The First Tibetan Buddhist Biographies?

The vast amount of biographical and autobiographical literature produced in Tibet over the centuries is an interesting phenomenon. For a culture so pervaded by the Buddha’s teaching of non-self, there is an awful lot of writing about the lives of individuals. And, interestingly, this is something that was not done to the same extent in India, the primary source of Tibetan Buddhism. Biographical writing in Tibet began in earnest after the ‘later diffusion’ of Buddhism from the eleventh century onwards, in new lineages like the Kadam and Kagyu. So we don’t have much in the Dunhuang collections that could be called ‘religious biography’, but what we do have is intriguing, and I’d like to point out two manuscripts which might help us understand the origins of Tibetan Buddhist biographical writing.

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The first manuscript, Pelliot tibétain 996, was one of the first Tibetan manuscripts from Dunhuang to be published in a full edition and translation, done by Marcelle Lalou in 1936. It is an account of a lineage of Chan teachers, giving very brief accounts of their lives and deaths. In the case of the monk Namkhai Nyingpo, most of the ‘life-story’ is about the auspicious events surrounding his death:

When the teacher Namkai Nyingpo donated a statue to the incarnation at Triga Shingyon, light emanated from it. Later, when he was living in the retreat centre of Yamyog, there were miraculous signs including the passing over of a five-coloured cloud. One day, when he was practising the dharma path, and had just completed his vow to abide in the good qualities of recitation (he was 71, and it was the 29th day of the spring of the year of the dog, and he was at the Zhongpong hermitage), he sat cross-legged and unmoving, and passed away, without any change in his complexion. That night, in the middle of the sky between the mountain range of Zhongpong, which extends below the retreat centre, and  Mount Srinpo, two great streams of light emerged and lit up the whole of the realm, before disappearing into the west.

The text goes on to tell of the homages that were paid to Namkhai Nyingpo by other Chan masters, and the feast offering that was held in his honour, which was also accompanied by miraculous lights. One of the striking things about this passage (and the others like it in the same text) is that it seems to prefigure the ‘rainbow body’ phenomena said to accompany the death of Dzogchen masters (this has been pointed out by Matthew Kapstein in “The Divine Presence of Light”). But that is to look ahead by several centuries. Closer to the time and place of this manuscript, there is a parallel in a Chinese manuscript on cloud divination, which has this passage:

Whenever a five-colour vapour is seen above someone’s house and it remains there steadily during the last days of the month, the first day of the following one […] morning, and if [the vapour above] the house has mostly greenish-blue, this is the vapour of a dead body; if mostly red, it is the vapour of gold and jade; if mostly yellow, this house will go through extensive renovation works; if mostly white, this land has copper and iron; if mostly black, this house will serve as the abode of the divine spirit (shen).

This is from Imre Galambos’s translation of Or.8210/S.3326 (to see the complete text click here). I’m sure Sinologists will be able to come up with many other examples of cloud and light imagery. As for the light disappearing towards the west, this looks like an allusion to Sukhāvati, the western pure land of the buddha Amitabha. In any case, it’s clear that the life (or death) stories in Pelliot tibétain 996 are ‘biographical’ and thus some of the earliest examples of Tibetan religious biography. Though a truly international lineage (with a Central Asian, two Chinese and two Tibetan monks), the lineage, and many of the motifs in it, are Chinese.

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So what of the other biography? Unlike Pelliot tibétain 996, which was published some seven decades ago, Pelliot tibétain 149 was completely unstudied when I selected it for a reading class at SOAS. Intrigued by this brief text (just a single, closely written folio), I worked on it some more with Lewis Doney, who had taken the class, and we published an article about it in 2009 (click here for the PDF of that article). The manuscript is a brief introduction to the hugely popular prayer known as (in one of the shorter forms of the name) the Bhadracaryā-praṇidhāna. It begins with the story of Sudana, the hero of the Gaṇḍhavyūha sutra, going in search of the prayer, and eventually receiving it from Samantabhadra himself.

Next the action shifts to Tibet, where the Tibetan translation of the prayer becomes the daily practice of the abbot of Samye, Ba Palyang. The abbot has a dream, which he can’t explain, of thousands of people gathered in seven golden courtyards. He goes to ask the emperor, Tri Song Detsen, who goes to ask the Indian scholar known as Khenpo Bodhisattva (AKA Śāntarakṣita), who interprets the dream to mean that the abbot should recite the prayer continuously for three days and three nights.

This task proves too much for the abbot, who goes to the emperor and explains that due to his physical frailties, he has not been able to do as he was told. So, he asks for leave to go to somewhere more conducive, the mountain retreat of Chimpu. The emperor not only agrees, but gallantly escorts the abbot for the first day’s riding out of Lhasa. Before they part, the emperor and the abbot each place a hand on the other’s heart and recite the prayer together.

As he approaches Chimpu, the abbot is met by two strangers, who tell him that they have seen strange omens, including rainbows appearing in the sky, and a voice telling them to go and meet Ba Palyang. When the abbot tells them of his own dream, they agree that they should all travel together. As they travel they recite the prayer together. When they reach the part about perceiving the buddha Amitabha and going to the land of Sukhāvati, they ascend into the sky, cast away their bodies, and arrive in the pure land itself.

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So, we can see that this second biographical fragment is somewhat different from the first. It is not a description of a lineage per se, but rather a narrative framework for a sacred text, one that links the Tibetan text to the Indian original through parallel stories (the spiritual searches of Sudana and Ba Palyang) rather than through a person-to-person lineage. And yet there are many of the features that we associate with religious biography, including personal spiritual development in reliance on scriptural transmission, a certain degree of personal fallibility, which is overcome, and an auspicious end to the life-story (even if in this case that end comes unexpectedly swiftly).

But it’s interesting, as well, that these two precursors of the Tibetan biographical tradition, apparently coming from quite different contexts, have so much in common: both lives are told in terms of dreams and/or visions, and end with the apotheosis of the subject in the pure land of Amitabha. We can probably agree that the aim of the authors of both works was to generate faith and awe — but in what? Surely not simply in the individual figures of Ba Palyang and Namkai Nyingpo.

In our first example, the life-story is told in the context of a Buddhist lineage, and in the second, in the context of a Buddhist text and its recitation. In the uncertain period after the fall of the Tibetan empire, these two things, lineages and the texts/practices they transmitted, were the tenuous means by which the Buddha’s teachings would survive or fall in Tibet. I know one can’t draw wide-ranging conclusions from such a small pool of evidence, but I am tempted to say that what we are seeing is a the appearance of religious biographical writing at a pressure point in history, when the Buddhist institutions introduced by the Tibetan emperors were crumbling, and nothing had yet emerged to take their place.

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Janet Gyatso, Apparitions of the Self: The Secret Autobiographies of a Tibetan Visionary. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Matthew Kapstein (ed.), The Presence of Light: Divine Radiance and Religious Experience. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Marcelle Lalou. “Document tibétain sur l’expansion du dhyāna chinois.”  Journale Asiatique (1939): 505–523.

Sam van Schaik and Lewis Doney.  The Prayer, the Priest and the Tsenpo: An Early Buddhist Narrative from Dunhuang.” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 30.1–2 (2007): 175–217.

* There is an online PDF of Helmut Eimer’s “The Development of the Biographical Traditional Concerning Atiśa here.

Tibetan Text

Pelliot tibetain 996, 2v, l.2: mkhan po nam ka’i snyIng pos/ khri ga shIng yong gi sprul pa la/ mchod pa bgyis pa las/ sku gzugs las ‘od byung ngo/ slar yam yog gi dben sar bzhud pa’i tshe/ mtshon sna lnga’i sprin gyis bskyal ba las stsogs pa’i ya mtshan byung ngo/ tshe gcig tu chos lam sgom zhing/ dbyangs pa’i yon tan la gnas pa’i yi dam mthar phyin nas/ lo bdun cu rtsa gcig ste/ khyi’i lo’i dphyid slar ba tshes nyi shu dgu la/ zhong pong gi dgon sar skyil mo grung ma g.yos/ mdangs ma gyur par dus las ‘das so/ de’i nub mo nam gi gung la/ dben sa’i lta ‘og gi zhong pong gi ri rgyud nas/ sring po ri’i bar gi nam ka la ‘od chen po gnyis rgyud chags su byung bas yul phyogs [3r] gsal bar gyur te/ nub phyogs su ‘das par gyur te/


Before anyone else points it out, I should say that in talking about ‘religious biography’ here I have ignored the rich biographical narratives in the Old Tibetan Chronicle and other early Tibetan sources that are not explicitly Buddhist. There are also other Buddhist texts that might be arguable biographical, like IOL Tib J 370, which I wrote about on this site a while ago.

11 thoughts on “The First Tibetan Buddhist Biographies?

  1. Dear Early One, Just wanted to tell you what you may already know which is this: You seem to have 108 followers. Although it seems too few for a blog of such quality, it •is• the most auspicious of numbers. I wondered if you might spare a word about the source of the black&white photo used as your frontispiece.

  2. First of all, my thanks for your blog that I have been following for some time now. I have found this posting on the origins of Tibetan Buddhist biographical writing of particular interest. Like you, I think that the aim of the authors of both works was to generate faith and awe. In what you wonder. In the well-foundedness of the ruling powers, emperors and priests, and of the association between both. The monarch is said to derive his power from heaven (his celestial origins, dmu thag etc.) and it is the priest’s role to deliver that proof. The monarch exercises his authority, the priest shouts Hurray and gives the reasons to the people for why they should shout Hurray too. When the monarch’s authority is questioned, the priests have to work harder and adapt the narrative framework to the new situation.

    One expects there to be less need for a narrative framework, as long as the monarch has genuine power and still is a conquering hero and more when his power reclines or when future monarchs would like a bit of the mojo of earlier monarchs and has the priest link his geneaology to former monarchs with celestial roots. That’s what I see as the main reason for Tibetan biographies or rather hagiographies.

    When Buddhism is introduced in Tibet, the monarch’s authority, celestial origins and associated rituals are adapted in conformity. Sukhāvati instead of the celestial planes of Phywa and dmu. Prayers are addressed to the ruler of Sukhāvati, buddha Amitabha etc. The miraculous signs in the sky, rainbow bodies etc. are proof both of the well-foundedness of the narrative framework of the priest and thereby of the authority of the monarch. The authority of the priest is linked to that of the monarch. The detail of the emperor and the abbot each placing a hand on the other’s heart and reciting the prayer together (Pelliot tibétain 149) is quite telling.


  3. Many thanks for this very interesting post. It even inspired what I hope to turn into a series over at Thorbu’s.

    Isn’t our hero called Sudhana rather than Sudana?


  4. Dear D,

    I found that image on the Rigpa Wiki (I’ve now added a link through to the source page), but haven’t traced its origin. I looks like something that Richardson might have taken, or perhaps another foreigner from the same period? I see that the number of 108 followers was transient, like all good fortune.

    Dear Joy,

    Looking for the power relations that these narratives suggest is a very fruitful way of looking at them (though perhaps a little overdone sometimes, these days). In the 10th century, when these manuscripts were written (the texts may perhaps be earlier), Tibetan Buddhists had the problem of establishing patronage in an age of political fragmentation, and narratives such as these would have addressed that issue, among others. Of course, one of the specifically Tibetan things about Tibetan Buddhism is that the roles of “monarch” and “priest” became more and more difficult to separate, so that the model of the king with his court priest, which we find in the imperial period, becomes less relevant later on. Therefore, though I agree that these narratives confer legitimacy, I’m not sure I would characterise all or even most Tibetan biographical narrative along the specific lines you suggest, on the model of a priest bestowing legitimacy upon a monarch, though no doubt this is relevant in some cases.

    Dear P,

    I’m very happy to see that you have written something on Indian biographical literature and plan to write more. And yes of course it should be Sudhana (Good Wealth). By way of excuse, I have just finished working on another narrative, that of Prince Sudana (Good Giving)… Anyway, I’ll sneak in and correct the text up above. Looking forward to more posts on this topic on Thorbu!


  5. Thank you for your answer. I agree that looking at legitimacy is only one aspect of the narratives, albeit a very important one. I am more interested here in the way the power is built or consolidated than in the power relations themselves. Power is consolidated by reference to (real or alleged) illustrous ancestors. And political and religious legitimacy always go hand in hand, and are different sides of the same medal (Buddha/Cakravartin). As you wrote, even more so in Tibetan Buddhism, where both converged and where the lineage holders would have both spiritual and secular authority, transmitted through … lineage, affiliation, ultimately derived from celestial authority or divine right.

    For religious and political authority to be recognised, the link needs to be uninterrupted and authentic. The authenticity of a blood link is fairly evident. But how does one prove the authenticity of a spiritual link ? It seems to me that in the Tibetan situation the celestial legitimacy of the emperor was authenticated through miraculous signs identified or organised by the priest. Dreams, visions, miraculous lights, rainbows… The official account of the priest would be a sort of proto-hagiography, serving more or less as a main ingredient for later hagiographies/biographies. The basic idea being that the legitimacy of the emperor was based on a celestial link, supported by the theory of a dmu thag etc., which would be properly authenticated and reinstated by the priest (through dreams, visions, miraculous lights) during the ceremonies following the death/ascension of an emperor or in the accounts thereof.

    If these signs could appear at the death of an emperor or other power figures, why wouldn’t they also appear at the death/departure of priests who also were in contact with heaven ? The miraculous signs appearing at the death of every « monarch » or « high priest » confirm the legitimacy of that specific « monarch » or « high priest » but also, and perhaps more importantly so, consolidate the whole system and reassure its continuation for the future generations.

    With the ideal of the ascetic yogi and the sgom chen playing a more important part during the Tibetan Renaissance, biographies/hagiographies developed in other directions, moving away from power, but partly because of tradition and also in order to authentify their spiritual realization, there would still be miraculous signs and rainbow bodies etc. at the moment of their death as a sort of ultimate proof. One could live like a beggar, but still die like an emperor. Later again, when lineage, affiliation and power were more important again, those aspects were accentuated. At least, that is my guess.

    In France, a republic, we are in the middle of the presidential elections campaign, and yet we see candidates pay homage to illustrous historical figures to build or consolidate their power/image. Most recently Joan of Arc, Jean Jaurès, Charles de Gaulle, Mitterand. Since we are living in a republic, kings are out…


  6. Hi Sam, thank you for this very interesting article.
    I’m wondering what can this rdza plags pa be for a name of the Avatamsaka.
    The rma ga (or : rmag) chad & snyan gyi gong rgyan are more current.
    Mention is also made of this other unknown (to me) title : mang po ‘dus pa
    But could you tell me more of the most famous Tibetan name of the text (not mentioned here) : sdong po bkod pa (or : sdong pos brgyan pa, as in the sTog mss.) ?

  7. Dear Fanglong,

    This question of the names of the sutra is very interesting, and unfortunately Lewis and I didn’t have a chance to go into it deeply. So I think you know more than I do, and I’d be interested to know what you mean by: “The rma ga (or : rmag) chad & snyan gyi gong rgyan are more current.” Where do you find these names? (I expect that mang po ‘dus pa, “composed of many” is just as it seems, a descriptive name for the Avatamsaka.)


  8. Dear Sam !

    I called those titles “current” because I found them in the Tshig mdzod chen mo :

    rmag chad (rmad chad) < rma ga chad : (brda rnying) (1) mdo snyan gyi gong rgyan nam phal po che. (2) yang dag pa.

    snyan gyi gong rgyan : (1) rna kor ram rna rgyan. (2) mdo sde phal po che'i mtshan gzhan zhig.

  9. Interesting that there IS a scripture called Mdo-sde Snyan-gyi Gong-rgyan [zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo] in the Stog Palace Manuscript Kanjur from Ladakh, Skorupski catalog no. 248. And the translator of it, Ce-btsan-skyes, makes you think of that Nyingma Burushaski text that Dalton studied, doesn’t it?

    If you have at hand Thupten Jinpa’s translation of Mind Training: The Great Collection, and you really ought to [have it nearby], look at p. 292. where is a brief quote from an “Ear Ornament Sutra” (the Tibetan reads here: Mdo-sde Snyan-gyi Rgyan):

    “In the future, at the end of an era,
    I will appear in the form of letters.”

    The footnote tells us that the sutra isn’t to be found in the Kanjur, and that the quote makes no sense in the context. All true enough except of course that there is at least one Kanjur that has a text by this title (I haven’t checked to see if the quote is to be found there). There are several mostly short texts that are found only in western transmissions of the Kanjur, like the Gondhola, the Toling, etc.

    Out of idle curiosity, I checked the Vienna site where you can search the content of the Kanjur and Tanjur in a snap. I found that only the tantra in Derge [Tôh. no.] 829 has the word rma-ga-chad (4 times) and rmag-chad (twice). On the other hand, snyan-gyi gong-rgyan occurs in Derge no. 44, no. 116, and 187, once in each text.

    Am fairly certain the modern dictionary maker simply copied from the older Brda’-rnying texts, who ought to get the real credit for the information on the different names of the text.

    Is any of that interesting?


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