Tibetan History in Translation

This website is developed in conjunction with Tibetan Studies graduate students  at Columbia University. In particular, students in the Second-Year Classical Tibetan class taught by Pema Bhum initiated this resource in December 2016 so that the translation output of their class might benefit students more widely.  

CONTRIBUTORS: Riga Shakya, Yuchen Zhao, Lingzi Zhuang                 

EDITORS: Pema Bhum, Lauran Hartley


Project Statement by Riga Shakya, Ph.D. Candidate (December 2016)

This semester, our Classical Tibetan class has met twice weekly under the guidance of Gen Pema Bhum. Class members have consisted of Dr. David Brophy; Lingzi Zhuang, PhD student at Cornell University; Yuchen Zhao, second-year MA student at Columbia University; and myself, Riga Shakya, PhD student at Columbia University. We began with readings from Yael Bentor’s A Classical Tibetan Reader, such as extracts from Dza Patrul Rinpoche’s "Words of My Perfect Teacher" (Kun bzang bla ma’i zha lung) and Nyang Ral Nyima Özer’s biography of Padmasambhava (Zangs gling ma). The latter half of the semester was spent reading classical Tibetan works selected by Pema Bhum, such as Desi Sangye Gyatso’s "The Story About the Change from Fifth to Sixth" (Lnga pa drug par 'phos pa'i gtam) and Sakya Pandita’s "Letter to the Tibetans" (Dbus gtsang Mnga’ ris dang bcas pa’i dge ba’i bshes gnyen yon mchod rnams la springs pa).  

SaPan letter_p1

Original manuscript held by the Latse Library, New York City.



Letter from Sakya Pandita to the Tibetans (Original title: Dbus gtsang Mnga’ ris dang bcas pa’i dge ba’i bshes gnyen yon mchod rnams la springs pa)



Sakya Pandita’s "Letter to the Tibetans" is a short letter, ostensibly written by Sakya Pandita from the Mongol camp in Liangzhou in 1247, after an interview with the Mongol Prince Goden. In the letter, Sakya Pandita defends his actions in ceding overlordship of Tibetan lands to Goden, and urges Tibetan rulers to submit and pay tribute to the Mongols. His relationship with Goden was essentially the genesis of the priest-patron relationship and established Sakya rule over Tibet. The text is one of the earliest sources on Tibet-Mongol political and religious relations and has been studied by Giuseppe Tucci in his Tibetan Painted Scrolls and T.W.D Shakabpa in his Tibet: A Political History. In his 1996 article "Sakya Pandita’s Letter to the Tibetans: A Late and Dubious Addition to His Collected Works," David P. Jackson casts doubt about the authenticity of the letter on the grounds that it is absent from early versions of Sakya Pandita’s collected works and only enters Tibetan historiography from about the first half of the 16th century. Moreover, Jackson contends that stylistically "the letter is colloquial in tone and not at all elegant." While it is beyond the scope of our class to determine the authenticity of the source, the historical importance of the priest-patron relationship throughout Tibetan history means a closer investigation of the text is valuable not only to the study of Tibeto-Mongol relations but to understanding the nature of religious rule in Tibet.


Brackets [ ] represent words/phrases not found in the original text.

Om Swasti siddhi!  I prostrate to the lamas and Protector Manjushri.  A letter from Dpal-ldan Sakya Pandita to the spiritual friends, officiants and patrons of Dbus, Gtsang and Mnga’ ris:

I have come to Hor with the thought to (bring) benefit (to) the teachings of Buddha and all beings, in particular to all those speaking Tibetan. The great benefactor was greatly pleased with the one who invited me, and said: "That you would bring Phagspa [and his] brother, though they are so young, and come here together with your retinue was out of consideration for me.  You surrender with your head, while the others surrender merely with their feet; you were invited by me;  the others come (to me) out of fear – could I not have recognized that?  ‘Phagspa and his brother already know the Tibetan Dharma. ‘Phagspa should still study Tibetan Dharma.  Phyagna Dorje should study the Hor script and spoken language.  If I should keep the law of men and you should keep the law of the divine, then would not the teaching of Shakyamuni go and pervade within the bounds of the Outer Seas?" In general, this Bodhisattva-king respects the teaching of the Buddha, and especially the Three Precious Jewels. With good laws and discipline, he takes care of all peoples, and in particular, he has shown special regard for me, even more than others. He has said personally, "You may feel free to expound the Dharma. Whatever you need, I shall grant to you. I know that you will render good things; whether I render good things, only heaven knows."  His care for 'Phagspa [and his] brother is especially great.   If you consciously follow the law, he has good intention to think about rendering benefit to all the people in the kingdom. In particular, he said, "(You should) properly teach your own clan, the Tibetans, the laws (of the kingdom). I know that they should be allowed (to live) happily." I urge all ritual specialists (rim gro ba) to offer prayers for the long-life of the King and the King’s offspring.

Now, the Hor’s troops are innumerable; he [Qubilai Khan] thinks that the entire world is his territory.  For those who are in accord with him, their happiness and suffering is identical with his.  He is such that if one does not earnestly listen to what he says, surrendering in name only is not sufficient; in the end, they will be destroyed.  Before it was crushed, the Yugur Kingdom was in favor with the Hor (lit. benefitted by).  They managed (rlangs) their own people and wealth, and appointed their own scribes, treasurers, and attendants[?] (bu-dga') .  The Chinese, the Tanguts, the Sog-po [Mongolians?], etc., were previously treated just like the Hor, but they did not listen to what was said. Thus, they were crushed and finally could find no place to go, and they had to surrender.  Nonetheless, they eventually listened to what they [the Hor] said, and nowadays they appoint their own important people to be order-attendants, treasurers, military leaders and scribes, respectively.   Since our own [Tibetan] people (mi sde) are bad and stubborn types, I have seen only serf and servant position-holders, and not more than a few for every hundred appointed as leaders.  Although many Tibetans have surrendered, one of the issues is that the [Mongolian] leaders are deeply displeased by the insufficient tribute.  Over the last few years there have been no outbreaks of war in Stod.  I myself surrendered in Biri [in present-day Ganzi?].  This surrender was carried out in an excellent manner, and then the people of Stod Mnga’ ris,  Dbus and Gtsang surrendered too.  I told [Qubilai] that the other parts of Biri would surrender too, and by virtue of this, the [Hor] troops have not advanced there.

All the people of Stod did not realize this.  Though they surrendered at that time, they did not pay tribute in a good manner, and all of the distrustful were attacked [by the Mongolian army].  You have heard about all their people and wealth being destroyed.  All of those attacked had been hopeful they could (resist), due to their impenetrable land, courageous heroes, numerous soldiers, good weapons, and skill in archery; thus, they were destroyed. People think that the Mongolians are inferior in terms of ulag (corvee and service) and military tax, and that the others are superior in terms of ulag and military tax -- but (in fact) the Mongolians were superior [compared to the] others in ulag and military tax. If compared to them, the others have been inferior.

Moreover, if you listen to what you are told, the communities of the land, your own respective leaders will be appointed (by the Mongolians) as leaders.  Tell the gold letter and silver letter bearers of the Sa skya pa. Whether you are in agreement if I appoint (these) da ra kha che [?], let the messengers understand clearly. Then, make three [copies of a] clear record of the names of the leaders, the number of communities, and the amount of tribute to be offered. Send one (copy) to me. Leave one in Sa skya. And one copy must be upheld by your own leaders. Again,  make a clear distinction between surrendering and resisting. Otherwise, there is the possibility that those who have actually surrendered will be destroyed along with those who resist.  Golden letter-bearers of the Sa skya, discuss with the leaders of various lands. For the benefit of all beings, you (the letter bearers) should not exceed the limits of your power. And the leaders of the lands (in turn) must not need exceed the limits of their own power. Exceeding the limits of one’s power without discussing with the golden letter-bearers is not in accordance with the law (Mongolian legal system). It is difficult for me to talk (about the consequences) if one transgresses (from law). You must be in agreement with this all. Good things will come forth if you are in accordance with the Mongolian legal system.   Before asking other questions, all the golden letters bearers will ask: Did they flee?  Did they resist? Did they receive the golden letter bearers in a welcoming fashion?  Did they pay ulag? Have those who already surrendered, surrender in a reliable  way? If you do not respect the letter bearers you will certainly come to harm. If you respect them then it will be of great benefit to you. If you do not listen to the speech  of the golden letter bearers, I foresee that will be difficult (for you).

Here, the aristocratic families and those who come bringing tribute [?] (‘thab nor) are treated very well. If we are also thinking about [i.e. want] good treatment, then all my officials [should] bring tribute and come together with people of Sakya. Please discuss how much tribute to offer.  I will also discuss it here. Then, [when you? they?] come to our land, benefit will come to all, us and others. In general, over the past years, I sent people, and I said (byas) and advised that it is good to do like this. You have not done what I told you to do. Once [you are] destroyed, do you all want to listen to whatever [they] say then?  Whatever is said, [you? they?] will not hear.  Afterwards, do not say that the Sakyapa went among the Mongols, but it did not help us. I, having put others in the forefront of my thoughts, in order to benefit all Tibetan speakers, have come among the Mongols. If you listen to what I say, it will be beneficial. You have not seen the situation here. It is hard to believe the things you are hearing. For that reason, you still think you will be victorious.  However, I suspect that while you are dwelling blissfully a ghost will suddenly pin you down, and all the men and boys of Dbus-Gtsang will be [forced] to go to the Mongols.  As for me, good or bad, whatever happens, I have no regrets. With the blessings and consideration of the lama and the Jewels, it may even go better. You too should propitiate (pray to) the Jewels. The king cherishes me unlike anyone else. Because of that, the scholars and important people (mi chen) of China, Tibet, Yu-gur (Uygur?), Mi-nyag (Tanguts), all these different places, think it amazing and they are [coming to] hear the dharma and pay great respect. There is no need to be suspicious about what the Mongools will do to those of us who came here. Everyone cherishes us [lit. holds us in regard], and we are well.  So, from my standpoint, all [of you] should not worry.  Tribute of gold, silver, ivory, large pearls, vermillion (mtshal), madder (btsod), ru rta, solidified elephant bile (gi wang) and tigers and leopards (gzig and gung), otters, Tibetan blankets, thick cloth from Dbus (dbus phrug), these are well liked here. Generally, even if the treasure is not highly regarded here, it is okay to brings whatever nice things from their [your] own regions. Consider that if you have gold, whatever you wish will be granted. May the teaching of the Buddha spread abundantly to all directions.

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