How the Sacred Treasure of Literacy Came to Tibet

When written language arrived in Tibet, says Patrick Dowd, it brought the dharma with it.

By Patrick Dowd

Photo by Kateryna Negoda.

Traditional sources tell us that the written word first came to Tibet in the form of indecipherable treasures, the material manifestation of a promise that would wait five generations to be fulfilled. In the year 233, as the twenty-eighth Tibetan king Lhatotori Nyentsen sat on the rooftop of his palace, several objects descended from the sky, carried on a beam of sunlight. The first was a silver choten, a symbolic representation of the Buddha’s mind. The other was a chest containing three Buddhist scriptures. As the books came to rest on the roof, a voice resounded from above, proclaiming, “In five generations’ time, there will arise a king who will understand the meaning of these objects.”

The king recognized these miraculous manifestations as holy relics but, as no one in the whole of Tibet was literate, their meaning remained impenetrable, hidden while plainly present. He, therefore, named them the “secret antidotes”: “secret” because their ultimate significance was unknown, and “antidote” because even the illiterate, non-Buddhist king intuited that these blessed artifacts could cure the suffering of sentient beings. For later generations of Tibetans, the appearance of the secret antidotes was believed to be the fulfillment of a prophecy made more than seven hundred years earlier by the Buddha, who declared that, in the future, objects would descend from the heavens as a harbinger of his sacred dharma coming to the “land of snows.”

The task of bringing the written word to Tibet was thus understood to be equal to summoning the very presence of the Buddha himself.

Outsiders may dismiss this story as fantasy, but for the people of Tibet, it is foundational history, no less felt than the sealing of the Magna Carta or the signing of the United States Declaration of Independence. Prior to the Chinese invasion of 1950, official Tibetan currency dated from the year 233, marking the arrival of the secret antidotes onto the palace roof.

Five generations later, these books, borne on a sunbeam, would be the catalyst for a literary culture that would illuminate Tibet with the brilliance of the Buddha’s teachings. To understand the arrival of literacy to Tibet, we must begin with Songtsen Gampo, who assumed the throne in 618. His reign, which had been foretold to Lhatotori Nyentsen, is credited with bringing the light of wisdom to Tibet, vanquishing the ignorance engulfing his land. He would eventually bring the written word to his people—and with it, the dharma.

Songtsen Gampo was the first great emperor of Tibet, extending Tibet’s power beyond the Yarlung Valley of his ancestors and making his kingdom a dominant power in Asia. Under his rule, his country began an imperial expansion that would come to include the entire Tibetan plateau and areas of what are now Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, and China. Imperial Tibet in that era extended more than 4.6 million square kilometers, an area nearly the size of the Roman Empire at its peak.

The men of his army, shaped by the razor’s-edge existence of life in the world’s highest land, were unmatched in the region. Yet, military conquests are largely absent from Tibetan stories about Songtsen Gampo, a fact that is particularly striking when we consider Tibet’s current plight under China. It speaks volumes about the Tibetan cultural consciousness that, when they recall the period when they dominated the very heart of Asia, they do not reminisce about bygone political power but rather hearken to a time when their land was ruled by its first great dharma king, a time when gods and goddesses are said to have walked on the earth.

In imagining this period, Tibetans draw on texts written in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, hundreds of years after the mid-ninth century collapse of their empire. At roughly the same time that English and French writers composed the Arthurian legends, bringing to life the exploits of the great king and his knights of the round table, Tibet consolidated its own national epic regarding events of the mid-seventh century. But in Tibetan mythology, there are no lusting knights or unfaithful queens. Songtsen Gampo’s royal Chinese and Nepalese wives are said to have been above such temptations of the flesh, being not mere mortals but manifestations of Drolma (Skt., Tara), the female embodiment of enlightened compassionate activity. Songtsen Gampo himself was seen as none other than Chenrezik, the essence of the speech of all buddhas and the living incarnation of their combined compassion.

Had Songtsen Gampo been only an emperor, all his achievements would have been as temporal as the world over which he ruled. Buddhists realize that everything material is subject to inevitable decay. Julius Caesar came, saw, and conquered, but time witnessed the destruction of his empire, hard-won with so much blood. Tibet’s thirty-third king was far more than a leader of armies and a conqueror of men, though; this enlightened ruler laid the foundations for a Buddhist civilization that continues to profoundly impact our world. For Tibetans through the centuries, that Songtsen Gampo and his wives manifested in seventh-century Tibet stands as a testament to the divine intervention of the buddhas in our world and the special relationship between the bodhisattva of compassion and the children of the Land of Snows.

Yet the dharma could not come to Tibet until the nation first had a written language. In our degenerate era, the Buddha manifests in the written word, as prophesied to his close disciple Ananda in a verse well-known in Tibetan:

At the end of five hundred years,
my presence will be in the form of letters.
Consider them as identical to me
and show them due respect.

The task of bringing the written word to Tibet was thus understood to be equal to summoning the very presence of the Buddha himself. So, the wise king looked south to India, the noble land of vast and profound learning, believing it held the key to Tibet’s future as a Buddhist civilization.

The king summoned sixteen wise ministers to his court and charged them with an epic quest to travel south, learn the languages of India, and distill from them their quintessence, the logos that spoke meaning into the world. The ministers were then to develop a script and grammar to render Tibet’s spoken tongue onto the page. This, reasoned the king, would facilitate the translation of the Buddhist canon, thereby bringing about Buddha’s arrival in the Land of Snows.

The mission was catastrophic, resulting in the deaths of nearly all of the ministers. Oral traditions differ in the particular constellations of horror, but all agree that the descent from the highest plateau in the world down to the sweltering plains of India exacted an awful toll. Some of the ministers were devoured by tigers or murdered by thieves. Others drowned while crossing rivers swollen with monsoon rains. Still others contracted malaria or similar tropical diseases, dying fetal and prostrate on the ground, soiled and drenched in sweat. Only one minister prevailed: Tonmi of Anu.

Just a teenager when he set out with the other ministers, Tonmi was immensely precocious and had an unexcelled purity of heart, the quality Tibetans call sempa zangpo. When he heard his king’s petition, he proclaimed, “Until one must die, there is nothing one is unable to do!” As his companions perished, one after another, Tonmi continued his journey undeterred; he would not abandon his royally appointed quest, which he understood as nothing less than a sacred pilgrimage to bring the living presence of the Buddha to his people. Eventually, Tonmi found his perfect teacher in South India, nearly 1,500 miles from Lhasa. When he first encountered Brahman Lijinkara, he prostrated, offered him the mounds of gold he had carried all the way from Tibet, and asked that the guru teach him to write.

Brahman Lijinkara replied, “I know twenty different writing systems. Which one would you like to study, child of Tibet?”

For the next seven years, Tonmi diligently learned the twenty different Indian writing systems, all of which were carved on a pillar on the shore of a lake at the guru’s home. Brahman Lijinkara also taught his pupil the sciences of grammar, lexicography, poetry, literature, and philosophy, but only after he had perfected the various scripts. The letters of these twenty scripts were the foundation on which the mansion of language and the palaces of all other learning could be built.

Having mastered these writing systems, Tonmi created a new script, one that a thirteenth-century Tibetan scholar and poet would describe as “golden letters arrayed like stars and planets.” In Tonmi’s script, the fifty letters of Sanskrit were refined to thirty consonants, seven signs that could be attached to their tops and bottoms, and four vowels. All letters were assigned gender, with the consonants generally classified as masculine and given the title of “clarifiers” while the vowels were classified as feminine and called “melodies.” When joined together, they represented a union.

As with Sanskrit and other Indic scripts, each Tibetan consonant has an inherent vowel, the long /a/, which is the basis for all other dependent vowel signs. This single sound, integral to all Tibetan consonants, is also potent with profound meaning—it is said to be the shortest distillation of the combined teachings of all the buddhas, the perfection of transcendent wisdom. Contained in this sound is emptiness, primordial awareness, the sonic form of the buddhanature innate in all sentient beings.

The script perfectly rendered Tibet’s spoken tongue onto the written page. The possible combinations that can be made by the signs add up to the auspicious number of 108, the same number of beads on a Buddhist rosary. In honor of his tremendous achievement, Tonmi’s guru gave him the Sanskrit surname Sambhota, understood within the Tibetan tradition as meaning “the scholar of Tibet.”

Tonmi Sambhota returned to his native land and presented his perfect garland of letters to the king, who prostrated before his own minister and then spent the next three years in retreat mastering the language. Tonmi Sambhota also composed two grammatical treatises, two of which, The Basic Grammar in Thirty Verses and The Guide to Signs, survive; nearly fourteen centuries years later, they remain the foundation of Tibetan grammar. These treatises are themselves included in the Tibetan Buddhist canon, for they describe the sacred mechanism by which language illuminates the Buddha’s path to enlightenment.

From illiteracy, Tibet was transformed into a culture with absolute reverence for its written language. Tibetans carved the sacred script onto stones and built literal mountains of prayers around which they circumambulated, believing movement around such holy structures would impart the blessings of the mantras. Hundreds of years before they were ever affixed to vehicles, Tibetans used wheels to revolve millions of prayers with the faith that the blessings of the holy words would radiate outward, each rotation bestowing the merit of having recited an equivalent number of mantras. Oceans of ink were used to create the multicolored prayer flags so ubiquitous in the Himalayas and, increasingly, the world. Each flag is imprinted with a sacred Buddhist text, and every movement in the wind is said to send out prayers for the benefit of sentient beings. On paper dyed blue and black, scribes exquisitely handwrote hundreds of thousands of pages of manuscripts using ink made from ground lapis lazuli and pure gold.

Such complete devotion to the written word caused the late Cambridge anthropologist Dr. Jack Goody to write, “Tibet demonstrates the epitome of grapholatry,” which, as the etymology of the word implies, means the actual worshipping of a script as though it were an idol. Typical of reductionist orientalism, Dr. Goody’s interpretation failed to comprehend that, while Tibetans certainly venerated their language, they also put it to prodigious intellectual use. Tonmi Sambhota’s gift was merely the start of one of the greatest scholastic endeavors ever undertaken by humanity: the two-century-long translation of the Indic Buddhist canon into Tibetan. This voluminous literature is composed of nearly a quarter of a million pages and holds more than a millennium of accumulated classical wisdom. For two hundred years, from the seventh to the ninth centuries, an empire turned inward, dedicating its vast resources to this unprecedented scholastic project.

It is well known that the King James translation of the Bible continues to profoundly impact English-speaking people. Not only are the stories contained of critical moral and cultural importance, but the translation itself brought a majesty and grandeur that continues to permeate the English language to this day. Imagine, then, how two centuries of systematic, imperially-funded translation of hundreds of thousands of pages transformed the Tibetan language. For generations, the Tibetan kings supported countless Indian and Tibetan scholars who came to hold one of the most esteemed titles of Tibetan society: lotsawa. The term, a Tibetanization of the Sanskrit word locchava, means both “bilingual” and “eyes of the world.” Lotsawa implies mastery over not only two languages but also the Buddhist teachings themselves, as this understanding is a prerequisite for accurately translating the concepts contained within the scriptures.

In order to ensure as faithful a translation as possible, the grammar, syntax, and idiom of the original Indic texts would be closely studied for years. Only after attaining a thorough comprehension of the source language could the lotsawas most accurately render the Indian meaning into Tibetan. Foreign loan-words were assiduously avoided; instead, entirely new Tibetan terminology and expressions were created. Through this process, the very structure and grammar of the Tibetan language were transformed. This noble profession required the scholars to change the linguistic form while preserving essence, to maintain the integrity of the original Sanskrit meaning while channeling it through the culture, the very psyche, of Tibet.

India, and indeed the world, owe a great debt of gratitude to the diligence and erudition of these generations of Tibetan translators and their royal patrons. At the end of the twelfth century, Muslim invaders eradicated Buddhism from the subcontinent, slaughtering the clergy and razing to the ground all the monasteries, along with their extensive libraries. It took several months for the conflagration to fully incinerate the three multistoried library buildings of Nalanda Mahavihara and the hundreds of thousands of texts they contained. Even after the library was reduced to ashes, the historian of the Delhi Sultanate Minhaj-i-Siraj recorded that “smoke from the burning manuscripts hung for days like a dark pall over the low hills.” Nearly two millennia of Indian wisdom was reduced to ashes. Were it not for the Tibetan translations completed prior to this act of destruction, much of this precious treasury of humanity would be forever lost to the world.

So precise are the imperial translations of this period, in fact, that in recent decades, the government of India’s Ministry of Culture has continuously funded the retranslation of Buddhist texts from Tibetan back into Sanskrit. The Indian government wisely seeks to recover some of the vast ocean that was classical Indian learning. Even some of India’s most eminent Sanskrit scholars have been impressed with the quality and detail of these back-translated Sanskrit scriptures.

Many Western Tibetologists assert that Tonmi Sambhota never existed, that he was merely a later fabrication of Buddhist imagination. Even if this is the case, the story is no less true, if not as history then as myth. Its truth is demonstrated every morning by thousands of Tibetan school children who say prayers to the great scholar, asking to be blessed by his liberating wisdom. Its truth is demonstrated by the reverence with which Tibetans continue to hold their written language, not a letter of which is ever to touch the ground and which can only be disposed of through ritual burning.

The story of Tonmi Sambhota speaks to a human determination to make every sacrifice required for the sake of knowledge and its transmission for posterity. Ultimately, his story stands as a testament to the sacredness of language and its unique ability to cross the vast distances of time, space, and culture to give voice to our shared humanity.

Patrick Dowd

Patrick Dowd

Patrick Dowd is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. His research focuses on the culture of Tibetan language within the world of Tibetan Buddhism. He has spent several years studying, researching, and collaboratively working with Tibetan communities in Tibet, Nepal and India.