Buddhism Between Tibet and China - Introduction



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Introduction: Mediations and Margins (Matthew T. Kapstein)

During the 1980s, Buddhist Studies entered a new and dynamic phase characterized in part by the abandonment of an earlier disposition to think of “Buddhism” as a singular term. Gone was the emphasis on core beliefs and doctrines, with respect to which local developments had often been regarded as late modifications, wholesale deviations, or else the simple resurgence of non-Buddhist, indigenous cultural strata. Against this, local Buddhisms were henceforth to hold pride of place and Buddhism as such was no more. In many respects, this shift of orientation proved to be a salutory one, as the standard in the field came to be defined increasingly by historically and culturally nuanced studies of persons, artifacts, schools of thought, and events in particular places and times. Where Buddhist Studies may have once seemed a narrowly circumscribed and relatively coherent field, it began to transform rapidly into a cluster of specialized disciplines devoted above all to regional Buddhisms: Indian, Chinese, Korean, Tibetan, Japanese, Sri Lankan, Thai, and so forth.

That the field did not just dissolve into various subunits, however, is perhaps due to two countervailing research trajectories that in quite different ways reached beyond national bounds. On the one hand, continuing work on Buddhist scriptural collections required, in many contexts, taking the canonical languages, rather than individual nations or ethnicities, as the meaningful units of analysis, thereby giving due allowance to the transnational character of the major classical Buddhist languages and the literature preserved in them. At the same time, a variety of collaborative, comparative studies on such topics as Buddhist hermeneutics, soteriology, mnemonics, hagiography, and mortuary beliefs, among others, continued to underscore the importance of key themes linking the varied local traditions, even if the treatment of those themes appeared at times to be notably diverse.

Despite the very rich veins for reflection that have been tapped through these three predominant research areas—canonical Buddhist Studies, local or national Buddhist Studies, and comparative Buddhist Studies—there are significant issues that have nonetheless tended to be overlooked, given this configuration of the field. With the notable exception of so-called “Silk Road Studies,” the role of Buddhism in the cultural, economic, and political relations among different peoples and nations seems a particularly remarkable area of neglect. Though work in this area has by no means been altogether absent—in particular, recent contributions on Sino-Indian relations by Liu Xinru and Tansen Sen testify to the considerable prospects for such research—it is surprising that it has remained marginal to the orientations that in recent years have been most visible in Buddhist Studies overall. Nevertheless, it is indisputable that Buddhism has historically proven to be a powerful medium whereby political, economic, technological, and artistic ties have been negotiated and forged, besides its role in fostering religious life more narrowly conceived.

In seeking to encourage scholarship that examines Buddhism as a bridge among differing Asian milieux, the present volume offers a collection of original studies of Buddhism in the history of cultural and political relations between Tibet and China. Outside of the special value these contributions may have for students of these two lands in particular, it may be hoped that the work as a whole will be also seen as a stimulus to pursue the investigation of Buddhism in Asian “cross-border” relations more generally.

Part of the interest in examining this history through the Buddhist lens stems from the sheer tenacity of the Tibet-China relationship. From the period of their first serious encounters during the seventh through ninth centuries, when the two nations rivaled one another in their quest for imperial supremacy in large parts of Inner Asia, and down to the present day, when Tibet exists as an independent state no more but maintains nevertheless a unique cultural identity both in China and the world at large, Buddhism has regularly provided a vital connecting medium, whether during times of antagonism or of fraternity. Throughout this long history the role of religion in mediating Tibet-China relations has evolved together with the relationship itself, but, at the same time, we will find in the pages that follow that certain patterns and themes regularly reappear, despite marked overriding trends of change.

In its legendary representation, the Buddhist link between Tibet and China was first forged with an imperial wedding that served as a pretext for Buddhist proselytism. Contemporary historians may continue to debate whether the Tibetan monarch Songtsen Gampo (d. 649/650) did in fact adopt the foreign religion and whether his Chinese bride, the Tang princess Wencheng (d. 680), really played any role in its transmission. But for the Buddhists of Tibet, it is an article of faith that the precious image of the Lord Śākyamuni in Lhasa, the most revered object of Tibetan pilgrimage, was brought to their land from China by a royal emanation of the female buddha Tārā, on the occasion of her wedding to their king, a mortal manifestation of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara himself. For the Tibetan religious imagination, therefore, Sino-Tibetan relations had as their first and most valued offspring nothing less than Tibetan Buddhism itself.

Whatever may be eventually decided regarding the true historical record of Buddhism in Tibet during Songtsen Gampo’s reign, the story nevertheless contains a symbolic measure of truth; for soon Buddhism did come to enjoy a significant role in the mediation of Chinese and Tibetan affairs, providing a common framework of religious meaning for two powers that were otherwise frequently at war. It was a role that, variously adapted and readapted with the passage of time, remained vital until the early years of the twentieth century, influencing religion, politics, and art among Tibetans, Chinese, and their neighbors, leaving a legacy that is still visible, even now when the forms of religio-political culture characteristic of medieval and early modern Central and East Asia have long since passed from the scene.

After the mid-ninth-century collapse of the old Tibetan kingdom, however, Tibet never regained the political and military dominance it had enjoyed during its two centuries of imperial glory. In effect, the Tibetan presence in Inner Asia came to depend increasingly upon the symbolic power of the Tibetan Buddhist clergy, conceiving of itself (and frequently becoming similarly conceived by others) as the truest heir to the great traditions of Buddhism in India, upholding the intellectual prowess of the major monastic universities, especially Nālandā and Vikramaśīla, and supercharged with the mastery of occult ritual and yoga derived from the teachings of the renowned Indian tantric adepts, the mahāsiddhas. It was, and for many remains, a unique and heady blend of rational and charismatic authority, and as such proved compelling to the rulers of the Western Xia, Mongol Khans, Chinese and Manchu emperors, and Republican-era warlords alike.

One important aspect of the Tibet-China tie therefore concerns the formation of what is often termed the patron-priest, or donor-chaplain, relationship (Tib. mchod yon). As it is generally understood, this was a form of reciprocity in which the religiously symbolic consecration conferred on China’s rulers by Tibetan hierarchs was recompensed by the rulers through material and worldly empowerment—in the form of gifts, grants, titles, and seals of authority. However, the relationship was considerably more nuanced than this short explanation suggests and, when studied with care with respect to particular examples, it is frequently found to turn on the necessity of resolving or at least managing specific political or economic sources of conflict, whether actual or potential. The exchange relationship, moreover, served as a vehicle promoting commercial and cultural interactions extending often far beyond the official inventories of initiations bestowed or gifts received. In short, the patron-priest relationship provided a focal point around which a broad range of issues informing Tibet-China connections were arrayed.

Besides this, as suggested by reference to the Xia and the Mongols above, Tibetans and Chinese were by no means the only parties to the Tibet-China Buddhist relationship. A variety of peoples, and sometimes states, in Inner Asia and throughout the Sino-Tibetan Marches (i.e., the border regions extending from Yunnan in the south to the Qinghai-Gansu frontiers in the north) acted as mediators in the rapports of the Tibetans and Chinese. At one time or another, the actual agents or beneficiaries of Tibet-China exchange may have been Tangut, Naxi, Monguor or Yi, and many others as well. The multi-ethnic character of Tibet-China relations in particular permitted China, whose bureaucracy and court often struck outsiders as impenetrable and monolithic, to greet its Inner Asian others with an exceptionally pluralistic face.

The various forms of religious relations that unfolded between Tibet and China through the centuries found their most concrete embodiments in the many material artifacts—the products of extensive architectural, artistic and publication projects—in which the conjunction of the two realms was physically manifested through various forms of production. These range from mid-Tang-period murals in Dunhuang, to celebrated monuments such as the Yuan-dynasty “White Stūpa” in Beijing, to the Ming Yongle editon of the Tibetan Buddhist canon and the elaborate Tibetan tantric formulae adorning the tomb of the Manchu Qianlong Emperor, together with countless more. Through detailed consideration of three prominent religious edifices, the first part of this book, “Sites of Encounter,” examines key issues in China-Tibet relations during the periods in which they were constructed.

In “The Treaty Temple of the Turquoise Grove,” I suggest that the famous temple of Dega Yutsel, well-known from the documents discovered by M.A. Stein and P. Pelliot at Dunhuang, can in fact be identified with a still-surviving cave-temple in the complex at Anxi Yulin, not far from Dunhuang in Gansu province. Beyond this, however, the chapter urges a broadening of the investigation of the place of Buddhism in relations between Tibet and Tang China. In recent scholarship one notes a tendency to emphasize the question of “Tibetan Chan” while neglecting other aspects of Chinese Buddhism that were transmitted to Tibet during this time, as well as the role of Buddhism in managing often hostile political relations. Here, it is the presence of Buddhism in Tibet-Tang diplomacy that forms the background for understanding the construction of the Treaty Temple.

The second chapter, “The Commissioner’s Commissions,” by Rob Linrothe, discusses the puzzling Yuan-period site of Feilaifeng in Hangzhou (in modern Zhejiang province), whose Tibetan tantric icons have frequently been understood as evidence of cultural confrontation on the part of the Mongol administration in their relation to the Chinese. Linrothe argues that the controversial Tangut official Yang Lianzhenjia, the principal patron of the site, was perhaps seeking to act with greater nuance than his detractors have generally recognized, and sought not confrontation, but accommodation between Chinese and Tibetan forms of Buddhism.

“Dabaojigong and the Regional Tradition of Ming Sino-Tibetan Painting in the Kingdom of Lijiang,” by Karl Debreczeny, introduces us to the powerful role of Tibetan religious culture among the naxi of Yunnan. Debreczeny’s careful art historical analysis of the sixteenth-century temple of Dabaojigong demonstrates the equal importance of Tibetan patronage to the West and Chinese patronage to the East, as allegiances to both were clearly inscribed in the iconographic program of the temple, as well as in the characteristic style of its paintings, despite the evident Tibetan Buddhist affiliation that determined Dabaojigong’s overall religious orientations.

In all three of these studies, spatial intermediacy—the frontier settings of Anxi Yulin and Dabaojigong, and the frontier origins of Yang Lianzhenjia— plays a determining role in the formation of cultural ties. This theme serves, too, to introduce the principal concerns of the following section, “Missions from the Frontiers,” which turns to examine the manner in which Tibetan clergy from frontier regions acted to facilitate relations between Chinese and Tibetan civilizational spheres. While our subject matter here is in some respects continuous with that of the previous section—for patronage and the development of specific sites are key themes here as well—the agency of religious professionals in relation to worldly powers is now the chief concern.

In chapter 4, “Tibetan Buddhism, Perceived and Imagined, along the Ming Era Sino-Tibetan Frontier,” Elliot Sperling examines three Tibetan monasteries in the Qinghai and Sichuan borderlands that received the support of the imperial court and whose hierarchs sometimes traveled to the capital. What emerges from his investigation is that these connections served the Ming as a form of cultural diplomacy, helping to secure or stabilize the sometimes unruly regions in which direct Chinese authority could be exercised only at great expense and with much difficulty. This is perhaps most striking in the third of his case-studies, concerning the district of Songpan: the Tibetan clerics honored here as “imperial preceptors” were in fact representatives not of the major Buddhist orders, but of Tibet’s autochthonous Bön religion. Together with Karl Debreczeny’s contribution, this chapter also underscores the importance of Ming-period trade between China and far eastern Tibet. In both of these chapters, it is clear that the sponsorship of religion, whether by the Chinese court or local rulers, at once reflected the prosperity realized through this trade and was intended to secure conditions favoring its continuation and increase.

The patron-priest relationship may be said to have reached its quintessential form during the Ming dynasty. This was in large measure due to the fact that the Ming had few pretensions to rule Tibetan regions, and much less Tibet itself, which is to say that their concerns stressed ceremonial propriety, trade, and the security of China’s frontiers. Their precedent, moreover, was in most respects taken over by the Qing. unlike their predecessors, however, the Qing eventually did seek to exercise authority in Tibet, but unlike the Yuan-dynasty Mongols they came to this reluctantly; although the Manchus overthrew the Ming in 1644, they asserted their rule in Tibetan regions sporadically throughout the eighteenth century. Moreover, as Paul Nietupski shows in “The ‘Reverend Chinese’ (Gyanakpa tshang) at Labrang Monastery,” in many places Qing control of Tibetan areas remained nominal at best. under these circumstances, the continuing ceremonial relations with Tibetan and Mongol Buddhist hierarchs served as an important means to maintain an imperial presence in places remote from the real centers of Manchu power, while, for the hierarchs involved in such relations, the favor of the court advanced their religious mission, and helped to consolidate the position of the monasteries as the effective administrative centers in Qinghai, Gansu, and elsewhere.

The reciprocal relations that were forged between China’s rulers and Tibetan ecclesiastical figures, often themselves from border districts, did not come to an end with the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911. During the Republican period, Chinese interest in Tibetan Buddhism in fact expanded, and the Tibetans who traveled to China to teach, perform rituals, and raise support continued often to be natives of Amdo (Qinghai/Gansu) or Kham (Sichuan/Xikang). One of the most outstanding examples of such missionaries was Bo Gangkar Rinpoché (1893–1957), the subject of Carmen Meinert’s study in chapter 6. Indeed, Gangkar Rinpoché’s career, which continued into the early days of the People’s Republic, mirrors the changing political circumstances of his time in which he served different political agendas and was eventually made part of the communists’ “civilizing project” in cultural Tibet. In his story we may even detect the beginnings of the globalization of the Tibet-China Buddhist relation that will be discussed in greater detail in the final chapter. For Gangkar’s Chinese disciples included such figures as Zhang Chengji (C.C. Chang) and Charles Luk, whose English translations of Tibetan and Chinese Buddhist classics opened new vistas to students of Asian religions in the West.

Although, from the Yuan-period on, Tibetan clerics often traveled to China on pilgrimage conferring Buddhist teachings on highly placed persons, up to and including the emperors themselves, and received honors and riches in return, one is struck that so few Chinese Buddhists appear to have ventured to visit Tibet. The contrast is all the more striking when we recall that large numbers of Indian and Nepalese Buddhist scholars and adepts did journey to Tibet, combining pilgrimage, teaching activity, and fundraising while there. The Chinese may have been put off in part by the Tibetans’ barbaric reputation, fostered in Confucian dynastic historiography. Or they may equally have been dissuaded by the hardship always associated with travel in the mountains and deserts to the west. Or they may have been convinced that theirs was an infinitely superior civilization, so that they had nothing of value to gain from their rude neighbors on the high plateau. Whatever their reasons, however, one of the striking shifts that occurs after the 1911 fall of the Manchu dynasty is the arrival of numbers of Chinese pilgrims and travelers in Tibetan Buddhist milieux. “The Modern Chinese Discovery of Tibetan Buddhism” considers important facets of this development, together with the parallel expansion of Tibetan Buddhist teaching and practice in the Chinese heartland itself.

One of the attractions of Tibetan Buddhism for the Chinese was certainly the charismatic allure of esoteric tantric ritual, promising both worldly and spiritual blessings. Strongly associated with the consecration bestowed by leading lamas upon the emperors, Tibetan tantrism in China was inevitably tied to images of imperial power. In a sense, this upsurge of interest and involvement in this form of religion can be seen to directly correspond to the political change whereby the promise of democracy made every citizen a potential king. Facets of the Republican-period advancement of Tibetan esotericism in China may be found in the tracts and practice manuals published in small editions during the 1930s and 1940s on behalf of practitioners, and later reissued in several collections. Chapter 7, “Translating Buddhism from Tibetan to Chinese” by Gray Tuttle, examines these documents, identifying the Tibetan and Chinese figures involved and the settings in which they worked. It is noteworthy that we find evidence here, together with the contributions of well-known religious figures such as norlha Khutughtu (1876–1936), of the activity of Chinese Buddhist laymen and the formation among them of lay Buddhist associations.

A quite different aspect of the early-twentieth-century Chinese turn to Tibetan Buddhism is described in Zhihua Yao’s chapter, “Tibetan Learning in the Contemporary Chinese Yogācāra School.” For the figures discussed here, chiefly the scholars Lü Cheng (1896–1989), Fazun (1902–1980), and Han Jingqing (1912–2003), Tibetan traditions were of interest primarily for preservation of the Indian Buddhist philosophical legacy. In other words, their concerns lay in the areas of Buddhist philology and doctrinal studies, and not (or at most only secondarily) in the approaches to ritual and esotericism that were often accentuated in Tibetan Buddhist practice. As Yao argues, the representatives of contemporary Chinese Yogācāra—much like the partisans of so-called “Critical Buddhism” in recent Japanese Buddhist intellectual circles—have used Indian and Tibetan sources as the basis for launching a critique of developments in East Asian Buddhisms that, they believe, stray far from the teaching’s intent.

Throughout much of its history, Tibetan Buddhism has sought to promote a viable synthesis of philosophical insight and ritual virtuosity, even if the ideal of a perfectly harmonious balance of the two has often been only imperfectly realized. Accordingly, while some Chinese Buddhists found inspiration in Tibetan tantra, and others in scholasticism, still others strove to realize the embracing synthesis that many Tibetans themselves took to be the appropriate goal. Particularly noteworthy in this respect was Nenghai Lama (1886–1967), whose life and teachings are examined in chapter 9 by Ester Bianchi. Though he was a colleague of Fazun early on, Nenghai was clearly more influenced by the charismatic dimensions of Tibetan Buddhism than was the former. And Nenghai, moreover, proved to be an exceptionally charismatic figure in his own right, launching a monastic movement directly in the line of the Tibetan Gelukpa order that remains a dynamic force in mainland Chinese Buddhism today.

Taken together, therefore, the third section of this collection points to two rather different projects informing contemporary Chinese engagements in Tibetan Buddhism. As seen in Zhihua Yao’s study, there has been a scholarly, philological interest in Tibetan Buddhist scriptural sources as offering a repository in which the materials needed to make up lacunae in the Chinese Buddhist tradition may be found. The interest, in this case, is largely in Tibetan translations of Indian doctrinal and philosophical works, not in contributions that Tibetans themselves may have made to the elaboration of Buddhist teaching and practice. Over and against this tendency, some Chinese seekers have responded primarily to the attractions of Tibetan approaches, involving mastery of tantric ritual and yoga, and culminating in spiritual attainment, rather than intellectual refinement, as the major Buddhist goal. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to insist on too radical a division. In the cases, for instance, of prominent modern Chinese masters such as Fazun and Nenghai, both interests are indeed represented in their lives and writings; what differs is the relative balance they found between scholastic and ritual engagements. What is perhaps most striking is that throughout the twentieth century Chinese Buddhists were moved, as Zhihua Yao puts it, “to search for a more authentic Buddhism, and so looked to Buddhism’s Indian origins and its Tibetan transmissions in order to find this.”

It may appear that, taking this and the preceding sections together, we seek to confirm the widespread impression that prior to the fall of the Qing the only real involvement of the Chinese in Tibetan Buddhism was limited to court circles, and that it was not until the Republican era that common Chinese Buddhist believers began to be engaged in Tibetan traditions as well. Without denying that there may be some element of truth to this, it is important to note, nevertheless, that we do find occasional indications of grassroots Chinese participation in Tibetan Buddhism during the Qing, and some suggestions along these lines even before. Evidence of this may be seen in Paul Nietupski’s comments on the “Chinese lamas” of Labrang Monastery in Gansu Province. And in the biography of the Qianlong Emperor’s renowned preceptor Changkya Rölpé Dorjé (1717–1786), we find it recorded that he attracted masses of the Chinese faithful during his visits to Sichuan and Wutai shan, besides his activities as a teacher of the Chinese Buddhist sangha. All things considered, it seems more prudent to admit that the question of Chinese popular involvement in Tibetan Buddhism during the dynastic period has not yet been adequately examined, and remains a topic of interest for future research.

If Tibetan Buddhism in modern China has evolved into an at once popular and learned movement among Chinese Buddhists, the political dimension of the relationship has by no means diminished with the passage of time. Since the seventeenth century, when the Great Fifth Dalai Lama was received in the court of the Manchu Shunzhi Emperor, no single figure has been more emblematic of this connection than the person of the Dalai Lama. The final section of this book, “China and the Dalai Lama in the Twentieth Century,” therefore turns to this center of religio-political gravity in studies of China’s troubled rapport with Tibet’s chief hierarch at the beginning and end of the last century.

Although the Fifth was the sole Dalai Lama to visit the court before the Thirteenth did so in the early twentieth century, the preeminence of the emperor’s patronage of the Dalai Lamas was always upheld. Therefore, following his flight from Lhasa in advance of the arrival of the Younghusband expedition in 1904, and his failure to secure the aid he sought from the Jebtsundampa Khutughtu of Urga, Outer Mongolia, the Thirteenth turned to the traditional relationship with the Qing court in his quest for support and arrived in Beijing for imperial audiences in 1908. These events form the focus for Fabienne Jagou’s chapter on “The Thirteenth Dalai Lama’s Visit to Beijing in 1908.” While it has long been clear that the outcome of his meetings with the Emperor Guangxu and Dowager Cixi was not satisfactory, and that the major result of the meeting was the Dalai Lama’s determination not to solicit the Chinese court again, Jagou shows that the actual events were marked by considerable complexity reflecting, as she says, “the difficulty each faced in establishing relationships in an environment of political transition.” Part of this complexity stemmed from the Dalai Lama’s twin spiritual and temporal roles, and the felt need, on the part of the court, to nuance their response to his separate functions somewhat differently. The overriding impression, nevertheless, as noted by the Chinese monk Guankong in remarks cited by Tuttle, was that “the court had not been courteous to the Dalai Lama.” The Dalai Lama’s answer was his declaration of independence from China as soon as the dynasty fell.

The fall of the Qing, therefore, marked a complete rupture in the ceremonial religio-political bond linking the Dalai Lama to the Chinese ruler, a break whose legacy has had important and continuous implications for Tibet-China relations ever since. For, on the one hand, Chinese rulers, whether Republican or Communist, have been eager to affirm the continuity of a special connection of some kind, but without being committed to maintaining intact the dynastic-period pattern of the patron-priest relation. At the same time, from the position of the Thirteenth’s successor, Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, the struggle, following China’s assertion of its sway over Tibet in 1951, has been to find a new formula for the Tibet-China relationship, one that guarantees the integrity of Tibet. As in the past, part of the complexity of the issue stems from the Dalai Lama’s simultaneous political and spiritual roles.

These matters are brought into clear focus in connection with the present Dalai Lama’s visits to the Republic of China, that is, Taiwan, discussed in the closing chapter by Abraham Zablocki. Although both the Dalai Lama and Taiwan authorities have been keen to emphasize the non-political nature of his tours of the island, Beijing has of course regarded them as a poorly disguised pretext for collusion among “splittists.” And conflicted political reactions have been expressed in Taiwan itself, precisely owing to disagreements there between those who would opt for Taiwanese independence and those favoring, at least rhetorically, eventual reunification with the Mainland. Moreover, given extraordinary levels of interest in Tibetan Buddhism in recent years, the Dalai Lama was welcomed on Taiwan with all the acclaim and excitement that usually attends visiting pop stars. When we recall, too, that Taiwan is not the only part of the Chinese world in which Tibetan Buddhism is currently in vogue—evidence of this may be found throughout overseas Chinese communities and indeed in the PRC as well—it becomes clear that the ancient religious relationship of Tibet and China has entered the new century still full of vigor, together with the unceasing and profound contestation it has come to entail.

*   *    *    *

While the cases studied in the present volume touch on many significant aspects of the role of Buddhism in Tibet-China relations throughout the span of their history, it cannot be said that all issues of importance are treated here. (The puzzling question of pre-modern Chinese popular involvement in Tibetan Buddhism, for instance, has been already noted above.) Accordingly, in the interest of indicating possible directions for future research, let us note some of the outstanding matters not treated at length in this book.

It will be apparent in these pages that Tibet-China ties exhibited a characteristic asymmetry: what Tibet imparted to China was religious goods, while what China bestowed in return was material. This seems to have been the case when Lama Pakpa was named State Preceptor by Khubilai Khan in the thirteenth century, when the Fifth Karmapa hierarch consecrated the Yongle Emperor in the fifteenth, and it remains so when the present Dalai Lama draws eager devotees to fill sports stadiums in Taiwan today. But, although this general impression reflects a measure of truth, it must be nuanced by taking into account the opposite trends, that is, the material goods Tibet provided to China, and the spiritual goods China bequeathed to Tibet.

The first of these points is indeed touched upon at various points throughout this book, particularly in the first five chapters. Connections with Tibet were essential to China both for reasons of security along the western frontiers and lucrative trade-relations. Following the ninth-century collapse of the old Tibetan empire, and given the frequent absence of a single stable polity in Tibet, major monasteries, with their networks of hierarchs and branch temples, often served as the essential guarantors of the peace in endemically strife-filled regions. Simply put, as E. Sperling shows, it was sometimes more cost-effective to sponsor a lama than to send in an army. But the Tibetans also had wealth that was desirable in China. Besides some rare luxury items, such as musk and medicinal plants, there was an almost insatiable demand, particularly during the Ming, for Tibetan-bred horses. Although the abundant trade in tea and horses that arose was not in itself religious in nature, Tibetan monastic establishments often facilitated and sometimes directed this commerce, above and beyond the purely ceremonial rapports they forged, which nevertheless supported the cordiality and trust through which trade is often best able to thrive.

China, moreover, was rich in spiritual goods of its own, and these were not wholly unknown to Tibetans. Two aspects of the Chinese Buddhist legacy in Tibet that have been relatively well studied are Chan Buddhism and Chinese Buddhist aesthetics, particularly in the art of painting. But these were not the only elements of the Chinese Buddhist tradition to have made their way to Tibet.

Though overshadowed by the gigantic proportions of Tibetan translations of Indian Buddhist texts, a significant body of Buddhist works was nevertheless translated from Chinese, and some of these have had a considerable influence in Tibet. Included among them are major sūtras such as the Mahāyāna version of the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra and the Tang-period esoteric master Yijing’s Suvarṇaprabhāsottamasūtra. Another translation from the Chinese which left a deep imprint on Tibetan Buddhist thought was the Korean Wŏn-ch’ŭk’s massive commentary on the Sandhinirmocanasūtra, a work that came to be much discussed in Tibetan scholastic philosophy from the early fourteenth century on. Moreover, the early organization of the Tibetan Buddhist canon, as reflected in the extant imperial-period catalogues, may have been indebted in some respects to the models provided by the Chinese Tripiṭakas.

Part of the Chinese literary legacy to Tibetan Buddhism consisted, too, in apocryphal scriptures, in which peculiarly Sinic iterations of Buddhist thought were often articulated and promoted. Some, like the Vajrasamādhisūtra, advanced varieties of Chan teaching, while others, including the Chinese traditions of the arhat Mulian (Maudgalyāyana), sought to achieve a seamless integration of the virtue of filial piety with the renunciation extolled on the Buddhist path. It is possible, too, that one of the Chinese Buddhist apocryphal scriptures translated into Tibetan, the Datong fangguang jing, inspired a Tibetan abridgement that in later legend became renowned as the first Buddhist sūtra to appear in Tibet, a tale that may be read, perhaps, as a veiled acknowledgement of the early Tibetan debt to Chinese Buddhism. Though most translations of Chinese scriptures into Tibetan date to the Tang dynasty, some activity along these lines continued long after, and as late as the eighteenth century we find the Qianlong Emperor sponsoring Tibetan translations of Chinese sūtras.

Together with the project of translating Chinese Buddhist works, the Tibetans also, to varying degrees, imported Chinese traditions in branches of learning including historiography, divination, and medicine. Though these generally lie beyond the purview of Buddhism, strictly speaking, among the Tibetans they were nevertheless developed and maintained within a predominantly Buddhist milieu. Thus, for example, as the eponymous fount of Yijing lore and its related mantic traditions, Confucius is renowned in Tibet as a Chinese emanation of the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī.

The association of China with the bodhisattva of wisdom points to another important area in which the presence of China was felt in the spiritual life of Tibet: pilgrimage. Tansen Sen has recently summarized the findings of several generations of scholars regarding the processes whereby China was transformed into a Buddhist sacred land, on a par in many respects with India, and the importance of the identification of the Five Terrace Mountain, Wutai shan, as Mañjuśrī’s earthly abode, in these developments. Though Tibet, like China, came to be regarded as part of the sacred geography of the Buddhist world, it differed in that its geography was recognized almost exclusively by adherents to Tibetan forms of Buddhism. The major Tibetan holy site to achieve international recognition was Mt. Kailash, in far western Tibet, and this was as Śiva’s abode in the cosmography of South Asian Hindus. Chinese Buddhist pilgrims therefore generally felt no need to travel to Tibet in order to fulfill their spiritual aims.

Tibetan Buddhists, however, did honor the sacred places of China, and Wutai shan above all. As early as the eighth century, if we are to believe the extant versions of the Testament of Ba (Sba bzhed), Tibetan envoys to China journeyed to the holy mountain to meet with the bodhisattva; and a tenth-century Tibetan manuscript from Dunhuang records the pilgrimage of an Indian guru who traveled through Tibet on his way to China, where he visited the mountain. The Tibetan veneration of Wutai shan, once aroused, never lapsed: in the eighteenth century, we find Changkya Rölpé Dorjé writing a pilgrim’s guide to the mountain; in the early twentieth, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama visits and teaches there; and late in the twentieth century, on the heels of the Cultural Revolution, the famed “treasure-revealer” (gter ston) Khenpo Jikpün discloses a new sādhana of Mañjuśrī in the course of his pilgrimage. Wutai shan and its traditions, in short, became integral to and amplified by the culture of Buddhist pilgrimage in Tibet.

Finally, we may add, that numbers of Chinese divinities were absorbed into Tibetan Buddhist traditions, sometimes as local protectors in the frontier regions of Qinghai and Sichuan. An example that has become well known in the anthropological literature is the divinity of the terrain of Trika (Khri ka’i yul lha), in Amdo (Qinghai), who is most frequently identified with the Chinese god of war, Guan Yu. And the Chinese god of longevity, Shouxing, is ubiquitous in the Tibetan Buddhist world under the designation of “Long Life Man” (Mi tshe ring).

All this being said, however, it remains evident that Chinese traditions of Buddhist study and practice have had much less of an active presence among Tibetans, at least following the waning of the Tibetan Chan movement of the eighth–ninth centuries, than has Tibetan Buddhism in China. Certainly, we would be astounded today (or at almost any time over the past thousand years!) to find young Tibetans taking up an engagement in Pure Land Buddhism or Huayen with the enthusiasm that many of their Chinese counterparts show for Dzogchen meditation or Tibetan tantric rituals. Despite this, however, those aspects of Chinese religions that became known in Tibet certainly merit continuing and thorough historical study, if we are to fully comprehend the richness and extent of Tibet’s and China’s mutual engagements.

At the start of this introduction, I proposed that the relations among differing Buddhist societies have been a neglected area of inquiry. The exercise we have begun here needs now to be considered in connection to what is already known, and what we might yet learn, of Buddhism in the relations between any pair, or group, of Buddhist realms. For once we understand more clearly than we do at present the role of the religion not just in the commerce of religious ideas, but in all forms of material and cultural exchange, and political and military connections as well, only then will have begun to grasp the full measure of Buddhism in the history of Asia. In large part, this is a task for the future. The horizons for Buddhist Studies in relation to traditional and contemporary Asian patterns of exchange remain quite wide open.


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© Matthew Kapstein, Buddhism Between Tibet and China (Wisdom Publications, 2009)

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