Buddhism and Empire III: the Dharma King

Among the most celebrated figures in Tibetan history are the “dharma kings” (chögyal in Tibetan) who supported Buddhism and helped it to take root in Tibet. And probably the most important of all the dharma kings is Tri Song Detsen. Prince Song Detsen was given the title Tri – meaning “throne” – when he came of age, and he wasted little time in curbing the anti-Buddhist movement that had taken root in recent years since the death of his father, the previous king.

Seeking Buddhist teachers, first from China, then from Nepal and India, he went about getting Tibet its first proper monastery. That monastery, Samyé, was built with the help of the Nepalese abbot Śāntarakṣīta and the tantric adept from modern Pakistan, Padmasambhava. The king also supervised the ordination of the first Tibetan monks, and a vast project for the translation of Buddhist scriptures into Tibetan.

That is the briefest of summaries of the traditional Tibetan view of Tri Song Detsen’s achievements. If we turn to the Dunhuang manuscripts, we find – for once – that they are much in agreement with that traditional view. Tri Song Detsen is celebrated in quite a few Dunhuang poems and prayers as a great Buddhist king. Most of these celebrations of the king have already been translated (see the References section below) but I recently came across one that seems to have been missed. And it’s really quite interesting indeed…

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IOL Tib J 466 is a scroll with a long prayer of offerings to the buddhas, bodhisattvas, deities, dharma kings and patrons of Buddhism. First among the kings is, of course, Tri Song Detsen.

I make offering to the spiritual teachers of our own Tibet,
The great dharma kings, like the great king Tri Song Detsen,
He who has mastered the royal methods of fortune,
And rules the kingdom with the sword of the sky-gods,
The magically emanated lord Tri Song Detsen;
And to those teachers who have gone to nirvāṇa,
Including Dharmāśoka, Kaniṣkā, Śīla Atidāna and so on;
To all of these propagators of the teachings
I respectfully make the offering of homage.

I suspect that this prayer dates from not too long after the reign of Tri Song Detsen himself. Every aspect of the scroll – paper, ink, handwriting, and the arrangement of the text on the page – is similar to the sutras commissioned by the last Tibetan kings at the end of the Tibetan Empire in the 840s. So the scroll may have been written only a half-century after the end of Tri Song Detsen’s reign.

The prayer puts Tri Song Detsen right into the historical tradition of dharma kings. Dharmāśoka is of course the famous Aśoka, ruler of the great Mauryan Empire in the 3rd century BC, and patron of Buddhism. Some of the edicts that he had carved throughout his empire still survive, and confirm that he was, to some extent, a Buddhist king. He is said to have convened the third council of the Buddhist sangha to clear up some doctrinal issues. As for Kaniṣka, he was the ruler of the Kushan Empire, based in Gandhara in the 2nd century AD, and we have evidence from the coins made in his reign that he supported Buddhism (among other religions). He is also credited with organizing a Buddhist council for the compilation of a Sanskrit Buddhist canon.

Considering the importance of the councils that Aśoka and Kaniṣka are supposed to have convened, it’s not surprising that the debate between Indian and Chinese Buddhism organized by Tri Song Detsen is often considered to be another council – in the grand tradition of dharma kings.

Of the identity of the king called Śīla Atidāna I have no idea. The first part of his name means “moral conduct” and the second “supreme giving”. The extreme generosity of bodhisattvas in some Buddhist stories is sometimes called “supreme giving”. One of the most popular of these stories is that of Prince Vessantara, who gave away his wife and children to a cruel Brahman (perhaps we should translate atidāna as “extreme giving”). In the end of the story the family is reunited and Vessantara is crowned king. So it could be this king that is intended here. I welcome any alternative suggestions…

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As well as associating Tri Song Detsen with this Indian tradition of dharma kings, the prayer highlights the divine and magical nature of Tibetan kingship. The king has “mastered the royal methods of fortune.” What I’ve translated here as “fortune” is the enigmatic word phywa. In later Tibet it refers to luck, fortune-telling and the like. During the time of Tibet’s imperial kings, it seems to have been the special possession of the kings, but it as a method rather than a personal quality.

In any case, there wasn’t much distinction between the kings and the gods. The prayer also says that Tri Song Detsen “rules the kingdom with the sword of the sky-gods.” What does this mean? The Tibetan kings were thought to be the descendents (literally!) of a race of gods who lived in the sky, and came down to earth to perform their kingly duty. Instead of dying, they ascended back to the sky – beamed up along a “sky-cord” made of light. Later generations, including Tri Song Detsen, were said to have lost the sky-cord connection. Nevertheless, they were still the children of the gods (lhasé). That sword is an interesting symbol of the king’s military power, something that is downplayed – if not totally ignored – by many later Buddhist historians. Did Tri Song Detsen really carry a sword said to be inherited from his divine ancestors?

So it seems to me that in this prayer Tri Song Detsen stands somewhere between the earlier vision of Tibetan kings as agents of the divine – with magical military power and special royal methods of prognostication – and ideal of the Buddhist king as a patron and practitioner of Buddhism above all else.

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Tibetan text
IOL Tib J 466/3: 5r.9–12: bdag cag bod khams kyI dge ba’I bshes gnyen//rgyal po chen po khri srong lde brtsan lastsogs pa//chos kyI rgyal po chen po rnams la mchod pa//phyva’i rgyal thabs mnga’ brnyes shing//chab srId gnam gyI lde mtshon can//’phrul rje khrI srong lde brtsan dang//dar ma sho ka/ka ni skā/shI la a tI da ṇya lastsogs//ston pa mya ngan ‘das phyIn//bstan pa rgyas mdzad thams cad la//phyag ‘tshal bsnyen bkur mchod pa dbul//

1. Karmay, Samten. 1998. “King Dza / Tsa and Vajrayāna” in The Arrow and the Spindle: Studies in History, Myths, Rituals and Beliefs in Tibet. Kathmandu: Mandala Book Point.
2. Richardson, Hugh Edward. 1998. “The Dharma that fell from Heaven” in High Peaks, Pure Earth: Collected Writings on Tibetan History and Culture, Edited with an Introduction by Michael Aris. London: Serindia.

1. Tri Song Detsen: detail of 20th c. painting, sourced from Wikipedia.
2. Coin of Kanishka, (c) The British Museum.
3. Sky-cord (OK, a tornado).

See also:
Buddhism and Empire I: A Soldier’s Prayer
Buddhism and Empire II: Portrait of a Monk

The Decline of Buddhism II: Did Lang Darma persecute Buddhism?

Chinese oxen

As I mentioned in the last post, modern scholars have questioned the traditional Tibetan story that the Tibetan emperor Lang Darma persecuted Buddhism and was consequently assassinated by a monk. The moderate critique suggests that the persecution was really just a withdrawal of patronage from the monasteries and a curtailment of the monks’ involvement in political affairs. The extreme critique (put forward by the Japanese scholar Yamaguchi) is that this whole story is a “fiction”: Lang Darma was a good Buddhist king, and was assassinated not by a monk, but by the anti-Buddhist faction at the Tibetan court.

I mentioned in the last post some of my doubts about the way one Dunhuang manuscript (Pelliot tibétain 134) was used to show that Lang Darma was a Buddhist. I also have doubts about the way another Dunhuang manuscript has been used to show that Lang Darma did not persecute Buddhism. This manuscript (Pelliot tibétain 840) is a poem that begins with a celebration of the great Buddhist emperor Trisong Detsen, and the good practice of Buddhism during his reign. The author of the poem is keen to use this to show how Buddhism should be practised:

When they were in accord with the texts of the scriptures,
The exoteric and esoteric masters
And the vajra assistants
Did not mix up their areas of expertise, and in this way
The monks knew what needed to be done, and there was no conflict.
All the people of Tibet were joyful and happy.

The author of the poem tells us that during the reign of the Trisong Detsen, the “exoteric and esoteric masters”, that is, the monks and the tantrikas (who are also known as “the two kinds of sangha” in some Dunhuang manuscripts) did not confuse their roles. Then things began to change, it seems:

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.

So, here is the passage that has been taken by some scholars to show that Buddhism continued to flourish during the reign of Lang Darma. It’s certainly true that no persecution is mentioned, but is that the whole story? What’s this about the dharma flourishing “excessively”? The Tibetan word here is ha cang, which usually means “excessive” but can also just mean “very much”. Perhaps the closest word in English is “exceedingly” which also covers both meanings. Those who take this passage to show that Buddhism was in good shape during the reign of Lang Darma and his successor Ösung take ha cang to mean “very much” and believe that the author is presenting a positive picture of the state of Buddhism. But it is only possible to do that by ignoring the next lines of the poem, which goes on like this:

Without even knowing about ethical conduct or the vinaya rules,
A vajra assistant can be bought with a donkey.
Without even having the empowerments of an assistant,
A guiding master can be bought with an ox.
Without even having the empowerments of a guide,
A vajra regent can be bought with a horse.
Without even having the empowerments of a regent,
A vajra king can be bought with an antelope.

It should be quite clear from these lines that the author actually wants to say that Buddhism, from the reign of Lang Darma onwards, has been in a parlous state. The author states with some sarcasm, that tantric masters (these are all levels of tantric master it seems) can be bought if the price is right. This is clearly meant to be in stark contrast to the time of Trisong Detsen. The last stanza of the poem continues to lament the dire state of the dharma:

Masters who are lost in the errors
Of not judging the levels of meditative experience
Know nothing of the transworldly meaning.
For every hundred students there are a thousand teachers,
And nobody listens to the divine dharma.
For every village there are ten masters,
And the number of vajra assistants is uncountable.
Everyone thinks “I am accomplished as the deity.”
In the end, since there are so many of this type,
Won’t the vajra body be destroyed?

If the author of this poem is to be believed, the problem is not that Buddhism is dying out in Tibet, but that it is flourishing so much that it is impossible to control it. The problem is a lack of authority: with nobody to judge who is a genuine tantric master and who is not, masters outnumber students, and people wrongly believe themselves to have fully accomplished the deity yoga. (These complaints are, of course, familiar tropes in later Tibetan literature, but I won’t follow that tangent here).

Now, no persecution is mentioned here, it is true, but the names of Darma and his son/nephew Ösung are not held in high regard at all, and they are contrasted with Trisong Detsen, the great Buddhist king. This attitude seems to be reflected elsewere in the Dunhuang manuscripts, in a list of kings who practised the Mahayana, which conspicuously omits Darma and Ösung (Pelliot tibétain 849).

Again, I can offer no definitive answer to the question that heads this post, but let us at least be clear that this poem in Pelliot tibétain 840 is not a celebration of the state of Buddhism during and after Lang Darma’s reign. On the contrary, it shows that Buddhism was seen as going into a decline in this period. Strangely enough, considering the later stories of persecution, the decline is caused by Buddhism flourishing “too much” so that everybody wants to be a tantric master. What this suggests, at least in the view of the author of our poem, is not that Lang Darma persecuted Buddhism, but that in some way he failed to manage the spread of Buddhism properly. Perhaps, in truth, Lang Darma was not an enemy of Buddhism, but, in his fondness for wine and hunting, neglected to take care of it.

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1. Karmay, Samten. 1981. “King Tsa/Dza and Vajrayāna”, in Tantric and Taoist Studies in Honour of R.A. Stein, vol.1, edited by M. Strickmann. Brussells: Institute belge des Hautes études chinoises. 192-294.
2. Stein, R.A. 1986 “Tibetica Antiqua IV : La tradition relative au début du bouddhisme au Tibet.” Bulletin de l’Ecole Francaise d’Extreme Orient LXXV: 169-196.
3. Yamaguchi, Zuihō. 1996. “The Fiction of King Dar-ma’s Persecution of Buddhism”. In Du Dunhuang au Japon: Études chinoises et bouddhiques offertes à Michel Soymié,edited by Jean-Pierre Drège: 231–58. Geneva: Droz.

And a Tibetological note…
Those who have read the articles by Stein, Karmay and Yamaguchi referenced above may notice that I have glided over a controversy about the following lines:

From the Divine Son Darma on down,
And from his descendent Ösung on down…

/lha sras dar ma man chad dang/
/’od srus dbon sras man chad du/

Rolf Stein translated this as “Depuis le «fils de dieu» (lha-sras) Dar-ma, depuis le «petit-fils» (dbon-sras) ‘Od-srus (lire srung)…” essentially the same as my translation. But he believed we needed to amend man chad to yan chad to get this meaning. Karmay on the other hand, amends only the last man chad to yan chad, and translates “From the time of the Divine Son, Darma / Down to the time of ‘Od-srung and his descendents.” Yamaguchi believes no amendations are needed, and translates, “Until the divine son Darma and until ‘Od-srung and his descendents…” This only makes sense if we accept his interpretation that the text is giving a positive assessment of Buddhism during the reigns of Darma and Ösung, which is hard to accept when we look at the poem as a whole. In fact I think Stein had it right, but didn’t need to amend man chad to get the meaning he wanted. We have several other instances of man chad in the Dunhuang documents, and in the cases I’ve looked at, it means “down from” or “from X down”. Examples from the OTDO website include the lists of ranks in Pelliot tibétain 1071, 1072 and 1075, the amounts of money in IOL Tib J 733.

Anyway, I will put a transcription of the whole text in a comment to this post; further suggestions are welcome (as ever).

The Decline of Buddhism I: Was Lang Darma a Buddhist?


According to traditional Tibetan history, the Tibetan Empire collapsed as a result of a chain of events that started with a persecution of Buddhism by the king Lang Darma. The story is that Lang Darma ordered that all the monasteries be closed, and that all monks should disrobe. One monk, a Lhalung Palgyi Dorjé, took it upon himself to prevent the dharma from being entirely effaced from Tibet by assassinating the emperor. The story is nicely told in Shakabpa’s Political History:

Lhalung Palgye Dorje set out for Lhasa, wearing a black hat and a black cloak with a white lining. He smeared charcoal on his white horse and concealed his bow and arrow in the long, flowing sleeves of his cloak. When he reached Lhasa he left his horse tied near a chorten (stupa) on the banks of the river and walked into the city. He found King Lang Darma ang his courtiers reading the inscription of the treaty-pillar located in front of the Jokhang Temple. Prostrating himself before the King, the monk freed his bow and arrow without being detected and then, standing up, he fired an arrow straight at the King’s heart. While the King was in his death throes and the people around him thrown into confusion, Lhalung escaped to the river bank. Mounting his horse, he forced it to swim across the river to wash the charcoal away and then, reversing his cloak so only the white lining showed, he returned to Yerpa by a devious route.

At Lang Darma’s death, it was vital to appoint the next king, but there were two claimants to that position. Both claimants had their own supporting factions, which led to more instability. Fighting between the two factions led to an even greater catastrophe–a uprising against the imperial cult itself. The royal tombs were sacked, Central Tibet descended into chaos, and the outer territories fragmented into independent kingdoms. The Tibetan Empire, which had achieved much in its few centuries of existence, had come to and end. Lang Darma is blamed for this chain of events, and has become one of the great villians of Tibetan history, and of Tibetan popular culture too, as Shakabpa points out:

A number of folk tales have since sprung up about Lang Darma. He was supposed to have had horns on his head and a black tongue. To hide his horns, he arranged his hair in two plaits, tied in a raised knot on either side. No one supposedly knew this at the time, unless it was his hairdresser. It is said that this is the origin of the practice for the Tibetan lay officials to plait their hair in this manner. It is also said that some Tibetans, when they scratch their heads and put out their tongues on meeting high-ranking persons, do so to show that they have neither horns nor black tongues.

These stories and customs are fun, and the traditional dances based on them are impressive (see the picture below). But some modern scholars have wondered whether Lang Darma really persecuted Buddhism at all. Some have suggested that rather than persecuting Buddhism, Lang Darma simply reduced government support to the monasteries as his empire became financially overstretched. At least one has argued that the whole story of the assassination is a later fabrication. The most thoroughgoing attempt to overturn the traditional story has been made by the Japanese Tibetologist Zuihō Yamaguchi. His rather brilliant article has a complicated argument, relying much on the Chinese historical sources which do not mention any assassination. For now let’s just look at one interesting aspect of Yamaguchi’s argument: his contention that Lang Darma was in fact a fervent Buddhist.

DancerYamaguchi uses a Dunhuang manuscript, Pelliot tibétain 134, as evidence that Lang Darma was really a Buddhist. The manuscript contains an aspirational prayer (mönlam) for the king upon his accession to the throne of the Tibetan Empire. According to Yamaguchi, the prayer states that Lang Darma has already made many offerings to the sangha, is particularly devoted to the Prajñāpāramitā sutra.

I think in some cases Yamaguchi’s translation seems to be stretched to show that Lang Darma was already an active Buddhist before he became king. When we look at the original manuscript, there are indeed many references to good Buddhist deeds, deeds that it is hoped Lang Darma will carry out during his kingship, but nothing clearly showing that he has already carried them out. For example, Yamaguchi translates one passage like this:

May the fact that we worship and chant the sūtra that you yourself recited, the Prajñāpāramitā, lead to all living beings obtaining the teachings of the Mahāyāna and obtaining the seeds of enlightenment.

He takes this as evidence for Lang Darma’s devotion to the Prajñāpāramitā. But I believe the passage would be better translated like this:

May the offering and hearing of the sutras, the personal teachings [of the Buddha] such as the Prajñāpāramitā, lead to all existing living beings obtaining the teachings of the Mahāyāna and obtaining the seeds of enlightenment.

Readers of Tibetan can make their own judgement (see the Tibetan text at the end of this post) but as far as I can see there’s nothing here about the king having recited the sutra himself. The part that Yamaguchi translated as “that you yourself recited” (zhal nas gsungs) actually refers to the fact that the sutras are the teachings of the Buddha, as we see in other Dunhuang Buddhist texts (like IOL Tib J 66). So, this prayer looks to me like a reference to the traditional practice of Tibetan kings acting as patrons for the writing and recitation of sutras. It is after all an aspirational prayer, representing the aspirations of the Tibetan Buddhist sangha for the new king. It functions both as an expression of devotion to the new king and as a reminder of his duties as a good Buddhist king (chögyal).

Yamaguchi has more evidence: a reference in an old catalogue (the Pangtangma) to a treatise called Analysis of the Difficult Points of the Madhyamaka, written by a certain King Pal Dünten. Now, U Dünten is the real name of Lang Darma, which is really a kind of nickname. If the king really wrote a philosophical treatise on that most difficult of subjects, could he really have become a persecutor of Buddhism? Perhaps this really does clinch Yamaguchi’s argument for a Buddhist Lang Darma. Yet the attribution of Buddhist philosophical texts to kings is not quite convincing. Several such texts are attributed to Trisong Detsen too, but would he really have had the time to write them? Isn’t it more likely that such texts were ordered by the king, and ghostwritten by a scholar?

And what about the contemporary Chinese sources, like the Tang Annals, which describe Lang Darma as “fond of wine, enjoying hunting, amorous, brutal and cruel”? The first part of his nickname, Lang, means “ox” and is supposed to have described his ox-like build. This fits with the rather brutish character described in the Tang Annals. But the second part of the name, Darma, is an old Tibetan way of transcribing the word dharma. So the contradictory images of Lang Darma are right there in his name. Now I must end this post, still without an answer to the question with which it began.

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1. Karmay, Samten G. 2003. “King Lang Darma and His Rule”. In Tibet and Her Neighbours: A History, ed. Alex McKay. London: Hansjörg Mayer: 57-66.
2. Petech, Luciano. 1994. “The Disintegration of the Tibetan Kingdom”. In Tibetan Studies, edited by Per Kværne. Oslo: The Institute for Comparative Research in Human Culture. 649–659.
3. Richardson, Hugh. 1971. “Who was Yum-brtan?” In Études tibétaines dédiées à la mémoire de Marcelle Lalou, edited by Ariane MacDonald. Paris. 433–43. Republished in High Peaks, Pure Earth, edited by Michael Aris. London: Serindia Publications.
4. Scherrer-Schaub, Cristina A. 2000. “Prières pour un apostat: fragments d’histoire Tibétaine”. Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie 11: 217-46.
5. Shakabpa, Tsepon W.D. 1967. A Political History of Tibet. New Haven: Yale University Press.
6. Yamaguchi, Zuihō. 1996. “The Fiction of King Dar-ma’s Persecution of Buddhism”. In Du Dunhuang au Japon: Études chinoises et bouddhiques offertes à Michel Soymié,edited by Jean-Pierre Drège: 231–58. Geneva: Droz.

Tibetan texts
Dkar chag ‘phang thang ma / Sgra sbyor bam po gnyis pa. Beijing: Mi rigs dpe skrun khang. 2003.

Pelliot tibétain 134, ll. 39-40: zhal nas gsungs pa’I mdo sde/ shes rab gyI pha rol tu phyIn pa la stsogspa mchod cIng phlags pa yang srog cagso ‘tshal gyIs theg pa chen po’I chos thoste//byang chub kyI sa bon thob par gyur cIg/

And a note on Lang Darma’s name…
As mentioned above, Glang Dar ma is a nickname, and is not found in any of the pre-11th century documents (though he is known as Khri or Lha sras Dar ma). The king’s proper name was U’i dun/dum brtan, a rather unusual name which is confirmed by the Dunhuang manuscripts. As for the nickname Glang (“ox”), there are two possibilities, both found in Tibetan histories: (i) that it refers to the year of his birth, the ox year 809, or (ii) that it refers to his ox-like build. Since some of the earliest sources that use the name Glang for the king give his birthdate as 803 (not a year of the ox), Yamaguchi decided that the second option must be the correct one. As for Dar ma, we do find it in several Dunhuang manuscripts from the imperial period with the meaning of dharma or dharma text. According to Yamaguchi it can also mean “youth” but I haven’t seen this meaning attested in the Dunhuang texts.

Christianity in early Tibet


Perhaps it was a forgone conclusion that Tibet would become a Buddhist country, surrounded as it was by the Buddhist kingdoms of India, China and Central Asia. Nevertheless, Tibet was subject to other the influences of other religions during its formative period, and among those influences we may perhaps include Christianity.

The best evidence of the involvement of Christian missionaries in early Tibet comes in the letters of Timothy I, who was Patriarch of the Nestorian Church between 780 and 823, overlapping with the reigns of three of Tibet’s great Buddhist emperors, Trisong Detsen, Senaleg and Ralpachen. Timothy I’s letters contain a couple of references to Tibet. In one letter, he lists the lands in which the Trisagion, one of the oldest Christian prayers, is recited. This list includes Tibet. In another letter, Timothy relates that he has recently appointed a metropolitan bishop for the Turks, and is about to do the same for the Tibetans. These references both date to the early 790s, during Trisong Detsen’s reign.

Another kind of evidence is the many examples of crosses carved onto rocks in Western Tibet and its neighbouring regions. Some examples were recorded by A.H. Francke in the early 20th century. The first of these crosses has a Tibetan inscription, “…in the year of the pig.”

Francke 1925 plate

As far as I know this is the only record of cross with a Tibetan inscription from Western Tibet. In addition, Giuseppe Tucci found small metal crosses, apparently worn as ornaments, in the same regions.

Dunhuang saintNow let’s turn to Central Asia, where we have another interesting assortment of crosses, and a Tibetan reference to Jesus the Messiah. First of all, there is a rather beautiful painting from Dunhuang, which at first glance looks like a bodhisattva. On closer inspection, we can see that his crown and necklace are adorned with crosses. What we have here seems to be a picture of a Christian (probably Nestorian) saint, by an artist trained in the Chinese style. Roderick Whitfield dates the painting to the late 9th century, shortly after the Tibetan rule of Dunhuang.

We have more evidence of Christian influence among the Tibetan manuscripts. There is a divination (mo) text, Pelliot tibétain 351, which is mainly Buddhist in character, but includes the following surprising passage:

Man, your ally is the god called “Jesus Messiah”. He acts as Vajrapāṇi and Śrī Śākyamuni. When the gates of the seven levels of heaven have opened, you will accomplish the yoga that you will receive from the judge at the right hand of God. Because of this, do whatever you wish without shame, fear or apprehension. You will become a conqueror, and there will be no demons or obstructing spirits. Whoever casts this lot (mo), it will be very good.

Géza Uray argued that the Christian elements here must have come from a Nestorian source, especially the idea of Jesus as the judge at the right hand of god, which is found in the Nicene Creed of the Nestorians, a copy of which is found in a Sogdian 9th-10th century manuscript in Turfan, not so far from Dunhuang. Rolf Stein, on the other hand, argued for a Manichaean source. Perhaps the source is not terribly important here anyway, since Jesus seems simply to have joined the array of local and Buddhist deities.

Uray also located drawings of crosses on two Dunhuang manuscripts from the French collection, Pelliot tibétain 1182 and 1676. There is nothing Christian in the writings on these manuscripts; the first contains a scribe’s doodles and writing exercises, while the second is a copy of the Prajñāpāramitā in 100,000 verses

To these I’d like to add another cross, one that nobody has ever mentioned it before, partly no doubt because the manuscript was passed over in de la Vallée Poussin’s catalogue and didn’t even have a number until recently. IOL Tib J 766 contains the sketch of a cross that is shown at the top of this post (just click on that image to view the whole manuscript). The manuscript is just a strip of paper, probably an offcut from a manuscript, which has been used as a doodle pad by a scribe. The writing is Tibetan and a Sogdian or Uighur script, perhaps both written by the same scribe, who may have been a Uighur Turk who also wrote in Tibetan. As we know that Nestorianism was quite popular among the Uighurs, this would make sense.

This particular cross has three beads at the end of each arm. It’s quite similar to the one in Pelliot tibétain 1182, which has three lines at the end of each arm, and to the cross in the crown of the saint pictured above, which has two beads at the end of each arm.

Having reviewed the evidence, it seems after that Buddhism was never in much danger of being supplanted by Christianity in Tibet. Even so, when we think about Timothy I’s appointment of a bishop for Tibet during the reign of Trisong Detsen, and see sketches of crosses surrounded by Tibetan writing in the Dunhuang manuscripts it becomes possible to imagine an alternative history. And having this so clearly, and visually, impressed upon us might encourage us to think again about the reasons for the ultimate success of Buddhism in Tibet.

1. Francke, A.H. 1925. ‘Felseninschriften in Ladakh’. In Sitzungsberichte der Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften. Philosophisch-Historische Klasse. Jahrgang 1925: 366-371.
2. Klimkeit, H.J. 1979. ‘Das Kreuzessymbol in der zentralasiatischen Religionsbegegnung’. In Zeitschrift für Religions-und Geistesgeschichte 31.1: 99-116.
3. Stein, R.A. ‘Une mention du manichéisme dans le choix du bouddhisme comme religion d’état par le roi tibétain Khri-sroṅ lde-bcan. In Indianisme et bouddhisme: Mélanges offerts á Mgr Étienne Lamotte. Louvain-la-Neuve. 329–337.
4. Tucci, Guiseppe. 1973. Transhimalaya. London: Barrie & Jenkins. [Translated from the French by James Hogarth.]
5. Uray Géza. ‘Tibet’s Connections with Nestorianism and Manicheism in the 8th–10th Centuries’. In Steinkellner and Tauscher (eds), Contributions on Tibetan Language, History and Culture. Vienna: Arbeitskries für Tibetische und Buddhistische studien Universität Wien.

Do also visit the Tibeto-Logic blog for a fascinating dissection of the popular story of Jesus’s visit to Tibet.

Dharma from the sky I: Legends and history

Blue sky

We ‘modern’ historians are inclined to place much of the material that makes up traditional Tibetan histories into the category of legend. We might want to explore the possibility that actual historical occurrences may lie behind the legends. On the other hand we may want to argue that the legends should be treated as valid in their own right, as part of the construction of Tibetan historical identity (perhaps in this case we might think of ourselves as ‘post-modern’ historians). Rather than pursuing that particular argument here, I want to suggest that ‘traditional’ Tibetan historians did not themselves accept all of the legendary material that was handed down to them in their own historical tradition. Indeed the debate about how appropriate it might be to apply the principles of rational thought to these legends existed in Tibet for centuries.

A case in point is the story of the first appearance of Buddhism in Tibet, a story that goes back at least as far as the Pillar Testament (i.e. 11th-12th centuries). The story is that a casket containing Buddhist books fell from the sky and landed on the roof of the Tibetan royal palace. This was during the reign of King Lhatotori, who is said to have ruled five generations before the first historically dated Tibetan king, Songtsen Gampo, which would take us back to the fifth century (though the traditional histories date him much earlier). Neither the king nor anyone else in Tibet was able to read these heaven-sent texts. The king resealed the casket and gave it a name, the Secret Potency (gnyan po gsang ba). The casket then remained untouched in the palace until it was reopened by Songtsen Gampo, so that the texts could be translated.

Now, there was an argument between Tibetan historians about whether this story of the books falling from the sky was a historical fact. The opinion that it was not was put forth by the 13th-century Tibetan scholar Nelpa Paṇḍita. He argued that the books, rather than falling from he sky, were brought to Tibet by an Indian scholar and a Khotanese translator. According to Nelpa Paṇḍita, when the two men presented the King Lhatotori with the books, they discovered that he could neither read them nor understand their meaning. Realizing the futility of their mission, they returned to from whence they came. Nelpa Paṇḍita suggests that the story about the casket falling from the skies was simply made up by the Bönpos (the pre-Buddhist religious of Tibet) based on their reverence for the sky.

Although this alternative account never replaced the story of the books falling from the sky, many later Tibetan histories gave both versions. However, the Fifth Dalai Lama, for one, clearly felt that the original version of the story ought to be defended. In his 17th-century work Song of the Spring Queen he launched a highly personal criticism against Nelpa Paṇḍita, and defended the original legend:

Nelpa Paṇḍita’s belief that it is absurd for a casket to fall from the sky is proof of his stupidity. In the auspicious circumstances in which the teachings were first discovered, the magical activities and compassion of noble individuals go beyond thought.

It is interesting to see that the Great Fifth (as he was often known) specifically defends the irrationality of the story. What is at stake is clearly whether one should depend primarily on rational “thought” (Tib. bsam) in assessing historical accounts, in particular those accounts which treat of the foundations of Tibetan Buddhism.

From the point of view of rational thought, Nelpa Paṇḍita’s version of the story is quite credible. If the kingdoms of Central Tibet did have any contact with Buddhism and Buddhist texts before the expansions of the 7th century, it would have been through the agency of individuals making the journey to Tibet from neighbouring Buddhist regions. Some of these individuals, whether merchants or missionaries, may have brought books with them. This is the opinion of the 20th-century Tibetan historian W.D. Shakabpa, who in his Tibet: A Political History favours Nelpa Paṇḍita’s version of the story. In his opinion, the king told his ministers that the books had fallen from the sky because he didn’t want them to know that they had come from India.

In any case, I think this shows that the debate about the role of rationality in assessing historical facts is very much a part of the Tibetan historical tradition. It’s also clear that the historian who wonders what real occurrences might lie behind historical legend is not a creature found only in our ‘modern’ historiography.

See also
Dharma from the Sky II: Indian or Chinese dharma?
Dharma from the Sky III: Self-appointed Buddhas

Shakabpa, Tsepon W.D. 1967. Tibet: A Political History. New Haven: Yale University Press. [pp.24-25]

Tibetan sources
1. Bka’ chems ka khol ma [The Pillar Testament]. Kan su’i mi rigs dpe skrun khang. 1989. [p.91]
2. Ngag dbang blo bzang rgya mtsho (The Fifth Dalai Lama). Dpyid kyi rgyal mo’i glu dbyangs [Song of the Spring Queen]. Available as THDL e-text. [section 3.2]
3. Nel pa paṇḍita / Helga Uebach. Nel-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. [folios 7a4–7b3]

And many thanks…

Blogisattva Awards 2008To the organizers and jurors of the 2008 Blogisattva Awards, who awarded this post and the one that follows it “Best Multi-Part Blog Post”!

The red-faced men III: The red-faced women

Nomad woman

Sometimes it’s good to be wrong. It can make the questions you were asking more interesting. In the last two posts I’ve been discussing the characterization of the early Tibetans as ‘the red-faced men’. Although the Tibetan term itself (gdong dmar can) does not specify a gender, I have been using the masculine noun. My reasoning was that the term as we find it in the original Khotanese texts derived from encounters with the Tibetan army, so I came to the conclusion that the red face decoration was applied primarily by soldiers going into battle. So much for ‘the red-faced men’.

In fact, recent archaeological evidence that I have only just now become aware of (thanks to Kazushi Iwao) clearly shows that red face decoration was worn in civilian life, and by women as well as men. In 2002, the archeaologist Xu Xinguo excavated tombs in Guolimu, a village near Delingha in Qinghai Provice (Amdo), and discovered two beautifully painted coffin boards. The wooden boards, which are believed to date from the time of the Tibetan Empire, were painted with numerous scenes from everyday life, including hunting, oath-taking and funeral rites. Many of the people featured in the painting, both men and women, have faces decorated with red.

From Wenwu 2006.7 (3)

From Wenwu 2006.7 (2)

The people depicted here are probably the Azha, who were brought into the Tibetan Empire in the 7th century. But this red face painting was not just an Azha tradition; we know that it was practised in the Tibetan court itself. The Chinese Tang Annals say that Princess Wencheng, who came to marry the Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo in the 7th century, introduced various new customs to the Tibetan court (which is portrayed by the Chinese historians, not entirely fairly, as quite uncivilized). One of her innovations was to stop the Tibetans from painting their faces red.

As the princess disliked their custom of painting their faces red, Songtsen ordered his people to put a stop to the practice, and it was no longer done. He also discarded his felt and skins, put on brocade and silk, and gradually copied Chinese civilization.

It may well be that the practice originated in the nomadic tribes of the northeast and western Tibet, and was later adapted by the Central Tibetans. Amazingly, even today a similar custom of red face painting is practised by the nomads of western Tibet. Here it is only the women who paint their faces, using a preparation made from boiled whey. The pictures here were taken by Melvyn Goldstein and Cynthia Beall, who lived with the nomads of the Changtang region for over a year from 1986-88. Goldstein and Beall observed that while nomads said that the red face makeup was used to protect the skin from sunburn, it was only used by younger women and particularly when they wanted to look good. Thus it was primarily decorative. The patterns of decoration used by these women are strikingly similar to those depicted on the ancient coffin covers.

Nomad woman applying red face makeup

So it seems that the practice of red face painting (by men and women) might have originated in Tibet’s northeast and west, and then been adopted by the early Tibetans, who later abandoned it during or after the Imperial period. Some of the western nomads, however, preserved the custom, although only among women.

And so it is simply incorrect to translate the Tibetan term gdong dmar can as ‘the red-faced men’. I should, and from now on will, use ‘the red-faced people’ or ‘the red-faced ones’. Being wrong can indeed be very interesting!

*  *  *

See also
The Red-Faced Men I: warriors with painted faces
The Red-faced Men II: China or Tibet?

1. Bushell, S.W. 1880. “The Early History of Tibet: From Chinese Sources”. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 1880: 435-535. [p.445]
2. China Heritage Project. 2005. “New Discoveries in Qinghai”. China Heritage Newsletter 1 (online journal).
3. Goldstein, Melvyn and Cynthia Beall. 1990. Nomads of Western Tibet: The Survival of a Way of Life. London: Serindia Publications.
4. Luo Shiping. 2006. “A Research about the Drawing on the Coffin Board of Tubo located at Guolimu, Haixi, Qinghai Province”. Wenwu 2006.7: 68-82.
5. Yong-xian Li. 2006. “Rediscussion on the Bod-Tibetan Zhemian Custom”. Bulletin of the Department of Ethnology 25: 21-39.

1. Pictures of nomad women from Goldstein and Beall 1990: 57, 89.
2. Details from the Guolimu coffin boards from Luo Shiping 2006.

The red-faced men II: China or Tibet?

Tibetan warriors

In the illuminating discussion which followed my last post, it transpired that I was not quite correct in saying that Tibetans have always understood “the land of the red-faced men” to be Tibet (thank you, ‘Dab’). In fact no less an authority than the great historian Büton (1290-1364) suggested that in one particular source it referred China:

In the Accounts of Ba it is said that the land of the red-faced men is China.

Well, the Accounts of Ba is one of our oldest Tibetan histories, and we should pay attention to what it says. When we look into the Accounts of Ba we do indeed find a mention of a prophecy about Buddhism coming to the land of the red-faced men. A version of this story appears in both the Accounts of Ba as published by Gönpo Gyaltsen in 1980 (Sba bzhed) and the older version published by Pasang Wangdu and Hildegarde Diemberger in 2000 (Dba bzhed).

Let’s look at the oldest version of the story. While Trisong Detsen is still young and has yet to establish Buddhism in Tibet, two members of the Ba clan, Ba Selnang and Ba Sangshi, are sent to China to receive dharma texts from the Chinese emperor (this is before the invitation of Śāntarakṣita and Padmasambhava to Tibet). While they are travelling, an astrological expert in Bumsang predicts their arrival and identifies them as bodhisattvas. So by the time Ba Selnang and Ba Sangshi arrive at the Chinese court, the rumour that they are bodhisattvas has preceded them, and they get quite a reception. I quote from the Wangdu/Diemberger Accounts of Ba:

The Chinese emperor said [to Ba Selnang and Ba Sangshi]: “You are the two bodhisattvas who should have arrived at around this time according to the expert in astrological science in Bumsang. Even Kim Hashang prostrated to you. The Buddha prophesied that a spiritual master for the practice of the holy dharma would appear in a time close to the final 500 year [period of the dharma] in the land of the red-faced men. According to your behavior, you are certainly the prophesied ones.”

It is possible to see from this passage what made Butön think that the land of the red-faced men was supposed to be China. There is some ambiguity about whether the emperor is linking the prophecy to Ba Selnang and Ba Sangshi’s appearance in Tibet or to their arrival in China. I would certainly argue that the former was intended rather than the latter. Fortunately I can draw on the support of another great Tibetan historian here.

Pawo Tsuglag Trengwa (1504-1564/6) was the author of the most important Tibetan historical work yet to be translated into English: A Scholar’s Feast (Mkhas pa’i dga’ ston). As a historian, Pawo was notable for his critical approach to his sources and his use of neglected and early source material. Rather than just accept Butön’s statement, he went back to look at the Accounts of Ba, and this was his conclusion:

According to the all-knowing Butön, the Accounts of Ba state that the country of the red-faced men is China. But in the Accounts of Ba it is said that when Ba Selnang and Ba Sangshi were sent to China to receive the dharma, an expert in divination said: “Emanations of bodhisattvas looking like this will come as messengers,” and he drew a picture. So when [Ba Selnang and Ba Sangshi] arrived they were given a great reception by the [Chinese] emperor. [The emperor] said, “There is a prophecy that a bodhisattva will appear in the land of the red-faced men who will be a source of the dharma. I am certain that it is you,” and he gave them 1,000 volumes of dharma. So it is very clear that the land of the red-faced men is indeed Tibet.

* * *

See also
The Red-Faced Men I: warriors with painted faces
The Red-faced Men III: the red-faced women

1. 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. [p.108]
2. Wangdu, Pasang & Hildegarde Deimberger. Dba’ bzhed: The Royal Narrative concerning the bringing of Buddha’s Doctrine to Tibet. Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften. [pp.48-50]

Tibetan sources

1. Bu ston rin chen grub. Chos ‘byung gsun rab rin po che mdzod [History of Buddhism]. Beijing: Khrung go bod kyi shes rig dpe skrun khang. 1988.
2. Dpa’ bo gtsug lag ‘phreng ba. Chos ‘byung mkhas pa’i dga’ ston [A Scholar’s Feast]. Varanasi: Vajra Vidya Library. 2003. [pp.167-8]
3. Sba bzhed [The Accounts of Ba]. Mgon po rgyal mtshan (ed.). Mi rigs dpe skrun khang. 1980, 1982. [p.7]