Buddhist Studies Lectures

Imperial Preceptor Chos rgyal ’Phags pa Bla ma as a tantric adept in the Mongol Yuan dynasty

Lecture by Weirong Shen, Professor of Tibetan and Buddhist Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study of Humanism and Social Sciences in Tsinghua University, China.

Drinks afterwards. Registration required.

’Phags pa bla ma Blo gros rgyal mtshan (1235-1280), the first Imperial Preceptor of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), was often considered to be a skillful politician who made great contributions not only to the establishment of Mongol Yuan relations with Tibet, but also to the founding of the Great Yuan dynasty by Kubilai Khan. He was also praised as a great culture hero who created the so-called ’Phags pa script” that was once used as “the state script” of the Mongols. In contemporaneous Chinese literature ’Phags pa was always depicted as a wise and compassionate statesman comparable to the ideal model of a Confucian scholar/official. Even as a Buddhist monk, ’Phags pa was believed to be an excellent Buddhist master who strictly observed the Buddhist Vinayas, in great contrast to his contemporary Bla ma dam pa Kun dga’ grags, a resourceful Tantric adept. In Chinese canon, we find only three scriptures authored by ’Phags pa and translated into Chinese by his disciples. One of them is a general treatise on Buddhist cosmology entitled Shes bya rab gsal (The Clear Elucidation of What Should be Known) written by ’Phags pa especially for the crown prince Cinggim. The other two are both liturgies of empowerment for lay devotees, novice monks and fully ordained monks respectively. They share the same title in Tibetan, namely: dGe bsnyen dang dge tshul dang dge slong nye bar bsgrub pa’i cho ga’i gsal byed.                

Nonetheless, it is certainly mistaken to assume that ’Phags pa was merely a skillful politician or an excellent Buddhist philosopher. In fact, ’Phags pa Bla ma was an accomplished Tantric adept and played an essential role in the dissemination of Tibetan tantric Buddhism among the Mongols, Tanguts, Uygurs and Chinese during the Mongol Yuan dynasty and the ensuing Chinese Ming dynasty. Recently, I have identified numerous texts of purely tantric nature that were written by ’Phags pa Bla ma and translated into Chinese during the Mongol Yuan and Chinese Ming dynasties. They were discovered in various sites and among different collections, and are as follows:


1,  Bla ma’i rnal ’byor 观师要门

2,Rab tu gnas pa’i phyag len mdor bsdus 胜住法仪

3,Byams pa’i sgrub thabs 弥勒求修记


5,dPal kyee rdo rje’i dkyil ’khor du bdag nyid ’jug gi cing dbang blang ba’i cho ga dbang la ’jug pa 吉祥喜金刚中围内自受灌仪

6,dPal kyee rdo rje’i dkyil ’khor du bdag nyid ’jug pa’i cho ga dbang la ’jug pa snying po gsal ba 吉祥喜乐金刚自受主戒仪

7,Kye’i rdo rje zhes bya ba’i rgyud kyi rgyal po [dpal brtag pa gnyis pa’i ’grel pa dag chung dang spyi don gsal ba]吉祥喜金刚本续王后分注疏

8,Thugs rje chen po’i sgrub thabs 大悲观音求修

9, Seng ge sgra’i sgrub thabs狮子吼观音略求修

10,dPal kye’i rdo rje’i tshogs kyi ’khor lo’i cho ga bdud rtsi bum pa吉祥喜金刚集轮甘露泉

11,rJe btsun rnam par rgyal ma’i sgrub thabs如来顶髻佛母现证仪

Moreover, the Tangut translation of ’Phags pa’s work dPal Kyai rdo rje’i mngon rtogs yid bzhin nor bu written in the 1250s was discovered only recently. The discovery of all these texts attributed to him shows that both ’Phags pa and his works were evidently essential to the spreading of Tibetan tantric Buddhism during both the Mongol Yuan and Chinese Ming dynasties. Studying these precious texts will help us reconstruct the history of Tibetan tantric Buddhism in Central Asia and China Proper during those periods. The true face of Tibetan tantric Buddhist practices such as “The Dance of Sixteen Heavenly Devils,” “The Dharma of Yantrayoga”, and “The Secret Teaching of Supreme Bliss,” which were mentioned vaguely within Yuan Chinese literature and misunderstood by later generations, can be uncovered through close reading of these texts. ’Phags pa was often just the tantric master who introduced these tantric practices to his Mongol lords. For instance, “the Dance of Sixteen Heavenly Devils”, which was a very popular ritual practice arguably performed at the court of the great Mongol Khans and mistakenly sexualized by later generations of Chinese literati, actually refers to the offering performance to the Mandala of the Sricakrasamvara usually solely visualized by the practitioners. By the 1250s, ’Phags pa had already introduced this ritual practice to Kubilai Khan, who at that time was still a prince in Kaiping, and also composed the first ritual text on the practice, entitled Rig ma bcu drug gi mchod pa’i thsig tshan gnyis, for Kubilai Khan. 

Weirong Shen is a Professor of Tibetan and Buddhist Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study of Humanism and Social Sciences in Tsinghua University, China. His research focuses on Tibetan Buddhist history and the history of the spread of Tibetan tantric Buddhism in Central Eurasia and China Proper from the twelfth through the sixteenth centuries. He received his Ph.D for Central Asian Philology at Bonn University, Germany, with his dissertation Leben und historische Bedeutung des ersten Dalai Lama dGe ’dun grub pa dpal bzang po (1391-1474)--- Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der dGe lugs pa-Schule und der Institution der Dalai Lama (Monumenta Serica Monograph Series XLIX, P. 1-476, ISBN 3-8050-0469-9, Styler Verlag, Institut Monometa Serica, St. Augustin, Germany, 2002). His recent publications include Philological Studies of Tibetan Buddhism and History (Shanghai guji chubanshe, 2010); Imaging Tibet (Beijing Normal University Press, 2015); Text and History: The Making of Tibetan Buddhist Historical Narratives and the Construction of Sino-Tibetan Buddhist Studies (Beijing University Press, and China Tibetology Publishing House, 2015). 

Buddist Studies Lecture Series

The Buddhist Studies Lecture Series is organised by Prof. Johnathan Silk, Professor of Buddhist Studies at Leiden University, with the support of the International Institute for Asian Studies.


Please register (required) via the webform below if you would like to attend this lecture (drinks afterwards).

Registration IIAS Lecture