We Need to Revisit Tibetan History

I recently came across this article of mine that I had written for the now defunct Tibetan World Magazine in 2007.  I have not posted this on my blog here before. The issues I have raised in this, specifically how we approach our history, vis-a-vis Bon, is something that every Tibetan should ponder.

What do you think?

We Need to Revisit Tibetan History
Tibetan World Magazine

January  2007
By Bhuchung K. Tsering

I grew up with the traditional perspective of Tibetan history. It began with the beginning of the Tibetan race when Chenresig, manifesting in a monkey, and Jetsun Dolma, manifesting in a rock ogress, mated, and went on to the origin of the Tibetan kingdom, the rule of the Choegyals, the earlier and later spread of Buddhism, the rule of the Dalai Lamas, the Chinese occupation and the present situation, etc.

Between November 30 and December 1, 2006, the Library of Tibetan Works & Archives held a seminar on Tibetan history in Dharamsala. At the time of writing this, I have not seen the proceedings of the seminar, other than reading short media reports. I, however, heard snippets of His Holiness’remarks while inaugurating the seminar and want to draw attention to two of the several points that he made. One point that His Holiness highlighted was the fact that currently we are in a difficult period in terms of study of Tibetan history. He said, “When we talk about history, it is important that we base our conclusions on facts and that we be not swayed by political considerations or religious leanings.” His Holiness felt that the best sources for history writing were the materials that are being excavated from underground in Tibet today. However, he said that those of us in exile do not have access to these raw materials whereas those in Tibet who are trying to study history based on such materials may be forced to give political considerations in their interpretation.

Secondly, His Holiness wondered whether it was not possible to take a fresh look at the entire Tibetan history based on what really happened. He said it appears that the interpretation of Tibetan history from the time of Nyatri Tsenpo onwards that we have today may be based on Buddhist considerations. Similarly, it could be that some of the Bon writings could be based on Bon considerations. His Holiness said we may want to look at
the history of Tibet before Buddhism when Bon prevailed and look at the factual development.

I think the young educated Tibetans of today can take a lesson from this in order to get a better appreciation of their people’s history. While it is primarily the historians who should take the lead in the above, I believe us ordinary folks also have a role to play. Given the advantage of a modern liberal education that most of us have received, we may want to start thinking outside the box, even on the matter of our history. We need to look at some of the interpretations of our history in the cultural context in which they were written. With 20/20 hindsight vision, we may want to see if we can seek truth from facts.

For example, despite what we have been taught, I personally do not believe that Tibetans originated from the monkey and the ogress. This could be only a way to impress upon the Tibetan people their special status in the Buddhist world. Also, if I may say so in a light hearted manner, going by Tibetan characteristics, we Tibetans do not have much of an ogress nature.

Everyone has a rough idea of the characteristics of a monkey. I looked up the characteristics of an ogress (the male form is called ogre) and found that an ogre is “a large and hideous humanoid monster.” “Like their male counterparts, ogresses have massive bodies and little intelligence,” the explanation continued. I would not count this as a Tibetan characteristic, if I may say so. Seriously, Tibetan history has to be understood in the right context.

One way to move forward would be to look into the changing of our mindset about the role of Bon in Tibetan history and to get a more factual perspective. For example, King Lang Darma is a controversial figure based on present interpretation of Tibetan history and has a negative image among average Tibetans. He is believed to have been pro-Bon and anti-Buddhist, and the one who persecuted Buddhists. The version of history that we have grown up with says he was assassinated by Lhalung Pelgyi Dorjee for this and the event is even celebrated in the Buddhist tradition and has been transformed into a Cham dance. Physically, Lang Darma is even said to have a horn on his head.

But how much of this perception is based on historical facts is a question that we need to revisit. Just as there is a never-ending literary debate on whether Heathcliff is a villain or a hero in the novel Wuthering Heights, we need to look at newly discovered information to take a position on King Lang Darma.

I would suggest that some illuminating writings by the Tibetan scholar Samten Gyaltsen Karmay be looked at in your attempt to get an answer. For those of you who may not be familiar with Prof. Karmay, he is among the few Tibetan scholars with international standing having even served as the president of the International Association of Tibetan Studies. He was born in Amdo, studied in Bonpo monasteries and subsequently in Drepung while in Tibet. After escaping to India in 1959, he took up a research post at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, in 1961 where he received his M.Phil and Ph.D degrees. In 1980, he entered the National Centre of Scientific Research (CNRS), Paris, where he occupies the post of Director of Research in history and anthropology. He has published a number of books and articles on Tibetan religion, history and ethnology.

If you want to read just one of his papers, I would recommend his “King Lang Darma and his Rule” in the book, “Tibet and her Neighbours: A History” ( Edition Hansjoerg Mayer, London, 2003). Ultimately it is up to each individual to form his or her own opinion, but I feel Prof. Karmay gives very logical explanation based on his research of Dunhuang documents (which he says is a contemporary source compared to the latter Buddhist writings on which our history writings have been based) in this specific area on why we need to take a second look at our position on King Lang Darma.

While I do not claim to be able to summarize his findings, it is safe to say that according to Prof. Karmay, King Lang Darma does not appear to have been persecutor of Buddhism. Lang Darma appears even to be a Buddhist. The negative image Lang Darma has got could have been the work of the powerful monastic institutions whose authority diminished when Lang Darma became king. In short, Prof. Karmay challenges many of the
prevailing notions about Lang Darma.

The reason why I am highlighting the issue of King Lang Darma as an example here is to make the point that it is important for us Tibetans to really review our history in a deeper sense of the term. In order to be adequately prepared for the future, we need to have an accurate understanding of our past, whether it is ancient, medieval or modern


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