History of Tibetan influence on Chinese politics
Posted on April 8th, 2019

By P.K.Balachandran/Ceylon Today Courtesy NewsIn.Asia

Relations between Tibet and the rest of China to back to ancient times. Tibetans and Tibetan Buddhism had influenced the beliefs, political systems and art forms of several Chinese dynasties.

Karl Debreczeny, author of Faith and Empire: Art and Politics in Tibetan Buddhism (The University of Washington Press) says that from the 7 th., to early 20 th., century, Tibetan Buddhism had offered to Chinese and other East Asian dynasties, a divine means to power and legitimacy to rule.

And through tantric rituals, which are a part of Tibetan Buddhism, the ability to seize and retain power was attained.

Debreczeny, who is Curator at Rubin Museum in New York, says in an interview to James Blake Wiener of the Ancient History Encyclopaedia (AHE) that between the 7 th.,and the 9 th., centuries AD, Tibet had dramatically” established an empire, which became one of the great military powers of Asia. The Tibetan Empire’s principal rival was the Tang Dynasty of China (618 AD to 907 AD).

The Tibetan empire included the Hexi area of present-day Gansu province in North Western China, including Dunhuang, which at that time, was an important centre of international Buddhism and a trading hub at the eastern end of the Silk Route.

However, the culture of the Tibetan Empire was not purely Tibetan but hybrid. It’s writing was based on Sanskrit derived from India; it got it’s Buddhism from the monks of Khotan in Central Asia and scholars from India; its Greek medicine came via Persia; it got it’s record-keeping system from Tang China; and it’s silver-working techniques from Persia, Debreczeny points out.

Interestingly, when the Tibetan Empire took control of Dunhuang, the centre of Buddhist activity in 781 AD, Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan art were themselves in their formative stages. The first Tibetan monastery, Samyé, had been founded only two years earlier in 779 AD, coinciding with the adoption of Buddhism as Tibet’s state religion.

Thus, the scriptural translation and artistic activities at Dunhuang had a significant impact on what was to become Tibetan Buddhism”, the art historian says.

However, generations of the Tibetan Empire’s largely Chinese inhabitants, learned to speak and write Tibetan and were subject to Tibetan laws and overseen by Tibetan officials, Debreczeny says.

The Tibetans’ impact on Dunhuang was deep and long-standing, culturally, linguistically, and ideologically. The impact outlived the Tibetan occupation, which ended in 848 AD. Tibetan influence could be seen in the administrative, diplomatic, scriptural, and artistic areas. Tibetan language was in widespread use till well into the 10th century AD, he stresses.

Kublai Khan being initiated into Buddhism

Emergence of Tantrics

After the collapse of the Tibetan Empire in 848 AD, there was chaos. However, order was brought about by local tantric masters” who exercised authority between the 9th and 12th centuries AD.

Tantric master, Lama Zhang (1123-1193 AD) directly involved himself in political and military affairs, ruled territory, and enforced secular law. He even sent his own students into battle to work siege engines as part of their religious practice. Equipped not only with conventional weapons, Lama Zhang also employed a ritualized warfare of magic spells, purportedly aided by powerful protector deities such as Shri Devi and Mahakala,” Debreczeny says.

Lama Zhang’s tutelage led to the Tangut Empire of Xi Xia (1038-1227 AD) adopting the cult of the wrathful protector deity, Mahakala. The Mahakala cult was used as an instrument for power.

The Tangut were a Sino-Tibetan tribal people who inhabited North Western China. The Tangut Empire was a small but powerful multi-ethnic kingdom along the Silk Road. It adopted many of the court rituals of Tibetan Buddhism and aspects of Tibetan art.

Imperial Preceptors

Tibetan Buddhists, known for their expertise in ritual magic, served the Tangut court as Imperial Preceptors.” A cleric who was tied to the Tangut imperial line, Tsami Lotsawa, is linked to a work entitled: The Instructions of Shri Mahakala: The Usurpation of Government, which dwelt on ways to overthrow a government by invoking Mahakala.

When Genghis Khan, the Mongol marauder, laid siege to the Tangut capital in 1210 AD, the Tangut’s last Tibetan Buddhist Imperial Preceptor, Tishri Repa (1164-1236 AD), invoked Mahakala to break dams and drown the invading Mongols. This impressed the Mongols who wanted to know more about Mahakala.

In 1270 CE, Kublai Khan, the Mongol, appointed the Tibetan cleric, Phakpa as his Imperial Preceptor, the highest religious authority in the land, just prior to the founding of the Yuan dynasty(1271-1368 AD). The Yuan emperors also followed the practice of appointing Tibetans as Imperial Preceptors.

While the title ‘Imperial Preceptor’ was never revived after the fall of the Yuan dynasty, the practice of appointing Tibetan monks as advisors and using the wrathful deity of Mahakala in politics and war, lasted for centuries. In the 13th century, Mahakala became a Mongol State protector. Mahakala was credited with intervening in several key battles, and temples dedicated to this deity were built throughout the empire, Debreczeny points out.

Most famously, during the campaign to conquer Southern China, Kublai asked Phakpa for Mahakala to intervene against the Chinese Southern Song. In 1275 CE, Kublai’s Nepalese court artist Anige (1244-1306 CE) constructed a temple with its statue facing south, Phakpa performed the rituals, and soon after the Song capital fell, he adds.

Panjaranatha Mahakala

The Song dynasty ruled China from 960 AD to 1279 AD

Debreczeny further says: This sculpture (made by Kublai Khan’s Nepalese sculptor) became a potent symbol of both Kublai’s rule and the Yuan imperial lineage. This association was so strong that four centuries later the Manchus, lacking the proper bloodlines, traced their own spiritual ancestry to Kublai Khan as the rightful inheritors of his Yuan legacy.”

The Yongle Emperor (1402-1424 CE) was the first Ming emperor to establish significant ties with Tibetan patriarchs. The Mings ruled from 1368 AD to 1644 AD.

Yongle had seized the throne, thus a cloud hung over his legitimacy. As part of his strategy to bolster his right to rule, Yongle invited the Tibetan hierarch, the Fifth Karmapa (1384-1415 CE), to the early Ming capital of Nanjing. After the Karmapa’s visit, Yongle styled himself a universal sacral ruler (Chakravartin).”

The Manchus, like the Mongols, were a people from north of the Great Wall who conquered China and assumed Tibetan Buddhism as a means of political legitimacy in ruling a vast multi-ethnic empire. Under the Manchus the focus was on the cult of the Bodhisattva of Wisdom Manjushri” Debreczeny says.

The Manchu emperors (1644 AD to 1912 AD), lacking the proper bloodlines to the Mongol ruling house, traced their own spiritual ancestry to Kublai Khan through the Tibetan succession mechanism of reincarnation. By promoting themselves as emanations of Manjushri, they declared themselves Kublai Khan reborn and the rightful inheritors of his Yuan legacy, the historian says.

It was the Qianlong emperor (1736-1795 CE) more than any other Manchu ruler who realized the potential of patronizing Tibetan Buddhism, as is evidenced by the incredible volume of Tibetan Buddhist images produced by the imperial workshops.

Debreczeny however makes it a point to clarify that the various Chinese empires’ engagement with Buddhism did not necessarily signify that the leaders ruled on Buddhistic principles.

Their employment of religious rhetoric was part of their claim to legitimacy, and their deployment of religious ritual was one of the means by which they sought to take and maintain power,” he says.

The Manchus, like the Mongols, were a people from north of the Great Wall who conquered China and assumed Tibetan Buddhism as a means of political legitimacy in ruling a vast multi-ethnic empire. Under the Manchus the focus was on the cult of the Bodhisattva of Wisdom Manjushri” Debreczeny says.

The Manchu emperors (1644 AD to 1912 AD), lacking the proper bloodlines to the Mongol ruling house, traced their own spiritual ancestry to Kublai Khan through the Tibetan succession mechanism of reincarnation. By promoting themselves as emanations of Manjushri, they declared themselves Kublai Khan reborn and the rightful inheritors of his Yuan legacy, the historian says.

It was the Qianlong emperor (1736-1795 CE) more than any other Manchu ruler who realized the potential of patronizing Tibetan Buddhism, as is evidenced by the incredible volume of Tibetan Buddhist images produced by the imperial workshops.

Debreczeny however makes it a point to clarify that the various Chinese empires’ engagement with Buddhism did not necessarily signify that the leaders ruled on Buddhistic principles.

Their employment of religious rhetoric was part of their claim to legitimacy, and their deployment of religious ritual was one of the means by which they sought to take and maintain power,” he says.

(The featured image at the top shows Lama Zhang)

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