Thursday, February 24, 2005

Mongolia | Tibetan Buddhism | Phagspa

More on Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia: While in Lanzhou Sakya Pandita had attached the attention of Köten’s cousin Khubilai, who sent the Tibetan monk an invitation to visit his own court, then apparently located in the Mongol capital of Kharkhorum. Unfortunately Sakya Pandita transmigrated before the invitation arrived. In his stead his nephew Phagspa was ordered to present himself to Khubilai. Like his uncle, Phagspa had been a child prodigy who could read and write almost from the cradle. At the age of three, to universal astonishment, he could recite the Hevajra Tantra from memory. This accomplishment led to the nickname “Phagspa,” meaning “Exceptional.” He arrived at the Mongol court (presumably at Kharkhorum) in 1253, at the age of eighteen and was soon presented to Khubilai.

Thangka of Phagspa in the Zanabazar Fine Arts Museum, Ulaan Baatar

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."

Examples of Phagspa 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.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Mongolia | Tibetan Buddhism | Sakya Pandita

The days are getting longer – the sun doesn’t set now until 6:25, nine minutes later than just a week ago. Still brutally cold though – a testicle tingling 36 below zero F. this morning.

I have been researching the early introduction of Buddhism into Mongolia, in particular the first encounter of Mongolians with Tibetan Buddhism. It seems that Chingis Khan’s armies had made preliminary raids into Tibet as early as 1205, a year before the founding of the Mongol Empire, and around the same time Chingis himself reportedly met with some Tibetan Buddhists and had been impressed by their doctrines. According to the Rosary of White Lotuses, the same year he sent an envoy with message to a prominent Sakya lama known as Sa-pan stating, “I have not finished the wars of my reign yet, but as soon as these are over, please come to Hor [Mongolia] with your disciples and spread the Teachings of the Lord Buddha. . . In these boundless crude wastes of the north the Buddha’s teachings should make their long-delayed appearance Not everyone accepts this account, however, in part because Sa-pan, who would become better known as the Sakya Pandita, would have been only twenty-three years old in 1205. In any case, the Rosary of White Lotuses goes on to claim that Chingis and Sakya Pandita eventually established between themselves the Preceptor-Protector relationship which as we shall see would become a standard feature of later interactions between Tibetan religious leaders and secular rulers both Mongolian and Chinese. There is little evidence, however, that Chingis himself ever embraced Buddhist teachings. Although evincing interest in various spiritual traditions, particularly Taoism, he apparently remained true to the shamanic beliefs of his ancestors to the end of his life.

More substantive contacts between Mongolians from north of the Gobi and Buddhism occurred in 1219 when the Mongol general Mukali overran the city of Lan Ch’eng in Shansi province and captured a monk by the name of Hai-yün, a follower of the Ch’an sect then prevalent in China and not a Tibetan Buddhist. Impressed by the spiritual presence of Hai-yün, Mukali asked to met the monk’s teacher, Chung-kuan. Mukali wrote a favorable report about the two men to Chingis Khan himself. The Great Khan replied:

“‘From what your messengers have told me, it appears that the Old Reverend One and the Young Reverend One are both true “Speakers to Heaven.“ Feed and clothe them well, and if you find any others of the same sort, gather them all in and let them “speak to Heaven” as much as they will. They are not be treated with disrespect by anyone . . .’”

Güyük Khan, grandson of Chingis who became Great Khan after the death of his father Ögedai, named Hai-yün chief of all monks in the Mongol realm, which by then included a large swath of China, and invited him to live in Kharkhorum. He held the same post under Möngke, Güyük’s successor. Hai-yün may have converted Khubilai, Möngke’s successor, to Buddhism as early as 1242, and he himself chose the name for Khubilai’s oldest son, Chen-chin (Pure Gold). By the time Hai-yün died in 1257, however, the Ch’an School of Buddhism from China had been superceded in the hearts and minds of the Mongol aristocracy by Buddhism as practiced in the Land of Snows, Tibet.

By 1239 Güyük’s brother Köten had occupied what is now Sichuan province in China. His gaze turning west to Tibet, he recalled the lama known as Sa-pan, or Sakya Pandita:

“In earlier days, our forefather King Chingis sent a letter of invitation to Sakya Pandita . . . However, even though they set up a Preceptor-Protector bond, the teaching could not spread. Now this lama, who’s known as Sakya Pandita . . . is well-versed in the five sciences, he has been been to India, and he could even defeat the wise infidel Chroje Gawo in a dispute! Therefore, if we could invite him, the Teaching would spread and bring welfare to all sentient being, as well as fulfill the designs of our Forefather.”

Thus the Rosary of White Lotuses tendentiously implies that Köten’s subsequent invasion of Tibet was motivated mainly by his desire to bring the Dharma back to Mongolia and not by what was by then the insatiable thirst for conquest on the part of the Mongols. The Rosary does not stint however in describing Köten’s bloody procession through Tibet. Setting out in 1240, he and his army “killed many Tibetan in the Sog River valley” and 500 monks at Reting Monastery, about 90 miles north of the Lhasa. Although the records of the invasion are scant, Köten and his army apparenty reached the Tibetan capital. At some point he sent a general (“Dorta the Black”) with the invitation to Sakya Pandita, who was at the time ensconced at Sakya Monastery, the headquarters of the Sakya sect, about 90 miles southwest of Shigatse.

According to the account proffered by the Rosary, Sakya Pandita—“The Great Wave of Dawning Faith that Sweeps Everything in it Wake,” as the author of the Rosary terms him—was overcome with joy at the arrival of the Mongolians, claiming that it fulfilled the prophecy of one Sonam Tsemo the Venerable who had proclaimed:

"King Gotan [Köten], the manifest Bodhhisvattva
Shall come to hear the sounds of your fame,
and shall send you a wrathful messenger with an invitation.
Dressed in eagle-like hat and snout-like shoes, after their manner,
the messenger — Dorta — shall arrive in haste.
Follow him willingly and without fear,
for to assist the Buddha’s teachings and all sentient beings."

“To help and benefit sentient beings; if this is what Bodhisattvas are there for,” concluded Sakya Pandita, “even the flames of hell shall turn into gardens of flowers.” Apparently this was a comment on venturing into the arms of the Mongolians.

In 1244, at the age of sixty-three, Sakya Pandita departed Tibet for Köten’s court near what is now the city of Langzhou in Gansu Province of China. To smooth the way he sent ahead his two nephews, Phagspa—who would eventually became famous in his own right—and Phyagna. The journey was arduous, and there were many followers of the Sakya sect to meet with along the way, but Sakya Pandita finally arrived at Langzhou in 1446 and on a day determined by astrologers was eventually presented, along with his nephews, to Köten in 1447.

There followed a curious incident. According to the Rosary of White Lotuses, Köten, wishing to test Sakya Pandita’s powers, had one of his resident magicians conjure up a image of a big city and then invited the Tibetan monk to step into it . Nonplussed, Sakya Pandita recited a prayer and threw some flowers at the mirage, whereupon it solidified into a real city. According to the Rosary, this “Phantom Town” became what is now the city of Lanzhou.

Duly impressed, Köten entered into a Preceptor-Protector relationship with Sakya Pandita and sought his counsel in matters both spiritual and temporal. The Tibetan guru’s standing was increased even more when Köten fell ill due to a plague of “earth demons” and Sakya Pandita succeeded in curing him by a technique known as the “Lion’s Roar.” Settling in at the new “Phantom Town” of Lanzhou, Sakya Pandita proceed to give teachings on various sutras and tantras and eventually initiated Köten and members of his court into the Hevajra Tantra, “opening anew for them the deepest path of Vajrayana.” Assisting the Pandita in his teachings was a sizable contingent of Uighur Buddhist monks from what is now Xinjiang province in the west of China.

In appreciation for these spiritual gifts we are told that Köten granted Sakya Pandita, and by extension the Sakya sect, political power over all of Tibet. “In this instance,” says historian of Buddhist in China Kenneth Ch’en, “one sees the first instance of that peculiar institution in Tibet, the assumption of political power by a religious leader.” Justifying his actions, he wrote to the heads of other monasteries:

“This king [Köten] is a bodhisattva, who has the greatest faith in the Buddhist teachings generally, and the three gems in particular. He protects the universe by good laws, and particularly he has a great attachment to me far above the others. He said to me, ‘Preach religion with a tranquil mind, I will give you what you wish. I know that you do good, heavens know if I do also.”

Thus through Sakya Pandita the Mongols achieved political control of Tibet, while the Sakya Pandita, for his part, gained a powerful patron for Buddhism. Köten and the Mongols may have first favored the Buddhist hierarchy in Tibet as a political expediency, but there is no doubt they were also attracted to Tibetan Buddhist teachings and doctrine. As Ch’en points out:

“The Mongols, on their side, were converted, partly through fear of the mysterious powers emanating from the formulas and charms of Lamaism [a term for Tibetan Buddhism no longer favored in scholarly circles] and partly because of the belief that Lamaism was better adapted to their temperament and habit, since both they and the Tibetans were hardy, accustomed to life in the open, and averse to agriculture.”

Other observers have averred the that Tibetan Buddhism was still at that time greatly influenced by the ancient shamanism and animism of Tibet, and thus may have been more compatible with the belief systems of the Mongols, many of whom remained faithful to the shamanism and nature worship of their own ancestors.

Sakya Pandita was never to return to Tibet. He died in Lanzhou in 1251. During his cremation images of Hevajra and Manjusri appeared on the crown of his skull and Heruka on his forehead, as well as numerous other manifestations. Among his ashes were found numerous “relic pills,” small hard pellets of uncertain composition which are often found in the remains of highly advanced lamas (indeed, this phenomenon continues to occur to the present day). Köten, was duly impressed, as least according to the Rosary of White Lotuses:

"Behold the Wonder! It is due to the merits of earlier lives,
that this Crown Jewel of the Buddha’s teaching is to manifest
in this Holy One, who was brought here by the power of my prayers . . ."

Having succeeded in bringing Tibet under the sway of the Mongols and pledging himself and his court to Buddhism, Köten died the same year, in 1651.

Numerous stupas were subsequently constructed in Lanzhou, including one to house Sakya Pandita’s remains. The eventual fate of this latter stupa is unknown. One of Sakya Pandita's written works, Ordinary Wisdom: Treasury of Good Advice, is still in print today.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Mongolia | Ulaan Baatar | Iran | New York

Excerpt from a Story in the New York Times about the US drone planes which are supposedly flying over Iran gathering information on Iran’s nuclear facilities:
After news media reports today of a loud explosion in southern Iran caused by one of the planes' being fired on, stock prices in New York dipped. One government official said the noise was a fuel tank falling off an airplane. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards said the blast occurred during dam construction, but another government official, in a statement that added to the confusion, later said there had been a large bang but no explosion.
So the Iranian new media reports that there was an explosion caused by one of these drones being fired upon; a government official claims on the other hand it was fuel tank falling off an airplane; yet another an explosion at a dam construction site, while still another claims there was no explosion at all but just a loud bang, and all this causes stock prices on the New Year Stock Exchange to fall?

I hesitate to check my own retirement account after this, lest I suddenly discover that in my old age I will have to go out and join the street people rummaging through the trash dumpsters behind my apartment, all because of an unexplained bang in Iran.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Germany | Berlin | Gemaldegalerie

I guess I should have posted this on Valentine’s Day: Botticelli’s “Eve” in Berlin’s Gemaldegalerie, which I visited last May.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Mongolia | New Year Celebration

According to the Tibeto-Mongolian calendar the New Year begin at 6:29 am on the morning of February 9. This was the exact moment of the New Moon. The temperature at this hour was a frosty 42 degrees below 0 F.

The Mongolian New Year, known as Tsagaan Sar (White Month) is the biggest holiday of the year in Mongolia, kind of like Western Christmas and New Year’s combined on one day. The day before I had been to the Dalai Eej (Oceanic Mother) Supermarket and encountered one of the biggest crowds I have ever seen there. Everyone was out shopping in anticipation of the big day. What was surprising was the number of people with long shopping lists. I had never before seen people in Mongolia with shopping lists, at least not in grocery stores.

The next morning, February 9, I took a taxi out to Dambadarjaa Monastery in the the suburb of Dambadarjaa, north of the city proper. Dambadarjaa Monastery was completed in 1765 and dedicated to the memory of the Second Bogd Gegen of Mongolia , the successor to Zanabazar, the First Bogd Gegen of Mongolia.

The Second Bogd Gegen Luvsandambiidomen was born in 1724. His mother was Bayart, the queen of Tusheet Khan Dondovdorj. Dondovdorj’s second wife was Princess Amgalan, the daughter of the Qing Emperor. She is buried at Gunjin Sum.

Dambadarjaa Monastery was closed down by the communists in 1934 and 107 of the monks in residence there received the death penalty. The monastery was reopened after the fall of communist and has recently been refurbished. The monastery now has its own Website (donations accepted by PayPal or major credit card).

Each day for the week around Tsagaan Sar the monks performed the prayer ceremony known as Tsogchin, which was written by Zanabazar, in the ger temple to the side of the main temple.

Ger Temple, with Mount Zonkhova in the background

Stupa near the Main Temple

Stupa at the base of Mount Zonkhova

On New Year’s morning hundreds of people were climbing Mount Zonkhova (Zhonkhova is Mongolian for Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelug Sect of Buddhism).

Mount Zonkhova, directly behind the Monastery

The first summit of Mount Zonkhova

At the ovoo on the first summit many people were making offerings of khadags (prayer scarves), butter, airag, and incense made of artz, a species of wild juniper that grows in the mountains of Mongolia.

Ovoo on the first summit

Second ovoo on Mount Zonkhova

View of the suburb of Dambadarjaa from the first summit of Mount Zonkhova

View of Chingelt Khairkhan Mountain from Mount Zonkhova. Chingelt Khairkhan Mountain is one of the Four Sacred Mountains which surround the city of Ulaan Baatar.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Tibet | Lhasa

We took the ferry from Dorje Drak back across the Tsangpo and then drove upstream to the main bridge, crossed over again to the north side and took the main road to Lhasa. Stopped on the way to make a side trip to the Shugtseb Nunnery at Lhokar.

Residences at the Shugtseb Nunnery

Looking down the Kyichu Valley from Shugtseb Nunnery

On the way into Lhasa we passed by Atisha’s Tara Temple.

The Potala, former home of the Dalai Lama, in downtown Lhasa

After checking in at the Kyichu I headed straight for the Jokhang, the main temple in Lhasa and ground zero of the Tibetan Buddhist world. As usual thousands of people were circumambulating the temple and hundreds more were doing prostrations in front.

Front of Jokhang Temple

More worshippers in front of the Jokhang

Later I made a quick trip to Ramoche Temple, built in the seventh century to house the statue of Buddha brought to Tibet by the Chinese wife of Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo. The statue itself was later moved to the Jokhang where it can still be seen today. The back wall of Ramoche is covered with hundreds of images of White Tara.

One of the White Taras at Ramoche

New idol going up in the streets of Lhasa

Mongolia | Ulaan Baatar

Well, we have finally reached it; that magical moment when the Fahrenheit and Celcius temperature scales are exactly the same. In short, it's cold!