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... by the followers of all sects and schools of Tibetan Buddhism. If you go into practically any Tibetan Buddhist temple you will see an image or picture of the great guru Padmasambhava.
It is a very distinctive image, so much so that one can readily believe it represents him as he appeared in life, because the details are always the same. He is a tall well-built Indian, in the prime of life, with the faintly Mongoloid features characteristic of the people of East Bengal. He has a drooping moustache and a little beard, and a hint of ferocity in his expression. He is dressed in princely robes and wears a lotus cap with a vulture's feather on the top. Sometimes he carries a skull-cup filled with blood, sometimes a dagger, and sometimes the dorje, the diamond-thunderbolt. In the crook of his arm is a staff surmounted by three skulls. The images convey an impression of a remarkable figure, a supremely lively, virile, active, and powerful person. You can't mistake Padmasambhava for anyone else.
Another highly significant event during Trisong Detsen's reign was what Western scholars usually call the `Council of Lhasa', although it was in fact more of a debate than a council, and it took place at Samye. The debate was between Kamalasila, one of Santaraksita's Indian disciples, and a Chinese monk who had turned up in Tibet and was preaching Ch'an (the Chinese forerunner of Japanese Zen) to the disapproval of some Tibetan Buddhists. So in 792CE a discussion was arranged between Kamalasila and the Ch'an monk. We still have detailed records of this event, and the chief point of contention, apparently, was over the question of whether Enlightenment came gradually, little by little, or occurred all at once, in a great rush. Following the general Indian tradition, the Indian scholar held that it came gradually, step by step, by following the Eightfold Path, practising the ten paramitas, and so on; while the Chinese monk argued that it happened all at once.
The debate was adjudicated by King Trisong Detsen, and he decided in favour of Kamalasila.
However, those who have studied the records believe that the Chinese Ch'an master did pretty well too. Looking at it quite objectively and impartially, one might say that the point at issue between them is really a distinction without a difference. One does not attain Enlightenment either slowly or quickly; ultimately the question of time does not come into it at all. But the king said that Kamalasila had won, and that was that.
Trisong Detsen further decreed that from then on Tibetan Buddhists should follow the Sarvastivada School (one of the main Hinayana schools) with respect to vinaya or religious discipline, the Madhyamika and Yogacara Schools of the Mahayana for their philosophy and metaphysics, and the Tantra, the Vajrayana, as far as meditation was concerned. In this way a synthesis of the three yanas was established. These three aspects of practice were also conceived of as constituting successive stages of the spiritual path. First you follow Sarvastivada discipline, then you study Madhyamika and Yogacara philosophy, and then you practise Tantric meditation; in this way your spiritual life is complete. Thus the reign of Trisong Detsen saw three main developments: interest in Buddhism shifted from the cultural to the religious; the monastic order was established; and the triyana character of Tibetan Buddhism was determined.
The third religious king of Tibet was Ralpachen, who reigned in the ninth century. He was an even more ardent Buddhist than Trisong Detsen, and did a great deal for the propagation of Buddhism. He established more temples and monasteries, he encouraged Buddhist arts and crafts, and perhaps most important of all, he set up a permanent commission for the translation of the scriptures. This meant that you could not just learn Sanskrit if you felt like it and translate a Buddhist text into Tibetan; you had to get permission from this commission, which laid down rules of translation. It compiled a glossary (which still exists) of Buddhist terms in Sanskrit and Tibetan, and in this way the translation of Buddhist scriptures into Tibetan was made regular and uniform. For example, the commission decided that the Sanskrit word `Dharma' was to be translated chos, and nobody was allowed to translate it any other way. This decision meant that the Tibetans did not come up against the sort of obstacle which English-speaking students of Buddhism have to deal with. When you read chos in a Tibetan text you know that it means `Dharma'; but in English translations Dharma is sometimes translated as `Law', sometimes as `Doctrine', sometimes as `Truth', sometimes as `Norm'. Beginners hardly know where they are, because the same word is rendered in so many different ways by different translators. By compiling a glossary which everyone had to follow, the Tibetan commission prevented this sort of confusion, thus making way for the effective study of Buddhism.
Unfortunately, in the midst of these advances, King Ralpachen was assassinated as a result of a Bon conspiracy, and was succeeded, in 836CE, by his brother Langdarma, who was completely opposed to Buddhism. A period of persecution ensued. Buddhist temples and monasteries were demolished, monks were killed or driven out, scriptures were destroyed, and the result was that Buddhism practically perished in Tibet, especially in central Tibet, for nearly two centuries. Only a few faithful followers kept the flame of the Dharma alive in those dark days.
It was a time of great political upheaval, and eventually the country broke up into a number of different states. It was also a period of religious confusion. Hindu Tantric teachers infiltrated Tibet from Kashmir with some very questionable practices that began to give the Tantra a bad name. Even Buddhism itself, as much of it as had survived in Tibet, became more and more debased and corrupt, and this was a source of serious concern to a number of earnest Buddhists.
When things quietened down a little they decided, under the protection of the fourth religious king, Yeshe O, to invite to Tibet the great teacher Atisa from Vikramasila, another of the great monastic universities of north-eastern India.
Yeshe O was king of western Tibet in the eleventh century. Buddhism had fared rather better here during the period of persecution, and Yeshe O did much, within the boundaries of his own kingdom, to revive and propagate it. He even took the step of becoming a monk himself. His fortunes then took an even more dramatic turn. Towards the end of his life he went on an expedition to collect from his subjects the huge quantity of gold needed to fetch Atisa from India.
But in the course of his journey he was captured by a neighbouring Muslim king who gave him an ultimatum. He should either become a Muslim or be ransomed for his own weight in gold.
It was, of course, out of the question for Yeshe O to become a Muslim. But where was the ransom to come from? The king's nephew was very devoted to him and resolved to collect as much gold as he possibly could, but even in a gold-bearing country like Tibet it's not easy to collect the weight of a man in gold. Over the months, over the years, he gradually amassed a large quantity. But when he finally visited the king in the dungeon where he had been kept all those years, he found that he had only enough gold to weigh against his uncle's body, not against his head as well. So he said `What shall I do? Shall I make a last effort to get more gold?' But the king said, `I'm a very old man, and I have not yet had the opportunity to sacrifice my life for the Dharma. Don't bother about me any more. Don't give the gold to my captors. Use it instead to bring Atisa to Tibet.' So this was what was done, and when the Muslim king realized that no gold was going to be forthcoming, Yeshe O was murdered.
So Atisa, the greatest Buddhist teacher in India at that time, came to Tibet, and stayed there for twelve years, until his death. He worked hard and accomplished a great deal. He reformed the monastic discipline, he purified the practice of the Tantra, he laid the foundations for the Kadam School, and he wrote a number of works for the spiritual guidance of the Tibetans. Largely as a result of Atisa's influence, there ensued a tremendous revival of Buddhism in Tibet. Before the end of the eleventh century Marpa and Milarepa had initiated the Kagyu lineage, and Konchok Gyelpo had founded the Sakya School. After so many struggles, ups and downs, reverses and successes, Buddhism was at last (by the time of the Norman conquest in England) finally established in Tibet. From then onwards it was never seriously challenged as the dominant religion until the invasion in the 1950s by communist China.