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Great King Songtsen Gampo

The Great King Songtsen Gampo with his Nepalese and Chinese Queen

During the reign of King Songtsen Gampo (629-49) Tibet became a great military power and her armies marched across Central Asia. He promoted Buddhism in Tibet and sent one of his ministers and other young Tibetans to India for study. He first took a Tibetan princess from the Shangshung King as his wife and then obtained a Nepalese consort. After invading the Chinese Empire he also obtained a Chinese princess as one of his wives. The two latter wives have been given prominence in the religious history of Tibet because of their services to Buddhism.

During the reign of King Trisong Detsen (755-97) the Tibetan Empire was at its peak and its armies invaded China and several Central Asian countries. In 763 the Tibetans seized the then Chinese capital at Ch’ang-an (present day Xian). As the Chinese Emperor had fled, the Tibetans appointed a new Emperor. This memorable victory has been preserved for posterity in the Zhol Doring (stone pillar) in Lhasa and reads, in part:

“King Trisong Detsen, being a profound man, the breadth of his counsel was extensive, and whatever he did for the kingdom was completely successful. He conguered and held under his sway many districts and fortresses of China. The Chinese Emperor, Hehu Ki Wang and his ministers were terrified. They offered a perpetual yearly tribute of 50,000 rolls of silk and China was obliged to pay this tribute

It was during his time that Samye, the first monastery in Tibet, was founded by Guru Padmasambhava, who also established the supremacy of Buddhism and coverted the indigenous deities into guardians of the Dharma. King Trisong Detsen also expelled the Chinese monk (Hoshang) and banished the Chinese Chan school of Buddhism from Tibet forever and adopted the Indian system. He also declared Buddhism as the state religion of Tibet.

During the reign of King Ralpachen (815-36) the Tibetan armies won many victories and in 821-2 a peace treaty was concluded with China. The inscription of the text of the treaty exists in three places: One outside the Chinese Emperor’s palace gate in Ch’ang-an, another before the main gate of Jokhang temple in Lhasa and the third on the Tibetan-China border at Mount Guru Meru. Eminent Tibetan scholars, Kawa Paltsek and Chogru Lui Gyaltsen, worked with Indian scholars, invited them to Tibet and prepared the first Sanskrit-Tibetan lexicon called the Mahavyutpatti.

In 838 King Ralpachen’s brother, Tri Wudum Tsen, ascended the throne. He tried to reinstate the Bon religion and persecuted the Buddhists. After his assassination by a Buddhist monk the kingdom was divided between his two sons. With warring princes, lords and generals contending for power the mighty Tibetan Empire disintegrated into many small princedoms and a dark period fell over Tibet during 842-1247.

In 1073 Konchog Gyalpo founded the Sakya monastery. His son and successor, Sakya Kunga Nyingpo, formulated the tantric traditions of the great scholars Marpa and Drogme and founded the Sakya sect. The Sakya lamas grew in power and from 1254 to 1350 Tibet was ruled by a succession of 20 Sakya lamas. The Mongols, who invaded many countries of Europe and Asia, also invaded Tibet and reached Phenpo, north of Lhasa. However, Prince Godan, the ruling Khan, was converted to Buddhism by Sakpa Kunga Gyaltsen, popularly known as Sakya Pandita, and the invading force was withdrawn. The next Khan, Kublai, was also converted to Buddhism by Sakya Pandita’s nephew and successor, Sakya Phagpa. In return, Kublai Khan gave recognition of full sovereignty over “the three provinces of Tibet : U-Tsang, Dhotoe and Dhome” to Sakya Phagpa.

The influence of the Sakya priest-rulers gradually declined after the death of Kublai Khan in 1295. In 1358 the province of U (Central Tibet) fell into the hands of the Governor of Nedong, Changchub Gyaltsen, a monk of the Phamo Drugpa branch of Kagyud school, and for the next 86 years, eleven Lamas of the Phamo Drugpa lineage ruled Tibet.

But, after the death of Drakpa Gyaltsen, the fifth Phamo Drugpa ruler, in 1434, power passed into the hands of the Rinpung family who were related to Drakpa Gyaltsen by marriage. From 1436 to 1566 the heads of the Rinpung family held power.

Meanwhile, Tsongkhapa Losang Dragpa, one of the greatest scholars of Tibet, was born in 1357. He founded Gaden, the first Gelugpa monastery, in 1409 and began the Gelug lineage.

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