Amdo Notes II: The Hidden Valley and its Name

Back in the tenth century the mountain retreat of Dantig was home to the monk Gewa Rabsel, famed as the saviour of Tibet’s monastic tradition. Here in this remote valley he maintained the Vinaya lineage and passed it on to monks from Central Tibet, who then returned to begin the later diffusion of Buddhism in Tibet. (On all this, see my earlier post.)

Surrounded by steep mountains, the valley of Dantig is still only accessible on foot. Starting from the town of Xunhua, you climb up a steep valley and then walk along a vertiginous mountain ridge. The walk took us about five hours, though the locals claim to be able to do it in two. The valley has an impressive sequence of cave temples, and a relatively small monastery. At the moment, there is also a permanent population of around seventy Tibetan monks, most of whom live in mud-brick houses on the valley floor, and study at the valley’s monastic college (slob grwa).

There are many fascinating things about this site, but the one I want to talk about here is the name itself. I’d always assumed it was a local Chinese name that was transliterated into Tibetan when the valley became a major Tibetan Buddhist site. But it seems the truth may be more complicated, and more interesting.

*  *  *

I travelled to Dantig, with my colleague Imre, to follow the path of a tenth-century Chinese pilgrim. This pilgrim’s itinerary is given in a scroll he carried with him, and left behind in Dunhuang. This itinerary (written in Tibetan) mentions Dantig, and this is in fact the earliest occurence of the name in a documentary source.

So, where does the name Dantig (dan tig) come from?

The ever-informative Religious History of Amdo, begins its section on Dantig with a story from the Jinaputra-arthasiddhi-sūtra. It’s the story of a previous lifetime of the Buddha, when he was a prince called Arthasiddhi. This prince was excessively generous, and when he gave away the king’s best elephant to his enemies, he was exiled to Dantig. (Sound familiar? This is of course a variant on the famous Jātaka story of Prince Vessantara.)

There is a copy of this sūtra in a Tibetan manuscript from Dunhuang – IOL Tib J 76 — which confirms that the story, and the occurrence of the name of Dantig in it, was known in the tenth century.

Now, if we look at the version of the same sutra found in the Tibetan canon, it has a colophon stating that it was translated from the Chinese. And in the original Chinese version of the sutra the name of the mountain is Tante Shan 檀特山. According to the Foguang Dictionary of Buddhism, this in turn represents an Indian place-name, Mount Daṇḍaka, thought to be located in Gandhara.

So, though we have no early source explicitly linking Dantig to the narrative of the Jinaputra-arthasiddhi-sūtra, the mountain named in the Arthasiddhi narrative seems to have provided the Dantig valley with its name. The progress of the name from Sanskrit to Tibetan would then be as follows:

Daṇḍaka (skt.) –> Tante (chi.) –> Dantig (tib.)

*  *  *

The close association between the valley and the sutra is also made very clear when you visit Dantig. One of the cave temples here is dedicated to a certain Gelong Achuda. Though we had a hard time identifying him at first, it turns out that this fellow is in fact another figure from the Jinaputra-arthasiddhi-sūtra, who was said to have meditated in Dantig for a hundred years.

We’ve made some progress towards understanding how Dantig got its name, but the big question remains. Why did the mountain that features in the Jinaputra-arthasiddhi-sūtra became associated with the valley of Dantig in Amdo in the first place? Are there comparable cases in Tibet or China of Jātaka stories being linked to local sites? I’ll leave these questions open for now.

The Sutra
(Ārya) Jinaputra-arthasiddhi-siddhi-sūtra:
Tibetan version: ‘Phags pa rgyal bu don grub kyi mdo (no.1020 in the Peking bka’ ‘gyur).
Chinese version: Taizi Xudanuo jing 太子須大拏經 (vol 3, no. 171 in the Taisho Tripitaka).

Other References
1. Brag dgon pa dkon mchog bstan po rab rgyas. Mdo smad chos ‘byung, or, Yul mdo smad kyi ljongs su thub bstan rin po che ji ltar dar ba’i tshul gsal bar brjod pa deb ther rgya mtsho. Rig gnas myur skyon dpe mdzod khang. n.p. n.d. (see pp.222-3).
2. Durt, Hubert. 1999. ‘The offering of the children of prince Viśvantara / Sudāna in the Chinese Tradition’. Journal of the International College for Postgraduate Buddhist Studies 2: 266–309.

1. The approach to the Dantig valley, looking back over the neighbouring valley, (c) Imre Galambos.
2. The cave temple of Gelong Achuda (c) Imre Galambos.

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.

The Sitting-in-Bed Ceremony and Other Strangeness

13th Dalai Lama

If you’re reading about Tibetan history on the internet, you might come across references here and there to a Tibetan ritual called the “sitting-in-bed ceremony”. When I first saw this term, it struck me as very strange indeed. As I found more examples of this phrase (and alternatives like the “sitting-on-the-bed ceremony”) it became clear that it only appeared on Chinese government and press websites.

Here’s an example, from the Chinese government’s version of how the present Dalai Lama was chosen and enthroned:

Chiang, then chairman of the Executive Yuan, reported to the Nationalist Government on 31, Jan, asking for permission that the lot-drawing be exempted and allow Lhamo Toinzhub be enthroned as the 14th Dalai Lama. Chiang also asked for fund for the sitting-in-bed ceremony. [See the full text here]

There’s no explanation of what this ceremony entails, though it certainly brings a strange image to my mind. Lets look at another website, this time an official Chinese newspaper’s account of the enthronement of the 11th Panchen Lama (that’s the Chinese government’s choice of Panchen Lama, not the Dalai Lama’s, whose whereabouts are unknown):

The sitting-in-the-bed ritual of the 11th Panchen Lama was held in the Yige Quzeng Hall on the second floor of Laburang. Only by sitting in the bed at Yige Quzeng could the Panchen Lamas be qualified, since the bed of all previous Panchen Lamas was there. The 10th Panchen Lama, who was enthroned in the Tar-er Monastery in Qinghai Province due to historical reasons, made up the enthronement ritual in the Yige Quzeng Hall after he came back to Xigaze. [See the complete, and rather lengthy account here]

Well, that’s fine then. It’s a funny Tibetan ritual in which the Dalai and Panchen Lamas have to sit on the bed of their predecessor before they can be enthroned. Hmm. I don’t know about you, but I’m still not convinced.

*  *  *

Here’s what I think this “sitting-in-bed ceremony” really is — just a bad translation that has somehow become standard in Chinese discussions of Tibetan Buddhism. I suspect the original Tibetan phrase is probably khri la bzhugs, literally meaning “to reside (or sit) on the throne,” often in the context of an enthronement ceremony. The phrase goes way back, and can even be found in the Dunhuang manuscripts (you can find it in Pelliot tibétain 1068 here).

You can probably see where I’m going now. The Chinese translation of this term that has become standard is 坐床 zuo chuang, literally “sitting-bed”. It’s that character 床 chuang that is the problem here. If you look in Tibetan-Chinese dictionaries, you see that the Tibetan khri is given a number of possible Chinese characters, meaning throne, couch or bed. This might come as a surprise to readers of Tibetan (it did to me), who have only ever come across khri meaning “throne”.

But that depends on what a throne is. From a European point of view, a throne should be a very grand sort of chair, but in Tibetan culture (and many other Asian cultures) it’s more of a raised platform. The photograph of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama at the top of this post shows one such throne. Here is another, smaller throne (also for the Dalai Lamas at the Norbu Lingka), photographed in the 1930s:

Norbu Lingka ThroneAs you can see, the distinction between a throne, a couch and a bed is not as distinct as it might at first seem. The Tibetan throne pictured above might best be described in English as a divan (which the OED defines as “a long seat consisting of a continued step, bench, or raised part of the floor, against the wall of a room, which may be furnished with cushions, so as to form a kind of sofa or couch.”)

That said, nobody would describe Tibetan thrones like these as a “bed”, and I still think that “bed” is the worst of the available Chinese translations of Tibetan khri. The second stage of translation, from Chinese into English, leads to the entirely misleading phrase “sitting-in-bed ceremony.” So if you come across this phrase, keep in mind that the Tibetan behind it just means “enthronement”.*

*  *  *

Why would this bad translation become standard in official Chinese literature, repeated again and again without question or correction? I think it betrays a lack of care, or a lack of interest in the actual nature of Tibetan culture. The authors of these pieces are inevitably making a political point, and once that point has been made, there’s no need to go any deeper into, for instance, what actually happens when a  lama is enthroned. The strangeness of the misleading term “sitting-in-bed ceremony” can easily be dismissed as another example of the weird and wonderful culture of the exotic Tibetans.†

*  *  *


* Two other terms often found in the same Chinese sources are:

  • “Soul boy” (灵童 ling tong), referring to a candidate for recognition as a rebirth or tulku.
  • “Living Buddha” (活佛 huo fo), referring to a recognised rebirth or tulku.

These have no equivalent in Tibet, and rather than being bad translations, are Chinese terms with their own history in Chinese culture. In both cases, like the “sitting-in-bed ceremony”, the Chinese term is somewhat misleading, and the English translation of it even more so. “Living Buddha” has its own unfortunate career in the West.

Of course, the Western media can be just as bad. There was an article last year on the Dalai Lama in the English Sunday paper The Observer entitled “Inside the court of the Tibetan god-king“. This was 2008, but that headline might as well have been written in 1908 (though the article itself was reasonable enough, and the headline was no doubt the work of a copy-editor, not the journalist).

*  *  *


Click on the images to go to The Tibet Album, where there is further information on these photographs.

1. The Thirteenth Dalai Lama on a throne in the Norbu Lingka, photographed by Charles Bell, October 14, 1921. (c) The Pitt Rivers Museum. Bell described this event in his book Portrait of the Dalai Lama (Collins, 1946), p.336:

I am to take the Dalai Lama’s photograph again, this time it is to be in his own throne-roon in the Jewel Park Palace, the first time that anyone has photographed him in the Holy City.When I arrive with Rab-den, on the day and the hour appointed, the arrangement of the throne-room is not ready. I watch them arranging it. The throne is built up of two or three wooden pieces; the nine silk scrolls, representing the Buddha in the earth-pressing attitude, are already placed on the wall behind and above the throne… Below these scrolls red silk brocade covers the wall. The throne is four feet high, a seat without back or arms. It stands on a dais, eighteen inches high, with low balustrade of beautifully carved woodwork running around it. Hanging down in front of the throne is a cloth of rich white silk, handsomely embroidered in gold, with the crossed thunderbolts of the God of Rain. Chrysanthemums, marigolds and other flowers are arranged round the dais. This is the throne that is used on important occasions.

2. The throne in the Kesang Podrang palace of the Norbu Lingka, photographed by Hugh Richardson in 1936-1939. (c) The British Museum.

The Decline of Buddhism V: A prayer for the dark age

Dunhuang watchtower

I’m a little worried that I might have suggested in previous installments of this “Decline of Buddhism” series that the downfall of the Tibetan empire was a direct result of the assassination of the Tibet emperor Lang Darma. This may be true in a sense, but many Tibetan historians (and most modern ones) see this as just one stage in a series of unfortunate events. The next stage was the division of the empire between two disputed successors. Almost every previous succession to the Tibetan imperial throne had been disputed, but one side had always come out on top. This time neither side was strong enough to subdue the other, and so the country was split in two.

The next stage of disintegration was a series of uprisings (the Tibetan word is kheng log) against the prevailing authorities, setting Tibetan clan against clan. The first of these uprisings happened just around the corner from Dunhuang, the home of our manuscripts.

While Tibet was splitting in two in the mid-ninth century, a civil war broke out in the Gansu region, near the border with China. An aristocrat from the Ba clan called Khozher gathered his own army and set himself up as a local warlord. He spurned the authority of the local Tibetan governor, claiming that the governor’s clan (the Dro) had orchestrated the murder of Lang Darma, and that it was his duty to take revenge on such rebels.

Khozher also portrayed himself as a kind of nationalist, fighting against the resurgent Chinese forces in the area, but in his brutality (he had every male in the whole region put to the sword) he left little hope of a better alternative. The people turned against him, and most of his army deserted.

The incorrigible Khozher set out for China, boasting that we would return with hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers. But when he offered his submission to the Chinese emperor in return for an imperial post, he was rejected. Khozher was finally ousted when the a local Chinese warlord swept through Gansu province. Though no longer a force to be reckoned with, he continued to cause trouble, and when he was eventually, and inevitably, put to the sword, his severed head was taken to Chang’an as proof that this troublesome warlord was finally dead.

Such was the first uprising, and the end of Tibetan rule in Gansu.

* * *

All of which brings us to another prayer for Tibet…


Recently we looked at a prayer for the protection of Tibet that seemed to date back to the Tibetan imperial period. This time let’s look at a prayer that seems (to me) to date from the troubled period of the uprisings and the ‘dark age’ that followed.

This prayer is actually part of a Vajrayāna empowerment ritual (IOL Tib J 752). That in itself suggests that it probably comes from the tenth century, when most, if not all, of the tantric manuscripts at Dunhuang were written. This time, instead of a prayer to eliminate the opponents to Tibet, we have a prayer to pacify the troubles within Tibet itself. “Please bring peace swiftly,” is the plea, “to the conflicts in the kingdom of Tibet.” The key word here is “conflicts”, which is khrug pa in Tibetan, defined in various dictionaries as a fight, dispute or conflict, and particularly in the Great Treasury of Words, as “a mixing up of the established order”. This is, I think, comparable to the idea of “uprisings” (kheng log).

So here are the tantric practitioners at Dunhuang, surrounded by clan-on-clan violence, praying for peace (and failing that, a firm helmet):

Please bring peace swiftly to the conflicts in the kingdom of Tibet. And then please grant long life and a firm helmet to a king who protects the dharma. As for the enemies who threaten us (such as the enemies of the Vajrayāna and those who obstruct the virtuous ones gathered here in our maṇḍala, and all of those who harbour poisonous thoughts), please subdue them with the appropriate one of the four enlightened activities…

* * *

See also:

The Decline of Buddhism I: Was Lang Darma a Buddhist?
The Decline of Buddhism II: Did Lang Darma persecute Buddhism?
The Decline of Buddhism III: Why should the secret mantra be kept secret?
The Decline of Buddhism IV: Keepers of the flame

And here you can read about a prayer for peace in Tibet in troubled times a thousand or so years later.

Tibetan text
IOL Tib J 752, verso: /bod rgyal khams khrug pa yang myur du zhI nas//chos skyong ba’i sgyal po sku tshe ring dbu rmog brtsan bar gyur cIg//gzhan [yang] rdo rje theg pa’i dgra bgegs su gyur pa dang//bdag cag gI dkyIl ‘khor ‘dir ‘dus pa’I dge ba’I bar cad byed pa la bstsogs pa//gnon gyI dgra bgegs su gyur ba//gdug pa’i bsam pa can cI mchis pa thams cad/ /’phags pa’I sa ‘phrin las rnam bzhi gang gIs ‘dul ba bzhin du/ /’dul skal du bzhes nas zhIng zhing zlog gyur cig mdzad du gsol …

* Note that calling Tibet a “kingdom” (rgyal khams) is not unprecedented, and we also find the same phrase bod rgyal khams in the prayers for the Dega Yutsal monastery (PT 16). The phrase that is translated here as “a firm helmet” (dbu dmog brtsan) also appears frequently in PT 16, as well as in some of the pillar and rock inscriptions from Central Tibet. It has powerful resonances of the divine right of the Tibetan tsenpos, difficult to communicate in translation. I detect in this prayer a hope that the tradition of the Buddhist tsenpos will be revived by some unnamed king.

On the uprisings in general see:

  • Vitali, Roberto. 1996. The Kingdoms of Pu.hrang: According to mNga’.ris rgyal.rabs by mkhan.chen Ngag.dbang Dharamsala: Tho.ling gtsug.lag.khang lo.gcig.stong ‘’i rjes.dran.mdzad sgo’i go.sgrig tshogs.chung.
  • Vitali, Roberto. 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.

On the conflicts near Dunhuang, see:

  • Petech, Luciano. 1983. “Tibetan Relations with Sung China and the Mongols.” In China Among Equals: The Middle Kingdom and its Neighbours, 10th–14th Centuries, edited by Morris Rossabi. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press: 173–203.
  • Iwasaki Tsutomu. 1993. “The Tibetan Tribes of Ho-hsi and Buddhism during the Northern Sung Period”. Acta Asiatica 64: 17–37.

And for a nice account of both see Chapter 2 of:

  • Ronald Davidson. 2005. Tibetan Renaissance: Tantric Buddhism in the Rebirth of Tibetan Culture. New York: Columbia University Press. [pp.67-68]

A Prayer for Tibet


A Mystery

So, there’s this manuscript from Dunhuang with a prayer for the protection of Tibet. That was the first thing to pique my interest. Prayers and rituals for protecting Tibet from foreign invasions are common enough from the time the Mongols were sending armies into Tibet in the 13th century. Rituals to repel enemy armies were usually performed by tantric practioners from the Nyingma school, like the famous Sokdokpa, whose name in fact means “Mongol-Repeller”. But this prayer is much earlier than those.

Bod KhamsUnlike those Mongol-repelling rituals, this Dunhuang prayer is not very tantric. It does invoke local protectors and spirits, but no tantric Buddhist deities. It was written, according to the colophon, by a certain Bandé Paltsek, who I am inclined to identify with the famous translator Kawa Paltsek. There’s nothing in the prayer to suggest that it couldn’t have been written by Paltsek during the late eighth or early ninth century.

So that’s interesting too. But here’s the really intriguing thing: every time the word “Tibet” (bod khams) appears in this manuscript, it has been defaced. And not just randomly but in a rather specific way. The “o” in bod has been rubbed out, and various bits of khams have been rubbed away, but never the whole word.

I have been puzzled by this strange defacement for a while, and I still can’t find a satisfactory answer for it. I do think it was done before the closing of the cave in the early 11th century (though this could also be debated). Is this censorship? Was the idea of “Tibet” troublesome to an ancient reader of the manuscript? That reader could well have been one of the local Chinese who helped to oust the Tibetans from Dunhuang in 848, or a later descendent.

Then again, perhaps the reader was not quite so sensitive as to be offended by the very word “Tibet” but feared the power of the prayer, or the talismanic force of the manuscript containing the prayer. Taking out bits of the word “Tibet” might confuse the great beings invoked in the prayer, who would no longer know who they were supposed to be protecting.

Or was the reason less hostile than I am supposing? Perhaps the reader only meant to amend the manuscript. One of the regions near Dunhuang was known as Dekham (bde khams). Taking the “o” out of bod and replacing it with an “e” would give us this name. This could be an unfinished attempt to direct the prayer to a local region, perhaps after the fall of the Tibetan empire and a unified “Tibet”. But if so, why did the reader also deface khams, which could just be left as it is?

No, I am not quite convinced by any of these solutions, and so dear reader, I leave the question open to you. And here, restored and rendered imperfectly into English, is Paltsek’s prayer for the protection of Tibet.

*  *  *

A Prayer for Tibet

Conquerors and your entourage – in order to expel Tibet’s obstacles, please come to this heavenly mansion. By the power of the Teacher’s blessings and compassion and our own faith, supreme divine substances sufficient to fill the sky are presented in their fullness. By the power of the qualities of the Sugatas and our own virtue, please pacify this region, and clear away Tibet’s obstacles.

The offering to the bodhisattvas on the Very Joyous and Stainless levels and the others – please protect us with your great power. By our presenting these unsurpassed offerings, oh sons and your sublime entourage, please consider your commitment to obey. By the compassion and blessings of the Noble Ones, please clear away Tibet’s obstacles.

The offerings for the Noble Arhats: The Mahāsthavira retinue, Bharadvāja and the others – please protect us with your great power. By our presenting these unsurpassed offerings, oh great ones worthy of offerings, please consider your commitment to obey. By the compassion and blessings of the Noble Ones, please clear away Tibet’s obstacles.

The offerings for the gods of the form realms: from the great king Brahma to the gods of the Brahma heaven – please protect us with your great power. By our presenting these unsurpassed offerings, oh gods of the Brahma heaven, please consider your commitment to obey. By your compassion and blessings please clear away Tibet’s obstacles.

The offerings to the gods of the desire realm: from the great gods of Paranirmitavaśavartin to the lord of the gods Indra – please protect us with your great power. By our presenting these unsurpassed offerings, oh gods of the desire realm, please consider your commitment to obey. By your compassion and blessings please clear away Tibet’s obstacles.

The offerings to the four great kings: Dhṛtarāṣṭa and the others – please protect us with your great power. By our presenting these unsurpassed offerings, oh four great kings and your entourage, please consider your commitment to obey. By your compassion and blessings please clear away Tibet’s obstacles.

The offerings to the ten local protectors: Wangpo Dorjé and the rest – please protect us with your great power. By our presenting these unsurpassed offerings, oh guardians and your entourage, please consider your commitment to obey. By your compassion and blessings please clear away Tibet’s obstacles.

The offerings to the nāgas: the eight classes of nāgas and so on – please protect us with your great power. By our presenting these unsurpassed offerings, oh eight classes of nāgas and your entourage, please consider your commitment to obey. By your compassion and blessings please clear away Tibet’s obstacles.

The offerings to the protectors of the temple: those who guard the stūpas of Jambudvīpa – Pāñcika and so on – please protect us with your great power. By our presenting these unsurpassed offerings, oh protectors and your entourage, please consider your commitment to obey. By your compassion and blessings please clear away Tibet’s obstacles.

The offerings to the spirits (jungpo) of the ten directions – the king of the spirits, lord of the demons (dön), and the entourage of demons of the intermediate directions – please protect us with your great power. By our presenting these unsurpassed offerings, oh spirits and your entourage, please consider your commitment to obey. By your compassion and blessings please clear away Tibet’s obstacles.

The chapter summarizing the offerings is complete. It is Bandé Paltsek’s chapter on offerings.

*  *  *

A note on the name of Tibet

Here I have taken bod khams to mean “Tibet” in general. Another early example of this is seen in the prayers for the founding of the Dega Yutsal temple (PT 16, 33r4; note that here the happiness of Tibet is down to the king and ministers, not the Buddhas and deities). Thus I take bod khams to mean something like “the realm of Tibet” in the same way as bod yul does later. But I have seen it suggested that these are really two words, bod meaning central Tibet and khams meaning, well, Kham, eastern Tibet. In which case we should translate the term as “central and eastern Tibet”. I’m not sure where that leaves western Tibet, however, and I am still happy to assume that bod khams is just “Tibet”.

*  *  *


1. On the attempts to repel the Mongol menace with magic in the 13th century, see Luciano Petech’s Central Tibet and the Mongols (Rome: Is.M.E.O., 1990), pages 13, 17, 18.

2. On the prayers for Dega Yutsel, see Matthew Kapstein’s recent article “The Treaty Temple of the Turquoise Grove, in Buddhism Between Tibet and China (ed. Matthew Kapstein, Boston: Wisdom, 2009).

*  *  *

Tibetan Text (IOL Tib J 374)

The manuscript in question comprises a mere three folios, numbered 1 (gcig) to 3 (gsum). It’s not yet been digitized, I’m afraid, hence my own fuzzy photographs above. Initially, I thought the pages of the prayer were both scrambled and incomplete. Then I realized that the only problem was that the prayer was followed in the manuscript by another short (and this time, certainly tantric) prayer. The last folio has the end of our prayer on one side, and the short tantric prayer on the other, but unlike the other folios, it has been numbered on the verso, so that it looks like the little tantric prayer is on the recto, not the verso. If we just turn over this last folio, then everything falls into place nicely. Though it does seem to be incomplete at the beginning (the first page begins with the syllables dgongs shig, which look like the end of a verse), we can’t be missing much, as it begins with the offering to the buddhas themselves, surely the top of the hierarchy of protectors invoked here. The haphazard numbered of the manuscript seems to have been done by a later reader, perhaps the same person responsible for the defacement.

$/ /dgongs shIg//rgyal ba’I ‘khor bcas rnams//b[o]d kh[ams] kyi ni bgegs gzhil phyir//gzal yas khang ‘dIr gshegs su gsol//ston pa’I thugs rje byin rlabs dang//bdag cag gi ni dad pa’I mthus//nam ka ‘i mtha’ dag ma lus par//lha rdzas mchog gis bkang ste mchod//bder gshegs che ba’I yon tan dang//bdag cag gi ni dge ba’I mthus//yul phyogs su ni zhI ba dang//b[o]d khams bgegs rnams bsal du gsol//

byang chub sems dpa’ rnams la mchod pa’//rab dag [=dga’] drI myed la bstsogs/pa’//rab tu mthu’ brten bskyabs gsol te//bla myed mchod pa ‘dI phul bas//sras kyIs dam pa’I ‘khor bcas kyis//stun kyi dam tshIgs rje dgongs ste//’phags pa’I thugs rje byin rlabs gyIs//b[o]d khams bgegs rnams bsal du gsol//

‘phags pa dgra bcom ba rnams la mchod pa’//gnas brtan chen po ‘khor bcas ste//ba ra dwa tsa las btsogs la//rab tu bthu’ brten bskyabs gsol ste//bla myed mchod pa ‘di phul bas//sbyIn gnas chen po ‘khor bcas kyIs//stun kyi dam tshIgs rje dgongs/ste/’phags pa’I thugs rje byin rlabs kyis//b[o]d [khams] bgegs rnams gzhIl du gsol//

gzugs khams kyi lha rnams la mchod pa’//tshangs pa’I rgyal po chen po nas//tshangs rIs kyIs ni lha rnams la//rab tu bthu’ brten bskyabs gsol ste//bla myed mchod ‘dI phul bas tshang rIs kyi ni lha rnams kyIs//stun kyi dam tshigs rje dgongs zhing khyed kyI thugs rje byin rlabs kyis//b[o]d [khams] bgegs rnams bsal du gsol//

‘dod khams kyI lha rnams la mchod pa’//gzhan ‘phrul dbang gi lha chen nas//brgya ‘byin lha’I bdang po la//rab tu bthu’ brten bskyabs gsol ste//bla myed mchod pa ‘dI phul bas//’dod khams kyi ni lha rnams kyis//stun kyI dam tshIgs brje dgongs ste//khyed kyi thugs rje byin rla[b]s kyis//b[o]d [kham]s bgegs rnams bsal du gsol//

rgyal chen rIgs bzhI la mchod pa’//yul ‘khor srung nI las bstsogs la//rab tu mthu’ brten bskya+bs+ gsol ste// +bla myed ched pa ‘di phul bas//+ rgyal chen rIgs zhI ‘khor bcas kyIs//stun kyI dam tshigs rje dgongs shing//khyed kyi thugs rje byi[n] rla+b+s kyIs//b[o]d khams bgegs rnams bsal du gsol//

phyogs skyong bcu la mchod//dbang po rdo rje las stsogs la//rab tu mthu’ brten skyabs gsol ste//bla myed pa ‘dI ‘bul bas//mgon po ‘khor bcas thams cad gyIs//stun gyI dam tshIgs rje dgongs ste//khyed gyI thugs rje byIn rlabs gyIs//b[o]d [khams] bgegs rnams bsal du gsol//

lha klu sde brgyad la mcho+d+ pa’//lha klu sde brgyad las btsogs la//rab tu mthu’ brten skyabs gsol ste//bla mted mchod ‘dI ‘bul bas//lha klu sde brgyad ‘khor bcas gyis//stun dam tshIgs rje dgongs ste//khyed gyi thugs rje byin rlabs gyis//b[o]d khams bgegs rnams bsal du gsol//

gtsug lag khang gI srungs ma la mchod pa’//’dzam gling mchod brten bsrungs mdzad cIng//span tsa ka ni las btsogs la//rab tu mthu’ brten//skyabs gsol ste//bla myed mchod pa ‘dI phul pas//srungs ma ‘khor bcas thams cad gyis//stun gyi dam tshigs rje dgong ste//khyed gyi thugs rje byin rlabs gyis//b[o]d [khams] bgegs rnams bsal du gsol//

phyogs bcu ‘byung po rnams la mchod pa’//’byung po rgyal po gdon gyi bdag//phyogs mtshams gdon gyi tshogs bcas la//rab tu mthu’ brten skyabs gsol ste//bla myed mchod pa ‘di phul bas//’byung po ‘khor bcas thams cad gyis//stun gyi dam tshigs rje dgongs zhIng khyed gyI thugs rje byin rlabs gyIs bdag cad gi bsam sgrub mdzad//

//$//mchod pa bsdus pa’I le’u rdzogs s+ho//dge slong dpal brtsegs gyi mchod pa’I le’u lags+ho//://:

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).

*  *  *

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…

*  *  *

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.

A Tibetan Book of Spells


Can monks do magic? Should they? We often picture monks (or at least the ideal of the monk) firmly in the setting of the monastery, either seeking enlightenment through study and meditation, or carrying out in the affairs of the monastery. But magic? Well, it seems that throughout most of the history of Buddhism the answer to the first question has been yes, and to the second usually why not? In fact, the  Buddhist canon contains enough spells to rival the repertoire of Merlin, Saruman and Harry Potter put together.

Let’s not make the mistake of thinking that this only applies to Tibetan Buddhism, through some insidious influence of shamanism (whatever that is). No, Indian, Chinese, Japanese monks have all mixed potions, cast spells and exorcised demons. There’s a story about Bodhiruci – an Indian monk who taught for many years in China – that nicely illustrates this. Once, when a Chinese monk spotted Bodhiruci casting a spell to make the water in a well boil, the monk started to pay special homage to him. But Bodhiruci stopped the monk and explained that all Indian monks learn these skills. (The story, from Daoxuan’s Further Lives of Eminent Monks, is retold in Richard McBride’s article.)

And let’s not think that this only applies to tantric Buddhism. Spells were being cast by Buddhists long before the tantras appeared. Indeed, the recitation of verses against disease or evil spirits goes right back to the beginnings of Buddhism. Mantras are found in the texts of the Sarvāstivadin sect and in the paritta texts of the Theravadins. (See Peter Skilling’s article.)

And there’s nothing mysterious, dubious or underhand about it. Buddhist monks have traditionally lived apart from, yet among lay people, who support their way of life. And ordinary people have turned to the monks for help with their everyday needs, whether serious calamities like illness, the complications of childbirth and spirit possession, or the questions that are answered by astrology and divination. Buddhist monks faced competition from the Brahmins in India, from the Bön and Shen in Tibet, and from the Daoists in China. They all had their spell techniques – and if they were to win the hearts and minds of ordinary people, the Buddhists would need spells too.

*  *  *


Spells are written to be used, of course, so it’s interesting to look at an actual book of spells that was owned by a Buddhist monk – one of our 9th or 10th century Dunhuang manuscripts, IOL Tib J 401. That funny writing at the top of this post, that looks like the “outline” effect of my old word processor is the cover of a book of spells, on which a monk has written his name in big letters. You can’t miss it: “This is the ritual manual of Bhikṣu Prajñāprabhā.” Well, through the twists and turns of interdependent origination, this is now the ritual manual of the British Library, and more generally, of everyone who has a web connection and an interest in such things.

The book has a handmade quality; it seems to have been stitched together from recycled paper (long pothi pages, folded in the middle). So what’s in it? Spells, spells and more spells. Just one of the rituals allows the adept to cast spells for the following purposes:

  • If you want a prophecy
  • To bring demons under your power
  • To pacify malignant people
  • To overcome wild animals
  • To cause a spring to come forth to alleviate thirst
  • To sharpen your insight
  • To create various valuable objects
  • To find a treasure
  • To cure an illness
  • To cure a severe illness up to the point of death
  • To cure an illness-ghost with a trap
  • To cut off curses and bad births
  • To reverse water, making it flow upwards
  • To make it flow downhill again
  • To cure madness
  • To avoid being bitten by a dog
  • To divide two lovers
  • To reconcile two friends
  • If you are unable to talk to others
  • If you want to be friendly with another person
  • To bind someone

This list gives us an idea of the many needs of ordinary people that could be addressed by the monk magician. Then there are the more complicated rituals that accomplish a single aim, like:

A fire puja (also called homa), which cures insanity. Fire pujas are found in many religious traditions in India, and they travelled with Buddhism to Tibet, China and Japan. In this spell the monk throws metal filings into the fire nine times – causing a dramatic series of flashes, I’m sure. Then five ritual daggers are stabbed into the ground as if pinning down a demon.

Thread-winding magic for “men with obstructed water” and “women with inverted wombs.” The monk knots and unknots the red thread several times while reciting mantras. In the end the thread is flung into the road – just as in the traditional Tibetan way of disposing of the thread cross.

A barley frog. People suffering from joint problems, swellings and the like were often thought to be afflicted by water spirits called Lu (a Tibetan cousin of the Indian Naga). In this ritual, barley flour is molded into the shape of a frog. Then a cavity is made in the top of the frog with a bamboo stick, and a special ointment prepared in the cavity. The ointment is then applied to the afflicted person’s body. The barley frog is then checked to determine the success of the ritual:

Lift up the frog, and if a golden liquid emerges from under it, they will definitely recover. If it is merely moist, then they will recover before too long. If there is only meat with gluey flour, they will be purified by the end of the illness. It is not necessary to do the ritual again. If there is only gluey flour, break it up and do the ritual again.

Prasena divination. This special kind of divination involves calling down a deity to answer questions put to it. In the ritual in this spell book the deity is called “the sky-soarer” or the Khyung (a Tibetan cousin of the Indian Garuda). The deity speaks through a “pure” (that is, pre-pubescent) child, or shows that child visions in a mirror, or on the flat of his own thumb. Though such rites of spirit-possession might seem “shamanic” they are described in Indian scriptures like the Amoghapāśa Sutra and the Questions of Subāhu, and prasena is apparently an Indian word, though no-one seems quite sure what it might mean (though Michel Strickmann had a good go at it). Prasena (often simply known as “pra”) has a long a fascinating history in Tibet, including being used in the quest for the present Dalai Lama after the death of his predecessor, for example (see Lama Chime Radha’s article).

*  *  *

Buddhist collections of spells like these always contain some reminder of the wider perspective of Buddhist aspirations. In our spell book, it seems that a certain level of spirtual attainment is necessary for the spells to be effective. And at the end of the spell book everything is tied back into the great themes of Buddhism with a prayer to the Mañjuśrī, the bodhisattva of wisdom:

In the supremely precious, jewelled land of Ultimate Emanated Bliss
The realm radiantly coloured like stainless gold
The youth with five locks is lovely to behold.
By making offerings and inviting this supreme spiritual friend
I pray that he will come because of his kindness for this place
And carry out the accomplishment of this adept’s rituals:

“I have been blinded by the net of darkness
Mañjuśrī come near and treat me with kindness.
Your discernment, like the fire at the end of an aeon
Clears away the mere appearance of darkness in the mind;
Please bestow it upon me.”

* * *

1. Cantwell, Cathy and Robert Mayer. 2008. Early Tibetan Documents on Phur pa from Dunhuang. Vienna: OAW.
2. Chime Radha, Lama. 1981. “Tibet.” In Carmen Blacker and Michael Lowe (eds), Oracles and Divination. London: Random House. 3-37.
3. McBride, Richard. 2005. “Dhāraṇī and Spells in Medieval Sinitic Buddhism.” JIABS 28.1: 85–114.
4. Skilling, Peter. 1992, “The Rakṣā Literature of the Śrāvakayāna.” Journal of the Pali Text Society 16: 109-182.
5. Strickmann, Michel (edited by Bernard Faure). 2002. Chinese Magical Medicine. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

*  *  *

See also: A Soldier’s Prayer

* * *

Note for readers of Tibetan: What is a no pyi ka?
The front cover of the spell book says bIg kru prad nya pra ba ‘I no pyi ka. I hope that most will agree that the name is probably Bhikṣu Prajñāprabhā, but what is a no pyi ka? I first came across the word in a poetical passage by Jigme Lingpa (at the beginning of his Pad ma dkar po) where he calls it “the essence of hearing, thinking and meditating” (thos bsam sgom pa’i snying po no pi ka). The term is much more common the Dunhuang manuscripts, and an interpretation was first suggested by Kenneth Eastman in 1983, when he noted that the Tibeto-Sanskrit glossary in Pelliot tibétain 849 glosses it as sgrub thabs – the Tibetan word that we usually consider a translation of the Sanskrit sādhana, a manual for ritual and/or meditation. Robert Mayer and Cathy Cantwell, in their 2008 book on Phurba manuscripts, suggest (with thanks to Matthew Kapstein) that the probable origin of all this is a Sanskrit term sādhanaupayika. Thus sādhanaupayika becomes nopayika becomes no pyi ka. This would be very neat because we thus get to the original Sanskrit term behind the Tibetan word sgrub thabs: sādhana = “accomplishment” = sgrub, while aupayika = “means” = thabs.