Wednesday, February 03, 2016

The Tangut Connection


ou could be blissfully unaware there ever was any country, people, tongue or writing system called Tangut, and if you find yourself in that boat you might be in good company, well at least a lot of company. The Tangut land is long gone and forgotten, erased from the map by Chinggis Khan in 1226 CE. But there is one fairly sizeable group of people — well, in truth somewhat rarer than Tibetologists — called Tangutologists. Some of those Tangutologists, and even more of the Tibetologists, can tell you that many of Xixia’s* prominent citizens fled south into the eastern parts of the Tibetan plateau, where you still find people speaking a “Tangut” (Tibetan: Mi-nyag) tongue until this day.
(*Xixia is the Chinese name, meaning Western Xia, from the perspective of China of course, while the name Tangut is of mysterious and disputed origins, but evidently inspired by a Mongolian-language source [in earlier centuries in Europe, Tibetans were often inaccurately called Tanguts]. Tanguts called themselves something closely resembling their name in Tibetan.)

We’ve mentioned before how Padampa visited China, the area of Mountain of Five Peaks, Wutai Shan (Tibetan: Riwo Tse Nga; རི་བོ་རྩེ་ལྔ་) in particular. It is a place holy to the Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī, and famous for light visions, like the one you can see above. John Blofeld saw them. A lot of people who went there have seen them. I’m not sure if Padampa passed through Tangut land on the way there, although it seems likely. There is no reason to doubt that Padampa went to Wutai Shan, yet it looks like the story about his stay there was taken from accounts of other Indian visitors (see Chou, pp. 136-7). Padampa was not the kind of person to waste his time sitting around and chatting about his past, bragging and reminiscing, and under such circumstances there is a tendency to fill in the blanks with available stories... in this case stories about Sanjīva and Buddhapāli.*
(*We can go into that whole big issue of how the account of Padampa’s stay in China was pieced together another time.) 

It’s more sure that Padampa and the early followers of the Zhijé school had Tangut connections, and that’s what I want to explore today. Until quite recently there weren’t known to be any Padampa-connected writings in Tangut / Xixia, until a graduate student now at Harvard published a remarkable paper showing a clear example of just such a text.

To follow the paper that Penghao Sun wrote, there is a Chinese-language text from the Kozlov collection (numbered TK329), one of the thousands of old books excavated in Kharakhoto in 1908 and now kept in St. Petersburg. Its title page is missing, but the title given at the end can be translated “Notes on Four-Syllable  Ḍākinī: Volume One.”

Too bad it is exactly the opening part of the text — the one telling about the past masters of the sādhana practice in question — that is only partly there.  But most remarkably for us right now, one passage still remaining there very closely corresponds in its details with an episode in the Tibetan-language biography of Padampa in the Zhijé History, one composed in the early 13th century. I won’t fill you in on all of those details, but instead send you to read Penghao’s essay for yourself, if you’re interested. The Tangutologists are making more Padampa discoveries as we speak, but I don’t want to steal anyone’s thunder, least of all the thunder of such legendary, even ethereal luminaries.

Now for that Tangut connection! First, evidence of Padampa’s personal contacts with Tanguts:

1) The Zhijé Collection (vol. 2, p. 312) supplies the name of a Tangut follower of Padampa named Menyak Dragsé (Me-nyag Grags-se), in a passage echoed in the 1902 biography of Padampa (p. 48) where his name differs slightly: Minyak Dragseng (Mi-nyag Grags-seng, a shortened form of Mi-nyag Grags-pa-seng-ge). Both sources record the same conversation he and Padampa had in Tingri, about his earlier stay in Central Tibet. In effect, Padampa supplies his own account of the Middle Transmission to Skam, Rma and So, as well as to a woman teacher who may or may not be identified as Machik Labdrön.* 

(*The name of this woman is given as “Ma-jo Mchod-gnas-ma.”  All this deserves a close study, but isn’t really relevant to the Tangut connection we pursue at the moment.)

2) The 1902 biography later on (p. 204) mentions a Minyak Konseng (Mi-nyag Dkon-seng, short for Dkon-mchog-seng-ge).  This is in a brief biography of the 23rd in a set of twenty-four women disciples of Padampa. Named Zhönnuma, she was traveling as an assistant to her mother's father, a merchant by the name of Minyak Konseng,* when she first encountered Padampa. True, it seems a little odd that a young woman native to Tingri area of western Tibet would have a Tangut grandfather, but there you go. Odd things happen.
(*We might think him to be none other than Gtsang-po-pa Dkon-mchog-seng-ge, the earliest known preceptor to the Tangut court who died in 1219, but... with Padampa's death in the first decades of the 12th century, something smells amiss here.)   

3) Elsewhere (ZC vol. 2, p. 424) one Menyak Kondrak (Me-nyag Dkon-grags, short for Dkon-mchog-grags[-pa]) appears.  Padampa gives him some words of advice: 
“If you have the heartfelt motivation to practice Dharma, hold the lama as the best of all refuges. As the chief of all virtuous practices, do what benefits others. As the chief of advice, arouse your confidence. As the chief of learnings, tame your own mental continuum. As the chief of realizations, dissolve grasping to things as if they were truth. Intently grasping onto things is cause of the vicious cycle of sangsara.”
(me nyag dkon grags la dam pa'i zhal nas / snying nas chos bya bsam yod na skyabs gnas kyi dam par bla ma zung / dge sbyor gyi gtso' bor gzhan don gyis / gdams pa'i gtso' bor nges shes bskyed / thos bsam gyi gtso' bor rang rgyud thul / rtogs pa'i gtso' bor bden 'dzin shig / ched du bzung tshad 'khor ba'i rgyu yin no gsung.)

4) It is said that the dietary practice of “Extracting the Essence of Flowers” (མེ་ཏོག་བཅུད་ལེན་) was passed on by Padampa to one named Minyak Ringyal (Mi-nyag Rin-rgyal, or Mi-nyag Rin-chen-rgyal-mtshan).  See Mullin’s book.  In the lineages (like in the transmission document of A-khu-ching), he appears immediately after Padampa. I’m thinking he may be the Minyagpa who ordained the First Karmapa.

Secondly, an account of one significant Tangut connection in the early history of the Zhijé lineage, sometime in the mid or late 12th century —

A disciple of Pa-tshab (1077‑1158 CE) by the name Bu-shong Sgom-pa served as a chaplain (མཆོད་གནས་) at the king’s palace in Tangut Land where he eventually died. The Zhijé History (p. 397) spares a few lines about him that bear quoting, since later sources, although ultimately based on it, don't quite tell the story in a complete way:

de ma lags pa'i slob ma'i bu shong sgom pa bya ba / gzhon ba'i dus su ka ba li sdang bshibs pa'i chos rogs mthun po yin bas / khong la yang gdams pa byind pas / khong kyang me nyag 'ga' la bzhud nas / rgyal po'i pho brang du sku 'das te / byang 'khams na da lta yang / nag khrid zhu lan gyi skor gyis khyab nas yod pa lags skad

The Deb ther sngon po, widely known as The Blue Annalssays this, omitting some bits that are really essential to understanding it, as well as the information that he died in the Tangut royal palace: 
bu shong sgom pa bya ba kab li gdang gshibs yin pas de la gdams pa byin pas khong yang mi nyag rgyal po'i mchod gnas la bzhud / [825] de la brten nas nag khrid zhus lan gyi skor gyis byang khams khyab
The Roerich-Gendun Choephel translation of the same passage in The Blue Annals (p. 928) reads like this (with the Tibetan transcriptions changed to Wylie by myself): 

“Bu-shong sgom-pa, who had a jointless skull (there exists [sic!] several signs indicating the jointless nature of the skull of a living person. Among them, an extra tooth between the two upper incisors, etc.), received precepts from him. He then became the chaplain (mchod-gnas) of the King of Mi-nyag. Thanks to him the Cycle of Nag-khrid zhus-len spread over the entire Northern region.”
The 1902 biography of Padampa (p. 208) has its even more severely truncated version, just saying ‘[Pa-tshab] granted the precepts to Bu-shong Sgom-pa, after which he served as the court priest of the Tangut king, and the precepts of the Black Guidance cycle spread throughout the northern region’:
bu shong sgom pa la gdams pa gnang nas mi nyag gi rgyal bo'i mchod gnas mdzad pas nag khrid skor gyi gdams pas byang khams khyab.


Yes, there were connections with Tangut land according to Tibetan sources of the Zhijé tradition. Padampa likely passed through the Tangut realm, he was personally acquainted with people of evident Tangut ethnicity during his two decades in Tingri, and a Zhijé follower who came soon after him even became a court priest in Tangut land. So these Padampa discoveries made in recent days in Chinese-language (and now also Tangut-language and Tibetan-language) sources from Kharakhoto are both surprising and at least a little bit expectable.


In a comment in a recent blog, Short Person shared her idea that a depiction in a Chinese painted scroll might be Padampa. I had to order via the internet a used copy of The Buddha Scroll, and at long last after I could bring it home from the postoffice, sure enough, it opened right to the part that you see here, which shows a Indian sādhu-looking figure in the role of votary, jumping out of the page directly beneath the pig that Mārīcī’s lotus is riding upon.


I’ll admit I was skeptical. I mean, does Padampa ever wear a red dhoti? The round earrings are more than acceptable, but the other jewelry, the anklets, bracelets and armlets, not to mention the diadem?  And what is he holding there in his hands? They look like oranges, but I suppose they could be offerings of huge jewels. Even the sitting position seems not especially typical of Padampa. So I was ready to dismiss the identification Short Person suggested until I looked into Padampa’s connections with  Mārīcī (Tibetan: Özerchanma, འོད་ཟེར་ཅན་མ་). I found that She is among a discrete set of twelve “tutelaries” (divine yidam forms forming focal points of high aspirations) that Padampa employed during various meditation retreats in India. As a group, these twelve sometimes appear in Gelugpa collections. This painted scroll, although it was supposed to replace an 1180 CE painting by Dali Kingdom artist Zhang Shenwen, was finished in 1767 under the direction of Changkya Rolpai Dorjé (ལྕང་སྐྱ་རོལ་པའི་རྡོ་རྗེ་), indeed a very important hierarch of the Gelugpa School.

So despite initial doubts, I’m now convinced that Short Person’s intuitions were correct, as they so often are. As unusual as some of its features may be, it’s still very likely meant to be a representation of Padampa.

An afterthought or two:  I’m very certain that the translators of the Blue Annals (despite their amazing accomplishments overall) made a small but grievous error when they interpreted ka-ba-li as if it were ka-pā-la. Only the latter spelling means skull (kapāla is the Sanskrit). True, ka-ba-li may be an obsolete term — as such you find it in several glossaries of old words where it is explained to be a container for pecha-style books. From the context we may judge that the meaning is that Pa-tshab and he had studied together, hanging up their bookbags in rows on a peg or a line (reading rdang in place of sdang although gdang is also possible). It was because this connection from their early school days that later in life Pa-tshab favored him with precepts. So we can entirely neglect, in this context at least, the totally irrelevant added comments of Roerich/Choempel about seamless (“jointless”) skulls.  Ka-ba-li is obviously Indic in origin, but I’ve failed to find out what word it would be in Sanskrit. I am hoping someone will speak up and enlighten me. I’ve collected many references to ka-ba-li, but I guess I will burden you with them another time. Well, I’d like to mention that there is an entry for it in the German-Tibetan dictionary I introduced a few blogs back, where you find: “aufklappbarer, mit Stoff bespannter und Holzstäben verstärkter Buchbehalter.”

Another small matter: What was that Nag khrid, or Black Guidance that thanks to Bu-shong spread in the north country?  At least this much is clear: It means the teachings that Pa-tshab set down on the basis of his dialogues with his teacher Kunga. There are other names for these, but Black Guidance Dialogues is one of them.

Bibliographical items:
1902 version of the Padampa biography is contained in Pha-dam-pa dang Ma-cig Lab-sgron-gyi Rnam-thar, Mtsho-sngon Mi-rigs Dpe-skrun-khang (Xining 1992), pp. 1-242. The front title page says it is by Chos-kyi-seng-ge, but that means Khams-smyon Dharma-seng-ge. It has been translated into English by David Molk & Lama Tsering Wangdu Rinpoche in, Lion of Siddhas:  The Life & Teachings of Padampa Sangye, Snow Lion (Ithaca 2008), pp. 27‑174 where, on pp. 62-63 (compare p. 260!), and pp. 152, 154, you will find their English versions of passages mentioned here.  
Wen-Shing Lucia Chou, The Visionary Landscape of Wutai Shan in Tibetan Buddhism from the Eighteenth to the Twentieth Century, doctoral dissertation, University of California (Berkeley 2011). Go here, locate the large white chorten (it’s the largest white object you see there), and follow the tip of the chorten up into the ravines above, where you will see, holding a rattan staff (that’s part of the story) an unmistakable figure of Padampa. Observe the color and style of his clothing, and compare that to what you see pictured up above in this very weblog page. Notice, too, that painted representations of Padampa at Wutai Shan are mentioned in the 1902 biography (p. 51). 
Karl Debreczeny, “Wutai Shan — Pilgrimage to Five-Peak Mountain: Tibetan Involvement with Wutai Shan,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, vol. 6 (December 2011), pp. 9-43. See particularly the very well-researched section subtitled “Padampa.” 
Ding Guanpeng, The Buddha Scroll, Shambhala (Boston 2000). To see what may be the ‘mother’ painting by the Dali Kingdom painter Zhang Shengwen or an early copy of the same (I’m not sure which), go here and download it so you can view it offline. I couldn’t immediately locate Padampa there, but perhaps you will have better luck. In any case, it is an amazing work of art. 
Ruth Dunnell, “Esoteric Buddhism Under the Xixia (1038-1227),” contained in:  Charles D. Orzech, et al., eds., Esoteric Buddhism and the Tantras in East Asia, Brill (Leiden 2011), pp. 465-477. This is only offered as a recently written gateway essay into the larger bodies of writings on Tangut studies. I’ll thank you not to take me to task for not making a big bibliography. And if you doubt, as you well might, the continuing existence of  a “Minyak” language within the Tibeto-sphere, I suggest you have a look at Ikeda Takumi, “200 Example Sentences in the Mu-nya Language (Tanggu Dialect),” Zinbun, vol. 40 (2007), pp. 71-140, and decide for yourself (look here) if the name is all that remains, or if there isn’t more to it than that. 
Glenn H. Mullin, Selected Works of the Dalai Lama III: The Tantric Yogas of Sister Niguma, Snow Lion (Ithaca 1985), pp. 183-191: “Living on the Essence of Flowers.” 
Per Sørensen & Guntram Hazod in cooperation with Tsering Gyalbo, Rulers on the Celestial Plain, Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften (Vienna 2007), vol. 2, p. 374. As part of a sketch of Tangut connections among the various then-existing schools of Tibetan Buddhism, there is a brief discussion of Bu-shong Sgom-pa. I’m wondering if Bu-shong might represent something in Chinese, like Buxiong perhaps? Maybe he’s the Imperial Preceptor Boluoxiansheng mentioned in Dunnell’s article, p. 475? (Just thinking aloud, in case somebody has a better idea to offer.)  
Elliot Sperling, “The Tangut/Mi-nyag Element in the Lineage of the Sikkim Chos-rgyal," contained in: Anna Balikci-Denjongpa & Alex McKay, eds., Buddhist Himalaya: Studies in Religion, History and Culture, Volume II: The Sikkim Papers, Namgyal Institute of Tibetology (Gangtok 2011), pp. 43-51. 
Sun Penghao, “Pha-dam-pa Sangs-rgyas in Tangut Xia: Notes on Khara-khoto Chinese Manuscript TK329,” contained in: Tsuguhito Takeuchi, et al., Current Issues and Progress in Tibetan Studies, Research Institute of Foreign Studies (Kobe 2013), pp. 505-521. You might care to download it here, or if not there here.


  1. Thank you for your kind words, but I cannot take credit for this sighting. Actually, a relative of mine owns the book and asked me if the icon could possibly be representing Padampa.

    Perhaps most of the credit should go to a certain scholar; I believe he goes by the name of Dan Martin. If he hadn't brought attention to Padampa, and began an in-depth investigation into his history, this image might only be considered an opportunity for caricature or curiosity instead of one for serious consideration and study. Kudos to Professor Martin for some real cutting-edge research!

  2. Another question has now come up. Who are the "discrete set of twelve 'tutelaries'" that you refer to?

  3. Are you sure he goes under that name? I'm not even sure who he is. I've never bumped into him at conferences or anything. But I can answer your second question. In the Molk book, p. 46, you can see their names: "Twelve were blessed yidam deity gurus such as Manjushri, Avalokiteshvara, Vajrapani, Tara, Kasarpani, Yamantaka, Vairochana, Achala, Marichi, Vajra Varahi, and Samantabhadra."
    There only seem to be eleven there. They are part of the much bigger group of Padampa's teachers.

  4. "Unknown" sent this:

    Great, Dan, thanks very much for indicating all these things, this part has evaded me before, kind of explains Dam pa Sangs rgyas presence in the Tangut collections.

  5. I just bumped into this reference that clearly belongs in this section of the blog:

    JIATS 6 : Wutai shan: Pilgrimage to Five-Peak Mountain!jiats=/06/debreczeny/b5/

    There's a brief write-up on Padampa along with some art and illustrations.

  6. Dear SP, Don't be too surprised, but the Debreczeny article is here in the bibliography already. I'd recommend the Chou dissertation, too. I've meant to go into the issue (dealt with by Debreczeny and then Chou) of how other Indian visitors to Five Peaked Mountain got their stories mixed up with Padampa's, not that I have a very well supported answer to it. Apart from the fact that Padampa hardly ever displayed a concern with details of his earlier life, and often dismissed questions about his past with what we might think flippant answers (like his "Seven Wonders of the World" spiel that comes up a couple of times. No story about Padampa in Five Peaked Mountain? Any old story about an Indian teacher who went there will do. Information tends to enter as if magnetized into a vacuum. Or so I'm thinking right now.


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