Among the most celebrated figures in Tibetan history are the “dharma kings” (chögyal in Tibetan) who supported Buddhism and helped it to take root in Tibet. And probably the most important of all the dharma kings is Tri Song Detsen. Prince Song Detsen was given the title Tri – meaning “throne” – when he came of age, and he wasted little time in curbing the anti-Buddhist movement that had taken root in recent years since the death of his father, the previous king. Dharma kings are patrons of Buddhism. First among the Dharma-kings is, of course, Tri Song Detsen.
Reign of Songtsen Gampo, king of the Yarlung dynasty, the first of the three ‘Dharma Kings,’ becomes first ruler over a united Tibet. He is said to have introduced Buddhism to Tibet, to have married princesses from the then Buddhist countries of Nepal and China, to have established the capital at Lhasa and to have established the Jokang and Ramoche temples there. This began the Chidar or ‘earlier propagation of Buddhism in Tibet. Shangshung may have been incorporated into the Tibetan Empire during his reign, or in that of Trisong Detsen.
I make offering to the spiritual teachers of our own Tibet,
The great dharma kings, like the great king Tri Song Detsen,
He who has mastered the royal methods of fortune,
And rules the kingdom with the sword of the sky-gods,
The magically emanated lord Tri Song Detsen;
And to those teachers who have gone to nirvāṇa,
Including Dharmāśoka, Kaniṣkā, Śīla Atidāna and so on;
To all of these propagators of the teachings
I respectfully make the offering of homage.
The prayer puts Tri Song Detsen right into the historical tradition of dharma kings. Dharmāśoka is of course the famous Aśoka, ruler of the great Mauryan Empire in the 3rd century BC, and patron of Buddhism. Some of the edicts that he had carved throughout his empire still survive, and confirm that he was, to some extent, a Buddhist king. He is said to have convened the third council of the Buddhist sangha to clear up some doctrinal issues. As for Kaniṣka, he was the ruler of the Kushan Empire, based in Gandhara in the 2nd century AD, and we have evidence from the coins made in his reign that he supported Buddhism (among other religions). He is also credited with organizing a Buddhist council for the compilation of a Sanskrit Buddhist canon.
Considering the importance of the councils that Aśoka and Kaniṣka are supposed to have convened, it’s not surprising that the debate between Indian and Chinese Buddhism organized by Tri Song Detsen is often considered to be another council – in the grand tradition of dharma kings. Of the identity of the king called Śīla Atidāna I have no idea. The first part of his name means “moral conduct” and the second “supreme giving”. The extreme generosity of bodhisattvas in some Buddhist stories is sometimes called “supreme giving”. One of the most popular of these stories is that of Prince Vessantara, who gave away his wife and children to a cruel Brahman (perhaps we should translate atidāna as “extreme giving”). In the end of the story the family is reunited and Vessantara is crowned king. So it could be this king that is intended here. I welcome any alternative suggestions…
As well as associating Tri Song Detsen with this Indian tradition of dharma kings, the prayer highlights the divine and magical nature of Tibetan kingship. The king has “mastered the royal methods of fortune.” What I’ve translated here as “fortune” is the enigmatic word phywa. In later Tibet it refers to luck, fortune-telling and the like. During the time of Tibet’s imperial kings, it seems to have been the special possession of the kings, but it as a method rather than a personal quality.
In any case, there wasn’t much distinction between the kings and the gods. The prayer also says that Tri Song Detsen “rules the kingdom with the sword of the sky-gods.” What does this mean? The Tibetan kings were thought to be the descendents (literally!) of a race of gods who lived in the sky, and came down to earth to perform their kingly duty. Instead of dying, they ascended back to the sky – beamed up along a “sky-cord” made of light. Later generations, including Tri Song Detsen, were said to have lost the sky-cord connection. Nevertheless, they were still the children of the gods (lhasé). That sword is an interesting symbol of the king’s military power, something that is downplayed – if not totally ignored – by many later Buddhist historians. Did Tri Song Detsen really carry a sword said to be inherited from his divine ancestors?
So it seems to me that in this prayer Tri Song Detsen stands somewhere between the earlier vision of Tibetan kings as agents of the divine – with magical military power and special royal methods of prognostication – and ideal of the Buddhist king as a patron and practitioner of Buddhism above all else.