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?
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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.
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But 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.
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Noble 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.
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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.
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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 / /