Tibetan Kingship & Early Buddhist Histories

A review of Transforming Tibetan Kingship: The portrayal of Khri srong lde brtsan in the early Buddhist histories, by Lewis J. A. Doney.

Applying Paul Ricoeur’s three-level theory of mimesis to Tibetan historical writing, Lewis Doney traces in meticulous detail the historiographical eclipse of emperor Khri Srong lde brtsan (742–ca. 800) by the Tantric master Padmasambhava in early narratives concerning the establishment of Buddhism in Tibet. The dissertation consists of two parts: Chapters 1-3 provide intensive philological analyses of one particular text across its recensions, which is essential to Doney’s pursuit of legitimately early materials (defined as originating from the eighth to twelfth centuries) concerning Khri Srong lde brtsan. Chapters 4-6 then evaluate the content of their portrayals as they evolved over that period.

The first three chapters progress chronologically such that the first chapter presents the earliest documents and the third addresses the latest that Doney evaluates for his study. Each of these chapters presents an overview of the text’s narrative content that is contextualized by the philological findings of previous scholarship. Doney then applies meticulous textual criticism to provide further insights into the recensional process of each text and concludes with a “tentative stemma” in the first two chapters. Chapter 1 thus appraises the complex transmission of the renowned Dba’/Rba/Sba bzhed, which is believed to contain the earliest narrative fragments of the Imperium in textual form. Beginning with previous assessments by Sam van Schaik and Kazushi Iwao, Per Sørensen, and Michael Willis, Doney reveals the addition, development and manipulation of specific episodes within Sba bzhed, which provide a discursive framework for the visual depiction of its stemma at the very end of the chapter.

While Sba bzhed has been subject to numerous studies, Chapter 2 applies the above methodology to Nyang ral Nyi ma ’od zer’s (1124-1192) Zangs gling ma, the first complete narrative of Padmasambhava’s conversion of Tibet in the eighth century, which is quite unprecedented and represents a significant step forward in the philological evaluation of alleged “treasure” (gter) materials. Doney compares eleven exemplars that he convincingly categorizes into three distinct recensions, thereby identifying what he terms the “original” Zangs gling ma, which represents his discovery of the oldest version of the text found to date. In addition to Doney’s analysis of these eleven Zangs gling ma exemplars, he also compares their content against two later Padmasambhava narratives that would come to succeed it in popularity, U rgyan gling pa’s Padma bka’ thang and Sangs rgyas gling pa’s Gser phreng, both of which were revealed as treasure texts in the fourteenth century. The stemma for Sba bzhed and Zangs gling ma that conclude Chapters 1 and 2 respectively represent in visual form the most comprehensive recensional analysis of the transmission of those texts.

Chapter 3 then appraises two histories that have been attributed to Nyang ral with some controversy, Me tog snying po and Mes dbon rnam thar, both of which contain elements from Sba bzhed. With regard to the former, Doney details its reproduction of nearly the entire Zangs gling ma narrative within it while carefully extracting variants that illuminate the process of its compilation, such as poetic descriptions of Bsam yas monastery that are unique to Me tog snying po. Relying on his analysis from Chapter 1, Doney then details the use of Sba bzhed within both texts, arguing that since Me tog snying po and Mes dbon rnam thar include elements that stem from later versions of Sba bzhed, these must be excluded from his analysis of the early depictions of Khri Srong lde brtsan. However, while Me tog snying po includes Zangs gling ma and thus may have been composed by Nyang ral in the twelfth century, Doney convincingly settles the debate that Mes dbon rnam thar is attributable to Nyang ral as well: aside from the most general correlation of their content with regard to the three great Buddhist emperors, Doney concludes that Mes dbon rnam thar lacks any specific influence from Zangs gling ma or Me tog snying po. Moreover, its use of Sba bzhed indicates that it drew from a fourteenth- or even fifteenth-century version of that text, thus it can in no way be attributed to Nyang ral, nor can it be included among Doney’s sources for early depictions of Khri Srong lde brtsan, which are the foci for the reminder of his dissertation.

In addition to the texts analyzed in the first three chapters, Doney relies on a number of additional materials, namely epigraphs and Dunhuang documents, that have been the subject of numerous studies, such as those by Hugh E. Richardson and Amy Heller for the former, and Sam van Schaik and Brandon Dotson for the latter. The imperial and post-imperial origins of these narratives remain uncontested, which is critical for Doney’s theses concerning the character development of Khri Srong lde brtsan in Chapters 4-6 since he limits his source analysis to those stemming from the twelfth century and earlier. In focusing on the earliest sources, Chapter 4 demonstrates that the earliest depictions eulogize the emperor’s accomplishments in matters of both religion and state: his greatness is attested as much by his conversion, patronage and establishment of Buddhism as it is by his military conquests and expansion of the empire. Over time, however, this balanced depiction erodes before a shifting preference for portraits of a Buddhist emperor; thus Chapter 5 traces the evolution of post-imperial sources that emphasize the divine authority of Khri Srong lde brtsan as the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī.

Chapter 6 then focuses on the latest sources for Doney’s study, especially the Zangs gling ma, where the emperor is eclipsed by Padmasambhava. Here Doney finds the emperor presented as an important yet flawed disciple of this Tantric master, thus historically demoting Khri Srong lde brtsan; it is Padmasambhava, “the second buddha,” who holds the place of conqueror, the protagonist of Tibet’s conversion narrative. Moreover, in contrast with earlier sources that emphasize the emperor’s allegiance to Mahāyāna doctrines, Khri Srong lde brtsan reigns over a golden age of Tantric Buddhism in Zangs gling ma, which legitimates its rhetoric of decline and prophecy of rebirth. Khri Srong lde brtsan’s true greatness is delayed to the twelfth century when, as a result of his aspirations, entrustment by Padmasambhava, and the degradation of Tantric Buddhist doctrine and praxis, the emperor will be reborn as the enlightened treasure revealer, Nyang ral (none other than the author cum tradent of the Zangs gling ma), who will recover and reintroduce the authentic doctrines of Padmasambhava from hidden caches.

Having traced the evolution of the depictions of Khri srong lde brtsan from a Tibetan Buddhist emperor to an emanation of Mañjuśrī whose greatest deeds were yet to come, Doney details the Tibetan transformation of a historical figure into a mythological one, a temporal leader into a timeless bodhisattva, which becomes definitive of Tibetan historical writing with regard to the emperors in particular. Indeed, as can be confirmed by speaking with any Tibetan today, this portrayal of Khri Srong lde brtsan as an emanation of Mañjuśrī and Tantric disciple of Padmasambhava persists as the popular account in Tibetan conceptions of their past. Lewis Doney has thus illuminated the process by which the Imperium was refigured into a golden age of Tantric Buddhism through the slow eclipse of its original protagonist, emperor Khri Srong lde brtsan, by the rising popularity of Padmasambhava in Tibetan memory, which was promoted through the progressive refinement of narratives written between the eighth and twelfth centuries.

Daniel A. Hirshberg
Department of Religious Studies
University of California, Santa Barbara

Primary Sources

Five exemplars of Dba’/Rba/Sba bzhed
Eleven exemplars of Zangs gling ma
Four exemplars of Me tog snying po
International Dunhuang Project
National Archives of Nepal, Kathmandu

Dissertation Information

School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. 2011. 207 pp. Primary Advisor: Ulrich Pagel.


Image: Photograph by Lewis Doney.

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