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.

The Brilliant Scholar and the Scurrilous Letter

Once upon a time in Tibet, back in the 14th century…

…there was a brilliant young scholar called Ngagi Wangpo. He was one of the star students at the great monastic college of Sangpu. Ngagi Wangpo had decided to become a monk at the age of twelve, having lost his mother at eight and then his father at eleven. Studying at Sangpu, he quickly mastered a curriculum which included logic and the philosophical complexities of the Madhyamaka.

But his time at college was marred by the small-mindedness of his fellow students. Sangpu was dominated by students from eastern Tibet: Khampas. True, Sangpu was in Central Tibet, but Kham has always provided a high proportion of Tibet’s greatest scholars, and this was reflected in the student body at Sangpu. As a Central Tibetan, Ngagi Wangpo felt that he was treated as an outsider. So at the age of twenty-seven (in the year 1334) he decided to drop out. As he walked away from the college where he’d spent the last eight years, Ngagi Wangpo met an inquisitive monk who asked him why he was leaving.

When he told the monk how the Khampas at university had made his life a misery, the monk sympathized and encouraged Ngagi Wangpo to write something to publicize the behaviour of the Khampa students. Thinking this an amusing idea, Ngagi Wangpo took a single sheet of paper and filled both sides with a satirical poem. The poem was written as an alphabetical exercise with one line for each of the letters of the Tibetan alphabet. These were the first five lines:

Alike to the demons who roam the land of Kalinga,
Bandits of this snowy land are the Khampa tribe;
Come where they may, they tear the place down.
Desire, hatred and pride are the lands they roam;
Everywhere the clamorous Khampas gather there’s trouble.

ka ling yul du srin po rgyu ba bzhin//
kha ba can du chom rkun khams pa’i rigs//
ga ru gnas kyang grong rdal ‘joms byed pa’i//
nga rgyal chags sdang rgyu ba gzigs lags sam//
ca co’i rang bzhin nyon mongs khams pa’i tshogs//

At the end of the page he signed off with a brief colophon: “This was affixed to Sangpu Neutok by Samyépa Ngagi Wangpo. May it cause happiness to increase!” He then gave the page to the monk, who took it to Sangpu and pinned to the  throne in the main assembly hall. When it was found it caused quite a stir, but Ngagi Wangpo was already far away. (Those familiar with European history may be reminded of Martin Luther nailing his “ninety-five theses” to the door of the church at Wittenberg some 200 years later.)

After turning his back on a lifetime of study, Ngagi Wangpo adopted the wandering life, dedicating himself to meditation practice and looking for a guru. His search came to an end when he met a yogin called Kumaradza, who was living on a mountainside with a large group of disciples in flimsy tents. Ngagi Wangpo was accepted as a disciple and joined this motley crew of dedicated meditators, who pitched camp and moved to a new home every few months. Over the years that followed he learned the Great Perfection (Dzogchen) at the feet of Kumaradza. In the end he surpassed his own master, and wrote the definitive works on the Great Perfection. Ngagi Wangpo became one of the most famous Tibetans of all time, better known by his academic title Longchen Rabjampa, or for short, Longchenpa.

*  *  *

Now, you might think it unlikely that a rather complicated poem like this, not only constrained by an alphabetic conceit but written in nine-syllable verses containing a wealth of literary allusions, could be dashed off in the way the story implies. But let’s not forget who we’re talking about here: one of the greatest poet-philosopher-mystics in history (and not just the history of Tibet). One thing his voluminous writings show is that writing inspired poetry was second nature to Longchenpa. I for one don’t doubt that, spurred on by the frustrations that had just led him to drop out of Sangpu, Longchenpa could have sat down and written these verses in very little time at all.

I think we can also take the poem in the light-hearted manner in which it was intended, and remember that it came from a specific time in Longchenpa’s life. If regional tensions do exist in Tibet, as they do everywhere, there are also ways of transcending them. Since the transcendence of all boundaries is so eloquently expressed in Longchenpa’s other writings, I’ll conclude with a few verses from a poem that he dedicated to his guru Kumaradza:

I am a buddha, pure from the very beginning,
And so are the multitude of living beings in existence.
The terms “knowledge” and “ignorance”
Are both untrue, nothing but dream and illusion;
The nonduality of true and untrue, that’s the state of a buddha.

bdag dang sna tshogs srid pa’i sems can rnams//
ye nas rnam dag sangs rgyas yin pa la//
rig dang ma rig zhes bya’i tha snyad kyis//
srid par ‘khul pa rmi lam sgyu ma tsam//
‘khrul dang ma ‘khrul gnyis med rgyal ba’i sku//

*  *  *

Tibetan texts:

Rkyen la khams ‘dus pa ka kha sum cu, in Gsung thor bu, vol.I, pp.210-211. TBRC ref. W23504. Scanned from a reprint from the Derge blocks. (Quotation from p.210)

Bla ma dam pa kum ma rā dza la rtogs pa phul ba zhes bya ba bzhugs, in Gsung thor bu, vol.II, pp.352–357. (Quotation from p.353).


On the story of Longchenpa’s leaving Sangpu and writing the satirical verses, see:

Dudjom Rinpoche. 1991. The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism: Its Fundamentals and History. Translated and edited by G. Dorje and M. Kapstein. Boston: Wisdom Publications. (vol.1, pp.578-579)

And on the fascinating history of Sangpu, its abbots and colleges, see:

Leonard van der Kuijp. 1987. “The Monastery of Gsang-phu Ne’u-thog and Its Abbatial Succession from ca. 1073 to 1250.” Berliner Indologische Studien 3: 103-127.

British Barbarians, Tibetan Prophecies

You probably know about the Younghusband Mission to Lhasa. Quite a few books have been written about it, though with the honorable exception of Patrick French’s biography of Younghusband, they tend to stick to the voluminous official and unofficial accounts published in English. This is a pity, because there’s no doubt that many Tibetans had strong feelings about Younghusband’s sacking of Gyantse and invasion of Lhasa. This came home to me forcefully when I read the Nechung Oracle’s pronouncement on the invasion while looking through the biography of the 13th Dalai Lama Thubten Gyatso.

This massive biography, in two volumes, was written by Purchog Rinpoché (the tulku of the more famous Purchogpa who was the 13th Dalai Lama’s principle tutor). As a fairly traditional namtar or sacred biography it mostly deals with religious topics, but a foreign army marching into Lhasa could hardly be ignored. The biography tells us how  the Dalai Lama and a group of trusted advisers and religious teachers fled the advance of the British, leaving the throne-holder of Ganden monastery to negotiate a treaty.

One of the people fleeing with the Dalai Lama was the Nechung Oracle, a monk chosen as the medium or oracle for the deity Dorjé Drakden, who was consulted before any important decision was taken. I think the oracle at the time of the invasion was Orgyen Thinley Chöpel, a Nyingma monk from Central Tibet’s biggest Nyingma monastery, Mindrolling. (An interesting figure in his own right: in his youth he had travelled to Eastern Tibet, where he met one of the greatest scholars of the nineteenth century, Jamyang Khyentsé Wangpo, and received from him a statue of Padmasambhava which was later housed in the Jokhang.)

Once the Dalai Lama, the Nechung Oracle, and the rest of the court-in-exile were a safe distance from Lhasa, the oracle was consulted, and he spoke in emotional terms of the invasion:

Urged on by spirits and demons,
The British, with their false God, their wealth and manpower,
Came to this Snowy Land surrounded by mountains
With their barbaric army.
These events, the like of which I’ve never seen before
Have broken the heart of this old devil.

The sense of shock and outrage felt by the Tibetans at the invasion of their sacred land is striking. The oracle had more to say, but I won’t translate any more of the speech here. I’ll put the full text in Tibetan below, and if you’d like to try your hand at translating more of it, please do, and let me know how you get on!

*  *   *

The better-known English-language sources on the Younghusband Mission do (it must be said) give us a lot more of the details behind the invasion. These sources include Younghusband’s telegrams to Curzon which were recorded in the “Blue Book” of official correspondence. The telegrams show Younghusband’s hawkish tendency and his frustration with the obstacles thrown into his path by the Dalai Lama. He writes:

The real opposition we are encountering is that of the Dalai Lama and his followers, the monks at Lhasa, who declare that they are concerned for the preservation of their religion, in other words of their priestly influence by which the Tibetans are at present strangled. The influence of the Chinese has vanished completely, the present weak Ambam being confronted with a young and headstrong Dalai Lama; nor is it likely to be revived when the new Ambam arrives at Lhasa (which he is expected to do in the next few days) as he is not supported by Chinese troops. To influence the Dalai Lama, therefore, we must rely on our own efforts. (Further Papers Relating to Tibet, p.1: telegram of 4th February 1904)

As a good imperialist, Younghusband suggests that his is a moral mission as well as a political one, a mission to liberate the Tibetans from oppression. After this, and many more telegrams, Younghusband got the permission to proceed on to Gyantse, and then as it became clear that the Tibetans had no intention of negotiating, to Lhasa itself. On the 13th July, Lord Curzon telegrammed the Secretary of State thus:

To-morrow the Mission will commence advance to Lhasa… We are authorising Younghusband to secure the signature of the Dalai Lama to Convention embodying terms finally approved, and to sign it himself, subject to ratification by His Majesty’s government. (Further Papers Relating to Tibet, p.31: telegram of 13th July 1904)

Naturally, the Dalai Lama had different ideas. As the British Army approached Lhasa, he decided to escape. His biographer explains his decision to flee Lhasa, stating that if he met with the British, peace terms would be made according to their discretion, and the rule of Tibet would be taken over by the British. He goes on to say that the Dalai Lama’s other reason for leaving Lhasa was to go and consult with the emperor of China — but in fact the Dalai Lama travelled to Mongolia, sending his trusted envoy Dorjiev to seek the help of the Russians, before travelling on to Kumbum monastery and then to Wutaishan, not arriving in Beijing until 1907.

*  *  *

As for Younghusband, after securing the trading agreements that had been the original reason for invading Lhasa, he and his army swiftly returned to India. In the next few months the British government (many of whom had opposed the invasion from the start) quickly took the treaty apart, reducing many of the gains Younghusband had fought for. As representatives of the Manchu court arrived post-haste in London and protested that the Tibetans were not allowed to sign treaties on without Chinese permission, a new treaty was drawn up, ratified by China and Britain (it was, of course, entirely ignored by the Tibetans).

The Younghusband Mission instilled a lasting fear among the rulers of China that the permeability of Tibet’s border with India could leave China wide open to attack. The weak and bankrupt Manchu court had been happy to ignore Tibet for the last century, but in the wake of Younghusband’s invasion they made Tibet one of their main strategic priorities. In 1908, mere weeks after the Dalai Lama returned to Lhasa, a Chinese army occupied the city, and the Dalai Lama fled again, this time to India.

According to the 13th Dalai Lama’s biography, this was all prophesied by Padmasambava. The previous Dalai Lama (the 12th) Thrinley Gyatso is said to have received the prophecy directly from the Lotus Born himself. Padmasambhava told the 12th Dalai Lama that unless he took a wife, he would die young (he did), and  predicted the rebirth of the next Dalai Lama. He then spoke these words:

The king will roam foreign lands and a foreign army will come to Tibet;
You the ruler of Tibet will travel to the country of China,
And the ruler of China will send the Chinese army to Tibet.

*  *  *


1. Thub bstan rgya mtsho’i rnam thar (written in 1940, published in India in the 1950s). TBRC id: W3087.
2. The Blue Book, or, Cabinet and other confidential papers relating to Tibet, 27 February 1903 – 26 April 1905. B.P.13/41.(13.)
3. Patrick French. 1994 Younghusband: The Last Imperial Adventurer. London: HarperCollins.
4. Charles Allen. 2004. Duel in the Snows: The True Story of the Younghusband Mission to Lhasa. London: John Murray.

*  *  *


1. The Nechung Oracle Lobsang Namgyal (1894-1945), from the Tibetan Album (who also have a brief biography). Note that this is not the Nechung Oracle who was consulted in 1904.
2. “A British outpost in Tibet watches for reinforcements” (Getty Images, retrieved from this BBC page on the Younghusband Mission).

Tibetan texts

The Nechung Oracles words, from the biography of the 13th Dalai Lama, vol.I, f.395a.1 (the translated section is between the asterisks):

hrī: slob dpon phyag na pad+mo yi//
sku tshe mi ‘gyur rdo rje’i khrir//
ngoms par bzhugs pa bka’ drin che//
*dam sri ‘byung pos rgyud bskul te//
lha log dbyin ji mi nor dpung//
gangs ris bskor ba’i kha ba’i ljongs//
hang shed dpung ngos ‘di nyid kyang//
mtshungs med kyi bya gzhag ‘di ‘dra la//
‘gyur srid na ‘dre rgan tsi t+ta ‘gas//*
‘di ‘dra rigs tsam rigs tsam yang//
nged dmar nag gnyis po sri zhu la//
‘bral med kyis mi mngon dbyings nas kyang//
snying dum bur gyur pa’i las ‘dra zhing//
yin kyang don g.yar dam rdo rje’i rgya kha nas//
‘gyur med kyi ‘phrin las ‘jug pa yang//
snga dus nas da lta’i dus ‘di bar//
bstan dang dga’ ldan chab srid//
slod dpon sku ‘phreng rim pa dang//
da lta’i slob dpon ‘di nyid bar//
sri zhu’i gnas la rgya ma grol//
mdud pa ‘doms shing ‘phrin las la//
nyin mtshams yug tu sku’i grib bzhin//
‘grogs pa’i ‘phrin las zhus zin na//
da dung de dang de mtshungs pa//
sri zhu’i bya gzhan phra rags rnams//
sngar bzhin ‘phrin las ‘gyur med zhu//
cung zad bstan dang sems can gyi//
dam tshig la rag bsod nams dman//

And Padmasambhava’s prophecy, from vol.I, f.384b.3-4:

rgyal po mthar ‘khyams mtha’ dmag bod la ‘ong :
bod rgyal khyod ni rgya yi yul du ‘gro :
rgya nag rgyal pos rgya dmag bod du gtong :

Buddhism and Empire IV: Converting Tibet


How were the Tibetan people converted to Buddhism? And who did the converting?

Tibetan historians always say that the conversion happened during Tibet’s imperial period. Butön, for example, says that that the Tibetans were converted to Buddhism when Songtsen Gampo set down the new royal laws based on the ten virtues of Buddhism. Other histories consider the real conversion to have been carried out a century later by the trio of Trisong Detsen (the emperor), Śāntarakṣita (the monk) and Padmasambhava (the tantric adept).

But sources that can be dated back to the time of the Tibetan emperors are not so clear about this, which has lead some modern scholars to argue that Buddhism at the time of the Tibetan Empire was a religion of the nobility, only found at the Tibetan court (see the comments to the previous post). Modern scholars have also argued that the adoption of Buddhism by Trisong Detsen and his successors was an act of international diplomacy. Buddhism, after all, was an international religion and many other major powers of the period — the Chinese empire, Central Asian city-states and Indian kingdoms — were Buddhist.

Then it would hardly have mattered whether the majority of ordinary Tibetans were Buddhists or not. The point was that Tibet should be perceived as a Buddhist country. So most Tibetans would have had little or no experience of Buddhism in the imperial period.

But was this really the case?

*  *  *

I’ve recently been looking at some of the early records of the Tibetan tsenpos to see whether any of them expressed the aspiration to convert the Tibetan people in general, and not just the nobility.

The second edict of Trisong Detsen (dated to 779 by Hugh Richardson) records the way in which Buddhism was made the state religion of Tibet. Looking very much like the official minutes of a meeting, it describes various discussion during which the court deliberated on how to establish Buddhism in Tibet, beginning with Trisong Detsen’s own account of how he was converted to Buddhism:

Then with the help of teachers of virtue I listened to the dharma was studied and the texts were brought before my eyes. Then I deliberated upon how the Buddhist religion should be practised and spread.

So, by his own account Trisong Detsen did want to spread Buddhism in Tibet. Along with that, he had some harsh things to say about the old religion:

At that time it was declared that those who followed the old Tibetan religion were getting everything wrong…

Among the old practices he disapproved of are painting your body red, casting spells on the government, and causing diseases and famine. Later the tsenpo convened another meeting, this time with lords from all over the Tibetan empire:

The minor princes under our dominion such as the Azha ruler, and the outer and inner ministers were consulted and a council was held. Together they considered in brief these things, first that trust should be put in the word of the Buddha; secondly that the example of the ancestors should be followed; and thirdly that help should be given by the power of the teachers of virtue.

So at this meeting everyone agreed to an empire-wide project establishing Buddhism, with a caveat that the traditional ways of the ancestors should be followed as well.

Further to that, a council was held about how the right path should not be changed, and how it could be increased. Thus an excellent summary of the dharma was made

What was this summary of the dharma? Earlier in the edict, Trisong Detsen explains the basics of Buddhism as the fact of impermanence, the inevitability of cause and effect (i.e. karma) and the need to practice the ten kinds of virtuous action in order to obtain a good rebirth. So the summary agreed at this meeting was probably something along those lines.

*  *  *

skarcung_colourBut Trisong Detsen’s recorded aspiration to spread the word of the Buddha has little to say about ordinary Tibetans. Let’s skip forward to the reign of Senaleg, in the early years of the 9th century. One of his edicts was preserved on the Karchung pillar, which survived almost undamaged right through to the Cultural Revolution, when it was smashed to pieces. This pillar edict is concerned with the appointment of senior Buddhist teachers to lead the religion in Tibet. It says:

But from the time when the tsenpo and his descendents are young until the time when they become rulers of the kingdom and thereafter, teachers of virtue shall be appointed from among the monks. By teaching religion as much as can be absorbed into the mind, the gate of liberation for the whole of Tibet, through the learning and practice of the dharma, shall not be closed.

Note here the apparently inclusive statement that “the whole of Tibet” will have access to the “gate of liberation.” This egalitarian sentiment is made even more clear further down the pillar:

And when for the Tibetan subjects from the nobles downwards, the gate leading to liberation is never obstructed and the faithful have been led towards liberation, from those among them who are capable there shall always be appointed abbots to carry on the teachings of the Buddha.

It seems clear enough that the phrase “from the nobles downwards” must include every Tibetan subject, however lowly.

*  *  *

S553Noble sentiments indeed, but how could such a project realistically be carried out? How do you convert a whole people to another religion? This is a big question, and I won’t try to answer it. In any case, as Matthew Kapstein has pointed out, this “conversion” took place over several centuries (or to put it another way, there were several “conversions”).

But if we travel now back to Dunhuang, from our little excursion to Central Tibet, there is a piece of evidence that might hint at how the grand project of converting the Tibetans to Buddhism was put into practice. There’s a scroll with a short summary of Buddhism in Chinese, called A Summary of the Essential Points of the Mahāyāna Sūtras. Its colophon says (in Chinese):

At the sixth month of the water tiger year, send the letter with tsenpo’s seal of Great Tibet and the Sūtra of Ten Kinds of Virtuous Behaviour to every county, to be circulated and recited. On the 16th day of the latter eighth month this copy was made.

This scroll has been dated to 822, in the reign of the last great Buddhist Tibetan emperor, Ralpachen. I am tempted to join up the dots here from (1) the summary of the dharma made by Trisong Detsen’s council and agreed by all the local rulers of the Tibetan empire, (2) the aspiration firmly expressed by the edict of Senaleg that all Tibetans should have access to Buddhism, and (3) the order from Ralpachen’s court to send copies of a summary of the ten Buddhist virtues to every part of the realm.

Many questions remain (you might be asking yourself some already, if you made it this far). But I think we can glimpse a genuine aspiration expressed by the Tibetan emperors to bring Buddhism to all of the Tibetan people, high and low. And we can see one way this might have been carried out, by the copying of brief summaries of the dharma all over Tibet (which would then have been taught orally to the non-literate, presumably, though literacy seems to have been quite widespread by the end of the empire). This might have been enough to initiate at least the first stage in the conversion of the Tibetan people to Buddhism.

*  *  *


The pillar inscriptions quoted here are all to be found in the collections of Hugh Richardson (1985), Fang Kuei Li and W. South Coblin (1987) and now the volume edited by Kazushi Iwao and Nathan Hill and recently published by the Old Tibetan Documents Online Group (2009). The translations in this post are my own “provisional” ones.

The scroll mentioned here (Or.8210/S.3996) has been studied by Daishun Ueyama (1995: 314-323). The Chinese title is Da cheng jing zuan yao yi 大 乘 經 纂 要 義.

The issue of the conversion of the Tibetans has been treated from several different angles in Matthew Kapstein’s The Tibetan Assimilation of Buddhism (Oxford University Press, 2000).

I’m also looking forward to reading the just-published Buddhism and Empire: The Political and Religious Culture of Early Tibet by Michael Walter (Brill).


The first two images are by Hugh Richardson, showing his Tibetan assistant taking rubbings from the Karchung (skar cung) pillar. The photos are (c) The Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, and can be seen, along with many others, at the wonderful Tibet Album website.

The scroll is Or.8210/S.553, another copy of the Summary of the Essential Points of the Mahāyāna Sūtras.

*  *  *


The second edict of Khri srong lde btsan (from Hugh Richardson, “The First Tibetan Chos ‘byung” in High Peaks, Pure Earth):

(p.97; 110b) de nas dge ba’i bshes gnyen gyis bstangs te chos kyang gsan / yi ge yang spyan sngar brims nas / sangs rgyas kyi chos spel zhing mdzad par bsgroms so / / de na bod kyi chos rnying pa ma lags la / sku lha gsol ba dang cho ga myi mthun pas / kun kyang ma legs su dogs te /

(p.98; 110b) ‘bangs su mnga’ ba rgyal ba rgyal phran ‘a zha rje la bstsogs pa dang phyi nang gi blon po rnams la bka’s rmas / bka’ gros su mdzad nas / gcig tu na sangs rgyas bcom ldan ‘das kyi bka’ lung la bsten / gnyis su na yab mes kyi dpe lugs la ‘tshal / gsum du na dge ba’i shes gnyen gyi mthus bstangs pa dang yang sbyar nas mdor brtags na / … de lam legs par ni ji ltar myi ‘gyur ched ni ji ltar che zhe na / chos kyi mdo ni legs su bgyi bas /

The Skar cung pillar inscription:

(ll.33–42): / / btsan  po dbon sras / / sku chu ngur bzhugs pa yan cad / / chab srId kyi mnga’ bdag mdzad pa man chad kyang / / dge slong las / dge ba’I bshes nyen bskos ste / chos thugs su cI chud chud du bslab cing / / bod yongs kyIs kyang chos slob cing spyad pa’I sgo myi gcad / nam du yang bod ya rabs man cad/ bod ‘bangs las thar par gzud pa’I sgo myi bgag par / dad pa’I rnams las thar par btsud de / / de’i nang nas nus pa las / / bcom ldan ‘das kyI ring lugs rtag du bsko zhIng / / bcom ldan ‘das kyI ring lugs byed pa’I rnams chos ‘khor nas bya’o cog gI bka’ la yang btags ste / /

Two Tibetologists

Thomas & Tucci

A few years ago I came across this photograph in the archives of the British Library. It is a portrait of two early European scholars of Tibet: F.W. Thomas and Giuseppe Tucci. It was taken in 1955 by Tucci’s photographer and partner Francesca Bonardi. Before I saw the photo I wasn’t aware that these two knew each other, or that Thomas had ever travelled to Italy. The meeting of these very different personalities is a rather intriguing event.

Guiseppe Tucci (1894-1984) was arguably the foremost non-Tibetan scholar of Tibetan history and culture (such types are still known by the ungainly neologism Tibetologist, which like the similarly ugly Buddhologist is a term likely to cause faint mirth in the uninitiated) in the first half of the twentieth century.

tucciTucci was a natural linguist, learning Hebrew and Latin in his childhood, before turning to Sanskrit, Tibetan and Chinese. Tucci was an explorer, making several expeditions to Western Tibet in the 30s, where he collected the materials (manuscripts, paintings and statues) for his scholarly work. And Tucci was a prolific writer. Among his many publications the Indo-Tibetica series and the two huge volumes of Tibetan Painted Scrolls are still essential reading.

In early life Tucci was a supporter of Mussolini and the philosophy of fascism, and in 1937 he was sent by the Italian Government to Japan, to strengthen cultural ties between Japan and Italy. Here he lectured and published extensively on Zen, spiritual liberation, and the art of war. After his return to Italy and the defeat of Mussolini, Tucci abandoned this vein of work, and his interest in fascist philosophy and Zen, returning to Tibetan studies.

In the mid 50s, when the photograph with Thomas was taken, Tucci had just made two expeditions to Nepal and was about to embark of on series of archaeological digs in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. He was also very active in public life, one of his achievements being the founding of the Istituto italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente (IsMEO) in Rome. Several brief biographies are available online (see the references below).

*  *  *

The career of Frederick William Thomas (1867-1956) was, in contrast, conducted in the universities and libraries of England. He was a student of classics, and then a fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge at the end of the 19th century and a professor at Balliol College, Oxford in the 30s. These two Oxbridge stints bookended his job as librarian for the India Office Library, where he worked for thirty years. It was here, where he had the responsibility of sorting through the thousands of Tibetan manuscripts brought back from Central Asia by Aurel Stein, that Thomas found the raw materials for his most important scholarly work.

banburyThomas had little interest in the Buddhist materials from Dunhuang, and his work focused on early Tibetan history (letters, military communiqués and the like) and folklore. Most of this work was put together and published by Thomas after he retired to a cottage in Oxfordshire, where he worked in a damp and chilly study (at least he complained often in his letters that it was so). Here he put together his great 4-volume series of historical texts Tibetan Literary Texts and Documents from Chinese Turkestan, collected narrative texts in Ancient folk-literature from North-Eastern Tibet, and a study of the extinct Nam language (his equally pioneering work on the Zhangzhung language still remains unpublished).

The photo with Tucci was taken the year before Thomas’s death. According to the Dictionary of National Biography:

To his last years Thomas retained the lean and athletic figure of the strenuous sportsman. His manner was keen and affable, and he enjoyed speaking in learned company. He celebrated his retirement by undertaking a tour of India in 1938 which would have taxed the strength and energies of the most intrepid traveller. He retained the full scope of his great intellectual powers to the end, although deafness at the last diminished his social enjoyment.

*  *  *

Tucci is still, no doubt, the preëminent scholar of his time, but those of us interested in the early history and culture of Tibet still owe Thomas a great debt. It is a pity that his works are so difficult to find, apart from in the major libraries. As an attempt to make Thomas’s work more available, I’ve been trying to get his major unpublished and out-of-print catalogues up on the IDP website. You can see his work on the documents about Dunhuang from vol.II of Tibetan literary texts and documents here, and his unpublished card catalogue slips of the Tibetan manuscripts Aurel Stein found in the Tangut/Mongolian regions of Etsingol and Kharakhoto here.

I see these two figures in quite different settings: Tucci striding across the dry and desolately beautiful landscapes of Western Tibet, Thomas bent over his desk in damp, verdant Oxfordshire. Tucci, the scholar “in the field”, Thomas the “armchair scholar”. One thing they had in common was that they both published their major works before 1959, when when the Tibetan diaspora changed forever the relationship between Westerners and Tibetans, and the nature of scholarship on Tibet.

*  *  *

stamp(The stamp and postmark from the envelope containing the photograph, marked October 1956. On the back of the photo, Francesca Bonardi wrote: “Con tanti cari auguri dal Prof. Tucci e da.”)

*  *  *

Some online resources:

See also:
Gustavo Benavide. 1995. “Guiseppe Tucci, or Buddhology in the Age of Fascism” In Donald. S. Lopez (ed.), Curators of the Buddha: The Study of Buddhism Under Colonialism. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

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.

What happens between death and the tomb?

The funerals of the ancient Tibetan kings (the tsenpos) were solemn ritual affairs involving a range of specialist priests and lasting months or even years. At the end of the whole process, the tsenpo was buried in a huge mausoleum made of packed earth. It is not very clear exactly what happened during the long period between the tsenpo’s death and his interral in the tomb. But there is a crucial passage in one of the stories in the Old Tibetan Chronicle from Dunhuang, which tells of how the first funeral ceremony for the Tibetan tsenpos came about.

The vital passage appears in the story of Drigum Tsenpo, the first of the royal line not to pulled back up to heaven on a sky cord. In the story, the tsenpo’s body has remained on earth and, to add insult to injury, been kidnapped by a spirit. The spirit demands a child as a ransom for the body of the tsenpo. When a child fitting the purpose is found, the child’s mother makes certain demands that set the precedent for the funeral rituals of the tsenpos for all futurity:

When he asked the mother, “What do you want in recompense for her?” the mother answered: “I want nothing but this: that in all future when a bTsan-po, who has withdrawn as a ruler, dies, a top-knot of the hair should be bound like a braid, the surface (ngo, of the body) should be anointed with vermilion (mtshal), the body should be lacerated and scratched, incision should be made into the corpse of the bTsan-po, and it should be taken away from men that it may decay. Food should be eaten and drunk. Will you do like that, or will you not do like that?” Thus she spoke. (Haarh 1969: 405)

Now, Haarh’s work is a tour de force, but I have some doubts about his translation here. And since one often sees it repeated in accounts of the funerals of the tsenpos, it seems worth having another look at it. Since it’s such an important passage, I don’t want to be dogmatic here. I will just suggest an alternative way of reading the text.

The piercing of the tsenpo’s corpse is mentioned in the Old Tibetan Annals for the tsenpo Dusong (in 778/9) and the regent Tri Malo (712/3). As Haarh says, this probably refers to an embalming treatment of the corpse. But there seem to be no references to cutting off the tsenpo’s hair, anointing his face with vermilion and lacerating his body. And another reason to think the mother is not talking about the tsenpo here is that ordinary words for face and body (ngo and lus) are used, rather than honorific ones (zhal and sku). I also think that it’s logical to translate this passage so that the mother starts to talk about the treatment of the corpse when she specifically says “the corpse of the tsenpo” and not before that.

So, here’s a different way of reading this crucial passage:

When he asked the mother, “What do you want in recompense for her?” the mother said: “I want nothing but this: that forever to come when a noble tsenpo dies, [the mourners] cut off their topknots, anoint their faces with vermilion, and lacerate their bodies. The corpse of the tsenpo is to be pierced, and taken away to the people. The food is to be eaten and drunk. Will you do it like that?”

If it is the mourners who cut off their hair, paint their faces and cut their bodies, and not the tsenpo, that means we need to revise our ideas of the funeral practices of the early Tibetans a little. What interests me most is the way this reading of the text brings the funeral rituals of the tsenpos closer to those of other Eurasian cultures – for example, the Scythians. We know quite a lot about the funerals of the Scythian kings because Herodotus wrote about them in the 5th century BC. Here’s what he wrote:

The tombs of their kings are in the land of the Gerrhi, who dwell at the point where the Borysthenes is first navigable. Here, when the king dies, they dig a grave, which is square in shape, and of great size. When it is ready, they take the king’s corpse, and, having opened the belly, and cleaned out the inside, fill the cavity with a preparation of chopped cypress, frankincense, parsley-seed, and anise-seed, after which they sew up the opening, enclose the body in wax, and, placing it on a wagon, carry it about through all the different tribes. On this procession each tribe, when it receives the corpse, imitates the example which is first set by the Royal Scythians; every man chops off a piece of his ear, crops his hair close, and makes a cut all round his arm, lacerates his forehead and his nose, and thrusts an arrow through his left hand.*

And as a commentator on Herodotus recently wrote: “The magnificent funerals of the Scythian kings have several parallels among Eurasian nomads of every age…” Indeed, restricting ourselves to the practices of cutting off the hair and self-laceration among mourners, we can easily pick out the following further examples. It was reported that at the funeral of Attila the Hun, mourners cut off their hair and made deep cuts in their faces. They kept the body in a ceremonial tent for a time before being buried. The Xiongnu (a nomadic empire that ruled northern China for a while in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD) buried their kings in large tombs, and plaits of hair have been found in some of those that have been excavated. The Khazars (around in the 7th-11th centuries) buried their dead in mausoleums near rivers, and at the funerals they beat drums, whistled and lacerated their faces. And so on

What we see again and again is the mourners cutting off their hair and lacerating their faces and bodies. This seems to me to be quite persuasive circumstantial evidence for rereading the Old Tibetan Chronicle in the same way. It also shows just how much the religion of the early Tibetan clans preserved the culture of their nomadic ancestors from the northern steppes. Other aspects of the tsenpo’s funerals which I haven’t mentioned here are also found among Eurasian nomadic peoples – like the long period elapsing between death and burial; the sacrifice of animals, especially white ones, and especially horses; and the killing and entombment of the king’s retainers.

I think all this helps us to see the early Tibetan religion (at least the myths and rituals surrounding the tsenpos) in the wider Eurasian cultural matrix shared by Scythians, Huns, Khazars, Turks, Mongols, and many more people of nomadic origin. If course that was only one part of the rich cultural heritage that characterized Tibet’s pre-Buddhist religion, but thanks to the success of the tsenpos, a particularly important part.

* * *

Tibetan text

Pelliot tibétain 1287, ll.44-47: de blu na ji ‘dod ces ma la drIs na / ma na re gzhan myI ‘dod / nam nam zha zhar / btsan po rje dbyal zhig nongs na / thor to ‘phren mo ni bcings / ngo la mtshal gyis byugs / lus la ni bzhags / btsan po ‘i spur la nI ‘tshog / myI la ‘phrog lom / zas la nI za ‘thung / de ltar bya ‘am myi bya zhes mchi nas /

And another note…

I also have doubts about the latter part of Haarh’s translation, that is, the line (referring to the tsenpo’s corpse “and it should be taken away from men that it may decay.” In Tibetan, this is myI la ‘phrog phom. For a start, I’m pretty certain the last syllable is not phom. I’ve been pouring over the image (see left) and I think the most likely reading is lom, though I’m not sure what this could mean in the context. In any case, that’s not a pha. Haarh interpreted this phom as a form of ‘bam pa, “decay”. There being no reason to read phom, there’s no reason to think the text is talking about decay. Why should it, when the point of piercing the tsenpo’s corpse was embalmment?

It’s also interesting that the Tibetan has myi la, not myi las — that is, it is not clear that the corpse is to be taken “from” the people. The point of the long delay before burial among the Scythians, Ossetians and the Mongols was to bring the corpse to various clans so that they could make offerings and pay homage. Could we read this line then as “it should be taken to the people”? As Haarh pointed out (on pages 358-60), the Old Tibetan Annals mentions corpses being placed in a ring khang, which he interpreted as a Totenhaus, or “house of the dead.” But this doesn’t necessarily exclude the possibility that the tsenpo’s corpse — like those of Scythian and Mongol leaders — was also taken of a grand tour of the major clans first.

Suggestions are welcomed, as ever…

* * *

See also
Buddhism and Bon I: the religion of the gods
The Red-Faced Men I: warriors with painted faces

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1. Asheri, David, Alan Lloyd and Aldo Corcella. 2007. A Commentary on Herodotus, Books I-IV. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
2. Baldick, Julian. 2000. Animal and Shaman: Ancient Religions of Central Asia. London: I.B. Tauris.
3. Haarh, Erik. 1969. The Yar-lun Dynasty. Copenhagen: G.E.C. Gad’s Verlag.
4. Heller, Amy. 2003. “Archeology of Funeral Rituals as revealed by Tibetan tombs of the 8th to 9th century.” Transoxiana (Ērān ud Anērān Webfestschrift Marshak 2003). Click here.
5. Herodotus. (translated by George Rawlinson). 1885. The History of Herodotus, New York: D. Appleton and Company.

* You can see the Herodotus quote above in its proper context, which is Book 4 of the Histories, here.

1. Scythian tomb-ware, from the website of CAIS (see here).
2. Pelliot tibétain 1287 (The Old Tibetan Chronicles).