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).
Images
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.

Or.8210/S.5451

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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References

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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References

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.

André Alexander, 1965-2012

Aside

I am very sad indeed to hear of the sudden and unexpected death of André Alexander. I had only recently finished working with him on an article based on one of his many conservation projects. Working with André was interesting, educational, and a lot of fun. Like many, many others, I will miss him. If you don’t know his work, please go on to read about his Tibet Heritage Fund here, and have a look at the introduction to his Temples of Lhasa here. Below I reproduce some words by Per Sørensen on André’s many achievements.

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Dr Andre Alexander

17 January 1965 – 21 January 2012

It is with profound regret and in deepest sorrow that we announce the death of Dr Andre Alexander at the age of 47.

Andre had just turned 47 this very week, and was full of enthusiasm and commitment. Over 10 years ago, he co-founded the successful, widely acclaimed and much respected Tibet Heritage Fund (THF) committed to the preservation and documentation of the unique Tibetan architectural monuments and heritage. The organization has launched a large number of rehabilitation projects throughout Central Asia intended to benefit and assist the local residents.

His organization has been involved in assisting local communities in the wake of natural disasters, earthquakes (Yushu) and flashfloods (Ladakh and Sikkim), and initiated countless conservation and restoration projects of sanctuaries and monasteries in India, Tibet, China and Mongolia.

His enthusiasm ensured that the THF won a steadily larger number of supporters who all shared Andre’s quest and vision of preserving the wonderful Tibetan architectural heritage.

A number of still unpublished books now await publication. A large study on vernacular housing and architecture in Lhasa (originally submitted as doctoral thesis in Berlin), the second volume of the Tibet Heritage Fund’s conservation inventory is due to appear in 2012 with Serindia Publications and another large study on Tibetan imperial architecture was under way.  We hope that this work too will soon be completed.

Andre was a passionate and colourful person, totally committed to his vision of documenting and preserving, against all odds, the unique Tibetan architecture.

He and his most dedicated friends at THF received numerous awards for their commitment: they twice received the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards and the Global Vision Award for a number of their cultural heritage projects, and they were featured on BBC’s series on Heritage Heroes 2011.

Andre – You will be sorely missed. RIP.

Per Sørensen