Later the founder of the Yüan Dynasty in China, Khubilai was probably the greatest of the Mongol Khans after Chingis himself. He was one of four sons of Chingis’s youngest son Tolui, who upon Chingis’s death had inherited the so-called Three Rivers Region, the ancestral homeland of the Mongols centered around the headwaters of the Tuul, Onon, and Kherlen. At the time of Phagpa’s arrival in Mongolia his brother Möngke was Great Khan, but Khubilai’s star was on the ascendancy and he was already poising himself for his ultimate rise to power. As noted, Khubilai was probably already a Buddhist by this time. The Chinese Ch’an monk was already in Kharkhorum and had served as the head of Buddhism in the Mongol Empire under Möngke at least until 1252, and according to some accounts he had converted Khubilai to Buddhism as early as a decade before.
Although at the time he may have been professing Ch’an Buddhism Khubilai was still curious and open minded about other spiritual traditions. He himself came from an ecumenical background. His father Tolui was presumably a shamanist like his grandfather Chingis. His mother Sorqotani however was a Nestorian Christian, and she had taken over Tolui’s khanate when he died in 1233—apparently from alcoholism—and overseen the strict upbringing of her sons. She was renowned for both her wisdom—Khan Möngke regularly sought her counsel—and charity. “And her hand was ever open in munificence and benefaction,” intoned the Persian historian, Ata-Malik Juvaini. who was in Kharkhorum in 1252-53, “and although she was a follower and devotee of the religion of Jesus she would bestow alms and presents upon imams and shaikhs and strove to revive the sacred observances of the faith of Mohammed (may God bless him and give him peace!) . . . And always she would sent alms to all parts to be distributed among the poor and needy Moslems, and so she continued until [February or March of 1252], when the Destroyer of Delights sounded the note of departure.”
So Khubilai wasted no time in grilling the young lama about Tibetan Buddhism. Who was the model man in Tibet? he wanted to know (Milarepa, Phagspa replied); who was greatest teacher? (Sakya Pandita, an ocean compared to which, Phagspa claimed, he himself was “like the minutest measure of water). More to the point, Khubilai wanted to collect taxes and draft soldiers in Tibet for the Mongol Empire, and what did the young lama think about that? “Tibet is a small distance borderland. It cannot provide you with even the least amount of taxes and conscripts,” explained Phagspa. If this was the case, riposted Khubilai, then they were just wasting each other’s time and Phagspa would do better just to go back to Tibet. At this point, according to the Rosary of White Lotuses, Khubilai’s wife Zangmo stepped into the breach and exclaimed that even gray-haired monks were no match for the young Phagspa. “Do not send him to Tibet,” she “but enter into a Preceptor-Protector bond with him, learn from him, ask him questions about the Dharma!” She pointed out that Sakya lamas were especially proficient in secret Tantra teachings and perhaps to set an example asked that she and her circle of twenty-four female attendants be initiated into the Hevajra Tantra. Phagspa complied, and to show her appreciation for the initiation Zangmo gave Phagspa her ear-ring containing a huge pearl. Later Phagspa reportedly sold the pearl and used the funds to put a gold roof on one of the temples at Sakya Monastery in Tibet.
Following his wife’s lead Khubilai then asked to be initiated into the Hevajra Tantra. Phagspa said this was not possible because Khubilai was a king and a king would not be able to observe the vows necessary to take the initiation. First, Phagspa explained, Khubilai would have to take a seat lower than the presiding lama’s seat; second, he would have to recognize the Triple Jewel as his sole refuge; third, he must follow whatever order his teacher gave him. Khubilai agreed all this was impossible for a king. Again his wife stepped forward. The King holds supreme authority in China and Mongolia, she pointed out, why not give Phagspa supreme authority in Tibet and affairs of the Dharma? Although it did not fully address all the issues raised, Khubilai and Phagspa agreed to this conciliatory compromise, and a Hevajra initiation was given to the Mongolian ruler and twenty-four of his associates. In return he gave Phagspa an immense three-dimensional golden mandala encrusted with pearls “the size of sheep droppings” and granted the Sakya sect, with Phagspa at its head, both political and religious control over all of Tibet.
These events apparently took place in 1253. In 1254 Khubilai issued an edict ordering monks in Tibet to pay taxes. Heeding Phagspa’s objections, he finally excused Sakya monks from taxation. Going one step further, he proclaimed that no other sect except the Sakya be allowed to practice in Tibet. Phagspa protested that this would only inflame sectarian strife, not end it. Khubilai relented and had the final proclamation changed to read, “It is the wish of both the Preceptor and the Protector that each and every Dharma system should develop on its own,” thus granting a degree of freedom to the various other sects in Tibet. Having assumed the role of Khubilai’s chief spiritual advisor, over the next several years Phagspa “gave endless teachings for the benefit of others” and in 1258 he also engaged and defeated Taoist monks who came to Kharkhorum for debates on the relative merits of Buddhism and Taoism sponsored first by Möngke and then by Khubilai.
When Khubilai assumed the title of Great Khan in 1260, after the death of Möngke, he made Tibetan Buddhism the official religion of his empire and named Phagspa as his ti-shih, or “Imperial Preceptor.” In this role Phagspa had considerable authority and prestige, sitting always at the Great Khan’s side at court and received with great honors and ceremony wherever he traveled. His powers were increased even more In 1264 when he was appointed chief of the Tsung-chih-yüan, the department of the central government responsible for both Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism and the administration of Tibet.
Phagspa was also a remarkable scholar who developed an elaborate Buddhist religio-political theory of world rule based on the idea of chakravartin kings, a line of benevolent Buddhist rulers whose latest representative was none other than Khubilai himself. He also oversaw the development of a new script for the Mongolian language which in 1269 became the official writing system of the Mongol Empire, mandatory in all government documents. According to the edict issued by Khubilai:
“It is our opinion that writing is used to represent words, and words are used to record events. This has been the system from ancient times through to the present day. Our nation was founded in the North, and in those times our customs were as yet ancient and uncomplicated, and we had no time to create [our own script]. When we needed to write things down, then we used the Chinese or Uighur scripts in order to represent the language of this court. However, when we look at the Liao and Jin regimes, or other far distant countries, they all have their own scripts. Now the rule of the pen has come to replace the rule of the sword, but we yet lack a means of writing, which really is a failure in this dynasty's system of government. Therefore I expressly commanded the National Preceptor Phagspa to create the New Mongolian Script, which could be used to transcribe all other scripts, in the hope that words may easily be used to express events. Henceforth all official documents and imperial edicts will be written in the New Mongolian Script, together with a supplementary version of the text written in the local script."
In appreciation for his role in creating the new script Phagspa was granted the title of “The Great Precious Dharma King,” in addition to the title of "Supreme Lama, King of the Faith in Three Lands,” which Khubilai had already given him.
Although scholars still opine that the so-called Phagspa Script was the best script for the linguistic idiosyncrasies of the Mongolian language the Mongols later reverted back to the Uighur form of writing which had been adopted at the time of Chingis Khan. It continued to be used occasionally for decorative purposes, however, notably on the Gold Seal of 13th Dalai Lama, made in 1909, which had inscriptions in both the Tibetan and Phagspa scripts. As we shall see, Zanabazar, the first Bogd Gegen of Mongolia, may well of had this script in mind when he invented his own Soyombo script.
Phagspa remained in Mongolia until 1274, when he returned to Tibet, eventually taking up residence at Sakya Monastery. On the 22nd day of the 11th month of the Iron Dragon Year (1280) he announced, “Please make arrangements for a great offering.” According to the Rosary of White Lotuses, “Then he sat in the lotus posture, took a bell and a dorje, and passed away. This demonstration of the way out of all suffering was the final teaching for those of his disciples who still believed in the permanent nature of things.” Apparently worn out by his extensive labors on behalf of his Mongol masters and Buddhism, he was only forty-six at the time of his death.