|Andrea Mantegna's St. Sebastian, c. 1455-60|
"It will have blood: they say blood will have blood.
Stones have been known to move and trees to speak.
... ... ... I am in blood
stepped in so far that, should I wade no more,
returning were as tedious as go o'er."
— Macbeth, Act 3, Scene 4.
I’ve been reading an interesting new master’s thesis. Wait a minute, does that sound like a normal sentence to you? Well, anyway, it surely is an interesting work that put my mind to thinking. Think of it as Macbeth and St. Sebastian with more than a touch of Silence of the Lambs. If you are OK with that, you might be ready to read on.
The thesis, by Sara Conrad, is about the Sakya Bagmo (ས་སྐྱ་འབག་མོ་), often called “witches” in English — the weird sisters of Macbeth? — since anyway some of the things they have done were quite ghoulish to say the least, and time after time they needed to be brought under control by the Sakya hierarchs. These women are actual flesh-and-blood women possessed by a kind of spirit (for this reason they are sometimes referred to as söndré - གསོན་འདྲེ་ or living ghosts). The real meaning of the name Bagmo is mask (with the mo just a regular feminine ending).
When reading this account of the origins of the Sakya Bagmo, I was struck by the recurrence of a theme (or complex if you prefer) in Tibetan culture, one that has its various manifestations in most or all of the different sects, not just in the Sakya. Without getting too structuralistic about it, let’s pare it down to the basic formula.
A, B and C are good friends of X. At some point X gets in the way of his three (or four or more) friends’ plans for the future. A new plan is made to get him out of the way, a plot in which they all participate in some way. X is killed or, which is practically the same thing, cornered into an impossible position from which the only escape is suicide. The unjustly killed person cries out for revenge from the grave. The guilty parties, and their wider organization, engage in acts of propitiation, meant to turn X into a protector rather than an antagonist. Time and again, X requires reminding not to slip back into vengeance mode, which anyway X threatens to do with some regularity, just as the guilt of A, B, and C keeps flaring up from time to time, generation after generation. Is it the guilt or is it the ghost that gets propitiated? The rituals can’t tell and perhaps don’t even know the difference.
Of course this skeletal scenario was constructed by myself just this moment, and one thing you need to remember is that not every single facet of it has to be repeated in every instance of the story. The larger structural parallels are what I want to point out, not the architectural details.
Here is an account of how the Sakya Bagmo originated somewhere around the 16th century. The Rabjampa Sönam Özer (རབ་འབྱམས་པ་བསོད་ནམས་འོད་ཟེར་) was captured by a group of three political figures (sde-pa) named Lhakhangpa, Lhasa Dzongpa, and Kyetrangpa (their motives not clarified). They tied him to a pillar next to the long stairway of the Great Temple of Sakya. Then they shot arrows at his chest and killed him.
“According to the oral historical tradition, when the Rabjampa was killed he said these prayers with great intention: ‘As I pass from this lifetime, may I be born as the empowered one of one third of the world.’ But due to the fact that his consciousness was vengeful and angry, he said, ‘as I pass from this lifetime, may I be born as devourer of one third of the world.’ ” (Conrad, p. 11)
By the power of his negative intentions (however justified by the unjustness of his death) he was born as the first Sakya Bagmo. Her name was Namkha Drölma (ནམ་མཁའ་སྒྲོལ་མ་). It fell upon a Sakya leader by the name of Drachen Tutob Wangchug to try and subdue her, but try as he did methods both peaceful and wrathful they were to no avail, so he took the next best step and married her, or as the text says, took her as a [f.] Seal (ཕྱག་རྒྱ་མ་). In any case, they were in cohabitation when she died. Then Drachen peeled off her skin, tanned it and made from it a mask. This he used in a ritual to coerce the spirit to become a protector of the Sakya school. This mask was kept in a special box and taken out once a year for ritual purposes.
Well, I did warn you about the parallels with Silence of the Lambs. Still... if you are still with me... What else does this story in general remind me of? For one thing the account of Shugden. If you want to read more about it, the quickest and best way is to send you over to another blog by another blogger. You will find the link below under “Dreyfus,” so I’m not going to go into this much better known story right now.
Less well known is the account of a once-vengeful ghost turned protector spirit of the Bön school. Some will surely be surprised to learn that Bönpos turned a high incarnation of the Karma Kagyü school into a protector of their own school. How did that happen?
The Tibetan-language sources are widely scattered and are not especially clear. The one summary I know of is by Samten Karmay, who says that when the 10th Red Hat Karmapa died unexpectedly in Nepal during the Tibeto-Nepalese wars in 1792, the Tibetan government forbade recognition of his reincarnation.* Later on his ghost manifested as a spirit. Then the abbot of Menri Monastery named Sherab Gonggyel (1784-1835) made him into a protector of Bon religion, giving the spirit protector a name that is identical to the name of the First Red Hat Karmapa: Dragpa Gyaltsen (1283-1349). Although it is true that the Bön protector figure is the most recent one to develop, it is still a curiousity that his name Dragpa Gyaltsen is often prefaced with a set of epithets that mean Fierce, Forceful, and Great King. The second of these three, Forceful, translates Shugden (Shugs-ldan).*
Baumer (p. 170) says that the 10th Shamar Karmapa’s death was what could be called a forced suicide: “[He] is supposed, for political reasons, to have incited the Nepalese Gurkhas to undertake their military campaign of 1788-1791 against Tibet. [He], having failed, committed suicide, but was unable to release his soul from the earthly realm of existence and became a wandering evil spirit. The abbot of the Bön monastery of Menri, however, recognized that this tulku was originally the son of the demon king Khyapa and the daughter of Shenrab. He tamed him and forced him to become a protective deity of Bön.”
If there is a single historical figure behind all these guilt-tripping unjustified death cults, it would have to be this one: Dranka Pelgi Yönten (བྲན་ཀ་དཔལ་གྱི་ཡོན་ཏན་), the first signatory of the Tibetan-Chinese peace treaty of 820-821 CE.
Dranka, a royal minister, was falsely accused of having an illicit affair with the royal consort Ngangtsulma (ངང་ཚུལ་མ་). This is likely to sound familiar if you’ve ever heard the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. But his rivalry with one of his fellow ministers started already in their childhood days, according to a remarkable and lengthy story we don’t have time for at the moment. The false accusation has a deeper background, so it seems it cannot be so simply reduced to a religiously motivated argument between the pro- and anti-Buddhist forces. Perhaps that, too.
The Deyu history says that when the pregnant queen Ngangtsulma heard the news of the minister Dranka's murder she became physically ill, slashed open her own stomach with an obsidian knife and said, “If you want to know if the minister and I did or did not have an affair, have a look at this!” Everyone could see that inside her stomach was a child with a full set of conch-like teeth as well as eyebrows of turquoise color. These they knew to be unequivocal marks that the child was of royal blood. The king himself confessed his mistake and as part of his penance erected a sacred icon-volume of the Perfection of Wisdom scripture (this volume was called the Red Abridgement). The ghost of Dranka went on to be credited with everything terrible that happened in the post-imperial period, including the civilian worker uprisings (ཁེང་ལོག), and the looting of the royal tombs. To follow Dranka’s curse, the end of the imperial line itself may be credited to him: “May the azure sky turn bluer, the tawny earth turn to red. May the lords and civilians revolt and the royal line be cut off.”*
(*Deyu history, p. 361.)
It may be that Dranka's death set the precedent for the others. I’ll just put that forward as a hypothesis that might gain or lose strength with further investigation and reflection. The Dranka story may itself have precedents. Anyway, all of these stories regardless of their chronological coordinates can be traced back to the same unhealthy psycho-social complex.
I have to say that today’s blog doesn’t exactly portray Tibetan Buddhism in the best of lights or its finest of moments, much like our contemporary Shugden controversies. To judge from what I’ve seen on the internet, they seem to bring out the worst in people. If you are thinking that way you aren’t alone. I know a number of modern-day Tibetan Buddhists will agree: It would be just as well if these vicious cycles of guilt, vengefulness and propitiation could find resolution in a new way.
My recommendation? (Not that anyone asked me...)
My recommendation? (Not that anyone asked me...)
Confess, apologize and try to make amends for the incidents of cruel and unusual injustice that underly them, and admit that these cultural complexes are from beginning to end about political power and sectarian allegiance, not religion. I have no doubt Buddhism will fare better without these particular practices that keep raising up the ghosts of guilt. As we all know, guilt is, along with martyrdom, one of the specialties of the three main monotheistic religions, and as far as I’m concerned they can keep their corner on the market. Buddhists ought to be aspiring to attain Enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings without getting sidetracked.
§ § §
Christoph Baumer, Tibet's Ancient Religion Bön, Orchid Press (Bangkok 2002).Sara Marie Conrad, Oral Accounts of the Sa-skya 'bag-mo: Past and Present Voices of the Terrifying Witches of Sa-skya, master’s thesis, Department of Central Eurasian Studies, Indiana University (Bloomington, June 2012). Look here and here.Brandon Dotson, “At the Behest of the Mountain: Gods, Clans and Political Topography in Post-Imperial Tibet,” contained in: Cristina Sherrer-Schaub, ed., Old Tibetan Studies, Brill (Leiden 2012), pp. 159-204. This paper is much recommended for its close reading of the classic versions of the Dranka story.Georges Dreyfus, “The Shuk-den Affair: History and Nature of a Quarrel,” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, vol. 21, no. 2 (1998), pp. 227-270. This page links to the more academic publications on the Shugden issues, with Dreyfus’ article at the top of the list, as it must be. I prefer not to supply links to all those other Shugden-connected sites, since they are so numerous and you can find them with ease. If I wanted to link to anything so dreadfully uninspiring I’d sooner link to Xinhua editorials, to tell the truth.Samten Karmay, The Arrow and the Spindle [vol. 1], Mandala Book Point (Kathmandu 1998).
Mountain Phoenix, “The Spirit that I Called: Dorje Shugden and the Unresolved Political History of the Gelugpas” (September 15 2014). For being so well spoken, and for its even-headed and independently-arrived-at assessment of the situation, I place this essay in a class by itself. For a related but earlier (October 4, 2008) essay by the same author, look here.
Roberto Vitali, “Sa-skya and the mNga'-ris skor gsum Legacy: The Case of Rin-chen-bzang-po's Flying Mask,” Lungta, vol. 14 (Spring 2001), pp. 5-44. This is in a special issue of Lungta (a publication of Amnye Machen Institute, McLeod Ganj) entitled Aspects of Tibetan History, guest edited by Roberto Vitali.
Dranka we ought to emphasize was a very important political figure during the first two decades of the 9th century, and his name appears carved in stone more than once in old Tibetan inscriptions. His historical existence isn’t likely to be doubted by anyone.
Conrad names the one who subdued the Sakya Bagmo as Sgra-chen Mthu-stobs-dbang-phyug (སྒྲ་ཆེན་མཐུ་སྟོབས་དབང་ཕྱུག), born in the 10th rab-byung cycle, the Water Dragon Year (1592 CE). Since he was the eldest brother of the much more famous A-myes-zhabs (ཨ་མྱེས་ཞབས་,1597-1659 or 1660), his identity is not in much doubt. But the TBRC spells his name in the form 'Jam-dbyangs-mthu-stobs-dbang-phyug, འཇམ་དབྱངས་མཐུ་སྟོབས་དབང་ཕྱུག, giving him the dates 1588-1637. The specifier Sgra-chen (སྒྲ་ཆེན་) would suggest that he was a great grammarian, however another source known to me calls him Sgar-chen (སྒར་ཆེན་), connecting him to a 'great encampment.'*
(*This other source is Khetsun Sangpo's Biographical Dictionary of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism, vol. 3, p. 790; I just double-checked it. It very certainly refers to the same person, since A-myes-zhabs is mentioned immediately after him.)