The First Tibetan Buddhist Biographies?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tibetan Text

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


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

Red Herrings on a High Plateau

When I was working on the later chapters of Tibet: A History I started to explore the archives of India Office Library, where I found thousands of documents from British officials stationed in India, China, and occasionally Tibet itself, mostly from the first half of the 20th century. This is fascinating material, much of it still untapped, though those excellent historians of modern Tibet, Melvyn Goldstein and Tsering Shakya have made good use of it in their books.

One event from Tibet’s recent history that I would like to have said more about in my own book is the expulsion of all Chinese officials from Tibet in 1949. This dramatic move was made by the Tibetan government when they realised that the Chinese Communists were about to defeat the Nationalists and become the ruling power in China. At this point the Tibetans had come to a grudging acceptance of some diplomatic ties with the Nationalists, thawing the 13th Dalai Lama’s total freeze-out of China. But the Tibetan government was deeply mistrustful of the Communists, with their anti-religious idealogy.

So it was probably the idea that Communist officials would simply step in and take the place of the Nationalists in Tibet that prompted this mass expulsion.This effectively returned Tibet to the way things had been under the 13th Dalai Lama, when China had no official presence in Tibet at all. It was a drastic move and a strong reassertion of the declaration of independence that the Dalai Lama had made in 1913. So, what do the India Office archives tell us about it?

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Reading through the file titled “Effect on Tibet of Communist Seizure of Power in China” plunges you back into history, watching a situation unfold. I found it genuinely gripping to read the original reports and telegrams of British officials as they receive information, then try to make sense of it and react to it.

The first ripple that reaches the British High Commission in Delhi of this particular episode is when they hear about a Communist revolt in Tibet. This is July 23rd 1949, and the story comes from a Hong Kong newspaper. The newspaper suggests that the head of the Tibetan “State Department” — who is said to be pro-Communist and anti-Dalai Lama — has expelled the Chinese Nationalists from Tibet. This is a very twisted version of events, but not knowing any better, the High Commissioner duly passes this on to London. Two days later, he has got a better grip on the story, thanks to the Indian foreign secretary. There is no pro-Communist and anti-Dalai Lama faction in the Tibetan government at all; that, as one of the telegrams put it, was a “smokescreen”…

He told me that what had really happened in Tibet was that the Tibetan authorities wished to get rid of the Chinese Government Mission quickly in order to avoid the risk of a future Chinese Communist Government appointing a Chinese Communist Mission or alternatively of the present Mission transferring its allegiance to the Chinese Communists. The Tibetans had therefore asked the Government of India whether they would receive the Mission on its expulsion from Tibet.

So, the Indian government knew what was going on, having been in touch with Lhasa since July 17th and were a little bit late in informing the British (who, remember, had only given up their colonial position in India two years earlier). Anyway, the Indians now need the British to help with getting the deported Chinese from India to Canton, so from this point on the High Commissioner is kept fully informed. By July 28th the expulsion of the Chinese is common knowledge in Britain as well, as the Times publishes a brief article on it:

Apparently the Tibetan government had run out of patience waiting for a response from India, and had already expelled the Chinese officials. In Delhi, the British High Commissioner now goes to talk with his Chinese counterpart, the ambassador, who quickly declares that he is certainly no Communist himself. Probably true, as the ambassador was from the Nationalist (Kuomintang) party, who were at this point the sworn enemies of the Communists. And he goes on to say that he doubts that any of the Chinese expelled from Tibet are Communists either. With a clever, if slightly odd metaphor, he suggests that the Tibetans have acted rashly:

Fishing for red herring on a high plateau is too naive an act and politically very unwise.

The Chinese ambassador concludes by reminding his British counterpart that “Tibet is and always has been a part of China” (an interesting comment for anyone who wonders if Tibet would have retained its independence had the Communists not been victorious in 1949). The following week is taken up with the British trying to organize a passage for the expelled Chinese (who are still en-route to India). They are to be sent to Hong Kong, and from there to Canton.

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On the 11th August, the deported Chinese are all encamped at Yadong, near the Indian border, and the trade agent there has drawn up a list of every one of them, 133 people in total. This is a fascinating document. It gives the name, age, birthplace and destination of each of the deportees, suddenly changing our perception of them from a political problem to a group of real people. They are almost all families: wives, husbands, children and their servants. There are several babies, just 3 or 4 months old. There is an English woman married to one of the Chinese officials, and her mother, both born in Darjeeling and now returning there again. And there are Tibetans too, the servants of these families. The image below shows the first 32 people on the list:

After this, we hear no more of these 133 people. The British reports are now more concerned with the propaganda emanating from Communist radio stations in China. A Beijing radio programme on 6th September states that:

Tibetan authorities expelled Han people and Kuomintag personnel in Tibet at the instigation of the British and Americans, and their stooge the Indian Nehru Government.

A few days later the PLA is in Xining, according to a clipping from The Daily Worker (13th September) under the headline MONKS HAIL PEOPLE’S FORCES. Perhaps this journalist was not fully briefed on the Communist propaganda, for he writes that “Chinghai was formerly part of Tibet.” Anyway, in a matter of weeks the deported Chinese officials and their families were forgotten. As I leaf through the last documents in the file, I see the British now turning their attention to the urgent question of how to engage diplomatically with the victorious Chinese Communists and their stated aim of “liberating” Tibet.

I suppose the deportees were left to make their own way home from Canton. If you look at the list, you can see how many of them came from Sichuan and Qinghai (that’s Kham and Amdo in Tibetan terms), meaning a long overland journey back across war-torn China. Even if it’s hardly the most pressing issue of that chaotic time, I can’t help wondering how many of them made it back home.

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The India Office Records file I have used here is L/P&S/12/4243: “Effect on Tibet of Communist Seizure of Power in China”. Documents therein run from February to December 1949.

Melvyn Goldstein writes about this episode briefly in A History of Modern Tibet, Volume I: 1913-1951 (pp.613-614). His account is based mainly on interviews. Interestingly, one of Goldstein’s sources says that the idea of the expulsion of the Chinese came from Ngapo, who later signed the agreement through which Tibet became part of China, and joined the Communist Party. Another of his sources states that the idea came from the British resident Hugh Richardson, but this was denied by Richardson himself (and the India Office files show that, if Richardson did make the suggestion, it was not with the knowledge of his masters).

Tsering Shakya writes in more detail about the episode in The Dragon in the Land of Snows (pp.5-11). His account is based on a wider range of sources, both oral and written. An authoritative source denies Ngapo’s involvement in the matter at all. Shakya also consulted the British Foreign Office documents held at the Public Record Office. I have not seen these, but I presume there is some overlap with the India Office Records.

Goldstein say that, “Another 300 to 400 individuals, mostly Chinese, who had been identified by Namseling as spies were photographed and expelled at the same time as the officials.” This is from his source Sambo (Rimshi), but these people were definitely not deported through India. They are probably the same group as those “Tibetans from the eastern part of the country” mentioned by Shakya (p.9). Thus they were probably sent eastward to China rather than via India.

Amdo Notes III: Gold and turquoise temples

In the late 960s a pilgrim passed through Amdo. He was a Chinese monk from Wutaishan, and like many Chinese Buddhists before him, he hoped to visit India to study at the great university of Nalanda. We know about this particular pilgrim because he left his passport behind in Dunhuang, where it was sealed into the library cave and only emerged again in the 20th century.

This pilgrim’s passport is more like a series of letters of recommendation written to monasteries along the pilgrim’s route. Interestingly, though he was a Chinese monk, he took a fairly indirect route so that he could visit the major Tibetan Buddhist sites of Amdo. His itinerary through Amdo went like this:

  1. The city of Hezhou, now known as Linxia.
  2. The mountain retreat of Dantig (see the previous post).
  3. The city of Tsongka, near the modern city of Ping’an.
  4. The city of Liangzhou, now known as Wuwei.
  5. And then along the Silk Route to Ganzhou and Dunhuang.

All of these places (except Dantig) are now Chinese cities, with very small, if any, Tibetan population. There is little left to show that many of them were once strongholds of Tibetan culture and Tibetan Buddhism. The pilgrim’s itinerary tells us that he was visiting Hezhou and Tsongka to see their “gold and turquoise temples.” And these were not little kingdoms either. Chinese sources report that in the year 998 Liangzhou had a population of 126,000, the majority of whom were from Tibetan backgrounds.

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So it’s strange to walk through the city of Ping’an now, and imagine what once was there. Tsongka appears in one of the earliest Tibetan inscriptions, the Zhol pillar in Lhasa (dated by Hugh Richardson to the 750s or 760s). Here Tsongka is the site of battles between the Tibetan and Chinese armies. Later, at the beginning of the 11th century, Tsongka came to the aid of China’s Song dynasty, as one of the last bastions holding out against the rising Tangut empire. Since Tsongka was friendly with the Chinese, it was their lifeline in maintaining the trade route with the West. Tsongka continued as an independent kingdom until the 12th century when it was finally swallowed up by the Tangut empire. But it was still famous enough in the fourteenth century that a local boy who went to study in Central Tibet was known as Tsongkhapa: “the man from Tsongkha.”*

If you squint, can you see Tsongka’s shimmering gold and turquoise temples through the heat haze and pollution of Ping’an? Perhaps not. But you can go just a little way out of the city, where the mountains rise up on the other side of the Yellow River, and visit the ancient cliff temple of Martsang. Here, it’s said, was where the monks who fled the persecution of Buddhism by the emperor Lang Darma (see here), finally came to rest.

Below the temple at Martsang is this image, said to be a self-manifesting Maitreya. That is to say, the image is said to have emerged spontaneously from the rock. I heard that it was dated by scientists to the Tang dynasty, but I haven’t been able to verify that claim. In any case, as you can see, it seems to have been repainted fairly regularly.

In  the cliffs above the Maitreya image you can see this inaccessible cave. If the temple at Martsang isn’t old, this certainly is. Notice the three mandalas painted on the ceiling.

And notice as well the little square holes leading up to the cave. Perhaps this was once a walkway, or an even bigger structure built into the side of the cliffs. It seems that there was once a larger complex of Buddhist caves here. From here, when you turn around and look back towards the modern city sprawling below you, and beyond that the lush Yellow River valley it’s easier to believe that this was once home to a Tibetan kingdom.

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Ronald Davidson. 2005. Tibetan Renaissance. New York: Columbia University Press.

Ruth Dunnell. 1994. ‘The Hsi Hsia’. In Herbert Francke and Dennis Twitchett (eds.), The Cambridge History of China, vol.6. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. 907–1368.

Iwasaki Tsutomu. 1993. ‘The Tibetan Tribes of Ho-hsi and Buddhism during the Northern Sung Period’. Acta Asiatica 64: 17–37.

Photographs (c) Imre Galambos.

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* Note:

At some point Tsongka seems to have changed its name slightly, with the final ka turning into a kha. I have no idea why this happened, but I suppose it was some time between the tenth and fourteenth centuries.

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.

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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.)

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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.