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Trisong Detsen: The 38th King of Tibet

Unifying Tibet and Fostering Buddhism

Trisong Detsen, the 38th monarch of the Tibetan Empire, played a pivotal role in unifying the region and significantly advancing Tibetan Buddhism. His reign is remembered for its remarkable contributions to the spread and development of Buddhism in Tibet. The story behind Trisong Detsen’s name is as fascinating as his legacy, filled with historical discrepancies due to varied translations in Chinese historical records. Some accounts even mistakenly refer to him as two different individuals or confuse him with his father.

The Origin of Trisong Detsen’s Name

The tale of how Trisong Detsen got his name is intriguing. According to the Tibetan historical text “The Banquet of the Sages,” when the prince was just one year old, the court officials deliberated on what his name should be. Miraculously, it was said that the prince named himself, proclaiming titles that emphasized his divine descent and sovereign authority over his subjects. However, setting aside mythical accounts, more credible sources like the Dunhuang Manuscripts suggest that the name Trisong Detsen was bestowed upon him by his ministers in the year 756, marking the beginning of his direct rule. This name was a regal title, symbolizing his leadership and divine endorsement.

Political Turmoil and Legacy

Trisong Detsen’s reign was marked by two significant political upheavals. The first was fueled by escalating tensions between the followers of the indigenous Bon religion and Tibetan Buddhism, leading to a power struggle within the ruling class. The second upheaval arose from the uncertainty surrounding the succession to the throne, which split the kingdom into rival factions. These conflicts ultimately led to a coup, highlighting the fragile nature of political alliances and the quest for power in Tibet’s history.

Despite these challenges, Trisong Detsen’s most enduring legacy is his profound impact on Tibetan Buddhism. He is celebrated for establishing Buddhism as the state religion of Tibet and for his efforts in promoting Buddhist teachings, culture, and practices. His reign is often seen as a golden era for Tibetan Buddhism, during which it became deeply integrated into the fabric of Tibetan society.

A Legacy of Unity and Faith

Trisong Detsen’s contributions to Tibetan history are immeasurable. He not only unified Tibet under a central authority but also laid the foundation for the flourishing of Tibetan Buddhism. His story, encompassing both his political achievements and spiritual endeavors, continues to inspire and resonate with people today. Through his legacy, Trisong Detsen remains a symbol of unity, religious devotion, and the transformative power of faith.

The Tragic Fate of Tride Tsugtsen and the Persecution of Buddhism Under Trisong Detsen’s Early Rule

The Mysterious Assassination of Tride Tsugtsen

Tride Tsugtsen, the father of Trisong Detsen and the 37th king of Tibet, met a grim fate through poisoning, an act shrouded in mystery with no clear explanation to this day. However, clues from ancient Dunhuang manuscripts and various historical records suggest that, due to Trisong Detsen’s young age and inability to govern, power fell into the hands of ambitious ministers. This period saw figures like Machen Pomdrag and others, who favored the indigenous Bon religion, misuse their power to suppress the spread of Buddhism.

Legal Suppression of Buddhism

The ambitious ministers, including Toru Gyesarje Kong and Machen Pomdrag, wielded authority that surpassed even that of the king, allowing them to manipulate legal documents at will. They issued a legal decree named “The Minor Code,” which explicitly banned the study and propagation of Buddhism. Anyone found engaging in Buddhist practices was to be exiled. Historical documents from that era confirm the enforcement of such laws, highlighting the ministers’ overwhelming influence and their efforts to undermine Buddhism.

Desecration and Persecution

According to historical texts, Machen Pomdrag went as far as placing the innards of slaughtered animals on Buddhist statues and hanging intestines around their necks. He proclaimed that anyone found practicing Buddhism would be exiled, and he forbade traditional Buddhist funerary rites, expelling foreign monks from Tibet. Significant temples, including the Jokhang and the Ramoche, suffered extensive damage, being repurposed into factories and slaughterhouses. The minister also barred Indian scholars like Jemigupta and Anandavarman from translating Buddhist texts.

The Incident at the Ramoche Temple

The Ramoche Temple experienced turmoil when it was decreed that all foreign Buddhist statues must be returned to their countries of origin. Plans were made to return a statue of Shakyamuni Buddha to the Tang Dynasty, but mysteriously, the statue became immovable, regardless of how many people attempted to transport it. In desperation, the statue was buried on site. Following the burial, several Bon ministers began to die under strange circumstances. Machen Pomdrag, panicked by these events, sought diviners’ counsel. The conclusion was that the wrath of Han deities was responsible for these occurrences. The suggested remedy was to relocate the Buddha statue to a region closer to India, leading to the statue of the twelve-year-old Shakyamuni being moved to Mang Yul.

Reflection

These events highlight a tumultuous period in Tibetan history, where political power struggles and religious persecution underpinned the early years of Trisong Detsen’s reign. Despite the initial suppression of Buddhism, Trisong Detsen would later become known for his pivotal role in establishing Buddhism as a central pillar of Tibetan culture, showcasing a remarkable transformation from a reign marked by religious suppression to one of spiritual enlightenment and unity.

The Revival of Buddhism Under Trisong Detsen

Overcoming Opposition

As Trisong Detsen grew older, his dissatisfaction with the monopolistic power of Machen Pomdrag and other ministers who opposed Buddhism grew. Seeking to revive Buddhism and counter the old aristocratic forces to maintain royal power and solidify his rule, Trisong Detsen consulted with pro-Buddhist ministers like Selang and Sambhu. Despite facing obstruction from anti-Buddhist ministers like Machen Pomdrag and Daza Lugong, Trisong Detsen tacitly allowed his Buddhist followers to eliminate Machen Pomdrag through stratagem, burying him alive.

Proclaiming the Revival of Buddhism

Trisong Detsen’s commitment to Buddhism was publicly affirmed by bringing back the statue of Shakyamuni Buddha that had been sent to Mang Yul and placing it in the Jokhang Temple. During a gathering of his ministers, Trisong Detsen declared his ancestors’ dedication to Buddhism, which had been destroyed by Machen, to be a grave misdeed. Inspired by his maternal uncle, Nyima Seng, Trisong Detsen vowed to restore and honor Buddhism in Tibet. This led to inviting Indian high monks like Bodhisattva Shantarakshita and the tantric master Padmasambhava to promote Buddhism in Tibet. Their efforts, along with public debates between Buddhism and the native Bon religion, significantly established Buddhism’s presence in Tibet, dealing a severe blow to Bon’s influence.

Strengthening Buddhist Learning and Infrastructure

Eager to further promote Buddhist teachings, Trisong Detsen personally traveled to Kheni Monastery to find the talented Thonmi Sambhota, whom he sent to India for education. Sambhota returned to become Tibet’s most famous translator, praised for his knowledge as vast as the sky. In the late 8th century, Trisong Detsen invited the Indian Buddhist masters Shantarakshita and Padmasambhava to Tibet and decided to build a monastery for them. In 762 AD, Trisong Detsen laid the foundation for this monastery, which was completed in 775 AD. Legend has it that Padmasambhava created an illusory image of the completed monastery to satisfy the king’s curiosity, leading to Trisong Detsen’s exclamation of “Samye” (meaning “unimaginable” or “beyond expectation”), which became the monastery’s name. The completion of Samye Monastery was celebrated with a grand consecration ceremony.

Conclusion

Trisong Detsen’s reign marks a significant period in Tibetan history, characterized by the revival of Buddhism. Through strategic alliances, the construction of monumental religious infrastructure, and the promotion of Buddhist teachings, Trisong Detsen not only consolidated his power but also transformed Tibet into a stronghold of Buddhism. His efforts laid the groundwork for Buddhism’s enduring presence in Tibetan culture and society, showcasing his pivotal role in Tibet’s religious history.

About the author

The Tibetan Travel website's creator, hailing from Lhasa, is a cultural enthusiast. They promote responsible tourism, connecting the world to Tibet's beauty and heritage. Awards recognize their contribution.

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