to spread Buddhism in Tibet. Along with that, he had some harsh things to say about the old religion:

At that time it was declared that those who followed the old Tibetan religion were getting everything wrong…

Among the old practices he disapproved of are painting your body red, casting spells on the government, and causing diseases and famine. Later the tsenpo convened another meeting, this time with lords from all over the Tibetan empire:

The minor princes under our dominion such as the Azha ruler, and the outer and inner ministers were consulted and a council was held. Together they considered in brief these things, first that trust should be put in the word of the Buddha; secondly that the example of the ancestors should be followed; and thirdly that help should be given by the power of the teachers of virtue.

So at this meeting everyone agreed to an empire-wide project establishing Buddhism, with a caveat that the traditional ways of the ancestors should be followed as well.

Further to that, a council was held about how the right path should not be changed, and how it could be increased. Thus an excellent summary of the dharma was made

What was this summary of the dharma? Earlier in the edict, Trisong Detsen explains the basics of Buddhism as the fact of impermanence, the inevitability of cause and effect (i.e. karma) and the need to practice the ten kinds of virtuous action in order to obtain a good rebirth. So the summary agreed at this meeting was probably something along those lines.

*  *  *

skarcung_colourBut Trisong Detsen’s recorded aspiration to spread the word of the Buddha has little to say about ordinary Tibetans. Let’s skip forward to the reign of Senaleg, in the early years of the 9th century. One of his edicts was preserved on the Karchung pillar, which survived almost undamaged right through to the Cultural Revolution, when it was smashed to pieces. This pillar edict is concerned with the appointment of senior Buddhist teachers to lead the religion in Tibet. It says:

But from the time when the tsenpo and his descendents are young until the time when they become rulers of the kingdom and thereafter, teachers of virtue shall be appointed from among the monks. By teaching religion as much as can be absorbed into the mind, the gate of liberation for the whole of Tibet, through the learning and practice of the dharma, shall not be closed.

Note here the apparently inclusive statement that “the whole of Tibet” will have access to the “gate of liberation.” This egalitarian sentiment is made even more clear further down the pillar:

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.

It seems clear enough that the phrase “from the nobles downwards” must include every Tibetan subject, however lowly.

*  *  *

S553Noble sentiments indeed, but how could such a project realistically be carried out? How do you convert a whole people to another religion? This is a big question, and I won’t try to answer it. In any case, as Matthew Kapstein has pointed out, this “conversion” took place over several centuries (or to put it another way, there were several “conversions”).

But if we travel now back to Dunhuang, from our little excursion to Central Tibet, there is a piece of evidence that might hint at how the grand project of converting the Tibetans to Buddhism was put into practice. There’s a scroll with a short summary of Buddhism in Chinese, called A Summary of the Essential Points of the Mahāyāna Sūtras. Its colophon says (in Chinese):

At the sixth month of the water tiger year, send the letter with tsenpo’s seal of Great Tibet and the Sūtra of Ten Kinds of Virtuous Behaviour to every county, to be circulated and recited. On the 16th day of the latter eighth month this copy was made.

This scroll has been dated to 822, in the reign of the last great Buddhist Tibetan emperor, Ralpachen. I am tempted to join up the dots here from (1) the summary of the dharma made by Trisong Detsen’s council and agreed by all the local rulers of the Tibetan empire, (2) the aspiration firmly expressed by the edict of Senaleg that all Tibetans should have access to Buddhism, and (3) the order from Ralpachen’s court to send copies of a summary of the ten Buddhist virtues to every part of the realm.

Many questions remain (you might be asking yourself some already, if you made it this far). But I think we can glimpse a genuine aspiration expressed by the Tibetan emperors to bring Buddhism to all of the Tibetan people, high and low. And we can see one way this might have been carried out, by the copying of brief summaries of the dharma all over Tibet (which would then have been taught orally to the non-literate, presumably, though literacy seems to have been quite widespread by the end of the empire). This might have been enough to initiate at least the first stage in the conversion of the Tibetan people to Buddhism.

*  *  *


The pillar inscriptions quoted here are all to be found in the collections of Hugh Richardson (1985), Fang Kuei Li and W. South Coblin (1987) and now the volume edited by Kazushi Iwao and Nathan Hill and recently published by the Old Tibetan Documents Online Group (2009). The translations in this post are my own “provisional” ones.

The scroll mentioned here (Or.8210/S.3996) has been studied by Daishun Ueyama (1995: 314-323). The Chinese title is Da cheng jing zuan yao yi 大 乘 經 纂 要 義.

The issue of the conversion of the Tibetans has been treated from several different angles in Matthew Kapstein’s The Tibetan Assimilation of Buddhism (Oxford University Press, 2000).

I’m also looking forward to reading the just-published Buddhism and Empire: The Political and Religious Culture of Early Tibet by Michael Walter (Brill).


The first two images are by Hugh Richardson, showing his Tibetan assistant taking rubbings from the Karchung (skar cung) pillar. The photos are (c) The Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, and can be seen, along with many others, at the wonderful Tibet Album website.

The scroll is Or.8210/S.553, another copy of the Summary of the Essential Points of the Mahāyāna Sūtras.

*  *  *


The second edict of Khri srong lde btsan (from Hugh Richardson, “The First Tibetan Chos ‘byung” in High Peaks, Pure Earth):

(p.97; 110b) de nas dge ba’i bshes gnyen gyis bstangs te chos kyang gsan / yi ge yang spyan sngar brims nas / sangs rgyas kyi chos spel zhing mdzad par bsgroms so / / de na bod kyi chos rnying pa ma lags la / sku lha gsol ba dang cho ga myi mthun pas / kun kyang ma legs su dogs te /

(p.98; 110b) ‘bangs su mnga’ ba rgyal ba rgyal phran ‘a zha rje la bstsogs pa dang phyi nang gi blon po rnams la bka’s rmas / bka’ gros su mdzad nas / gcig tu na sangs rgyas bcom ldan ‘das kyi bka’ lung la bsten / gnyis su na yab mes kyi dpe lugs la ‘tshal / gsum du na dge ba’i shes gnyen gyi mthus bstangs pa dang yang sbyar nas mdor brtags na / … de lam legs par ni ji ltar myi ‘gyur ched ni ji ltar che zhe na / chos kyi mdo ni legs su bgyi bas /

The Skar cung pillar inscription:

(ll.33–42): / / btsan  po dbon sras / / sku chu ngur bzhugs pa yan cad / / chab srId kyi mnga’ bdag mdzad pa man chad kyang / / dge slong las / dge ba’I bshes nyen bskos ste / chos thugs su cI chud chud du bslab cing / / bod yongs kyIs kyang chos slob cing spyad pa’I sgo myi gcad / nam du yang bod ya rabs man cad/ bod ‘bangs las thar par gzud pa’I sgo myi bgag par / dad pa’I rnams las thar par btsud de / / de’i nang nas nus pa las / / bcom ldan ‘das kyI ring lugs rtag du bsko zhIng / / bcom ldan ‘das kyI ring lugs byed pa’I rnams chos ‘khor nas bya’o cog gI bka’ la yang btags ste / /

14 thoughts on “Buddhism and Empire IV: Converting Tibet

  1. Dear Sam,

    Thank you so much for taking that bull of ‘egalitarianism’ by the horns. You’ve really done some great damage here. Now the supporters of total elitism will have to scramble to do some damage control. Good for you!


  2. Great post as usual ! I’ve only got a minor technical comment — the scroll you show appears to be “Or.8210/S.553” not “Or.8210/S.155”

  3. Dear Sam,

    Excellent post. I think you are right to identify a bias towards the realpolitik aspects of the Buddhist conversion. It seems to me that belief and devotion must also figure largely: we are not dealing with politicians of the modern age here! A few points on some of the ingredients for investigating the inroads of Buddhism into early Tibetan popular religion (most of which will be obvious to you): the growth of the religious bureaucracy and teachers with jurisdiction over temples and their auxiliaries, as in the “kalyanamitra of Bsam yas and ‘Phrul snang in ITJ 689 (2); evidence for Buddhist inroads into key rituals such as funerals, of both royal and non-royal varieties; increasing popularity of dharanis (your soldier’s slip comes to mind here); and popular Buddhist festivals. The last point is a tricky one, since as far as I know it is only in later sources that we find reference to the 3 basket festivals instituted under Mu ne btsan po, but the devotional and performative aspect of public festivals (I’m thinking Desi and DLV) is something we might want to keep an eye out for in the early period.

    (Sorry if you were expecting a defense of the Buddhism-as-royal-religion bias from me.)

  4. oh, and I forgot to mention divination texts as another important source for Buddhism making its way into popular religion. In some cases the prognoses come from the mouth of a bodhisattva or another Buddhist figure…

  5. I suppose one reason some of us students with historicistic tendencies tend to see Buddhism as an ‘imposition’ on the Tibetan people (the royal subjects) is just that idea that people (land-owning families, I suppose?) in early 9th century were being made to pay a kind of involuntary ‘tax’ for the support of the monks. Any more thoughts?

  6. I’m not sure that land-owning families were footing the bill. Their lands were called khol yul, and were more or less inalienable. In the Dba’ bzhed (Wangdu and Diemberger, 75-76) and in the Mkhas pa’i dga’ ston it states that when deciding on how to support monks and Buddhist monasteries, it was decided that they would be supported from the royal lands, that is, the rje zhing. These rje zhing would have been worked by subjects who held usufruct rights over the land, so I’m not sure that their status would have really changed too greatly in practical terms when the fields, along with the peasants who worked them, were gifted for the support of the monasteries.

    And the aristrocracy soon caught on, making their own Buddhist temples, as we see in the Lcang bu inscription.

    Still, there is the overwhelming weight of the traditional narrative according to which Ral pa can went too far and the monks were resented as a drain on resources during what was clearly a global economic decline.

  7. Thanks Brandon, for some very interesting points. The existence of royal Buddhist festivals is a fascinating thought, considering, as you say, the role of the Smon lam chen mo in integrating political and religious authority later on.

    I agree that we can’t ignore the traditional suggestions that support for Buddhist institutions under Ral pa can was too much for some of the nobility. Kazushi Iwao’s recent research on the massive production of Perfection of Wisdom sutras at Dunhuang shows that this was funded by local taxation and tribute revenue. It seems to me that this must have severely strained the resources (and patience?) of the local leaders, and those under them.

    Something I was also going to say in the post but deleted “for fear of an excess of words” as Tibetan writers like to say: the Buddhist activities under the reign of Ral pa can are probably better attributed to his Buddhist advisors, particularly Bran ka Dpal gyi yon tan, who was one of the first to feel the wrath of the aristocracy. You know this, of course.

  8. Just a footnote on Bran ka Dpal gyi yon tan. After he was assassinated he became a kind of demonic spirit who was thought to have fomented unrest in the period of fragmentation. There was (is?) an image of this spirit near the Nyethang Drolma Lhakhang, which Hugh Richardson photographed: Click here to go to image at the Tibet Album site.

    Richardson wrote: “Not far away, in a small stone building, is a strange figure about four feet tall with a large, grinning, black mask; it wears the dress of an oracle priest – a red brocade hat with eyes embroidered on it, and a robe of fine brocade with a mystic mirror ( me-long ) on its chest. The figures of two boys kneel beside the figure, and on its right side is a large drum. Underneath the robe is the stuffed skin of a human torso supported on a wooden trestle. All the figures are decorated in fresh white scarves which, together with the good condition of the robes, suggests regular devotion is paid. The tradition is that the figure, Dpa’-bo Blon-chen, is the upper part of the body of the great monk minister Bran-ka Dpal-yon, who was murdered by Glang-dar ma; it was sawn in half and thrown into the Skyid-chu. Half was washed up at Snye-thang and was recovered by two boys; the other half was swept down to Rtse-thang, but its fate is unrecorded. The figure at Snye-thang is revered as a yul-lha, a protective deity of the locality “.

  9. Yes, Bran ka is a fantastic figure. According to the Mkhas pa’i dga’ ston, he and Minister Dbas Stag sna can (a nickname for Dba’s Rgyal-to-re Stag-nya, the final chief minister named in chapter ii of the Old Tibetan Chronicle) were linked from early on as adversaries. When the minister led a coup to oust Ral pa can and install Langdarma, Bran ka fled to hide in an iron bunker in the north. He was sniffed out by a blind man, and Dbas and his cronies found Bran ka and killed him in spectacular fashion, flaying him and using the skin to make a sort of dummy. His relatives burn the remains, and from the smoke Bran ka emerges as a wrathful karma yaksha. Later, he was tamed by Atisha and made a dharma protector.

    But before that happens, he ties in with your last post on the dark age, when Bran ka becomes the spiritual leader of the kheng log.

    “As for the ancestor, the architect (phywa-mkhan ) of the revolt, it was Bran-ka dPal-gyi Yon-tan who so acted. As neither men nor the earth could bear him as a lord, generally the paternal relatives—gods and demons—all acted and gathered at the oath cairn on Owl Plain.
    At that time Bran-ka dPal-gyi Yon-tan, riding a wolf of grey (sngon-po) iron and beating the ground with an iron staff, implored all of the gods and demons, ‘Kill all of the lords (rje-dpon) without exception. Otherwise, scatter them in the eight directions.’ At that time, Yar-lha Sham-po and the others appealed to dPal-gyi Yon-tan that there be a regional principality (rje-dpon-tshan) at the foot of each mountain. The council of paternal relatives—gods and demons—agreed to that.
    At the behest of the god gTsang-lha Bu-dar, Grom-pa and lHa-rtse were established as strongholds. Both the ’Bro and Cog-ro [clans] not rising [against each other] (ma phyar byas), a regional principality was situated in the land of Upper gTsang.”

    kheng log byed pa’i phywa mkhan mes po ni / bran ka dpal gyi yon tan kho yis byas / / mi bas sas kyang rje ru ma theg nas / /spyir na lha ’dre pha tshan kun gyis byas / /mna’ tho ’ug pa thang du ’dun ma tshogs / / de tshe bran ka dpal gyi yon tan kho / /lcags kyi spyang ki sngon po zhon nas ni / / lcags kyi ber kas sa la brdung bzhin du / / lha ’dre kun la zhu ba ’di skad gsol / / rje dpon gcig yang ma lus bsad par zhu / / yang na so kha brgyad du gtor bar zhus / / de tshe yar lha sham po la sogs pas / / dpal gyi yon tan kho la zhu ba phul / / lha re’i rtsa ru rje dpon tshan re zhus / / lha ’dre pha tshan ’dun ma de la ’cham / / gtsang lha bu dar lha yis zhu ba byas / / grom pa lha rtse btsan pa’i mkhar la brten [bsten] / / ’bro dang cog ro gnyis kyis ma phyar byas / / gtsang stod yul du rje dpon tshan gcig chags / (pp. 432–33/ Fols. 140a, b).

    The passage goes on to name the other rje-dpon-tshan. You can find this in the Vitali article that you cited, and there are parallel passages in Lde’u and elsewhere.

  10. Thank you – I’d never read the full account of Dpal gyi yon tan’s assassination (I presume this is also from Mkhas pa’i dga’ ston?). It’s quite spectacularly horrific.

  11. I didn’t hear anyone mention the reason the monk Bran-ka got into trouble. He was supposed (falsely, it’s said) to have had an affair with Ralpacan’s queen Ngang-tshul-ma. I’ve heard it told as a kind of Potiphar’s wife type of tale. At the moment I don’t remember how I got that impression, which isn’t exactly correct, now that I think about it.

    The story is told briefly in Padma-dkar-po’s history (p. 337), where the adultery is just a false accusation by the sinful ministers (sdig blon rnams), and of course in the Lde’u histories (the longer one at least). Anywhere else?

    Oh, wait. I just found this passage in the Sba-bzhed text, p. 76 of the Stein version:

    kha gcig na re ral pa can la sras med kyang / cung lha sras gtsang ma chos la dga’ bas srid ‘dzin te chos khrims mi gshig zer / gtsang ma bshugs pas chog mchi bas / de ban chen po chos la dkar la dbang che bas chos khrims mi gshig zer / gros byas nas chos khrims gshig pa’i snyan phra bcug te / ban chen po dang / ngang tshul ma nal bshams so zhes snyan du gsol nas / chad pa che thang du zhus pas / ban chen po yang lcags kyi srog pa tsa sgrub pa ma grub par / snyan ‘phra btsan par byas te bkum /

    Who said he was killed under Glang-dar-ma? Wasn’t he killed under Ral-pa-can? And isn’t that really the point, that the ‘good’ [Buddhist] guys were responsible for the evil deed? That’s precisely why he would come back to haunt them… And they say guilt is not a Buddhist concept!

    Anyway, with all the sex scandal, violence, intrigue, chase scene & even revenge from beyond the grave, it ought to be a blog first, then a movie. I would’ve picked Richard Burton to play the Vicar. Could be I’m suffering flashbacks from “Murder in the Cathedral.”

    Back to my chores now. Cheers!


  12. PS: Richardson, in the collected works (High Peaks, Pure Earth, pp. 146-7) translates the Scholars’ Feast version. He explains the very odd phrase that is also in the Sba-bzhed, by saying that Bran-ka “performed the rite of making his life-source into iron” (lcags kyi srog pa rtsa bsgrubs).

  13. Sorry, I haven’t anything constructive to contribute but I just wish to say that I am finding this a very useful site in Tibetan history and providing background to the dazzling array of figures in Tibetan Buddhism.

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