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.