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.

The Decline of Buddhism IV: Keepers of the flame


Whether or not the Tibetan emperor Lang Darma really did persecute Buddhist monks and monasteries, as he is said to have done during his ill-fated reign in the 840s, there is no doubt that a catastrophic collapse did indeed occur in Central Tibet. As society fragmented, revolutions and civil wars broke out and the Buddhist monasteries were abandoned. In Central Tibet, monastic Buddhism was all but wiped out. It took over a century – a Dark Age for Tibetan Buddhism – till monks began to appear in Central Tibet again.

There’s a tradition that monastic Buddhism survived in Tibet thanks to a few heroic monks, keepers of the flame of the monastic lineage. According to an old Tibetan saying, during this dark age the embers of the Buddha’s teaching were kept in the East. The story is that several monks refused to renounce their robes, and instead hit the road as Buddhist refugees. After much travelling they ended up in Amdo in Tibet’s northeast, which had avoided the complete collapse of monastic Buddhism. These refugees had taken their books with them, including most importantly the books of the vinaya, the monastic code that is the heart of the tradition of monastic ordination. This ensured the survival of the ordination lineage through the dark age.

Tradition preserves the names of a few of these refugee monks who settled in Amdo.The chaotic flight and eventual resettling of these monks is summarized in a passage from Nelpa Pandita’s history:

Yo and Mar, with a Central Asian monk called Shakya Sherab acting as their servant, settled in the rocky cave of Anchung Namdzong. Tsang settled in the temple of Khangsar Yaripug. Kwa Ö Chogdragpa, returning from Nepal, heard the news and left on the road to the north with a mule-load of abhidharma texts, finally settling in the temple of Palzang Kharchag Drilbu. Lhalung Rabjor Maldrowa and Rongtön Senge Drag left Yerpa with many books of vinaya and abhidharma, fleeing to Nagshö. After that, Lhalung settled in the temple of Dashö Tsal and Rongtön settled in Jang Chajerong.

Most later histories also add that Lang Darma’s assassin, Lhalung Palgyi Dorje, fled to Amdo too. In any case, the crucial point is that the first three of these refugees (Yo, Mar and Tsang) passed on their ordination lineage to a young local fellow. This young man had been brought up in the local non-Buddhist traditions, but had developed some faith in Buddhism and decided to ask the refugee monks for ordination. With the help of two Chinese monks, the young man was ordained, and given the religious name Gewa Rabsel.

*  *  *

Apparently Gewa Rabsel became an important figure in the religious scene of Amdo, but we don’t really know much about him. He is said to have spent a significant portion of his life teaching at the monastic mountain retreat of Dentig, which still exists in a valley west of Lanzhou. Gewa Rabsel ordained many local Amdo monks, and later histories also make Gewa Rabsel the religious preceptor of the famous men who came from Central Tibet in search of a living ordination lineage. These men (their number various in the sources) were the ones who brought the ordination lineage back to Central Tibet, and gradually restored Samyé and many other old monasteries that had fallen into ruin.

The story is convincing in its general outlines. There certainly must have been refugee monks, there probably was a Gewa Rabsel, and the idea that the monastic lineage was brought back to Central Tibet from Amdo is convincing. But even the Tibetan historians had some doubts about it. The main problem is the idea of Gewa Rabsel ordaining the men who brought the monastic lineage back to Central Tibet. Considering that the refugee monks who ordained Gewa Rabsel  arrived in Amdo some time in the 840-50s, and the “men of Central Tibet” received their ordination from him some time in the 970-80s, Gewa Rabsel would have to have lived an unfeasibly long time.

In fact we don’t have to accept this part of the story, even if we stay with the traditional histories. Though some early historians, notably Butön, had Gewa Rabsel ordaining the men from Central Tibet, others were not so sure. Sönam Tsemo wrote in the 12th century of this ordination lineage: “Some say it was received from Lachen Gewa Sel. Some say it was received from Tülpa Yeshe Gyaltsen.” And Nelpa Pandita, in his 13th century history, argued that there couldn’t be a direct connection between Gewa Rabsel and the monks who brought Buddhism back to Central Tibet:

Now, between the iron bird year when the dharma was snuffed out and the earth bird year when the embers were fanned and dharma communities appeared in Central Tibet, nine year-cycles passed. For 109 years there were no monks in Central Tibet. Therefore to say that the six men of Central Tibet received their vows from Lachen Gongpa Sel is a deceptive explanation which is utterly wrong.

In truth, Nelpa Pandita argues, the men of Central Tibet were ordained by one Drum Yeshe Gyaltsen – a disciple of a disciple of Gewa Rabsel and  no doubt the same person as the Tülpa Yeshe Gyaltsen mentioned by Sönam Tsemo. Similarly, Gö Lotsawa in the Blue Annals also denies any connection between Gewa Rabsel and the six men of Central Tibet, although he does say that some other histories make that connection. So a longer, and more convincing lineage for the keepers of the flame looks like this:

  1. The refugees: Yo, Mar and Tsang
  2. Gewa Rabsel
  3. Yangong Yeshe Yungdrung
  4. Drum/Tülpa Yeshe Gyaltsen
  5. The men of central Tibet

*  *  *


So who was this Drum Yeshe Gyaltsen? He was a local Amdo man who was ordained by one of the students of Gewa Rabsel. He established a monastery in Amdo, which followed a fairly strict interpretation of the vinaya, banning agriculture and animal husbandry, as well as luxurious cushions or carpets. Interestingly, he also banned political activity and certain  funeral rituals involving the inscription of syllables (which could have been a good source of income for the monks).

Despite its strictness, Drum’s monastery seems to have been quite successful, and its ordination lineage became known as “the lineage of the ascetics” (tsüngyü). Why “ascetics”? Well, there was also another Amdo lineage known “the lineage of the scholars” (khégyü), which came from a monastery established by a monk called Nub Palgyi Jangchub and was much more lax in its discipline. It was mainly distinguished from Drum’s lineage by the fact the monks were allowed to meddle in politics. As a result, Nelpa Pandita says that the monks of this lineage “were of little use for religious training.” Nyangral’s history doesn’t mention the specific differences between the lineages, but does suggest that the split came about because of “a little bit of wordly activity.”

The difference between the approaches of the two lineages is illustrated in this amusing story about their two founders (from Nelpa Pandita’s history):

One day Drum went to the residence of Nub, and they talked a lot about the dharma. Then Drum said, “Let’s sleep; where shall I make my bed?” Nub replied, “Here, same as me.” Drum said, “They say you drink alcohol in secret. Can I stay in the attic?” Nubs replied angrily, “Ha! you’re so strict, it’s like you have wood for brains!” Thus Drum became known as “Wood-for-Brains”.

In the end, Drum had the last laugh. It was his lineage of ascetics that was passed down to the six men of Central Tibet and used to revive the monasteries there. The restoration of the temples, and the ordination of hundreds of new monks, set the scene for the “later diffusion” of Buddhism in Tibet – the visit of Atisha and the Kadam school that grew up around his teachings, the new scholasticism of Shalu monastery, and so on… This ordination lineage even survived into the 20th century in the Nyingma tradition as the Mindröling lineage, and in the Gelug tradition as the “Abbot’s lineage of Lachen”.

Apart from these survivals, it has to be said that the ordination lineage from Gewa Rabsel was ultimately eclipsed by new ones. In fact it had a rather controversial reputation, some people objecting to the fact that the refugee monks and Gewa Rabsel had performed all of three stages of ordination in a single ritual. Others defended this practice by pointing to the sublime nature of Gewasel and his preceptors, and the dire straits in which the monastic ordination found itself in the period of fragmentation.

Gewa Rabsel remains one of the culture heroes of Tibetan Buddhism, who kept the flame of the monastic lineage alive and passed it on so that it was eventually brought back to Central Tibet, where it lit the fires of a Buddhist revival. Let us also not forget Drum Yeshe Gyaltsen, the wooden-headed abbot who kept his monks free enough from politics to preserve a meaningful model of monasticism for the Tibetans of the generations to come.

*  *  *

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?

Some thoughts on the dates of Gewa Rabsel…
Gewa Rabsel’s name has several variations: he is known as Gewa Rabsel or simply Gewa Sel, as Gongpa Rabsel or Gongpa Sel, and often merely by the honorific Lachen (“great lama” or “great soul”). His dates are not given in the earlier sources, but the Blue Annals states that he was born in a water mouse year, and died in a wood pig year, at the age of 84. Traditionally these dates are supposed to be equivalent to 952–1035, but this is skewed by the mistake made by all later Tibetan historians in dating the death of Langdarma a whole 60-year cycle too late, So we should move these dates back one cycle, giving us 892–975.

Even with those earlier dates, the connection with monks fleeing central Tibet in the 840s or 850s seems rather unlikely. If we move them back by one further sixty-year cycle to 832–915, Gewa Rabsel would have been a young man when the refugee monks arrived in Amdo. This does place him rather far from the revival of monastic Buddhism in Tibet at the end of the tenth century, but that’s not a problem if we follow the histories that don’t insist on a direct connection between Gewa Rabsel and the six men of Central Tibet.

And on the names of Yeshé Gyaltsen…
The name Tülpa (thul pa) Yeshé Gyaltsen given by Sönam Tsemo is probably a corruption of Dülwa (‘dul ba), and a “Dülwa Yeshé Gyaltsen” does indeed appear in some histories. So Tülpa and Dülwa Yeshé Gyaltsen were surely the same person. What about Drum Yeshé Gyaltsen? Since Drum (‘grum) is a clan name, while Dülwa an honorific indicating an expert in the vinaya, it’s likely that these names also refer to a single person.

As for Drum’s nickname “Wood-for-Brains”, this is shing klad can in Tibetan. Here I’m following Helga Uebach’s reading of Nelpa Pandita’s text, which actually gives shing glag can. The same story features in the Nyangral Nyima Özer’s history, where we have shing rlag pa can. (Note that in this version Nubs also gets a nickname, phag shing rta, which might be translated as “Pig Wagon”.) Finally, in the Sba bzhed (R.A. Stein’s version) we have phying klag can. Not at all conclusive I know, but I like Uebach’s solution.

*  *  *

References (Tibetan dharma histories)
1. Butön Rinchendrup: Chos ‘byung gsung rab rin po che mdzod. Beijing: Khrung go bod kyi shes rig dpe skrun khang. 1988. English translation in Obermiller, E. 1931-2. The history of Buddhism (Chos ḥbyung) by Bu-ston. I The Jewellery of Scripture, II The history of Buddhism in India and Tibet. Heidelberg: O. Harrosovitz. Reprint 1986, New Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications.
2. Gö Lotsawa Zhönupal: Deb ther sngon po. Chengdu: Si khron mi rigs dpe skrun khang. 1984. English translation in Roerich, G.N. 1949. The Blue Annals. Calcutta: Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal. (See p.67.) Also available here.
3. Nelpa Pandita: Ne’u chos ‘byungNel-pa Paṇḍita’s Chronik Me-tog Phreṅ-wa: Handschrift der Liberary of Tibetan Works and Archives, Tibetischer Text in Faksimile, Transkription und Übersetzung. Munich: Kommission für Zentralasiatische Studien, Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1987. (The first quote is from pp.122-3 and the others from pp.128-9.)
4. Nyangral Nyima Özer: Chos ‘byung me tog snying po – facsimile in Schuh, Dieter. Die grosse Geschichte des tibetischen Buddhismus nach alter Tradition rÑiṅ ma’i chos byuṅ chen mo. Sankt Augustin: VGH Wissenschaftsverlag. (See p.445-6. Nyangral mentions another Amdo ordination lineage, called Me(rme), and unlike other sources, he apparently states that the both the ascetics’ and scholars’ lineages lasted and became famous in Central Tibet, though it isn’t very clear – see p.446.5.)
5. Sönam Tsemo: Chos la ‘jug pa’i sgo – in Sa skya bka’ ‘bum, vol.I (See p.318b).
6. T.G. Dhongthog Rinpoche: Sa skya’i chos ‘byung. New Delhi. 1977.

References (English works)
Davidson, Ronald M. 2006. Tibetan Renaissance: Tantric Buddhism in the Rebirth of Tibetan Culture. New York: Columbia University Press. (See Chapter 3 for an excellent account of this period based on a variety of historical sources.)

Also see here for a summary of the traditional story from the Berzin Archives.

Teachers, Students, and Notes

Manuscripts are interesting things. Well, I think so, and over the last year one of the main purposes of this website has been to make this point. Printed books can be objects of beauty, but more often they are just the means by which we get the text itself. And we know that a printed book is one of several hundred, or thousand, or ten thousand almost identical copies. Every manuscript, by contrast, is unique. A manuscript can contain anything from hastily scribbled notes to a fine copy of a revered scriptural text. Every manuscript is different from every other, differing in the circumstances of its creation and in the idiosyncrasies of its creator.

Although each of the Tibetan Dunhuang manuscripts is unique, we can put them in some sort of order, arranging them so that at one end of the scale we have the thousands of carefully copied and corrected sūtras which were the products of organized scriptoria working during the Tibetan imperial period. Here variations are at a minimum and have been eradicated as much as possible in the editorial process…

In the middle of the scale are the manuscripts that have been copied carefully, but outside of the scriptorium and usually without revisions. Most of these would have been for personal use, and contain texts like short treatises, prayers and rituals. Handwritings are individual and sometimes quite stylish….

At the other end of the scale there are  manuscripts that are much more scruffy. The individual letters are poorly formed, as if by children, and the spelling varies quite noticeably more than in most of the Tibetan Dunhuang manuscripts….

The initial temptation is to leave this last type of manuscript well alone, and spend one’s time with more beautiful specimens. However, forced to confront them in my cataloguing work, I had to think about why these people wrote Tibetan so very badly. One possibility is that these weren’t Tibetans, that they had only just learned Tibetan in order to be able to write and understand Tibetan Buddhist prayers and practices.

Another possibility – one that doesn’t exclude the first – is that these manuscripts came out of teaching situations. Most of us will be familiar with taking down notes from some kind of lecture or talk, and with the fact that some people are better note-takers than others. A student might be particulary quick with a pen, and copy nearly every word, or only manage only the most general sort of summary. Taking notes is still important in a variety of teaching situations, including Buddhist ones. But it was even more important before the widespread use of printing made textbooks available. In a manuscript culture, the only textbooks students would own were the ones they wrote themselves.

*  *  *

Dunhuang, the source of our manuscripts, was in its heyday one of the great centres of Buddhist practice, art, scholarship and translation. Situated on the edges of the Chinese and Tibetan cultural spheres, and at the eastern end of the Silk Route, it received a huge cultural input. From the eighth to the tenth centuries, Dunhuang was home to Buddhist communities of Chinese, Tibetan, Khotanese and Turkic monks.  There was also a steady flow of eminent teachers passing through Dunhuang. Chinese Buddhists would stay awhile as they began their pilgrimages to India, and Indians and Tibetans would stop off on their way into China.

For example, in the Stein collection we have a kind of passport (IOL Tib J 754) for a Chinese monk who was on a pilgrimage to visit Nālandā in India. The manuscript contains a series of letters of introduction written in Tibetan, apparently in the tenth century. The Chinese monk passed through the Tibetan areas southeast of Dunhuang before arriving there.  We also have a long scroll (Pelliot tibétain 849) that ends with an account of the journey from India to China – via Tibet – of an Indian teacher called Devaputra. The scroll also contains some written notes perhaps taken by a Tibetan student of this Devaputra.

Another fascinating manuscript is a phrasebook with a series of bilingual conversations in Khotanese and Sanskrit (Pelliot 5386). Among these conversations are some that speak of pilgrims coming from Khotan and India to see the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī in China.  Another conversation mentions the arrival of a travelling Tibetan teacher. Most interestingly, one of the phrasebook’s dialogues contains a series of questions that goes something like this:

Student: “What kind of books do you have?”

Teacher: “Sūtra, Abhidharma, Vinaya, Vajrayāna. Which would you like?”

Student: “I’d like Vajrayāna. Please teach it!”

This little dialogue, as well as others from the phrasebook, give us a sense of a place where Buddhist texts and teachings are frequently passed back and forth. The scruffier Dunhuang manuscripts mentioned above might just be some of the notes of the students who received these teachings.

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1. Burnett, Charles. 1998. “Give him the White Cow: Notes and Note-Taking in the Universities in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries,” History of Universities 14: 1-30.
2. Sam van Schaik. 2007. “Oral Teachings and Written Texts: Transmission and Transformation in Dunhuang” in Contributions to the Cultural History of Early Tibet, ed. Matthew T. Kapstein & Brandon Dotson. Leiden: EJ Brill. 183–208.