Monks and Mahāyoga

As you probably know, after the collapse of Tibetan imperial power towards the end of the 9th century, the lineage of monastic vows (the vinaya) died out in Central Tibet. During the ensuing dark period, if the traditional histories are to be believed, the lineage of the vows survived only in the far northeast of the Tibetan cultural area. Now if that is true, we might hope to see some corroborating evidence among the Dunhuang manuscripts — and I think we do. Several manuscripts that (judging by their handwriting) seem to be from the post-imperial period contain classic texts on the monks’ vows, such as the Vinaya-vāstu and the Prātimokṣa-sūtra (see for example IOL Tib J 1).

It seems likely that these manuscripts, like most manuscripts, were made to be used.  They are the kinds of extracts and summaries that would have been part of the ceremonies of taking and renewing of the monastic vows. Which is to say, they were probably written and used by Buddhist monks. These monks who were maintaining a monastic lineage which may well have died out in Central Tibet, but was very much alive here in the northeast, in places like the mountain retreat of Dantig, or the walled city of Tsongka.

If we accept that the Dunhuang manuscripts containing vinaya texts were used by Buddhist monks, then an interesting issue arises: were these monks also writing and making use of the many tantric manuscripts also to be found in the Dunhuang collections, including those Mahāyoga texts containing violent and sexual imagery? If they were, then the problems involved in monks practising tantric rituals must have come up here, before they were explicitly discussed by Atiśa, who famously addressed the issue a century later.

*  *  *

I was thinking about this after looking at one of the biggest Mahāyoga manuscripts in the Dunhuang collections, a manuscript so big that it begins in the Pelliot collection in Paris (Pelliot tibétain 42), continues in the Stein collection in London (IOL Tib J 419) and ends back in Paris again (Pelliot tibétain 36). Clearly it had already broken into three parts before Stein and Pelliot arrived at the cave in Dunhuang. Put the three back together, and you get a major ritual, involving torma offerings, teachings, the visualization of mandalas, and a violent ritual of liberation (sgrol ba). The liberation ritual has recently been discussed in detail in Jacob Dalton, who describes it as “clearly the most violent text to emerge from the library cave at Dunhuang.” Surely not the kind of thing for monks?

Looking at the manuscript again recently, I noticed some text that had been added to the end of the ritual, either by a different scribe, or by the same scribe writing less carefully. This text turns out to be a summary of the vinaya, beginning like this:

The vinaya of the hearers is divided into eighteen different sects. Of these, the one that exists in Tibet is the system of the Mūlasarvāstivādins.

Fair enough — this agrees with what the Tibetan historians say, and indeed the fact that the massive Mūlasarvāstivādin vinaya is the version of the monastic vows that was preserved in the Tibetan canon. On the other hand, I think this is the first time I have seen the fact mentioned in a Dunhuang manuscript. The text goes on to enumerate the different classes of vows in the vinaya of the Mūlasarvastivādins. Maybe it was a kind of primer for new monks.

So why is this text written on the last pages of a major Mahāyoga ritual? Perhaps so that the monks performing the ritual should do it in the context of their Buddhist vows (and thus certainly not taking the violent and sexual imagery of the texts literally). Or as a rebuke to the text by a shocked monk: this is what Buddhism is about, not that! I don’t know, but I suspect the former is more likely than the latter. Everything we know about tantric Buddhism in India and Tibet suggests that it was thoroughly accepted in the monastic context. What remained uncertain and shifting was the exact nature of the relationship between the monastic vows and tantric practices, and issue that received much discussion later in Tibet in the “three vows” literature (these being the monastic vows, the bodhisattva vows and the tantric samaya vows). The juxtaposition of texts here suggests that similar negotations were already taking place in the northeast of Tibet in the tenth century.

*  *  *


Jacob Dalton. 2011. The Taming of the Demons: Violence and Liberation in Tibetan Buddhism. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Ronald Davidson. 2005. Tibetan Renaissance: Tantric Buddhism in the Rebirth of Tibetan Culture. New York: Columbia University Press.

Carmen Meinert. 2006. “Between the Profane and the Sacred? On the Context of the Rite of ‘Liberation’ (sgrol ba).” In Michael Zimmermann (ed.), Buddhism and Violence. Lumbini: Lumbini International Research Institute. 99-130.

Sam van Schaik and Imre Galambos. 2012. Manuscripts and Travellers: The Sino-Tibetan Documents of a Tenth-Century Buddhist Pilgrim. Berlin: de Gruyter.

Defining Mahāyoga


Some years ago I was chatting to someone at a conference about the work I had been doing on Mahāyoga texts in the Dunhuang collections. “But what,” he asked, “is Mahāyoga anyway?” Though the later Nyingma tradition has perfectly good answers to this question, I couldn’t give him a satisfactory answer about what it meant in early (pre-11th century) Tibet. It would be good to know, because references to Mahāyoga often crop up in the Dunhuang manuscripts. Moreover, if the Testament of Ba is to be believed, when the Tibetan emperor Tri Song Detsen set up a massive Buddhist translation project in Tibet in the 9th century, he specifically banned Mahāyoga texts from being translated.

In fact it turns out that the Tibetans, during their first exposure to tantric Buddhism, had also asked themselves what Mahāyoga stands for. I found the answer in a tatty manuscript containing a text called A Summary of the View of Mahāyoga According to Scripture. So I translated that text and wrote an article all about Mahāyoga in early Tibet, which was published in 2008. I’ve finally scanned the article, and it’s now on the Author page of this site, or you can just click here.

Blood writing

There is something compelling about the idea of a text written in blood. The 20th century Chinese writer Lu Xun once said “Lies written in ink can never disguise facts written in blood.” Here the phrase “written in blood” is metaphorical — Lu Xun was talking about the killing of student protesters — but resonates with Chinese history, as China does actually have a tradition of writing in blood. The tradition was especially present in Buddhism and the earliest surviving examples we have are from the Dunhuang manuscript collections. For example, there is a booklet containing the Diamond Sutra (S.5451) with the following colophon (as translated by Lionel Giles):

Copied by an old man of 83, who pricked his own hand to draw blood [to write with], on the 2nd day of the 2nd moon of bingyan, the 3rd year of Tianyu [27 Feb. 906].

Using one’s own blood to write Buddhist sutras is an ascetic practice, that can be included in along with other, more drastic ascetic practices that were practiced in China over the centuries, including slicing off parts of one’s flesh, burning oneself with incense, burning off a finger, or even complete self-immolation (on which, see the book by James Benn in the references). Much later, in the 17th century, a Chinese writer defended the practice of blood writing against its detractors:

Those disciples of “crazy wisdom” (kuanghui 狂慧) belittle it [blood-writing] as [involving] “corporeality” (youxiang 有相). But among the root causes of beginningless birth and death, none is deeper than the very perception of the body (shenjian 身見)… This [practice of blood-writing] is called paying reverence to the Correct Dharma; it is also called using the Dharma to make offering to Buddha. The Lotus and Śuramgama [sutras] have profound praise for incinerating one’s limbs and fingers, as well as the merits from burning incense [into one’s body]. The practices of severing the limb of afflictions and burning the body of ignorance are situated precisely in this very flesh and blood.

So, what about Tibet? It is my impression that this kind of extreme ascetic practice in general, and blood writing in particular, is historically less common among Tibetan than Chinese Buddhists. The manuscript pictured above (IOL Tib J 308) therefore strikes me as an exception. It certainly looks like it is written in blood: the colour is reddish-brown, and appears to congeal in some places. In fact, it looks much more like blood than the writing in the book by the 83-year-old man, which looks like ordinary ink. In that case, perhaps, the old man just added a few drops of blood to the inkwell.


Recently, I had the chance to have the ink in this Tibetan manuscript examined by Renate Noller, a specialist in pigment identification at the Bundesanstalt für Materialforschung und -prüfung. Her results are yet to be published, but this particular ink turned out to have a very high iron content. Now, there are inks made with iron (in the West, iron gall ink was particularly popular, and was used, for example, by Leonardo da Vinci in all his manuscripts), but that tends to darken with time to a browny-black, and lacks the clotted quality of this manuscript. If you look closely, you can see that the scribe was dipping his pen very frequently, that the ink went down very thickly and then ran out after a couple of letters.

The text that is (perhaps) written in blood in IOL Tib J 308 is the Sutra of Aparimitayus, a very popular text in Tibet, on the visualisation and the mantra of a deity representing long life and rebirth in a pure land. In the 840s thousands of scrolls of this sutra were written at Dunhuang at the behest of the Tibetan emperor, to ensure his long life through the religious merit generated by copying the sutra. This manuscript is not one of those, and to judge from its archaic orthography and “square” style, may be even older than them. Still, the motivation for copying the sutra is probably the same. If it was written in blood, this act would have given a greater value to the act of copying of the sutra, and thus to the merit generated by doing so.

*  *  *


James Baskind. 2007. “Mortification Practices in the Obaku School“, in Essays on East Asian Religion and Culture, edited by Christian Wittern and Shi Lishan, Kyoto.

James Benn. 2007. Burning for the Buddha. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

John Kieschnick. 2000. “Blood Writing in Chinese Buddhism.” JIABS 23.2: 177–194.

John Kieschnick. 2002. The impact of Buddhism on Chinese material culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Jimmy Y. Yu. 2007. “Bodies of Sanctity: Ascetic Practices in Late Imperial China“. Dissertation prospectus, Princeton University. (Source of the 17th century passage above.)

Jimmy Y. Yu. 2012. Sanctity and Self-Inflicted Violence in Chinese Religions. New York: Oxford University Press.

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.

*  *  *

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.

*  *  *

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.

*  *  *

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.

*  *  *


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.