Thursday, November 10, 2011

No Prophet in Buddhism?

You might well wonder what any normally Tibeto-centric Tibeto-logician would be doing spending his evenings leafing through a — well, not-so-recent — book about a Muslim theologian and Sufi contemplative by the name of Simnani. Wonder no more. For decades now I have been intrigued by the fact that for a time Buddhist teachers called Bakshis were active in the Middle East. We know that Simnani had very much contact with those self-same Bakshis. As I think I will be able to show — if not now, on another day — he was one of the most visible contact points that allowed some aspects of cultural-religious electrical currents to flow into the western parts of Eurasia in a crucial time in her history. Am I being too grandiose? Trying to be dramatic? A little overexcited, no doubt. Forgive me.

It is well known, to a few at least, that in the last part of the 13th century there were certain Kagyü lineages that were allied with the Mongol royal house of Hulegu (reigned 1256-1265) and his immediate successors, receiving their patronage and protection. Hulegu’s son Khaidu (1236-1301) even led (or sent?) western Turk troops — what Tibetans call Stod Hor — into Tibet (see Everding’s article). Despite a few such Mongolian armed incursions, Tibet was never actually occupied by Mongol forces during China's Yüan dynasty like China was.

From 1256 to 1295, apart from a brief two-year interlude, the Ilkhanid realm was ruled by Buddhists. They held a great deal of the Middle East from their center in Tabriz, in northwestern Iran. I labeled this bad map to show its imprecise location, although you are probably better off to see the map of the Ilkhanid realm (at its greatest extent) at Wikipedia, where you can see that it actually did cover quite a big part of the area you see on the map just below.

Most writers on the subject repeat the idea that there were Tibetan Lamas among the Bakshis. But for years now I’ve been on the lookout for anyone named (let’s say) Jamyang, Kunga or Tenzin among them, and so far no good luck. Although I’ve asked some real experts in the field to look into the matter, they never did get back to me. They may have been right for not taking me seriously. People have always complained that they’re not sure when I’m joking.

Well, there is the surprising story, told in the Berzin Archive, about Emperor Arghun’s brother Gaikhatu who succeeded him as Il Khan. Someone (usually they say, with apparent good reason, this someone must’ve been a Tibetan monk) gave Gaikhatu the 100% Tibetan name Rinchen Dorje.

He liked this Tibetan name well enough to put it, in Mongolian and sometimes in Arabic script, on many of the coins he had minted in Tabriz (you can see quite a few examples on the internet if you look for them). The following lustrous gold example, one of many, is supposed to have his name on it (I apologize that I am unable to read it, but I found it here).

He did make one disastrous political mistake. He introduced Chinese paper money into the Middle East. It looks as if he just took the Chinese paper bills and overstamped them. Or did he directly copy the money, Chinese inscriptions and all? Paper doesn’t have half the glitter of gold, and none of the jingle, so it didn’t catch on, to say the least. Exactly the opposite. And Gaikhatu lost his position, so to speak, when he was assassinated. Arghun’s sons soon succeeded Gaikhatu, but they stopped supporting Buddhism and converted to Islam.

Did you ever have one of those minor epiphanies, the kind that seizes you, gives you a kind of electrical jolt, even before you have time to think about the reason? It has happened to me more than a few times in museums, actually, come to think of it. But once when I was touring, together with a Tibetan monk, the al-Quds al-Sharif sanctuaries on what non-Muslims are more likely to know as the Temple Mount, we had scarcely entered the Islamic Museum off to the side of al-Aksa Mosque, when both of us found ourselves astoundedly fixated on the same thing at the same time. It was an artistic motif around the base of a large metal candle holder.  It was just so closely similar to the lotus base that you see under practically every Indo-Tibetan divine image, only more in the Tibetan style, or perhaps even more in the style of the Swat Valley bronzes. 

Full description here.

The monk and I had identical epiphanies at the very same moment. Stopping to inspect the museum label, we could read that the inscription engraved on it contained the name of Arslan.*  This touched something off.  Some hidden alarm button?
(*Aslan, or Arslan, means 'lion' in both Turkic languages and Mongolian.)
Despite what may have seemed like a moment of clarity, I was puzzled and the more I find out the more puzzling it becomes, really. If this use of the lotus design is a result of Mongol (or just vaguely Central Asian) influence, the reign of this Arslan (1203-1239) is almost too early. He ruled quite a huge area from his capital of Mardin, a still remarkably well preserved historical mountaintop city in southeastern Turkey with a breathtaking view over the Syrian plains. Since that time, I’ve become more accustomed to seeing East and Central Asian artistic influences in Middle Eastern art (see especially the book by Kadoi listed below).  There is even a body of literature tracing Ilkhanid eastern artistic influences on early Italian painters like Giotto (see Tanaka's article)

You can’t exactly see it in this low-resolution photo, but if you look in the lower right corner, the scene of the Roman soldiers gambling over possession of the robe, you will see the robe has golden bands in its design, and on the bands (if you don’t want to take my word for it, I think you can actually make them out on the fringed garment of the person standing to the robe's left side) are Phagspa letters. I visited the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua a few years ago, but with the 15-minute limit (preceded by an hour in a dessication chamber) it is really very difficult to take it all in, let alone notice all the details. I have to confess I didn’t notice any Phagspa script when I was there. I was far too overwhelmed by the art.

The Crucifixion, by Giotto of Bondoni (1266-1337),
Scrovegni Chapel, Padova, Italia

Now Simnani belonged to a family with a number of members who served in the court of Arghun, and Simnani himself was no exception. Yet he had an interest in Sufi meditations from a young age, specifically inspired by Kubra and his school, the Kubrawiya, with its strong emphasis on visionary experiences of lights which Simnani himself would further develop in his later years. Kubra didn’t live to see the rule of the Mongols. It is said he died in hand-to-hand combat with the Mongols when they invaded Khwarezm in 1220.

Now I see the hour is getting late and I want to get this in the mail before I miss my bedtime, so just let me say these few words about Simnani and we will call it a day. As you may know, the Mongols were in the habit of holding inter-religious discussions (debates, if you prefer) in their courts. The general idea is that Mongolians had their own shamanic ideas; other religions they had trouble comprehending — they found them curious — so they would enlist the smartest people around to try to explain them. A number of early Mongol rulers married Christians. Arghun’s mother was one of them, and there are yet other reasons for his willingness to deal with Christians... as well as Muslims, and needless to say Buddhists. I believe Arghun’s Buddhism was not just superficial.  

The following describes an event of April 1288. It was probably the first, but definitely not the last, time Buddhist relics were displayed in the Middle East:

“Buka’s envoys brought back with them to Persia one of the relics so much esteemed among the Buddhists, called Sharil. These are hard pieces of a substance which is said to be found in the ashes of some saintly persons when cremated. Von Hammer says that Buddha's heart was supposed to be made of bone and not of flesh, similarly with the hearts of great men, and that the sharil is really held to be the ossified heart of the cremated person. Arghun, we are told, treated this relic with the greatest honour, gold was strewn over it, while a feast was duly celebrated.”  — Howorth, History of the Mongols, pt. 3, p. 321, as cited in Numen, vol. 41 (1994), pp. 284-285.
Arghun sometimes had Simnani hold religious discussions with the Buddhist Bakshis. The usual story is that they belonged to a number of nationalities, not only Tibetans but also Indians, Uighurs, Chinese and so on. They say that Simnani would win these debates because he was able to convince his audience that the Buddhists didn’t really know about their own religion.
"Arghun then called for a Buddhist monk and ordered him to engage Simnani in a debate, but Simnani defeated the Buddhist by demonstrating that he was ignorant of the true meaning of the Buddha’s teachings."  (Elias, p. 26)
Although generally antipathetic to Buddhism — he believed the main problem with Buddhism is that it has no prophets — he was actually fond of one particular Bakshi, and this Bakshi (surprise, surprise) has a personal name attached. He was an Indian who was called Bakhshī Parinda (Elias, p. 18).

Parinda was supposed to be from a monastic community of Somnāth in coastal Gujerat, although Mayer believes it may be a similarly-named place in Bengal. I differ with them both. I think this is probably the same monastic institution, in what would nowadays be Orissa, that the famous Vairocanavajra (subject of a great study by Kurtis Schaeffer) belonged to before he went to Tibet and translated Doha songs into Tibetan in around the 1240’s or so.

Not sure what to make of the name Parinda, I’m inclined to think it might be a reformed version of the Indic name Varendra (a common enough personal name with the meaning ‘True Indra’). Simnani confessed that he regarded Parinda as, to quote Elias, “spiritually very advanced despite his non-Muslim status.”

All this was intended as hardly anything more than an introduction to still different matters, touching on religious devotional and meditative practices and visions that I regard as more interesting than anything you have heard here so far. I do hope you did find it interesting anyway.

§   §   §

Interrelated matters worth exploring:

Hamid Algar, "Kubrā, Shaykh Abu 'l-Djannāb Aḥmad b. ʿUmar Nadjm al-Dīn," Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition, P. Bearman, et al., eds. Brill (Leiden 2011). Brill Online.

Reuven Amitai-Preiss, Sufis and Shamans: Some Remarks on the Islamization of the Mongols in the Ilkhanate, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, vol. 42 (1999), pp. 27-46.  See especially p. 32, relevant to Simnani's relations with Buddhists.

Arezou Azad, Three Rock-Cut Cave Sites in Iran and Their Ilkhanid Buddhist Aspects Reconsidered, contained in: Anna Akasoy, et al., eds., Islam and Tibet: Interactions along the Musk Routes, Ashgate (Farnham 2011), pp. 209-230, and plates 10.1 through 10.11. This article does not establish that, as has sometimes been speculated in the past, the caves in question were definitely Buddhist, but neither does it eliminate the possibility. Other articles in the same volume are relevant, not only the introduction by Ronit Yoeli-Tlalim, but also the contributions by Assadullah Souren Melikian-Chirvani (see p. 100 for a bit on lotus-type designs on metal pots) and Paul Buell (on connections in the field of medicine and cooking).

Jamal J. Elias, The Throne Carrier of God: The Life and Thought of 'Alā' ad-dawla as-Simnānī, SUNY Press (Albany 1995). Seventy-nine of Simnani's works (excluding epistles) have survived, and very little has been written about them in English apart from this book, and a bit translated from the French of Henry Corbin.

Karl-Heinz Everding, The Mongol States and Their Struggle for Dominance over Tibet in the 13th Century, contained in: Henk Blezer, ed., Tibet, Past and Present: Tibetan Studies I, Brill (Leiden 2002), pp. 109-128. On p. 120 are what may be the most horrifying scenes in all of pre-modern Tibetan history. Here it is evidently Khaidu who is hiding under the Tibetan[ized] name Ga-du Rin-chen.

Cover Image
Jean Maurice Fiey, Esquisse d'une bibliographie sur le patriarche turco‑mongol Yahwalaha III (1281‑1317) et son maître Rabbam bar Sawma, envoyé du Khan Arghun au pape et aux princes européens en 1287‑1288, Proche‑orient Chrétien, vol. 38 (1988), pp. 221‑228. Morris Rossabi has written a whole book about Mar Sauma, and I hope to see it before long.

Yuka Kadoi, Islamic Chinoiserie: The Art of Mongol Iran, Edinburgh University Press (Edinburgh 2009).

Toby Mayer, Yogic-Ṣūfī Homologies: The Case of the "Six Principles" Yoga of Nāropa and the Kubrawiyya, The Muslim World, vol. 100 (April 2010), pp. 268-286.  I believe you can get free access to it here. (Or if not, go here: and then search for it from there.)

Leo Jungeon Oh, Islamicised Pseudo-Buddhist Iconography in Ilkhanid Royal Manuscripts. Persica, vol. 20 (2005), pp. 91-154. The thesis of this long and rather confusing paper (well, I found it so) is that there were Asian artistic influences on paintings produced for the Ilkhanid court.

Elliot Sperling, Hülegü and Tibet, Acta Orientalia Hungarica, vol. 44 (1990), pp. 145-158. As pointed out at the very beginning of this Tibetological article, the Ilkhanid ruler Hülegü was known inside Tibet by his name Hu-la-hu (or more simply Hu-la), he was known as one who patronized the Phagmodru school of the Kagyupas, and as the “King of Upper Hor” which this author identifies with the Chagatais. Given this is so, chances are that the Tibetan Bakshis may well have been Drigung monks, so Drigung histories — and histories of other lineages stemming from the Phagmodru school — would be logical places to look for clues about them, you would think.

Hidemishi Tanaka, Giotto and the Influences of the Mongols and Chinese on His Art: A New Analysis of the Legend of St. Francis and the Fresco Paintings of the Scrovegni Chapel, Art History (Tohoku University, Japan) (1984) 1-38 [in English].  Other writings on related subjects by the same author have appeared in English, Japanese and Italian.  Among the most intriguing is one entitled Oriental Scripts in the Paintings of Giotto's Period, Gazette des Beaux-Arts, series 6, vol. 113 (1989), pp. 214-226.  You can actually recognize some of the 'Phags-pa script letters in some of these paintings, which is about as clear a sign of Mongolian influence as you could possibly wish for. Of course there is now a Wiki page on the subject, with interesting illustrations. But better if you have a look at this Babelstone blog.

Late 13th-century Ilkhanid tile, Istanbul

David Ohanessian (1927), is responsible for the frontispiece

P.S. (Nov. 14, 2011):

I forgot to mention that there was another South Asian Bakshi with a name working in Tabriz. This was the relatively well-known Kashmiri Buddhist teacher Kamalaśrī, who helped the illustrious and industrious but ill-fated Rashid ad-Din with his stories about the life of the Buddha. Some have identified him with Padampa Sanggyé, who has Kamalaśrī (as well as Kamalaśīla) as a monastic given name. For chronological reasons their identification is simply impossible. Two centuries separate them. Well, if Padampa was 600 years old when he came to Tibet, as is sometimes told, he would have had to live another 200 years to be off visiting eastern Iran, now, wouldn’t he? That hardly seems likely. I’ll refrain from listing all the bibliography for this problem for the moment. Or if you insist on having something to read, be my guest and check out Karl Jahn’s article in Central Asiatic Journal, vol. 2 [1956], pp. 81-128.)

P.P.S. (Nov. 25, 2011):

Just to add to the list of Bakshis with names, we also are aware of names of two that came from China. I’ll just repeat here something you find in the comments section below:

Johan Elverskog's book Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road, University of Pennsylvania Press (Philadelphia 2010), p. 149, says that Rashid ad-Din had in addition to the Kashmiri Buddhist teacher Kamalaśrī two Chinese collaborators named Litaji and Kamsun (quoting Thomas Allsen's book Culture and Conquest in Mongol Eurasia, p. 92; here you can see that it would be quite difficult to find out the actual Chinese names behind these names...).


That a couple of Chinese would have been in Tabriz isn’t in itself all that newsworthy. You also have the cases of Rabban Sauma and his disciple who came from the general area of Khanbaliq (OK, Dadu or Peking if you prefer or insist) both of them of Turkic stock. The disciple, Yaballaha III,* was made Patriarch of the Nestorian Christian world. As soon as I can lay hands on a copy of Morris Rossabi’s book on the subject I plan to read the whole thing through in several sittings.**
(*He was supposed to be Uighur Turkish by birth, was known by the Greek name Markos as a young person, and had the ability to speak Mongolian, a skill that definitely helped to endear him to the Ilkhanid Emperor. The two of them, Sauma and Markos, set off from China on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, but things didn’t turn out quite as they had planned. Sauma’s name is supposed to be of Syriac origins with the meaning of Faster [that means one who fasts, but you knew that].)
(**Morris Rossabi, Voyager from Xanadu: Rabban Sauma and the First Journey from China to the West, Kodansha [Tokyo 1992].)

P.P.P.P.S (NOV. 27, 2011), added to illustrate one of the comments, below.

Figure from Tanaka's article, p. 221, a detail from Giotto's Crucifixion,
Scrovegni Chapel, Padova,
with Tanaka's interpretation below.

Figure from Tanaka's article, p. 221, 
with Tanaka's interpretation below.
Sample of early P'agspa script (edict dated 1277 or 1289), after Precious Deposits, vol. 3.
P'agspa script was invented in 1269.

P.P.P.P.P.S. (October 24, 2015):
I think it could have added to the discussion to include the line of Arabic script you can see in the coronation mantle of Norman King Roger II of Sicily (1095-1154 CE). Here you see one side of the mantle only, depicting a lion attacking a poor camel. Garments hemmed with inscriptions in exotic scripts were on extremely famous luxury fabrics like this one on the Italian peninsula (and not only Sicily, his kingdom extended north nearly to Rome) much before Giotto's time. The original is kept in a museum in Vienna, I believe.

P.P.P.P.P.PS. (Aug. 3, 2016):
Notice that the discussion within Islam on the issue of whether or not the Buddha can be regarded as a prophet is an ongoing one. The best writing I've noticed on this topic is this:  "The Muslim Doctrine of Prophethood in the Context of Buddhist-Muslim Relations in Japan: Is the Buddha a Prophet? by Keiko Obuse, published in The Muslim World, vol. 100 (April-July 2010), pp. 215-232. This article reveals something else that some will find surprising, that there do exist some Japanese Buddhist converts to Islam.

The Museum entry for this piece can be seen here.

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