Tibetan Chan IV: The Great Debate

Why does history get written? I think we’d all agree that the motives for creating history are mixed, and just as complex as the uses it gets put to after it’s written. Though most of Tibet’s histories are histories of religion, it would surely be naive to imagine that the motives of their authors were wholly religious. After all, the union of religion and politics (chösi zungdrel in Tibetan) was not just a fact of life in Tibet, it was an ideal, a dearly-held expression of the uniqueness of Tibet’s culture.

So how does this apply to the story of the great debate between Chinese and Indian Buddhism that is supposed to have taken place at Samyé monastery under the aegis of the emperor Tri Song Detsen? The debate is certainly presented in religious terms, as a battle between two interpretations of the Buddhist scriptures. On the Chinese side, the Chan approach of the single method: the realization of the nature of mind leading to instant enlightenment. On the Indian side, the gradual approach of the six perfections leading to a gradual awakening in ten stages.

The classic account of the debate and the source for all later Tibetan historians, is the Testament of Ba. And this, even in the earliest form available to us, is clearly not a disinterested account. It gives the proponent of the Chinese view a brief paragraph to defend his position, followed by pages and pages of the proponents of the Indian view. And most of the refutation of the Chinese approach is spoken by a Tibetan nobleman from the Ba clan. But hang on, isn’t the Testament of Ba all about the Ba clan? Well, it certainly seems to have been put together by people from that clan, and it certainly places the Ba clan in the middle of the action in the story of how Buddhism came to Tibet.

I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say that the story of early Tibetan history is the story of the Tibetan clans. Before Tibetan history began to be recorded, the clans were contesting with each other. During the Tibetan empire, the clans were in theory united under the emperors, but in truth, they continued to contest with each other, and this was one of the major factors in the ultimate failure of the empire. And after the empire fell, the fighting between the clans created what the historians called “the age of fragmentation.”

As for the Ba clan, they were deeply involved in the imperial court and often in competition with the Bro clan for the top ministerial positions. They seem to have played some part in the conspiracy against the Buddhist emperor Ralpachen, leading to his assassination and the enthronement of the deeply unpopular Langdarma. Given that Langdarma came to be blamed for the collapse of monastic Buddhism in Tibet, and the inception of the age of fragmentation, it seems that the Ba clan had some PR work to do if they wanted to demonstrate their credentials as supporters of the revered Buddhist emperors. And that’s what the Testament of Ba does, quite successfully.

*  *  *

So where does the story of the debate fit into this? Obviously it puts the representatives of the Ba clan at the side of the greatest Buddhist emperor. It may also be a not-so-subtle attack on another major clan, the Dro, the clan that most frequently crops up in the Ba clan’s power struggles. And as the empire began to fall apart the first  civil war was between the governor of Tibet’s northeastern territories (who was from the Dro clan) and a general who wanted to set himself up as a local warlord (from the Ba clan). The governor sided with the new Chinese power in the region, and the general was, after committing some appalling brutalities, eventually executed. For more about this see here and here.

So we shouldn’t be surprised if the old enmity between Ba and Dro finds expression somewhere in the Testament of Ba. Perhaps in the story of the debate? Consider the evidence:

1. There’s a Chinese manuscript from Dunhuang (Pelliot chinois 4646) that tells another debate story. As in Testament of Ba, the Chinese side is represented by the Chinese monk Moheyan, but the proponents of the other view are only mentioned as “Brahmin monks.” This manuscript also talks about “discussions” by letter over several months, rather than a staged debate. And the biggest difference is that it ends with the Tibetan emperor giving his seal of approval to the Chinese teaching:

The Chan doctrine taught by Mahayana is a fully-justified development based on the text of the sutras; it is without error. From now on the monks and laity are permitted to practise and train in it under this edict.

But what is most relevant to us is that it mentions that Moheyan was invited by one of Tri Song Detsen’s queens, the one from the Dro clan. The Chinese author of the text makes this quite clear.

2. A Tibetan manuscript from Dunhuang (Pelliot tibétain 996) gives us an account of a lineage of Chan masters. It begins with an Indian master who travelled to the Silk Road city of Anxi.* Here’s a translation of the beginning, which gives an idea of the tone of the work:

The master Artenhwer, an instructor who knew the path of the sameness of all phenomena travelled to Anxi from India, for the sake of sentient beings. There he gathered three hundred students, and taught them how to enter the Mahāyāna. He received divine food offerings from the sky, which satiated his three hundred students. At over a hundred years old he passed away in the posture of nirvana. Then the king of Anxi struck the body and said “If the master came to explain the dharma to multitudes of sentient beings, why did he only teach a few words?” And, having died, the master rose again for three days and taught the dharma to the king of Anxi and the Chinese prince of Gazhou.

The lineage of this Artenhwer gets passed down to a Chinese monk called Man Heshang. And he is supported by Trisumjé, the delön (the minister responsible for the northeastern marches of the Tibetan empire) — this is almost certainly a famous Tibetan minister from the Dro clan who lead the negotations for to the 823 Sino-Tibetan peace treaty. Later in this Chan lineage there’s a Tibetan master called Puk Yeshé Yang, who is supported by a monk from, once again, the Dro clan.

So, is it reasonable to suggest that the Chan teachers like Moheyan were known to have the patronage of the Dro clan? That would certainly make the story of the debate in the Testament of Ba very useful in their struggle with the Dro. Not only does it place them at the centre of the narrative of the transmission of Buddhism to Tibet, it’s also one in the eye for the Dro clan and their favourite Chan teacher.

*  *  *

This rivalry might answer a question posed by Matthew Kapstein: why is Testament of Ba generally well disposed towards Chinese Buddhism, except in the story of the debate? Earlier in the Testament of Ba we hear about a member of the Ba clan travelling to China receiving teachings from the Korean Chan teacher known as the Reverend Kim. While later Tibetan historians tended to present the debate as a rejection of Chinese Buddhism per se, the Testament of Ba, especially in its earliest known forms, suggests more specifically a rejection of Moheyan’s brand of meditation practice.

That’s enough for now. I won’t go into the question of whether the debate actually happened, although the very different version in the Chinese text certainly suggests that we might be better off thinking of a series of discussions, mostly by exchanges of letters, rather than a debate. And the author of 10th century Lamp for the Eyes of Meditation, which is all about how to rank the simultaneous and gradual methods, fails to mention any debate. And many, if not all, of the Tibetan Chan manuscripts from Dunhuang date from after the Tibetan empire, and thus well after when the debate was supposed to have happened, suggesting that the decline of Chan in Tibet happened slowly, and for other reasons.

*  *  *

See also…

Tibetan Chan I: The Emperor’s Chan
Tibetan Chan II: The teachings of Heshang Moheyan
Tibetan Chan III: More teachings of Heshang Moheyan

*  *  *

A note on places and people…

So where is Anxi (An se in the Tibetan text)? Most people, following Lalou, have identified it with the great northern Silk Route city of Kucha. But this might not be right. Anxi was the name of the Chinese command centre for its western territories. This was in Kucha until the late 680s, when that city was taken by the Tibetan army, and the Chinese moved the Anxi commandery to Qocho (Ch. Gaochang). By my calculations, separating each member of the lineage by 25 years, Artenhwer should have been around in the first half of the 8th century, by which time Anxi may have referred to Qocho.

As for Artenhwer (A rtan hwer), this looks like a Tibetan transliteration of a Chinese transliteration of a foreign name, so finding the original may be a hopeless task. Flemming Faber identified it as the popular Persian name Ardasir, but as far as we know, there was no Buddhism in Persia by this time. It certainly doesn’t sound particularly Indian. Turkic perhaps? Any informed answers or wild guesses great appreciated…

And Dro Trisumjé? Hugh Richardson considers the identification of Pelliot tibétain 996’s Trisumjé with the army commander Dro Trisumjé doubtful. But it doesn’t seem at all unlikely to me that bde blon Trisumjé mentioned in Pelliot tibétain 996 might have later held the role of army commander (dmag gi mchog). His involvement in the Sino-Tibetan treaty involves the same region that fell under the rule of the bde blon. A letter written by a Chinese officer to a Zhang Khri sum rje (Pelliot tibétain 1070 — see Demiéville’s Concile de Lhasa, pp.280-290) says that he chose Dunhuang as his residence and founded a temple there. Roberto Vitali has argued that this is Dro Trisumjé, and that he must have lived in Dunhuang before 810, when, due to a promotion to the rank of minister and general of the northeast army, he would have moved to a major prefecture like Guazhou. Though Vitali didn’t consider Pelliot tibétain 996, the fact that Trisumjé held the post of bde blon only strengthens his case.

*  *  *

And some Tibetan…

From the beginning of Pelliot tibétain 996 (f.1r):

$//mkhan po nam ka’I snying po’i dge ba’i bshes nyen gyI rgyud mdor bshad pa// dge ba’I bshes nyen yang/ chos mnaym pa nyId kyI lam rIg pa’/ mkhanpo a rtan hwer/ sems can gyI don du rgya gar yul nas/ yul an ser gshegs te/ slob ma sum brgya bsdus nas/ theg pa chen po’i don la cI ltar ‘jug pa’I sgo bshad/ lha’I zhal zas nam ka las blangs te/ slobs sum brgya tshIm bar byas so/ lo brgya lon nas/ ner ban thabs su dus las ‘das so/ de nas an se’I rgyal pos lus brda+bs te/ mkhan pos sems can de snyed la chos bshad na/ bdag la tshIg ‘ga’ yang ma bstan par gshegs sam zhes smras pa dang/ tshe ‘das te zhag gsum lon ba slar bzhengs te/ an se’I rgyal po kwa c[u’]I wang chos bshad nas dus la ‘das so/

*  *  *


Hugh Richardson wrote about the rivalry between Dro and Ba as a background to the debate in:
1. Hugh Richardson. 1998. “Political Rivalry and the Great Debate at Bsam-yas.” In High Peaks, Pure Earth. London: Serindia: 203-206. (Unlike most articles in this collection, this one had not previosly been published.)

This is the earliest extant version of the Testament of Ba is the Dba’ bzhed:
2. Pasang Wangdu and Hildegard Diemberger. 2000. The Royal Narrative  Concerning the Bringing of Buddha’s Doctrine to Tibet. Wien: Verlag  der Osterreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.

That is, apart from a manuscript fragment from the 9th or 10th century:
3. Sam van Schaik and Kazushi Iwao. “Fragments of the Testament of Ba from Dunhuang”. Journal of the American Oriental Society 128.3  (2008 [2009]): 477–487.

The classic work on the Chinese text on the debate (or discussions), the Dunwu dacheng zhenglie jue 頓悟大乘政理決 is:
4. Paul Demiéville. 1958 (republished in 2006). Le Concile de Lhasa. Paris: Institute des hautes études chinoises.

Later Demiéville found another version of the text in the Stein collection, Or.8210/S.2647. As for the Tibetan Chan lineage in Pelliot tibétain 996, this was studied and published even earlier, in 1939, by Marcelle Lalou (surely the first person to discover the existence of Tibetan Chan among the Dunhuang manuscripts):
5. Marcelle Lalou. 1939. “Document tibétain sur l’expansion du Dhyāna chinois.” In Journal Asiatique October-December 1939: 505-523.

On the involvement of the Ba clan with the assassination of Ralpachen (or, if you follow his ingenious argument, actually of Langdarma) see:
6. Zuiho Yamaguchi. 1996. “The Fiction of King Dar-ma’s Persecution of Buddhism”. In De Dunhuang au Japon. Geneva: Librairie Droz. 231-258.

On the battle between two members of Dro and Ba in Amdo/Hexi, see:
7. Luciano Petech. 1994. “The Disintegration of the Tibetan Kingdom”. In Tibetan  Studies, edited by Per Kværne. Oslo: The Institute for Comparative  Research in Human Culture.

On Dro Trisumjé, and other aspects of clan rivalry during the Tibetan empire, see pages 18, 21-22 of:
8. Roberto Vitali. 1990. Early Temples of Central Tibet. London: Serindia Publications

and this too:
9. Roberto Vitali. 2004. “The role of clan power in the establishment of  religion (from the kheng log of the 9-10 century to the  instances of the dByil of La stod and gNyos of Kha rag).” In The  Relationship between Religion and State : (chos srid zung ‘brel), in  Traditional Tibet, edited by Christoph Cuppers. Nepal, Lumbini  International Research Institute.

And finally, Matthew Kapstein’s discussion of the attitude towards Chinese Buddhists in the Testament of Ba is on pages 34-35 of:
10. Matthew Kapstein. 2000. The Tibetan Assimilation of Buddhism. Oxford  University Press, 2000.

What Are Those Monks Doing?

I’d like to share something with you that’s puzzled me for some time. I first came across this illustration a few years ago. It’s in the Dunhuang manuscript Or.8210/S.8555. Click on the image or the number to see the whole thing, then come back here if you have any ideas.

What do you see? My first impression was that this looks like a stoning, with three monks throwing rocks at the fourth, prostrate monk. Are we looking at a punishment? I’m not sure the Vinaya sanctions this kind of thing. And it does look like the fourth monk has removed his shoes and is performing prostrations on a mat. While the other monks are throwing stones at him. Really? Why?

*  *  *

It was only recently, when I looked at the back of the manuscript, that I started to think I might have solved this puzzle. There’s a single line of Chinese writing, saying “Lotus Sutra, seventh fascicle”. Now, this could be nothing to do with the picture. I’m all too familiar with scrolls that have been reused for notes, writing exercises and, of course, idle doodles. But this picture is more than a doodle. Surely it means something.

Well, have a look at this verse from Chapter 10 of the sutra:

If when a person expounds this sutra
there is someone who speaks ill and reviles him
or attacks him with swords and staves, tiles and stones,
he should think of the Buddha and for that reason be patient.

Could that be the scene depicted here? I thought so, but then came across an even better bit of text in Chapter 20, which is a story about a bodhisattva called Never Disparaging:

This monk did not devote his time to reading or reciting the scriptures, but simply went about bowing to people. And if he happened to see any of the four kinds of believers far off in the distance, he would purposely go to where they were, bow to them and speak words of praise, saying, “I would never dare disparage you, because you are all certain to attain Buddhahood!”

Proving that you can’t please all of the people all of the time, there were some who were offended by this behaviour:

Among the four kinds of believers there were those who gave way to anger, their minds lacking in purity, and they spoke ill of him and cursed him, saying, “This ignorant monk – where does he come from, presuming to declare that he does not disparage us and bestowing on us a prediction that we will attain Buddhahood? We have no use for such vain and irresponsible predictions!”

The four kinds of believer, by the way, are monks, nuns, lay men and women. The story seems to be aimed against those Buddhists who didn’t hold with the Lotus Sutra’s doctrine that everyone will attain Buddhahood eventually.

Many years passed in this way, during which this monk was constantly subjected to curses and abuse. He did not give way to anger, however, but each time spoke the same words, ‘You are certain to attain Buddhahood.’ When he spoke in this manner, some among the group would take sticks of wood or tiles and stones and beat and pelt him. But even as he ran away and took up his stance at a distance, he continued to call out in a loud voice, “I would never dare disparage you, for you are all certain to attain Buddhahood!” And because he always spoke these words, the overbearing arrogant monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen gave him the name Never Disparaging.

So, the key phrase there is, “some among the group would take sticks of wood or tiles and stones and beat and pelt him.” Though in the end the bodhisattva runs away and continues not disparaging his tormentors from a safe distance, note that he begins by bowing to them. So here we have all the elements of our illustration. And I think, perhaps, the puzzle is solved.

*  *  *

Of course the tormentors in our picture are not monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen, but just monks. But I don’t think that’s a deal-breaker. What’s interesting is the clothing of the monks. I assume this reflects the context in which the picture was made, that is, Dunhuang in the 9th or 10th centuries (I suspect). From which it appears that the monks at Dunhuang wore robes similar to those that Tibetan monks wear nowadays.

*  *  *

Incidentally, those nasty people who threw the stones, tiles and the like got their comeuppance. They had to spend an awfully long time in the deepest hell. The Buddha, who is the narrator of course, tells us this, and he also reveals that the bodhisattva Never Disparaging was the Buddha himself in a former life. And those nasty people? Well, even hell doesn’t go on forever, and at the end of the chapter the Buddha reveals that they are here now, among his audience. Anyhow, I think the story of Never Disparaging complements nicely this season’s messages of goodwill, tolerance and the like. Best wishes to all for Christmas and New Year. You are certain to attain Buddhahood!

*  *  *


The translations here are from Burton Watson, The Lotus Sutra (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994). I haven’t delved into the complexities of the text itself, and the sharp-eyed will notice that I didn’t address the question of whether either Chapter 10 or 20 falls within the seventh fascicle (juan qi) of the Sutra. Of course, to do this we must look at the different canonical versions of the sutra (Burton Watson’s translation is based on the most popular one, attributed to Kumarajiva), and then the several versions in Dunhuang that are not clearly related to the canonical versions. And that’s assuming that we are only looking at Chinese versions. All I have been able to ascertain at this point is that the Tibetan version the story of Never Disparaging appears in Chapter 19, falls under fascicle 11 (bam po bcu gcig pa) in the Peking Kanjur version. Any further thoughts are most welcome.

Buddhism and Empire IV: Converting Tibet


How were the Tibetan people converted to Buddhism? And who did the converting?

Tibetan historians always say that the conversion happened during Tibet’s imperial period. Butön, for example, says that that the Tibetans were converted to Buddhism when Songtsen Gampo set down the new royal laws based on the ten virtues of Buddhism. Other histories consider the real conversion to have been carried out a century later by the trio of Trisong Detsen (the emperor), Śāntarakṣita (the monk) and Padmasambhava (the tantric adept).

But sources that can be dated back to the time of the Tibetan emperors are not so clear about this, which has lead some modern scholars to argue that Buddhism at the time of the Tibetan Empire was a religion of the nobility, only found at the Tibetan court (see the comments to the previous post). Modern scholars have also argued that the adoption of Buddhism by Trisong Detsen and his successors was an act of international diplomacy. Buddhism, after all, was an international religion and many other major powers of the period — the Chinese empire, Central Asian city-states and Indian kingdoms — were Buddhist.

Then it would hardly have mattered whether the majority of ordinary Tibetans were Buddhists or not. The point was that Tibet should be perceived as a Buddhist country. So most Tibetans would have had little or no experience of Buddhism in the imperial period.

But was this really the case?

*  *  *

I’ve recently been looking at some of the early records of the Tibetan tsenpos to see whether any of them expressed the aspiration to convert the Tibetan people in general, and not just the nobility.

The second edict of Trisong Detsen (dated to 779 by Hugh Richardson) records the way in which Buddhism was made the state religion of Tibet. Looking very much like the official minutes of a meeting, it describes various discussion during which the court deliberated on how to establish Buddhism in Tibet, beginning with Trisong Detsen’s own account of how he was converted to Buddhism:

Then with the help of teachers of virtue I listened to the dharma was studied and the texts were brought before my eyes. Then I deliberated upon how the Buddhist religion should be practised and spread.

So, by his own account Trisong Detsen did want to spread Buddhism in Tibet. Along with that, he had some harsh things to say about the old religion:

At that time it was declared that those who followed the old Tibetan religion were getting everything wrong…

Among the old practices he disapproved of are painting your body red, casting spells on the government, and causing diseases and famine. Later the tsenpo convened another meeting, this time with lords from all over the Tibetan empire:

The minor princes under our dominion such as the Azha ruler, and the outer and inner ministers were consulted and a council was held. Together they considered in brief these things, first that trust should be put in the word of the Buddha; secondly that the example of the ancestors should be followed; and thirdly that help should be given by the power of the teachers of virtue.

So at this meeting everyone agreed to an empire-wide project establishing Buddhism, with a caveat that the traditional ways of the ancestors should be followed as well.

Further to that, a council was held about how the right path should not be changed, and how it could be increased. Thus an excellent summary of the dharma was made

What was this summary of the dharma? Earlier in the edict, Trisong Detsen explains the basics of Buddhism as the fact of impermanence, the inevitability of cause and effect (i.e. karma) and the need to practice the ten kinds of virtuous action in order to obtain a good rebirth. So the summary agreed at this meeting was probably something along those lines.

*  *  *

skarcung_colourBut Trisong Detsen’s recorded aspiration to spread the word of the Buddha has little to say about ordinary Tibetans. Let’s skip forward to the reign of Senaleg, in the early years of the 9th century. One of his edicts was preserved on the Karchung pillar, which survived almost undamaged right through to the Cultural Revolution, when it was smashed to pieces. This pillar edict is concerned with the appointment of senior Buddhist teachers to lead the religion in Tibet. It says:

But from the time when the tsenpo and his descendents are young until the time when they become rulers of the kingdom and thereafter, teachers of virtue shall be appointed from among the monks. By teaching religion as much as can be absorbed into the mind, the gate of liberation for the whole of Tibet, through the learning and practice of the dharma, shall not be closed.

Note here the apparently inclusive statement that “the whole of Tibet” will have access to the “gate of liberation.” This egalitarian sentiment is made even more clear further down the pillar:

And when for the Tibetan subjects from the nobles downwards, the gate leading to liberation is never obstructed and the faithful have been led towards liberation, from those among them who are capable there shall always be appointed abbots to carry on the teachings of the Buddha.

It seems clear enough that the phrase “from the nobles downwards” must include every Tibetan subject, however lowly.

*  *  *

S553Noble sentiments indeed, but how could such a project realistically be carried out? How do you convert a whole people to another religion? This is a big question, and I won’t try to answer it. In any case, as Matthew Kapstein has pointed out, this “conversion” took place over several centuries (or to put it another way, there were several “conversions”).

But if we travel now back to Dunhuang, from our little excursion to Central Tibet, there is a piece of evidence that might hint at how the grand project of converting the Tibetans to Buddhism was put into practice. There’s a scroll with a short summary of Buddhism in Chinese, called A Summary of the Essential Points of the Mahāyāna Sūtras. Its colophon says (in Chinese):

At the sixth month of the water tiger year, send the letter with tsenpo’s seal of Great Tibet and the Sūtra of Ten Kinds of Virtuous Behaviour to every county, to be circulated and recited. On the 16th day of the latter eighth month this copy was made.

This scroll has been dated to 822, in the reign of the last great Buddhist Tibetan emperor, Ralpachen. I am tempted to join up the dots here from (1) the summary of the dharma made by Trisong Detsen’s council and agreed by all the local rulers of the Tibetan empire, (2) the aspiration firmly expressed by the edict of Senaleg that all Tibetans should have access to Buddhism, and (3) the order from Ralpachen’s court to send copies of a summary of the ten Buddhist virtues to every part of the realm.

Many questions remain (you might be asking yourself some already, if you made it this far). But I think we can glimpse a genuine aspiration expressed by the Tibetan emperors to bring Buddhism to all of the Tibetan people, high and low. And we can see one way this might have been carried out, by the copying of brief summaries of the dharma all over Tibet (which would then have been taught orally to the non-literate, presumably, though literacy seems to have been quite widespread by the end of the empire). This might have been enough to initiate at least the first stage in the conversion of the Tibetan people to Buddhism.

*  *  *


The pillar inscriptions quoted here are all to be found in the collections of Hugh Richardson (1985), Fang Kuei Li and W. South Coblin (1987) and now the volume edited by Kazushi Iwao and Nathan Hill and recently published by the Old Tibetan Documents Online Group (2009). The translations in this post are my own “provisional” ones.

The scroll mentioned here (Or.8210/S.3996) has been studied by Daishun Ueyama (1995: 314-323). The Chinese title is Da cheng jing zuan yao yi 大 乘 經 纂 要 義.

The issue of the conversion of the Tibetans has been treated from several different angles in Matthew Kapstein’s The Tibetan Assimilation of Buddhism (Oxford University Press, 2000).

I’m also looking forward to reading the just-published Buddhism and Empire: The Political and Religious Culture of Early Tibet by Michael Walter (Brill).


The first two images are by Hugh Richardson, showing his Tibetan assistant taking rubbings from the Karchung (skar cung) pillar. The photos are (c) The Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, and can be seen, along with many others, at the wonderful Tibet Album website.

The scroll is Or.8210/S.553, another copy of the Summary of the Essential Points of the Mahāyāna Sūtras.

*  *  *


The second edict of Khri srong lde btsan (from Hugh Richardson, “The First Tibetan Chos ‘byung” in High Peaks, Pure Earth):

(p.97; 110b) de nas dge ba’i bshes gnyen gyis bstangs te chos kyang gsan / yi ge yang spyan sngar brims nas / sangs rgyas kyi chos spel zhing mdzad par bsgroms so / / de na bod kyi chos rnying pa ma lags la / sku lha gsol ba dang cho ga myi mthun pas / kun kyang ma legs su dogs te /

(p.98; 110b) ‘bangs su mnga’ ba rgyal ba rgyal phran ‘a zha rje la bstsogs pa dang phyi nang gi blon po rnams la bka’s rmas / bka’ gros su mdzad nas / gcig tu na sangs rgyas bcom ldan ‘das kyi bka’ lung la bsten / gnyis su na yab mes kyi dpe lugs la ‘tshal / gsum du na dge ba’i shes gnyen gyi mthus bstangs pa dang yang sbyar nas mdor brtags na / … de lam legs par ni ji ltar myi ‘gyur ched ni ji ltar che zhe na / chos kyi mdo ni legs su bgyi bas /

The Skar cung pillar inscription:

(ll.33–42): / / btsan  po dbon sras / / sku chu ngur bzhugs pa yan cad / / chab srId kyi mnga’ bdag mdzad pa man chad kyang / / dge slong las / dge ba’I bshes nyen bskos ste / chos thugs su cI chud chud du bslab cing / / bod yongs kyIs kyang chos slob cing spyad pa’I sgo myi gcad / nam du yang bod ya rabs man cad/ bod ‘bangs las thar par gzud pa’I sgo myi bgag par / dad pa’I rnams las thar par btsud de / / de’i nang nas nus pa las / / bcom ldan ‘das kyI ring lugs rtag du bsko zhIng / / bcom ldan ‘das kyI ring lugs byed pa’I rnams chos ‘khor nas bya’o cog gI bka’ la yang btags ste / /

Tibetan Buddhism, the international religion


These days it’s easy to think of Tibetan Buddhism as an international religion. We usually see this as something that came about in the second half of the twentieth century, when so many Tibetan lamas fled the country. Before that time, Tibetan culture is often presented as if it was enclosed within the mountain fastness of Tibet, taking its own path in splendid isolation.

But if you know a bit of history, this picture doesn’t look quite right. Tibetan Buddhism was very popular at the courts of the Mongols and the Manchus, becoming for centuries the religion of choice for the ruling classes in China. And the religion of the Mongolian people is also essentially Tibetan, as a result of great missionary efforts on the part of Tibetan lamas.

And then there are our Dunhuang manuscripts. Dunhuang was, of course, located at the northeastern end of Great Tibet, the old Tibetan empire, and even after the fall of the empire many aspects of Tibetan culture remained. But while neighbouring areas like Tsongka and Liangzhou had a large Tibetan population, the residents of Dunhuang were always mostly Chinese.

So questions arise — Who actually wrote the Tibetan manuscripts found in Dunhuang? Who was practising Tibetan Buddhism there? There are no simple answers, but I think we can say that most of the time it wasn’t the Tibetans.

*  *  *

Let’s take an example. The Questions and Answers on Vajrasattva is one of the great tantric treatises of the early period of Tibetan Buddhism, written by Nyan Palyang, an important Tibetan tantric scholar of the ninth century. The questions are all about the Mahāyoga class of tantric practice (and shed some light on the early role of Dzogchen, as I discussed some time ago). This treatise was preserved in the Tibetan canons, as well as in several Dunhuang manuscripts, one of which (IOL Tib J 470) is signed by the scribe, like this:


Though it’s written in Tibetan this is certainly a Chinese name. The first part of it is a rank, rather than a proper name: phu shi which is almost certainly Fushi 副使, an official title (found elsewhere in 10th-century Dunhuang) for the third-highest ranking district official in the Chinese government of tenth-century Dunhuang. So, this Tibetan treatise on the practice of Mahāyoga meditation was copied down on an (incidently rather nice quality) scroll by a Chinese official at Dunhuang.

Other Tibetan tantric manuscripts are written by Khotanese, by Uighur Turks, sometimes, even by Tibetans. Tibetan Buddhism was clearly by this time a genuine international religion, a cultural point of contact between a great many ethnically diverse people.

How did this happen? Well, when the Tibetans occupied Dunhuang (and other non-Tibetan speaking areas) they forced the locals to learn Tibetan. Official correspondence and legal documents had to be written in Tibetan, and the mass-produced sutras that the emperor Ralpachen funded (see here) were mainly written by Chinese locals. After the Tibetans were kicked out, locals carried on using Tibetan to draw up contracts and write letters. The Tibetan language became a lingua franca for Central Asia — one of our Tibetan manuscripts, for example, is a letter from the (Chinese) ruler of Dunhuang to the (Khotanese) king of Khotan.

And these locals, like our Chinese official, found that their second language, Tibetan, was also the ideal language for learning about the newest developments in tantric practice (which had only a very limited circulation in Chinese translation).

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Tangut coinWhy does this matter? Well, consider that when the Mongol leader Godan Khan met Sakya Pandita in order to agree of Tibet’s status vis-a-vis the Mongol Empire, they met at Liangzhou — a few days journey from Dunhuang. The Mongols were inheritors of the Tangut practice of appointing Tibetan monks as imperial preceptors, and the Tanguts just formalized previous power relationships between Tibetan Buddhists and minor Chinese rulers in Dunhuang and the surrounding areas. Let me quote Christopher Beckwith, who says it better:

The Tibetan successor states in Liangzhou and neighboring areas were pro-Buddhist. When the Tanguts finally occupied this region they simply continued to support an already long-established Buddhist church. Furthermore, Tibetan monks were quite active at the court of the Sung dynasty in China, where they assisted in the translation of several important Buddhist texts into Chinese. When the Mongols finally supplanted the Tanguts, they did not disturb the existing Buddhist establishment; on the contrary, they supported it as strongly as their predecessors had.

And the tantric patron-priest model that the Mongols and Tibetans used to conceptualize their political relationship was hugely important for later Tibetan history. But rather than trying to draw a dubious causal line between the interest of a local Chinese official in Tibetan tantric Buddhism and Sino-Tibetan political relations, I will just express the hope that the Fushi’s scroll (and others like it) can give us an insight into the otherwise forgotten lives of the ordinary(ish) people within these grand historical movements. As Leo Tolstoy wrote in War and Peace:

The movement of nations is caused not by power, nor by intellectual activity, nor even by a combination of the two as historians have supposed, but by the activity of all the people who participate in the events…

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1. Christopher Beckwith. 1987. “The Tibetans in the Ordos and North China.” in Christopher Beckwith (ed.), Silver on Lapis. Bloomington: The Tibetan Society. pp.3-11.
2. Gray Tuttle. 2007. Tibetan Buddhists in the Making of Modern China. New York: Columbia University Press.