The Sitting-in-Bed Ceremony and Other Strangeness

13th Dalai Lama

If you’re reading about Tibetan history on the internet, you might come across references here and there to a Tibetan ritual called the “sitting-in-bed ceremony”. When I first saw this term, it struck me as very strange indeed. As I found more examples of this phrase (and alternatives like the “sitting-on-the-bed ceremony”) it became clear that it only appeared on Chinese government and press websites.

Here’s an example, from the Chinese government’s version of how the present Dalai Lama was chosen and enthroned:

Chiang, then chairman of the Executive Yuan, reported to the Nationalist Government on 31, Jan, asking for permission that the lot-drawing be exempted and allow Lhamo Toinzhub be enthroned as the 14th Dalai Lama. Chiang also asked for fund for the sitting-in-bed ceremony. [See the full text here]

There’s no explanation of what this ceremony entails, though it certainly brings a strange image to my mind. Lets look at another website, this time an official Chinese newspaper’s account of the enthronement of the 11th Panchen Lama (that’s the Chinese government’s choice of Panchen Lama, not the Dalai Lama’s, whose whereabouts are unknown):

The sitting-in-the-bed ritual of the 11th Panchen Lama was held in the Yige Quzeng Hall on the second floor of Laburang. Only by sitting in the bed at Yige Quzeng could the Panchen Lamas be qualified, since the bed of all previous Panchen Lamas was there. The 10th Panchen Lama, who was enthroned in the Tar-er Monastery in Qinghai Province due to historical reasons, made up the enthronement ritual in the Yige Quzeng Hall after he came back to Xigaze. [See the complete, and rather lengthy account here]

Well, that’s fine then. It’s a funny Tibetan ritual in which the Dalai and Panchen Lamas have to sit on the bed of their predecessor before they can be enthroned. Hmm. I don’t know about you, but I’m still not convinced.

*  *  *

Here’s what I think this “sitting-in-bed ceremony” really is — just a bad translation that has somehow become standard in Chinese discussions of Tibetan Buddhism. I suspect the original Tibetan phrase is probably khri la bzhugs, literally meaning “to reside (or sit) on the throne,” often in the context of an enthronement ceremony. The phrase goes way back, and can even be found in the Dunhuang manuscripts (you can find it in Pelliot tibétain 1068 here).

You can probably see where I’m going now. The Chinese translation of this term that has become standard is 坐床 zuo chuang, literally “sitting-bed”. It’s that character 床 chuang that is the problem here. If you look in Tibetan-Chinese dictionaries, you see that the Tibetan khri is given a number of possible Chinese characters, meaning throne, couch or bed. This might come as a surprise to readers of Tibetan (it did to me), who have only ever come across khri meaning “throne”.

But that depends on what a throne is. From a European point of view, a throne should be a very grand sort of chair, but in Tibetan culture (and many other Asian cultures) it’s more of a raised platform. The photograph of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama at the top of this post shows one such throne. Here is another, smaller throne (also for the Dalai Lamas at the Norbu Lingka), photographed in the 1930s:

Norbu Lingka ThroneAs you can see, the distinction between a throne, a couch and a bed is not as distinct as it might at first seem. The Tibetan throne pictured above might best be described in English as a divan (which the OED defines as “a long seat consisting of a continued step, bench, or raised part of the floor, against the wall of a room, which may be furnished with cushions, so as to form a kind of sofa or couch.”)

That said, nobody would describe Tibetan thrones like these as a “bed”, and I still think that “bed” is the worst of the available Chinese translations of Tibetan khri. The second stage of translation, from Chinese into English, leads to the entirely misleading phrase “sitting-in-bed ceremony.” So if you come across this phrase, keep in mind that the Tibetan behind it just means “enthronement”.*

*  *  *

Why would this bad translation become standard in official Chinese literature, repeated again and again without question or correction? I think it betrays a lack of care, or a lack of interest in the actual nature of Tibetan culture. The authors of these pieces are inevitably making a political point, and once that point has been made, there’s no need to go any deeper into, for instance, what actually happens when a  lama is enthroned. The strangeness of the misleading term “sitting-in-bed ceremony” can easily be dismissed as another example of the weird and wonderful culture of the exotic Tibetans.†

*  *  *


* Two other terms often found in the same Chinese sources are:

  • “Soul boy” (灵童 ling tong), referring to a candidate for recognition as a rebirth or tulku.
  • “Living Buddha” (活佛 huo fo), referring to a recognised rebirth or tulku.

These have no equivalent in Tibet, and rather than being bad translations, are Chinese terms with their own history in Chinese culture. In both cases, like the “sitting-in-bed ceremony”, the Chinese term is somewhat misleading, and the English translation of it even more so. “Living Buddha” has its own unfortunate career in the West.

Of course, the Western media can be just as bad. There was an article last year on the Dalai Lama in the English Sunday paper The Observer entitled “Inside the court of the Tibetan god-king“. This was 2008, but that headline might as well have been written in 1908 (though the article itself was reasonable enough, and the headline was no doubt the work of a copy-editor, not the journalist).

*  *  *


Click on the images to go to The Tibet Album, where there is further information on these photographs.

1. The Thirteenth Dalai Lama on a throne in the Norbu Lingka, photographed by Charles Bell, October 14, 1921. (c) The Pitt Rivers Museum. Bell described this event in his book Portrait of the Dalai Lama (Collins, 1946), p.336:

I am to take the Dalai Lama’s photograph again, this time it is to be in his own throne-roon in the Jewel Park Palace, the first time that anyone has photographed him in the Holy City.When I arrive with Rab-den, on the day and the hour appointed, the arrangement of the throne-room is not ready. I watch them arranging it. The throne is built up of two or three wooden pieces; the nine silk scrolls, representing the Buddha in the earth-pressing attitude, are already placed on the wall behind and above the throne… Below these scrolls red silk brocade covers the wall. The throne is four feet high, a seat without back or arms. It stands on a dais, eighteen inches high, with low balustrade of beautifully carved woodwork running around it. Hanging down in front of the throne is a cloth of rich white silk, handsomely embroidered in gold, with the crossed thunderbolts of the God of Rain. Chrysanthemums, marigolds and other flowers are arranged round the dais. This is the throne that is used on important occasions.

2. The throne in the Kesang Podrang palace of the Norbu Lingka, photographed by Hugh Richardson in 1936-1939. (c) The British Museum.

7 thoughts on “The Sitting-in-Bed Ceremony and Other Strangeness

  1. To “sit on high beds” is a contravention of some Buddhist ascetic codes, so for the nominal head of Tibetan Buddhism to be sat on a high “bed” during their inauguration does sound less than completely comfortable.

    As you say, the Chinese terms in question have their own history and implications. Lingtong 靈童 (aka “spirit boy”) has a sort of Daoist ring to it, but there is so much tantrism in Daoism that it could be argued that it is not inappropriate. In any case, I feel that the widely used official English translations do convey a lot of how they sound to Chinese speakers.

    I somewhere recall a certain D. Lopez getting narky about the originally Sinic term “Lamaism” (Lamajiao 喇嘛教). However, if I remember right, he neglected to say anything about what Tibetans thought about it over centuries of use, or indeed, whether being treated differently to Chinese Buddhists might have helped advance Tibetans’ interests in China.

  2. Dear I.S.

    Yes, in Prisoners of Shangri-La, Prof. Lopez discussed “Lamaism” and I too remember some commentary about his book ignoring the agency of the Tibetans themselves. I think you may be right to imply that this language may at times been encouraged by Tibetan Buddhists. If I read the history right, the fact that the Mongols followed Tibetan Buddhism (or Lamajiao) was a major factor in the honour heaped upon Tibetan lamas by the Manchu emperors, who had both a traditional allegience to Tibetan Buddhism, and hoped to control the Mongol tribes through the influence of the Dalai and Panchen Lamas. In this they made a firm distinction between Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism.

    This was apparently a bone of contention among the Chinese Buddhist communities. In a Chinese account of the 3rd (or 6th) Panchen Lama’s visit to Beijing in the late eighteenth century, there’s a story about a well-known Chinese forest-dwelling monk visiting the Panchen Lama and telling him politely but firmly that his proper place was in Tibet and that he should return there forthwith. (I’ve just discovered that the little book in which I found the translation of this account, Ludwig’s “The Visit of the Teshoo Lama to Peking” is available as a free download here.

    As for “Living Buddha”:- I’ve come across a discussion suggesting that the term has been in circulation in China since the 12th or 13th century in China, referring to certain charismatic (Chinese) Buddhist teachers. To me, “Living Buddha” sounds like an idea that might crop up in Chan. But now I’m just speculating. Of course, the 13th century is also when reincarnate lineages start to appear in Tibet….


  3. The term “living Buddha” (活佛) has been used to describe the famous 12th-13th century ‘Zen master’ and Daoist figure Jigong. But as far as I know, the earliest use of this term in this context is in a 16th-century hagiography.

    It should also be said that the Chinese term huashen (化身), which directly translates nirmāṇakāya (sprul sku), is definitely in everyday use to refer to tulkus, as are various transcriptions of the Tibetan, but huafo is more evocative and, as you say, official.

    By the way, Liu Ts’un Yan’s “Harmonious Wind” books are full of rich anecdotes on relations between Chan and Tibetan Buddhists during the Yuan era. One rarely-cited passage from the Yuan History mentions the staggering expenses incurred by Tibetan monks on pilgrimage, during which entire neighbourhoods were forcibly evicted to house groups of pilgrims (1984:62-3). I seem to remember Liu mentioning that Tibetan monks on rare occasions had Daoist students or cohorts, but I haven’t been able to trace this recently.

  4. I agree with your general point (the Sino-English account sounds rather like something John and Yoko might be up to), but the shift from “throne” to “bed” is not so incomprehensible.

    The word for “bed” is, of course, nyal khri (“sleeping platform”). And, as you point out, these “platforms” are used for various purposes. Interestingly, I believe the honorifics differ: that for “bed” is gzim khri (same meaning), that for “throne” is bzhugs khri. So, not surprisingly, as you have indicated, the Chinese translation goes rather astray.

    Were it not for the presence of “throne” elsewhere in the passages you cite, I’d conclude that it was another way of eliding Tibetan sovereignty.

  5. Dear Christian,

    Thanks for the linguistic clarifications, and for the John and Yoko connection, which I somehow missed. I’m not sure whether a “Bed-In” is an improvement on a “Sitting-in-Bed Ceremony”, though it’s definitely more concise.


  6. the picture of the 13th dalai lama is beautiful. How coincidentally i have come across this photo with him in his “lotus” position while reading the wondrous exploration of Mr. T. Lobsang Rampa and his meeting with this man. In his book, the lama was humoristic, as a boy of eight (Lobsang) talks with his holiness…

  7. Valerie,

    I’m glad you liked the photo, and the book. You should be aware though that all of Lobsang Rampa’s writings on Tibet are works of fiction:

    “The most widely read book about Tibet was written by an Englishman who claimed to be a Tibetan lama, despite the fact that he had never been to Tibet and did not speak a word of Tibetan. The Third Eye by T. Lobsang Rampa was the publishing event of 1956. It purported to be the autobiography of a Tibetan lama who, at the age of eight, underwent the operation of the third eye, in which a hole was drilled in his forehead to allow him to see auras. Such a procedure was not known in Tibet. A private detective eventually tracked down the author of the book, Cyril Hoskin, the unemployed son of an English plumber. The Third Eye was a bestseller in Europe and America. One enthusiastic reader even attempted to perform the operation on himself using a dentist’s drill. Mr. Hoskin went on to write eighteen more books as T. Lobsang Rampa, with sales of over four million copies. (The “T.” is for “Tuesday.”)”


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