Thursday, March 26, 2009

Serlingpa: King of Suvarnadvipa

I have written previously about the introduction of the Kalacakra, the highest Tantric practice in Tibetan, Mongolian and Nepali Buddhism, into India from Shambhala.

Shambhala is equated with the kingdom known in Indian texts as Suvarnadvipa, and the agent who introduced the Kalacakra was none other than the Shamhbala king known as Kalki Sripala.

The mysterious kingdom of Shambhala gave rise to the fabled land known as Shangri-la from the 1933 novel Lost Horizon by British author James Hilton, and Shambhala has become focal point in many modern Western esoteric traditions. Madame Blavatsky and Nicholas Roerich, for example, emphasized the importance of Shambhala.

Shambhala became an important part of the "Great Game," the political intrigues particularly of the 19th and 20th centuries. The Russian imperial family including the Tsar had befriended the Lama Agvan Dorzhiev, who claimed that the Romanovs were the kings of Shambhala. Dorzhiev raised the suspicions of Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, who thought that Russia might be conspiring with Central Asian nations to undermine British interests in India.

Baron von Ungern-Sternberg an anti-Bolshevik rallied Mongolians to fight the Soviet armies with the promise that they would be reborn in Shambhala. And during World War II, the Japanese after taking Inner Mongolia in 1937 attempted to gain Mongolian allegiance by claiming that Japan was Shambhala.

Serlingpa and the Kalacakra

Geshe Sopa, John Newman and others have suggested that Sripala is the same person known in Tibetan texts variously as Pindo (Pito), Dharmakirti, Dharmapala and Suvarnadvipi ("one from Suvarnadvipa.) The latter name is rendered in Tibetan as Serlingpa or Gserlingpa.

Serlingpa is described as a prince of Suvarnadvipa, while Sripala is listed in Kalacakra texts as the 17th king of the Kalki or Kulika (Tib: Rigden) lineage. Of all the kings of the ancient kingdom of Suvarnadvipa and its predecessors and successors, he is the best documented, and by a number of different traditions.

That Shambhala should be identified with Suvarnadvipa can be posited on a single argument as Tibetan texts describe the existence of the Kalacakra as only in Shambhala before it was introduced into India. The same tradition in some cases clearly suggests the existence of the Kalacakra in Suvarnadvipa without any explanation as to how it got there. And there is more than enough evidence to suggest that the Kalacakra was introduced to India from Suvarnadvipa, which would suggest that the latter is simply another name for Shambhala. Note these points:

  • In his history of Buddhism, Taranatha says that the Kalacakra was introduced into India by Pindo. Different sources claim that Pindo is one of the names of Serlingpa, the prince of Suvarnadvipa.

  • Atisha, the teacher who helped establish Buddhism in Tibet, says that he learned of the Paramadibuddha, the basic Kalacakra text, from the oral teachings of Serlingpa, who he also refers to as Pindo.

  • One of the oldest documents of the Tanjur, the second part of the Tibetan canon that consists of translations of older texts, is known as the Sri Kalacakra-garbhalankara. In the notes to a Peking manuscript of this text, authorship is ascribed to Pindo, "who was born in the land of the Southern Ocean." This ocean is generally associated with the world of Southeast Asia including Suvarnadvipa.

  • A prayer, from one of the two major lineages that have transmitted Tibetan Buddhism, and recorded by Bu ston calls on the blessings of "Kalki Sripala from the end of the Southern Ocean." According to this same lineage, it was Kalki Sripala who brought the Kalacakra to India.

  • According to both major transmission lineages, the Kalacakra came to India together with three major tantric commentaries. All three of these works cite the Paramadibuddha, the work taught to Atisha by Pindo , and two of them are called by names that Newman thinks can be translated as "a commentary according to the thought of Pindo."

  • From this evidence we can clearly see that: Serlingpa, who is also called Pindo and Kalki Sripala, is responsible for introducing the Kalacakra to India, and that he hails from Suvarnadvipa.

    Some aspects of the Kalacakra philosophy may have begun filtering in during 966 or 967 CE, but the main texts and traditions, which did not exist in India previously, were likely brought to that country by Serlingpa in 1012, the date on which the main Kalacakra astronomical calculations used in Tibet are based. It may be that this two-stage transmission accounts for some differences that exist between the two major transmission lineages.

    However, both lineages converge upon a person called Kalacakrapada the Elder, who according to the Rwa lineage inherits the Kalacakra doctrine from Pindo, while the 'Bro lineage has him receiving the knowledge from Kalki Sripala.

    Archaeological evidence

    Two sets of inscriptions from the Chola empire of South India may offer direct evidence of the existence of Serlingpa himself.

    Known as the Larger and Smaller Leiden Grants, these inscriptions tell of a king of Suvarnadvipa who builds a Buddhist shrine at Nagapattana in South India in the name of his father Culamanivarman. The Chola king Rajaraja grants a village for the upkeep of this shrine in the 21st year of his reign, or about 1005 CE. Centuries earlier, a Suvarnadvipa king had erected a Buddhist sanctuary at Nalanda in eastern India in the time of the Pala king Devapala.

    Now a work in the Tangur ascribed to Serlingpa states that it was written "on the request of king Sri Cudamanivarman, during the tenth year of the reign of Cudamanivarman, in Vijayanagara of Suvarnadvipa."

    The Sanskrit name Cudamanivarman is written in Tamil, as in the Leiden Grant, as Culamanivarman. Now given that Serlingpa was alive in 1005, these two references must be referring to the same king of Suvarnadvipa. And as Serlingpa is a prince of Suvarnadvipa who later becomes king, Culamanivarman should have been his paternal ancestor.

    Another manuscript of the Tangur found in Cordier's Catalogue calls the king Cudamanimandapa, while the Leiden Grant refers to the son who builds the Chola shrine as Sri Mara-Vivayottungavarman. So here again we see a variety of names as in the case of Serlingpa. The large number of names though is not unusual for royal personages who often have personal, throne, dynastic and other names usually as titles.

    Now the names Cudamanivarman and Cudamanimandapa might both be titles derived from the old kingdom known as Cudamani probably referring to Coda or Chola territory. Varman means "protector" and is often appended to the names of rulers, while "mandapa" would probably mean a temple or similar structure. It may be that these names or titles refer to the political relations between Suvarnadvipa and the Cholas that are mentioned in Sung Dynasty annals and in the work of Chinese geographer Ma Tuan-lin and referring to this period. In those works, Suvarnadvipa is known as Sanfotsi (Sanfoqi).

    The Sung annals state that the Sanfotsi king in 1003 sent envoys to China telling of a Buddhist temple that was built and said to be in honor of the Chinese emperor. This was very close to the time of the shrine built in South India, and the king at the time would have been Culamanivarman.

    Previously we have mentioned that the king of Suvarnadvipa-Sanfotsi was during this period using a policy of attraction to help in protecting his kingdom's age-old control of the Clove Route. We also hear from a temple inscription in Canton dated 1079 that the "Lord of Sanfotsi" had contributed funds toward the upkeep of not only Buddhist, but also Taoist temples in South China.

    According to Chinese records the throne would have passed from Culamanivarman to his son sometime befween 1003 and 1005 CE. Now when the teacher Atisha went to study under Serlingpa in 1012 or 1013, some sources call the latter "Lord of Suvarnadvipa," which could mean that he was the sovereign at the time. Thus, Serlingpa would have been the son of Mara-Vivayottungavarman, who was the son of Culamanivarman and the person who built the Buddhist shrine in Chola country.

    Taranatha mentions that Pindo brought the Kalacakra to India during the second half of Mahipala's lifetime. Newman thinks this Mahipala must be the Pala king with that name who reigned between 988-1038, but it's not impossible that Taranatha is referring to Kalki Mahipala, the father of Kalki Sripala (Serlingpa) according to Kalacakra tradition.

    Suvarnadvipa as learning center

    As early as the T'ang Dynasty, Chinese texts tell of a renowned Buddhist learning center somewhere in Insular Southeast Asia.

    The traveler I-Tsing (Yijing) describes this center in a place called Fo-hsi. The location of Fo-shi is important and he says that one travels there from Canton sailing toward the asterisms Yi and Tchen, which in the Chinese sidereal compass represent the directions between south-southeast and southeast. The explorer Kie Tan gives a detailed itinerary for the journey to Fo-hsi, which also locates it southeast of Canton. I-Tsing also calls Fo-Shi by the name Chin-chou "Gold Country," which is probably a translation of Sanskrit Suvarnadvipa.

    Al-Biruni tells us that Suvarnadvipa was known among the Muslims as Zabag -- a location widely seen by geographers as referring to what the Sung Chinese called Sanfotsi. We can verifym using the works closest to the date of Serlingpa, that these locations agree with the directions given for sailing to Fo-hsi during the T'ang Dynasty.

    For example, Mas'udi writing in 947 tells us that Zabag was located in the Sea of Champa, i.e. in the ocean adjacent to what is now known as Central Vietnam, and that beyond Zabag was a great ocean of unknown limits i.e., the Pacific Ocean. The same author tells us that Zabag was oriented toward the land of the Khmer, i.e., what is now Cambodia and southern Vietnam, in the same way that Sri Lanka is oriented toward Madurai in South India. That is to say that Zabag was to the east of the land of the Khmers across the sea.

    Sung Dynasty works like those of Zhao Rugua and Zhou Qufei clearly place Sanfotsi along the Eastern Ship Route. Because of the dangers posed by the coral islands and outcroppings now known as the Spratly and Paracel islands, Chinese mariners avoided crossing the middle of the South China Sea. Instead they either hugged the coast from Quanzhou in Fujian to Vietnam to the markets of Zhangcheng (Tonkin) and Zhenla (Cambodia) -- a course known as the Western Ship Route. Or they sailed due south from Quanzhou stopping at Taiwan and the Philippines before going further south toward Maluku.

    When Atisha came to study with Serlingpa, Suvarnadvipa was the center of a great trade empire. Earlier, near the end of the 7th century, Dharmapala, abbot of Nalanda university, is said to have ventured to Suvarnadvipa to study alchemy near the end of his life. In the 8th century, the South Indian monk Vajrabodhi studied for five months in Fo-hsi before traveling to China where he is said to have introduced Tantric Buddhism.

    However, we should note that despite its popularity with Buddhists there is evidence of a great deal of religious plurality in Suvarnadvipa. Already mentioned was the contribution made by the Suvarnadvipa king toward maintenance of both Taoist and Buddhist temples in 1079. In 983, we hear from Chinese records that "the priest Fa-yu, returning from lndia where he had been seeking sacred texts, arrived at Sanfotsi where he met the Hindu priest Mi-mo-lo-shih-li, who after a short conversation gave him a petition expressing his desire to visit the Middle Kingdom and translate sacred books there."

    Islamic writers, who elsewhere show much interest in religious practices, make no mention of the religion practiced in Zabag to this author's knowledge. Islamic terms for Buddhism like samani, budd, buddah, budhah, bahar, etc. are not used in describing Zabag, nor is any other specific term giving of the local religion with the exception that the inhabitants are sometimes called majus, which could be interpreted as "fire-worshipper."

    Again I would assign this to the king's policy of attraction and the general pluralistic society that existed at the time. We know, for example, that while Atisha studied in Suvarnadvipa, there were prophecies of his eventual journey to Tibet. And when his studies were completed, Serlingpa himself is said to have advised Atisha to "go to the north. In the north is the Land of Snows [Tibet]."

    Those who have followed this blog will know that I have suggested that the Suvarnadvipa king was interested in rallying Tibet and India behind his cause in stopping the Muslim juggernaut. Not because of any anti-Muslim viewpoint, indeed texts like the Arabian Nights and Buzurg ibn Shahriyar's Wonders of India indicate that Muslims found Zabag as a very friendly place. Also, I have suggested that the Suvarnadvipa king, under the identity of "Prester John," had actually conspired with Shi'ite Muslims to undermine the threat posed by Sunni expansion along the maritime trade routes.

    Works of Serlingpa and impact

    Besides his part in transmitting the Kalacakra doctrine, Serlingpa is credited with six original works that appear in the Tangur. The most impressive both in length of its title and content, and the scope of its exposition on Mahayana Buddhist philosopy is the Abhisamaya-alamkara-nama-prajnaparamita-upadesa-sastra-vritti-durbodha-aloka-nama-tika.

    Some of Serlingpa's sayings that have been preserved might give us some insight on this thinking and teachings. On suffering, Serlingpa taught:

    Adverse conditions are one's spiritual teacher,
    Ghosts and possessor spirits, the Buddha's emanations.
    Sickness is a broom clearing away negativity and obstructions,
    The sufferings are ornamentation of ultimate reality's expanse.
    These are the four thoroughly unenlightened factors,
    They are essential to tame places that are far from dharma [law],
    They are essential too in times of degeneration
    To help bear negative samsara [repetition] and its misguided ways.

    On the self and self-interest, Serlingpa teaches that one should instead focus on the other:

    Self is the root of [all] negative actions;
    It is the one thing to be discarded with decisiveness.
    The other is a source of enlightenment;
    It is the one thing to be embraced with enthusiasm.
    These two teachings condense those to be relinquished and their antidotes,
    They are vital in places afar from dharma
    They are essential too in times of degeneration,
    To help bear negative samsara and its misguided ways.

    Serlingpa's pupil Kamala was the author of nine works in the Tangur, but Atisha must be considered Serlingpa's most important student. Not only does it appear that Serlingpa had the greatest impact on the training of Atisha, but it was in his kingdom and under his advice that Atisha brought the Sarma lineages to Tibet when Buddhism was under repression by King Langdarma. In his biography, it is said that Atisa upon hearing the name of Serlingpa immediately clasped his palms together at his crown and tears would fall in remembering his teacher's kindness. He credited Serlingpa with leading him to bodhicitta, the desire for enlightenment to help other beings.

    Through his influence on Atisha and by introducing the Kalacakra philosophy, Serlingpa had a great impact on the development of the culture of modern Tibet, Mongolia, Bhutan, Nepal and parts of India; and indirectly on modern Western esoteric traditions.

    Paul Kekai Manansala


    Chattopadhyaya, Alaka, Atīśa, and Chimpa. Atīśa and Tibet; Life and Works of Dīpaṃkara Śrījñāna in Relation to the History and Religion of Tibet, [Calcutta]: distributors: Indian Studies: Past & Present, 1967.

    Newman, John. "A Brief History of the Kalachakra," in: Geshe Lhundup Sopa, et al.
    The Wheel of Time: The Kalachakra in Context, Deer Park Books, 1985, 51-90.

    Rost, Reinhold. Miscellaneous Papers Relating to Indo-China. London: Trübner & Co, 1886, 189-90.

    Tan Yeok Seong, "The Srivijaya inscription of Canton (A.D. 1079)", Journal of Southeast Asian History 5,2 (1964): 21.


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