(Vairocana Buddha in the Jokhang)
History of Tibet – A Few Chapters (Part 1)
Dedicated to the long life, good health, and beneficent activities ofHis Holiness the Seventeenth Karmapa, Ugyen Trinley Dorje,His Eminence Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, Lodro Choyi Nyima,Venerable Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche,His Eminence Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche,who never tire of teaching and helping whenever called,and all those who simply care, each in his and her own way.
Aspiration for Tibet
A chain of fragrant flowers, these snow mountains are tranquil and fresh.In a healing land where white incense rises sweet,May the gracious beauty of luminous moonbeams,Light of the spiritual and temporal worlds,Conquer all strife, the darkness of the shadow side.
His Holiness the Seventeenth Karmapa, Ugyen Trinley Dorje
Contents:The Yarlung Tsangpo RiverBamian – Site of the Fourth Great Buddhist CouncilEarly Kingdoms on the Tibetan PlateauYumbu Lhakhang in Yarlung ValleyPhyong-rgyas in the Yarlung ValleyThe Tumuli at Phyong-rgyas
The Yarlung Tsangpo River
From mid-sky seven-stage high,Heavenly sphere, azure blue,Came our king, lord of men,Son divine, to Tibet.Land so high, made so pure,Without equal, without peer,Land indeed! Blest of all!Religion too surpassing all!1
The Yarlung Tsangpo River flowing through Tibet is the highest major river in the world, with an average elevation of about 4,600 meters. It becomes the Brahmaputra in India and eventually empties into the Bay of Bengal. One translation of the name Tsangpo is “purifier,”another translation is “mighty one.”
India was once located thousands of kilometres further south, collided into Asia millions of years ago and caused the Eurasian Plate to push up the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalayas to approximately 8,850 m elevation.
Bamian – Site of the Fourth Great Buddhist Council
Bamian lies on the Silk Road and was the scene of intensive Buddhist activity and commerce during the reign of Emperor Ashoka from India around the 3rd century B.C. On his way to India, Alexander the Great passed through Bamian around 327 B.C. and participated in a lively cultural exchange. Perhaps the most remarkable result of the fusion of eastern and western influences was the Gandhara School of art in India, which integrated Greco-Roman classical lines in the images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. The book Milindapanha (“Questions of King Milinda”), classified as a Hinayana text that was originally written in Pali and which has been translated into every major eastern and western language, is a literary testimony of the philosophical dialog held between the Greek King Menandros and the Buddhist Monk Nagasena. It is believed that India entered a new historical phase due to the cultural exchange with Greco-Bactria, and it is worth noting that King Milinda was given the title Maharaja Dharmika Menandrasa, “Milinda, the righteous king,” and that a stupa was erected to enshrine his ashes after his death. It is claimed that Nagasena was a mighty king of Sagala, that he gave up his throne in favour of his son and became a Buddhist mendicant, furthermore that Nagasena was a descendant of Mahasammata, a king mentioned in the Pali Chronicles as the original ancestor of the Sakya family, to which the Buddha belonged.
King Kanishka of the Kushan Empire (its capital, Bagram, is situated slightly east of Bamian) ruled over Central Asia from 78-144 A.D. and is revered as a patron of Buddhism. His kingdom extended from Bukhara in the west to Patna in the Ganges Valley in the east, from the Pamirs in the north to central India in the south. Contact between Kanishka and the Chinese in Central Asia may have inspired the transmission of Indian ideas, particularly Buddhism, to China, where it first appeared in the 2nd century A.D. Kanishka had convened the Fourth Buddhist Council in Kashmir that marked the formal rise of Mahayana Buddhism in Tibet, Central Asia, and China.
Thrangu Rinpoche tells us that the first three councils related more directly to the way the Hinayana teachings were preserved, particularly the Hinayana tradition of the Vinaya. The First Council was called in order to guarantee that all teachings Lord Buddha presented were properly conveyed and wouldn’t be lost. Its main function was gathering all teachings and keeping each category of Sutra, Vinaya, and Abhidharma very clear and well defined, without mixing or altering the texts. In this way, the First Council established what the teachings of the Buddha really are.
The First Council took place presumably in the same year that Buddha Shakyamuni passed into Parinirvana in Kushinagara, Nepal. In 486 or 483 B.C. (according to western sources that rely on Pali, in 544 B.C.), Mahakasyapa, the senior monk who had been chosen by the Buddha to lead the Sangha, assembled five hundred Arhats to recite the teachings of the Shravakayana, while Bodhisattvas assembled to preserve the Mahayana teachings. The first historic gathering of the Buddhist Sangha was to record, clarify, and consolidate the teachings. At this gathering, Ananda, the closest disciple of the Buddha and endowed with a remarkable memory, recited the Sutras, Upali recited the Vinaya, and Mahakasyapa the Abhidharma. These three subjects are called Tripitaka, “the Three Baskets of Lord Buddha’s teachings.” Mahakasyapa ruled that no disciplinary rule laid down by the Buddha should be changed and no new ones should be added. The Dharma was recited daily by groups who regularly crosschecked to ensure that no omissions or additions were made. The Dharma was then orally passed on from teacher to pupil.
Thrangu Rinpoche elaborated the councils in more detail and taught that the Second Council took place in the year 376 B.C. At that time there had been a greater number of new monks in Vaishali (situated north of Patna and revered as the site where Lord Buddha had delivered his last sermon) and some of them thought that a few rules of discipline recommended by the Buddha were too strict. They tried to introduce ten new rules to simplify their lives and justify easy ways of doing things, claiming that the Buddha gave these new rules. Therefore, the Second Council had to be convened; in order to make sure that the teachings would not become modified according to personal intentions. One rule that these monks wanted to propagate was that if you had done a negative action, then it would suffice just to fold your hands and say something like “Hulu, hulu.” They tried to teach that then any negative action would be purified and nothing else needed to be done.
During this time there was a very exceptional being, an Arhat called Yashah. He saw what was happening and realized that if no measures were taken, the teachings of Lord Buddha would be altered and perverted. To prevent this, he convened the Second Council and invited seven hundred Arhats to participate. When all were assembled, he asked them, “Well, now we have these ten new rules that these monks are trying to introduce. The question we should clarify is whether these rules can be found in the Sutras, or in the Vinaya, or in the Abhidharma.” All Arhats agreed that they could not be found in any of these treatises. Then Yashah asked, “Do they contradict the teachings of the Buddha contained in the Sutras, in the Vinaya, and in the Abhidharma?” The Arhats agreed that they contradict the words of the Buddha. Therefore they decided that these rules should be rejected, that future attempts to introduce new rules should be stopped. The Council again defined very clearly the teachings of Lord Buddha and read all texts to make sure that they were the only ones that may be accepted.
After the Second Council, the communities of monks started splitting up, first into four groups of Shravakas, who later split into eighteen groups, almost turning into different sects that formed into communities of monks. Each group felt that they knew the true teachings, which brought on many arguments and debates. These debates presented a new threat to the teachings of the Buddha, the reason why a Third Council was held.
Five hundred Arhats, led by Arya Parsva, and four hundred scholars, led by Vasumitra, met in what was called “the land of the Moslems” (Kashmir) at the newly erected Kanikana Temple. The purpose of this meeting was to decide which of the eighteen different Shravaka groups were true followers of the Buddha and which were not. The Garland of Gold Sutra was read as a guideline because it describes an event that took place during the times of Buddha Kashyapa, the previous Buddha.
At that time, there was a king called Krikin who had ten unusual dreams, which he interpreted as evil omens for his kingdom and own life. The Brahmin he asked to interpret his dreams told him that indeed much trouble awaited his kingdom and that there was danger for his life as well if he didn’t kill the person he loved most dearly. His daughter, called Garland of Gold was dearest to him. When she heard about the interpretation, she told her father, “You should ask Buddha Kashyapa if it is all right to kill me. Please do so. I won’t mind.” The king did, and Buddha Kashyapa answered that his dreams foretold events that would take place much later in history, after the time of Buddha Shakyamuni.
In his dream, the king had seen a long piece of cloth; eighteen men were tugging to get it, and it tore; each managed to get a piece, the reason why eighteen groups developed. Buddha Kashyapa said, “This dream has nothing to do with your own life as a king, but after the time of Buddha Shakyamuni there will be eighteen schools of Shravakas. One shouldn’t think that their views contradict the teachings of the Buddha. Actually, the entire body of teachings remains pure and intact and those each school follows are authentic and lead to true fruition. One should not think that some are good and others are bad; each shows the true path.” This was the prophecy made by Buddha Kashyapa in The Garland of Gold Sutra. Therefore the members of the Third Council agreed that each of the eighteen sections of Shravakas was correct in their line of thought and that the teachings they followed were the authentic teachings of the historical Buddha.
In the 3rd century B.C., King Ashoka convened a Third Council of the noble Sangha; the teachings were recited to discuss difference of opinions. The teachings of the meeting were compiled into a book called Kathavathu and became known as Sthaviras, “Theravada or Teaching of the Elders.” The Abhidharma was recited openly at this Council and then Mahayana became more widely known. After that time many texts were committed to writing, in Pali for the Shravakayana and in Sanskrit for the Mahayana. After this Council, King Ashoka sent missionaries through India to Sri Lanka, Kashmir, remote Himalayan regions, Burma, and China.
Thrangu Rinpoche tells us that during the Third Council, the complete collection of Vinaya, Sutras, and Abhidharma were read and that the Arhats corrected what had been written during the Second Council, so that from then on there would be no distortions, no misinterpretations, no alterations of the Buddha’s true words. This was the work of very learned Arhats who had a great deal of spiritual insight and an extremely clear understanding.
Thrangu Rinpoche also taught that some time after Lord Buddha passed into Parinirvana, one million Bodhisattvas met under the leadership of Samantabhadra on the summit of Mt. Vimalasvabhava, which lies south of Rajagriha in India, to confirm the Vajrayana teachings that were also contained in the Sutras, Vinaya, and Abhidharma. Bodhisattva Vajrapani recited the Sutras; Bodhisattva Maitreya recited the Vinaya, and Bodhisattva Manjushri the Abhidharma. It was confirmed that those who practice the Shravaka path (which focuses on the teachings about the Four Noble Truths and involves developing understanding and realization of emptiness of a self) become Arhats. Those who practice Mahayana (which involves studying and realizing emptiness of outer and inner phenomena) achieve Bodhisattva levels. And those who study and practice Vajrayana (which leads to understanding and realizing that everything is not completely empty but that there is also Buddha nature pervading all sentient beings) achieve ordinary and supreme spiritual accomplishments, in particular the power of direct knowledge.
Around 100 A.D., the Fourth Buddhist Council was held under the auspices of King Kanishka, who was a Mahayana practitioner and a very generous king. The coins of the Kushan dynasty show that open society honoured Brahman, Manichean, Greek, and Christian deities too. The Theravada School never acknowledged this council.
The Kushan dynasty collapsed in the 5th century under the attacks of the Huns, an Asian nomadic and pastoral people of Mongolian appearance, who had divided into groups that migrated on their small and speedy horses in search of new homes, setting horrifying standards for savagery and living off countries they terrorized. Hsuan-tsang, the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim, noted around 630 A.D. that Bamian was a flourishing Buddhist centre with more than ten monasteries. He also wrote that he saw a 300-meter long Buddha statue, carved lying on the side in a cave, and both Buddha statues that were recently destroyed (one 37 and the other 53 meters high) in the mountains behind what is now a village. The once splendid region of Bamian remained a crossroads of cultural influence until it finally became subject to Western Turks in the 8th century. Changing hands several times, it was destroyed and its inhabitants exterminated in the 13th century, never regaining its central role in history. Bamian is now one of the thirty-four provinces of Afghanistan.
(Valley of Bamian, site of the Buddha statues that were destroyed recently)
(Band-i-Amir Lakes in West Bamian, taken by gh in 1972)
Early Kingdoms on the Tibetan Plateau
(The Yarlung Valley)
The Himalayas are a natural boundary between Tibet, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, and India, which is called rGya-kar, “the White Expanse,” the home of Lord Buddha, while China is easily accessible, more open for disputes, and therefore called rGya-nag, “the Black Expanse.” The Tibetan plateau lies at about 15,000 ft. above sea level and is hemmed in on the north by the Kunglung Mountains and the Taklamakan Desert and on the west by Ngari and the steep slopes of the Hindukush. The major mountain range of Amnye Machen in northeast Tibet is not a barrier. In the website of amnyemachen.org we read, “Amnye (‘grandfather’), Machen (‘grandmother’) is also one of Tibet’s oldest mountain deities and mythical ancestral figure. He is worshipped in his many forms across Tibet and beyond, from as far as south-east as the land of Jang (Nashi people) to Ladakh in the west.”
Before the arrival of Buddhism in Tibet, the shamanistic tribes of the northern wastes of the Eurasian Plateau, who originated either in Central or East Asia and tended their sheep, goats, and herds of yak, made their way to the fertile land in the south, which was inhabited by clans of farmers who tilled the soil. As the shepherds reached westwards into central Nepal about the beginning of the Christian era, they became more settled. The chiefs and their families established an aristocracy and displaced the native inhabitants who had an independent state with its own language, literature, and culture; these people continue living in remote areas of Zhang Zhung, Kashmir, Ladakh, Zanskar, and the Himalayan regions of Nepal. They are followers of the Yungdrung religion, a term designating Bon. Yung means “the unborn, the absolute, free of any inherent nature,” and drung means “constantly arising.” Yungdrung Bon is the native religion of Tibet.
In Opening the Door to Bon, Nyima Dakpa wrote about the origin of Jambuling: “Long ago in a part of heaven called Sidpa Yesang, there were three brothers named Dakpa, Salwa, and Shepa. Their father was Sidpa Triod and their mother was Kunshe. These brothers studied under the great teacher named Tobumtri Log Gi Che Chen. After completing their studies they went to Shen Lha Okar, the Enlightened One of Compassion, and asked how they could be of the greatest assistance in liberating sentient beings from the suffering of the cyclic world. He advised them to take human birth in three different ages so that each brother could help the sentient beings of that age achieve liberation. Following Shen Lha Okar’s advice, Dakpa, the elder brother, was born as a teacher of the past age, and took the name Tonpa Togyal Ye Khyen. The second son, Salwa, was born in this present age as Tonpa Shenrab. Shepa will be born in a future age as Thangma Medon.” Further, “Tonpa Shenrab made one trip to Tibet during his lifetime. A demon called Khyap Pa Lag Ring stole Tonpa Shenrab’s horses and took them to the Kongpo Valley in Tibet. Tonpa Shenrab shot an arrow to make a path through the mountains. This is referred to as the ‘pathway of the arrow of light’ or Oser Da Lam. When Tonpa Shenrab visited the Kongpo Valley, he pacified the demons and evil spirits that inhabited Tibet. He blessed a mountain in the Kongpo Valley now known as the ‘Bon Mountain of Kongpo’ or Kongpo Bon Ri. (…) In the centre of the mountain is a special rock known as ‘The Heart of Kuntu Zangpo.’ One can see three essential recitations and a statue of the Enlightened One of the Six Realms on this rock. There are also five caves, blessed by Tonpa Shenrab, where people still practice. One cave is found at each of the four directions, while the last is in the centre of these four. (…)
“During his only visit to Tibet, Tonpa Shenrab gave blessings and teachings: purifying the environment, making smoke offerings to local spirits, erecting prayer flags, exorcising evil spirits, etc. He stopped the local tradition of offering animal sacrifices, and taught the offering of ransom and red torma instead. This satisfied the evil spirits, who had been causing illness and misfortune.”1
Nyima Dakpa continued: „Eighteen-hundred years after the passing of Tonpa Shenrab, Mucho Demdug came from heaven to Olmo Lung Ring (an enlightened realm and original source of Bon) as the speech emanation of Tonpa Shenrab. Mucho Demdug turned the wheel of Bon so that all the teachings of Tonpa Shenrab would be organized and classified. He taught many students, the best known of which are referred to as the Six Great Scholars or the ‘Six Ornaments of the World’ (Zamling Khepi Gyendug). They translated the Bon teachings into their own languages and spread them throughout their native lands. These six great masters are Mutsa Tahe, Tritok Partsa, and Huli Paryag from Tagzig; Lhadag Ngagdo from India; Legtang Mangpo from China; and Sertok Chejam from Trom.”2
David Snellgrove and Hugh Richardson noted that “There are several versions of a legend which first appears in the fourteenth century, telling how the first king of Tibet descended upon the sacred mountain of Yar-lha-sham-po in Yarlung where he was received by a circle of twelve men, whose identity as chieftains, shepherds, sages etc. varies in different versions. Because he came from the sky, they resolved to make him king, and carried him in a palanquin on their necks. So he is called the ‘Neck-Enthroned Mighty One’ (gNya’-khri bTsan-po). (…) As we learn from elsewhere in the documents from Tun-huang, the original name of this first king of central Tibet seems to have been Nyag-khri. Before reaching the Yarlung Valley south of the Tsangpo and the homeland of future Tibetan kings, he probably established himself first in Kong-po, north of Tsangpo and further to the east (…).”3
The following verse reflects the pride that the native inhabitants of Tibet felt for their heritage:
He came from the heights of the heavens,Descendant of the Six Lords, the Ancestral Gods who dwell above the mid-heaven,Three elder brothers and three younger,Seven in all with the Seventh Enthroned One (Khri-bdun-tshigs).The Mighty Enthroned One (Nyag-khri), son of Seventh Enthroned One,He came as lord-protector on the face of the earth, came as rain
which covers the face of the earth.He came to the Holy Mountain Gyang-do, and the great massy mountain bowed low, bowed low.The trees came together, came together and the springs rippled with their blue watersAnd the rocky boulders and the like did him honour, and the cranes made him salutation.He came as lord of the six parts of Tibet,And when he first came to this world, he came as lord of all under heaven.This centre of heaven, this core of the earth,This heart of the world, fenced round by snow,The headland of all rivers, where mountains are high and the land is pure.O country so good, where men are born as sages and heroes,To this land of horses ever more speedy, choosing it for its qualities he came here.O King, whose religion is equalled by none, who is saluted by worshipping cranes,And who takes the light as his cloak!Those who are his nobles are clad in lordly garments.Their greatness and nobility are all derived from him!Of all trees the pine is the tallest,Of all rivers the Yarlung is the bluest,And Yar-lha-sham-po is god supreme!4
Recorded history for academia begins when local chiefs united under the rule of 32 successive Zhang Zhung kings, who were called bTsang-po (“the Mighty One”) or Lha-sras (“the Divine Son”). The earliest records from Dunhuang speak of rival chiefs living in forts along the Tsangpo River. Forts and burial sites in the Yarlung Valley have been identified as those of an early Zhang Zhung culture, which was assimilated into Tibet after King Trisong Detsen of the Tubo Dynasty assassinated King Ligmincha in the 8th century, the last king of Zhang Zhung. The prehistoric empire ended and the heroic age of Tubo was born.
Yumbu Lhakhang in Yarlung Valley
(Yumbu Lhakhang, situated on the crest of the hill, is said to have beenthe home of the early kings andis considered the oldest surviving building in Tibet.)
According to legend, Yum-bu-bla-khang (that overlooks the Yarlung Valley and is considered the cradle of the early kingdoms of Tibet) was built in the 2nd century B.C. as a palace for the first king, gNya-‘khri bTsang-po (“Neck-Enthroned One” mentioned by David Snellgrove and Hugh Richardson in the stone inscription quoted above). Another legend says that Lha Totori Nyentse, the 28th king of ancient times, lived there in the 4th century. Academic consensus purports that Srong-brtsan-sgam-po (Songtsen Gampo, approx. 609-650 A.D.), Khri-srong-lde-brtsan (Trisong Detsen, born approx. 776), and Khri-gtsug-lde-brtsan (Ralpachen, born approx. 805) were enthroned in the Lhakhang of what was once a palace.
‘Phyong-rgyas in the Yarlung Valley
(The ancient fort of sTag-tse, “Tiger Peak,”on the mountainside of ‘Phyong-rgyas)
The website of wikipedia notes that “Tibet began at the castle of Stag-rtse in the Phying-ba district of ‘Phyongs-rgyas.” Christopher Beckwith is then quoted in the site: “A group of conspirators convinced Stag-bu snya-gzigs to rebel against Dgu-gri Zing-po-rje. Zing po rje was in turn a vassal of the Zhang-zhung Empire under the Lig myi dynasty. Zing-po-rje died before the conspiracy could get underway, and his son Gnam ri slon mtshan instead led the conspiracy after extracting an oath of fidelity from the conspirators.”5
It is recorded that the ancestors of King gNam-ri-slong-mtshan6 lived in the six palaces of sTag-tse and ruled over thousands of tribal people from there before he was poisoned. The section on “Founding the Dynasty” in wikipedia closes by saying that “The group prevailed against Zing-po-rje. At this time Gnam-ri-slon-rtsan was the leader of a fledgling state that would become the Tibetan empire. In 608 and 609 the government of Gnam ri slon mtshan sent an embassy to China, marking the appearance of Tibet on the international scene.”7 gNam-ri-slong-mtshan’s son, Srong-brtsan-sgam-po moved his capital to Lhasa. Nonetheless, all brTsang-pos of the Tubo Dynasty were buried at ‘Phyong-rgyas.
The Tumuli at ‘Phyong-rgyas
(Royal tombs from the early period of the kings at ‘Phyong-rgyas)
Even though chronicles say that all thirteen kings of the Tubo Dynasty were embalmed in mausoleums at ‘Phyong-rgyas, only ten tumuli are left: presumably one of gNam-ri-slong-mtshan, nine others belonging to Srong-brtsan-sgam-po, Kung-ri-kung-brtsan (Songtsen Gampo’s son who died at an early age), ‘Dus-srong-Mang-po-rje (grandson of Songtsen Gampo), Khri-lde-srong-brtsan (son of Mang-po-rje), Khri-lde-tsug-brtsan (son of Tride Songtsen), Khri-srong-lde-brtsan (son of Tride Tsugtsen), Khri-lde-srong-brtsan (younger brother of Trisong Detsen), Mu-ne-bstan-po (son of Tride Songtsen), and the Chinese Princess Kim Shang (also referred to as Princess Jingchen, wife of Tride Tsugtsen). Pillars in front of the mounds of Tride Songtsen and Trisong Detsen record the merits and achievements of these kings.
Snellgrove and Richardson wrote that animal sacrifices were still offered, that many descriptions of burial rites in the Dunhuang chronicles are obscure, but that the officiating priests were Bon, “invokers,” and that the “sacrificers” were gShen. Both authors conclude that it was likely that representatives of the older culture continued presiding over the rites to pay last tributes to rulers and kings.8
There was a small temple, called Tongtsen Lhakhang, on top of the tumulus of King Songtsen Gampo; only ruins are left now. According to a chronicle written by a Tang Dynasty official dispatched to Yarlung from China, the king’s body was wrapped in gold foils and studded with jewels before it was enshrined in the central chapel, while eight other chapels were filled with treasures, sacrificial horses, and men made of purest gold. As of yet, the tombs have not been excavated. The gates face Lumbini in Nepal, the birthplace of Lord Buddha, the Shaykamuni.
All photos of Tibet taken in 1986 and writtenby Gaby Hollmann (2006)
1 Early stone inscription, in: David Snellgrove & Hugh Richardson, A Cultural History of Tibet, Prajna Press, Boulder, 1980, p. 23.1 Nyima Dakpa, Opening the Door to Bon, Snow Lion, Ithaca, N.Y., pp. 7-9.2 Nyima Dakpa., pp. 12-13.3 David Snellgrove & Hugh Richardson, p. 23.4 David Snellgrove & Hugh Richardson, pp. 24-25.5 Christoph I. Beckwith, The Tibetan Empire in Central Asia, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1987, in: Wikipedia.org/History of Tibet, 2005, p. 14.6 Approx. 600 A.D., father of Songtsen Gampo, founder of the Tubo Dynasty that spread over the whole of Tibet and collapsed in the 9th century.7 Website of Wikipedia.org/History of Tibet.8 Compare David Snellgrove & Hugh Richardson, pp. 51-52.