Revival after the Fall of the Tibetan Empire

The Fragmentation of Tibet after Langdarma’s Assassination

The Tibetan Empire disintegrated after the assassination of Langdarma in 842 CE. Central authority was not restored for four centuries.

The imperial Tibetan troops had already started to withdraw from the border regions of China, Burma, and the Silk Route in Central Asia during Langdarma’s reign and, soon after his death, many small buffer states sprung up in these areas. Tibetan language and Buddhist culture, however, continued to play a large role in these buffer states for several centuries afterwards. In the formerly Tibetan-controlled areas of Amdo, Gansu, and the Tarim Basin, for example, these states included

  • Tsongka (Tsong-kha), which lasted in the Kokonor region of Amdo until 1182
  • the city states the Yellow Yugurs (866 – 1028) in the Gansu Corridor
  • Guiyijun (848 – 890s) in the region of western Gansu around Dunhuang
  • Karakhoja (866 – 1209) of the Qocho Uighurs in the oases along the northern rim of the Tarim Basin.

Until at least 920, the Tibetan language was used for commercial and diplomatic purposes in the Gansu Corridor and along the Silk Route as far as Khotan, since it was the only common language of the various peoples there. Some Chinese Buddhist texts were even transliterated into Tibetan letters for ease of recitation.

Scholars in these areas translated Buddhist texts from Tibetan into various other languages. For example, beginning in 930, Tsongka scholars translated texts from Tibetan into Uighur (Yu-gur).

After the establishment of the Tangut state (Mi-nyag, Chin. Xi Xia) (982 – 1227) in southern Gansu and present-day Ningxia, to the east of Amdo, Tibetan Buddhist texts were translated into the Tangut language starting in 1049, although the majority of the texts in the Tangut Buddhist canon were translated from Chinese. The Tibetan language had been widespread in the Tangut regions, however, from even before the founding of its state. Thus, the Tibetan alphabetic script was used to transliterate the extremely complex Tangut ideographic script that had been promulgated in 1036.

After the assassination, Langdarma’s sons vied with each other for the throne. By 929, the line of Namde Wosung (gNam-lde ‘Od-srung), the son of Langdarma’s senior queen, eventually came to rule in Ngari (mNga’-ris), Western Tibet, the territory of the pre-Buddhist kingdom of Zhang-zhung; while the line of Ngadag Yumden (mNga’-bdag Yum-brtan), the son of his junior queen, came to rule in U (dBus), the eastern half of Central Tibet. The kingdom of Ngari eventually included not only Western Tibet, but also a large stretch of the southern flank of the Pamir Mountains and the Himalayas, from Gilgit in present-day northwestern Pakistan, through eastern Ladakh, Spiti in present-day Himachal Pradesh India, and up to and including present-day northwestern Nepal.

The other regions of Tibet fragmented into many small states, each with its own ruler (sde-dpon) and fortress (rdzong). They alternately fought and allied with each other.

Revival of the Monk Ordination Lineage

Although Langdarma’s sons hid away many Buddhist statues and texts for safekeeping and the lay tradition of tantra continued even in Central Tibet; nevertheless, the monastic community there came to an end. Three monks, however, fled to the Tsongka kingdom in Amdo and there, with the help of two Chinese monks, continued the Mulasarvastivada line of monk ordination.

Soon, ten youths from Central Tibet led by Lumey Tsultrim-sherab (Klu-mes Tshul-khrims shes-rab) traveled there to study and receive the monk’s vows. They then brought the ordination lineage back to U in 912, after its absence there for seventy years, and built seven new temples. These included Gyel Lhakang (rGyal Lha-khang), built by Lumey’s disciple Nanam Dorje-wangchug (sNa-nam rDo-rje dbang-phyug). Buddhist traditional sources, however, date the building of this temple at 1012.

Start of the Later Flourishing of the Teachings

During the second half of the tenth century, the King of Ngari, Tsenpo Khorey (bTsan-po Kho-re), abdicated his throne in favor of his brother, Song-ngey (Srong-nge), and became a monk. He is known to posterity as Lha Lama Yeshe Ö (Lha bla-ma Yes-shes ‘ od).

Wanting to reverse the decline of Buddhism in Western Tibet, Yeshe Ö sent twenty-one young men to Kashmir in 971 to learn Sanskrit and study Buddhism. Of these, only Rinchen Zangpo (Rin-chen bzang-po, 958 – 1051) and Legpay-sherab (Legs-pa’i shes-rab) survived the journey, eventually developing into renowned translators. While studying in Kashmir and the famous monasteries of northern India, they sent back to Tibet several learned Indian scholars. These scholars represented several Indian Buddhist schools, though primarily the tantra tradition of Mahayana.

Yeshe Ö continued to invite Indian masters to Tibet. Among them was Dharmapala (Dha-rma pa-la), who together with the Indian disciples who accompanied him, started the second Mulasarvastivada monk ordination line in Tibet. The ordinations they conferred mark the beginning of a period in Tibetan history known as the “Later Flourishing of the Teachings” (bstan-pa phyi-dar). The prior period became known, by contrast, as the “Earlier Flourishing of the Teachings” (bstan-pa snga-dar.)

Other traditional Tibetan sources give as the starting point of this later period Lumey’s ordination, and they date this at either 973 or 978. It is these traditions that date the founding of the Gyel Lhakang by Lumey’s disciple at 1012.

Rinchen–zangpo and Legpay-sherab returned to Ngari in 988. As part of this later flourishing period, Rinchen Zangpo founded several new monasteries there. Among them was Tabo Monastery (rTa-po dgon-pa) in Spiti, built in 996. In the same year, Yeshe Ö founded Toling Monastery (mTho-ling, sometimes spelled mTho-lding) in Guge (Gu-ge).

Atisha’s Visit to Tibet

During this period, the Ghaznavids, under Mahmud of Ghazni (r. 998-1030), conquered present-day Pakistani and Indian Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, and the regions around Delhi. Due to the heavy damage that Mahmud’s forces inflicted on the Buddhist monasteries in the area, many monks sought asylum in Ngari. So many eventually fled there that, in the 1020s, the Ngari King passed a law restricting foreigners from staying in the country more than three years.

It was under these unsettled circumstances that, in his latter years, Yeshe Ö invited Atisha (Jo-be-che dPal-ldan A-ti-sha, 982 – 1054) to come to Tibet from his monastery, Vikramashila, in central North India. He hoped that the Indian master would be able to help not only reestablish Buddhism in Tibet, but also resolve confusion based on differences among the schools. He sent Gyatsonseng (rGya brTson-‘grus seng-ge) to deliver the invitation, with presents of gold. Atisha refused the presents and declined the invitation, explaining that he was needed in India to halt the decline of Buddhism that was taking place there.

Yeshe Ö believed that Atisha had refused because not enough gold had been sent, so he went to the Qarluq (Gar-log) king in order to obtain more. The Qarluqs were a Turkic group living northwest of Ngari. Unfortunately, the Qarluq king threw him in prison.

Jangchub Ö (Byang-chub ‘od), a grandnephew of Yeshe Ö and also a monk, attempted to gather enough gold to ransom his granduncle from the Qarluq. Yeshe Ö told him to use it instead to convince Atisha to come, and ultimately Yeshe Ö died in prison.

Having established the Qarakhanid Empire (840 – 1137), the Qarluqs remained friendly relations with their former military allies, the Tibetans, even after Langdarma’s assassination. In the 930s, the Qarluq/Qarakhanids converted from a mixture of Buddhism and Turkic shamanism to Islam. The western branch of the Qarakhanids, which had been centered in Kashgar, attacked Khotan in 982 in their drive to gain control of the southern Tarim Basin branch of the Silk Route. They maintained a siege of the oasis state until 1006.

Traditional Tibetan sources explain that Yeshe Ö was imprisoned during a war that the Qarluq/Qarakhanids were waging in Nepal. John Brough (“Legends of Khotan and Nepal,” Bulletin of the School of African and Oriental Studies, vol. 12) has demonstrated, however, that the Tibetan name for Khotan, “Li,” along with many legends concerning Khotan, were transferred and projected by the Tibetans onto Nepal. Thus, one could infer that Yeshe Ö encountered the Qarluq and was imprisoned when he went to the defense of Khotan during the siege.

Shakabpa, however, in his two volume history, makes no mention of any battles in relation to this incident. Instead, he relates that the Qarluq King gave Jangchub Ö a choice – give up all efforts to invite Buddhist masters from India to Tibet, pay a ransom of gold equal to Yeshe Ö’s weight, or have Yeshe Ö executed. This choice that Jangchub Ö was given suggests that this incident most likely occurred after the Qarluq’s conquest of Khotan. Having converted Buddhist Khotan to Islam, the Qarluq King seemed to be against any further strengthening of Buddhism in Tibet.

David Snellgrove (Indo-Tibetan Buddhism: Indian Buddhists and Their Tibetan Successors) writes that this account of Yeshe Ö’s death in the Qarluq prison is apocryphal. As evidence, he cites that in 1027 Yeshe Ö issued an edict to regulate the translation of Buddhist texts and that, according to Rinchen Zangpo’s biography, Yeshe Ö died of illness in his palace in Toling. Rinchen Zangpo himself performed the funeral rites. However, if Yeshe Ö went to the Qarluqs on a peaceful mission to request financial support, it is reasonable, considering that Atisha arrived in Toling in 1042, that this mission occurred after 1027. Still, Rinchen Zangpo’s biography contravenes the traditional account of Yeshe Ö’s death in prison.

As a side note, 1027 was also the year that the Kalachakra Tantra teachings were first brought to Tibet, based on the translations from Sanskrit into Tibetan by the Indian pandit Bhadrabodhi and the Tibetan translator Gyijo (Gyi-jo Zla-ba’i ‘od-zer). This year also marks the start of the Kalachakra-style calendar in Tibet, with the first sixty-year calendar cycle prabhava (rab-‘byung, Skt. prabhava).

Jangchub Ö sent Nagtso (Nag-mtsho Lo-tsa-ba), an accomplished translator, to India with the gold and another invitation to Atisha. On receiving the invitation and hearing the story behind it, and after receiving direction from the Buddha-figure Tara, Atisha agreed to go to Tibet for three years. He arrived at Toling in 1042. While there, he revised translations and wrote Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment (Byang-chub lam-gyi sgron-ma, Skt. Bodhipathapradipa).

In 1045, as Atisha was returning to India, he was joined by a layman, Dromtonpa (‘Brom-ston rGyal-ba’i ‘byung-gnas) (1004 – 1064), who wished to study under him. The road through Nepal was blocked by a civil war which lasted from 1039 – 1045, and so Dromtonpa asked Atisha to visit Central Tibet instead. Atisha agreed and, after visiting Samye Monastery near Lhasa, stayed mostly at Nyetang (sNye-thang) in U before dying in 1054.

While visiting Samye, Atisha was amazed at the huge number of Sanskrit texts preserved at the monastery’s library. He remarked that, even in India, it was not possible to find such a large collection. This indicates that Langdarma’s persecution had been directed at the Buddhist monastic institution and not at the Buddhist teachings themselves.

Establishment of New Monasteries and the Development of Tibetan Buddhism and Bon into Various Schools


Some of the older Buddhist monasteries, such as Samye, survived in Central Tibet from the earlier flourishing of the teachings and were once more filled with Tibetan monks by the time of Atisha’s arrival there. In addition, some new monasteries had been built there as well by this time. For example, Zhalu Monastery (Zha-lu dgon-pa, Zhva-lu dgon-pa) had been built in Tsang in 1040 by Chetsun Sherab-jungnay (lCe-btsun Shes-rab ‘byung-gnas), two years before Atisha’s arrival in Ngari. It later became an important center of Sakya scholarship.


Atisha had named Dromtonpa as his successor. In 1057, Dromtonpa founded the Radreng Monastery (Rva-sgreng rGyal-ba’i dben-gnas) in U, where he continued to teach until his death in 1064. He shaped Atisha’s teachings into a new school of Buddhism called “Kadam” (bKa’- gdams). A second Kadam monastery, Sangpu-neutog (gSang-phu sne’u-thog-gi dgon-pa), also in U, was built in 1073 by another of Atisha’s disciples, Ngog Legpay-sherab (rNgog Legs-pa’i shes-rab).

In 1076, King Tsedey (rTse-lde) of Ngari convened the Council of Toling at Toling Monastery of Ngari. He gathered together translators from the western, central, and eastern regions of Tibet, as well as several Kashmiri and northern Indian masters, in order to coordinate their translation work. In 1092, Prince Zhiwa Ö (Zhi-ba ‘od) of Ngari issued an edict setting the standards for determining which Buddhist texts were reliable. The main criterion for authenticity was whether a Sanskrit original for the text existed. Soon, Sangpu-neutog became an important center for translation, as well as for learning and debate.

A further major Kadam center of learning, Nartang Monastery (sNar-thang dgon-pa), was founded in 1153 in Tsang. It later became a center for the printing of Buddhist texts. Although some traditional Tibetan sources date the founding of Nartang at 1033 and ascribe its founding to the Kadam master Tumton Lodro-drag (gTum-ston Blo-gros grags), this is anachronistic, since Atisha first arrived in Ngari only in 1042. The difference of 120 years between the two dates suggests confusion concerning the sixty-year Kalachakra calendar-cycle in which the founding took place.


Other traditions of the “Later Flourishing of the Teachings,” known collectively as the Sarma (gSar-ma) or New Schools, also began to build monasteries at this time. For example, in 1073, the same year as the founding of Sangpu-neutog, Sakya Monastery (Sa-skya dgon-pa) was founded in Tsang (gTsang), the western half of Central Tibet by Kon Konchog-gyelpo (‘ Khon dKon-mchog rgyal-po). The monastery gave its name to the Sakya (Sa-skya) School.


The non-Buddhist tradition of Bon also built its first monastery at this time. In 1072, Drujey Yungdrung Lama (Bru-rje g.Yung-drung Bla-ma) founded Yayru Ensaka Monastery (g.Yas-ru dBen-sa-kha dGon-pa), also in Tsang. He built the monastery to establish a debate tradition to study the texts recovered from the walls of Samye by the first great revealer of Bon treasure texts (gter-ston), Shenchen Luga (gShen-chen Klu-dga’) (996-1035). The first hidden Bon treasure texts had been found by accident at Samye in 913 by a shepherd.


The first Nyingma (rNying-ma) treasure texts were revealed by the monk Sang-gyay Lama (Sangs-rgyas bla-ma), toward the end of the tenth century or the beginning of the eleventh. “Nyingma,” the Old School, was the name given to Padmasambhava’s Buddhist tradition in contrast to the “Sarma,” the New Schools. Sang-gyay Lama found them in a temple and in nearby rocks in Ngari. Their transmission, however, soon died out after him.

In 1038, Drapa Ngonshey (Gra-pa mNgon-shes) (b. 1012), however, discovered several Nyingma treasure texts concealed at Samye. He also revealed The Four Glorious Tantras of Medical Knowledge (gSo-ba rig-pa dpal-ldan rgyud-bzhi), which had also been concealed at the monastery. The transmissions of the texts that Drapa Ngonshey found did continue after him.

Although several pre-Langdarma monasteries, such as Samye, had revived and become centers of what now became known as the Nyingma tradition, the first new Nyingma monastery of this period was not built until 1159. This was Katog Dorjeden Monastery (Ka:-thog rDo-rje gdan dGon-pa, Kathog Monastery), founded in Derge District (sDe-dge) Kham (Khams), Southeastern Tibet, by Ka Dampa-desheg (Ka Dam-pa bDe-gshegs) (1122-1192).


The third major Sarma School, in addition to Kadam and Sakya, was the Kagyu (bKa’- brgyud). Its major lineage derived from the Indian masters Tilopa, through Naropa (1016 – 1100), to the Tibetan translator Marpa (Mar-pa Lo-tsa-ba Chos-kyi blo-gros) (1012 – 1097), his disciple Milarepa (Mi-la bZhad-pa rdo-rje) (1040 – 1123), and Milarepa’s disciple Gampopa (sGam-po-pa bSod-nams rin-chen) (1079-1153).

In 1158, one of Gampopa’s disciples, Pagmodrupa (Phag-mo gru-pa rDo-rje rgyal-po ) (1110-1170), founded Pagdrui Densatel (Phag-gru’i gDan-sa thel), the earliest Kagyu monastery. It became the seat of the Pagmodrupa Kagyu (Phag-mo gru-pa bKa’- brgyud) School.

In 1161, Barompa (Ba’-rom-pa Dar-ma dbang-phyug) (1127 – 1199), the disciple of another of Gampopa’s disciples, Won-gom Tsultrim-nyingpo (dBon-sgom Tshul-khrims snying-po), founded the Barom Monastery (Ba’-rom dgon­-pa). From here, the Barom Kagyu (Ba’-rom bKa’-brgyud) School evolved.

In 1175, Pagmodrupa’s disciple, Tselpa Zhang Yudragpa (Tshal-pa Zhang ‘Gro-ba’i mgon-po g.Yu-brag-pa brTson-‘grus grags-pa) (1123 – 1194), built Tsel Yanggon Monastery (Tshal Yang-dgon grva-tshang). Together with Tsel Gungthang Monastery (Tshal gung-thang-gi dgon-pa), founded by him in 1187, it became the center for the Tselpa Kagyu (Tshal-pa bKa’- brgyud) School.

In 1179, another of Pagmodrupa’s disciples, Drikungpa (‘Bri-gung sKyob-pa ‘Jig-rten dgon-po rin-chen dpal) (1143-1217), founded Drigungtil Monastery (‘Bri-gung mthil ‘Og-min byang-chub gling). From Drikungpa derives the Drikung Kagyu (‘Bri-kung bKa’-brgyud) School.

The next year, 1180, Taglung-tangpa (sTag-lung thang-pa bKra-shis dpal) (1142-1210), yet another of Pagmodrupa’s disciples, founded Taglungpa Monastery (sTag-lung-gi dgon-pa). It became the center for the Taglung Kagyu (sTag-lung bKa’-brgyud) School.

Next was the construction of Tsurpu Monastery (Tshur-phu dgon-pa) in 1189 by the First Karmapa, Dusum-kyenpa (Kar-ma Dus-gsum mkhyen-pa) (1110-1193). The First Karmapa was a direct disciple of Gampopa. Tsurpu Monastery became the center of the Karma Kamtsang Kagyu (Kar-ma kam-tshang bKa’-brgyud) School and the center for the line of Karmapas that followed.

The first major monastery of the Drugpa Kagyu (‘Brug-pa bKa’-brgyud) School, Namgyipur Monastery (gNam-gyi phur dgon-pa) was built in 1205 by Tsangpa Gyare (gTsang-pa rGya-ras Ye-shes rdo-rje) (1161 – 1211). Tsangpa Gyare was a disciple of Ling-repa (gLing Ras-pa Pad-ma rdo-rje) (1128 – 1211), who in turn was a disciple of Pagmodrupa.

Thus, by the time the Tibetans became aware of the Mongol threat of Chinggis Khan (Genghis Khan), the major monasteries of the major schools of Tibetan Buddhism and Bon had already been established in Tibet. Later, various Mongol Khan’s supported one or another of these Tibetan Buddhist Schools.