Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhism on the Silk Road
At the beginning of the seventh century the Tibetan army, under the leadership of King Songsen Gampo, began to move into Central Asia. As the western end of the Silk Road, the cities of Kashgar, Kucha and Khotan fell to the Tibetan army. To the east, the Tibetans came into direct conflict with China, and a war between the two states, interspersed with periods of peace, lasted for nearly two centuries. At its furthest extent, the Tibetan Empire included the Chinese capital itself, conquered in 763. The Tibetans also conquered the Tangut people, who were converted to Buddhism. After King Lang Darma was assassinated in 842 bringing to an end the dynasty of Tibetan kings, the Empire began to collapse and the Tibetans disappeared from Central Asia shortly afterwards.
After the end of the Empire, individual Tibetan religious teachers travelled to Central Asia to give instruction to powerful rulers. It is likely that some went to the court of the Tangut Empire. Then in 1247, the Tibetan lama Sakya Pandita arrived in the Mongol court of Godan Khan. From this time the Sakya school ruled Tibet as a tributary to the Mongols, who at that time also ruled China, where they established the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368). After the death of Khubilai Khan in 1295, the power of the Mongols in Central Asia began to wane, and by the second half of the fourteenth century, they had lost power over Tibet as well as China. However, the influence of Tibetan Buddhism on Mongolia has remained to the present day.
The introduction of Buddhism into Tibet occured over the same period as Tibetan influence in Central Asia. King Trisong Detsen (755-797), under whose rule the Tibetan Empire achieved its greatest successes, is better known to Tibetan tradition as the king who brought Buddhism to Tibet. Previously the earlier religion of Tibet, known as B�n, had been more influential. Buddhist texts from India, China, and probably Khotan as well, were systematically translated into Tibetan. The end of this first flourishing of Buddhism in Tibet also occured in parallel with collapse of the Tibetan dynasty. Lang Darma, the last of the kings was, according to Tibetan tradition, firmly anti-Buddhist, and destroyed the monastic structure which had developed over the previous century.A silk banner depicting Avalokiteshvara. Click on the image to see an enlarged picture.It was not until the eleventh century that the influence of Buddhism began to increase again in Tibet. New translations of the scriptures, especially tantras, were produced, and new schools formed based on tantric lineages from India. This is known as the second transmission of Buddhism into Tibet. The most important of the new schools were the Sakya, the Kagyu and the Geluk, while those who adhered to the lineages of the older lineages were known as Nyingma, "the old ones".The influence of the Sakya school in Tibet waned after the end of Mongol power in the mid-fourteenth century, and another of the new schools, the Geluk became more influencial, eventually coming to rule over most of Tibet under the leadership of the Dalai Lamas. In time the Geluk school gained the allegiance of most Mongolians. Generally the Tibetan and Mongolian schools taught a gradual path to enlightenment which combines the teachings of the Mahayana sutras with the teachings of the Vajrayana.
Remnants of Tibetan rule in Central Asia were found in two military establishments, the fort at the town of Miran near the Tarim basin, and the fort of Mazar-tagh in the western part of the Taklamakan desert. Some Buddhist manuscripts have been found at these sites, but these are few in comparison to the great hoard which was discovered in a walled-up cave in the monastic complex at Dunhuang.A Tibetan manuscript from Dunhuang. Click on the image to see an enlarged picture.The Tibetan manuscripts from Dunhuang belong to the two centuries of Tibetan influence in Central Asia, the mid-seventh to early ninth centuries, and are the earliest known large group of Tibetan Buddhist manuscripts. The manuscripts cover a great range of Buddhist literature. There are versions of the vinaya (the regulations for Buddhist monks) and various sutras and tantras, as well as later commentaries on them.In the region of Kharakhoto, in what is now Inner Mongolia, Buddhist manuscripts in Tibetan and Mongolian dating from the thirteenth century onwards, have also been discovered. In the cave complex at Dunhuang, two caves were discovered which are decorated with Vajrayana deities in the Tibetan style, which probably date from the same period.