Defining Mahāyoga


Some years ago I was chatting to someone at a conference about the work I had been doing on Mahāyoga texts in the Dunhuang collections. “But what,” he asked, “is Mahāyoga anyway?” Though the later Nyingma tradition has perfectly good answers to this question, I couldn’t give him a satisfactory answer about what it meant in early (pre-11th century) Tibet. It would be good to know, because references to Mahāyoga often crop up in the Dunhuang manuscripts. Moreover, if the Testament of Ba is to be believed, when the Tibetan emperor Tri Song Detsen set up a massive Buddhist translation project in Tibet in the 9th century, he specifically banned Mahāyoga texts from being translated.

In fact it turns out that the Tibetans, during their first exposure to tantric Buddhism, had also asked themselves what Mahāyoga stands for. I found the answer in a tatty manuscript containing a text called A Summary of the View of Mahāyoga According to Scripture. So I translated that text and wrote an article all about Mahāyoga in early Tibet, which was published in 2008. I’ve finally scanned the article, and it’s now on the Author page of this site, or you can just click here.

New Publication: The Origin of the Headless Script (dbu med) in Tibet


A new collection of articles, Tibeto-Burman Languages IV, edited by Nathan Hill, is just out. Here you will find studies of fascinating languages such as Mon, Nam, Lepcha, Pyu, Tangut, and of course Tibetan. The collection also contains my study of the development of the “headless” script in Tibet. Traditionally it has been said that the headed (dbu med) and headless (dbu can) scripts were invented during the seventh century based on two different Indian scripts. In this article I argue, based on an extensive survery of the earliest examples of Tibetan writing, on rock, wood and paper, that the headless script was a later development from the headed script. This can be shown to have happened through principles of “cursivization” seen in scripts all over the world. Click here to download the article.

Ancient Tibetan Seals

Recently I spent some time at the British Museum looking at objects from the Tibetan forts of Miran and Mazar Tagh, where many of the Tibetan manuscripts that I work with at the British Library come from. The reason for the somewhat arbitrary division of textual and non-textual material from the same site across two different institutions goes back to the British Library Act of 1972. While the decision to separate the texts from the things made sense in that the British Museum simply didn’t have the space to house an ever-increasing collection of books, it also resulted – in the case of the finds from Miran and Mazar Tagh – in letters being separated from the pens that were used to write them, and the seals that were used to stamp them.

As for those seals (and if you are wondering, that’s what is pictured above), I saw these for the first time recently when Catrin Kost, who has been cataloguing the British Museum’s artifacts from Central Asia, asked me to have a look at them. When the seals (three in total) were first brought to the Museum by Aurel Stein, he had impressions taken of them, and these were read by L.D Barnett. The latter’s readings were not bad, but he let his imagination run away with him in the case of this seal, which he read as a Tibetan version of the Western name Anthony (‘Ang to ne)! In fact, these Tibetan syllables seem to be a Chinese name (Wang to ne). As you can see from the image, the name ends with a swastika, and sits on a lotus blossom. The three seals are all made from animal horns, with a hole bored through the midpoint, probably so that they could be carried on a string or leather thong. I’m not sure what animal such horns might belong to – though this might not be clear from the photo, they are very small, only about 3 inches long.
We find stamps made with this kind of round seal in lots of documents from Miran, Mazar Tagh and Dunhuang. The round seals are always used by private individuals, in contrast to the larger, more impressive square seals used by officials (see this post for some examples of those). These personal seals would function like a signature on legal documents, like contracts and receipts. Pictured below is a receipt for the repayment on a loan of wheat (IOL Tib J 844), with the seals of three people involved in the transaction.
Since they were found in a Tibetan imperial fort, these seals should date to the first half of the ninth century — so they are by far the earliest examples of Tibetan seals. As far as I know, later examples are all made from metal, as in this picture from a Chinese exhibition (but note also the presence of holes in the middle of many of the seals, and the leather thong tied through one of them):
So, let me finish with an attempt to read the names on the three seals.
1. MAS.606 (pictured at top): this seems to be Wang To ne, certainly a Chinese surname, and probably a Chinese personal name as well.
2. MAS.607 (pictured above): Written in the four spaces marked out by a swastika, we have the Tibetan clan name Gnyos followed by Lha la brtsan. I’m quote sure about the brtsan but not so much about the lha la, if anybody else wants to try their hand, or eye. Barnett read it as khal.
3. MAS.608 (pictured above): This seal is now quite damaged, but if you click on the link to the IDP site, you can see a the imprint taken by Stein. The name I see is ‘O nam Gnyan lha, a clan name (‘O nal) that we also see in the Miran documents, and a common imperial period personal name (Gnyan lha). Similarly to the first seal, the name is flanked by swastikas and sits above a lotus.
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Further Reading
British Museum: Search the Collection – if you type in the seals’ numbers here (e.g. MAS.606) you can see the full description by Catrin Kost, which includes my own readings.
Aurel Stein’s description of the Miran site and its artefacts, as well as the seal impressions are in: Stein, Mark Aurel, Serindia, Oxford: Clarendon, 1921 (vol.1, p.480).
The beautiful new photographs of the seals shown here are all by IDP photographer Rachel Roberts, and are (c) The British Museum.

Blood writing

There is something compelling about the idea of a text written in blood. The 20th century Chinese writer Lu Xun once said “Lies written in ink can never disguise facts written in blood.” Here the phrase “written in blood” is metaphorical — Lu Xun was talking about the killing of student protesters — but resonates with Chinese history, as China does actually have a tradition of writing in blood. The tradition was especially present in Buddhism and the earliest surviving examples we have are from the Dunhuang manuscript collections. For example, there is a booklet containing the Diamond Sutra (S.5451) with the following colophon (as translated by Lionel Giles):

Copied by an old man of 83, who pricked his own hand to draw blood [to write with], on the 2nd day of the 2nd moon of bingyan, the 3rd year of Tianyu [27 Feb. 906].

Using one’s own blood to write Buddhist sutras is an ascetic practice, that can be included in along with other, more drastic ascetic practices that were practiced in China over the centuries, including slicing off parts of one’s flesh, burning oneself with incense, burning off a finger, or even complete self-immolation (on which, see the book by James Benn in the references). Much later, in the 17th century, a Chinese writer defended the practice of blood writing against its detractors:

Those disciples of “crazy wisdom” (kuanghui 狂慧) belittle it [blood-writing] as [involving] “corporeality” (youxiang 有相). But among the root causes of beginningless birth and death, none is deeper than the very perception of the body (shenjian 身見)… This [practice of blood-writing] is called paying reverence to the Correct Dharma; it is also called using the Dharma to make offering to Buddha. The Lotus and Śuramgama [sutras] have profound praise for incinerating one’s limbs and fingers, as well as the merits from burning incense [into one’s body]. The practices of severing the limb of afflictions and burning the body of ignorance are situated precisely in this very flesh and blood.

So, what about Tibet? It is my impression that this kind of extreme ascetic practice in general, and blood writing in particular, is historically less common among Tibetan than Chinese Buddhists. The manuscript pictured above (IOL Tib J 308) therefore strikes me as an exception. It certainly looks like it is written in blood: the colour is reddish-brown, and appears to congeal in some places. In fact, it looks much more like blood than the writing in the book by the 83-year-old man, which looks like ordinary ink. In that case, perhaps, the old man just added a few drops of blood to the inkwell.


Recently, I had the chance to have the ink in this Tibetan manuscript examined by Renate Noller, a specialist in pigment identification at the Bundesanstalt für Materialforschung und -prüfung. Her results are yet to be published, but this particular ink turned out to have a very high iron content. Now, there are inks made with iron (in the West, iron gall ink was particularly popular, and was used, for example, by Leonardo da Vinci in all his manuscripts), but that tends to darken with time to a browny-black, and lacks the clotted quality of this manuscript. If you look closely, you can see that the scribe was dipping his pen very frequently, that the ink went down very thickly and then ran out after a couple of letters.

The text that is (perhaps) written in blood in IOL Tib J 308 is the Sutra of Aparimitayus, a very popular text in Tibet, on the visualisation and the mantra of a deity representing long life and rebirth in a pure land. In the 840s thousands of scrolls of this sutra were written at Dunhuang at the behest of the Tibetan emperor, to ensure his long life through the religious merit generated by copying the sutra. This manuscript is not one of those, and to judge from its archaic orthography and “square” style, may be even older than them. Still, the motivation for copying the sutra is probably the same. If it was written in blood, this act would have given a greater value to the act of copying of the sutra, and thus to the merit generated by doing so.

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James Baskind. 2007. “Mortification Practices in the Obaku School“, in Essays on East Asian Religion and Culture, edited by Christian Wittern and Shi Lishan, Kyoto.

James Benn. 2007. Burning for the Buddha. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

John Kieschnick. 2000. “Blood Writing in Chinese Buddhism.” JIABS 23.2: 177–194.

John Kieschnick. 2002. The impact of Buddhism on Chinese material culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Jimmy Y. Yu. 2007. “Bodies of Sanctity: Ascetic Practices in Late Imperial China“. Dissertation prospectus, Princeton University. (Source of the 17th century passage above.)

Jimmy Y. Yu. 2012. Sanctity and Self-Inflicted Violence in Chinese Religions. New York: Oxford University Press.

The Earliest Evidence of Bonpo Rituals?

A record of a ritual to a local deity, found in Miran (IOL Tib J 255)

The four-sided, pointed stick pictured above was found in the desert fortress of Miran by Aurel Stein in 1907. Along with the most of Stein’s acquisitions, it was then sent to London, where it was placed in the India Office Library, to be ignored by almost everyone except the librarian FW Thomas, who attempted to read the Tibetan writing on all of its four sides, and published his translation in his Tibetan Literary Texts and Documents in the 1950s.

The stick is all that remains of a ritual performance, which is recorded in Tibetan writing on each of its four sides. The writing tells us that this was a ritual for a local deity (yul lha) carried out by a team of ritual specialists including a bon po. Like the other documents from Miran, it dates from the time when the fort was an outpost of the Tibetan empire, which began to fall apart in the middle of the 9th century. This stick probably dates from a few years (perhaps a few decades) before that collapse.

So what we have seems to be a record of the actual performance of a ritual dating back to the time of the Tibetan empire. I think this must be by far the earliest reliable documentary evidence of the actual ritual activities of people identifying themselves as bon po.

Why is this interesting? There has been a debate going on in Tibetological circles for some time about the early non-Buddhist Tibetan religion, which was probably not known as Bon but was practised by ritualists known as bon po. The relationship between this early complex of ritual practices and the religion known as Bonpo (now accepted as one of the schools of Tibetan Buddhism) is complicated. Modern scholarship has cast doubt on the accounts of the Bonpo tradition about its own history, transmitted in texts which generally date from after the 10th century. Those attempting to understand the nature of the early non-Buddhist Tibetan religion have often turned to the Dunhuang manuscripts as an alternative source of evidence (I wrote more about this a while ago in this post).

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A fresco from one of the stupas near the Miran fort, predating the Tibetan occupation by several centuries

There are quite a few manuscripts from Dunhuang about non-Buddhist ritual practices like funerals, divination and healing. I could write much more about them, but to show why the wooden dockets from Miran are so interesting, I’ll just say why the Dunhuang sources are somewhat unsatisfactory. First, as the Dunhuang cave seems to have been sealed in the early 11th century, these manuscripts may not date from much earlier than the transmitted texts of the Bonpo tradition, weakening claims by scholars that they are the more authentic sources. Second, the Dunhuang manuscripts are literary sources (though probably derived from oral traditions), mostly narratives or paradigms which would have presumably have supported ritual practice, but are not evidence for what people were actually doing.

On the other hand, the dockets from Miran can be dated, with some confidence, to the 9th century, and probably to Tibet’s imperial era. As records of actual ritual events, they let us know that this was not a merely a literary tradition, but a living practice. And unlike the literary texts, they are firmly local, telling us who the officiants of the ritual were, why the ritual was carried out, and the local deities to whom the ritual was addressed. The offer us the chance to see the activities of the bon po (as well as other ritual officiants like gshen), “on the ground.”

The remains of the Tibetan fort at Miran (Tib. Nob cung)

So, what kinds of rituals were being performed for the Tibetan military officials of the Miran fort? Unsurprisingly, there are quite a few records of funerals (see for example IOL Tib N 330). It is difficult to work out exactly what happened in the course of these rituals (despite Thomas’s valiant attempts at translation). It looks to me like the main aim of the funeral was to guide the “mental principle” (thugs) of the deceased to the right level (gral). One of the practices accompanying this seems to be a libation offering: most of the funeral records specify a precise number of spoonfuls (yams) of a sacred beverage (skyems) to be offered.  Reference to a “beverage offering” (skyems gsol) in the Old Tibetan Annals suggests that some form of this practice goes back to the 7th century or earlier.

But it is only in another kind of ritual, the supplication of local deities, that we find the four-sided pointed sticks like the one at the top of this post. I don’t know the reason for the stick’s being carved into this shape, and any ideas would be welcomed (could it represent an arrow, for example?). The ritual supplications are directed to a variety of deities, including the local deities (yul lha), and minor spirits like sman and g.yang. In these rituals, the main officiant is called lha bon po, that term lha presumably indicating his special role towards deities. The other officiant is the gshen, and it is interesting to see that it was the norm, rather than the exception, for these two types of ritualist to work together.

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There’s much more to be said about these ritual dockets, but I’ll conclude with a thought about the people who produced them. Clearly they were the soldiers and officials manning the outposts of the Tibetan empire in Central Asia. In two cases, we have the names of the people who either officiated or commissioned the ritual, and they both have the high official rank of blon. So it seems that well after the official adoption of Buddhism as the Tibetan state religion, the practice of non-Buddhist rituals was common (perhaps even standard) among the Tibetan ruling class. In a sense, this shouldn’t surprise us. Perhaps more surprising is that one of the dockets (IOL Tib N 279) mentions the presence of 21 Buddhist monks (dge ‘dun) at a funeral ritual.  It is difficult to say from this source whether these monks were carrying out the role normally performed by the bon po or were just in attendance at a (non-Buddhist) funeral for a deceased member of their sangha. Either scenario is intriguing.

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I have written an article on these and other early sources on non-Buddhist Tibetan ritual practice, provisionally titled “The Naming of Tibetan Religion: Bon and Chos in the Imperial Period,”which  will come out at some point in the near-ish future, and I’ll post a notification when it does.

FW Thomas’s translations can be found in the section “Government and Social Conditions” of his Tibetan Literary Texts and Documents concerning Chinese Turkestan, Part II: Documents, Royal Asiatic Society, London, 1951.

For some interesting discussion of the term bon in the early period, and the dates of the Dunhuang sources, see Henk Blezer, “Ston pa gshen rab: Six Marriages and Many More Funerals.” Revue d’Études Tibétaines 15 (2008): 421–479. PDF available right here.

The reference to skyems gsol in the Old Tibetan Annals is in the year 682-3. See the translation at p.94 of Brandon Dotson’s The Old Tibetan Annals: An Annotated Translation of Tibet’s First History. Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2009. The Tibetan text of the Annals and many early ritual texts from Dunhuang are freely available over at OTDO.

I also recommend having a look at Vincent Bellezza’s translation of a narrative on the “golden libation” (gser skems) recently found in the Gathang stupa.

Finally, for all other matters bibliographic see Dan Martin’s extensive online Bon bibliography.

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Afterthought on the date of the Miran documents

While we know that Dunhuang was swept away from the Tibetans in the year 848, the exact date of the fall of Miran is unknown. In The Tibetan Empire in Central Asia (p.172), Christopher Beckwith states that Miran remained in Tibetan hands into the 850s, but then “passed out of the historian’s ken”. It seems likely to me that this passing out of history was accompanied by the swift decline of the fort as a functional part of the Tibetan empire. Without the imperial support network that kept these outposts going (of which we know quite a lot from many of the other wooden documents from Miran), it is not likely that they could have continued to function for very long. Their Tibetan inhabitants would then have returned to Tibet proper, or to the nearest cities with large Tibetophone populations, like Liangzhou. In their language and palaeography, the ritual dockets belong among the military documents that form the bulk of the Miran manuscripts, and thus I think should be considered a part of the culture of imperial Tibet, even if their exact terminus ad quem is not known.

The First Tibetan Buddhist Biographies?

The vast amount of biographical and autobiographical literature produced in Tibet over the centuries is an interesting phenomenon. For a culture so pervaded by the Buddha’s teaching of non-self, there is an awful lot of writing about the lives of individuals. And, interestingly, this is something that was not done to the same extent in India, the primary source of Tibetan Buddhism. Biographical writing in Tibet began in earnest after the ‘later diffusion’ of Buddhism from the eleventh century onwards, in new lineages like the Kadam and Kagyu. So we don’t have much in the Dunhuang collections that could be called ‘religious biography’, but what we do have is intriguing, and I’d like to point out two manuscripts which might help us understand the origins of Tibetan Buddhist biographical writing.

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The first manuscript, Pelliot tibétain 996, was one of the first Tibetan manuscripts from Dunhuang to be published in a full edition and translation, done by Marcelle Lalou in 1936. It is an account of a lineage of Chan teachers, giving very brief accounts of their lives and deaths. In the case of the monk Namkhai Nyingpo, most of the ‘life-story’ is about the auspicious events surrounding his death:

When the teacher Namkai Nyingpo donated a statue to the incarnation at Triga Shingyon, light emanated from it. Later, when he was living in the retreat centre of Yamyog, there were miraculous signs including the passing over of a five-coloured cloud. One day, when he was practising the dharma path, and had just completed his vow to abide in the good qualities of recitation (he was 71, and it was the 29th day of the spring of the year of the dog, and he was at the Zhongpong hermitage), he sat cross-legged and unmoving, and passed away, without any change in his complexion. That night, in the middle of the sky between the mountain range of Zhongpong, which extends below the retreat centre, and  Mount Srinpo, two great streams of light emerged and lit up the whole of the realm, before disappearing into the west.

The text goes on to tell of the homages that were paid to Namkhai Nyingpo by other Chan masters, and the feast offering that was held in his honour, which was also accompanied by miraculous lights. One of the striking things about this passage (and the others like it in the same text) is that it seems to prefigure the ‘rainbow body’ phenomena said to accompany the death of Dzogchen masters (this has been pointed out by Matthew Kapstein in “The Divine Presence of Light”). But that is to look ahead by several centuries. Closer to the time and place of this manuscript, there is a parallel in a Chinese manuscript on cloud divination, which has this passage:

Whenever a five-colour vapour is seen above someone’s house and it remains there steadily during the last days of the month, the first day of the following one […] morning, and if [the vapour above] the house has mostly greenish-blue, this is the vapour of a dead body; if mostly red, it is the vapour of gold and jade; if mostly yellow, this house will go through extensive renovation works; if mostly white, this land has copper and iron; if mostly black, this house will serve as the abode of the divine spirit (shen).

This is from Imre Galambos’s translation of Or.8210/S.3326 (to see the complete text click here). I’m sure Sinologists will be able to come up with many other examples of cloud and light imagery. As for the light disappearing towards the west, this looks like an allusion to Sukhāvati, the western pure land of the buddha Amitabha. In any case, it’s clear that the life (or death) stories in Pelliot tibétain 996 are ‘biographical’ and thus some of the earliest examples of Tibetan religious biography. Though a truly international lineage (with a Central Asian, two Chinese and two Tibetan monks), the lineage, and many of the motifs in it, are Chinese.

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So what of the other biography? Unlike Pelliot tibétain 996, which was published some seven decades ago, Pelliot tibétain 149 was completely unstudied when I selected it for a reading class at SOAS. Intrigued by this brief text (just a single, closely written folio), I worked on it some more with Lewis Doney, who had taken the class, and we published an article about it in 2009 (click here for the PDF of that article). The manuscript is a brief introduction to the hugely popular prayer known as (in one of the shorter forms of the name) the Bhadracaryā-praṇidhāna. It begins with the story of Sudana, the hero of the Gaṇḍhavyūha sutra, going in search of the prayer, and eventually receiving it from Samantabhadra himself.

Next the action shifts to Tibet, where the Tibetan translation of the prayer becomes the daily practice of the abbot of Samye, Ba Palyang. The abbot has a dream, which he can’t explain, of thousands of people gathered in seven golden courtyards. He goes to ask the emperor, Tri Song Detsen, who goes to ask the Indian scholar known as Khenpo Bodhisattva (AKA Śāntarakṣita), who interprets the dream to mean that the abbot should recite the prayer continuously for three days and three nights.

This task proves too much for the abbot, who goes to the emperor and explains that due to his physical frailties, he has not been able to do as he was told. So, he asks for leave to go to somewhere more conducive, the mountain retreat of Chimpu. The emperor not only agrees, but gallantly escorts the abbot for the first day’s riding out of Lhasa. Before they part, the emperor and the abbot each place a hand on the other’s heart and recite the prayer together.

As he approaches Chimpu, the abbot is met by two strangers, who tell him that they have seen strange omens, including rainbows appearing in the sky, and a voice telling them to go and meet Ba Palyang. When the abbot tells them of his own dream, they agree that they should all travel together. As they travel they recite the prayer together. When they reach the part about perceiving the buddha Amitabha and going to the land of Sukhāvati, they ascend into the sky, cast away their bodies, and arrive in the pure land itself.

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So, we can see that this second biographical fragment is somewhat different from the first. It is not a description of a lineage per se, but rather a narrative framework for a sacred text, one that links the Tibetan text to the Indian original through parallel stories (the spiritual searches of Sudana and Ba Palyang) rather than through a person-to-person lineage. And yet there are many of the features that we associate with religious biography, including personal spiritual development in reliance on scriptural transmission, a certain degree of personal fallibility, which is overcome, and an auspicious end to the life-story (even if in this case that end comes unexpectedly swiftly).

But it’s interesting, as well, that these two precursors of the Tibetan biographical tradition, apparently coming from quite different contexts, have so much in common: both lives are told in terms of dreams and/or visions, and end with the apotheosis of the subject in the pure land of Amitabha. We can probably agree that the aim of the authors of both works was to generate faith and awe — but in what? Surely not simply in the individual figures of Ba Palyang and Namkai Nyingpo.

In our first example, the life-story is told in the context of a Buddhist lineage, and in the second, in the context of a Buddhist text and its recitation. In the uncertain period after the fall of the Tibetan empire, these two things, lineages and the texts/practices they transmitted, were the tenuous means by which the Buddha’s teachings would survive or fall in Tibet. I know one can’t draw wide-ranging conclusions from such a small pool of evidence, but I am tempted to say that what we are seeing is a the appearance of religious biographical writing at a pressure point in history, when the Buddhist institutions introduced by the Tibetan emperors were crumbling, and nothing had yet emerged to take their place.

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Janet Gyatso, Apparitions of the Self: The Secret Autobiographies of a Tibetan Visionary. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Matthew Kapstein (ed.), The Presence of Light: Divine Radiance and Religious Experience. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Marcelle Lalou. “Document tibétain sur l’expansion du dhyāna chinois.”  Journale Asiatique (1939): 505–523.

Sam van Schaik and Lewis Doney.  The Prayer, the Priest and the Tsenpo: An Early Buddhist Narrative from Dunhuang.” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 30.1–2 (2007): 175–217.

* There is an online PDF of Helmut Eimer’s “The Development of the Biographical Traditional Concerning Atiśa here.

Tibetan Text

Pelliot tibetain 996, 2v, l.2: mkhan po nam ka’i snyIng pos/ khri ga shIng yong gi sprul pa la/ mchod pa bgyis pa las/ sku gzugs las ‘od byung ngo/ slar yam yog gi dben sar bzhud pa’i tshe/ mtshon sna lnga’i sprin gyis bskyal ba las stsogs pa’i ya mtshan byung ngo/ tshe gcig tu chos lam sgom zhing/ dbyangs pa’i yon tan la gnas pa’i yi dam mthar phyin nas/ lo bdun cu rtsa gcig ste/ khyi’i lo’i dphyid slar ba tshes nyi shu dgu la/ zhong pong gi dgon sar skyil mo grung ma g.yos/ mdangs ma gyur par dus las ‘das so/ de’i nub mo nam gi gung la/ dben sa’i lta ‘og gi zhong pong gi ri rgyud nas/ sring po ri’i bar gi nam ka la ‘od chen po gnyis rgyud chags su byung bas yul phyogs [3r] gsal bar gyur te/ nub phyogs su ‘das par gyur te/


Before anyone else points it out, I should say that in talking about ‘religious biography’ here I have ignored the rich biographical narratives in the Old Tibetan Chronicle and other early Tibetan sources that are not explicitly Buddhist. There are also other Buddhist texts that might be arguable biographical, like IOL Tib J 370, which I wrote about on this site a while ago.

Two frogs, a thousand years apart

A while ago I wrote about a Tibetan spellbook, a grimoire if you like, dating back to the ninth or tenth century. This compendium of spells is written in a tiny hand on long leaves of paper that have been stitched in the middle, creating a makeshift booklet. Across the front, the owner has written his name in big letters. Clearly this was a compendium of rituals that was owned and used by this person, and from his name, we can tell that he was a Buddhist monk. Probably, he made some kind of a living from performing these rituals for local people. Some might be shocked that a Buddhist monk would stoop to such things  — and that was the subject of a discussion on one Buddhist forum that picked up on this post. But if you’ve read any anthropological or archeological studies of Buddhist communities, you probably wouldn’t be surprised.

I’ve been reading Charles Rambles’ recent book, The Navel of the Demoness, an anthropological study of a Himalayan village in Nepal where local rituals and Buddhism exist side by side. One passage in particular reminded me of that old grimoire from Dunhuang. It was this:

The last, and perhaps most interesting, of the rites performed by Tshognam for Te is the annual rain-making ceremony. Tantric techniques for controlling the weather are nothing unusual in the Tibetan tradition: weather-makers were even employed by the Lhasa government to ensure rain at appropriate times and to keep hail off vulnerable sites. The technique used by the senior lama of Tshognam, however, does not belong to the usual Tibetan repertoire but was assimilated by his grandfather, “Doctor Dandy,” from the “outsiders’ religion” (Tib. phyi pa’i chos) — specifically, from Hinduism: he learned it, it is said, from a mendicant Indian pilgrim. The ritual is performed in the summer, with the intention of ensuring that the pastures are well watered and that the snow-melt that irrigates the buckwheat crop is supplemented with rain. The procedure, briefly, is as follows. Two hollow wax models of frogs are made. Through a hole in the back, the frogs are filled with various ingredients, including the excrement of a black dog and magical formulae written on slips of paper, and the holes are sealed with a wax lid. One of the frogs is stuffed into the mouth of one of the springs to the east of Te, and the other is burned at a three-way crossroads. The principle of this method is apparently to pollute the subterranean serpent-spirits and the sky gods, and induce them to wash away the contagion by producing water from the earth and the heavens.

Now compare this ritual with one from the Dunhuang grimoire:

This is the ritual method for people under the influence of a powerful naga or in conflict with with nagas, who have aches and swellings, or are crippled:

Take one handful of the ground barley flour and make it into the shape of a frog. In a cavity made with a bamboo stick, mix up an ointment of various ingredients and apply it to wherever the ache is. Meditate on your own yidam. From the direction of the west, Hayagrīva-Varuna appears with his entourage. Led by black emanations, he sits on a throne. Holding a water lasso, he tames the nagas and plagues. Then all sicknesses are drawn forth and destroyed by frog emanations. Visualise this and augment it with: “om ba du na ‘dza/ ba ga bhan a tra/ sa man ti/ to ba bha ye sva’ ha’/ hri ha hum”

Lift up the frog, and if a golden liquid emerges from under it, you will definitely recover. If it is merely moist, then you will recover before too long. If there is only meat with gluey flour, you will be purified by the end of your illness. It is not necessary to do the ritual again. If there is only gluey flour, separate it and do the ritual again. Having picked up the frog, place it in front of a spring, and make offerings to it with incense.

These two rituals, separated by at least a thousand years, strike me as intriguingly similar. Of course, the purposes of the two rituals are different. The modern one is for controlling the weather, and the ancient one for curing aches and swellings. But both of those things, the weather and certain personal ailments, have traditionally been considered the domain of the nagas (the Indian subterranean water deities assimilated to the Tibetan klu). And both rituals are for subduing the nagas.

In Ramble’s account, the lama’s grandfather Doctor Dandy is thought to have borrowed the rite from the Hindus. This seems to be supported by an article written in 1893 by L.A. Waddell, who observed frog rituals being performed to bring the rain in Nepal. On the other hand, our Dunhuang grimoire shows that there was a Buddhist precedent for the frog ritual. Yet this precedent itself is clearly borrowed from Indian religion, as it centres on the god Varuna, lord of the water element and closely connected with the nagas in Indian mythology.

In any case, the continuity of ritual practice is quite striking. In some tradition, somewhere, this particular ritual of making a model of a frog, filling it with various ingredients, and placing it at the mouth of the spring (a relatively complex sequence of activities), continued without much change for over a thousand years.

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See also:
A Tibetan Book of Spells

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Cathy Cantwell and Robert Mayer. 2008. Early Tibetan Documents on Phur pa from Dunhuang. Vienna: OAW. (See p.201–2 for a description of IOL Tib J 401.)

Charles Ramble. 2008. The Navel of the Demoness: Tibetan Buddhism and Civil Religion in Highland Nepal. New York: Oxford University Press. (The passage above is on p.174.)

L.A. Waddell. 1893. “Frog Worship Amongst the Newars.” Indian Antiquary 22.

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Tibetan Text
IOL Tib J 401, 3r-2v:
[3r] myi la klu gnyan gdon te klu rdzings te na ba dang/ skrangs pa dang/ ‘jas ‘grum dang/ phye bo la cho ga bgyi ba’i thabs nI/ bag phye las phul thag pa gcig byas te/ sbal pa’i gzugs gcig byas te/ steng smyug ma khor stong mtshon sna tshogs kyis kha bsku zhing/ thug btod de/ nad pa gar na ba’i steng du des klan la/ bdag yi dam gi lhar bsgom mo/ nub phyogs kyi ngos nas lha ha ya ‘gri ba/ ba ru na ‘khor dang bcas pa/ sbrul nag pos bskris pa’I khri la bzhugs te// [2v] chu’i zhags pa thogs pas/ klu dang gnyan ‘dul nas/ sprul pa’i sbal pas/ -na- nas thams cad phyung zhing bzhi ba+s par dmyigs pa cher btang nas/ /oM ba du na ‘dza/ ba ga bhan a tra/ sa man tI/ to ba bha ye sva’ ha’/ hri ha huM zhes byas nas/ sbal pa bteg ste/ ‘og nas chu ser byung na mod la ‘tsho/ gzher tsam mchis na/ rIng por myi thogs par ‘tsho// sha dang bag phye pa yod na/ du ‘byar pa bzhin cho ga bskyar dogs pa yin no// sbal pa ni blangs nas/ chu myig gi dngor bzhag nas/ spos dang pog dkar pos mchod do//

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PS: If you look at media sites online, you’ll find a number of stories about “frog wedding” rituals performed in India to bring rain in times of drought. Here’s one from the LA Times, for example.