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Buddhism and Empire II: Portrait of a monk

September 2, 2008

Sam van Schaik
Early Tibet
August 30, 2007

IOL Tib N 2280This little piece of wood (IOL Tib N 2280) was found
among the Tibetan woodslips in the hill fort of Mazar Tagh, one of
the outposts of the Tibetan Empire. It can be dated to the period of
the Tibetan occupation of Khotan, between the 790s and 840s. On the
top is written ban de slong ba, "a begging monk". It is probably a
portrait, sketched by one of the soldiers at the fort, of an actual
monk who came to beg there. Though Mazar Tagh lies some way from the
nearest city, Khotan, it was actually a pilgrimage site, known to the
Khotanese Buddhists as The Hill. Thre is evidence for this among the
Khotanese manuscripts, where we find a poetic account of one monk's
pilgrimage to The Hill.

So our monk in the portrait probably made the pilgrimage to The Hill,
and then visited the Tibetan fort to ask for food. We know that the
Tibetan soldiers often ran out of food supplies, from their many
letters written to the main garrison at Khotan to ask for more. I
wonder how often they gave anything to the pilgrim monks. That partly
depends on how far Buddhist values had permeated the ordinary Tibetan
soldiers manning the Empire's outposts. Since giving to monks was an
important way of generating merit for oneself, a soldier who had
truly absorbed Buddhism might give something despite running short of food.

The picture of the monk is, obviously, rather crude and certainly not
the work of a trained artist. So we can't draw conclusions about the
monk's ethnic origin based on the way his facial features are drawn
here; I would still suggest that he is most likely to have been
Khotanese. The upper undergarment and robe (worn over the right
shoulder) are drawn clearly enough, as is the fan he holds in his
left hand. It's not clear what he is meant to be holding in his right
hand; perhaps a begging bowl is intended.

Further suggestions welcomed!

Emmerick, R.E. A Guide to the Literature of Khotan. Tokyo : The
International Institute for Buddhist Studies, 1992.
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