Early Dzogchen III: The origin of Dzogchen?


The search for an origin is a seductive task, but one to be wary of. As Nāgārjūna pointed out a long time ago, nothing ever really comes into being as such. Any entity we might identify is both composite and has developed through the mutual dependence of causes and conditions. The idea of an ‘origin’ supposes that we can identify a source that is cannot be broken into composite parts and is free from any previous causes.

That said, the whole point of this website, and the materials on which it comments, is that earlier textual sources can tell as something that later sources do not. This survey of the earliest sources on Dzogchen is, then, not the search for an origin, but an examination of the character of Dzogchen as it appears in the earliest reliably dated texts.

What are the earliest reliably dated Dzogchen texts? There is The Meditation on the Awakened Mind by Mañjuśrīmitra, which is mentioned in the Denkarma, an early 9th century library catalogue. And then there are the many texts quoted by Nub Sangyé Yeshé in his Lamp for the Eyes of Contemplation, written in the late 9th century. These are generally short instructional texts which overlap to some extent with the traditional list of eighteen early Mind Series (sems sde) texts.

Earlier still than these is the Guhyagarbha tantra. This tantra is nowadays thought to have been circulating in India by the eighth century (notwithstanding the Tibetan controversies over its Indic origin–see my earlier post). Dzogchen is mentioned four times in the tantra, each time in a different chapter. Let us look at two examples, first from chapter 13, which is on the practice of the perfection stage:

Thus the Great Joyous One settled into the contemplation of the cloud-array that is at the heart of the extremely secret commitment–that all phenomena are, from the beginning, spontaneously present in the great perfection (rdzogs chen).

Here we see not just the word Dzogchen, but the same basic meaning that it is given in the later tradition. The term occurs again in chapter 14, which celebrates the realization arising out of the pefection stage:

Oṃ! The great perfection (rdzogs pa che) of body, speech and mind,
Is the total perfection of enlightened qualities and activities,
From the beginning spontaneous present, perfect, and all good (kun tu bzang)
The great sphere (thig le) of the vast gathered assembly. Ho!

The sense that Dzogchen here means the realization that comes out of the perfection stage is confirmed in The Garland of Views, a treatise on chapter thirteen of the Guhyagarbha found in the Tengyur and attributed to Padmasambhava. If the attribution is correct, then The Garland of Views would probably date from before or during Padmasambhava’s time in Tibet in the 770s. We saw in the previous post a manuscript describing how Padmasambhava taught the meditation on Vajrakīlaya in the context of Atiyoga. Here the author only briefly deals with the actual practices, mainly focusing on the ideas of spontaneous accomplishment and primordial purity as the experiential climax of the practices.

In The Garland of Views, Dzogchen is the culmination of the three ways (tshul) of inner yogic practice: the ways of development (bskyed), perfection (rdzogs), and great perfection (rdzogs chen). In this text these three ways are subdivisions of the vehicle of inner yoga, but not vehicles in their own right. Remember in the last post how often we saw Dzogchen described as a “way”? Here Dzogchen is rooted in the practices found in the Guhyagarbha tantra: the visualization of deities and the experience of bliss through union. Like the manuscripts we looked at in the previous post, Dzogchen here functions as an interpretive framework for these experiences:

The way of the great perfection (rdzogs chen) is to realize that all phenomena of saṃsāra and nirvāṇa are inseparable and have always had the nature of the maṇḍala of body, speech and mind, and then to meditate on that.

Finally, let us return to the Dunhuang manuscripts one more time, for one elegant piece of evidence for the association between Dzogchen and the Guhyagarbha. Pelliot tibétain 322B is a poem from the Dunhuang manuscripts which takes Dzogchen as its theme, while remaining within the frame of reference of the Guhyagarbha and Māyājāla tantras:

The teaching of the primordial, spontaneously present Dzogchen,
This sublime experiential domain of supreme insight
Is bestowed as a personal instruction for those with intelligence;
I pay homage to the definitive counsel spoken thus.

Without centre or periphery, neither one nor many,
The maṇḍala that transcends thought and cannot be expressed,
Illuminates the mind of intrinsic awareness, wisdom and knowledge;
I pay homage to the great Vajrasattva.

In the illusory three worlds which are like the limitless sky,
Many millions of emanations are present everywhere,
Surrounded by the net of insight in the expanse of sameness,
I pay homage to you, the Māyājāla.

The ten directions and the four times secretly have the nature of Dzogchen,
Which itself is the suchness of the definitive essence,
Primordial and spontaneously present, cause and effect inseparable,
I pay homage to the supreme Guhyagarbha.

The close association between early Dzogchen and the Guhyagarbha shouldn’t surprise us, really. When later tantric lineages were brought to Tibet in the 11th and 12th centuries, they came with their own frameworks for interpreting yogic practice in terms of nonconcepualization and the immanence of buddhahood. The Mahāmudrā cycles transmitted in the Kagyü schools are an obvious example. A balance of ritual or meditative practice with a view that transcends both practice and result seems to have characterised late Indic tantra. On the whole, as we know, that balance was skilfully maintained in the Tibetan tradition as well.

1. Germano, David. 1994. “Architecture and Absence in the Secret Tantric History of the Great Perfection (rdzogs chen)“, Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 17.2: 203-335.
2. Karmay, Samten. 1988. The Great Perfection. Leiden: Brill. [Includes a translation and edition of The Garland of Views].
3. Norbu, Namkhai and Kennard Lipman. 2001. Primordial Experience: An Introduction to RDzogs-chen Meditation. Boston: Shambhala. [A translation of The Meditation on the Awakened Mind].
4. van Schaik, Sam. 2004. “The Early Days of the Great Perfection” in Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 27/1: 165–206.

Tibetan sources
Gsang ba snying po de kho na nyid nges pa (Guhyagarbha tantra). Tb.417.
‘Jam dpal bshes gnyen. Byang chub kyi sems bsgom pa [The Meditation on the Awakened Mind]. P.3418
Gnubs chen Sangs rgyas ye shes. Bsam gtan mig sgron [Lamp for the Eyes of Contemplation]. S. W. Tashigangpa, Ladakh, 1974.
Padmasambhava. Man ngag lta ba’i phreng ba [The Garland of Views]. P.4726

See also:
In Search of the Guhyagarbha Tantra

Early Dzogchen II: An approach to tantric practice


In the previous post I looked at the the earliest Dzogchen manuscripts in existence (as far as we know). These two Dzogchen texts appear to reject any kind of structured practice, and yet they exist in the extraordinarily rich Dunhuang collection, containing prayers, manuals for rituals of offering, confession and so on, meditation manuals, and many other things which clearly fall into the category of structured practice. So, we may well ask ourselves, what was going on? Were people practising, or not? Do we really imagine that among the population of tantric practitioners around Dunhuang there were few hip Dzogchenpas secretly scorning the efforts of the rest? I doubt it.

Fortunately we don’t have to rely on speculation here. There are in fact a number of texts from Dunhuang that explain exactly how Dzogchen relates to tantric practice. The Questions and Answers on Vajrasattva is a series of questions and answers, an early FAQ, on tantric practice. In particular, it is concerned with the practice of a level of tantra known as Mahāyoga (“the great yoga”). It was written in the earlyish 9th century by a Tibetan called Nyen Palyang and is preserved in several Dunhuang manuscripts, including IOL Tib J 470.

Now Nyen Palyang clearly had a view of tantric practice that was very close to what we find in the Dzogchen texts. He writes:

This mind itself which is without basis or root
Is, like the sky, not purified by cleansing.
Because enlightenment is free from production,
Enlightenment does not come from cause and effect.

But this is a treatise on tantric practice, in particular, on the practice of visualizing a deity. So the next question Palyang posits is how do we receive the blessing from the deity if the above is true? He answers his own question in this way:

When dirty water becomes clear,
No effort is required for the reflections of the sun and moon to appear.
Similarly, if one transforms one’s own mind through yoga,
No accomplishment is required for the conquerors’ blessings to arise.

The author is keen to get the message across that the practice of deity yoga is emphatically not to be abandoned, but any concept of the practice of yoga as the cause for enlightenment is to be abandoned. Pelyang constantly refers to nonduality, freedom from effort, and the primordial and spontaneous presence of the enlightened mind, using terms familiar from Dzogchen texts, such as awareness (rig pa) and spontaneous presence (lhun gyis grub). The term Dzogchen appears here too. Pelyang poses the question—if there is no cause and effect, how does a yogin obtain accomplishments? The answer is this:

When, as in the example of a king appointing a minister,
The accomplishments are granted from above, this is the outer way.
When the kingdom is ruled having been offered by the people,
This is the way of the unsurpassable, self-arisen Dzogchen.

Leaving aside the interesting political metaphor, what is striking here is that Dzogchen is clearly being presented as a way (tshul) of practicing Mahāyoga. The same applies to the term Atiyoga: there is a note appended to a point in the main text where the following answer is given to the question of how one should perform deity yoga, here called “approach and accomplishment” (bsnyen bsgrub):

In the ultimate approach and accomplishment no subject or object is perceived;
Because there are no difficulties or effort here, this is the supreme approach and accomplishment.

The note underneath the second line states that this is “an explanation of the view of Atiyoga.”

IOL Tib J 470

The Questions and Answers on Vajrasattva is not an isolated case. Another text from Dunhuang, a long tantric treatise on various topics arising out of deity yoga (IOL Tib J 454) makes it clear that the deity is simply the awareness (rig pa) of one’s own enlightened mind or bodhicitta (byang chub sems). The idea of buddhas and buddhahood is also firmly brought back to the practitioner’s own primordially pure mind:

One’s own mind is primordial purity and buddhahood, and to comprehend that this mind is primordially purity and buddhahood is to be accomplished as a buddha, to see the face of the buddha, to hold the buddha in one’s hands.

Finally, there is a brief account of how Padmasambhava taught the meditation on the deity Vajarakīlaya to his students in the manuscript Pelliot tibétain 44, which states:

[Padmasambhava] taught the secret bodhicitta that is included within Atiyoga, and the sādhanas of Vajrakīlaya in accordance with the Mahāyoga texts. He showed that meditation on Vajrakīlaya is the state of reality, and then they meditated on the nonduality of objects and minds within the uncreated bodhicitta.

We are in a better position now to understand how the two Dzogchen texts that I mentioned in the last post coexisted with the vast amount of practical instructions on ritual and meditation practice that are also found in the Dunhuang collections. The texts I’ve quoted here make it plausible that at the time of these manuscripts (9th to 10th centuries) Dzogchen/Atiyoga was primarily a view applied to the practice of deity yoga.

“But what,” you may ask (adopting for the moment the Tibetan question-and-answer method), “about those Dzogchen texts that don’t refer to tantric practice at all, but just talk about nonduality and the uselessness of any practice? Like, for example, your Dunhuang text by Buddhagupta?”

Well, that’s an interesting example. You may remember from the last post that much of Buddhagupta’s Dunhuang text was re-used in another work by none other than Nyen Palyang, author of The Questions and Answers on Vajrasattva. Palyang also wrote several Dzogchen texts that don’t mention deity yoga, or any other practices at all.

Now, I don’t want to draw sweeping conclusions from this limited source material, but this seems to have been a common pattern: to write Mahāyoga commentaries or treatises alongside short instructional texts on the nonconceptual aspect of Mahāyoga practice. Other authors and translators of early Dzogchen texts (like Mañjuśrīmitra and Vimalamitra for instance) also wrote commentaries on Mahāyoga tantras. So it seems that writing (or studying) these early Dzogchen texts didn’t preclude the practice of deity yoga. In fact the point of the the Dzogchen view was to apply it to these practices.

“So, was this the original form of Dzogchen?” I suspect that ‘original’ (like ‘authentic’) is word that seems simple until you start to ask what we really mean when we use it. Let’s leave this question till next time…

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 II: Indian or Chinese dharma?

Red sky

In the last post we looked at the story of the earliest appearance of the dharma in Tibet. According to the story, a casket fell out of the sky onto the roof (or before the feet) of the early king Lhatotori. What Lhatotori found when he opened the casket differs in the various accounts, but is usually includes a well-known sutra, the Karaṇḍavyūha. This sutra is dedicated to the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, the embodiment of compassion in the world, and introduced the six syllable mantra of Avalokiteśvara that was to become so popular in Tibet: Om maṇi padme huṃ (see my earlier post).

The casket is usually also said to include a more obscure text which is known by a strange variety of names. In the later histories, and the canonical versions of the prayer, the name of the prayer is the fully Tibetan Spang skong phyag brgya pa (The 100 Salutations Repairing Breaches). However in earlier histories like Sönam Tsemo’s Introduction to the Dharma, Butön’s Dharma History and the Maṇi Kambum the name of the prayer is Pang kong phyag rgya pa (The Pangkong Mūdras). Here the first two syllables appear not to be Tibetan, but rather approximations of syllables from another language. Some other early histories, including Nyangral Nyima Özer’s Essence of Flowers and the Accounts of Ba give yet another name: Mu tra’i phyag rgya (The Mūdras of the Mūdras!).

The text itself as preserved in the Tibetan canon is a prayer of homage and confession beginning with a hundred and eight homages directed toward a variety of buddhas, dharma texts and objects, and the sangha of bodhisattvas and arhats. It ends with prayers of offering, confession, and aspiration. This is not an unusual sort of text, so why has it been called by so many different names?

IOL Tib J 315

Thankfully we can make sense of this confused situation with the help of the Dunhuang manuscripts, for this prayer seems to have been rather popular before the 11th century. It usually appears in manuscipt collections of prayers that were probably put together for group recitation in monasteries. The fullest title given in the Dunhuang versions is Pam kong brgya rtsa brgyad (IOL Tib J 315.1/4). In other versions it is shortened to Pām kong brgya rtsa (Pelliot tibétain 184) and simply Pang kong (Pelliot tibétain 98).

The first part (pam/pang kong) is certainly a transcription, and it sounds much more like a transcription of a Chinese term than a Sanskrit one. The kong is very likely Chinese gong 供 which in Buddhist Chinese means an act of worship or offering, equivalent to the Sanskrit pūja. I have not found such a clear match for the pam/pang part, but one possibility is ban 昄, meaning ‘extensive’.

The Tibetan part of the title in the Dunhuang manuscript (brgya rtsa brgyad) means ‘one hundred and eight’, which makes perfect sense in that the prayer contains a hundred and eight homages. Therefore the alteration of this in the histories and canonical versions to phyag (b)rgya pa looks like a corruption.

It appears that the other strange version of this title, Mu tra’i phyag rgya (The Mūdras of the Mūdras), was an attempt to make the text seem more Indian and less Chinese by replacing the pang kong part with the Sanskrit word mūdra. But since that word mūdra was just a translation of the (already corrupted) second part of the title, the result was not at all convincing.

The most convincing early title of our text (Pam kong brgya rtsa brgyad) suggests a text either translated from Chinese, or composed in a Sino-Tibetan culture like that of Dunhuang. If we can draw a moral from this little philological enquiry, it may be that the presence of a Chinese text along with more well-known Indian ones in Lhatotori’s casket is emblematic of the mixed sources from which early Tibetan Buddhism was made. While Chinese Buddhist sources never truly featured as importantly as Indian ones, they were there, and China was certainly not spurned as a source of authentic dharma before the 11th century (notwithstanding a certain debate at Samyé), as it often would be later.

See also
Dharma from the Sky I: Legends and history
Dharma from the Sky III: Self-appointed Buddhas

Tibetan sources
1. Anonymous. Dba bzhed [Accounts of Ba]. In Wangdu, Pasang & Hildegarde Deimberger. Dba’ bzhed: The Royal Narrative concerning the bringing of Buddha’s Doctrine to Tibet. Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften. [p.25]
2. Anonymous. Ma ṇi bka’ ‘bum [Maṇi Kambum]. The Punakha redaction edited by Jamyang Samten. New Delhi, 1975. [vol.I (e), ff.100b.3, 184a.3]
3. Bsod nams rtse mo. Chos la ‘jug pa’i sgo [An Introduction to the Dharma]. In Sa skya bka’ ‘bum. [vol.I, p.50a.6]
4. Bu ston rin chen grub. Chos ‘byung gsun rab rin po che mdzod [History of Buddhism]. Beijing: Khrung go bod kyi shes rig dpe skrun khang. 1988. 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. [p.183]
5. Nyang ral nyi ma ‘od zer. Chos byung me tog snying po sbrang rtsi’i bcud [Essence of Flowers]. In Schuh, Dieter. Die grosse Geschichte des tibetischen Buddhismus nach alter Tradition rÑiṅ ma’i chos byuṅ chen mo. Sankt Augustin: VGH Wissenschaftsverlag. [f.173b.4]

And many thanks…

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

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

Nomad woman

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

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

From Wenwu 2006.7 (3)

From Wenwu 2006.7 (2)

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

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

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

Nomad woman applying red face makeup

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

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

*  *  *

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

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

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

Buddhism and Empire II: Portrait of a monk

IOL Tib N 2280This little piece of wood (IOL Tib N 2280) was found among the Tibetan woodslips in the hill fort of Mazar Tagh, one of the outposts of the Tibetan Empire. It can be dated to the period of the Tibetan occupation of Khotan, between the 790s and 840s. On the top is written ban de slong ba, “a begging monk”. It is probably a portrait, sketched by one of the soldiers at the fort, of an actual monk who came to beg there. Though Mazar Tagh lies some way from the nearest city, Khotan, it was actually a pilgrimage site, known to the Khotanese Buddhists as The Hill. Thre is evidence for this among the Khotanese manuscripts, where we find a poetic account of one monk’s pilgrimage to The Hill.

So our monk in the portrait probably made the pilgrimage to The Hill, and then visited the Tibetan fort to ask for food. We know that the Tibetan soldiers often ran out of food supplies, from their many letters written to the main garrison at Khotan to ask for more. I wonder how often they gave anything to the pilgrim monks. That partly depends on how far Buddhist values had permeated the ordinary Tibetan soldiers manning the Empire’s outposts. Since giving to monks was an important way of generating merit for oneself, a soldier who had truly absorbed Buddhism might give something despite running short of food.

The picture of the monk is, obviously, rather crude and certainly not the work of a trained artist. So we can’t draw conclusions about the monk’s ethnic origin based on the way his facial features are drawn here; I would still suggest that he is most likely to have been Khotanese. The upper undergarment and robe (worn over the right shoulder) are drawn clearly enough, as is the fan he holds in his left hand. It’s not clear what he is meant to be holding in his right hand; perhaps a begging bowl is intended.

Further suggestions welcomed!

Emmerick, R.E. A Guide to the Literature of Khotan. Tokyo : The International Institute for Buddhist Studies, 1992.

In search of the Guhyagarbha tantra

Vajrasattva (Cave 14)The Guhyagarbha tantra is a vital part of Tibet’s Nyingma (“ancient”) lineages. And yet, ever since the 11th century, when certain partisans of the new translations questioned the authenticity of the Guhyagarbha tantra, its status became a disputed issue in Tibet.

The most detailed and sustained attack on the authenticity of the Guhyagarbha tantra was written by the 11th century translator Gö Khugpa Lhetse, based on his failure to find any lineage for the tantra in India and the fact that, according to his judgement, it didn’t resemble genuine Indian tantras. Gö Khugpa’s criticism was rather rash: features which he found suspect in the Guhyagarbha are in fact also found in tantras of the new translation period that he accepted. Nevertheless, enough doubt remained that the tantra was excluded from the scriptural canon (bka’ ‘gyur) compiled in the 14th century.

According to some Nyingma apologists, Gö Khugpa attacked the tantra because he had been refused certain transmissions by Zurpoché Shakya Jungne, one of the most influential Nyingma figures of that period. The story has some credibility, as Gö Khugpa is portrayed as a competitive and rather bad-tempered character in some non-Nyingma histories, including the Subtle Vajra, the early Sakya history translated by Cyrus Stearns in his book Luminous Lives. There we see Gö Khugpa falling out with his teacher Drogmi and trying to outdo him by travelling to Nepal to meet the great master Maitripa (in fact he meets Drogmi’s own teacher Gayadhara, who fools him into thinking he is Maitripa).

In any case, if Sakya scholars have not tended to join in these attacks on the Guhyagarbha tantra’s authenticity, it may be because Śākyaśrībhadra, the Kashmiri guru who taught Sakya Paṇḍita, verified a Sanskrit manuscript of the tantra which had been found at Samyé (this is mentioned in a 12th or 13th century Sakya biography of Śākyaśrībhadra). The manuscript was passed from hand to hand until it reached Gö Lotsawa Zhönu Pal, author of the Blue Annals, who wrote:

When the Great Kashmiri Pandita [Śākyaśrī] arrived at Samyé, he discovered the Sanskrit text of the Guhyagarbha. Later it came into the hands of Tatön Ziji, who presented it to it Shagang Lotsawa. The latter sent the manuscript to Chomden [Rigpai] Ralgri, who accepted it and composed The Flower to Ornament the Accomplishment of the Guhyagarbha. He showed the text at an assembly of tantrikas at Mamoné, and highly praised it. After that Tarpa Lotsawa made a translation of the Subsequent Guhyagarbha Tantra which had not been found before. Most of the pages of the manuscript were damaged. The remaining pages of the Sanskrit manuscript are in my hands.

So the authenticity of the Guhyagarbha tantra seems to be rather a non-issue, despite all the polemical activity devoted to the question over the centuries in Tibet. Still, some may be interested in the Guhyagarbha-related material that is to be found in the Dunhuang collections. While these manuscripts are alost certainly no earlier than the 10th century, they do provide some insights into the role of the Guhyagarbha in early Tibet:

  • Some of the sādhanas (manuals for meditation practice) quote the Guhyagarbha, though this is a little inconclusive, since (i) it is difficult to find exact parallel passages in the tantra itself and (ii) the Guhyagarbha is not mentioned by name. See for example IOL Tib J 332, which was originally noticed by Ken Eastman in his article listed below.
  • One manuscript (IOL Tib J 540) is a list of the mantras and the names of each of the 42 deities from the Guhyagarbha‘s peaceful maṇḍala.
  • One scroll, which I mentioned in the previous post (Pelliot tibétain 849), contains a list of tantras in Tibetan and Sanskrit. It includes the Guhyagarbha–listed as rgyud gsang ba’I snyIng po in Tibetan and ‘Gu yya kar rba tan tra in Sanskrit (the Sanskrit tranliterations on this scroll are wildly erratic). The scroll is, as I mentioned previously, probably notes from the teachings of an Indian guru who passed through Dunhuang on his way to China. However, it is dated to the very end of the 10th century, so this tells us little about the existence of the tantra in Tibet prior to this time.

Thus something of the Guhyagarbha tantra is there in the manuscripts, but it has a lesser presence than one might expect given its importance in the later Nyingma tradition. What is perhaps most striking is how many more references and quotations from a different tantra, the Guhyasamāja, are found among the manuscripts. The Guhyasamāja tantra itself appears in an almost complete manuscript (IOL Tib J 438), and is quoted more often and by name in various treatises and sādhanas. This raises the question of whether the Guhyasamāja tantra was actually more influential in pre-11th century Tibet than the Guhyagarbha tantra.

Perhaps the attacks on the Guhyagarbha and similar tantras were after all, as the Nyingma apologists suggest, politically motivated. In the struggles between the holders of the old lineages (i.e. the incipient Nyingmapas, the Zur family in particular) and the translators of the newly arrived tantric lineages, the Guhyagarbha was an easy target, as it was not featured in any of the new lineages, unlike the Guhyasamāja. Equally the Nyingmapas seem to have focussed more and more on the Guhyagarbha from the 11th century onward–perhaps exactly because it was not shared with the new schools.

1. Dorje, Gyurme. (no date). The Guhyagarbha Tantra: Introduction. Online at the Wisdom Books Reading Room
2. Eastman, Kenneth. 1983. “Mahāyoga Texts at Tun-huang”. Bulletin of the Institute of Cultural Studies, Ryukoku University 22: 42-60.
3. van der Kuijp, Leonard. 1994. “On the Lives of Śākyaśrībhadra (?-?1225)”. Journal of the American Oriental Society 114/4: 599–616. Available on JSTOR.
4. Martin, Dan. 1987. “Illusion Web: Locating the Guhyagarbha Tantra in Buddhist
Intellectual History”. Christopher I. Beckwith (ed.) Silver on Lapis: Tibetan Literary Culture and History. Bloomington: The Tibet Society. 175-220. Available for free download here.
5. Roerich, G.N. (trans.) 1949. The Blue Annals. Calcutta: Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal. (See pp.104-5.) Also available here.
6. Stearns, Cyrus. 2001. Luminous Lives. Boston: Wisdom Publications.
7. Wangchuk, Dorji. 2002. “An Eleventh-Century Defence of the Authenticity of the Guhyagarbha Tantra“. In Eimer and Germano (eds), The Many Canons of Tibetan Buddhism. Leiden: Brill.

A 9th century wall painting of Vajrasattva from Dunhuang Cave 14. © The Huntington Archive.