New Publication: The naming of Tibetan religion


Just out — the first number of a new online journal, the Journal of the International Association for Bon Research, in which is an article I wrote on the puzzling subject of Bon in early Tibet. The puzzle is whether the Tibetans followed a religion which they called “Bon”, or whether this is just something that we attribute to them with the benefit of hindsight. In the article I do three things:

(1) I look at the Dunhuang manuscript IOL Tib J 1746, in which a Buddhist author criticizes the non-Buddhist Tibetan religion. But at no point does he call it “Bon”, instead referring to “the bad religion” (chos ngan pa) or “the little religion” (chos chung ngu). For example: “Those who are attached to the little religion propitiate the deities and the sky, and if even a single good thing occurs, they say that they don’t need the excellent religion.” This manuscript is among the earlier Dunhuang manuscripts (mid-9th century) and the text it contains may well be earlier than that.

(2) I look at the wood slips dug out of the Tibetan fort of Miran in the Lop Nor desert, dating from the early to mid-9th century. Some of these are records of funerals and other rituals. Among the officiants of these rituals mentioned in the woodslips, we find people identified as “Bonpo”. Thus a “Bonpo” seems to have been a type of ritualist, and not the only type, as the wood slips also mention ritualists called Ku Shen (sku gshen). This of course is not the same as there being a Bon religion per se.

(3) Finally I look at some later Dunhuang manuscripts containing texts criticizing funerary rituals, where we do find reference to Bon as a religion. Specifically, from Or.8210/S.12243 we have the statement: “In the past, Tibetan interment was practised according to the Bon religion.” So some Buddhist authors were beginning to talk about a Bon religion, though probably only with reference to funerary rituals.

I conclusion, I suggest that the idea of a non-Buddhist Tibetan religion as an entity came from the Buddhist missionaries in Tibet, in their criticism of Tibetan beliefs and rituals. It was the Buddhists who brought together this variety of Tibetan rituals and beliefs as an entity that can be identified, named and discussed. Some of the ritualists involved in these non-Buddhist practices were known as “Bonpo” and later Buddhist polemicists increasingly used this term for non-Buddhist ritual in general (though usually specifically for funeral rituals). Though I don’t go this far in the article, I would suggest that what happens after the tenth century is that this generalized use of the term Bonpo is reclaimed from the Buddhist polemicists by those who are reconfiguring the old rituals in a Buddhist-inspired framework, gradually evolving into what we mean nowadays by “the Bonpo school”.

The article is here, and the whole journal, with lots of other interesting articles, is freely available online here.

Did the Buddha visit Khotan?


“The way of the Mahāyāna has been sought by the accomplished in the auspicious places where our Teacher placed his feet, such as the Vajra Seat, the Vulture’s Peak and the Shady Willow Grove of Khotan.”

At the beginning of the 10th century, a chaotic time for Tibet, the scholar Nub Sangyé Yeshé wrote these lines on the sacred places where the Buddha had taught. Two of them are well-known throughout the Buddhist world, but the third is a little more obscure. Is the Buddha really supposed to have visited the Silk Road city of Khotan? According to the Khotanese, he did indeed, and the fact that this was accepted without any need of explanation by an educated Tibetan writer like Sangyé Yeshé shows how far the Khotanese understanding of Buddhism had penetrated into Tibet at this time.

Khotan was the most important kingdom on the southern Silk Route, situated between the Taklamakan desert and the Kunlun mountain range. Two rivers coming down from the mountains brought the water that allowed cultivation of the land, also bringing down jade, the stone prized by the Chinese and the source of much of Khotan’s wealth. Khotan was thus ideally placed to take advantage of east-west trade, becoming in the process open to influences from a variety of cultures. Indigenous legends of Khotan’s early history emphasise both the country’s cultural plurality and its allegiance to Buddhism.

These legends do indeed tell of the Buddha visiting Khotan. In one version, he flies over from Vulture’s Peak to hover above the lake that covered Khotan in ancient times, before descending to rest upon a lotus throne in the middle of the lake. Other legends also brought to Khotan the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara and the protector deity Vaiśravaṇa. Re-imagining themselves as the centre of their religious world became a surprisingly consistent feature of Khotanese culture. When Aurel Stein visited Khotan at the turn of the 20th century, he noted of the Muslim Khotanese: “Pious imagination of a remarkably luxuriant growth has transplanted into the region of Khotan the tombs of the twelve Imāms of orthodox Shiite creed, together with a host of other propagators of the faith whose names are known to local legend only.”

Khotanese king & Vaisravana

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It may be true, as Stein suggested, that the people of Khotan are a gens religiosissima particularly given to pious invention, but a solid Buddhist sangha was resident in Khotan from at least the 3rd century AD. Discoveries of Khotanese manuscripts in archaeological sites in the areas once ruled by the kingdom have shown that the major Mahāyāna sutras were all known in Khotan. These were first written in their original language, then after the 5th century increasingly translated into Khotanese. The Suvarṇaprabhāśa sūtra seems to have been particularly influential, informing the notion of Khotan as a Buddhist realm under the protection of bodhisattvas and divine kings. Alongside this Buddhist material are many examples of Khotan’s literary tradition, stories on Indic themes, like the trials of Rāma, and poems on the ever-popular subjects of nature and love. One unique text, the so-called Book of Zambasta marries the Khotanese poetic tradition with Buddhist subject matters in a lengthy and wide-ranging survey of Buddhism.

During the seventh to the ninth centuries, the Tibetans were sporadically active Central Asia, fighting the Chinese Tang empire over strategically situated and highly profitable Silk Route oasis cities. The Khotanese first encountered the Tibetans in the seventh century as one among many threatening barbarian armies, enemies of the Buddhist dharma. After a brief period of Tibetan occupation in the late seventh century, Khotan was returned to Chinese rule, to be conquered again by the Tibetans at the end of the eighth century. Then, after the final fall of the Tibetan empire in the middle of the ninth century, Tibetans and Khotanese met in Silk Road towns like Dunhuang in the role of Buddhist teachers and disciples, sharing their knowledge, and translating each other’s religious texts.

And what of the “Shady Willow Grove of Khotan” (li yul lcang ra smug po) mentioned by Sangyé Yeshé? It does appear in a few other later Tibetan sources, including a pilgrims’ guide to the Khadrug temple, which includes a story of how the temple’s statues were obtained from Khotan by the Tibetan army, during the reign of Songtsen Gampo. Later, when the real location of Khotan had largely been forgotten in Tibet, the Shady Willow Grove came to be identified with one of the tantric holy sites known as pīṭha – pilgrimage sites in India associated with parts of the body. The place associated with Khotan was Gṛhadevatā, a problematic site unlocateable in India. On the divine body, Gṛhadevatā represented the anus, a rather ignominious place for the Willow Grove to end up.

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This post is drawn from my paper “Red Faced Barbarians, Benign Despots and Drunken Masters: Khotan as a Mirror to Tibet.” A pre-publication version is now up on the Author page and here.

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Tibetan text

Gnubs Sangs rgyas ye shes’s quote is from Bsam gtan mig sgron, 5–6: rgyu’i theg pa chen po’i lugs kyis kyang sngon ston pas zhabs kyis bcags pa’i rdo rje’i gdan dang/ bya rgod phung po’i ri dang/ li yul lcang ra smug po la stsogs pa bkra shis pa’i gnas dag bya ba grub par byed pas btsal lo/.

I should say that “Shady Willow Grove” is a provisional translation of lcang ra smug po, as lcang ra needn’t always refer to willow trees, and smug po literally means dark red or brown. I’d love any suggestions for alternative translations.

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The legend of the Buddha visiting Khotan is in the Prophecy of Khotan (Li yu lung bstan pa); translation and Tibetan in: Ronald E. Emmerick. Tibetan Texts Concerning Khotan. London: Oxford University Press, 1967.

For a review of Khotanese literature, see also his A Guide to the Literature of Khotan. Tokyo: The International Institute for Buddhist Studies, 1992.

Aurel Stein’s quote is from p.140 of M.A. Stein, Ancient Khotan. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907.

On the pilgrim’s guide to Khadrug temple, see pp.62-4 of Per Sørensen and Guntram Hazod, in cooperation with Tsering Gyalbo, Thundering Falcon: An Inquiry into the History and Cult of Khra-`brug, Tibet’s First Buddhist Temple. Wien: Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften/Tibetan Academy of Social Sciences of the Autonomous Region Tibet, 2005.

On the identification of the “Shady Willow Grove” with Gṛhadevatā, see pp.95-6 of Toni Huber, The Holy Land Reborn: Pilgrimage and the Tibetan Reinvention of Buddhist India. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008.

The image is a painted wooden panel from Khotan, possibly representing a Khotanese king (on horseback) and Vairocana.

New Publication: Dating Early Tibetan Manuscripts

ka_typologyIt’s very hard to fix a date on most early Tibetan sources. Few of the manuscripts contain an explicit date, and there are often no clues implicit in the text either. Thus we end up placing these manuscripts in time spans that may be much wider than we would like. In the case of the Tibetan manuscripts from the sealed cave in Dunhuang, the range of possible dates begins with the Tibetan conquest of Dunhuang (786/7) and continuing to when the cave was sealed at the beginning of the eleventh century. Thus we have a span of, more or less, two centuries.

In an article in a new collection, I have developed a typology of writing styles practiced during the Tibetan empire, as we find them in the sources that we know come from the imperial period. The styles are (i) epigraphic, the style of the pillar inscriptions; (ii) square, a style used in copies of imperially sanctioned texts from Central Tibet; (iii) sutra, the style of the scriptoriums where hundreds of copies of sutras were made for the Tibetan empire; (iv) official, the style of official scribes, including a headed and headless form; (v) monastic, the informal style used by monks in their own activities of note-taking, commentary etc. There are of course general categories and there is a lot of variation within each style, but each is linked to a particular social context, and so has its own coherent identity.

Now, since there are (as Tsuguhito Takeuchi has previously pointed out) significant differences in style in the manuscripts written after the fall of the Tibetan empire, we should be able to use this typology to help decide whether an undated manuscript was written during the time of the Tibetan empire, or later. So the second part of the article looks at the post-imperial styles, which are much more varied, as one would expect when the imperially standardised systems of teaching writing had broken down. But I don’t want to overstate the usefulness of paleography for dating; some people do make great claims for it, and if they don’t show their methods this makes paleography look like a magic trick. So the article ends with a cautionary note:

While recommending that others put this typology to the test, I would also urge that paleography is best used in conjunction with the other tools available to us. Paleographical evidence should be supported wherever possible by other levels of analysis: on the one hand, analysis of the physical nature of the manuscript, such as paper composition and book format; and on the other, textual analysis, including orthographic and linguistic features of the text. If several of these tools are used together, the case for dating can be made with some confidence.

You can download the full article from the Author page or here.

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And there are lots of other good articles in this volume:

Mark Aldenderfer,  Pre-Buddhist Era Phalliform Objects from Kyunglung, Far Western Tibet

Amy Heller, Preliminary Remarks on Painted Wooden Panels from Tibetan Tombs

Gertraud Taenzer, The ‘A zha Country under the Tibetans in the 8th and 9th Century: A Survey of Land Registration and Taxation Based on a Sequence of Three Manuscripts of the Stein Collection from Dunhuang

Zhu Lishuang, A Preliminary Survey of Administrative Divisions in Tibetan-Ruled Khotan   

Ronit Yoeli-Tlalim, Central Asian Mélange: Early Tibetan Medicine from Dunhuang

Brandon Dotson, The Princess and the Yak: The Hunt as Narrative Trope and Historical Reality in Early Tibet

Cathy Cantwell and Robert Mayer, Neither The Same Nor Different: the Bon Ka ba Nag po in Relation to Rnying ma Phur pa Texts

Tsuguhito Takeuchi, Glegs tshas: Writing Boards of Chinese Scribes in Tibetan-Ruled Dunhuang

Kazushi Iwao, On the Roll-Type Tibetan Śatasāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā sūtra from Dunhuang 

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.

New Publication: The Stone Maitreya of Leh


I’ve decided to put small announcements of my new publications here, along with the longer topic posts. There won’t be too many of them, and I promise to keep them short! So, just out is my article co-written with André Alexander, “The Stone Maitreya of Leh: The Rediscovery and Recovery of an Early Tibetan Monument” in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society. Here’s the abstract:

The rediscovery, conservation and repositioning of an ancient stone carved Buddha in Leh, Ladakh is one of the most important events in recent years for students of early Tibetan history and religion. Uncovering an inscription next to the carving has made it possible to date this artefact to the eleventh century or even earlier, while deciphering the inscription has confirmed that the figure should be identified as the Buddha Maitreya. This identification permits a better understanding of how the cult of Maitreya among of the emperors of imperial Tibet extended to western Tibet, and how the Maitreya images of western Tibet represent a specific local iconography.

You can download a PDF of the article by clicking here.