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.