Posts Tagged ‘Tibetan History’

The symposium held this past weekend at the University of San Francisco was a gathering of scholars from around the world who presented papers focused on the “Tulku” (སྤྲུལ་སྐུ་ , sprul sku) institution of Tibetan Buddhism. Organized by professor Tsering Wangchuk and Jake Nagasawa, the conference was the second recent meeting focused on the reincarnation system of Tibetan Buddhism. There were four main panels at the conference, allowing for thirteen seasoned scholars to present their research:

1) Tulkus in Transnational Buddhism: Authentication and Contestation of Hybridity in the Cross-Cultural Reincarnation System
2) Tulkus in Historical Context: Power, Knowledge, and Politics in the Innovation of the Reincarnation Institution
3) Tulkus as a Model of Ideal Beings: Embodying the Enlightened Characteristics
4) Envisioning and Retelling Birth-Stories: Tulku Lineage Narratives and the Quest for Legitimation.

Representatives speaking at the conference ran the gamut of scholars and although some papers seemed farther from the theme than others, the threads tying them together were questions about the history, place and function of the unique system of dynasties of reincarnated Buddhist masters solidified in Tibetan culture as the “Tulku System.” I’m not sure what general readers imagine Tibetan history may have been like, but perhaps imagining a Tibetan version of Game of Thrones with the houses as monastic institutions continuing not through a lord’s blood relations but via recognition and enthronement of child prodigies destined to take the place of previous throne holders is a useful “imaginary.” The reasons for a gathering focused on discussing the Tulku Institution are many: it is an essential and unique part of Tibetan culture and history, it is a useful entry point for discussions about the transmission of Buddhism or about the philosophical and religious beliefs of historical Tibetan peoples and of modern Buddhist practitioners, and it is a controversial topic, both inside and outside of the tradition. In recent years we have seen young tulkus rebelling against their traditions and revealing improprieties, movie stars becoming tulkus, and reports of general distrust of the tulku system in modern Tibetan peoples. Despite any of this, tulkus are often some of the most powerful and popular Tibetan Buddhist teachers. But these controversies were less the focus of the conference as it was about presenting research on various historical figures and creating a more nuanced and detailed thick description of the phenomenon of Tulkus in Tibetan society.

Dr. Donald Lopez gives the first Keynote speech

Fascinating, but utterly different keynote speeches were delivered at the symposium by professors Donald Lopez and Jeffrey Hopkins. The difference in their presentations is of course partly due to personal style, but the tension between the two approaches is illustrative of some of the tensions observable throughout the symposium. Some presenters discussed the idealized tulku as a prodigy motivated by the will to help all sentient beings, while others focused on children forced into servitude of an institution motivated by greed and power. Some discussed the history of the tulku institution or the particulars of the development of tulku lineages in particular monastic institutions, and others focused on various responses to the question of its continuation in the modern world. Dr. Lopez’s presentation was expertly delivered and fascinating in that it revealed that a 20th century gathering of the most powerful exiled Tibetan leaders ended with a moratorium on the recognition of tulkus, which lasted a decade before some unnamed group broke it, ushering in open season on tulku recognition. This is interesting because it appears that the Tibetan leaders, many of whom are recognized tulkus, found reason to suspend their own system. However, it appears no one has studied the meeting in depth and we don’t know whether this was motivated by an attempt to end the tulku system for good because of corruption, or if it was an issue of expediency brought on by exile, or some other reason. Lopez weaved together reports from the earliest Western accounts of encounters with young tulkus (they must be demons!), Central Asian and European history, and modern accounts. His talk was called, “Four Possibilities,” referring to a logical relationship between the term “lama” and “tulku,” argued by the Dalai Lama in a talk attended by Dr. Lopez to be “mushi“. Namely, there are people who are neither lamas nor tulkus, people who are both lamas and tulkus, people who are lamas but are not tulkus, and people who are tulkus who are not lamas. It is this last one that gives people pause, as it is generally assumed that tulkus are not merely lamas, but are the representatives of the highest level of realized masters.

While Lopez’s approach was historical and text-based, on day two Dr. Hopkins gave his usual hilarious, rambling, and intensely personal account of study with Tibetan masters such as the Dalai Lama. He mixed his narrative with great jokes as well as with translations from specific philosophical texts providing traditional definitions of Tibetan Buddhist concepts such as the various kayas and the meaning of “tulku.” This is perhaps not the place to mention the significance of some of his other comments about reincarnation, and as Hopkins himself said during his speech, perhaps there are things that should remain private. Hopkins first emphasized the technical definitions, taken from the Gomang Curriculum material he is currently translating, that require tulkus to be dharmakayas and not merely bodhisattvas of some high level. However, he also placed emphasis on his own doubt about most tulkus’ knowledge and he insisted that what a teacher says, and the knowledge he or she thereby displays, is more important than any official stamp of recognition as a tulku. That he felt it necessary to admonish the audience, as though they were making the mistake of believing all tulkus to be genuinely capable teachers, is interesting in and of itself.

The Beginning of the Tulku Institution?

Sometimes people like to spice things up a bit by debating when some historical institution, philosophical school, or religious practice started or ended. In the case of the Tulku institution, the topic of this short symposium, some speakers talked about the earliest texts describing concatenated reincarnates (an unbroken line of dharma teachers) or the earliest reported recognition of Tibetan people as emanations of deities. But the statement found in a text that so and so is the emanation of so and so is not the same as the cultural phenomenon of the recognition of a person as an emanation who then comes to take the power and wealth of the deceased leader, subsequently taking on the wealth and followers of that leader. Perhaps an interesting question would be, who was the first Tibetan student who, upon the death of his teacher, having spent a lifetime studying with him as the executive of a monastery, found himself bowing down to a child believed to be the reincarnation of his teacher? That is, when and how did the social event of the installment of a Tulku first occur? How meaningful was it for that society? After the conference I am still wondering about the answers to these questions.

Some students of Tibetan Buddhism may believe that the earliest members of a lineage of reincarnated teachers held the same kind of status as the later members of the lineage. In fact, many lineages would be applied or recognized later in history, once the institution of the lineage holder became relevant. For instance, while surely the first Karmapa’s students revered him in his time, they may not have thought of him as a special reincarnation while he was alive. It was not until later Karmapas that the lineage was written down and traced backwards. So one of the questions is, when did this way of thinking about teachers come about?

Daniel Hirshberg’s paper at the conference, “A Post-Incarnate Usurper? Guru Chöwang’s Claim to the Patrilineal Inheritance of Nyang” indicates that a 13th century figure may have worked rather hard to become recognized as a reincarnation. Guru Chowang appears to have inserted himself in Nyangral’s lineage line and Nyangral himself used various strategies to claim a lineage stretching back to the great Tibetan King Tri Song Detsen. These are stories of people convincing themselves and others of holding the connection of an unbroken lineage and claiming to be “tulku” – emanations, not merely of a Buddha or deity in general, but of specific historical people. Although the basic logic is much older, it doesn’t seem to be until the 12th century that we are seeing the tulku logic instantiated in texts listing specific historical names, as indicated in José Cabezón’s paper at the conference.

Although it is often said that the life of the second Karmapa, squarely in the 13th century (1204/06-1283), marks the start of the Tulku institution, José Cabezón mused that the textual evidence is in fact representative of reports of what the second Karmapa said about his previous lives and could have been the work of a later writer, such as the third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorjé. Leonard van der Kuijp has shown evidence that there were people recognized as reincarnations of earlier figures in the 1100s. But here we are not talking about a fully formed Tulku institution. There were, of course, earlier written accounts of people being recognized as emanations of deities and Buddhas and so forth, but what of the earliest accounts of the Tulku institution being present and functioning in a Tibetan society? Would this be the third Karmapa? The Fourth? Another lineage? Who was first called “tulku” by Tibetan peoples?

While most scholars at the conference presented information about historical figures, a few scholars focused on current living tulkus, both Western and Asian. Elijah Ary, a recognized tulku, a Canadian, and a scholar trained at Harvard, spoke of the small group of “Western Tulkus,” many recognized by traditional Tibetan leaders but rarely teaching to ethnic Tibetan peoples. Dr. Ary questioned the use of the term “Western Tulku” and talked about the unique challenges of young people recognized and expected to fulfill their duty in a traditional religious culture. The clash of cultures represented by the term seems to me to be a fascinating starting place for discussions about the transmission of Tibetan Buddhism to the modern Western world. Will any Western teacher ever create a lineage of tulkus? Would any want to? I’m sure we can look forward to seeing more discussion of this kind in the future as Tibetan Buddhism gains more and more adherents in the West.



Although a complete list of the books we have in our new Research Center in Boulder might be useful, I think readers will find it much more interesting if I regularly make note of a useful, strange, beautiful, or rare book found in our library. This week I would like to bring to your attention Roberto Vitali’s book, Records of Tho.Ling. By no means a rare book (you can find it on Amazon), it is expensive and perhaps for good reason.

Records of Tho.ling Front Cover

A nice grey cover reminiscent of the earth around Tholing Monastery.

Records of Tho.Ling was published in 1999 and is A Literary and Visual Reconstruction of the “Mother” Monastery in with monumental reconstruction and mapping of Tho.ling and branch monasteries by Bianca Visconti and Christophe Besuchet. It includes stunning visual work, line drawings, designs and paintings by Laura Boutwell, Robert Powell, Mukti Singh Thapa, and Bianca Visconti. Robert Powell’s excellent painting of the view of Tho.ling from the entrance is most notable, along with the Viscontis’ line drawings, designs and sketches. The book was published by High Asia, an imprint of Amnye Machen, an institute devoted to the systematic and scientific study of Tibetan history, culture, society and politics.

There are several things to love about this book, but what I must mention above all is the design. I love footnotes, in all shapes and sizes, but having a wide margin with smaller type footnotes on the left and right sides? Brilliant! It lets the text flow as normal through full pages, but allows for relevant scholarly information and references to be found on the page while reading instead of having to stop and check the back of the book. Of course, it is rarely practical to print a book 21.27cm X 29.85cm in size. The fonts used and the weight of the paper together with the beautiful drawings and diagrams reminds me of the wonder and fascination I experienced in libraries when I was young and first discovering the beauty of books.

Although I mention the art and design first, the book is not another “art of Tibet” volume. It includes a detailed literary reconstruction of Toling monastery with translations of relevant historical texts, notes, bibliography, an index, and appendixes. In the first part of the book, the monastery of Toling and the process of it’s creation is discussed along with a presentation of phases of Toling’s history from the 10th century on up to the 19th century. In the second part there is a kind of reconstruction of the temple complex at Toling along with studies of its organization and the historical implications of it’s monuments. The appendixes contain a number of interesting things, including a printing of the relevant documents used in the book in Tibetan script.

Toling, (ཐོ་ལིང་), which is apparently also pronounced Toding (མཐོ་ལྡིང་), was an important religious institution in western Tibet for a thousand years. It is sometimes claimed to have been founded by the great Tibetan translator Rinchen Zangpo (རིན་ཆེན་བཟང་པོ་), but the sources Vitali quotes indicate that it was King Yeshe Ö or the both of them together. Rinchen Zangpo “frequented” one of the temples in Toling and according to the stories had a residence there. Atīśa ( ཇོ་བོ་རྗེ་) also graced the spot with his presence, which sources say is the site where the two, Pandita and Lotsawa, had their first meeting (The Blue Annals, etc.). According to Vitali, the only known early text to clearly date the founding of Toling is the Ngari Gyalrab (མངའ་རིས་རྒྱལ་རབས་), in which it says that Toling was founded by the king Yeshe Ö ( ཡེ་ཤེས་འོད་) in 996 (“མེ་ཕོ་སྤྲེའུའི་ལོ་ལ་གུ་གེར་ཐོ་ལིང་གི་གཙུག་ལག་ཁང་གི་རྨངས་བྲིས་”; p.53, lines 7-8, Vitali page 20 and 193). This, together with evidence of the inscription at Tapo (ཏ་པོ་) that says it was founded at the same time as two other monasteries known to be founded in 996 allows for the dating to be more certain. The original temple complex seems to have consisted of four major temples around one central building with eight smaller structures near them, creating the mandalic structure of the complex. King Yeshe Ö was famous for his governance strategies and was a major patron of Buddhism in western Tibet. He ordered the local farmers to provide for the 80 monks that made up the first sangha at Toling, which was one of the key acts of patronage that allowed it to grow into the most important religious seat in the kingdom of Gugé (page 21).

Because of the choice of transliteration scheme used throughout the main body of Vitali’s text, it really can’t be read meaningfully by a nonspecialist, but it is quite obviously not written for muggles. The text is filled with details about the theocratic organization of the kingdom and citations of government documents from old Tibet, which is wonderful. However, many of the sentences that are “translations” are in fact so full of transliterated terms with periods between the syllables that one might as well just read the Tibetan. In fact, some sentences are utterly illegible for someone who does not know Wylie and Tibetan. But I’d rather not dwell on the negatives: Sometimes it is not within the author’s power to make sure the Tibetan is included in a translation or academic work, so I applaud the use of Tibetan script in the appendices and I’m glad the publisher and printer were able to handle it. The book was printed in Italy by MARIOGROS of Torino, now part of AGIT, worth noting merely because the paper and style are excellent. The table of contents is recreated below so you can see some of the detail of the work presented there.

For more on Gugé and Toling, you can find a number of blogs and personal websites with pictures and descriptions, but take a look at some of these photos of the Gu ge Kingdom here and here you will find an interesting travel journal.

Our library also holds two other of Vitali’s excellent books: The Kingdoms of Pu.hrang: According to mNga’.ris rgyal.rabs by mkhan.chen Ngag.dbang grags pa, 1996; and  The Earth Ox Papers: Proceedings of the International Seminar on Tibetan and Himalayan Studies, Held at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, September 2009.

The List of Contents from Records of Tho.ling:

Preface 1

Part One
The temples of Tho.ling. An annotated reminder of historical events concerning them 7
A description of, the land of Tho.ling 9
Valleys of 11
Synopsis 13
The Genealogy of the kings of 13
Building phases at Tho.ling 14
Building phases at each of the main Tho.ling temples 14
Documented images and structures put up at Tho.ling
from its foundation to the end of phyi.dar 15
Building phases of the temples 16

Section One
Historical phases at Tho.ling. A summary of the literary material
(10th-11th centuries) 19
The foundation 19
Antecedents: Tho.ling before the foundation of its temple 21
An episode occuring at Tho.ling during phyi.dar 21
The completion of Tho.ling gtsug.lag.khang in 1028 22
The protrectress of Tho.ling 24
The 1037 sack of Tho.ling 24
Byang.chub.’od’s contributions to Tho.ling 25
Tho.ling and 27
Tho.ling gSer.khang 28
The Shing.sgra hill and its monuments 31’ods endowments to Tho.ling gtsug.lag.khang 31
The Tho.ling chos.’khor 32
The period of obscurantism in and particularly at Tho.ling 32
Tho.ling from the late 12th to the late 13th century, the period in sTod
dominated by the bKa’ 34
The restoration ofTho.ling by the king 35
The second great phase ofTho.ling (15th century) 37

Section Two
Further annotated reminders of events in the history of Tho.ling
(16th-19th centuries) 43
Tho.ling during the time of Blo.gros rgyal.mtshan (16th century) 43
Tho.ling in the 17th century: the war and the advent
of dGa’.ldan pho.brang 46
The period ofTho.ling 47
Tho.ling as the secular seat of power: a summary 49
The dGa’.ldan pho.brang period 50
The lineage of the early abbots of Tho.ling 50
Tho.ling during the regency of sde.srid Sangs.rgyas rgya.mtsho 51
Tho.ling under the dGa .ldan pho.brang after
sde.srid Sangs.rgyas rgya.mtsho 54
The end of the royal lineage of 54
Tho.ling in the period after the end of the dynasty 55
Tho.ling during the 19th century 56

Part Two
A study of the buildings composing the Tho.ling complex

Introduction: the inventories of the Tho.ling receptacles of body,
speech and mind 59

Section One
English translation of the significant parts of the rten.deb 65
List of contents 65
‘du.khang ‘Dzam.gling.brgyan 66
brGya.rtsa lho.brgyud 68
Statues in medicinal clay in brGya.rtsa lho.brgyud 70
brGya.rtsa 71
Statues in medicinal clay in brGya.rtsa 73
Mani lha.khang 74
rGyal.khang 74
Bla.brang mgon.khang 75
mKhan.po rin.po.che’i gzims.chung 75
lha.khang ‘Jig-rten.brgyan 76
‘Bri.zur dge.slong bZang.po’i mchod.khang 76
Byams.khang 76
gSer.khang 76

Section Two
Critical considerations concerning textual evidence 77

Section Three
A classification of the Tho.ling temples based on both textual
and oral evidence 83 lhun.gyis’i gtsug.lag.khang 84
brGya.rtsa lho.brgyud 84
brGya.rtsa 87
Temples outside the gtsug.lag.khang 88

Section Four
Final reconstruction of the temple complex (being a plan in words) 95
Religious and lay edifices of Tho.ling 95
The religious buildings 95
mChod.rten-s 98
The lay edifices 102
In the surroundings of Tho.ling 103

Section Five
A study of the organization of Tho.ling 109
The branch monasteries ofTho.ling 109
The hierarchy ofTho.ling 114
The annual ceremonies held at Tho.ling 115

Section Six
Historical implications arising from the monuments of Tho.ling 119
Tho.ling gtsug.lag.khang (i.e. the structure founded in 996) 119 lhun.gyis’i gtsug.lag.khang
(i.e. the same structure completed in 1028) 122
gSung.chos 128
gNas.bcu lha.khang 128
‘Du.khang ‘Dzam.gling.brgyan 129
gSer.khang 129
The plain of Tho.ling 132


Appendix One
Records of Mang.nang: a brief attempt at a literary and visual
recontruction of its temples 135
Mang.nang sprod.deb 138

Appendix Two
Records of mDa’.ba.rdzong: a brief attempt at a reconstruction
of its temples based on literary and oral evidence 141
Religious buildings 145
Lay buildings 146

Appendix Three
A document being a synopsis of the Tho.ling rten.deb 147

Appendix Four
Tho.ling gNas.bcu lha.khang sprod.deb 149

Appendix Five
Temples in, Pu.hrang, sGar.rdzong, Ru.thog, dGe.rgyas,
sGer.rtse and mTsho.chen 151

Appendix Six
Tibetan text of the documents relevant to the reconstruction of Tho.ling 155
Tho.ling rten.deb 155
Tho.ling gNas.bcu lha.khang sprod.deb 176
Mang.nang sprod.deb 178

Appendix Seven
A few edicts concerning Tho.ling issued during the late period
of the dynasty and afterwards 181
The 1653 edict of the La.dwags king
to the people of 181
The edict of fire dragon (1736)
issued by the 7th Dalai Lama bsKal.bzang rgya.mtsho 182
The edict of earth horse (1738) 186
The bka’.shog issued by gNod.sbyin phun.tshogs in fire sheep 1847 186

Appendix Eight
Tibetan text of the passages translated in the present work
(documents other than those published in Appendix Six and Seven) 191

Primary sources 211
Secondary sources 216

Index 219


ISYT Conference Day 3

Things have been very busy here at the conference and I have not had time to blog about each of the presentations at ISYT. However, I have taken extensive notes and will be posting these as time warrants. I also have a collection of photographs, although very few of the presenters as they specifically asked that pictures not be taken. For now, I will try to update a piece of each day as it passes and will add more posts on every individual presentation I attended at a later date.

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