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Home > eBooks > Unpublished Manuscripts > A Survey of Tibetan History > 1 The Empire of the Early Kings of Tibet

A Survey of Tibetan History

Reading notes taken by Alexander Berzin from
Tsepon, W. D. Shakabpa, Tibet: A Political History.
New Haven, Yale University Press, 1967

1 The Empire of the Early Kings of Tibet

[Chapters renumbered and content amended and supplemented, in violet between square brackets, with reference to, among other sources, the expanded Tibetan work: Zhva-skab-pa dBang-phyug bde-ldan, Bod-kyi srid-don rgyal-rabs, 2 vols. Kalimpong, India: Shakabpa House, 1976.]

The Early Yarlung Kings

According to the traditional account, the first king of the Yarlung Dynasty (Yar-klungs) in Central Tibet came there from the central North Indian kingdom of Magadha. He was called Nyatri Tsenpo (gNya’-khri btsan-po) and it was thought that he descended from the sky. [The Tibetan calendar starts its count of “Tibetan royal years” (bod rgyal-lo) from this date, 127 BCE.] He and the next six kings were said to have returned to the sky by a “sky-rope” at their deaths, since they were not buried in tombs. From the time of the eighth Yarlung king, Drigum Tsenpo (Gri-gum btsan-po), however, there are tombs and so, in a sense, Tibetan history begins here.

Drigum Tsenpo’s successor, Chatri Tsenpo (Bya-khri btsan-po), also called Pudekungyel (Pu-de kun-rgyal or Pu-de gung-rgyal), the ninth in this line of kings, was a contemporary of the Han Emperor of China, Han Wudi (140 – 85 BCE). Pudekungyel brought much material progress to Tibet. He is famous for having commissioned the building of canals and bridges. Under him, iron and copper ore were discovered in Tibet.

Eighteen generations of kings later, the twenty-eighth Yarlung king, Lhatotori Nyentsen (Lha-tho-tho-ri gNyan-btsan) (b. 173 CE) received [a basket of] Buddhist scriptures from India, written in Sanskrit. It was known as “The Tough Mystery” (gNyan-po gsang-ba), [According to other traditional sources, a basket fell from the sky. In it, was a Sanskrit sutra, called Sutra on the Array Like a Woven Basket (Za-ma-tog bkod-pa’i mdo, Skt. Karandavyuha Sutra), concerning the altruistic deeds of the Buddha-figure of compassion, Avalokiteshvara. The basket also contained the six-syllable mantra of Avalokiteshvara, The Sutra of the Seal for Ridding and Restoring (Spang-skong phyag-rgya-pa’i mdo) concerning methods for taming half-human half-serpent nagas, and a golden reliquary stupa. “The Tough Mystery” refers to all four objects in the basket.] This occurred in 233 CE. To commemorate this important event, Tibetan currency notes are dated according to the number of years that have passed since then.

Some say that the Sanskrit texts were received from Litisi (Li-thi-si) and the Tocharian translator Buddhirakshita (Tho-gar-gyi Lo-tsa-ba Blo-sems ‘tsho), who predicted that the Tibetans would be able to read them four generations later. [Tocharia (Tho-gar) was a Buddhist kingdom on the Silk Route, centered in Kucha and Turfan, along the northern rim of the Tarim Basin in present-day Xinjiang Province of China, north of Tibet. The Tocharians were an Indo-European people, who came to this area originally from the Roman Empire, received Buddhism from India, and were instrumental in the translation of its texts into Chinese and Old Turk.]

Supposedly, then, Tri Desongtsen (Khri lde-srong-btsan), more widely known as Songtsen-gampo (Srong-btsan sgam-po), the thirty-second Yarlung king, ascended the throne only four generations after Lhatotori Nyentsen. Songtsen-gampo, however, was born in 617, which implies enormously long life spans for the three intervening kings. [Thus, various other traditional Tibetan sources give alternative dates for Lhatotori Nyentsen, such as 254 – 373 and 374 – 493, with his receipt of the texts occurring in either 333 or 468.] One year after Songtsen-gampo’s birth, in 618, the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907) was founded in China by Tang Gaozu (r. 618 – 627).

Emperor Songtsen-gampo

Songtsen-gampo ascended the throne at the age of thirteen. To arrange an alliance with Nepal, he sent a minister there to arrange a marriage for him with the Princess Bhrikuti Devi (Lha-mo Khro-gnyer-can-ma). When she came to Tibet for the marriage, she brought with her a statue of the Buddha-figure Akshobhya.

It is unclear when Songtsen-gampo sent his minister Tonmi Sambhota (Thon-mi Sambhota) to learn Sanskrit. He studied it, however, in Kashmir, from the tutors Lipikara (Li-byin) and Devavidyasimha (Lha rig-pa’i seng-ge). When Tonmi Sambhota returned to Tibet, he developed a script for writing the Tibetan language, based on the Indian Brahmi and Gupta scripts. Consequently, he translated The Tough Mystery texts into Tibetan.

[According to A. F. Rudolf Hoernle (Manuscript Remains of Buddhist Literature Found in Eastern Turkistan), the Tibetan script was developed primarily from the Khotanese adaptation of the Indian Upright Gupta script. This is inferred from the Tibetan and Khotanese scripts employing similar manners for indicating initial and long vowels and for placing vowels in the order of their alphabets. These manners differ significantly from those used in most other Indian-derived scripts.

Khotan (Li-yul) was a Buddhist kingdom on the Silk Route along the southwestern rim of the Tarim Basin, just north of western Tibet. Its people were of Iranian origin and its form of Buddhism derived from India. A trade route ran from Khotan to Tibet via Kashmir and therefore, as A. H. Francke asserts (“The Tibetan Alphabet,” Epigraphia India, vol. 11), it is not unreasonable that Tonmi Sambhota met and studied with a Khotanese tutor in Kashmir.

“Li-byin,” the Tibetan name for the tutor Lipikara, translates as “Script-maker” or “ Script-Giver.” He is traditionally said to have been a South Indian brahmin. The first syllable in his Tibetan name, however, could indicate this Khotanese origin, since “Li” is the Tibetan name for “Khotan.” Thus, “Li-byin” could mean “The (Script)-giver from Khotan.” But “Li” could also be the transliteration of the first syllable of “Lipikara,” since the Tibetan language would not have had an indigenous word for “script” at that time.

In Necklace of Gzi, Namkhai Norbu asserts that the form of the letters in the Tibetan script was derived from an older Zhang-zhung alphabet, called “Maryig” (smar-yig), which ultimately would have also derived from an Indian script. Zhang-zhung (Zhang-zhung) was a kingdom in Ngari (mNga-‘ris), Western Tibet, that predated Songtsen-gampo and was the homeland of the native Tibetan Bon religion. It had eighteen kings before the first Yarlung ruler, Nyatri Tsenpo. Tonmi Sambhota would have needed to pass through Zhang-zhung in order to reach Kashmir. “Li” is also the name of a district in Zhang-zhung and was part of the name of the Zhang-zhung royal family. Thus, “Li-byin” could alternatively mean “The (Script)-giver from the Zhang-zhung Royal Family.” More likely, then, the Tibetan script was influenced by all three sources: Indian, Khotanese, and Zhang-zhung.]

Songtsen-gampo now sought a similar alliance with China through a marriage with Princess Wencheng (Tib.: Win-chang Kong-jo, Wun-shing Kong-jo), the daughter of the Tang Emperor Taizong (r. 627 – 650). This arrangement was delayed, however, because Thokiki (Tho-ki-ki), the ruler of the Tuyuhun (Thu-lu-hun,‘A-zha) Kingdom in the Kokonor region [of northern Amdo, present-day Qinghai Province of China], was also seeking a marriage with the princess. The Tuyuhun had ruled this region from the beginning of the fourth century.

Songtsen-gampo was intent on building an extensive empire beyond Central Tibet, first to the north and the east. A long period of wars ensued, during which he conquered the Qiang (Cang), Bailan (sBa’i-lang), and Dangxian (Thang-shang) tribes. Now the ruler of a much greater realm, the Tibetan Emperor Songtsen-gampo asked the Chinese Emperor Taizong once more for his princess in marriage. When he was refused, Songtsen-gampo attacked the Chinese frontier province of Songzhou in present-day Sizhuan Province. Finally, he received the Chinese princess as his bride in 641. She brought with her to Tibet another Buddha image.

The Tibetan Emperor built two temples in the city of Rasa (Ra-sa), later known as Lhasa (Lha-sa), to house the two Buddha images brought by his Nepali and Chinese wives. Ramoche Tsuglagkang (Ra-mo-che tsug-lag-khang) was constructed for the Nepali statue and Rasa Trulnang Tsuglagkang (Ra-sa ‘phrul-snang tsug-lag-khang), later called the Jokang (Jo-khang), for the Chinese one. For security reasons, the location of the two statues was interchanged during the next generation.

During this period, Songtsen-gampo further extended the Tibetan Empire to parts of northern Burma and, in 640, to Nepal as well. This was the origin of the Tibetan family clans in Nepal of Tsang (gTsang), Lama (Bla-ma), Sherpa (Shar-pa), and Tamang (rTa-mang). In 643, the Tibetan Empire further expanded as Legmi (Legs-mi) [more commonly known in Tibetan as Li Migkya (Li Mig-rkya, Zhang-zhung: Lig-myi-rhya)], the last ruler of Zhang-zhung, submitted and Zhang-zhung became a vassal state.

[Citing traditional Tibetan sources, Namkhai Norbu (Necklace of Gzi) relates that Songtsen-gampo’s initial relations with Zhang-zhung were peaceful. In fact, the Tibetan ruler’s first wife was King Li Migkya’s daughter Li Tigmen (Li Thig-dman), for whom he gave in exchange his sister as wife to the Zhang-zhung king. The Zhang-zhung princess brought with her to the Yarlung court many aspects of Bon culture. In 643, however, Songtsen-gampo attacked and conquered Zhang-zhung and had King Li Migkya killed.]

Taking advantage of the good relations between Tibet and China, Songtsen-gampo, in 645, sent a request to the Tang Emperor and subsequently built a temple on Wutaishan (Ri-bo rtse-lnga), the five-peaked sacred mountain of the Buddha-figure Manjushri [in present-day Shanxi Province].

In 648, the Chinese Emperor Taizong sent a good-will mission to the Indian Emperor Harsha (r. 606 – 647). When the mission arrived, Harsha had already passed away and had been succeeded by Arjuna, his minister. Arjuna was intolerant of Buddhism, and accordingly, had most of the Chinese mission killed. The survivors fled to Nepal and sought Tibetan help there. Subsequently, the Tibetan armies invaded and defeated Arjuna in Bihar. This defeat was not recorded, however, in Indian histories. Songtsen-gampo died shortly thereafter in 649.

Emperor Mangsong-mangtsen

The next Tibetan Emperor was Mangsong-mangtsen (Mang-srong mang-btsan, r. 649 – 676). Under the leadership of his minister, Gar Tongtsen-yulsung (mGar sTong-btsan yul-srung, d. 667), the Tibetan armies conquered the Tuyuhun Kingdom through lengthy campaigns between 655 and 666. [With their final defeat in 672,] many Tuyuhun refugees resettled in the Liangzhou region [of present-day southern Gansu Province], under the protectorship of Tang China.

The Tibetan armies now proceeded, through the Gansu Corridor, to take from China the major cities along the Silk Route. In 668, they built a military fortress in Drimakol (Dri-ma ‘ khol) [at the eastern edge of the Tarim Basin]. The next year, 669, many of the Eastern Turk leaders in the area pledged an oath of loyalty to the Tibetan Emperor. [This was during the period between the fall of the First Eastern Turk Empire (552 – 630) and the establishment of the Second Eastern Turk Empire (682 – 744).]

By 670, the Tibetan forces conquered all four garrisons of the Tarim Basin (An-shi’i dmag-dpung bzhi-po). [The four garrisons of Anxi were located at the capital cities of the oasis kingdoms of Kucha, Khotan, Kashgar, and Karashahr (also known as Agni), near the western end of the Tarim Basin, in present-day Xinjiang Province. Tang China had built these military garrisons there between 648 and 658.]

[For more detail, see: The Historical Interaction between the Buddhist and Islamic Cultures before the Mongol Empire, ch. 3.]

The Tibetan and Tang Chinese armies fought each other throughout this period. The worst defeat in Tang history occurred at Dafeichuan (rDa-san-can) [south of Kokonor Lake in present-day Qinghai, when 200,000 Tibetan troops annihilated Tang General Xue Rengui’s army of 100,000]. The Tibetans raided many Tang towns in Gansu, but the fighting was indecisive and Tibet did not manage to conquer the entire area.

Emperor Tri Dusong-mangjey

Emperor Mangsong-mangtsen died in 676. He was followed by the infant emperor, Tri Dusong-mangjey (Khri ‘Dus-srong mang-rje, r. 677 – 704). During the Emperor’s minority, the Gar clan of Mangsong-mangtsen’s minister continued to wield great power as regents. Under their guidance, the Tibetan armies continued fighting the Tang Chinese.

Tri Dusong-mangjey died in 704 in Nanzhao (Nan Chao) [located in present-day Yunnan Province of China. One of the Bai tribes of proto-Thai people had established a small kingdom there in 649. The Tibetan armies conquered it in 680. But then, in 703, the kingdom became a suzerain state under Tibet. Uniting with several other small Bai kingdoms in the area, it evolved into the actual kingdom bearing the name “Nanzhao” (737 – 902). This area lay on the trade route between India and China, which passed through northern Burma. Before the arrival of the Tibetans, both Theravada and early forms of Chinese Mahayana Buddhism were present there. According to Buddhist tradition, Theravada in this region derived from three sons of King Ashoka (r. 273 – 232 BCE) of the Maurya Dynasty in India.]

Emperor Mey-agtsom

Emperor Tri Detsugten (Khri lDe-gtsug-brtan), also known as Mey-agtsom (Mes ag-tshoms), was seven years old when he succeeded his father Tri Dusong-mangjey to the Tibetan imperial throne. Until he reached adulthood, his grandmother, the Empress Dowager Trima Lo (Khri-ma Lod), acted as his regent (r. 704 – 712). During his reign (712 – 755), Mey-ag-tsom built three temples south of Lhasa. [According to other traditional Tibetan sources, he built five Buddhist temples all together.]

In 710, a Chinese princess named Jincheng (Kim-sheng) [the adoptive daughter of the Tang Emperor Zhongzong (r. 705 – 710)] was given in marriage to Mey-agtsom. This occurred at the request of Trima Lo, to which the Tang Emperor had agreed in the hope that it would ease tensions between Tibet and China. But that goal was not realized. Jincheng was unhappy in Tibet, feeling alone and regarded with jealousy by Mey-agtsom’s other wives. [Jincheng was a devout Buddhist and, in 737, she gave asylum to Buddhist refugee monks fleeing an anti-Buddhist persecution in Khotan.]

In 719, the Chinese Emperor Xuanzong (r. 713 – 756) increased military efforts to stop Tibetan and Arab advances. At different times prior to and during this period, Tibet allied itself and traded with the neighboring Arab Umayyad Caliphate (661 – 750). [For example, in 717, the Tibetans and Arabs had joined forces to fight the Chinese in Kucha. The Umayyad Empire, with its capital in Damascus, covered almost the entire Middle East, as well as part of West Turkistan.

In 730, however, Tibet and China signed a peace treaty, establishing the border between the two empires to the east of Kokonor Lake. The peace lasted for ten years, during which envoys traveled regularly between the two capitals, Lhasa and Chang’an (present-day Xi’an). In 740, however, the Tang forces attacked and regained control of vital areas along the Sino-Tibetan border.]

In 741, Tibet sent a mission to China to announce the death of Princess Jincheng and ask for peace, but China refused. Tibet sent an army into Chinese-held territory and recaptured several border cities [in present-day Qinghai and Sichuan Provinces. In 747, however, the Chinese, under the command of the Korean general, Gao Xianzhi, drove the Tibetans from this region.

Despite these battles, Mey Agtsom sent a further mission to the Tang court in 751 to learn more about Han Chinese Buddhism. 751 was also the year that the newly established Arab Abbasid Caliphate (750 – 1258), which replaced the Umayyad, defeated the Tang Chinese forces at Talas River, ending the expansion of Chinese territory into West Turkistan.]

In 755, Mey-agtsom was assassinated by two ministers [who were part of a conservative xenophobic Bon faction at the Tibetan court that opposed the Emperor’s interest in Buddhism and his continuing conciliatory attitude toward China. This was the same year as the start of the An Lushan Rebellion in China (755 – 763), which temporarily overthrew the Tang Dynasty.]

Mey-agtsom’s young son, Tri Songdetsen (Khri Srong-lde-btsan, 742 – 798), became the next emperor of Tibet.

[For more detail, see: The History of the Early Period of Buddhism and Bon in Tibet, chapter 1.]

Emperor Tri Songdetsen

Tri Songdetsen (Trisong Detsen) was also a proponent of Buddhism and, as such, was opposed by his many conservative, xenophobic ministers who preferred the Bon religion. [In 761] he sent his minister [Selnang (gSal-snang)] to Nepal [and on to India] to invite the Buddhist master Shantarakshita, [the abbot of Nalanda Monastery, the most prestigious Buddhist center of learning in northern India.] The Indian master’s arrival and teaching in Tibet supposedly displeased the local Bon spirits, resulting in many storms and floods. [According to other sources, a smallpox epidemic also broke out. Because of pressure on the Emperor by his xenophobic pro-Bon ministers,] Shantarakshita was [blamed for the disasters and] expelled from Tibet. Before leaving for India, however, Shantarakshita suggested that the Emperor invite the powerful Buddhist master Padmasambhava [of Oddiyana, in present-day Swat Valley of northwestern Pakistan] to subdue the Bon spirits. Tri Songdetsen subsequently did so and also invited Shantarakshita to return as well. [Once more, Selnang led the Tibetan mission to accompany the Indian master.]

Emperor Tri Songdetsen built the first monastery in Tibet. [According to most sources, it was begun in 766 and completed in 775.] Called Samyay (bSam-yas), the monastery was modeled after Odantapuri [the new Indian monastery built a few years earlier under the sponsorship of Emperor Gopala (r. 750 – 770), the founder of the Pala Dynasty in India.

Before Samyay was completed, Padmasambhava left Tibet. Before he did so, however, he hid various texts, concerning the advanced meditation system called “dzogchen (rdzogs-chen)” in the walls of the monastery. Padmasambhava felt that the Tibetans were not yet sophisticated and ripe enough to be able to comprehend them. Thus, they were concealed as “treasure texts” (gter-ma), to be recovered later when the Tibetans were ready to understand and practice them correctly.]

According to some Tibetan sources, Emperor Tri Songdetsen launched a campaign against the Bhata Hor (Bha-ta Hor) in the Lake Baikal region in order to bring the protector Pehar (Pe-har) to Tibet. [The Bhata Hor refer to the Uighur Turks of the Orkhon Uighur Empire (745 – 840). That empire included Mongolia and the Lake Baikal region of southern Siberia, north of Mongolia. Pehar (Pe-har) refers to a group of five protector spirits, known as the Five Bodily Manifest Kings (rGyal-po sKu-lnga), or to just one of them, the King of Enlightening Influence (‘Phrin-las rgyal-po). With his special powers, Padmasambhava foresaw that Pehar would be the appropriate spiritual protector for Tibet. The Bhata Hor were the keepers of a raksha demon skin mask, a turquoise statue of the female Buddha-figure Tara, and a mother-of-pearl statue of the male Buddha-figure Avalokiteshvara. These three were the physical basis and locus for summoning Pehar. According to other Tibetan sources, it was Tri Songdetsen’s son and successor, Emperor Muney-tsenpo (Mu-ne btsan-po) (r. 797 – 800), who deputed the expedition to the Bhata Hor.] The Tibetans appropriated these three objects, brought them to Tibet, and installed them in Samyay.

[Padmasambhava tamed Pehar and bound him by oath to protect Tibet. Samyay later became known as Nechen (gNas-chen), the Great Place. At the time of the Third Dalai Lama, Sonam-gyatso (rGyal-ba bSod-nams rgya-mtsho) (1543-1588), Pehar began manifesting as an oracle, speaking through a medium. The Fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang-lozang-gyatso (rGyal-dbang lnga-pa chen-po Ngag-dbang blo-bzang rgya-mtsho) (1617-1682), appointed Pehar as the State Oracle for the newly established Tibetan government and commissioned a new monastery, Nechung (gNas-chung), the Small Place, as the oracle’s seat. The monastery was completed for Pehar in 1683 and Pehar subsequently became popularly known as the “Nechung Oracle.”]

Samyay was originally populated by the first seven native Tibetan monks, who started a school there for Sanskrit and translation. [They were given monk ordination by Shantarakshita and his Indian disciples who accompanied him to Tibet. Scholars at Samyay translated Buddhist texts not only from Sanskrit, but also from Chinese into Tibetan. Others translated Bon texts into Tibetan from the Zhang-zhung language.

Shantarakshita passed away at Samyay in 783. In the same year, Emperor Tri Songdetsen created a Religious Council to decide upon all religious matters. He appointed Shantarakshita’s successor to the abbotship of Samyay, Selnang (gSal-snang), as the chief minister of the Council. Selnang led the pro-Indian faction in Tibet and, in order to insure the direction in which Tibet would develop, he influenced the Emperor so that the Council had the power to override decisions by other ministers.

In 784, one of the Council’s first acts was to banish the conservative xenophobic Bon faction within the imperial court to Gilgit (present-day northern Pakistan) and Nanzhao. Following the example of Padmasambhava, the Bon master Drenpa-namka (Dran-pa nam-mkha’) also hid various Bon texts, covering all topics, in the mud walls of Samyay for safekeeping.]

The Samyay Debate

Before he died, Shantarakshita predicted a conflict between two schools of Buddhism, the Chinese Chan School teaching instant enlightenment through stopping all thought and activity, and his own Indian school’s teaching of a gradual path of study, analysis, and ethical discipline. He directed that his disciple, Kamalashila, should be invited to stand for the Indian system. A protracted debate between the two schools occurred at Samyay from 792 to 794. The Chinese system was argued by a Chinese monk called “Hoshang” (Ho-shang Ma-ha-ya-na) [hoshang is the Chinese word for “monk”], and the Indian system by Kamalashila. The Indian system was judged to have prevailed, and Emperor Tri Songdetsen thus declared it to be Tibet’s official religion.

The outcome of the debate may have also been influenced by political events, since there were constant border conflicts with China in the second half of the eighth century. [Hugh Richardson (“Political Aspects of the Snga-dar, the First Diffusion of Buddhism in Tibet,” Bulletin of the Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies, Harvard University, vol. 2, no. 3) points out, as evidence of the political struggle behind the debate, that monks from the rival Tibetan noble families that were pro-China and anti-China were present throughout the debate.]

In 763 [between Shantarakshita’s expulsion from Tibet and his return to Tibet a few years later], the Tibetan army had even taken the Tang capital Chang’an and held it for fifteen days before being forced to withdraw. [This occurred during the interval between the Chinese crushing of the An Lushan Rebellion and the return of the new Tang Emperor, Daizong, from Luoyang to Chang’an.

The fighting between the Tibetans and the Chinese had continued, however, and in 781 the Tibetan forces had captured Dunhuang (Tun-hvang) at the eastern end of the Tarim Basin. The large cave monastery complex there became a center for the translation of Buddhist texts from Chinese into Tibetan. Both dzogchen and a Tibetan form of Chan (Jap. Zen) Buddhism came to flourish there.]

The Peace Treaty of Qingshui (Cing-co) in 783, [the year of Shantarakshita's death,] established the Sino-Tibetan boundary in Amdo [present-day Qinghai, giving Tibet control of the Kokonor regions. Peace between the two empires lasted only three years, however, and war broke out again in this region in 786, six years before the Samyay debate.

The Sino-Tibetan conflicts were not restricted to the Amdo borders and the Silk Route regions.] Tibet had entered into various military alliances under Emperor Tri Songdetsen, especially with King Kolofeng (Ka-lo-phing), the son of King Pilaoko of Siam (Sa’em rGyal-po sPe-le-ko). [King Pilaoko (r. 728 – 750) was the ruler of Nanzhou, the proto-Thai kingdom in Yunnan that he had forged from uniting various Bai states in 730. Pilaoko had accepted Tang Chinese overrule in 735 and had attacked nearby Tibetan areas in 745. His son and successor, King Kolofeng (r. 750 – 779), however, rebelled against China and allied with Tibet in 750.] In 778, Tibet and Nanzhao had fought the Chinese together in Sichuan. This alliance held until 786, [when the next Nanzhao ruler, King Imoshun (r. 779 – 808) allied his kingdom once more with China, and war broke out again between China and Tibet. Thus, China and Tibet fought each other on two fronts at this time. The Kingdom of Nanzhao lasted until 902.]

In 790 [two years before the Samyay debate], Tibet recaptured the four garrisons of Anxi, which had been lost in 692 to China under Empress Wu (r. 684 – 705). [By declaring herself to be Maitreya, the future Buddha, Empress Wu had led a coup temporarily overthrowing the Tang Dynasty. Specifically, Tibet recaptured Khotan in 790, thus gaining control of the entire southern Tarim Basin branch of the Silk Route. Although Tibet also had control of Kashgar at this time, they did not rule the other two Anxi garrisons.]

Tibet continually made attacks to the west from 785 – 805. [The Tibetans at this time were allied with the Qarluq Turks and Turki Shahis against the Abbasid Arabs. The Qarluq lived in present-day Kyrgyzstan and later founded the Qarakhanid Empire (840 – 1137), centered there. The Turki Shahis ruled the Kabul Valley and present-day southeastern Afghanistan from the mid-fifth century until 870. Their kingdom was a vassal state of the Tibetans at this time.]

The Tibetan army crossed the Pamir Mountains and went as far as the Oxus River [presently called the Amu Darya River, running from the Pamir Mountains along the border of Tajikistan and Afghanistan and then through Uzbekistan to the Aral Sea.] To check their advance, the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid (r. 786 – 809) formed an alliance with China. The extent of the Tibetan advance in West Turkistan is marked by a lake to the north of the Oxus River named “Al-Tubbat” (Al-tu-sbag), called in Tibetan “Small Lake” (mTsho-chung). [“Al-Tubbat” was the Arabic name for “Tibet.”

Thus, at the time of the Samyay debate, Tibet and China were fighting on not just two, but on three fronts. This undoubtedly affected the Chinese side’s loss of the debate and Tibet’s subsequent rejection of Chinese Buddhism and adoption, instead, of Indian Buddhism.]

[For more detail, see: The Historical Interaction between the Buddhist and Islamic Cultures before the Mongol Empire, chapter 11 and chapter 13.]

Emperors Muney-tsenpo and Saynaleg

Tri Songdetsen retired in 797 and died in 798. During his short reign, his son Muney-tsenpo (Mu-ne btsan-po, r. 797 – 800) tried to implement some land reforms that ultimately were unsuccessful. He was succeeded by another son of Tri Songdetsen, Tri Desongtsen (Khri lDe-srong btsan, r. 800 – 815), also known as Saynaleg (Sad-na-legs). Emperor Saynaleg continued to support the translation of Buddhist texts. During his reign, the Tibetan armies continued to harass the Arabs in the west, and even besieged Samarkand, the capital of Transoxania [in present-day Uzbekistan. This occurred during the Rebellion of Rafi’b. Layth, which was supported by the Tibetan – Qarluq – Turki Shahi alliance. Caliph Harun al-Rashid died on his way to defend Samarkand.]

Caliph al-Ma'mun, the second son of Harun al-Rashid, came to an agreement with the Tibetan governor of Turkistan, who presented him with a gold statue that was later sent to the Kaaba in Mecca. [After the Arabs lost control of Samarkand, al-Ma'mun made peace with the Tibetans and the Turki Shahis in order to fight in a civil war with his brother. After his victory, the Caliph attacked and took Kabul in 815. The defeated “Tibetan governor of Turkistan,” referring to the Tibetan vassal King Salapati of the Turki Shahis, was forced to convert to Islam. He subsequently presented as tribute a large golden Buddha statue to his conquerors. The statue was displayed at the Kaaba in Mecca until it was melted down in 817.]

Emperor Relpachen

The Tibetan Emperor Saynaleg was succeeded in 815 by his son Tri Tsugdetsen (Khri gTsug-lde-brstan, r. 815 – 836), who was also known as Relpachen (Ral-pa-can). Relpachen invited three Indian pandits, Shilendrabodhi, Danashila, and Jinamitra, to Central Tibet. These three, with the Tibetan translators Kawa Peltseg (sKa-ba dPal-brtsegs) and Chog-ro Lui-gyeltsen (Cog-ro Klu’i gyal-mtshan), revised older translations, standardized the translation of Buddhist terms from Sanskrit, and compiled The Grand (Lexicon) for Understanding Specific (Terms) (Bye-brag-tu rtogs-pa chen-po, Skt. Mahavyutpatti), which was the first Sanskrit-Tibetan lexicon.

After ascending the Tibetan throne, Emperor Relpachen sent troops to the Chinese border. Buddhists on both sides of the border sought mediation, resulting in the Doring peace treaty (rDo-ring yig-cha) in 821 reaffirming the boundaries of the treaty of 783. This treaty was inscribed on three stone pillars, one in Chang’an outside the palace of the Chinese Tang Emperor [Muzong (r. 821 – 825], another at Gugu Meru (Gu-gu rme-ru) on the Sino-Tibetan border, and the third erected in Lhasa [the Doring pillar] in 823. The treaty affirmed that Tibet and China were equals.

Relpachen built a monastery known as Ushangdo (‘U-shang-rdo gTsug-lag-khang) and implemented a system of taxation to support the monasteries, allocating seven households to support each monk.

In 836, Relpachen was assassinated and his jealous brother, Tri Uidumtsen (Khri ‘U’i dum-brtsan, r. 836 – 842), ascended the throne. Popularly referred to, out of disrespect, as Langdarma (Glang-dar-ma) [Young Bull], the new emperor closed the temples and monasteries. Buddhist monks were given the choice to marry, become huntsmen, or convert to the Bon religion. Those who refused were executed. This eliminated Buddhism from Central Tibet, though not in eastern or western Tibet. [Turrell Wylie (“Some Political Factors in the Early History of Tibetan Buddhism” in Studies in the History of Buddhism) argues that Langdarma’s persecution was to end the economic drain caused by his brother’s diversion of tax revenue to the monks. It was also to end the powerful influence on political affairs exerted by the Religious Council.]

In 842, Langdarma was assassinated by a monk named Lhalung Pelgyi-dorjey (Lha-lung dPal-gyi rdo-rje) [one of the twenty-five disciples of Guru Rinpoche Padmasambhava. According to Samten Gyaltsen Karmay, The Great Perfection (rDozgs-chen), he was the deposed head of the Religious Council and former Abbot of Samyay.] After this, a schism in the royal line split Tibet into various kingdoms with decentralized authority.

[For more detail, see: The Historical Interaction between the Buddhist and Islamic Cultures before the Mongol Empire, chapter 12. See also: The History of the Early Period of Buddhism and Bon in Tibet, chapter 2.]