Hostname: page-component-594f858ff7-jtv8x Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2023-06-06T21:29:14.479Z Has data issue: false Feature Flags: { "corePageComponentGetUserInfoFromSharedSession": false, "coreDisableEcommerce": false, "corePageComponentUseShareaholicInsteadOfAddThis": true, "coreDisableSocialShare": false, "useRatesEcommerce": true } hasContentIssue false


Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 February 2018

Fernanda Pirie*
Professor of the Anthropology of Law, University of Oxford


Tibet is distinct within the Buddhist regions of Asia for its claims to have developed religious laws. The rulers of its early empire civilized their people by creating laws on the basis of Buddhist principles—or so it is claimed by the writers of Tibetan historical narratives. In fact, the earliest Tibetan laws were not linked in any significant way with Buddhist principles, even after the religion had been firmly established in the region. In this article I explore why and how the idea of Buddhist law first emerged, examining its development through a number of texts from the empire (sixth to ninth centuries) and the immediate postimperial period (tenth to twelfth centuries). It turns out that more ideological accounts of Buddhist law were developed only as the structures of the empire were collapsing. Nevertheless, they do seem to have resonated with at least one, tenth-century ruler. These narratives set the scene for a long series of historical accounts in which the idea that Tibetan law was based on Buddhist principles took hold—an idea that was maintained well into the twentieth century.

Research Article
Copyright © Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University 2018 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 French, Rebecca Redwood and Nathan's, Mark A. Buddhism and Law: An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, contains a fine collection of papers on the relationship between Buddhism and law. The Vinaya and dhammasatta texts are discussed by Christian Lammerts, “Genres and Jurisdictions: Laws Concerning Monastic Inheritance in Seventeenth-Century Burma,” in French and Nathan, Buddhism and Law, 183–97. The Mongols also created what they described as “Buddhist laws,” at times influenced by Tibetan scholarship. See Vesna Wallace, “Buddhist Laws in Mongolia,” in French and Nathan, Buddhism and Law, 319–33. In this article, I use the term Buddhist law to refer to any idea, historical or contemporary, that law was based on Buddhist principles. It is not just a reference to the Vinaya or other monastic codes.

2 French, Rebecca Redwood, The Golden Yoke: The Legal Cosmology of Buddhist Tibet (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995)Google Scholar, describes the Tibetan texts and practices that claimed to represent Buddhist principles and cosmology in later periods.

3 This article is based on a review of texts from the imperial and postimperial periods. The aim is not so much to offer new interpretations of individual texts as to ask a more sociological question about the development of Tibetan ideas about law, khrims. I transcribe common Tibetan terms and names according to common modern pronunciation and otherwise use the Wylie system of transliteration.

4 Takeuchi, Tsuguhito, “The Tibetan Military System and Its Activities from Khotan to Lop-Nor,” in The Silk Road: Trade, Travel, War and Faith, ed. Whitfield, Susan (London: British Library, 2004), 5056Google Scholar.

5 Kapstein, Matthew T., The Tibetans (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), chapter 3Google Scholar; van Schaik, Sam, Tibet: A History (London: Yale University Press, 2011), 3032Google Scholar.

6 This story, concerning Songtsen Gampo, is found in many accounts, including the twelfth-century bKa’ chems ka khol ma, ed. sMon lam rGya mtsho (Lanzhou: Kan su'u Mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 1989)Google Scholar, and in the thirteenth-century Me tog snying po sbrang rtsi'i bcud by Nyang ral Nyi ma'i ’Od zer (Lhasa: Bod ljongs mi dmangs dpe skrun khang, 1988)Google Scholar.

7 Kapstein, Matthew T., The Tibetan Assimilation of Buddhism: Conversion, Contestation, and Memory (Oxford: University Press, 2000), 56Google Scholar; Kapstein, The Tibetans, 71.

8 Kapstein, Tibetan Assimilation, 54, 58.

9 The “library cave” at Dunhuang, which was sealed in the early eleventh century and not reopened until 1900, is the main source of written texts from the imperial period. Xinjiang, Rong, “The Nature of the Dunhuang Library Cave and the Reasons for its Sealing,” Cahiers d'Extreme-Asie, no. 11 (1999–2000), 247–75CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Imaeda, Yoshiro, “The Provenance and Character of the Dunhuang Documents,” Memoirs of the Research Department of the Toyo Bunko, no. 66 (2008): 81102Google Scholar.

10 The text of the Annals that survived at Dunhuang seems to be a copy made for local purposes, albeit clearly from contemporary sources, possibly wooden slips on which a brief record of the events of each year was recorded. Dotson, Brandon, The Old Tibetan Annals: An Annotated Translation of Tibet's First History (Vienna: Verlag der Österreichschen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2009), 1011Google Scholar.

11 These are PT 1071/1072, PT 1073, and ITJ 753/PT 1075, discussed by Richardson, Hugh, “Early Tibetan Law Concerning Dog-Bite” and “Hunting Accidents in Early Tibet,” in High Peaks, Pure Earth: Collected Writings on Tibetan History and Culture, ed. Richardson, Hugh and Aris, Michael (London: Serindia, 1998), 135–39, 149–66Google Scholar; Dotson, Brandon, “Divination and Law in the Tibetan Empire,” in Contributions to the Cultural History of Early Tibet, ed. Kapstein, Matthew T. and Dotson, Brandon (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 377Google Scholar; Dotson, Brandon, “Introducing Early Tibetan Law: Codes and Cases,” in Secular Law and Order in the Tibetan Highland, ed. Schuh, Dieter (Andiast: International Institute for Tibetan and Buddhist Studies, 2015), 267314Google Scholar; Fernanda Pirie, “Oaths and Ordeals in Tibetan Law,” in Schuh, Secular Law and Order, 177–95; and Thomas, F. W., “Law of Theft in Chinese Kan-su: A IXth–Xth Century Fragment from Tun-huang,” in Zeitschrift für Vergleichende Rechtswissenschaft, ed. Heymann, E. et al. (Stuttgart: Verlag Ferdinand Enke, 1936), 275–87Google Scholar. The abbreviation PT refers to the Pelliot tibétain collection in the Bibliotèque nationale de France; ITJ refers to Tibetan documents in the Indian Office collection of the British Library.

12 Dotson, “Divination and Law.”

13 Pirie, “Oaths and Ordeals.”

14 Dotson, “Introducing Early Tibetan Law.”

15 Ibid., 306.

16 van Schaik, Sam, “Towards a Tibetan Palaeography: Developing a Typology of Writing Styles in Early Tibet,” in Manuscript Cultures: Mapping the Field, ed. Quenzer, Jörg B., Bondarev, Dmitry, and Sobish, Jan-Ulrich (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2014), 299337Google Scholar.

17 ITJ 740 is discussed by Dotson in “Divination and Law” and “Introducing Early Tibetan Law.”

18 Brandon Dotson, “Administration and Law in the Tibetan Empire: The Section on Law and State and its Old Tibetan Antecedents” (PhD diss., University of Oxford, 2006). The “Section on Law and the State” appears in an expanded form in the sixteenth-century Feast for Scholars. dPa’ bo gTsug lag Phreng ba, Dam pa'i chos kyi ʼkhor lo bsgyur ba rnams kyi byung ba gsal bar byed pa mkhas pa'i dga’ ston (Beijing: Mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 1985)Google Scholar. This has been the subject of detailed analysis by Uray, Geza, “The Narrative of the Legislation and Organization of the Mkhas pa'i dga’ ston: The Origins of the Traditions Concerning Sroṅ-Brcan Sgam-o as First Legislator and Organizer of Tibet,” Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 26, no. 1 (1972): 1168Google Scholar.

19 The use of the term religion in Tibet is problematic. The evidence is that Tibetans of this period had a sense of distinctly Buddhist institutions and practices (sangs rgyas kyi chos), a term that appears in the Old Tibetan Chronicle. Bacot, Jacques, Thomas, F. W., and Toussaint, C.-G., Documents de Touen-Houang relatifs a l'Histoire du Tibet (Paris: Librairie Orientaliste Paul Geuthner, 1940), 114Google Scholar. These are distinct from the general ritual or divine order (that of the lha chos), which I describe in the next section. I use religion to refer to the former.

20 Nagarjuna, , The Precious Garland and the Song of the Four Mindfulnesses, ed. and trans. Hopkins, Jeffrey and Rinpoche, Lati (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1975)Google Scholar. On this dating, see Hahn, Michael, Nagarjuna's Ratnāvali, vol. 1, Basic Texts (Bonn: Indica et Tibetica, 1982)Google Scholar; Zimmerman, Michael, “Only a Fool Becomes a King: Buddhist Stances on Punishment,” in Buddhism and Violence, ed. Zimmerman, Michael (Lumbini: International Research Institute, 2006), 228Google Scholar.

21 van Schaik, Sam, The Spirit of Tibetan Buddhism (London: Yale University Press, 2016), 20Google Scholar.

22 Kapstein, Matthew T., “The Adoption of Buddhism and the Foundation of Samyé Monastery: The Conversion Edict of Tri Songdetsen,” in Sources of Tibetan Tradition, ed. Schaeffer, Kurtis R., Kapstein, Matthew T., and Tuttle, Gray (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 6064Google Scholar.

23 Ibid., 62.

24 van Schaik, The Spirit of Tibetan Buddhism, 61–62.

25 Brandon Dotson and Matthew T. Kapstein, 2013; “The Old Tibetan Chronicles,” in Schaeffer, Kapstein, and Tuttle, Sources of Tibetan Tradition, 36–46, at 41.

26 Richardson, Hugh, “A New Inscription of Khri Srong Lde Brtsan,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, no. 1/2 (1964): 113Google Scholar.

27 Richardson, Hugh, A Corpus of Early Tibetan Inscriptions (London: Royal Asiatic Society, 1985), 106–43Google Scholar; Li, Fang Kuei and Coblin, W. South, A Study of the Old Tibetan Inscriptions (Taipei: Academia Sinica, 1987), 134–37Google Scholar.

28 Kapstein, Matthew T., “The Treaty Temple of the Turquoise Grove,” in Buddhism between Tibet and China, ed. Kapstein, Matthew T. (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2009), 2172Google Scholar. Walter argues that the document is a later compilation of imperfectly transcribed imperial texts. Walter, Michael, “Analysis of PT016/IO751. Language and Culture of a Dunhuang Document, Part One” in Tibet after Empire: Culture, Society and Religion between 850–1000, ed. Cüppers, Christoph, Mayer, Robert, and Walter, Michael (Lumbini: International Research Institute, 2013), 417–40Google Scholar. It must, therefore, be treated with some caution. Nevertheless, the terms used probably reflect the ideas in circulation at the time of the temple-founding.

29 Kapstein, “The Treaty Temple,” 33–34.

30 Bacot, Thomas, and Toussaint, Documents de Touen-Houang; Dotson and Kapstein, “The Old Tibetan Chronicles.” The date of this document is uncertain, but the events continue to Langdarma (gLang dar ma), suggesting that it was composed in, or after, the 840s. It has been suggested that it is a later compilation, possibly dating from the eleventh century, of earlier texts. Beckwith, Christopher I. and Walter, Michael L., “Dating and Characterization of the Old Tibetan Annals and the Chronicle,” in From Bhakti to Bon: A Festschrift for Per Kvaerne, ed. Havnevik, Hanna and Ramble, Charles (Oslo: Institute for Comparative Research in Human Culture, 2015), 53–88, at 82Google Scholar.

31 Stein, R. A., “Tibetica Antiqua III: A propos du mot gcug-lag et de la religion indigène,” Bulletin de l'Ecole française d'Extrême-Orient, no. 74 (1985): 83133CrossRefGoogle Scholar; van Schaik, Sam, “The Naming of Tibetan Religion: Bon and Chos in the Tibetan Imperial Period,” Journal of the International Association for Bon Research, no. 1 (2013): 227–57Google Scholar.

32 Kapstein, Tibetan Assimilation, 55n27; The Tibetans, 45–46; “The Treaty Temple,” 33n57.

33 Hahn, Michael, “A Propos the Term gTsug Lag,” in Tibetan Studies, ed. Krasser, Helmut et al. (Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1997), 347–54Google Scholar; Macdonald, Ariane, “Une lecture des P.T. 1286, 1287, 1038, 1047, et 1290. Essai sur la formation et l'emploi des mythes politiques dans la religion royale de Sroṅ-bcan sgam-po,” in Études tibétaines dédiées à la mémoire de Marcelle Lalou (Paris: Librairie d'Amérique et d'Orient, 1971), 190391Google Scholar; Walter, Michael L., Buddhism and Empire: The Political and Religious Culture of Early Tibet (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 225–30CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

34 This is most clearly indicated in the Old Tibetan Chronicle. However, whether gtsug lag is to be understood as power, capacity, or order does not substantially affect the arguments of this article.

35 The full title is the Bodhisattva-gocaropāya-visaya-vikurvana-nirdesa-sutra. Zimmerman, “Only a Fool Becomes a King.”

36 Dietz, Siglinde, Die buddhistische Briefliteratur Indiens (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1984)Google Scholar.

37 Karmay, Samten, The Arrow and the Spindle: Studies in History, Myths, Rituals, and Beliefs in Tibet, 3 vols. (Kathmandu: Mandala Book Point, 1998), 1:25Google Scholar.

38 Stein, R. A., “Tibetica Antiqua IV: La tradition relative au début du Bouddhisme au Tibet,” Bulletin de l'Ecole française d'Extreme-Orient 75 (1986), 169–96, at 178CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

39 Dietz, Die buddhistische Briefliteratur Indiens.

40 Roesler, Ulrike, “‘16 Human Norms’ (mi chos bcu drug)—Indian, Chinese, and Tibetan,” in The Illuminating Mirror: Tibetan Studies in Honour of Per K. Sørensen on the Occasion of his 65th Birthday, ed. Czaja, Olaf, and Hazod, Guntram (Wiesbaden: Dr. Ludwig Reichert Verlag, 2015), 389409Google Scholar.

41 This is an addition to the Indian text, the Kaniskalekha of Mātrceta, on which this section is based.

42 Kapstein, The Tibetans; van Schaik, Tibet: A History.

43 Kapstein, The Tibetans, 77–83; van Schaik, Tibet: A History, 46–50.

44 Hugh Richardson, “‘The Dharma that Came Down from Heaven’: A Tun-Huang Fragment,” in Richardson and Aris, High Peaks, Pure Earth, 74–81. Van Schaik suggests that the dam ma in the opening line is better read as a “scripture.” Van Schaik, “Dharma from the Sky III: Self-Appointed Buddhas,” Early Tibet (blog), September 24, 2010,

45 Stein, Tibetica Antica III, 173–80; Kapstein, Tibetan Assimilation, 57–58.

46 van Schaik, “Dharma from the Sky III.”

47 Gu ge Pandita Grags pa rGyal mtshan, Lha bla ma Ye shes ʼOd kyi rnam thar rgyas pa bzhugs so, ed. Do rgya dbang grag rdo rje (Lhasa: Bod ljongs mi dmangs dpe skrung khang, 2013)Google Scholar.

48 Karmay, Samten G., “The Ordinance of Lha Bla-ma Ye-shes-ʼod,” in Tibetan Studies in Honour of Hugh Richardson, ed. Aris, Michael and Kyi, Aung San Suu (Warminster: Aris and Phillips, 1980), 150–62Google Scholar; Vitali, Roberto, The Kingdom of Gu.Ge Pu.Hrang According to Mnga’.Ris Rgyal.Rabs by Gu.Ge Mkhan.chen Ngag.Dbang Grags.Pa (London: Serindia, 1997)Google Scholar.

49 Jacob P. Dalton, “Power and Compassion: Negotiating Buddhist Kingship in Tenth-Century Tibet,” in Czaja and Hazod, The Illuminating Mirror, 101–8, at 102. The accounts of law and lawmaking found in this text do not display any obvious influence from narratives about law that were well known in the fifteenth century, such as those of the Ma ṇi bkaʾ ʾbum or the rGyal rabs gsal ba'i me long. In these narratives, laws introduced by Songtsen Gampo were based on the ten virtues. While the references to law in Yeshe Öd's biography are not inconsistent with this idea, and Yeshe Öd refers to the laws of his ancestors, there is no reference to Songtsen Gampo, or to the ten virtues. The biographical account does, therefore, seem to be based on historical documents. With this caveat, we can read it as an account of events that occurred during this period and the ideas and activities that Yeshe Öd considered to be important.

50 Dalton, “Power and Compassion,” 106–7.

51 The writer uses the phrase lugs gnyis (two systems)—religious and political—although this may be a later gloss. The concept of chos khrims, here relating specifically to monastics, is almost certainly different from that of the Sino-Tibetan treaty pillar inscription, which seems to refer to good customs, in general.

52 For example, there are references to chos rtsigs, religious works, and chos ’khor, religious establishments (fols. 33b, 34a).

53 Fol. 26a; Dalton, “Power and Compassion,” 106–7.

54 Kapstein, Tibetan Assimilation, 36–37.

55 van Schaik, Sam and Iwao, Kazushi, “Two Fragments of the Testament of Ba from Dunhuang,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 128, no. 3 (2008): 477–87Google Scholar. The dBa’ bzhed text can be found in Pasang Wangdu and Hildegard Diemberger, dBa’ bzhed (Vienna: Verlag der Osterreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2000)Google Scholar. The text of the later sBa bzhed, referred to here, is that published by Stein, R. A., Une chronique ancienne de bSam yas: sBa bzed (Paris: Publications de l'institute des hautes études chinoises, 1961)Google Scholar.

56 Kapstein, Tibetan Assimilation, ch. 2.

57 Pasang Wangdu and Diemberger, dBa’ bzhed, 237–39.

58 These details are contained in an addition to the manuscript. As Pasang Wangdu and Diemberger point out, the origin of the several interlinear additions is difficult to ascertain. Ibid., 11.

59 Pasang Wangdu and Diemberger note several other examples of distinctively early terminology. Ibid.

60 Ibid., 274.

61 Ibid., 262.

62 Stein, Une chronique, 45.

63 As I have argued elsewhere, references to bka’ sho in early Tibetan documents indicate that the emperors periodically granted debt amnesties, presumably to grant some relief to impoverished peasants and merchants. Fernanda Pirie, “Imperial Amnesties: Or, Did Tibetans Use Dice to Decide Legal Cases?” Tibetan Law (blog), August 12, 2016, Dotson suggests that the reference in the sBa bzhed is evidence of the granting of an amnesty. Dotson, “Introducing Early Tibetan Law,” 283. However, as I suggest here, it looks more like a reinterpretation of imperial practice. The granting of an amnesty gives relief to some people from the rigors of the law, while the edict described in the sBa bzhed involves a permanent change in the law.

64 Mills, Martin, “Ritual as History in Tibetan Divine Kingship: Notes on the Myth of the Khotanese Monks,” History of Religions 51, no. 3 (2012): 219–38, at 219–20, 233–35CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

65 Ma ṇi bkaʼ ʼbum: A Collection of Rediscovered Teachings Focussing upon the Tutelary Deity Avalokiteśvara (Mahākaruṇika) (New Delhi: Trayang and Jamyang Samten, 1975)Google Scholar. These accounts are found in several later narratives. I have summarized elsewhere the ways in which they deal with this issue, Fernanda Pirie, “The Problem of Punishment in Early Tibetan Law” Tibetan law (blog), January 13, 2017, but a detailed discussion is beyond the scope of this article.

66 Zimmerman, “Only a Fool Becomes a King.”

67 van Schaik, “Towards a Tibetan Palaeography,” 39.

68 Zimmerman, “Only a Fool Becomes a King,” 230–33.

69 Ramble, Charles, “How Buddhist Are Buddhist Communities? The Construction of Tradition in Two Lamaist Villages,” Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford 21, no. 2 (1990), 185–97Google Scholar; Samuel, Geoffrey, Civilized Shamans: Buddhism in Tibetan Societies (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993)Google Scholar; Pirie, Fernanda, Peace and Conflict in Ladakh: The Construction of a Fragile Web of Order (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 105Google Scholar.