Sunday, March 18, 2007

Transmigration and Occupation

Just about everything I know about Kor Nirupa is found in the Blue Annals (written in the last part of the 15th century, it was translated by George Roerich and Gendun Choepel in the 20th). It is a fascinating story that connects rather directly with the subject of an earlier web-log on 'The Transmigration.' And it leads off in an unexpected direction, although I probably shouldn't be warning you of this ahead of time.

He was born in the Water Tiger year of 1062 as son number five. The year of his birth was considered very inauspicious for matters related to relatives. So his father did a magic ritual (to be exact, a 'to' [
lto, gto] ritual, which is very likely natively Tibetan and non-Buddhist in origin) to turn away misfortune and sent him away to study with a monk. As he left home his sister tossed dust after him, a clear gesture of exorcism and, of course, ostracism. At Lhasa, he took novice ordination, and gained the nickname Korchungwa, which means 'Small Kor' since Kor was his paternal clan. There he found two students of Atisha, who had died in Tibet in 1054. One was named Vairocana, and the other was a Newar by the name of Anutapagupta. He studied Sanskrit grammar with Anutapagupta for a year. Promising him three ounces of gold as a payment, he went to Penyul ('Phan-yul), where a widow of a translator gave him an Indian book. At age 10 (or, as we would say, 9), he got a job at a gold mine watching out for thieves. Meanwhile a thief stole his own things, so he did a magical rite that was successful. A lot of gold was discovered, so he could fulfill his promise to the Newar. Returning to his home area at age 11, he did funerary rites for his father who had died meanwhile. He dug up a piece of turquoise that his sister had hidden away and took it back with him to central Tibet, where he exchanged it for 13 ounces of gold, a bolt of silk and some musk. Only 13, he set off with two companions to Nepal.

In Nepal a man invited them to his house, saying he was the richest person in the entire valley kingdom. When they got there all they saw was a plain brick house with nothing inside but some shards of pottery, a stone slab with holes in it, a goat horn and a wooden spade. This man told them about a teacher in India who was able to shoot arrows straight through people without harming them. He took them and left them at the edge of the cemetery surrounded by jackals where this teacher lived. Named Dazhuchän, he immediately sent Korchung off to pick flowers to be used in his initiation. From Dazhuchän he studied Sanskrit grammar, while the Vajra Vehicle teachings he received from his servant and (later on it would seem) wife, the woman Kumudara. The ritual implements needed for his final empowerment were not at hand, so he went to Nepal to get them, meeting his two companions there. They also wished to request the empowerment.

At age 19, Korchung returned to Tibet in search of suitably large offerings for his Vajra Master. After collecting 13 (there's that number again, although Tibetans didn't think it was unlucky) ounces of gold, he went back to the Indian cemetery and at last received the highest empowerments.

Now we should break off the story, since the author of the
Blue Annals also does so. It isn't said explicitly (in the process of reading we are left guessing), but we have to understand that Dazhuchän was in fact none other than Karopa. Karopa was a teacher of the Great Sealing, which he received from his own teacher Maitripa. Karopa had very many students, but one in particular named Nirupa had attained all the mystical powers called siddhi. Nirupa was already an old man of 74 when Karopa recommended that he go to Tibet to help people there. So he went to a mysterious place of 'Stone Water,' which perhaps ought to be a place in Tibet, we just don't know. It's said that whenever creatures touched that Stone Water they turned to stone, but Nirupa wasn't harmed by it and could reach the island in the center that was inhabited by Dakinis. After hosting him in a feast, they made this prophecy:

"You must go to Nepal. There you will find a fine young Tibetan kid, a monk with spiritual insight. Now the right time has come, so do the
drongjug and then go to Tibet. We will accompany you and make sure you do not meet with obstacles."

At the time Korchung was staying in the house his patron Bhahu near the Swayambhu Stupa, just outside of Kathmandu. Korchung died and Nirupa performed
drongjug on his body. Nirupa's old body was cremated before he left for Tibet. At first he lived like a beggar. One day while begging in Lhasa a voice came toward him from a sand plot pronouncing the Sanskrit name of the previous inhabitant of his body, "Prajñakirti! Prajñakirti!" It was Kumudara who had come with Karopa to Tibet, not just to pay a visit, but because they knew that someone was planning to kill Nirupa and they wanted to prevent this from happening. Nirupa accompanied his teachers back to the Nepal border dressed up like a pundit from the Copper Island. So when people saw him coming, they would say, "Hey, here comes that Indian from the Copper Island." (We don't know for sure what they meant by Copper Island. It could mean Ceylon, or it could mean a place on the east Indian coast, or even the Malay Peninsula...) Then he changed back into Tibetan costume and for the next 21 years taught his students, including 13 monks, the teachings of secret mantra. He performed empowerments and he did solo translations of Indian texts. He died at age 41 in 1102 CE.

Of course, if we identify him with the consciousness entity that entered his body, he would have been about 94 years old, but the sources don't ever say this. His Great Sealing teachings continued for many generations, although not much is known about this lineage. He was apparently the first of several interesting figures to introduce the Great Sealing to Tibet. In Great Sealing, various methods are used to introduce students directly to the actual nature of their own minds, and by doing so, show the nature of all phenomena. In general it is a teaching only for the most mature in spiritual terms. Other Great Sealing teachers that were his contemporaries or came to Tibet soon after him were the south Indian Padampa Sanggyé, the Newar Asu, and the Indian Vajrapani (called Chagna, or Phyag-na, in Tibetan). It is rather odd that we find literary works associated with all these other figures (they mostly learned Tibetan so well they were able to teach without the help of a Tibetan translator), but not a single text associated with Nirupa. Well, there is something after all, but it's a rather short song preserved in a late-13th-century history composed by Khepa Deu (Mkhas-pa Lde'u). Here it is in translation. I'll put the Tibetan text (in transliteration and in real Tibetan script) immediately after for those who are eager to read it in the original language:

THE SEVEN QUALITIES, by Tulku Niru[pa].

Like a spring of precious gold bursting out upon the ground,
all the learned Indians come to Tibet.

Like camphor-water bursting out from the midst of glaciers,
their listeners are sharp-thinking and skilled in Holy Dharma.

Like the white lions living at the edges of the glaciers,
the leaders too are great in consultation and counsel.

Like the fierce Troublemaker spirits staying on the glacial heights,
the Bandé and Bönpo are great in magical powers and miracles.

Like the wild yaks and horses living in the south and north,
the young men are courageous and reliable like champions.

Like Rhododendrons growing on the sides of the mountains,
the women are fine figured, refined (or wise) and amazing.

Because it is a projected manifestation of Chenrezi,
Tibet is more beautiful than other countries.

And here is the Tibetan:

sa la rin chen gser gyi khron brdol bas //
rgya gar mkhas pa thams cad bod du byon //
gangs kyi klong nas ga bur chu brdol bas //
nyan pa po rnams blo rno dam chos mkhas //
gangs kyi 'dab mar seng ge dkar gnas pas //
gtso bo rnams kyang gros dang mdun ma che //
gangs ri'i mthong na gnod sbyin gnyan chags pas //
ban bon rnams ni mthu dang rdzu 'phrul che //
lho dang byang na 'brong dang rta gnas pas //
shar po rnams ni dpa' brtan gyad dang 'dra //
ri mtha' rnams la stag ma'i sman gnas pas //
bud med rnams ni dbyibs legs mdzangs shing 'phrul //
spyan ras gzigs kyi sprul pa yin pa'i phyir //
rgyal khams gzhan las bod ni snying rje che // zhes so //

I'm afraid you might have read too fast, and perhaps due to the clunkiness of the translation (I'm sorry, I did my best to make a culturally meaningful one) it didn't make much sense. So let me reiterate. There are seven couplets covering seven things that make Tibet special. They are: 1) The Indian teachers who came to Tibet. 2) Their Tibetan students. 3) Tibet's leaders. 4) Tibet's religious leaders and magicians. 5) Tibet's athletic young men. 6) Tibetan women. 7) Tibet's landscape.

At the risk of pointing out the obvious, there are three sets of pairs covering the India/Tibet, the secular/religious and male/female divides, culminating in the land of Tibet itself. Oddly as this may seem, resident foreigners are placed at the head of the list, and the greatness of Tibetan people would seem to stem primarily from the Buddhist culture brought from India. But the song does not neglect to mention Bönpos, who believe their tradition is much more ancient and specific to Tibet (Bandé just means the usual Tibetan Buddhist, by way of contrast). There is more to ponder along these lines.

Pay attention, too, to the things used for comparison. In the first pair we find gold coming up from beneath the ground contrasted with fresh glacial water coming from on high. (Think mineral resources, and irrigation for agriculture.) In the second pair we have two types of beings living in the highlands: the legendary but lonely Snow Lion with its turquoise mane and the temperamental mountain spirits here called by a Tibetan word, nödjin, that corresponds to Sanskrit yaksha. In the third pair: the fauna and flora of Tibet.

However this song might be understood — and I have tried my best to guide understanding without dictating my own — it is difficult to read it as anything less than a patriotic song. I would say it has the ring of a national anthem even if there is no indication that it served that purpose in any official way. As a song of national identity, with more than a hint of the superiority complexes that go along with national identities, it is all the more bewildering and amazing (by turns) when we consider Nirupa's own identity problems. Why is this the only discrete set of words by (or even translated by) him that has come down to us? He was rejected by his entire family, already a major identity problem even without delving into psychoanalytical implications. His father and sister surface one time each later on in his life story, his mother not at all. As a young man he learned a foreign language and traveled abroad. He then lived in Tibet as an Indian occupying a Tibetan body, and he part of the time dressed as an Indian, part of the time as a Tibetan. And he was an advocate of the Great Sealing, in which all those 'self' identity strategies get their covers blown away in a quite radical way. I have to confess that I am only beginning to think about the implications of all this. And will go on thinking.

But let's also think a little about the last line, where the very landscape of Tibet is said to be a miraculous manifestation of the compassion of Chenrezi (that's Avalokiteshvara in Sanskrit). The connection between the mountain landscape and the Bodhisattva is particularly clear in a song found in Zhuchen's historical preface to the Dergé Tanjur (the collection of Indian treatises in Tibetan translation as woodblock printed in the city of Dergé in eastern Tibet). Here it is very explicitly called a song. Bodhgaya is the place in Bihar where the Buddha sat down and attained Enlightenment. Pugyel Böd is a special name for Tibet that hearkens back to the period of imperial power (7th through mid-9th centuries). A chörten is both a reliquary for the Buddha's (or other saint's) body and the most important symbol of the Buddha's mind. Here is a bit of this long song:

To the north of Bodhgaya
is the land called Pugyel Böd.
Its high mountains are the pillars of the sky.
Its valley lakes are mandala circles of turquoise.

Its white glaciers are like chörtens made of crystal.
Its yellow meadows like heaps of gold,
are filled with the incense of sweet-smelling herbs,
streaked with golden flowers of gold, and in summer flowers of turquoise.

Oh lord of the glacier mountains Chenrezi,
this land is a field for your compassion
and standing in this field we are the objects of your compassion.
Oh lord of the glacier mountains …

And this song is nothing unusual. The
Mani Kambum is a huge collection of stories about the origins of the Tibetan people together with ritual practices for developing compassion. It is supposed to come from the time of Songtsen Gampo who ruled in the first half of the 7th century, although it surfaced in the 11th. We could also point to the highly literary Clear Mirror of Royal Genealogy of the 14th century. I ought to translate for you Sakya Pandita's Praise to the Land of Tibet written in or close to the year 1200 CE, if I only had more faith in my ability to turn his highly ornate poetry into readable English. In short, Nirupa's patriotic poem doesn't stand alone. And I for one refuse to resort to the trick of saying it can't really involve nationalism with all the necessary characteristics (evidently worked out somewhere in 18th-century Europe), and it therefore has to be called proto-nationalism. I just call it nationalism.

The Dalai Lama is also believed by Buddhist Tibetans to be a miraculous manifestation of Chenrezi. Even modernizing Tibetans who may not accept the Buddhist ideas in their entirety see Him as Tibet's only hope; and this includes Marxists and party members so long as no one important is watching them. Give them a photo of His Holiness (which is against the law these days in Tibet) and they will reverently place it on the tops of their heads. Indeed, there is no other national symbol that is even remotely this capable of uniting Tibetan hearts.

Every year on March 10, His Holiness makes a statement to the Tibetan people, in which He generally expresses the very pragmatic position that He will not fall back on historical discussions about the past, but is thinking about the future happiness of all the Tibetan people. In recent years He has increasingly said that Tibetans should, disregarding history, find some way to appreciate the benefits of being part of China. The hope is that things will work out in favor of Tibetan survival if they could only be given a degree of self-governance in matters of culture, language, religion and education. (And please don't be misled for a moment by the word 'autonomous' in 'Tibet Autonomous Region.' Like the autonomous okrugs in the former Soviet Union, this 'autonomous' denotes a nearly complete lack of local autonomy with all significant decisions made by the faraway central authorities.) In this year's speech — which, even given the considerable difference of populations, might be compared with the State of the Union Address by the U.S. president — He emphasized the threat to Tibetan cultural survival posed by the massive Chinese immigration made yet more possible, if not inevitable, by the recently opened railway to Lhasa.

And of course every year, in days following on the heels of March 10th, some PRC representative puts out a response for the media. Let's have a look at what Foreign Ministry Spokesman Qin Gang had to say this year, as Zee News reported from Beijing on March 13th:

"We hope the Dalai Lama can face up to history and make right judgement according to the times and review his basic political propositions so as to make right actions so as to do more things that are conducive to the Tibetan people in his life," Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Qin Gang said. Gang was responding to comments made by the Dalai Lama on Saturday on the occasion of the 48th anniversary of the Tibetan "uprising" against Chinese rule, where he criticised the railway line to Tibet. "The Dalai Lama [has] been on exile abroad, engaging in activities undermining the unity of the motherland," he said on the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize winner.

This is a typical response, not in its relative mildness, but in the sense that it assumes that His Holiness means exactly the opposite of what He actually says. Talk about bad faith! Since the Dalai Lama always says He's not going to talk about history, they demand that He "face up to history," which indeed was never His approach. His Holiness asks for the minimum amount of cultural autonomy that would allow Tibetan survival into the future and the PRC government comes back accusing Him of what is, evidently, supposed to be a cardinal sin: advocating separatism, or advocating "disguised independence."

I won't pretend that what I as a historian of Tibet have to say will make any difference in the maddeningly ongoing impasse in Sino-Tibetan relations. Historians are accustomed to being ignored, since what they say is often inconvenient. I would just like to start by focusing on the word 'motherland' and then take the route His Holiness does not take, and look at history. Nowhere in all of Tibetan-composed historical sources before the 1950's have I ever encountered the term 'motherland' (
ma-yul is the Tibetan that appears in official PRC publications since the 1950's). What you do find, but then rarely, is the word 'fatherland' (pha-yul) and when this term does occur it means Tibet (there are instances of it in what may be the oldest Tibetan historical work known as the Bazhed [Sba-bzhed]). Never in all of these historical sources do you find any word at all that brings Chinese and the Tibetans under a single ethnonym or as part of a single state entity. China is called Gyanag (Rgya-nag), while Tibet is called Bö (Bod). Chinese used to be called Gyanagpa, but nowadays Gyami (Rgya-mi) has become standard. Tibetans are called Bödpa. It really is as simple as that.

Of course it is interesting and worthy of note that even though Gyanag was the ordinary word for 'China' for so many centuries, sometime in the 1960's it was, in the PRC only, officially replaced in Tibetan-language publications with Megyal (Mes-rgyal, 'ancestral country'), a neologism intended to find a name that could be made to include Tibet within China. Of course this official attempt at logo-therapy had little if any effect on the way Tibetans still speak among themselves about China and Chinese. It has had an effect on public speaking and on modern writings in Tibetan emanating from the PRC. (For more on this, see the Tsering Shakya history, pp. 296-7.)

There is a lot of discussion in traditional Tibetan sources about the reasons for the Tibetan words for India and China. The name for India is Gyagar (Rgya-gar), which seems to mean 'white expanse' (*Rgya-dkar) while Gyanag means 'black expanse.' There are a lot of opinions, but I believe the most likely one is just that most Indians wear white clothes, while the color of traditional Chinese clothes was predominantly black (white being reserved for funerals). If we look back again at the late 13th-century history by Khepa Deu already mentioned, it has an interesting list of "Thirty Topics," a kind of ethnographic checklist of the countries surrounding Tibet. It would be quite complicated to do a thorough study of each of the items included, and this is not the place for it, so I will just mention a few relevant things about it. The basic geographic scheme of the 'Four Great Kings" was already in place centuries before Khepa Deu, as we may know from a pre-11th-century Dunhuang document (studied by Macdonald). To follow Khepa Deu, who names a still-unidentified earlier history as his source, the four kingdoms are: [1] The kingdom of India in the south, with its king the King of Buddhism, [2] The kingdom of China in the east with its King of Tsuglag (Astro-sciences), [3] Tazig in the west with its King of Property, and [4] Gesar in the north with its King of Warfare. Skipping over all the topics in between (clothing, food, armor, weapons, ornaments, language, origins, etc.) we come to the posture each of these countries takes towards Tibet. The kingdom of India is coiled up like a snake, China is sneaky like the wolf toward the sheep, Tazig is scouting like the gulping hawk, while Gesar is eager as the axe for the tree.

A few decades ago PRC sources would commonly say 'Tibet has always been a part of China,' or what is not quite so baldly propagandistic, that it has been part of China since the Tang Dynasty, when more than one Tibetan Emperor received brides from the Chinese imperial family. A certain amount of noise has been made recently about Hong Kong Professor Ge Jianxiong's article showing that Tibet was not part of China during the Tang Dynasty. The proverbial 'too little too late,' I am thinking he will not get into any trouble over this from the powers-that-be in the PRC. One reason is because Hong Kongers are still allowed a degree of latitude on such matters, but mostly because they have long ago retreated from making this kind of statement. For an English translation of a part of Prof. Ge's article, see

On this and other points of Sino-Tibetan historical relations, I would like to quote at length from a letter to the editor of
The New York Times by one of the world's top Tibetologists, Matthew Kapstein, published on February 19, 1994:

""Pan Xinliang, managing director of China Travel Service, writes (letter, Feb. 5) that Tibet "became part of China during the Tang Dynasty between A.D. 618 and 907." This is incorrect. Neither the two versions of the official Tang Dynasty history, the "Tangshu," nor available Tibetan histories, nor such surviving documents as the A.D. 821-822 Chinese-Tibetan bilingual treaty refer to relations between the two countries except in terms of mutually recognized independence. Far from becoming part of China, Tibet even invaded the Tang capital, now Xian, in 763. Not even in China do responsible historians repeat this error any longer. The most extensive and up-to-date history of Tibet published under Chinese auspices so far, a three-volume 1989 work from the Tibet Academy of Social Sciences, refers to the Tang period China-Tibet connection as "a relation of friendship and equality." Further, it is generally agreed that China had no authority in Tibet during the Song Dynasty (10th to 13th centuries) and the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), or between 1912 and 1951. That leaves the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1260-1368) and the Manchu Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), during most of whose rule, all parties concur, Tibet at least nominally acknowledged the authority of China's rulers.""

The words "nominally acknowledged the authority" were of course chosen with care and ought to be read with equal care. If Chinese ownership of Tibet could be asserted on the basis of the Mongol Empire, then this would also prove that Baghdad and Budapest were, and therefore ought to be, under Chinese ownership. Matters may be different during the Qing Dynasty, but here again it was an ethnically non-Chinese ruling dynasty. Although Manchu interests were asserted rather aggressively within Tibet in the early decades of the 18th century, by the beginning of 19th the Manchus, while they might have had the will, lacked the economic and military clout to force Tibetan compliance. The Ambans who resided in Tibet during these times had influence, no doubt, rather like diplomats of foreign powers may influence any country, but they had no part in the ruling or legislative structures. At best they could recommend. Even during the Qianlong Emperor's reign, sometimes considered the height of Manchu interest in Tibet, we see that 'golden edicts' which, one might think, ought to have carried the force of law (like one commanding that Tibetans follow Chinese burial practices), appear to have gone unnoticed in Lhasa by everyone except the Ambans.

His Holiness will probably go on to leave history out of the discussion even as Beijing will continue insisting on its Sinocentric, political-revisionist, propagandistic versions of the history of Sino-Tibetan relations. And most of the rest of us will continue knowing one thing that we have known all along, which is that the troops of the People's Liberation Army were the ones responsible for Tibet becoming part of China. This happened five decades ago. The occupation continues. Coercion in matters of religion, language, culture and conscience continues. And the threat of population transference is as great as ever. Some call it cultural genocide, and with reason. Just look at what has happened to Manchuria and Inner Mongolia since the collapse of the Willow Palisades. It really is high time to face up to history.

Further reading:

For the unexpurgated story of Korchung & Kor Nirupa read, George Roerich & Gendun Choepel, trs., The Blue Annals, Motilal Banarsidass (Delhi 1949/1976), pp. 849-55. Parts of this story are retold in Miranda Shaw, Passionate Enlightenment, Princeton University Press (Princeton 1994), pp. 97-99.

On the 'to' rituals like the one performed by Korchung's father, see Lin Shen-Yu, Tibetan Magic for Daily Life: Mi pham's Texts on Gto-Rituals, Cahiers d'Extrême-Asie, vol. 15 (2005), pp. 107-125.

For the history by Khepa Deu, see Mkhas-pa Lde'u, Rgya Bod-kyi Chos-'byung Rgyas-pa, Bod-ljongs Mi-rigs Dpe-skrun-khang (Lhasa 1987). This history was composed in the years following 1261.

The source of Zhuchen's song is: Zhu-chen Tshul-khrims-rin-chen (1697—1774), Sde-dge'i Bstan-'gyur-gyi Dkar-chag, Trayang & Jamyang Samten (Delhi 1974), vol. 2, p. 12. This is a modern reprinting of a woodblock print that was made in Derge in eastern Tibet.

For an English translation of The Clear Mirror of Royal Genealogy, see Sakyapa Sonam Gyaltsen, The Clear Mirror: A Traditional Account of Tibet's Golden Age, tr. by McComas Taylor and Lama Choedak Yuthok, Snow Lion Publications (Ithaca 1996), and notice especially pp. 144-5, where we find echoes of both an earlier Dunhuang document and the later song of Zhuchen, except that here the verses in praise of Tibet are placed in the mouth of the Chinese Emperor, who is about to send his daughter off to marry Songtsen Gampo.

On PRC attempts to change the Tibetan words for China and Chinese, see Tsering Shakya, The Dragon in the Land of Snows, Columbia University Press (New York 1999).

For a study of the Tibetan Dunhuang document with its geography of the four kingdoms surrounding Tibet, see Ariane Macdonald, Note sur la diffusion de la "Theorie des quatres fils du ciel" au Tibet, Journal Asiatique, vol. 250 (1962), pp. 531-48.

For an English translation of a part of Fudan University history professor Ge Jianxiong's (b. 1945) article on Sino-Tibetan relations, see this link.

Elliot Sperling, The Tibet-China Conflict: History and Polemics, East-West Center (Washington 2004). This may also be available for internet download.

On the train, see the commentary by Woeser at the Himal website.

''The Swayambhu'' The Hilltop Of The Self-existent Lord - video powered by Metacafe


  1. Just wanted to be the first to leave a comment here. Now, whoever you are, you won't need to worry about that old superstition about what happens to the person who leaves the first comment.

  2. The Sperling paper is online here.


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