The Spirit of the Mountain: Myth and State in Pre-Buddhist Tibet

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  • The Spirit of the Mountain: Myth and State in Pre-Buddhist TibetAuthor(s): J. Russell KirklandReviewed work(s):Source: History of Religions, Vol. 21, No. 3 (Feb., 1982), pp. 257-271Published by: The University of Chicago PressStable URL: .Accessed: 07/06/2012 14:48

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    The interrelations of religious traditions with secular power are of almost infinite variety. While many patterns have already been inves- tigated, others remain unexamined for a lack of fundamental historical research. Such is especially the case with lands such as Tibet, the history and institutions of which remain largely the domain of a handful of specialists.

    The "theocracy" of the Tibetan Buddhist church (once widely known as "Lamaism") is fairly well known today, thanks to the descriptions of nineteenth- and twentieth-century travelers and dip- lomats as well as to contemporary scholars. What is not widely known is that prior to the introduction of Buddhism in the eighth century C.E., Tibet was the center of a mighty Asian empire. The claim to sovereignty of the Tibetan emperors was fortified by a claim of descent from heavenly deities. As with similar conceptions in pre- Buddhist Japan and Korea, the origins and dynamics of such claims have just begun to be examined.'

    I wish to thank Professor Emeritus Helmut Hoffmann of Indiana University for his critical examination of earlier versions of this paper.

    I am currently preparing studies of the ancestral myths of the early rulers of both Japan and Korea. Among existing studies, see Matsumae Takeshi, "The Origin and Growth of the Worship of Amaterasu," Asian Folklore Studies 37 (1978): 1-11.

    ?1982 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0018-2710/82/2103-0004$01.00

  • Myth and State in Pre-Buddhist Tibet

    Our sources for ancient Tibetan history and religion are of three sorts. One is the inscriptions of Tibetan rulers of the eighth and ninth centuries. One is the contemporary documents written in Old Tibetan, preserved in caches such as that at Tun-huang on the borders of Chinese Turkestan. The third is the ancient traditions recorded in later texts, compiled after Buddhism had come to dominate all of Tibetan culture.

    The inscriptions of the early Tibetan emperors exalt the throne by proclaiming the rulers to be descended from a "son of the gods" (lha- sras). The name of that figure is related in a set phrase found in a number of ancient sources, both inscribed and literary: "'O-lde spu- rgyal came from the gods of heaven to be the lord of men."2 Beyond that phrase, little is recorded concerning this 'O-lde spu-rgyal. A reference in one ninth-century inscription is slightly fuller: "The divine miraculous emperor 'O-lde spu-rgyal, from the time when this country came into being and the land emerged, was the great ruler of Tibet [Bod]. From being a god in heaven he came to be a ruler of men in a high country and a pure land, the center of snowy mountains and the source of great rivers."3 There is confirma- tion from medieval Chinese historical texts that the ancestor of the Tibetan emperors was known as 'O-lde spu-rgyal.4 Consequently, it would appear that the facts are quite straightforward and that only their significance remains to be elucidated.

    Such, however, is not at all the case. For in some ancient sources and many later works the mythical first king is named not 'O-lde spu- rgyal, but rather gNya'-k'ri btsan-po. Moreover, the accounts of his advent leave considerable doubt as to any heavenly origin.

    The story of the first king in most of the later Tibetan chronicles is as follows. An exiled Indian prince was passing through the Himalayas and at length arrived at a sacred peak known as Rol-pa'i-rtse. From that vantage point he surveyed his surroundings. Observing the

    2 This phrase appears in the following materials: (1) the tomb inscription of K'ri-lde srong-btsan (Sad-na-legs, reigned 799-815) (see G. Tucci, Tombs of the Tibetan Kings [Rome, 1950], pp. 36-37); (2) a series of ancient prayers (see F. W. Thomas, Tibetan Literary Texts and Documents concerning Chinese Turkestan [London, 1951], 2:99, 108); and (3) rGyal-po bka'i t'ang-yig, a section of bKa'-t'ang sde-lnga, the fourteenth- century life of Padmasambhava which contains much material from the eighth and ninth centuries (see H. Hoffman, Quellen zur Geschichte der Tibetischen Bon-Religion [Wiesbaden, 1950], p. 245). Cf. G. Tucci, Tibetan Painted Scrolls (Rome, 1949), 3:732. 3 The inscription of K'ri-gtsug lde-brtsan (Ral-pa-can, reigned 815-38) (translated in H. Richardson, Ancient Historical Edicts at Lhasa [London, 1952] p. 61, somewhat modified). Cf. Li Fang-kuei, "The Inscription of the Sino-Tibetan Treaty of 821-22," T'oung Pao, n.s. 44 (1956): 62-63.

    4 Chinese Hu-t'i-p'o-hsi-yeh, ancient pronunication juat-d'iei-b'uat-siak-io (see Hsin T'ang-shu [Peking, 1975], 19:6071).


  • History of Religions

    beautiful Yarlung (Yar-klungs) valley with its soaring glacial mountain Yar-lha sham-po, he decided to proceed there. Arriving in that valley, he met twelve men, variously described as shepherds, hunters, Bon-po priests, or merely twelve individuals who happened to be worshiping the spirits of that place. The men inquired of him whence he had come. Since he could not speak their language, he pointed silently upward, toward the peak of the mountain from which he had just descended. Thinking that he was pointing to the sky, the twelve men took him to be a son of the gods, sent down from heaven. Raising him onto their necks (gNya), they hailed him as their king, calling him gNya'-k'ri btsan-po, the "Neck-Enthroned Emperor."5

    According to this version, the first king had not in reality descended from heaven: he was merely a prince from India who, through misunderstanding, was taken to be a son of the gods. It is generally accepted that this version was concocted by Buddhist writers to "de- fuse" the earlier tradition that the pagan king had actually descended from the gods of heaven.6 Yet gNya'-k'ri btsan-po does appear as the name of the first king in some demonstrably ancient texts and inscriptions.7

    This fact raises a serious question. Why is the mythical first king, from whom the later Tibetan emperors claimed descent, referred to by different names in different texts? It is the purpose of this study to ascertain the answer to that question and to elucidate the significance of the discrepancy. In order to achieve those aims, it is necessary to delve somewhat into the earliest history of Tibet, known to us through a number of traditions in which scraps of history, legend, and myth are loosely intertwined.

    Chinese records reveal that the people known to us as Tibetans (Tib. Bod) occupied a broad area of eastern and northern Tibet from at least the second century C.E.8 It is only from the seventh century,

    5 Tucci, Tibetan Painted Scrolls, pp. 731 ff.; Hoffmann, pp. 146 ff., and references. For a detailed analysis of this set of myths, see E. Haarh, The Yar-luh Dynasty (Copenhagen, 1969), pp. 168-212. According to the Buddhist versions, gNya'-k'ri was a scion of Gautama's princely line, while the Bon-po affiliated him to an earlier royal line from the Mahabhdrata.

    See, e.g., G. Tucci, The Religions of Tibet, trans. G. Samuel (Berkeley, 1980), p. 223.

    7See J. Bacot and C. Toussaint, Documents de Touen-Houang relatifs a l'histoire du 7Tbet (Paris, 1946), p. 81/85 f. hereafter cited as THD; H. Richardson, "The rKong-po Inscription," Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1972), pp. 30-39, esp. p. 34. 8 For this and what follows, see the following: H. Hoffmann, Tibet: A Handbook (Bloomington, Ind., 1975), pp. 39 ff.; D. Snellgrove and H. Richardson, A Cultural History of Tibet (New York, 1968), pp. 21 ff.; L. Petech, A Study on the Chronicles of Ladakh (Calcutta, 1939), pp. 30-38; and C. Beckwith, "A Study of the Early Medieval Chinese, Latin, and Tibetan Historical Sources on Pre-Imperial Tibet" (Ph.D. diss. Indiana University, 1977), esp. pp. 61, 259.


  • Myth and State in Pre-Buddhist Tibet

    however, that we possess clear historical evidence of their activities. At that time, all of western Tibet appears to have been ruled by a non-Bod kingdom known as Zhang-zhung. The Bod must have adjoined Zhang-zhung in central Tibet (gTsang-Bod).

    Around the turn of the seventh century, a petty chieftain named sLon-mts'an arose in the Yarlung valley and formed an alliance with several other chieftains. After he had led them in subjugating several vassals of Zhang-zhung in central Tibet, sLon-mts'an's followers acknowledged him as their supreme leader. He soon went on to unify most of east and central Tibet.

    As his power waxed greater, the lords of the land-his vassals- proclaimed sLon-mts'an and his younger brother to be gods (lha). In addition, they gave him a new name: "His government being loftier than the heavens (gNam), his sacred helmet being firmer than the mountains (ri), they made his name gNam-ri slon-mts'an."9 As the kingdom of this man was known as sPu, he came to be known by the title of sPu-rgyal, "the king of sPu."

    In 608-9 sLon-mts'an sent two embassies to the Sui court in China, the first such historical contact.'1 It was his son, Srong-btsan sgam- po, who moved the capital from Yarlung to Ra-sa ("the walled city," later known as Lha-sa, "the city of the gods"). In addition, this ruler finally conquered the great rival kingdom of Zhang-zhung and estab- lished an empire strong enough to cause serious concern for the powerful rulers of early T'ang China.

    Historically, then, gNam-ri slon-mts'an was the first king of Tibet. Be that as it may, tradition records some thirty-one rulers before him. Of course, most of those figures are pure fabrications, comprising an idealized sequence of twenty-seven (3 X 9) sovereigns. But it is now generally accepted that the last four were actual historical figures, though certainly not emperors of all Tibet. They were most likely local chiefs in the Yarlung valley and the ancestors of the later historical emperors. It is reported that in one tradition the first of those historical rulers, T'o-t'o-ri by name, descended from heaven on to Yar-lha sham-po, the sacred mountain of Yarlung."L So highly was this ancestor regarded that he was apotheosized, being known in most later sources as Lha-t'o-t'o-ri, "the divine T'o-t'o-ri."'2

    9 Old Tibetan Chronicle (Pelliot MS 1287, old no. 250), translated in Beckwith, p. 207, transcription modified. The same text is given in THD, pp. 105 f./ 136 ff. For the sacred helmet, see G. Tucci, "The Sacred Character of the Kings of Ancient Tibet," East and West 6 (1955): 177-205, quote on 200.

    10 See Beckwith, p. 221. 1 Tucci, Tibetan Painted Scrolls, p. 728. The name is given there as gNya-t'o-t'o-ri. Haarh provides a list of variants (p. 50).

    12 This position is based upon the assumption that the name To-t'u-tu recorded in the Hsin T'ang-shu represents the actual name of this chief and that the element Lha


  • History of Religions

    This tradition, which I shall call the Yarlung genealogy, seems to shed little light upon the myth of the first king. Fortunately, there is another, more well-known tradition regarding the earliest rulers, preserved in both Buddhist and Bon-po sources. According to this tradition, gNya'-k'ri btsan-po was followed by six divine sovereigns who never died but instead reascended to heaven. The seventh, however, inadvertently lost his connection to heaven and died upon the earth. He was named Dri-gum btsan-po.

    Recent scholarship has established that Dri-gum btsan-po was likely a historical personage, probably living around the fifth century C.E. While there is some confusion regarding the location of his kingdom, it is generally agreed that it was not in the area of Yarlung. It has traditionally been assumed that Dri-gum flourished near Gyantse (rGyal-rtse) in south-central Tibet.'3 It seems to me, however, that Sir Hugh Richardson has all but proven that Dri-gum was in fact active in the region around Kong-po (rKong-po), to the north- east. 14

    According to two ancient texts, Dri-gum had two sons, Nya-k'yi (the elder) and Sha-k'yi (the younger).'5 When Dri-gum died, the sons buried him on Mt. Gyang-t'o in Kong-po. Sha-k'yi then proceeded to Yarlung, becoming the "divine emperor" (lha btsan-po).'6 The brother who remained in Kong-po, Nya-k'yi, is then said to have worshiped two spirits. First, he revered an unnamed oread (gNyan-po), the patron spirit (sKu-bla) which he had shared with his brother. Second, he "took for his master" another sKu-bla, the male counterpart of the goddess De-mo. There is some evidence to suggest that the first spirit may have been that of the Kong-po holy mountain 'O-lde gung-rgyal. The second spirit, according to a plausible suggestion, may have been

    was originally a title, not part of the name. Cf. Petech, pp. 33-34; R. A. Stein, Tibetan Civilization, trans. J. E. S. Driver (Stanford, Calif., 1972), p. 51. In the "Genealogy" from Tun-huang (THD, p. 82/88), the name is given as Lha-t'o-do. The final element ri would seem to be the same word for "mountain" as the final element in the name gNam-ri.

    13 Tucci, Religions of Tibet, p. 223; Hoffmann, p. 102. 14 Richardson, "The rKong-po Inscription," pp. 37-38. Dri-gum reportedly lost his life in a duel in a land called Myang, the location of which was not clearly specified. A relatively late tradition identifies it with the Nyang valley in gTsang, but Richardson argues persuasively for an identification with Myang-yul, just to the north of Kong-po. Richardson cites also a report "that Bon-po tradition places the duel ... firmly in the Myang valley near rKong-po. 5 In the Old Tibetan Chronicle, Nya-k'yi was the younger and Sha-k'yi the elder. I follow the Kong-po inscription, assuming the other version to have been altered by imperial genealogists in the effort to assert the supremacy of Yarlung over Kong-po.

    THD, p. 98/126f. and the Kong-po inscription (n. 7 above). Cf. Snellgrove and Richardson, p. 25. According to some accounts, Nya-k'yi proceeded from Yarlung to Kong-po. I again follow what would seem to be the earlier version.


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