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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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).

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…

* * *

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…

*  *  *

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.

*  *  *

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.

*   *  *

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).