Tri Songdetsen (Trisong Detsen) was also a proponent of Buddhism and, as such, was opposed by his many conservative, xenophobic ministers who preferred the Bon religion. In 761 he sent his minister Selnang (gSal-snang) to Nepal and on to India to invite the Buddhist master Shantarakshita, the abbot of Nalanda Monastery, the most prestigious Buddhist center of learning in northern India.
The Indian master’s arrival and teaching in Tibet supposedly displeased the local Bon spirits, resulting in many storms and floods. According to other sources, a smallpox epidemic also broke out. Because of pressure on the Emperor by his xenophobic pro-Bon ministers, Shantarakshita was blamed for the disasters and expelled from Tibet. Before leaving for India, however, Shantarakshita suggested that the Emperor invite the powerful Buddhist master Padmasambhava of Oddiyana, in present-day Swat Valley of northwestern Pakistan to subdue the Bon spirits.
Tri Songdetsen subsequently did so and also invited Shantarakshita to return as well. Once more, Selnang led the Tibetan mission to accompany the Indian master.
Samye Monastery Construction
Emperor Tri Songdetsen built the first monastery in Tibet. According to most sources, it was begun in 766 and completed in 775. Called Samye (bSam-yas), the monastery was modeled after Odantapuri the new Indian monastery built a few years earlier under the sponsorship of Emperor Gopala (r. 750 – 770), the founder of the Pala Dynasty in India.
Before Samye was completed, Padmasambhava left Tibet. Before he did so, however, he hid various texts, concerning the advanced meditation system called “dzogchen (rdzogs-chen)” in the walls of the monastery. Padmasambhava felt that the Tibetans were not yet sophisticated and ripe enough to be able to comprehend them. Thus, they were concealed as “treasure texts” (gter-ma), to be recovered later when the Tibetans were ready to understand and practice them correctly.
Samye was originally populated by the first seven native Tibetan monks, who started a school there for Sanskrit and translation. They were given monk ordination by Shantarakshita and his Indian disciples who accompanied him to Tibet. Scholars at Samye translated Buddhist texts not only from Sanskrit, but also from Chinese into Tibetan. Others translated Bon texts into Tibetan from the Zhang-zhung language.
Shantarakshita passed away at Samye in 783. In the same year, Emperor Tri Songdetsen created a Religious Council to decide upon all religious matters. He appointed Shantarakshita’s successor to the abbotship of Samye, Selnang (gSal-snang), as the chief minister of the Council. Selnang led the pro-Indian faction in Tibet and, in order to insure the direction in which Tibet would develop, he influenced the Emperor so that the Council had the power to override decisions by other ministers.
In 784, one of the Council’s first acts was to banish the conservative xenophobic Bon faction within the imperial court to Gilgit (present-day northern Pakistan) and Nanzhao. Following the example of Padmasambhava, the Bon master Drenpa-namka (Dran-pa nam-mkha’) also hid various Bon texts, covering all topics, in the mud walls of Samye for safekeeping.
The Samye Debate
Before he died, Shantarakshita predicted a conflict between two schools of Buddhism, the Chinese Chan School teaching instant enlightenment through stopping all thought and activity, and his own Indian school’s teaching of a gradual path of study, analysis, and ethical discipline. He directed that his disciple, Kamalashila, should be invited to stand for the Indian system. A protracted debate between the two schools occurred at Samye from 792 to 794. The Chinese system was argued by a Chinese monk called “Hoshang” (Ho-shang Ma-ha-ya-na) hoshang is the Chinese word for “monk”, and the Indian system by Kamalashila. The Indian system was judged to have prevailed, and Emperor Tri Songdetsen thus declared it to be Tibet’s official religion.
War with Tang Dynasty
The outcome of the debate may have also been influenced by political events, since there were constant border conflicts with China in the second half of the eighth century. Hugh Richardson (“Political Aspects of the Snga-dar, the First Diffusion of Buddhism in Tibet,” Bulletin of the Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies, Harvard University, vol. 2, no. 3) points out, as evidence of the political struggle behind the debate, that monks from the rival Tibetan noble families that were pro-China and anti-China were present throughout the debate.
In 763 between Shantarakshita’s expulsion from Tibet and his return to Tibet a few years later, the Tibetan army had even taken the Tang capital Chang’an and held it for fifteen days before being forced to withdraw. This occurred during the interval between the Chinese crushing of the An Lushan Rebellion and the return of the new Tang Emperor, Daizong, from Luoyang to Chang’an.
The fighting between the Tibetans and the Chinese had continued, however, and in 781 the Tibetan forces had captured Dunhuang (Tun-hvang) at the eastern end of the Tarim Basin. The large cave monastery complex there became a center for the translation of Buddhist texts from Chinese into Tibetan. Both dzogchen and a Tibetan form of Chan (Jap. Zen) Buddhism came to flourish there.
The Peace Treaty of Qingshui (Cing-co) in 783, the year of Shantarakshita’s death, established the Sino-Tibetan boundary in Amdo present-day Qinghai, giving Tibet control of the Kokonor regions. Peace between the two empires lasted only three years, however, and war broke out again in this region in 786, six years before the Samye debate.
The Sino-Tibetan conflicts were not restricted to the Amdo borders and the Silk Route regions. Tibet had entered into various military alliances under Emperor Tri Songdetsen, especially with King Kolofeng (Ka-lo-phing), the son of King Pilaoko of Siam (Sa’em rGyal-po sPe-le-ko). King Pilaoko (r. 728 – 750) was the ruler of Nanzhou, the proto-Thai kingdom in Yunnan that he had forged from uniting various Bai states in 730. Pilaoko had accepted Tang Chinese overrule in 735 and had attacked nearby Tibetan areas in 745. His son and successor, King Kolofeng (r. 750 – 779), however, rebelled against China and allied with Tibet in 750. In 778, Tibet and Nanzhao had fought the Chinese together in Sichuan. This alliance held until 786, when the next Nanzhao ruler, King Imoshun (r. 779 – 808) allied his kingdom once more with China, and war broke out again between China and Tibet. Thus, China and Tibet fought each other on two fronts at this time. The Kingdom of Nanzhao lasted until 902.
Expand to Northern Territory
In 790 two years before the Samye debate, Tibet recaptured the four garrisons of Anxi, which had been lost in 692 to China under Empress Wu (r. 684 – 705). By declaring herself to be Maitreya, the future Buddha, Empress Wu had led a coup temporarily overthrowing the Tang Dynasty. Specifically, Tibet recaptured Khotan in 790, thus gaining control of the entire southern Tarim Basin branch of the Silk Route. Although Tibet also had control of Kashgar at this time, they did not rule the other two Anxi garrisons.
Tibet continually made attacks to the west from 785 – 805. The Tibetans at this time were allied with the Qarluq Turks and Turki Shahis against the Abbasid Arabs. The Qarluq lived in present-day Kyrgyzstan and later founded the Qarakhanid Empire (840 – 1137), centered there. The Turki Shahis ruled the Kabul Valley and present-day southeastern Afghanistan from the mid-fifth century until 870. Their kingdom was a vassal state of the Tibetans at this time.
The Tibetan army crossed the Pamir Mountains and went as far as the Oxus River presently called the Amu Darya River, running from the Pamir Mountains along the border of Tajikistan and Afghanistan and then through Uzbekistan to the Aral Sea. To check their advance, the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid (r. 786 – 809) formed an alliance with China. The extent of the Tibetan advance in West Turkistan is marked by a lake to the north of the Oxus River named “Al-Tubbat” (Al-tu-sbag), called in Tibetan “Small Lake” (mTsho-chung). “Al-Tubbat” was the Arabic name for “Tibet.”
Thus, at the time of the Samye debate, Tibet and China were fighting on not just two, but on three fronts. This undoubtedly affected the Chinese side’s loss of the debate and Tibet’s subsequent rejection of Chinese Buddhism and adoption, instead, of Indian Buddhism.