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.

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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 I: Lost soldiers

The first time I read Shakabpa’s Political History of Tibet, I was fascinated by a reference he made to the Kamalog, a group of Tibetan soldiers posted to the far northeastern borders of the Tibetan empire (now known as Amdo). Apparently, when the empire fell apart, these soldiers waited for orders to return but never received them. So they settled down, married, had children, and became Amdo people. Yet they and their descendants always remembered their Central Tibetan heritage.

When I was travelling in Amdo recently, I remembered the Kamalog. Looking through the massive Religious History of Amdo which I had picked up in Xining, I found a brief discussion of the topic:

During the reigns of the dharma king Tri Song Detsen and his fourth son Desongtsen, armies were raised on all the borders of Tibet in order to stop the opposing armies. With many hundreds of thousands of Tibetan soldiers, the meditation centres* of Central Asia were conquered. After that, nine heroes selected from the army for their ability were stationed at the border between Central Asia and Tibet. When they asked, “May we return?” the message from the king was, “Our edict once issued is irreversible.” Thus the descendents of these nine heroes were called Kamalog (“not to return by order”).  Much later, there arose many families of Tibetan nomads who were Kamalogs. Even Sechen’s great minister Sangha Ching seems to have been from a Kamalog clan. Those who became separated from the family line are said to remain in eastern Tsongkha, in the Kokonor basin.

The story, with its symbolically important number of nine heroes, has the flavour of a legend. But the general principle, that some soldiers remained in Amdo after the empire fell apart, is almost certainly true. Still, I wondered, as I passed through Kamalog County, halfway between the modern cities of Xining and Lanzhou, why has the story remained so powerful here in Amdo?

Some Amdowas (a mdo ba: people of Amdo) still trace their ancestry back to Central Tibet — including the Dalai Lama. In his first autobiography, My Land and My People he writes:

Although my family had settled in Dokham, my forefathers came from Central Tibet. How they came to settle in Eastern Tibet is a simple story. Hundreds of years ago, in the reign of King Mangsong Mangtsen, a Tibetan army was stationed in the northeastern part of Tibet to protect the frontiers. In our part of Dokham,† a garrison from Phempo in Central Tibet was stationed, and family tradition said that my forefathers came with that garrison. In our family dialect we still used many words from the Phempo district, rather than the east: words like cheney for bowl and khenbu for spoon.

This is not just a repetition of the story in the Religious History of Amdo. The Dalai Lama’s family tradition specifies which region of Central Tibet their ancestors came from. It also places the event further back in the past, in the reign of Mangson Mangtsen (c.643-676) rather than Tri Song Detsen (756-c.800). I couldn’t possibly confirm or deny the existence and significance of words from Central Tibetan dialects being used in Amdo. What’s clear is that there have been many traditions handed down in Amdo families that tell of an ancestral connection to the armies of the Tibetan empire.

On the maps of “ethnographic Tibet” — i.e. those that attempt to demarcate the extent of Tibetan culture rather than the political rule of Central Tibet — the Dalai Lama’s birthplace is at the very edge. In fact, the Dalai Lama’s first language, and that of his village, was the local Chinese dialect (see Laird 2007). Thus it seems that one of the things that the story of the Kamalog achieves is to bind these people of the borderlands to the centre. It brings the furthest reaches of Amdo into the great narrative of the Tibetan Empire, placing the heroes of the empire among the people of Amdo, and mingling the bloodlines of the Tibetans at the centre with the Amdowas at the border.

*  *  *

* Strange this. I wonder if sgom grwa is a textual corruption?
† Note that Dokham (mdo khams) is another name for Amdo, or for both Amdo and Khams.

1. Shakabpa. 1967. A Political History of Tibet. New Haven: Yale University Press. (On the Kamalog, see p.43).
2. 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 p.223 for the Kamalog passage.)
3. The Dalai Lama. 1997 (1962). My Land and My People. New York: Warner Books. (Citation is from p.4.)
4. Laird, Thomas. 2007. The Story of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama. London: Atlantic Books. (The conversation on the Dalai Lama’s village of Taktser, and the speaking of Chinese there, is on pp.262-263.)

Tibetan text
Mdo smad chos ‘byung: 223: bka’ ma log ni/ chos rgyal khri srong lde btsan dang/ de’i sras bzhi pa khri lde srong btsan rgyal po’i sku ring la/ mtha’ dmag dgag phyir bod yul gyi phyogs bzhir sgo srung bskos/ bod dmag khri phrag mang po khyer nas bha ta hor gyi sgom grwa bcom ste g.yul rgyal/ gnang spyad nas phyir byon dus dmag gi nang nas skyen po btus pa’i dpa’i bo mi dgu/ dmag mang po dang bcas hor bod kyi mtshams su bzhag/ nged rnams ci tsam nas log yong zhus par/ rgyal po’i lung gis nged kyi bka’ ma byung bar ldog tu med gsungs pas de phyin dpa’ bo mi dgu’i rgyud pa la bka’ ma log tu thogs/ der yun ring bas bka’ ma log gi bod ‘brog gi sde mang du byung/ seng [sic] chen gyi blon po sa ngha ching yang sang rus pa bka’ ma log yin zer snang/ de rnams kyi che rgyud las chad pa shar tsong kha mtsho sngon gyi mthil na yod par bshad pa de’i le lag yin la/

The meditation cave of Martsang (dmar gtsang), near the modern town of Ping’an, in Tsongkha Khar, near Kamalog, (c) Imre Galambos.

And a link…
…to an excellent new website on the Amdo dialect.