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!

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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.