Tibetan Lamas and Mongol Patrons

Chinggis Khan

In 1207 CE, news reached Tibet that Chinggis Khan (Sog-po Ching-ge-se Kh’ang) (1162 – 1227) had conquered the Tangut Empire in Gansu and Amdo. The Tibetans had a close relation with the Tanguts at this time. They had already been engaged in translating Buddhist texts from Tibetan into Tangut for over a century and a half. Tselpa Kagyupa and Barom Kagyupa lamas held prominent positions in the Tangut court and Tangut monks were studying in Tibet, especially with the Drikung Kagyupas.

The Mongols attacked the Tanguts in 1206 and finally defeated them in 1211. The Tanguts then became a vassal state of the growing Mongol Empire, required to support the Khan in his military efforts.

Before turning to conquests in the west, the Mongol forces next invaded the Jurchen (Chin. Jin) Empire (1115 – 1234) to the east of the Tanguts, in Manchuria and northern China. Chinggis’s army defeated them and took the northern half of their territory, including Yanjing, later known as Beijing. The Mongols forced the Jurchen to sign a peace treaty in 1214.

The Jurchen were the ancestors of the Manchus. After having consolidated their rule in Manchuria, the Jurchens had overthrown the Chinese Northern Song Dynasty (960 – 1126) and incorporated northern China into their empire in 1126. The Chinese Southern Song Dynasty (1127 – 1278) dates from this defeat.

Upon receiving the news of the Mongol campaign against the Tanguts, the rulers of the various states within Tibet sent a combined delegation to Chinggis Khan to declare their submission. This arrangement included paying tribute to the Mongols and, as a result, the Khan did not invade Tibet.

Turrell Wylie (“The First Mongol Conquest of Tibet Reinterpreted,” Harvard Journal of Asian Studies vol. 37, no. 1) questions this point. Tibet was still fragmented at this time and cooperation among the small states seems unlikely.

The Qocho Uighurs along the northern rim of the Tarim Basin, however, did submit peacefully to the Chinggis Khan in 1209. The Uighurs cooperated with the Mongols, developing for them an adaptation of their own script for writing Mongolian and providing administrative help for the growing empire. They made the first translations of Buddhist texts into Mongolian, translating from Uighur texts.

Chinggis Khan died in 1227. The Tanguts had refused to send troops to fight with the Mongols in their campaign against the Khwarezmian Empire in present-day Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Iran. Consequently, after his successful western conquests, Chinggis returned to the Tangut homeland and decimated his former vassals. Chinggis, however, died during this campaign, due to a fever. After Chinggis Khan’s death, Tibet stopped paying tribute to the Mongols.

Invitation of Sakya Pandita to Mongolia by Godan Khan

Chinggis was succeeded as Grand Khan by his third son, Ogedei (U-ge-ta Kh’an) (1189 – 1241). Like his father, Ogedei was open to the advice and prayers of leaders from the various religions that the Mongols encountered. Thus, he kept in his court not only outstanding figures from the native Mongol shamanist tradition, but also from the Chinese Chan Buddhist and Daoist schools, Nestorian Christianity, as well as the Kashmiri Buddhist teacher, Namo.

In 1234, after conquering Korea, Ogedei put an end to the Jurchen Dynasty and incorporated the rest of northern China into the Mongol Empire. Two years later, in 1236, he granted the former Jurchen territories as a fiefdom to his nephew, Khubilai (Kublai) Khan (Kub-la’i Kh’an or, more commonly, Se-chen rGyal-po, Mong. Setsen Khan) (1215 – 1294). Ogedei’s son, Godan Khan (Go-dan Kh’an, Mong. Koton) (1206 – 1251), held a fief in the former Tangut region. The local Tanguts and Yellow Yugurs living there followed predominantly the Tibetan forms of Buddhism. Godan frequently raided Amdo, to the west of his fiefdom and looted the Buddhist monasteries there.

In 1240, Godan sent 30,000 of his troops deeper into Tibet under the Mongol General Doorda Darkhan. According to Wylie, this was the first contact the Mongols made with Central Tibet.

These forces reached as far as Penpo (‘Phan-po), north of Lhasa, and not only looted, but also burned down Radreng Monastery and the Gyel Lhakang Temple. Regretting this destruction, Godan Khan had a change of heart. He now felt that the Mongolian people could benefit from the spiritual teachings of Buddhism.

According to Wylie, since there is no record of the Mongols having looted or destroyed any monasteries other than these two Kadam ones during this expedition, the main purpose was undoubtedly reconnaissance to find a suitable Tibetan leader to submit to the Mongols. Since Tibet as a whole lacked any political leader, the Mongols sought a prestigious spiritual leader instead.

Asking who would be best to invite, General Doorda Darkhan advised, “The Kadampas are the best regarding the monastic institution; the Taglungpas are the most skilled in worldly human affairs; in splendor, the Drikungpas are the greatest; but as for Dharma, Sakya Pandita is the most learned of them all.” Subsequently, the Khan sent an order to Sakya Pandita Kunga-gyaltsen (Sa-skya Pandita Kun-dga’ rgyal-mtshan) (1182 1251) to come to his court to teach the Dharma to him and his people.

According to Wylie, the political reason behind Godan Khan’s choice of Sakya Pandita was that succession within the Sakya line was hereditary within the Kon (‘Khon) family. Thus, the choice of him insured continuity of submission to the Mongols.

Sakya Pandita set out from Sakya Monastery in 1244, accompanied by his nephews, the ten-year old Phagpa (‘Gro-mgon Chos-rgyal ‘Phags-pa Blo-gros rgyal-mtshan) (1235 – 1280) and the six-year old Chagna-dorje (Phyag-na rdo-rje) (b. 1239 – 1267). According to Wylie, the nephews were forced to come in order to ensure lasting Sakya allegiance. Phagpa was the religious heir of the Sakyas, while Chagna was destined to be the Kon family patriarch. They arrived in Lanzhou (Ling-chur) in 1247, the present-day capital of Gansu. Godan Khan met them there upon his return from the enthronement of his older brother Guyuk (Go-yug Kh’an) (1206 – 1248) as Grand Khan. Ogedei Khan’s Nestorian Christian widow, Toregene, had held power during the interim period between Ogedei’s death in 1241 and her son Guyuk’s enthronement in 1246.

Guyuk Khan was favorably disposed to Buddhism and had studied under the Kashmiri Buddhist teacher, Namo. He granted Namo the title “Guusi” (gu-shri, Chin: guoshi), meaning “State Preceptor.” The Mongols had borrowed the Chinese title from the Tanguts. Prior to Namo, the Tselpa Kagyu scholar Gushri Togpa-yongsel (rTogs-pa Yongs-su gsal-ba) had held the title in the Tangut court before Chinggis Khan’s invasion in 1226.

After Guyuk Khan’s death in 1248 and another short interim rule, Mongke (r. 1251 – 1259), the oldest son of Chinggis Khan’s fourth son, Tolui (1190 – 1232), became Grand Khan. In 1252, Mongke put Namo in charge of administering Buddhist affairs throughout his realm.

Sakya Pandita taught Buddhism to Godan Khan, convincing him stop decimating the local Chinese population by drowning. He also cured the Khan of a serious skin disease. In return, Godan was given temporal authority over Tibet in the name of the Mongols. Sakya Pandita wrote a letter to the learned Buddhist masters and their lay patrons (yon-mchod) in U and Tsang in Central Tibet, as well as in Kham (mDo-khams). In it, he advised them that it was futile to resist the Mongol army, and that they should instead pay tribute. The Tibetans requested that Sakya Pandita return to Central Tibet, but as Godan was treating him well, and feeling that his presence among the Mongols and local Uighurs, Tanguts, and Chinese was more valuable, he excused himself and remained.

Wylie notes that the above happenings conformed to the customs regularly followed by the Mongols when assimilating a new territory. Submission required the ruler of the territory to personally surrender before the Khan. The Khan would then keep the ruler with him as hostage, exact tribute, and depute a Mongol governor to rule the new territory.

Sensing that he would die soon, Sakya Pandita left as his legacy a book titled Clarifying the Buddha’s Intentions (Thub pa’i dgong gsal) and a letter for lay people that described his confidence in Godan’s good intentions for Tibet. After appointing Phagpa as his successor, Sakya Pandita passed away in Lanzhou in 1251.

Establishment of a Lama-Patron Relationship between Khubilai Khan and Phagpa

Shortly after this, Godan Khan also died. He was succeeded as ruler over the former Tangut region by Khubilai Khan one of the younger brothers of the Grand Khan Mongke and cousin to Godan Khan. Khubilai already had held the fiefdom of northern China since 1236.

Khubilai summoned Phagpa to his camp in 1253 and took him as his teacher. It was decided that Khubilai would prostrate to Phagpa in private, but not in public. Also, the Khan would seek Phagpa’s consent on decisions regarding Tibet, and Phagpa would not interfere on matters involving other regions controlled by the Mongols. This turned out to be the prototype lama-patron (bla-yon) relationship in Asian government.

Phagpa then conferred the Hevajra empowerment on the Khan, his senior queen, and twenty-five of his ministers. In return, Phagpa was granted authority over the thirteen myriarchies (khri-skor bcu-gsum) or administrative units of Central and Western Tibet, and later over the three regions of Tibet (chol-kha gsum): namely, Central Tibet (U and Tsang), Kham (mDo-stod), and Amdo (mDo-smad).

Wylie points out that mention of the myriarchies in this traditional account is an anachronism. This is because the division of Central and Western Tibet into thirteen myriarchies took place only after the census of 1268, undertaken by the Mongols to facilitate the collection of taxes. A myriarchy was supposed to consist of a region containing ten thousand families, although the actual numbers were much less.

Also in 1253, Mongke Khan ordered Khubilai to attack and take Nanzhao (present-day Yunnan), known at this time as “Dali” (Ta-li). Khubilai Khan passed through Kham to reach Dali, but Mongol troops did not remain there afterwards. Communist Chinese historians, however, claim that Tibet became part of Yuan China from the time of this incursion, despite the fact that the Yuan Dynasty was not founded until 1271.

Upon his return from Dali, Khubilai invited the Second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi (Kar-ma-pa Pakshi) (1204 – 1283) to his camp. The Karma Kagyu leader arrived in 1255. Although Khubiliai urged him to stay, Karma Pakshi declined and went instead to the court of the Grand Khan Mongke in Karakorum, his capital in Mongolia. He arrived there the next year, in 1256.

Debates between Buddhism and Other Religions

Like his predecessors as Grand Khan, Mongke had representatives of various religions at his court. He was interested to sponsor debates among them, to see which religion was superior. In 1254, William of Rubruck, a Flemish Franciscan missionary, together with representatives of Nestorian Christianity and Islam debated against the Chinese Chan Buddhists, whom he characterized as “idolators.” In 1255, the Grand Khan sponsored a debate between the Buddhists, represented by Namo, and the Daoists concerning the Daoist claim that Buddha was a disciple of Laozi and that Laozi had converted the western lands to Daoism. Namo was the victor.

Mongke Khan was intent on completing the conquest of China begun by his grandfather Chinggis and his uncle Ogedei. In 1256, Khubilai, as holder of the fiefdom of northern China, had already built a palace for himself at Shangdu (Chin. Shangdu, Xanadu), north of present-day Beijing. From there, Khubilai joined Mongke in a campaign against Southern Song China in 1258.

Before setting out on the campaign, Mongke ordered Khubilai to hold another debate between the Buddhists and the Daoists, also concerning the issue of Buddha being a disciple of Laozi. This time Phagpa represented the Buddhist side and again the Daoists were defeated. Since Daoism was extremely popular in the Southern Song territories, a doctrinal victory was seen as auspicious.

Mongke Khan, however, died of fever in 1259 during this campaign. Upon his death, a struggle for the position of Grand Khan ensued between Mongke’s two brothers, Khubilai and Ariq Boke. Mongke had left Ariq Boke in charge at Karakorum when he left on this campaign. In 1260, while Ariq Boke was elected Grand Khan in Karakorum, Khubilai was elected to the same position in Khanbaliq. War broke out between them, and Khubilai finally defeated Ariq Boke in 1264.

Once the internecine struggle was settled, Khubilai granted Phagpa the title of “Tishri” (Ti-shri, Chin. Di-shi), meaning “Imperial Preceptor.” According to Wylie and others, Phagpa was granted merely the title “Gushri” (State Preceptor) at this time.

Khubilai wanted to allow the practice of only Phagpa’s Sakya School, but Phagpa insisted that other Tibet Buddhist Schools be allowed to practice as well, including Karma Kagyu. Because of Karma Pakshi’s refusal of Khubilai’s previous invitation to remain with him and because of Karma Pakshi’s suspected support of Ariq Boke, Khubilai offered him no patronage after he became Grand Khan. According to Luciano Petech (Central Tibet and the Mongols: The Yüan – Sa-skya Period of Tibetan History), Khubilai had Karma Pakshi arrested and banished to Dali, from which he was only allowed to return to Tibet in 1269.

Establishment of Mongol Overlordship of Tibet

Once Khubilai defeated Ariq Boke and became the undisputed Grand Khan, he founded in that same year, 1264, the Main Governing Bureau (Chin. Zongzhi yuan) for Tibetan and Buddhist Affairs. This was seven years before Khubilai founded the Yuan Dynasty in China. The Bureau had three divisions, according to the three Tibetan regions mentioned above: Central Tibet, Amdo, and Kham. Each was administered under a separate office. It was headed by a Uighurized Tibetan monk, Seng-ge (Chin. Sang-ge, Wade-Giles: Sang-ko.) Subsequently, the position of Bureau Head was always held by a Buddhist monk. The Bureau controlled the postal stations in Tibet and organized Buddhist rituals for the state and the imperial family. Military affairs in Tibet were also organized by this Bureau, under its Pacification Office (Chin. Xuanwei shisi).

Herbert Franke (“Tibetans in Yüan China” in China under Mongol Rule) explains that only Tibetans and Mongols staffed the Main Governing Bureau for Tibetan and Buddhist Affairs, no Han Chinese; while the Pacification Office had only Mongols. Thus, the Bureau formed a distinct unit in the Mongol imperial government, completely separate from the governing organs later created for administering Yuan China. Thus, the three Tibetan regions were never made provinces of Yuan China, but were always administered separately as Mongol territories. In fact, the Mongols even established trading posts, with licensed border markets, on the borders of Amdo and Kham with China, clearly indicating that the Tibetan regions formed a distinct part of the Mongol Empire separate from China. They did not set up similar posts for trade within the borders of China.

In 1265, Phagpa returned to Tibet for the first time since his childhood. He was accompanied by his younger lay brother Chagna-dorje, who was deputed to be the local administrative head for Central Tibet. The party was also accompanied by 6000 Mongol soldiers. According to Wylie (“The First Mongol Conquest of Tibet Reinterpreted”), the Mongol cavalry went with Phagpa to assure centralized Mongol authority under the Main Governing Bureau for Buddhist and Tibetan Affairs. While on route, the Mongols secured their control over Amdo.

Chagna died in Tibet in 1267. Shakya-zangpo (Sha-kya bzang-po) (d. 1275) was then appointed in his place and given the title “Chief Magistrate” (dpon-chen), with a headquarters at Sakya.

Phagpa left Tibet in 1267 to return to Khubilai’s new capital, Khanbaliq (Daidu) (Chin. Dadu) (present-day Beijing). It was then, after Phagpa’s departure, that the census of Tibet was made in 1268. It was conducted in the Mongolian language, under the authority of Shakya-zangpo and the Mongol officers left behind. As a result of this census, the division of Central Tibet into thirteen myriarchies or administrative units was started, with each headed by a “Myriarch Magistrate” (khri-dpon). The Mongols also went on, at this time, to secure Kham under the control of the Bureau of Tibetan and Buddhist Affairs.

Phagpa arrived back at Khubilai Khan’s court in 1269 three years after the arrival there of Marco Polo in 1266. He brought with him a script for writing the Mongolian language that he had invented, based on the Tibetan script. It was better equipped for transcribing Sanskrit and Tibetan letters than the previously used Uighur-based script was. For a short while, the “Phagpa Script” was used for official business, but its square form made it awkward and it was abandoned after Khubilai’s death in 1295.

According to Wylie, Phagpa was only granted the title “Tishri” in 1270, in anticipation of Khubilai’s founding of the Yuan Dynasty of China and enthronement as its first emperor, Yuan Shizu, in 1271. In granting this title to a Tibetan lama, Khubilai was following the example set by the Tanguts of the region that he had governed since 1251. The Barom Kagyu lama Tishri-raypa (Ti-shri Ras-pa Sangs-rgyas ras-chen) (b. 1164) had held this title in the Tangut court from 1196 to 1226 under the rule of three or four Tangut kings. Usually, the title “Tishri” implied that the holder conferred tantric empowerments on the emperor.

Phagpa returned to Sakya in 1276. According to Wylie, this was to find a replacement for Shakya-zangpo, who had died the year before. Phagpa appointed Kunga-zangpo (Kun-dga’ bzang-po) as the next Chief Magistrate.

Khubilai Khan now extended the jurisdiction of the Main Governing Bureau for Tibetan and Buddhist Affairs to all of China. In 1277, it was given control over all the Buddhist monasteries not only within the Tibetan regions, but inside China as well. Within two years, in 1279, Khubilai completed his conquest of Southern Song China. He had the defeated last Song Emperor exiled to Tibet to become a Buddhist monk.

Drikung Rebellion against the Sakyas

Meanwhile, in Tibet, in 1280, Phagpa mysteriously died. Kunga-zangpo was accused of poisoning him and Khubilai had him executed for the murder in 1281. A period of unrest followed. In 1285, Drikung Kagyu forces rebelled against the Sakya rule and burned various Sakya monasteries. The rebellion was put down by Mongol troops under the command of Khubilai’s grandson, Temur Khan (1265 – 1307) and organized by Seng-ge, the head of the Main Governing Bureau for Tibetan and Buddhist Affairs. With the help of Sakya loyalists, the Mongol army burned down the monastic headquarters of the Drikung.

According to Wylie, these events were probably part of Khubilai’s larger military campaign against his rival Khaidu (Kaidu) Khan (1230 – 1301), grandson of Ogedei. In 1268, Khaidu had formed his own khanate in East Turkistan and parts of West Turkistan and never accepted Khubilai as Grand Khan. Khaidu, who was favorably disposed to Islam, patronized the Drikung Kagyupas. Wylie postulates that Khaidu was behind the Drikung rebellion in Tibet. Khubilai’s forces defeated Khaidu in 1288.

In this same year, Khubilai replaced the Main Governing Bureau with a General Regulations Bureau (Svon-ching dben, Chin. Xuanzheng yuan) for Tibetan and Buddhist Affairs. It had the same functions as the previous bureau and was also headed by Seng-ge. Nominally, it was under the offices of Imperial Preceptor. The restructuring came after the Mongols conducted a second census of Tibet in 1287.

Temur Khan succeeded Khubilai as the Yuan Emperor, Yuan Chengzong (r. 1294 – 1307). During his reign, he sponsored the printing of the Tangut Tripitika collection of Buddhist scriptures in 1305. This clearly indicates the continuing respect shown to the Tanguts despite Chinggis Khan’s decimation of its population. Under the reign of the next Mongol Emperor, Khaishan Khan, Yuan Wuzong (1308 – 1312), the Mongolian translation of texts included in the Kangyur (bKa’-‘gyur), the Tibetan translation of the Buddha’s words, was begun. The first Tibetan Kangyur was being compiled at this time at Nartang Monastery. It was revised by the Sakya lama Buton (Bu-ston Rin-chen grub) (1290 – 1364) in 1351 at Zhalu Monastery.

The Decline of Mongol Power

After Khubilai Khan’s death in 1294, however, Mongol power in China slowly declined, due to corruption, poor financial management, and famine. The power of the Sakya family in Tibet declined as well, due to numerous lineage sons and the resulting schisms. In 1319, the Sakya ruling family split into four houses. Disenchanted with the situation and weak themselves, the Mongols gradually withdrew their military support of the Sakyas.

The influence of the Karmapas increased, however, at this stage. Chang Jiunn Yih (“The Relationship between the Yuan and the Sa-skya Sect after Khubilai Khan,” Bulletin of the Institute of China Border Area Studies, vol. 16), suggests that the Mongols were looking to support a Tibetan Buddhist School with a more stable line of succession. The Karmapas were the first line of tulkus, Reincarnate Lamas, and thus offered a more promising alternative to the Sakyas.

The Third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje (Kar-ma-pa Rang-byung rdo-rje) (1284 – 1339 CE), was thus ordered to the Mongol Yuan court in China in 1331 by Togh Temur, Emperor Yuan Wenzong (1329 – 1332). The Third Karmapa had gained great prominence at this time as a master scholar and practitioner, and had been teaching extensively in the Uighur and Mongol regions. Togh Temur, as well as his successor Irinchibal, Yuan Ningzong (Rin-chen dpal) (r. 1332) died while the Third Karmapa was en route. When the Karmapa finally arrived in Daidu in 1333, he officiated at the enthronement of Toghan Temur (Tho-gan the-mur) as Emperor Yuan Shundi (r. 1333 – 1370), the last Yuan Emperor.

The Third Karmapa returned to Tibet in 1334 and, two years later, was invited to China once more by the Mongol Emperor, this time in a more respectful tone. He arrived in 1338, conferred the Kalachakra empowerment on the Emperor and received the title “Gushri,” “State Preceptor.” Up until then, this title had been held only by Sakyapas. It carried no political authority, however. The Third Karmapa also founded a Karma Kagyu temple in Daidu and then shortly thereafter passed away there.

Establishment of the Pagmodru Hegemony

In 1352, Jangchub-gyaltsen (Byang-chub rgyal-mtshan) (1302 – 1364), Myriarch Magistrate of Pagmodru (Phag-mo-gru) Myriarch began a military offensive in U, Central Tibet, to seize control of Tibet from the Sakyapas. Like the Sakyapas, the Pagmodrupas also had a line of succession that passed within a family. The Mongol Emperor Toghun Temur did not send any military assistance to the Sakyapas. Instead of becoming involved in the conflict, he invited the young Fourth Karmapa (Kar-ma-pa Rol-pa’i rdo-rje) (1340 – 1383) to Daidu in 1356. While the Karmapa was on route, the last Sakya Chief Magistrate of Tibet was overthrown and Jangchub-gyaltsen established the second religious hegemony of Tibet, that of Pagmodru in 1358. It lasted until 1434.

Toghun Temur still did not become involved with political affairs in Tibet, although he acknowledged Jangchub-gyaltsen’s title of “Tai-situ” (ta’i si-tu, Chin. da situ) once the Pagmodru hegemony had been founded. In inviting the Fourth Karmapa, however, it seemed that he wanted to avoid taking sides in a Tibetan conflict between two clans.

“Da situ” or simply “Situ” was a traditional Chinese administrative title used for either Ministers of Work and Revenue or Ministers of Education. In Tibet, the Tibetanized version of the title, “Tai-situ,” was used for Myriarch Magistrates. In later times, the title was granted by Chinese emperors to prominent lamas who traveled to the imperial court.

Although Toghun Temur was infamous for conducting tantric rituals in his court in a degenerate literal manner with women, nevertheless the Fourth Karmapa stayed at the Yuan court from 1359 to 1363. Like his predecessor the Third Karmapa, he conferred the Kalachakra empowerment on both the Emperor and his queen.

Toghun Temur was expelled from Daidu in 1368 by Zhu Yuanzhang and withdrew to Mongolia where he carried on the Northern Yuan Dynasty (1368 – 1412). Zhu Yuanzhang took over the rule of China and founded the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644), with its capital in Nanjing. He became known as Hungwu Emperor, Ming Taizu (r. 1368 – 1399).