Personalization of the King’s Deity: A Tibetan Discourse on Emanated Buddhist Kingship

Apr 27 10:00–11:30am
Talk held via Zoom

Yangmotso (Associate Professor, School for Tibetan Studies, Minzu University of China; HYI Visiting Scholar, 2019-20)
Chair/discussant: Janet Gyatso (Hershey Professor of Buddhist Studies, Harvard Divinity School)

Not long after Tibet’s royal conversion to Buddhism in the mid 7th century, the Tibetan empire collapsed. The revival of Buddhism in 11th century Tibet coincided with the emergence of narratives about the early Tibetan kings, embedded in various forms of literature. This talk intends to examine the Tibetan discourse on Emanated Buddhist Kingship by looking at the famous representation of the Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo in Kachems Kakholma, the most complex and hybrid text that retells Tibet’s past. A close reading and detailed analysis of its key narratives, rhetoric and literary tropes suggests that the king’s association with Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion, is skillfully crafted and elaborated. Songtsen Gampo’s heroic transformation highlights a dual nature of the Tibetan kingship, manifested through a gradual transition from being a conventional human king to an enlightened sovereignty. Based on the theoretical reflection on recurring themes and images related to royal death, marriage and templecraft depicted in this transformative literary process, the talk aims to dwell on the underlying paradox embedded in this Bodhisattva kingship ideal, and address the questions of how did literary devices, Buddhist concepts and scribal hands work together to transform Tibet’s royal identity. I will argue that in the end the king’s  personalization of his deity, practiced through a tripartite relationship between the king, deity and statue, decisively upstages his role as a cosmic Bodhisattva.