The Tibetan manuscripts found when the sealed cave in Dunhuang was opened in 1900 are still the oldest in the world. But many of them are not as old as we once thought. When the manuscripts were first studied it was assumed that they all dated from the time when the Tibetans ruled Dunhuang, between 786 and 848. It’s a reasonable assumption which is, unfortunately, completely wrong. Certainly some manuscripts do date from this time, but many don’t. We now know that the Tibetan language continued to be used in and around Dunhuang long after the fall of the Tibetan empire, right up to the time the cave was sealed up at the beginning of the eleventh century.
At first it might seem disappointing that we can’t pick up a Dunhuang manuscript and assume that it was produced during the Tibetan empire. But does dating something later necessarily make it less interesting? I don’t think so. Look at the tantric manuscripts for instance. What’s been emerging from recent studies on these is the continuity between what was practised at Dunhuang in the 10th century and the emerging Nyingma traditions of the next few centuries. These manuscripts don’t tell us much about Buddhism in the Tibetan imperial period, but what we get instead is a glimpse into Tibet’s “dark age” when the Nyingma traditions were in their infancy.
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Let’s look at a manuscript that is widely assumed to have been written in the time of the Tibetan Empire. I think that it was perhaps not, and that giving it a later date might allow us to understand it better. Found on the scroll IOL Tib J 370, the text was first studied by Hugh Richardson, who translated its title as “The Dharma that Came Down from Heaven.” It tells of the activities of the great emperors Songtsen Gampo and Tri Song Detsen in bringing Buddhism to Tibet, and then goes on to lament a decline in Buddhism values in Tibet.
It’s a fairly short poem, and apparently not complete, breaking off before the end. Quite why it’s called “The Dharma that Came Down from Heaven” is not clear. Though as Rolf Stein, another great Tibetologist who studied this text, pointed out, the Tibetan word dar ma didn’t mean the teachings of the Buddha in general, but more specifically, a book of Buddhist teaching. So the reference is to a book that fell from heaven — a familiar theme in the later Tibetan tradition that tells of the first appearance of Buddhism in Tibet when books fell on the roof of an ancient emperor (something I wrote about here a while ago). A better translation of the title would be “The Scripture that Fell from the Sky”.
Both of these scholars assumed that the poem dated to the imperial period. In some ways, I can see why. The language is archaic. Yet looking at the scroll itself, I think it was certainly written in the tenth century. For one thing, the handwriting style does not match anything produced in the imperial period. For another, the way the text is written on the back of a Chinese scroll at the end of a series of scriptures and prayers, and in a different handwriting from the texts that precede it, is similar to other scrolls produced in the late 10th century.
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If we date this poem to the post-imperial period, something that puzzled both Richardson and Stein suddenly becomes much easier to understand. As I mentioned, at the end of the poem the author laments the decline of Buddhism. Both Richardson and Stein thought that this was a reference to a ban on Buddhism in the mid-eighth century, which was overturned by Tri Song Detsen when he declared that Buddhism was to be Tibet’s state religion. But this assumption didn’t help either scholar to interpret the end of the poem, which they struggled with unsuccessfully.
Now, if the poem was written later than was previous thought, the decline of Buddhism described at the end of it could be the one that happened at the end of the Tibetan empire. With that in mind, let’s have another go at translating the troublesome last lines:
Because the king died and his son was young, the good religion and the old learning declined. How can we practice in the Tibetan way the supreme path of truth, the religion of virtue? Or the adherence to the ten virtues of the Vinaya and the royal laws of the kings, protectors of men? Or the orally taught systems of the wise ancestors?
In between Śākyamuni, who manifested first in this world, and Maitreya, who [is next] to come after he passes away into nirvana, there are suddenly a great many self-appointed buddhas appearing without authentification. Each of them has a different system which is not in accord with the zhu, the dharma or the vajrayāna, i.e. the three [systems] of the seven [past] generations of buddhas. The dharmas are like seeds…
This translation is nowhere near perfect, but I hope it gets closer to what the author is trying to say. It doesn’t look like this is about the ban on Buddhism in the eighth century. It looks more like a complaint about the decline of Buddhism after the reigns of the great Buddhist emperors, when the empire was beginning to fall apart. The author here is concerned about people calling themselves buddhas and teaching something that is unrecognisable as the dharma. So the decline is not a decline in numbers, but in standards.
Interestingly, this new reading of the poem makes it very similar to another poem about the dark age in the manuscript Pelliot tibétain 840, which I wrote about in a previous post. That poem also begins by celebrating the great Buddhist emperors before going on to talk about a decline in standards:
From the Divine Son Darma on down,
And from his descendent Ösung on down
In general the dharma spread and flourished,
Spread and flourished excessively, it’s said,
So that everyone born as a human wanted to accomplish it.
Perhaps when our poem says, “Because the king died and his son was young” it is also referring to Darma and his son Ösung, who was very young when his father died in 842. The later tradition blames the decline of Buddhism very much on Lang Darma, but a close study of the sources suggests that it was only after his death that things started to go wrong for the empire, and for Buddhism as a state religion.
As for those “self-appointed buddhas” that our poem decries, there are ample references to such characters in writings from the next couple of centuries (the 11th and 12th). We have, for example, reports of a Newari called Karudzin who “put a meditation hat on his head, stuck some feathers in it, dressed in fur, made the announcement at Samye, ‘I am Padma,’ and taught innumerable wong teachings.” Then there was the fellow who called himself “Buddha Star-King”, who became famous in Western Tibet until he was bested in a magical contest by the translator Rinchen Zangpo. On them, see Dan Martin’s excellent articles, listed below.
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That mysterious title, referring to dharma books falling from the sky, might be interpreted differently as well. Perhaps it isn’t, as Richardson and Stein thought, the first ever reference to the legend of how Buddhism first arrived in Tibet. Perhaps it is instead a sarcastic allusion to the teachings of the self-appointed buddhas, which seem to have dropped out of nowhere. I wonder if the metaphor in the broken-off last sentence might have explained the title.
So, does dating the poem in IOL Tib J 370 to the tenth century rather than the early ninth make it less interesting? We lose a contemporary account of the Tibetan imperial period, but we gain a vivid portrayal of the challenges facing Buddhism in Tibet’s dark age. It’s a portrayal informed by a nostalgia for the past era of the Buddhist emperors, and overlapping with this, fears of what will happen to Buddhism in Tibet without imperial regulation. But like the similar poem in Pelliot tibétain 840, the elegant and literary way in which these fears are expressed shows (perhaps unintentionally) that at least some Tibetans remained highly literate and well versed in Buddhism.
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1. Hugh Richardson. 1998 (originally published 1977). “The Dharma that Came Down from Heaven”: A Tun-huang Fragment. In High Peaks, Pure Earth. Chicago: Serindia. 74-81.
2. R.A. Stein. 1985 “Tibetica Antiqua IV: La tradition relative au début fr bouddhisme au Tibet.” BÉFEO 74: 83-133.
Both Richardson’s and (especially) Stein’s are well worth reading and contain many more insights about this text that I haven’t covered here.
3. Dan Martin. 1996. “Lay Religious Movements in 11th- and 12th-Century Tibet: A Survey of Sources.” Kailash 18.3-4: 23-55.
4. Dan Martin. 1996. “The Star King and the Four Children of Pehar: Popular Religious Movements of 11th- to 12th-Century Tibet. Acta Orientalia 49.1-2: 171-195.
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rgyal po yab nongs sras chungs pas// chos bzang gtsug lag rnying bub mod// bden ba’i lam mchog dge ba’i chos// ‘dul ba’i dge bcu srung ba dang// myi mgon rgyal po rgyal khrims dang// pha myes ‘dzangs pa’i stan ngag gzhung// bod kyi lugs ltar ga la byed// ‘jig rten thog ma’i dangs ma la// shag kyi mya ngan ‘das ‘og du// byams pa mu tri ma byon par// (lung ma bstan par glo bur du//) sangs rgyas rang bzhugs man zhig byung// -g-zhu dang chos dang rdo rje theg// sangs rgyas rabs bdun gsung rabs dang gsuM ka myi mthun gzhung re re// dper na chos rnams sa ‘on ‘dra//
And unresolved questions…
1. The thing that I still can’t make out is that triad of zhu / chos / rdo rje theg. Richardson suggested reading the first word as gzhung, but the scribe actually wrote a /g/ and then crossed it out, and his or her spelling is not that bad. And why should the vajrayāna be separate from the dharma?
2. I’m aware that “self-appointed buddhas” as a translation of sangs rgyas rang bzhugs is not uncontroversial. I have taken bzhugs with its connotation of assuming a position, as in the term for enthronement, khri la bzhugs. But rang bzhugs could be translated in other ways.