Buddhism Becomes Tibetan State Religion

The emperor of Tibet, Trisong Detsen, established Buddhism as the official state religion and created a pattern of royal subsidy for its religious institutions that persisted into the twentieth century.

Summary of Event

Although the Tibetan Empire was firmly established as a major political power in Central Asia by Songtsen Gampo Songtsen Gampo and his successors during the seventh century, the freedom of the emperor to rule was constantly challenged and compromised by competing factions. One faction was the Bonpo Bonpo priests, who strove to maintain their position and extend the reach of their religious practice. The second faction was the great noble families, who supplied the lay ministers of the king’s government and tended to use their positions to extend the power and wealth of their families and diminish that of their rivals. The third faction was the king and his supporting families, who strove to maintain a strong central government for both personal and political ends. Alliance, treachery, and even murder were common as these factions jockeyed for advantage. This tension between centralization and fragmentation was the central theme of Tibetan politics until the collapse of the empire in the mid-ninth century. Political leaders, then, whenever possible sought advantage to maintain their positions and influence. [kw]Buddhism Becomes Tibetan State Religion (791)
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Me Agtsom
Trisong Detsen
Hashang Mahāyāna

Trisong Detsen’ Trisong Detsen father, Me Agtsom Me Agtsom , had a turbulent reign. Relations with China were under constant strain, and the empire fought battles across all Central Asia in an effort to maintain its political position. Internal politics were likewise troublesome, and he was beset with rebellions and unfavorable alliances for most of his reign. Although his true motivations are not clear, it seems that he moved to support Buddhism as a tool to be used against the Bonpo priests and their ministerial supporters. He invited Indian masters to teach Buddhism to the court, but these requests were apparently declined. He also sponsored the foundation of a number of small temples in Tibet, and later Buddhist authors write that Me Agtsom had promulgated edicts attempting to establish Buddhist ethics as the moral foundation of his rule. His attempts to push Buddhism forward, however, were thwarted by both priests and ministers.

Me Agtsom was assassinated in 755 while Trisong Detsen was a minor, and an anti-Buddhist faction rose to power. Trisong Detsen survived the intrigue around him through the help of powerful protectors, and on taking the throne, he began a systematic, if low-key, process of promoting Buddhism in the court. It is probable that he learned of and developed his affinity to Buddhism through his father. Under his patronage, both Indian and Chinese sources of Buddhist thought were translated into the Tibetan script and were widely disseminated. With his allies, he began to sponsor the construction of Buddhist temples. He also invited Indian teachers to Tibet. One of these, Padmasambhava Padmasambhava , helped establish the Nyingma order Nyingma order of Buddhism and was also instrumental in founding the first monastic community, Samye Samye , c. 775. A few years later, members of high-ranking families (a number fixed at seven in the legends surrounding this history) were ordained as monks in this order, with Samye as their base. Tibetan histories give the sense that many noble families saw contributing to the new monastery as a distinct honor, but the primary impetus for its founding was Trisong Detsen, who directed that 150 families were to support the temple and its activities, while a similar number were ordered to support the growing monastic community.

Despite low-level hostilities along the borders and in far-flung places in Central Asia, Tibet and China China;Tibet and had reached an uneasy peace. Noble families sent sons to China for their education, and all things Chinese were in vogue among the Tibetan elite. The Chinese used this situation to advance their own political agenda of maintaining peaceful borderlands and sent Chinese Buddhist monks of the Chan Chan Buddhism tradition (similar to Japanese Zen Buddhism) to Tibet to further these ends. This path to enlightenment (or nirvana) stressed the possibility of achieving instantaneous nirvana as opposed to the growing clerical and scholarly tradition of Indian Buddhist thought that maintained enlightenment could be attained only through long study and rigorous discipline. Clerical Buddhism also promoted a belief in karma and the doctrine that through continuous good works, one could achieve a good rebirth and thus move ever closer to enlightenment. In contrast, Tantric Tantric Buddhism approaches to Indian Buddhism emphasized the use of magic and shamanistic techniques and were little interested in promoting good works. Bonpo, with its own shamanistic past, saw Chan and Tantric Buddhism as potential allies in the ongoing power struggle surrounding the king.

These traditions co-existed for a period, but it appears that Trisong Detsen began to favor the clerical and scholarly tradition of Buddhism. From his perspective, this would have made good political sense, because the clerical approach promoted strong ethical concepts and could be seen as a controlling force that would assist his long-term political goal of state centralization. In contrast, Tantrism and Chan were often destabilizing. Support of clerical Buddhism would also undercut the Bonpo priests, which would further strengthen his grip on his domain. To this end, in 791, Trisong Detsen issued an edit that made Buddhism the official state religion with specific reference to the strict moral code of clerical Buddhism and erected a stone pillar at Samye marking the event. This edict was clearly staged, for a number of nobles took religious vows and promises were made by the king for their support. Although many great families supported this edict, it created even stronger animosity among those who opposed Buddhist thought and its growing political power.

Aware of this enmity and the threat it posed to his rule, Trisong Detsen convened what has become known as the Council of Samye Samye, Council of (792-794) sometime between 792 and 794 in an attempt to create both popular support and an intellectual foundation for his edict. The council took the form of an academic debate in which the participants hurled questions and responses back and forth in a dramatic and theatrical manner. According to tradition, so-called “Chinese” Buddhism (in reality an amalgam of Tantric and Chan beliefs) was defended by a Chinese monk named Hashang Mahāyāna Hashang Mahāyāna , while clerical Buddhism was defended by Kamalaś;īla Kamalaśīla[Kamalasila , an Indian monk invited to Samye by the king. Tradition asserts that Kamalaś;īla handily defeated his rival, and through this victory, a moral and ethical approach to Buddhism was proven to be superior to all other forms. Although the debate may have quieted Trisong Detsen’s opponents temporarily, it did not eliminate them entirely. Within fifty years, the opponents of clerical Buddhism proved victorious.


Trisong Detsen established Buddhism as the state religion of Tibet. Moreover, through his patronage of the monastery at Samye, he created a pattern of royal or elite subsidy for these religious institutions that persisted into the twentieth century. This example of monastic foundation and support was widely emulated in the Buddhist world after his reign. Although he was undoubtedly a devout Buddhist, it is important to stress that his support of Buddhism was a part of a political strategy designed to consolidate his rule in the midst of competing factions. Although the monastic institutions he created were his allies, over time, they became politically dominant on the plateau and were in fact the true origin of the lamaist state that ruled Tibet beginning in the sixteenth century.

Further Reading

  • Beckwith, Christopher S. The Tibetan Empire in Central Asia. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987. The definitive treatment of the expansion of the Tibetan Empire into Central Asia.
  • Samuel, Geoffrey. Civilized Shamans: Buddhism in Tibetan Societies. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993. A comprehensive examination of the development of Buddhist thought on the Tibetan plateau.
  • Snellgrove, David. Indo-Tibetan Buddhism: Indian Buddhists and Their Tibetan Successors. Boston: Shambhala, 1987. A detailed discussion of important practitioners of Buddhism from India and the influence they had on Tibetans and the evolution of Buddhist thought on the Tibetan plateau.
  • Stein, R. A. Tibetan Civilization. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1972. Useful and accessible historical overview of Tibet’s history and culture.
  • Tucci, Giuseppe. The Religions of Tibet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988. First published in 1970, this volume provides a masterful and very detailed overview of Tibetan religious thought from its origins to the modern era. It also describes important aspects of ritual practice and its interpretation.