A Turk far away from home

Detail from IOL Tib J 1410

There is a sutra from the Dunhuang cave that is one of the few truly “illuminated” manuscripts from this collection; that is to say, it has small pictures of buddhas complementing the text.* As you can see from the image above, they have either been damaged, or perhaps were never completed. Anyway, these illuminations are not the most interesting thing about this manuscript. It is a copy of a Chinese sutra (the shorter Sukhāvatīvyūha) in Tibetan script. Apparently the scribe who wrote the manuscript knew spoken Chinese but not the written characters, so used the Tibetan alphabet instead.

But this was not a Tibetan. In a colophon, the scribe writes that he comes from the country of the Kyrgyz (Tibetan gir kis) though he now lives in Hexi, the province that contains Dunhuang. And another scribble on the back of the page states that though this sutra is written in TIbetan (thu pod), it was written by a Turk (‘brug). I must say I don’t understand the whole of the colophon, which seems to be a mixture of Tibetan, Turkic and Chinese words, but I detect the Turkic name Kahraman (khang re man). I could well be wrong, but let’s call him Kahraman.

Detail from IOL Tib J 1410

So why did Kahraman, born in the Kyrgyz lands, end up in Dunhuang? The Uighur Turkic empire ruled the northern steppes from the mid-8th to mid-9th century, until they were destroyed by their enemies, the Kyrgyz. From then onwards hundreds of Uighur Turks fled south across the mountains. Some settled in the Turfan region, where they established the kingdom of Qocho, and others ended up in Hexi, where they ousted the local Chinese rulers and set up a kingdom based in Ganzhou (modern Zhangye). Here, surrounded by Tibetan and Chinese Buddhists, many of the Turks learned to write in Chinese or Tibetan, and adopted Buddhism. The Uighur Turks are the ancestors of the modern Uighurs of Xinjiang province. Over the following century, the Uighurs gradually converted to Islam. However, the Uighurs of Hexi remained Buddhists, and today are considered a separate ethnic minority in China, known as the Yugur people.

If Kahraman was a Kyrgyz, he would be have been living under the rule of his tribe’s enemies, the Uighurs. I suppose this is possible, but perhaps he was not a Kyrgyz after all, but was just referring to his homeland as the land that is now ruled by the Kyrgyz.

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Kahraman seems to have had a grasp of some basic Buddhist principles. From the colophon we can see that he was familiar with the idea that copying sutras accrues merit, and that merit leads to good rebirths. His colophon lists a dozen or so Buddhist texts (mostly by their Chinese titles) that he has written, and then recited in a single day as an offering to “the buddha, the gods and nagas of the eight quarters, and the protectors of the four directions.” By the merit of this, he hopes that one day he will be able to return to his own country, and that after he dies, he will be born free of suffering, not in hell, and preferably in the god realms.

This sutra is a reminder that Tibetan was the lingua franca of Central Asia for a long time, and that it allowed people from various backgrounds to communicate with each other. It also allowed them to participate in a shared system of religious values and practices. Centuries later, the Gansu Uighurs had adopted Tibetan Buddhism (along with other aspects of Tibetan culture like sky burial) and were firmly settled in the region. It looks like Kahraman was a first-generation immigrant, adopting the new languages and customs, but still hoping to return home one day.

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A study of the manuscript IOL Tib J 1410 was published in 1927 by FW Thomas and GLM Clauson, mainly dealing with the Tibeto-Chinese phonology. Thomas’s reading of the colophon differs slightly from mine: F. W. Thomas and G. L. M. Clauson. 1927. “A Second Chinese Buddhist Text in Tibetan Characters.” J.R.A.S., April 1927, pp. 281-306, and Supplementary note, pp. 858-60.

On the Uighurs at Dunhuang, see:

Moriyasu Takao. 2000. “The Sha-chou Uighurs and the West Uighur Kingdom”. Acta Asiatica 78: 28-48.

Lilla Russell-Smith. 2005. Uygur Patronage at Dunhuang. Leiden: Brill.

And for the Uighur manuscript collections, a good summary of recent research is this online paper by Matsui Dai.

There is not much written on the Yugurs: Carl Gustav Mannerheim’s article published in 1911, “A Visit to the Sarö and Shera Yögurs” is still one of the best accounts. You can get a scan of it here.

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* Apparently the term “illuminated manuscript” can refer to manuscript embellished with decorations or colours other than black. Check out Michelle Brown’s excellent Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts (The British Library, 1994). An odd thing about the buddhas in this manuscript is that they are upside-down in relation to the text, something that has yet to be explained.

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IOL Tib J 1410 colophon:


@/:/ stag gi lo’i dbyar/ /gir kis yul du ha se to ab ‘ga den chung shi ‘gi/ /khang re man gyis/ the’u kyig shi chor lha ‘tso’i yid dam du bsngos te// [a] myi ‘da kyi bam po gcig dang/ par yang kyi bam po gcig [dang/] kwan im kyi bam po gcig dang/ ta sim kyi bam po gcig [dang/] phyogs bcu’i mtha yas bam po gcig dang/ /bkra shis bam po gcig dang/ /de ‘bur te ci’u bam po bcig dang/ / ‘da la ‘ji ci’u bam po gcig dang/ bzang po spyod pa smon lam dang/ /’thor bshags la stsogs te/ /gong nas smon pa ‘di rnams/ /yi dam du bris pa ‘di/ /gdugs gcig klag ching/ /sangs rgyas dang/ lha klu sde brgyad dang/ phyogs bzhi’i mgon po la mchod cing/ yi dam du bcas te/ /lha ‘tsho tshe lus la bsam pa thams cad grub ching yul du sngar phyin pa dang/ tshe slad ma la gar skyes kyang/ /sdug bsngal dang bral ching/ /na rag du myi rtung bar byin gyis skabs te/ lha yul du skye bar shog shig//


‘di yang de’i tshe/ thu pod yang ‘brug gis bris pa ‘o
gar song gar skyes kyang lha yul du skye bar smon no//

Captain Bower’s adventurous journey


Detail from the cover of Hamilton Bower’s Diary of a Journey Across Tibet

I first heard of Captain Hamilton Bower as the man who made the first major manuscript find in the Central Asian deserts: the “Bower Manuscript” which sparked off the whole international scramble for archaeological treasures by Britain, France, Russia and others. At the time that he obtained this manuscript, in 1889, Bower had been sent on the trail of an Afghan who had murdered a Scottish explorer. A couple of years later, in 1891, Bower was sent on another mission, this time to Tibet as a spy. In disguise, with another British officer and an Indian “pundit”, Bower crossed into Western Tibet and proceeded towards Lhasa. But before he reached the city he was discovered by Tibetan officials, who flatly denied permission to enter Lhasa. In the end, he had to continue eastwards, crossing into Kham and leaving Tibet via Tachienlu.

Bower published the diaries of his travels in a book, Diary of a Journey Across Tibet, which was quite popular at the time. He also wrote a report entitled Some Notes on Tibetan Affairs, which was not published. This ten-page pamphlet was intended for the eyes of the Director of Military Intelligence, and was highly confidential. The note from British Intelligence at Shimla mentions that an account of “Captain Bower’s adventurous journey” is publicly available, but “the present pamphlet contains his remarks on the government, commerce, etc, of Tibet and China, which it is politically undesirable to publish and it is therefore issued confidentially.”

Reading the pamphlet, it’s easy to see why it was keep secret. Bower makes no attempt to hide the fact that he is concerned mainly with the prospects of British trade with Tibet (mainly the tea trade) and the means of opening up this trade via a military expedition. This was very much in line with the agenda of the British government in India was thinking, which was aggressively pushed forward by Lord Curzon once he took up the position of Viceroy. The invasion of Tibetan under Younghusband happened just over ten years after the publication of Bower’s report.

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Below are some extracts from the report, and under these, a link to a PDF of the whole thing.

On the premature deaths of the Dalai Lamas
Unfortunately Talai Lamas, who are supposed to come of age at eighteen, almost invariably die before attaining their majority. Since the beginning of the present century, all of them, disgusted with the sins of the world, have retired to the mansion of joy before the time came for taking over the seals of office. I am afraid that a post-mortem would demonstrate that the retirement, though undoubtedly owing to the sins of the world, was not entirely voluntary. The prevalence of poisoning in Tibet, a fact of which there is no doubt whatever, added to the abnormally high rate of mortality obtaining amongst them, is pretty conclusive evidence against the Gyalpos (literally “kings”) or regents with whom the power remains.

On China’s lack of influence in Tibet
The position of the Amban at Lhassa I take to be exactly the same as that of his fellow-countryman in Chiamdo; treated outwardly with much respect, before strangers at least, the bearing of the Tibetan authorities towards him is almost servile, but in reality he has no power whatever and lives in continual dread of the powerful priesthood. Even in Chinese Tibet, a country in no way to be confused with Independent Tibet, the Chinese power is merely nominal. In Lithang, for instance, the mandarin was quite pathetic in his complaints of his position: how he had no power whatever and dare not do anything for fear of the monks, how they were a turbulent lot, and a deal more to that effect.

Prospects for a British invasion
Looking at Tibet from a military point of view, we may say that it is quite feasible to coerce the Lhassa Government either from the south or west as with the exception of the passes the general elevation is not very great… As a general rule, it may be said that they can all be crossed at any time from midsummer to Christmas. The south and south-west also being populated, supplies sufficient for a very small force could be procured in the country, and a very small force is all that would be required to coerce the Lhassa Government.

The quality of Tibetan tea
From Lhassa to Ta Chen Lu the string of animals carrying brick tea to meet this enormous demand is continuous. These bricks are made of what appears to be the prunings of neglected bushes of extreme age. I used to think that some of the tea imported into Chinese Turkistan was the worst in the world, but since visiting Tibet I have changed my opinion.

Opening Tibet to trade
But tea is the article on which we must primarily pin our faith as a means of opening Tibet to commerce. The trade in other articles imported from China is simply an adjunct to the great tea trade; as soon as that is diverted to Darjeeling the other will assuredly follow. Unfortunately great opposition would be brought to bear from the Chinese, who, I believe, would almost as soon give up all their shadowy claim to Tibet as their monopoly of the supply of tea…

British relations with China
A general wish to keep on good terms with China in the hopes that she may be of possible use as an ally at some future date has largely influenced our dealings with her of late years; nothing could be more misplaced than the nervous consideration for China’s feelings that has guided our policy.

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Bower’s report was not taken very seriously back in England. Peter Hopkirk, who consulted a copy of the report in the archives of the Foreign Office, writes:

That the Foreign Office liked neither the hawkish tone of Bower’s report not its message is apparent from two footnotes neatly inscribed on the letter accompanying it. One dismisses his views on the Chinese in Tibet as ‘somewhat crude’. The other, in red ink, observes that he appeared to be ‘a sort of damn them all’ man.

You can probably judge for yourself from the extracts above, but these comments seem pretty fair to me. They also reflect the general gap between the attitudes of the British in India and at home; when Curzon did push through the invasion of Tibet in 1903 it was in the face of strong opposition from the British government.

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Click here for a PDF scan of Bower’s “Some Notes on Tibetan Affairs”

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Bower, H. 1893. “Some Notes on Tibetan Affairs”. Calcutta: Office of the Superintendent of Government Printing.

Bower, H. 1894. Diary of a Journey Across Tibet. London: Rivington, Percival and Co.

See also Peter Hopkirk’s Tresspassers on the Roof of the World: The Race for Lhasa (Oxford University Press, 1982) for a discussion of Bower’s journey and this report (pp.83-91).

The Earliest Evidence of Bonpo Rituals?

A record of a ritual to a local deity, found in Miran (IOL Tib J 255)

The four-sided, pointed stick pictured above was found in the desert fortress of Miran by Aurel Stein in 1907. Along with the most of Stein’s acquisitions, it was then sent to London, where it was placed in the India Office Library, to be ignored by almost everyone except the librarian FW Thomas, who attempted to read the Tibetan writing on all of its four sides, and published his translation in his Tibetan Literary Texts and Documents in the 1950s.

The stick is all that remains of a ritual performance, which is recorded in Tibetan writing on each of its four sides. The writing tells us that this was a ritual for a local deity (yul lha) carried out by a team of ritual specialists including a bon po. Like the other documents from Miran, it dates from the time when the fort was an outpost of the Tibetan empire, which began to fall apart in the middle of the 9th century. This stick probably dates from a few years (perhaps a few decades) before that collapse.

So what we have seems to be a record of the actual performance of a ritual dating back to the time of the Tibetan empire. I think this must be by far the earliest reliable documentary evidence of the actual ritual activities of people identifying themselves as bon po.

Why is this interesting? There has been a debate going on in Tibetological circles for some time about the early non-Buddhist Tibetan religion, which was probably not known as Bon but was practised by ritualists known as bon po. The relationship between this early complex of ritual practices and the religion known as Bonpo (now accepted as one of the schools of Tibetan Buddhism) is complicated. Modern scholarship has cast doubt on the accounts of the Bonpo tradition about its own history, transmitted in texts which generally date from after the 10th century. Those attempting to understand the nature of the early non-Buddhist Tibetan religion have often turned to the Dunhuang manuscripts as an alternative source of evidence (I wrote more about this a while ago in this post).

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A fresco from one of the stupas near the Miran fort, predating the Tibetan occupation by several centuries

There are quite a few manuscripts from Dunhuang about non-Buddhist ritual practices like funerals, divination and healing. I could write much more about them, but to show why the wooden dockets from Miran are so interesting, I’ll just say why the Dunhuang sources are somewhat unsatisfactory. First, as the Dunhuang cave seems to have been sealed in the early 11th century, these manuscripts may not date from much earlier than the transmitted texts of the Bonpo tradition, weakening claims by scholars that they are the more authentic sources. Second, the Dunhuang manuscripts are literary sources (though probably derived from oral traditions), mostly narratives or paradigms which would have presumably have supported ritual practice, but are not evidence for what people were actually doing.

On the other hand, the dockets from Miran can be dated, with some confidence, to the 9th century, and probably to Tibet’s imperial era. As records of actual ritual events, they let us know that this was not a merely a literary tradition, but a living practice. And unlike the literary texts, they are firmly local, telling us who the officiants of the ritual were, why the ritual was carried out, and the local deities to whom the ritual was addressed. The offer us the chance to see the activities of the bon po (as well as other ritual officiants like gshen), “on the ground.”

The remains of the Tibetan fort at Miran (Tib. Nob cung)

So, what kinds of rituals were being performed for the Tibetan military officials of the Miran fort? Unsurprisingly, there are quite a few records of funerals (see for example IOL Tib N 330). It is difficult to work out exactly what happened in the course of these rituals (despite Thomas’s valiant attempts at translation). It looks to me like the main aim of the funeral was to guide the “mental principle” (thugs) of the deceased to the right level (gral). One of the practices accompanying this seems to be a libation offering: most of the funeral records specify a precise number of spoonfuls (yams) of a sacred beverage (skyems) to be offered.  Reference to a “beverage offering” (skyems gsol) in the Old Tibetan Annals suggests that some form of this practice goes back to the 7th century or earlier.

But it is only in another kind of ritual, the supplication of local deities, that we find the four-sided pointed sticks like the one at the top of this post. I don’t know the reason for the stick’s being carved into this shape, and any ideas would be welcomed (could it represent an arrow, for example?). The ritual supplications are directed to a variety of deities, including the local deities (yul lha), and minor spirits like sman and g.yang. In these rituals, the main officiant is called lha bon po, that term lha presumably indicating his special role towards deities. The other officiant is the gshen, and it is interesting to see that it was the norm, rather than the exception, for these two types of ritualist to work together.

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There’s much more to be said about these ritual dockets, but I’ll conclude with a thought about the people who produced them. Clearly they were the soldiers and officials manning the outposts of the Tibetan empire in Central Asia. In two cases, we have the names of the people who either officiated or commissioned the ritual, and they both have the high official rank of blon. So it seems that well after the official adoption of Buddhism as the Tibetan state religion, the practice of non-Buddhist rituals was common (perhaps even standard) among the Tibetan ruling class. In a sense, this shouldn’t surprise us. Perhaps more surprising is that one of the dockets (IOL Tib N 279) mentions the presence of 21 Buddhist monks (dge ‘dun) at a funeral ritual.  It is difficult to say from this source whether these monks were carrying out the role normally performed by the bon po or were just in attendance at a (non-Buddhist) funeral for a deceased member of their sangha. Either scenario is intriguing.

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I have written an article on these and other early sources on non-Buddhist Tibetan ritual practice, provisionally titled “The Naming of Tibetan Religion: Bon and Chos in the Imperial Period,”which  will come out at some point in the near-ish future, and I’ll post a notification when it does.

FW Thomas’s translations can be found in the section “Government and Social Conditions” of his Tibetan Literary Texts and Documents concerning Chinese Turkestan, Part II: Documents, Royal Asiatic Society, London, 1951.

For some interesting discussion of the term bon in the early period, and the dates of the Dunhuang sources, see Henk Blezer, “Ston pa gshen rab: Six Marriages and Many More Funerals.” Revue d’Études Tibétaines 15 (2008): 421–479. PDF available right here.

The reference to skyems gsol in the Old Tibetan Annals is in the year 682-3. See the translation at p.94 of Brandon Dotson’s The Old Tibetan Annals: An Annotated Translation of Tibet’s First History. Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2009. The Tibetan text of the Annals and many early ritual texts from Dunhuang are freely available over at OTDO.

I also recommend having a look at Vincent Bellezza’s translation of a narrative on the “golden libation” (gser skems) recently found in the Gathang stupa.

Finally, for all other matters bibliographic see Dan Martin’s extensive online Bon bibliography.

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Afterthought on the date of the Miran documents

While we know that Dunhuang was swept away from the Tibetans in the year 848, the exact date of the fall of Miran is unknown. In The Tibetan Empire in Central Asia (p.172), Christopher Beckwith states that Miran remained in Tibetan hands into the 850s, but then “passed out of the historian’s ken”. It seems likely to me that this passing out of history was accompanied by the swift decline of the fort as a functional part of the Tibetan empire. Without the imperial support network that kept these outposts going (of which we know quite a lot from many of the other wooden documents from Miran), it is not likely that they could have continued to function for very long. Their Tibetan inhabitants would then have returned to Tibet proper, or to the nearest cities with large Tibetophone populations, like Liangzhou. In their language and palaeography, the ritual dockets belong among the military documents that form the bulk of the Miran manuscripts, and thus I think should be considered a part of the culture of imperial Tibet, even if their exact terminus ad quem is not known.

The Chinese under Tibetan rule

We’ve become accustomed to thinking Tibet in terms of its present status, subsumed by China, so it’s interesting to consider the time when Tibet was an occupying force in parts of China. It’s fairly well-known that the Tibetan army was once a very effective war machine that even got as far as occupying the Chinese capital in 763. But what was it like to be a person of Chinese background living under Tibetan occupation?

After their town fell to the Tibetans in 786, the Chinese inhabitants of Dunhuang were forced to abandon many of their cultural customs. For instance, they had to wear Tibetan clothes, and were only allowed to put on their traditional outfits on special occasions. A passage from the New Tang Annals suggests that this was a cause of secret sorrow:

The inhabitants of the city all adopted foreign dress, and submitted to the enemy; but each year when they worshipped their ancestors, they put on their Chinese clothes, and wept bitterly as they put them by.

The strains in the relationship between the Chinese inhabitants of Dunhuang and their Tibetan overlords can be seen in some of the letters from the sealed cave in Dunhuang. One letter (Pelliot tibétain 1083) deals with about a situation in which Tibetan officials were basically kidnapping Chinese women to be their wives. The letter is from the Tibetan minister responsible for the whole region, who had received several petitions from local Chinese about this abuse of power by Tibetan officials. To his credit, he responded by banning the practice of kidnapping, saying that the women should be able to marry according to their own wishes.

Another letter (Pelliot tibétain 1089) is a response to an uprising by the Chinese in Dunhuang against their Tibetan masters, in which some Tibetans were killed. In response to demands from the Chinese officials for greater powers, the letter sets out the hierarchy of official positions. The long list is a treasure-trove for those who study the bureaucracy of the Tibetan empire. But let us just note one thing: the letter makes it clear that even the lowest-ranking Tibetan is of higher status than the highest-ranking Chinese.

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Not that relations between the Tibetan masters and their Chinese subjects were all about hostility. Over time, a generation of Chinese grew up in Dunhuang, learning to read and write (and presumably, speak) Tibetan. Many of them even had Tibetan names. On the other hand, there was no attempt to stop people using the Chinese language, so a generation of children grew up bilingual.

Out of this came one of the great translators of the time, Go Chodrup. His work translating Chinese texts into Tibetan came to the attention of the Tibetan emperor, who issued Chodrup with commissions to translate Buddhist sutras. Though this point is much contested, it seems that Chodrup was a Chinese (his other, Chinese, name was Facheng) from the same Wu clan as the influential priest Hongbian (see the last post). Much later, some of Chodrup’s translations were accepted into the Tibetan Buddhist canon — a lasting effect of the cultural pluralism at Dunhuang.

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The Tibetanized Chinese people of Dunhuang proved to be useful to the Tibetan empire in another way. With its sophisticated papermaking resources, Dunhuang was an ideal scriptorium, and in the early ninth century thousands of copies of sutras were written here. Most of the scribes were Chinese, but they were overseen by Tibetans. Discipline was tough: wasted paper would be punished by flogging, and failure to produce the sutras on time could result in a scribe’s property being impounded, or his family being held hostage (see this post).

Presumably this didn’t happen too often, for Dunhuang turned out to be a very efficient scriptorium for the Tibetan Empire. Manuscripts of the Perfection of Wisdom sutras produced here have been discovered recently in monastic libraries Central Tibet. How do we know they came from Dunhuang? Because they are signed by the same scribes, Chinese scribes, seen in the colophons of the manuscripts found in Dunhuang itself.

Of course, some of these Chinese scribes must have felt a little rebellious under the thumb of their Tibetan masters. One wouldn’t necessarily expect to see examples of this, history being written by the victors, and so on. But I recently came across a little poem scribbled on a piece of scrap paper owned by one of the scribes (this paper is known as legtsé, wrapping paper for bundles of blank pages delivered to scribes). The scribe has signed it thus:

This is the scrap paper of Lenho Wenman. Anyone who steals it will be cut into pieces!

Elsewhere on the paper this pugnacious scribe has written the first lines of a poem. Here is my very loose translation:

We are the subjects of Tibet,
Which comes down on us like hammer blows
Though the tiger is noble
To challenge it is a great thing!

Eventually, Tibetan rule was seriously challenged by a local Chinese movement called “Return to Allegiance” which reclaimed Dunhuang in the year 848. The Chinese were their own masters again, yet they were not the same as they had been before the Tibetans came. They continued to use the Tibetan language, and to practice Tibetan Buddhism, for many years to come.

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Tibetan text

 IOL Tib J 1273: $/:/bdag cag cag ni bod kyi ‘bangs/ gar bab ni thog thog bzhin/ dpal kyang stag la ‘gran/ bzang khyad ni …

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1. Seal from Pelliot tibétain 1089
2. Detail, including seal, from Pelliot tibétain 1083.

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The translation from the New Tang Annals is from: Bushell, Stephen W. 1880. The Early History of Tibet from Chinese Sources. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 12: 435–541. (Quote from p.514)

For studies of the two Dunhuang letters, see the Old Tibetan Documents Online website.

On the Chinese-Tibetan names of Dunhuang residents, see: Tsuguhito Takeuchi. 1995. Old Tibetan Contracts from Central Asia. Tokyi: Daizo Shuppan.

And on multicultural Dunhuang, see this excellent article by Tokio Takata.

Finally, my thanks to Pasang Wangdu for discussing his insights regarding these Perfection of Wisdom manuscripts with me.

Secrets of the Cave III: The Cave of Monk Wu

Once upon a time, there was a monk called Hongbian. He was Chinese, but he grew up in a city ruled by the Tibetan empire. So, like everybody else in the city, he wore Tibetan clothes, and learned to read and write the Tibetan language. Because he was from the wealthy Wu family, he quickly rose in the ranks, eventually becoming one of the most senior monks in Dunhuang. This brought him in contact with orders that came from the emperor of Tibet himself.

More than once, the Tibetan emperor commanded that the city of Dunhuang should make hundreds of copies of Buddhist sutras in Tibetan. The copying of these sutras was a massive undertaking, almost turning the whole city into a scriptorium — on which, see my previous posts here. Hundreds of (mostly Chinese) scribes copied the sacred Tibetan syllables onto loose-leaf pecha pages and scrolls. The result was a series of monumental volumes of the Perfection of Wisdom sutra, and many hundreds of scrolls of the Sutra of Aparamitayus (the manuscript Pelliot tibetain 999 links Hongbian to the latter).

Many of these mass-produced sutras still exist today, because quite a few of them were placed in the Dunhuang cave. In an exciting new development, scholars investigating the recently opened libraries of Central Tibetan monasteries (including Drepung) have found more volumes of the same sutras, which seem to have been shipped there from Dunhuang. We know this because the colophons contain the names of the same Dunhuang-based scribal teams.

So Hongbian’s home was one of the major scriptoria of the Tibetan Empire. He was still there when the Tibetan rulers were kicked out of Dunhuang in 848. A few years later, he rose to the eminent position of the head of the Buddhist sangha in the whole of Hexi (basically modern Gansu province). Around the same time, he (and other wealthy relatives) paid for the excavation of a large cave shrine in the Dunhuang cave site. It was actually the third cave that he had commissioned, and all three now formed three stories of a cave temple.

This large new cave (now known as Cave 16) contained a small antechamber (Cave 17). It might have been a meditation retreat. Perhaps it was just for the storage of supplies. In any case, after Hongbian’s death in 862, it was converted into a memorial shrine with a statue of the revered monk in meditation, perhaps with his ashes beneath the statue. An inscribed stone recording his achievements was also placed in the cave. Over the next hundred years, Cave 17 later came to be filled to bursting with manuscripts, and Hongbian’s statue was taken out and put in the cave above.

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Going over this story of how Cave 17 came into being, it is surprising how little it features in the explanations for the manuscript hoard that we have looked at so far. This might be (as Yoshiro Imaeda suggested in a recent article) because the Tibetan aspect of the cave has been neglected. This might be because Dunhuang has been dominated by Sinologists, derspite the fact that the Tibetan manuscripts are nearly as numerous as the Chinese.

What about those massive volumes of Tibetan Perfection of Wisdom sutras found in the cave? These have been of so little interest to Chinese scholars in the 20th century that most of them remain in the stores of the Dunhuang city museum, only recently coming to the attention of a new generation of Chinese and Tibetan scholars. Yet they might be the key to understanding the manuscript hoard. And what about the collection of letters (in Tibetan) addressed to Hongbian? These represent Hongbian’s official responsibilities, and they may have been interred in the cave at the same time as the statue and stone inscription, or some years later. Here’s a detail from a letter addressed to “Khenpo Hongpen”:

So, were the first batch of manuscripts placed in the cave those that belonged to Hongbian himself? These could have been the ‘seed’ for future deposits of manuscripts, until the function of the cave gradually changed into a repository for manuscripts. Perhaps another early batch of manuscripts was deposited after the death of another famous figure from Dunhuang, the Lotsapa* (translator) Chodrup, whose Chinese name was Facheng, and whose family (like Hongbian’s) was Wu. This monk was a contemporary of Hongbian, who also worked during the last decades of Tibetan rule in Dunhuang, translating Chinese texts into Tibetan at the order of the Tibetan emperor. He was also involved in the mass-production of Tibetan Perfection of Wisdom sutras, as a senior editor. In the Dunhuang cave, we find nice copies of Chodrup’s finished translations as well as working notes that may even be in his own handwriting.

Is this a pattern? First Hongbian’s manuscripts are deposited, then a few years later those of his relative Facheng/Chodrup. And then, on the same model, the manuscripts and paintings collected by other monks, once they had passed away. I don’t want to overstate this, but even the pious monk Daozhen (who we talked about in the last post) might be part of this pattern. If Daozhen’s personal manuscript collection was interred after his death, this would also account for the evidence that Rong used for his idea that the cave represented the collection of a single monastery.

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I don’t want to argue for a “funerary deposit” theory to displace the “sacred waste” and “monastic library” theories. After all, human life is organic and messy and rarely reducible to single explanations. Over 150 years, our cave went through several incarnations: storage closet (perhaps), funerary shrine, manuscript repository. The man who built the cave died, a statue of him was placed inside it, and then his letters and books, and those of other people too, and then so many manuscripts that his statue had to be taken upstairs. Other people, born long after the cave was first made, came and performed rituals there, and more manuscripts were deposited, until the cave was filled to the brim. And then it was closed, and then…

What I’m trying to say is, it’s probably better for us to think of this cave in terms of “multiple uses” rather than single, conclusive theories. But let’s always keep Hongbian in the picture. Nowadays, his statue has been put back in the cave, and he sits in meditation under the shade of the tree that was painted on the wall behind him over a thousand years ago. It seems right that Hongbian himself should also return to the centre of our discussion of the manuscripts in the cave.

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This post could not have been written without this superb article by Yoshiro Imaeda, in which he does not put forward a new theory about the manuscript cave, but sensitively reviews what has been written in the past, especially in the light of the Tibetan manuscripts:

Yoshiro Imaeda. 2008. “The Provenance and Character of the Dunhuang Documents.” Memoirs of the Toyo Bunko 66: 81–102.

This article is also worth reading (and is available on JSTOR):

Ma Shichang. 1995. “Buddhist Cave-Temples and the Cao Family at Mogao Ku, Dunhuang.” World Archaeology 27.2: 303-317.

And for those who read Chinese:

Ma Shichang. 1978. “Guanyu Dunhuang cangjingdong de jige wenti” 關於敦煌藏經洞的幾個問題. Wenwu 12: 21-33, 20.

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1. Hongbian’s statue, back in Cave 17.

2. Pelliot tibétain 1200, a letter addressed to Hongbian.

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* The spelling of this mysterious word in the Dunhuang documents is usually lo tsa pa.

Dharma from the Sky III: Self-Appointed Buddhas

The Tibetan manuscripts found when the sealed cave in Dunhuang was opened in 1900 are still the oldest in the world. But many of them are not as old as we once thought. When the manuscripts were first studied it was assumed that they all dated from the time when the Tibetans ruled Dunhuang, between 786 and 848. It’s a reasonable assumption which is, unfortunately, completely wrong. Certainly some manuscripts do date from this time, but many don’t. We now know that the Tibetan language continued to be used in and around Dunhuang long after the fall of the Tibetan empire, right up to the time the cave was sealed up at the beginning of the eleventh century.

At first it might seem disappointing that we can’t pick up a Dunhuang manuscript and assume that it was produced during the Tibetan empire. But does dating something later necessarily make it less interesting? I don’t think so. Look at the tantric manuscripts for instance. What’s been emerging from recent studies on these is the continuity between what was practised at Dunhuang in the 10th century and the emerging Nyingma traditions of the next few centuries. These manuscripts don’t tell us much about Buddhism in the Tibetan imperial period, but what we get instead is a glimpse into Tibet’s “dark age” when the Nyingma traditions were in their infancy.

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Let’s look at a manuscript that is widely assumed to have been written in the time of the Tibetan Empire. I think that it was perhaps not, and that giving it a later date might allow us to understand it better. Found on the scroll IOL Tib J 370, the text was first studied by Hugh Richardson, who translated its title as “The Dharma that Came Down from Heaven.” It tells of the activities of the great emperors Songtsen Gampo and Tri Song Detsen in bringing Buddhism to Tibet, and then goes on to lament a decline in  Buddhism values in Tibet.

It’s a fairly short poem, and apparently not complete, breaking off before the end. Quite why it’s called “The Dharma that Came Down from Heaven” is not clear. Though as Rolf Stein, another great Tibetologist who studied this text, pointed out, the Tibetan word dar ma didn’t mean the teachings of the Buddha in general, but more specifically, a book of Buddhist teaching. So the reference is to a book that fell from heaven — a familiar theme in the later Tibetan tradition that tells of the first appearance of Buddhism in Tibet when books fell on the roof of an ancient emperor (something I wrote about here a while ago). A better translation of the title would be “The Scripture that Fell from the Sky”.

Both of these scholars assumed that the poem dated to the imperial period. In some ways, I can see why. The language is archaic. Yet looking at the scroll itself, I think it was certainly written in the tenth century. For one thing, the handwriting style does not match anything produced in the imperial period. For another, the way the text is written on the back of a Chinese scroll at the end of a series of scriptures and prayers, and in a different handwriting from the texts that precede it, is similar to other scrolls produced in the late 10th century.

*  *  *

If we date this poem to the post-imperial period, something that puzzled both Richardson and Stein suddenly becomes much easier to understand. As I mentioned, at the end of the poem the author laments the decline of Buddhism. Both Richardson and Stein thought that this was a reference to a ban on Buddhism in the mid-eighth century, which was overturned by Tri Song Detsen when he declared that Buddhism was to be Tibet’s state religion. But this assumption didn’t help either scholar to interpret the end of the poem, which they struggled with unsuccessfully.

Now, if the poem was written later than was previous thought, the decline of Buddhism described at the end of it could be the one that happened at the end of the Tibetan empire. With that in mind, let’s have another go at translating the troublesome last lines:

Because the king died and his son was young, the good religion and the old learning declined. How can we practice in the Tibetan way the supreme path of truth, the religion of virtue? Or the adherence to the ten virtues of the Vinaya and the royal laws of the kings, protectors of men? Or the orally taught systems of the wise ancestors?

In between Śākyamuni, who manifested first in this world, and Maitreya, who [is next] to come after he passes away into nirvana, there are suddenly a great many self-appointed buddhas appearing without authentification. Each of them has a different system which is not in accord with the zhu, the dharma or the vajrayāna, i.e. the three [systems] of the seven [past] generations of buddhas. The dharmas are like seeds…

This translation is nowhere near perfect, but I hope it gets closer to what the author is trying to say. It doesn’t look like this is about the ban on Buddhism in the eighth century. It looks more like a complaint about the decline of Buddhism after the reigns of the great Buddhist emperors, when the empire was beginning to fall apart. The author here is concerned about people calling themselves buddhas and teaching something that is unrecognisable as the dharma. So the decline is not a decline in numbers, but in standards.

Interestingly, this new reading of the poem makes it very similar to another poem about the dark age in the manuscript Pelliot tibétain 840, which I wrote about in a previous post. That poem also begins by celebrating the great Buddhist emperors before going on to talk about a decline in standards:

From the Divine Son Darma on down,
And from his descendent Ösung on down
In general the dharma spread and flourished,
Spread and flourished excessively, it’s said,
So that everyone born as a human wanted to accomplish it.

Perhaps when our poem says, “Because the king died and his son was young” it is also referring to Darma and his son Ösung, who was very young when his father died in 842. The later tradition blames the decline of Buddhism very much on Lang Darma, but a close study of the sources suggests that it was only after his death that things started to go wrong for the empire, and for Buddhism as a state religion.

As for those “self-appointed buddhas” that our poem decries, there are ample references to such characters in writings from the next couple of centuries (the 11th and 12th). We have, for example, reports of a Newari called Karudzin who “put a meditation hat on his head, stuck some feathers in it, dressed in fur, made the announcement at Samye, ‘I am Padma,’ and taught innumerable wong teachings.” Then there was the fellow who called himself “Buddha Star-King”, who became famous in Western Tibet until he was bested in a magical contest by the translator Rinchen Zangpo. On them, see Dan Martin’s excellent articles, listed below.

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That mysterious title, referring to dharma books falling from the sky, might be interpreted differently as well. Perhaps it isn’t, as Richardson and Stein thought, the first ever reference to the legend of how Buddhism first arrived in Tibet. Perhaps it is instead a sarcastic allusion to the teachings of the self-appointed buddhas, which seem to have dropped out of nowhere. I wonder if the metaphor in the broken-off last sentence might have explained the title.

So, does dating the poem in IOL Tib J 370 to the tenth century rather than the early ninth make it less interesting? We lose a contemporary account of the Tibetan imperial period, but we gain a vivid portrayal of the challenges facing Buddhism in Tibet’s dark age. It’s a portrayal informed by a nostalgia for the past era of the Buddhist emperors, and overlapping with this, fears of what will happen to Buddhism in Tibet without imperial regulation. But like the similar poem in Pelliot tibétain 840, the elegant and literary way in which these fears are expressed shows (perhaps unintentionally) that at least some Tibetans remained highly literate and well versed in Buddhism.

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See also

Dharma from the Sky I: Legends and history

Dharma from the Sky II: Indian or Chinese dharma?

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1. Hugh Richardson. 1998 (originally published 1977). “The Dharma that Came Down from Heaven”: A Tun-huang Fragment. In High Peaks, Pure Earth. Chicago: Serindia. 74-81.

2. R.A. Stein. 1985 “Tibetica Antiqua IV: La tradition relative au début fr bouddhisme au Tibet.” BÉFEO 74: 83-133.

Both Richardson’s and (especially) Stein’s are well worth reading and contain many more insights about this text that I haven’t covered here.

3. Dan Martin. 1996. “Lay Religious Movements in 11th- and 12th-Century Tibet: A Survey of Sources.” Kailash 18.3-4: 23-55.

4. Dan Martin. 1996. “The Star King and the Four Children of Pehar: Popular Religious Movements of 11th- to 12th-Century Tibet. Acta Orientalia 49.1-2: 171-195.

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Tibetan text

rgyal po yab nongs sras chungs pas// chos bzang gtsug lag rnying bub mod// bden ba’i lam mchog dge ba’i chos// ‘dul ba’i dge bcu srung ba dang// myi mgon rgyal po rgyal khrims dang// pha myes ‘dzangs pa’i stan ngag gzhung// bod kyi lugs ltar ga la byed// ‘jig rten thog ma’i dangs ma la// shag kyi mya ngan ‘das ‘og du// byams pa mu tri ma byon par// (lung ma bstan par glo bur du//) sangs rgyas rang bzhugs man zhig byung// -g-zhu dang chos dang rdo rje theg// sangs rgyas rabs bdun gsung rabs dang gsuM ka myi mthun gzhung re re// dper na chos rnams sa ‘on ‘dra//

And unresolved questions…

1. The thing that I still can’t make out is that triad of zhu / chos / rdo rje theg. Richardson suggested reading the first word as gzhung, but the scribe actually wrote a /g/ and then crossed it out, and his or her spelling is not that bad. And why should the vajrayāna be separate from the dharma?

2. I’m aware that “self-appointed buddhas” as a translation of sangs rgyas rang bzhugs is not uncontroversial. I have taken bzhugs with its connotation of assuming a position, as in the term for enthronement, khri la bzhugs. But rang bzhugs could be translated in other ways.

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.

*  *  *

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.