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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Buddhism and Empire I: a soldier's prayer

September 2, 2008

Sam van Schaik
Early Tibet
August 8, 2007

Miran fort Most of the sources we use to study Tibetan Buddhism
during the time of the Tibetan empire are officially sanctioned:
translations, royal edicts, monastic library lists and the the like.
There are far fewer sources revealing how Buddhism was practised by
ordinary Tibetans during the empire. Here is one such source: a
soldier's document from the Tibetan fort of Miran (Tibetan name: Nob
chung) on the edge of the Lopnor desert.

Tibetan soldiers in Central Asia used wooden documents as much as
paper ones. Wood was used for baggage tags, requisition notes, even
for short letters. Usually these documents are small rectangular
pieces of wood which we call woodslips. In some rare cases, we also
find Buddhist texts on these woodslips. The one pictured here (IOL
Tib N 404) contains a prayer and a brief dha-ran.i- spell of the

The first thing scribbled on the woodslip is a prayer for refuge to
the three jewels, with particular reference to avoiding hell (na
rag). Then is mentioned, followed by a short
version of one of her dha-ran.i- spells.

IOL Tib J 404

The role of dha-ran.i-s in the popularization of Buddhism in Tibet is
rarely mentioned, but they were hugely popular in the early period.
The Dunhuang collections contain at least 40 manuscript copies of the dha-ran.i- alone. Perhaps we should say a
little more about what a dha-ran.i- is. Somewhat confusingly, the
word can refer to two things:

1. Dha-ran.i- spells: a sequence of Sanskrit syllables, akin to a
mantra, but usually longer; in fact dha-ran.i- spells can be several
pages long.
2. Dha-ran.i- su-tras: scriptural texts presenting one or more
dha-ran.i- spells. These usually set out the background of the
spell—how and why it was taught by the Buddha—and explain the uses of
the spell, which is usually to guard against various calamities, from
illness to demons, enemies, death and rebirth in hell.

Sometimes, as with this woodslip, the spell was copied without the
su-tra, presumably so that it could be carried around and recited
when needed. Considering the many uses of dha-ran.i- spells, it's not
surprising that soldiers of the Tibetan empire might have carried
spells around with them for their protective properties. Of course,
many would have memorized the spells, and this woodslip may have
served more as an aide-memoire than a permanent record.

Finally, it's worth turning over this particular woodslip, as the
other side contains a charming picture of an animal. The species is a
little hard to make out: a tiger, a dog or perhaps the ubiquitous
marmot, found scampering throughout Central Asia? Suggestions please…
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