King Tri Songdetsen (b. 742–d. c. 800) was the monarch responsible for the official adoption of Buddhism as a state religion of Tibet under royal patronage. He founded Samyé Monastery, oversaw the ordination of Tibetans as Buddhist monks, and sponsored the translation of Buddhist texts. Like other Buddhist monarchs, Tri Songdetsen presided over the bureaucratization of the sangha and regulated the canon by ruling on what types of works could be translated and by attempting to standardize translation practices. King Tri Songdetsen also presided over the famous Council of Tibet, an effort to choose which form of Buddhism to royally endorse. In his time Tri Songdetsen was addressed as a sacred god-king but also as a bodhisattva, and Buddhist historians from the 12th century onward remember him as an incarnation of Mañjuśrī. Also in later tradition, and in particular among the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism, Tri Songdetsen is linked inextricably with the first abbot of Samyé Monastery, Śantarakṣita, and above all with the Nyingma’s central figure, the yogi Padmasambhava. For historians of the Bön religion of Tibet, however, Tri Songdetsen is an apostate king who turned his back on Tibet’s traditional religion and ultimately persecuted Bön. Due largely to his lionization by Tibetan Buddhist historians but also due to royalist eulogies to his reign composed even before his death, Tri Songdetsen’s life can hardly be separated from the legends that surround him. (Some publications give the king’s name as Trisong Detsen or Trisong Deutsen. In fact, this is not a variant but an error of transcription: “Tri” is a title that was given to Prince Songdetsen upon his enthronement in 756; at his birth he was known only as “Songdetsen.” The “Deu” in “Deutsen” is a late folk etymology and is not common in early Tibetan sources. The manner in which secondary scholarship transcribes this name is thus a useful shibboleth for research: recent publications that use the form “Trisong De(u)tsen” should signal to the reader a lack of proper attention to historical detail, and they should be read with this in mind.)
No critical overview of Tri Songdetsen’s life and works is, as yet, available. Most discussions of his career are set within the larger issue of the transmission of Buddhism to Tibet. The closest thing to a dedicated article to Tri Songdetsen is Doney 2013, which focuses on early representations of the king, including self-representations. Chetsang 2011 also includes a chapter that gives an overview of the king’s life and achievements, drawing on Dunhuang manuscripts and on later documents. Kapstein 2006 gives a succinct and useful outline of Tri Songdetsen’s life and his role in supporting Tibet’s adoption of Buddhism. Snellgrove 1987 gives a rich survey that draws on a wide range of primary sources, and Kapstein 2000 discusses critically the Tibetan assimilation of Buddhism and the politics of how this is remembered by later Tibetan historians. Haarh 1969 gives a dense and nuanced analysis of Tibetan kingship and locates Tri Songdetsen within larger royal traditions. Kollmar-Paulenz 2007 also gives an excellent summary of the conversion of Tibet and the many issues involved, including a short portrait of Tri Songdetsen.
Chetsang, Drikung Kyabgon. A History of the Tibetan Empire: Drawn from the Dunhuang Manuscripts. Translated by Meghan Howard, with Tsultrim Nakchu. Dehra Dun, India: Songtsen Library, 2011.
An accessible study by Drikung Kyabgon Chetsang Rinpoche, the head of the Drikung Kagyu order of Tibetan Buddhism. Drawing on Old Tibetan sources, on the Tang Annals, and on later Tibetan sources, chapter 12 (pp. 381–420) gives a good overview of the life and activities of Tri Songdetsen.
Doney, Lewis. “Emperor, Dharmaraja, Bodhisattva? Inscriptions from the Reign of Khri Srong lde brtsan.” In Current Issues and Progress in Tibetan Studies: Proceedings of the Third International Seminar of Young Tibetologists, Kobe 2012. Edited by Tsuguhito Takeuchi, Kazushi Iwao, Ai Nishida, Seiji Kumagai, and Meishi Yamamoto, 63–84. Kobe, Japan: Kobe City University of Foreign Studies, 2013.
An analysis of early inscriptional evidence concerning the king’s self-representation, his adoption of Buddhism, and his legacy. While dense in places, this is an excellent and judicious critical orientation to the topic.
Haarh, Erik. The Yar-luṅ Dynasty: A Study with Particular Regard to the Contribution by Myths and Legends to the History of Ancient Tibet and the Origin and Nature of Its Kings. Copenhagen: Gad, 1969.
This seminal work focuses largely on royal origins but does also treat King Tri Songdetsen. It is a masterful study of the early Tibetan monarchy, but many of Haarh’s fascinating interpretations and translations are contested and controversial, and for this reason it is preferable to consult this work after one has read widely in the primary and secondary literature.
Kapstein, Matthew T. The Tibetan Assimilation of Buddhism: Conversion, Contestation, and Memory. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
A lucid and thought-provoking work on the Tibetan adoption of Buddhism. Chapter 4 in particular argues that Buddhism offered Tibetans a literate administrative corps, an emphasis on ethics and reason, and a language of royal power understood by nearly all of their neighbors.
Kapstein, Matthew T. The Tibetans. Oxford: Blackwell, 2006.
An excellent introductory survey aimed at undergraduates. Pages 66–74 give a good summary of Tri Songdetsen’s reign and outline the discrepancies between contemporary accounts and later religious views.
Kollmar-Paulenz, Karénina. “The Buddhist Way into Tibet.” In The Spread of Buddhism. Pt. 8. Vol. 16. Edited by Ann Heirman and Stephan Peter Bumbacher, 303–340. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007.
An accessible and well-informed overview of the early spread of Buddhism to Tibet. This includes a discussion of Tri Songdetsen’s role, the Council of Tibet, language reform and royal sponsorship of Buddhist translation, and other pertinent themes.
Snellgrove, David. Indo-Tibetan Buddhism: Indian Buddhists and Their Tibetan Successors. 2 vols. Boston: Shambhala, 1987.
Long a standard reference. Volume 2 gives a fairly comprehensive account of the transmission of Buddhism to Tibet. This includes translations from a wealth of primary sources and discussions of most of the salient issues.
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