British Barbarians, Tibetan Prophecies

You probably know about the Younghusband Mission to Lhasa. Quite a few books have been written about it, though with the honorable exception of Patrick French’s biography of Younghusband, they tend to stick to the voluminous official and unofficial accounts published in English. This is a pity, because there’s no doubt that many Tibetans had strong feelings about Younghusband’s sacking of Gyantse and invasion of Lhasa. This came home to me forcefully when I read the Nechung Oracle’s pronouncement on the invasion while looking through the biography of the 13th Dalai Lama Thubten Gyatso.

This massive biography, in two volumes, was written by Purchog Rinpoché (the tulku of the more famous Purchogpa who was the 13th Dalai Lama’s principle tutor). As a fairly traditional namtar or sacred biography it mostly deals with religious topics, but a foreign army marching into Lhasa could hardly be ignored. The biography tells us how  the Dalai Lama and a group of trusted advisers and religious teachers fled the advance of the British, leaving the throne-holder of Ganden monastery to negotiate a treaty.

One of the people fleeing with the Dalai Lama was the Nechung Oracle, a monk chosen as the medium or oracle for the deity Dorjé Drakden, who was consulted before any important decision was taken. I think the oracle at the time of the invasion was Orgyen Thinley Chöpel, a Nyingma monk from Central Tibet’s biggest Nyingma monastery, Mindrolling. (An interesting figure in his own right: in his youth he had travelled to Eastern Tibet, where he met one of the greatest scholars of the nineteenth century, Jamyang Khyentsé Wangpo, and received from him a statue of Padmasambhava which was later housed in the Jokhang.)

Once the Dalai Lama, the Nechung Oracle, and the rest of the court-in-exile were a safe distance from Lhasa, the oracle was consulted, and he spoke in emotional terms of the invasion:

Urged on by spirits and demons,
The British, with their false God, their wealth and manpower,
Came to this Snowy Land surrounded by mountains
With their barbaric army.
These events, the like of which I’ve never seen before
Have broken the heart of this old devil.

The sense of shock and outrage felt by the Tibetans at the invasion of their sacred land is striking. The oracle had more to say, but I won’t translate any more of the speech here. I’ll put the full text in Tibetan below, and if you’d like to try your hand at translating more of it, please do, and let me know how you get on!

*  *   *

The better-known English-language sources on the Younghusband Mission do (it must be said) give us a lot more of the details behind the invasion. These sources include Younghusband’s telegrams to Curzon which were recorded in the “Blue Book” of official correspondence. The telegrams show Younghusband’s hawkish tendency and his frustration with the obstacles thrown into his path by the Dalai Lama. He writes:

The real opposition we are encountering is that of the Dalai Lama and his followers, the monks at Lhasa, who declare that they are concerned for the preservation of their religion, in other words of their priestly influence by which the Tibetans are at present strangled. The influence of the Chinese has vanished completely, the present weak Ambam being confronted with a young and headstrong Dalai Lama; nor is it likely to be revived when the new Ambam arrives at Lhasa (which he is expected to do in the next few days) as he is not supported by Chinese troops. To influence the Dalai Lama, therefore, we must rely on our own efforts. (Further Papers Relating to Tibet, p.1: telegram of 4th February 1904)

As a good imperialist, Younghusband suggests that his is a moral mission as well as a political one, a mission to liberate the Tibetans from oppression. After this, and many more telegrams, Younghusband got the permission to proceed on to Gyantse, and then as it became clear that the Tibetans had no intention of negotiating, to Lhasa itself. On the 13th July, Lord Curzon telegrammed the Secretary of State thus:

To-morrow the Mission will commence advance to Lhasa… We are authorising Younghusband to secure the signature of the Dalai Lama to Convention embodying terms finally approved, and to sign it himself, subject to ratification by His Majesty’s government. (Further Papers Relating to Tibet, p.31: telegram of 13th July 1904)

Naturally, the Dalai Lama had different ideas. As the British Army approached Lhasa, he decided to escape. His biographer explains his decision to flee Lhasa, stating that if he met with the British, peace terms would be made according to their discretion, and the rule of Tibet would be taken over by the British. He goes on to say that the Dalai Lama’s other reason for leaving Lhasa was to go and consult with the emperor of China — but in fact the Dalai Lama travelled to Mongolia, sending his trusted envoy Dorjiev to seek the help of the Russians, before travelling on to Kumbum monastery and then to Wutaishan, not arriving in Beijing until 1907.

*  *  *

As for Younghusband, after securing the trading agreements that had been the original reason for invading Lhasa, he and his army swiftly returned to India. In the next few months the British government (many of whom had opposed the invasion from the start) quickly took the treaty apart, reducing many of the gains Younghusband had fought for. As representatives of the Manchu court arrived post-haste in London and protested that the Tibetans were not allowed to sign treaties on without Chinese permission, a new treaty was drawn up, ratified by China and Britain (it was, of course, entirely ignored by the Tibetans).

The Younghusband Mission instilled a lasting fear among the rulers of China that the permeability of Tibet’s border with India could leave China wide open to attack. The weak and bankrupt Manchu court had been happy to ignore Tibet for the last century, but in the wake of Younghusband’s invasion they made Tibet one of their main strategic priorities. In 1908, mere weeks after the Dalai Lama returned to Lhasa, a Chinese army occupied the city, and the Dalai Lama fled again, this time to India.

According to the 13th Dalai Lama’s biography, this was all prophesied by Padmasambava. The previous Dalai Lama (the 12th) Thrinley Gyatso is said to have received the prophecy directly from the Lotus Born himself. Padmasambhava told the 12th Dalai Lama that unless he took a wife, he would die young (he did), and  predicted the rebirth of the next Dalai Lama. He then spoke these words:

The king will roam foreign lands and a foreign army will come to Tibet;
You the ruler of Tibet will travel to the country of China,
And the ruler of China will send the Chinese army to Tibet.

*  *  *


1. Thub bstan rgya mtsho’i rnam thar (written in 1940, published in India in the 1950s). TBRC id: W3087.
2. The Blue Book, or, Cabinet and other confidential papers relating to Tibet, 27 February 1903 – 26 April 1905. B.P.13/41.(13.)
3. Patrick French. 1994 Younghusband: The Last Imperial Adventurer. London: HarperCollins.
4. Charles Allen. 2004. Duel in the Snows: The True Story of the Younghusband Mission to Lhasa. London: John Murray.

*  *  *


1. The Nechung Oracle Lobsang Namgyal (1894-1945), from the Tibetan Album (who also have a brief biography). Note that this is not the Nechung Oracle who was consulted in 1904.
2. “A British outpost in Tibet watches for reinforcements” (Getty Images, retrieved from this BBC page on the Younghusband Mission).

Tibetan texts

The Nechung Oracles words, from the biography of the 13th Dalai Lama, vol.I, f.395a.1 (the translated section is between the asterisks):

hrī: slob dpon phyag na pad+mo yi//
sku tshe mi ‘gyur rdo rje’i khrir//
ngoms par bzhugs pa bka’ drin che//
*dam sri ‘byung pos rgyud bskul te//
lha log dbyin ji mi nor dpung//
gangs ris bskor ba’i kha ba’i ljongs//
hang shed dpung ngos ‘di nyid kyang//
mtshungs med kyi bya gzhag ‘di ‘dra la//
‘gyur srid na ‘dre rgan tsi t+ta ‘gas//*
‘di ‘dra rigs tsam rigs tsam yang//
nged dmar nag gnyis po sri zhu la//
‘bral med kyis mi mngon dbyings nas kyang//
snying dum bur gyur pa’i las ‘dra zhing//
yin kyang don g.yar dam rdo rje’i rgya kha nas//
‘gyur med kyi ‘phrin las ‘jug pa yang//
snga dus nas da lta’i dus ‘di bar//
bstan dang dga’ ldan chab srid//
slod dpon sku ‘phreng rim pa dang//
da lta’i slob dpon ‘di nyid bar//
sri zhu’i gnas la rgya ma grol//
mdud pa ‘doms shing ‘phrin las la//
nyin mtshams yug tu sku’i grib bzhin//
‘grogs pa’i ‘phrin las zhus zin na//
da dung de dang de mtshungs pa//
sri zhu’i bya gzhan phra rags rnams//
sngar bzhin ‘phrin las ‘gyur med zhu//
cung zad bstan dang sems can gyi//
dam tshig la rag bsod nams dman//

And Padmasambhava’s prophecy, from vol.I, f.384b.3-4:

rgyal po mthar ‘khyams mtha’ dmag bod la ‘ong :
bod rgyal khyod ni rgya yi yul du ‘gro :
rgya nag rgyal pos rgya dmag bod du gtong :

What Are Those Monks Doing?

I’d like to share something with you that’s puzzled me for some time. I first came across this illustration a few years ago. It’s in the Dunhuang manuscript Or.8210/S.8555. Click on the image or the number to see the whole thing, then come back here if you have any ideas.

What do you see? My first impression was that this looks like a stoning, with three monks throwing rocks at the fourth, prostrate monk. Are we looking at a punishment? I’m not sure the Vinaya sanctions this kind of thing. And it does look like the fourth monk has removed his shoes and is performing prostrations on a mat. While the other monks are throwing stones at him. Really? Why?

*  *  *

It was only recently, when I looked at the back of the manuscript, that I started to think I might have solved this puzzle. There’s a single line of Chinese writing, saying “Lotus Sutra, seventh fascicle”. Now, this could be nothing to do with the picture. I’m all too familiar with scrolls that have been reused for notes, writing exercises and, of course, idle doodles. But this picture is more than a doodle. Surely it means something.

Well, have a look at this verse from Chapter 10 of the sutra:

If when a person expounds this sutra
there is someone who speaks ill and reviles him
or attacks him with swords and staves, tiles and stones,
he should think of the Buddha and for that reason be patient.

Could that be the scene depicted here? I thought so, but then came across an even better bit of text in Chapter 20, which is a story about a bodhisattva called Never Disparaging:

This monk did not devote his time to reading or reciting the scriptures, but simply went about bowing to people. And if he happened to see any of the four kinds of believers far off in the distance, he would purposely go to where they were, bow to them and speak words of praise, saying, “I would never dare disparage you, because you are all certain to attain Buddhahood!”

Proving that you can’t please all of the people all of the time, there were some who were offended by this behaviour:

Among the four kinds of believers there were those who gave way to anger, their minds lacking in purity, and they spoke ill of him and cursed him, saying, “This ignorant monk – where does he come from, presuming to declare that he does not disparage us and bestowing on us a prediction that we will attain Buddhahood? We have no use for such vain and irresponsible predictions!”

The four kinds of believer, by the way, are monks, nuns, lay men and women. The story seems to be aimed against those Buddhists who didn’t hold with the Lotus Sutra’s doctrine that everyone will attain Buddhahood eventually.

Many years passed in this way, during which this monk was constantly subjected to curses and abuse. He did not give way to anger, however, but each time spoke the same words, ‘You are certain to attain Buddhahood.’ When he spoke in this manner, some among the group would take sticks of wood or tiles and stones and beat and pelt him. But even as he ran away and took up his stance at a distance, he continued to call out in a loud voice, “I would never dare disparage you, for you are all certain to attain Buddhahood!” And because he always spoke these words, the overbearing arrogant monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen gave him the name Never Disparaging.

So, the key phrase there is, “some among the group would take sticks of wood or tiles and stones and beat and pelt him.” Though in the end the bodhisattva runs away and continues not disparaging his tormentors from a safe distance, note that he begins by bowing to them. So here we have all the elements of our illustration. And I think, perhaps, the puzzle is solved.

*  *  *

Of course the tormentors in our picture are not monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen, but just monks. But I don’t think that’s a deal-breaker. What’s interesting is the clothing of the monks. I assume this reflects the context in which the picture was made, that is, Dunhuang in the 9th or 10th centuries (I suspect). From which it appears that the monks at Dunhuang wore robes similar to those that Tibetan monks wear nowadays.

*  *  *

Incidentally, those nasty people who threw the stones, tiles and the like got their comeuppance. They had to spend an awfully long time in the deepest hell. The Buddha, who is the narrator of course, tells us this, and he also reveals that the bodhisattva Never Disparaging was the Buddha himself in a former life. And those nasty people? Well, even hell doesn’t go on forever, and at the end of the chapter the Buddha reveals that they are here now, among his audience. Anyhow, I think the story of Never Disparaging complements nicely this season’s messages of goodwill, tolerance and the like. Best wishes to all for Christmas and New Year. You are certain to attain Buddhahood!

*  *  *


The translations here are from Burton Watson, The Lotus Sutra (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994). I haven’t delved into the complexities of the text itself, and the sharp-eyed will notice that I didn’t address the question of whether either Chapter 10 or 20 falls within the seventh fascicle (juan qi) of the Sutra. Of course, to do this we must look at the different canonical versions of the sutra (Burton Watson’s translation is based on the most popular one, attributed to Kumarajiva), and then the several versions in Dunhuang that are not clearly related to the canonical versions. And that’s assuming that we are only looking at Chinese versions. All I have been able to ascertain at this point is that the Tibetan version the story of Never Disparaging appears in Chapter 19, falls under fascicle 11 (bam po bcu gcig pa) in the Peking Kanjur version. Any further thoughts are most welcome.

The Abbot, or Ironing out History’s Wrinkles

Picking through a manuscript collection piece by piece can be painstaking work, but it’s rarely boring. I never cease to be amazed by the mere fact that these ancient things were written, used and reused by very different people who held them in their hands in a very different place and time.  And then there are the occasional magical moments, when you come across something really fascinating that nobody else has noticed before.

This happened to me a few months ago when I was compiling a catalogue with Kazushi Iwao. We were sifting painstakingly through the main series of Chinese manuscripts in the British Library, to see whether there were any Tibetan manuscripts in there that had been overlooked.  We came across something that looked sort of familiar… Something about Rasa (the old name of Lhasa) … something about a Brahmin called Ananta.

Aha! The penny dropped. This was part of the story of how Buddhism was introduced to Tibet by the tsenpo Tri Song Detsen. It looked very similar to the version of that story in an important and early Buddhist history called  The Testament of Ba. A quick check of that text revealed that yes, this was a fragment of the Testament of Ba.

Now this was exciting (to us at least) because nobody knows when the Testament of Ba was written. Though everyone agrees that it’s an early history, the oldest manuscript that’s been found is from the 12th or 13th century (this version is called the Dba’ bzhed). The fragment we’d found could well be from the 9th century, taking us to only a short while after the actual reign of Tri Song Detsen.

*  *  *

The fragment tells the story of how the abbot Śāntarakṣita was invited to Tibet by Tri Song Detsen. This was the first stage of the tsenpo’s adoption of Buddhism, overturning the anti-Buddhist policies of his ministers. But when the abbot arrived in Lhasa, Tri Song Detsen had second thoughts, and was worried that this foreigner might be bringing black magic or spirits with him. So the abbot was confined to the Jokhang temple, and interviewed by a minister.

Since the abbot didn’t speak Tibetan, an interpreter had to be found. After a search, a fellow called Ananta was discovered. He was in Tibet because his father had been convicted of a serious crime in Kashmir and had been exiled. So Ananta became the interpreter as the abbot was questioned for three months about his doctrines. Eventually the minister assured Tri Song Detsen that the abbot posed no threat, and he was allowed to begin his task of establishing Buddhism in Tibet.

Now I don’t know about you, but that story doesn’t seem the most auspicious starting-point for Buddhism in Tibet. Later historians didn’t think so either. Even the oldest version of the Testament of Ba changes the language slightly, so that instead of the abbot being confined in the Jokhang (the Tibetan word bcugs is the same used in legal documents for imprisonment) he’s politely “asked to stay” there.

In later versions of the Testament (like the Sba bzhed), the suspicions about the abbot are placed in the minds of the ministers, instead of the Tri Song Detsen himself. This absolves the tsenpo from harbouring bad thoughts about the saintly abbot. This more polite version was the one used by the historian Butön in his famous history of Buddhism. He also dropped the figure of Ananta, with his shady past, from this part of the narrative. And some other historians simply ignored the whole interrogation-of-the-abbot episode.

*  *  *

Personally, I like the early version of the story, and probably for the same reason that the Tibetan Buddhist historians were uncomfortable with it. It has wrinkles in it that get in the way a seamless narrative of the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet by glorious kings, monks and yogins. It seems more like a record of what “really happened” than a pious story meant to inspire the faithful. You might not agree, and I’m sure that this preference down to my own cultural conditioning. But perhaps you’ll agree that our little manuscript discovery has helped us to see how this particular wrinkle was gradually smoothed out by generations of historians. Which is quite interesting whether you prefer your history wrinkled or smooth.

*  *  *

1. Sam van Schaik and Kazushi Iwao. “Fragments of the Testament of Ba from Dunhuang”. Journal of the American Oriental Society 128.3 (2008 [2009]): 477–487.
2. Pasang Wangdu and Hildegard Diemberger. 2000. The Royal Narrative Concerning the Bringing of Buddha’s Doctrine to Tibet. Wien: Verlag der Osterreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.

1. Statue of Śāntarakṣita. Photograph by Matthieu Ricard, (c) Getty Images (click on image for link).
2. The two fragments together: Or.8210/S.9498(A) and Or.8210/S.13683(C).

*  *  *

Update: Transcriptions of the fragments are now available on the OTDO website here and here. And the images of the fragments, along with the other fragments that they were glued together with, can be seen on the IDP website here and here.

*  *  *

Pasang Wangdu and Hildegard Diemberger’s translation of the Dba’ bzhed

The mKhan po sent a messenger to prostrate in front of the bTsan po and to inquire about whether he should meet him immediately. [He was] asked: “Please, stay at Pe har for a while.” The bTsan po suspected that there could be some black magic and evil spirits (phra men) from lHo bal [in the doctrine of the mKhan po]” Then [the bTsan po] ordered Zhang blon chen po sBrang rGya sbra (sgra) legs gzigs, Seng ‘go lHa lung gzigs and ‘Ba’ Sang shi, “You three ministers, go to Ra sa Pe har (vihāra) to meet A tsa rya Bo dhi sa twa and prostrate in front of him. Then investigate whether I need to suspect the presence of black magic and evil spirits from lHo bal or not.” The three arrived at Ra sa Pe har (= vihāra). There was no translator. So, in six market-places it was ordered that each chief merchant (tshong dpon) had to search for a translator from Kashmir (Kha che) or Yang le. In the lHa sa market three people were found, namely, two Kashmiri lHa byin brothers and the Kashmiri A nan ta. The two lHa byin brothers were unable to act as translators except for some language of trade. As far as A nan ta is concerned: he was the son of the Brahman sKyes bzang who had commited a serious crime and had been sent into exile in Tibet because according to the law of lHo bal Kashmir (lHo bal kha che) Brahmans could not be executed. [A nan ta] had studied the Brahman sacred scriptures (gtsug lag), grammar (sgra) and medicine, and was therefore able to translate the language of the doctrine.

(Pasang and Diemberger 2000: p.43-45)

Tales from the Scriptorium III: Scribal doodles

PT1164 detail

When the scribes of Dunhuang were given bundles of paper to write Tibetan sutras on, they were allowed to lose a few sheets. If they lost more than their allowance, it was a serious matter. As I discussed a while ago, scribes could be punished with ten lashes per incomplete bundle, their property could be impounded, and their relatives could be imprisoned. I wonder whether this had any effect on the merit that the copying of the sutras was meant to generate.

Anyway, the sheets of paper that scribes were allowed to keep were called lektsé (glegs tshas), and several examples of them have survived in the Dunhuang collections. They provide a fascinating insight into the life of the scribes. Sometimes we see them practising their handwriting or writing drafts of letters. It seems that these sutra scribes were not very well paid, if they were paid at all. But they could use their scribal skills to make some money on the side by writing letters and contracts for those who couldn’t write. This practice became so common that letters and contracts were still being written in Tibetan long after the end of Tibetan rule in Dunhuang.

*  *  *

Picture 2

But today I just want to look at one of the nicest bits of scribal scrap paper, Pelliot tibetain 1164, which is covered in animal doodles. According to the signature, it was the scrap paper of a scribe called Jeu Taklek (Rje’u Stag legs), unusual in that he seems to have been Tibetan rather than Chinese. Another inscription on the paper states (if I read it right) that these are “all the wild beasts of Shachu.”* Shachu was the name for Dunhuang at this time (Shazhou in Chinese).

Picture 3

I see an antelope, some kind of large bird, a horse, a pigeon, a dog (or fox) and a rabbit. You may see differently. Some of the animals, especially the dog/fox, have a lot of character…

Picture 3

This dynamic stance reminds me of the sketch of the otter on the back of a woodslip done by a soldier at the Tibetan fort of Miran, which turned up in a previous post here. And here it is again:

IOL Tib J 404 versoWhich makes me wonder, was there a tradition of animal-sketching among the early Tibetans?

*  *  *

See also
Tales from the Scriptorium I: Expensive manuscripts
Tales from the Scriptorium II: It’s a scribe’s life

* The Tibetan seems to be sha cu rgya rang kun kun. The word rgya might just refer to the antelope.

Tsuguhito Takeuchi. 1995. Old Tibetan Contracts From Central Asia. Tokyo: Daizo Shuppan.

The Sitting-in-Bed Ceremony and Other Strangeness

13th Dalai Lama

If you’re reading about Tibetan history on the internet, you might come across references here and there to a Tibetan ritual called the “sitting-in-bed ceremony”. When I first saw this term, it struck me as very strange indeed. As I found more examples of this phrase (and alternatives like the “sitting-on-the-bed ceremony”) it became clear that it only appeared on Chinese government and press websites.

Here’s an example, from the Chinese government’s version of how the present Dalai Lama was chosen and enthroned:

Chiang, then chairman of the Executive Yuan, reported to the Nationalist Government on 31, Jan, asking for permission that the lot-drawing be exempted and allow Lhamo Toinzhub be enthroned as the 14th Dalai Lama. Chiang also asked for fund for the sitting-in-bed ceremony. [See the full text here]

There’s no explanation of what this ceremony entails, though it certainly brings a strange image to my mind. Lets look at another website, this time an official Chinese newspaper’s account of the enthronement of the 11th Panchen Lama (that’s the Chinese government’s choice of Panchen Lama, not the Dalai Lama’s, whose whereabouts are unknown):

The sitting-in-the-bed ritual of the 11th Panchen Lama was held in the Yige Quzeng Hall on the second floor of Laburang. Only by sitting in the bed at Yige Quzeng could the Panchen Lamas be qualified, since the bed of all previous Panchen Lamas was there. The 10th Panchen Lama, who was enthroned in the Tar-er Monastery in Qinghai Province due to historical reasons, made up the enthronement ritual in the Yige Quzeng Hall after he came back to Xigaze. [See the complete, and rather lengthy account here]

Well, that’s fine then. It’s a funny Tibetan ritual in which the Dalai and Panchen Lamas have to sit on the bed of their predecessor before they can be enthroned. Hmm. I don’t know about you, but I’m still not convinced.

*  *  *

Here’s what I think this “sitting-in-bed ceremony” really is — just a bad translation that has somehow become standard in Chinese discussions of Tibetan Buddhism. I suspect the original Tibetan phrase is probably khri la bzhugs, literally meaning “to reside (or sit) on the throne,” often in the context of an enthronement ceremony. The phrase goes way back, and can even be found in the Dunhuang manuscripts (you can find it in Pelliot tibétain 1068 here).

You can probably see where I’m going now. The Chinese translation of this term that has become standard is 坐床 zuo chuang, literally “sitting-bed”. It’s that character 床 chuang that is the problem here. If you look in Tibetan-Chinese dictionaries, you see that the Tibetan khri is given a number of possible Chinese characters, meaning throne, couch or bed. This might come as a surprise to readers of Tibetan (it did to me), who have only ever come across khri meaning “throne”.

But that depends on what a throne is. From a European point of view, a throne should be a very grand sort of chair, but in Tibetan culture (and many other Asian cultures) it’s more of a raised platform. The photograph of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama at the top of this post shows one such throne. Here is another, smaller throne (also for the Dalai Lamas at the Norbu Lingka), photographed in the 1930s:

Norbu Lingka ThroneAs you can see, the distinction between a throne, a couch and a bed is not as distinct as it might at first seem. The Tibetan throne pictured above might best be described in English as a divan (which the OED defines as “a long seat consisting of a continued step, bench, or raised part of the floor, against the wall of a room, which may be furnished with cushions, so as to form a kind of sofa or couch.”)

That said, nobody would describe Tibetan thrones like these as a “bed”, and I still think that “bed” is the worst of the available Chinese translations of Tibetan khri. The second stage of translation, from Chinese into English, leads to the entirely misleading phrase “sitting-in-bed ceremony.” So if you come across this phrase, keep in mind that the Tibetan behind it just means “enthronement”.*

*  *  *

Why would this bad translation become standard in official Chinese literature, repeated again and again without question or correction? I think it betrays a lack of care, or a lack of interest in the actual nature of Tibetan culture. The authors of these pieces are inevitably making a political point, and once that point has been made, there’s no need to go any deeper into, for instance, what actually happens when a  lama is enthroned. The strangeness of the misleading term “sitting-in-bed ceremony” can easily be dismissed as another example of the weird and wonderful culture of the exotic Tibetans.†

*  *  *


* Two other terms often found in the same Chinese sources are:

  • “Soul boy” (灵童 ling tong), referring to a candidate for recognition as a rebirth or tulku.
  • “Living Buddha” (活佛 huo fo), referring to a recognised rebirth or tulku.

These have no equivalent in Tibet, and rather than being bad translations, are Chinese terms with their own history in Chinese culture. In both cases, like the “sitting-in-bed ceremony”, the Chinese term is somewhat misleading, and the English translation of it even more so. “Living Buddha” has its own unfortunate career in the West.

Of course, the Western media can be just as bad. There was an article last year on the Dalai Lama in the English Sunday paper The Observer entitled “Inside the court of the Tibetan god-king“. This was 2008, but that headline might as well have been written in 1908 (though the article itself was reasonable enough, and the headline was no doubt the work of a copy-editor, not the journalist).

*  *  *


Click on the images to go to The Tibet Album, where there is further information on these photographs.

1. The Thirteenth Dalai Lama on a throne in the Norbu Lingka, photographed by Charles Bell, October 14, 1921. (c) The Pitt Rivers Museum. Bell described this event in his book Portrait of the Dalai Lama (Collins, 1946), p.336:

I am to take the Dalai Lama’s photograph again, this time it is to be in his own throne-roon in the Jewel Park Palace, the first time that anyone has photographed him in the Holy City.When I arrive with Rab-den, on the day and the hour appointed, the arrangement of the throne-room is not ready. I watch them arranging it. The throne is built up of two or three wooden pieces; the nine silk scrolls, representing the Buddha in the earth-pressing attitude, are already placed on the wall behind and above the throne… Below these scrolls red silk brocade covers the wall. The throne is four feet high, a seat without back or arms. It stands on a dais, eighteen inches high, with low balustrade of beautifully carved woodwork running around it. Hanging down in front of the throne is a cloth of rich white silk, handsomely embroidered in gold, with the crossed thunderbolts of the God of Rain. Chrysanthemums, marigolds and other flowers are arranged round the dais. This is the throne that is used on important occasions.

2. The throne in the Kesang Podrang palace of the Norbu Lingka, photographed by Hugh Richardson in 1936-1939. (c) The British Museum.

Buddhism and Bon IV: What is bon anyway?


In previous Buddhism and Bon posts I’ve tried to say something about the pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet by looking at the way certain key terms were used in the manuscripts (though of course I’m not the first to have done this). Recently I’ve been puzzling over another ancient manuscript which nobody seems to have noticed before, and which has propelled me towards that most key of key terms, “bon” itself.

When you read books on Tibet, you often come across statements that the Bon religion existed in Tibet before Buddhism arrived, and that afterwards there were various struggles between Buddhism and Bon. But the fact is it’s not at all clear that there was a religion in Tibet called “Bon” before the 11th century.

This may sound like an academic’s quibble, but it’s not. We”ve got to be careful about the words we use. Words like “Bon” are big, sometimes vague, and often misused. Imagine becoming so fond of the word “precipitation” that you forget that there’s a difference between rain and snow. The early religious practices of the Tibetans are not the same as the religion called Bon that we begin to see from the 11th century onwards.*

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The two scholars who have made the most detailed studies of the pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet based on the Dunhuang manuscripts are the great Samten Karmay and the late, great Rolf Stein. There are of course many many more who have written about Bon, most of whom can be found in the mega-bibliography in Unearthing Bon Treasures by Dan Martin (who is also great). Karmay and Stein have quite different views on one question: was the pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet an organized religion that went by the name of Bon, or not? Karmay argues that it was, Stein that it wasn’t.

The word bon definitely does appear in a few Dunhuang manuscripts. (As Dan Martin says in the same book: “One is impressed by how little there is to work with, although this in no way minimizes the importance of the question.”) For Stein, the word bon in these manuscripts refers to a ritual or a priest. For Karmay, it refers to a religious system or community. Though both make a good case, it seems to me that the question has not been settled yet, and perhaps can’t be settled, when so many puzzle pieces have gone astray.

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So without further ado let me introduce the “new” manuscript (Or.8210/S.12243). It’s actually two pieces of paper stitched together with string, very worn and greasy-looking, and obviously much handled. Both pieces of paper contain incomplete texts, so I wonder if this manuscript functioned as a personal amulet before it was deposited in the Dunhuang cave. One of the pieces of paper has a sādhana for the deity Vajrasattva, while the other is the one that interests me.

It’s a discussion, and apparently a criticism, of the pre-Buddhist funeral rituals in Tibet, something I wrote speculatively about a little while ago here. The manuscript is pretty difficult to read. In fact, I had to ask the IDP photographer for an infrared image before even making the attempt. And even with the infrared image to hand, the little text is fiendishly difficult to translate, for me at least. Still, it’s clear that it belongs to the genre of Buddhist polemics against non-Buddhist rituals, like the much better known Pelliot tibétain 239 (also the source of the appealing little tiger below).

Now, the author of this little tract says at one point: “Previously in Tibet, interment was practised according to the Bon religion.” What I’ve translated as “Bon religion” is bon chos in Tibetan. This might look a bit odd, as we’re accustomed to seeing chos being translated as dharma and meaning Buddhism. But actually chos has a far wider range of meanings, and often in the Dunhuang manuscripts indicates a general set of beliefs and practices. Another Dunhuang manuscript talks about the non-Buddhist beliefs as chos chung ngu, “the little religion”.

So I think it’s right to translate bon chos here as “the Bon religion” and say that yes, the author of this work did consider “Bon” a set of beliefs and practices (a “religion” if you will) centred on death and funerals. But  having made that slightly bold assertion I will quickly step back and remind you that this text was written by a Buddhist as a polemic against these Bon rites (he also says: “Even the ritual narratives of the Bonpos of Tibet don’t agree with each other.”) Remember too that the Dunhuang cave was sealed at the beginning of the 11th century, and this manuscript may have been popped in just before the sealing; in which case, it would represent a rather late view of the early religion.

*  *  *

The conclusion I’d like to draw is that at least some Buddhists, by the end of the 10th century and perhaps earlier, thought of the funeral rituals practised in earlier times by Tibetan ritual specialists as a religion called Bon. I suspect that this was not quite the same thing that Tibetans meant when they said “Bon” after the 10th century. As usual, I welcome the thoughts of those better qualified than myself. Below they will find the relevant Tibetan text and my unsatisfactory translation.


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See also

Buddhism and Bon I: the religion of the gods
Buddhism and Bon II: what is tsuglag?
Buddhism and Bon III:What is yungdrung?

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A complete edition and description of this manuscript (Or.8210/S.12243) will appear in the near future in the catalogue of Tibetan manuscripts in the British Library’s Or.8210/S. sequence (which, because this is the number of Chinese manuscripts, have previously gone unnoticed), edited by Tsuguhito Takeuchi, Kazushi Iwao and myself. Here’s the recto side of the leaf that’s stitched on to the Vajrasattva text:

rjes bcad cing dpyad na // mdad shid bon [cho]su bgyid//gzhung brtags na/ sngon cad bod kyi mdad (‘do la) bon chosu bgyis pa / thogs su (las) byung / shid btang na/ gnon gshin sman cing legs par ‘gyur ba’i gtan tshIgs ci mchis pa rjes bcad de nyid bcu ba brtags na/:/ bod kyi bon po rnams kyi smrang yang myI ‘thun te/ p[h]on gsas dang p[h]ang gi rabs las nI / pha ste [. . .] ba zhig/ bgres ste dgung du gshegs pa/ [. . .]

The text is full of technical terms that are found elsewhere in Dunhuang manuscripts, Bon ritual manuals and medical texts. One of the main problems with my translation is that it implies diagnosis and medical treatment of a corpse, which suggests that some of the terms are not quite what they seem here…

“…When eradicating (rjes bcad) and diagnosing (dpyad), interment (mdad) and entombment (shid) are performed according to the Bon religion. When we examine the texts, [it is clear that] previously in Tibet interment was performed according to the Bon religion. After some time had elapsed, the [corpse] was entombed. The instructions for the medical treatment (sman) and beautification (legs par ‘gyur) of the corpse can be examined in the ten rituals (de nyid bcu) for eradication. Even the ritual narratives of the Tibetan Bonpos are not in agreement. In the rituals of the sacred string and the spindle, the father and … grow old and pass away to the heavens….”

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* note The Tibetans, both Bonpo and Buddhist, do appreciate the difference between the pre- and post- 11th century religions, and refer to these by different names (though always as forms of “Bon”).

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Vincent Bellezza. 2008. Zhang-zhung: Foundations of Civilization in Tibet. Vienna: OAW. (I haven’t seen this work yet, but I’m assured that it is very good and highly relevant to the topic of early Tibetan funerary rites.)

Samten Karmay. 1998 (1983). “Early Evidence for the Existence of Bon as a Religion in the Royal Period”. The Arrow and the Spindle I. Kathmandu: Mandala. pp.157-168

Per Kvaerne. 1985. Tibet – Bon Religion: A Death Ritual of the Tibetan Bonpos. Leiden: Brill.

Dan Martin. 2001. Unearthing Bon Treasures. Leiden: Brill. (The quote above is from p.219, n.17.)

R.A. Stein. 2003 (1988). “The Indigenous Religion and the Bon-po in the Dunhuang Manuscripts”. In The History of Tibet I. London and New York: Routledge. pp.584–614. (This is a translation of the French article “Tibetica Antiqua V: La Religion Indigène et les Bon-po dans les Manuscrits de Touen-Houang”, BEFEO 77: 27-56.)

R.A. Stein. 1970. “Un document ancien relatif aux rites funeraires des bon-po tibétaines”. Journal Asiatique 258: 155-185.

Buddhism and Empire IV: Converting Tibet


How were the Tibetan people converted to Buddhism? And who did the converting?

Tibetan historians always say that the conversion happened during Tibet’s imperial period. Butön, for example, says that that the Tibetans were converted to Buddhism when Songtsen Gampo set down the new royal laws based on the ten virtues of Buddhism. Other histories consider the real conversion to have been carried out a century later by the trio of Trisong Detsen (the emperor), Śāntarakṣita (the monk) and Padmasambhava (the tantric adept).

But sources that can be dated back to the time of the Tibetan emperors are not so clear about this, which has lead some modern scholars to argue that Buddhism at the time of the Tibetan Empire was a religion of the nobility, only found at the Tibetan court (see the comments to the previous post). Modern scholars have also argued that the adoption of Buddhism by Trisong Detsen and his successors was an act of international diplomacy. Buddhism, after all, was an international religion and many other major powers of the period — the Chinese empire, Central Asian city-states and Indian kingdoms — were Buddhist.

Then it would hardly have mattered whether the majority of ordinary Tibetans were Buddhists or not. The point was that Tibet should be perceived as a Buddhist country. So most Tibetans would have had little or no experience of Buddhism in the imperial period.

But was this really the case?

*  *  *

I’ve recently been looking at some of the early records of the Tibetan tsenpos to see whether any of them expressed the aspiration to convert the Tibetan people in general, and not just the nobility.

The second edict of Trisong Detsen (dated to 779 by Hugh Richardson) records the way in which Buddhism was made the state religion of Tibet. Looking very much like the official minutes of a meeting, it describes various discussion during which the court deliberated on how to establish Buddhism in Tibet, beginning with Trisong Detsen’s own account of how he was converted to Buddhism:

Then with the help of teachers of virtue I listened to the dharma was studied and the texts were brought before my eyes. Then I deliberated upon how the Buddhist religion should be practised and spread.

So, by his own account Trisong Detsen did want to spread Buddhism in Tibet. Along with that, he had some harsh things to say about the old religion:

At that time it was declared that those who followed the old Tibetan religion were getting everything wrong…

Among the old practices he disapproved of are painting your body red, casting spells on the government, and causing diseases and famine. Later the tsenpo convened another meeting, this time with lords from all over the Tibetan empire:

The minor princes under our dominion such as the Azha ruler, and the outer and inner ministers were consulted and a council was held. Together they considered in brief these things, first that trust should be put in the word of the Buddha; secondly that the example of the ancestors should be followed; and thirdly that help should be given by the power of the teachers of virtue.

So at this meeting everyone agreed to an empire-wide project establishing Buddhism, with a caveat that the traditional ways of the ancestors should be followed as well.

Further to that, a council was held about how the right path should not be changed, and how it could be increased. Thus an excellent summary of the dharma was made

What was this summary of the dharma? Earlier in the edict, Trisong Detsen explains the basics of Buddhism as the fact of impermanence, the inevitability of cause and effect (i.e. karma) and the need to practice the ten kinds of virtuous action in order to obtain a good rebirth. So the summary agreed at this meeting was probably something along those lines.

*  *  *

skarcung_colourBut Trisong Detsen’s recorded aspiration to spread the word of the Buddha has little to say about ordinary Tibetans. Let’s skip forward to the reign of Senaleg, in the early years of the 9th century. One of his edicts was preserved on the Karchung pillar, which survived almost undamaged right through to the Cultural Revolution, when it was smashed to pieces. This pillar edict is concerned with the appointment of senior Buddhist teachers to lead the religion in Tibet. It says:

But from the time when the tsenpo and his descendents are young until the time when they become rulers of the kingdom and thereafter, teachers of virtue shall be appointed from among the monks. By teaching religion as much as can be absorbed into the mind, the gate of liberation for the whole of Tibet, through the learning and practice of the dharma, shall not be closed.

Note here the apparently inclusive statement that “the whole of Tibet” will have access to the “gate of liberation.” This egalitarian sentiment is made even more clear further down the pillar:

And when for the Tibetan subjects from the nobles downwards, the gate leading to liberation is never obstructed and the faithful have been led towards liberation, from those among them who are capable there shall always be appointed abbots to carry on the teachings of the Buddha.

It seems clear enough that the phrase “from the nobles downwards” must include every Tibetan subject, however lowly.

*  *  *

S553Noble sentiments indeed, but how could such a project realistically be carried out? How do you convert a whole people to another religion? This is a big question, and I won’t try to answer it. In any case, as Matthew Kapstein has pointed out, this “conversion” took place over several centuries (or to put it another way, there were several “conversions”).

But if we travel now back to Dunhuang, from our little excursion to Central Tibet, there is a piece of evidence that might hint at how the grand project of converting the Tibetans to Buddhism was put into practice. There’s a scroll with a short summary of Buddhism in Chinese, called A Summary of the Essential Points of the Mahāyāna Sūtras. Its colophon says (in Chinese):

At the sixth month of the water tiger year, send the letter with tsenpo’s seal of Great Tibet and the Sūtra of Ten Kinds of Virtuous Behaviour to every county, to be circulated and recited. On the 16th day of the latter eighth month this copy was made.

This scroll has been dated to 822, in the reign of the last great Buddhist Tibetan emperor, Ralpachen. I am tempted to join up the dots here from (1) the summary of the dharma made by Trisong Detsen’s council and agreed by all the local rulers of the Tibetan empire, (2) the aspiration firmly expressed by the edict of Senaleg that all Tibetans should have access to Buddhism, and (3) the order from Ralpachen’s court to send copies of a summary of the ten Buddhist virtues to every part of the realm.

Many questions remain (you might be asking yourself some already, if you made it this far). But I think we can glimpse a genuine aspiration expressed by the Tibetan emperors to bring Buddhism to all of the Tibetan people, high and low. And we can see one way this might have been carried out, by the copying of brief summaries of the dharma all over Tibet (which would then have been taught orally to the non-literate, presumably, though literacy seems to have been quite widespread by the end of the empire). This might have been enough to initiate at least the first stage in the conversion of the Tibetan people to Buddhism.

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The pillar inscriptions quoted here are all to be found in the collections of Hugh Richardson (1985), Fang Kuei Li and W. South Coblin (1987) and now the volume edited by Kazushi Iwao and Nathan Hill and recently published by the Old Tibetan Documents Online Group (2009). The translations in this post are my own “provisional” ones.

The scroll mentioned here (Or.8210/S.3996) has been studied by Daishun Ueyama (1995: 314-323). The Chinese title is Da cheng jing zuan yao yi 大 乘 經 纂 要 義.

The issue of the conversion of the Tibetans has been treated from several different angles in Matthew Kapstein’s The Tibetan Assimilation of Buddhism (Oxford University Press, 2000).

I’m also looking forward to reading the just-published Buddhism and Empire: The Political and Religious Culture of Early Tibet by Michael Walter (Brill).


The first two images are by Hugh Richardson, showing his Tibetan assistant taking rubbings from the Karchung (skar cung) pillar. The photos are (c) The Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, and can be seen, along with many others, at the wonderful Tibet Album website.

The scroll is Or.8210/S.553, another copy of the Summary of the Essential Points of the Mahāyāna Sūtras.

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The second edict of Khri srong lde btsan (from Hugh Richardson, “The First Tibetan Chos ‘byung” in High Peaks, Pure Earth):

(p.97; 110b) de nas dge ba’i bshes gnyen gyis bstangs te chos kyang gsan / yi ge yang spyan sngar brims nas / sangs rgyas kyi chos spel zhing mdzad par bsgroms so / / de na bod kyi chos rnying pa ma lags la / sku lha gsol ba dang cho ga myi mthun pas / kun kyang ma legs su dogs te /

(p.98; 110b) ‘bangs su mnga’ ba rgyal ba rgyal phran ‘a zha rje la bstsogs pa dang phyi nang gi blon po rnams la bka’s rmas / bka’ gros su mdzad nas / gcig tu na sangs rgyas bcom ldan ‘das kyi bka’ lung la bsten / gnyis su na yab mes kyi dpe lugs la ‘tshal / gsum du na dge ba’i shes gnyen gyi mthus bstangs pa dang yang sbyar nas mdor brtags na / … de lam legs par ni ji ltar myi ‘gyur ched ni ji ltar che zhe na / chos kyi mdo ni legs su bgyi bas /

The Skar cung pillar inscription:

(ll.33–42): / / btsan  po dbon sras / / sku chu ngur bzhugs pa yan cad / / chab srId kyi mnga’ bdag mdzad pa man chad kyang / / dge slong las / dge ba’I bshes nyen bskos ste / chos thugs su cI chud chud du bslab cing / / bod yongs kyIs kyang chos slob cing spyad pa’I sgo myi gcad / nam du yang bod ya rabs man cad/ bod ‘bangs las thar par gzud pa’I sgo myi bgag par / dad pa’I rnams las thar par btsud de / / de’i nang nas nus pa las / / bcom ldan ‘das kyI ring lugs rtag du bsko zhIng / / bcom ldan ‘das kyI ring lugs byed pa’I rnams chos ‘khor nas bya’o cog gI bka’ la yang btags ste / /