King Tri Songdetsen

ཁྲི་སྲོང་ལྡེ་བཙན་
khri srong lde bsthan
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Author: Samye Institute
Last Updated: August 11, 2022

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Emperor Tri Songdetsen (c.742-c.800?) was known as the second Dharma King of Tibet and was an influential patron of Buddhism. The epithet “Tri” is a title, meaning “throne” and identified him as the emperor. His father, the Emperor Me-agtsom, developed an interest in Han Chinese Buddhism, probably due to the influence of his Han Chinese Buddhist wife, Empress Jincheng. Me-agtsom had sent a mission to China in 751 C.E. to learn more about the religion. This trip may have been sparked partially by the early interest in Buddhism that his young son, the future Tri Songdetsen had demonstrated. 

In 755 C.E., nationalistic opposition ministers assassinated Emperor Me-agtsom. The ministers were suspicious of the Emperor’s leanings toward Buddhism and Tang China, fearing that it would bring disaster to Tibet. These xenophobic ministers led a six-year-long suppression of Buddhism in Tibet. Historians suspect that the true aims were more politically than religiously motivated. In 761 C.E., Tri Songdetsen ascended the throne and officially proclaimed himself a Buddhist. He then sent a delegation to the recently founded Pala Empire in northern India. He invited Indian pandits like Shantarakshita (Śāntarakṣīta), abbot of the famous Nālandā monastery, to Tibet to build a monastery and to instruct the court in the Buddhadharma.

Emperor Tri Songdetsen was firm in his desire to establish Buddhism in his realm. According to traditional sources he presided over the debates at Samye monastery that eventually endorsed the more gradual, Indian approach to the Buddhist path. In later accounts, he began to be referred to as a bodhisattva, and Buddhist historians from the 12th century onward remember him as an incarnation of Mañjuśrī. Particularly among the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism, Tri Songdetsen is venerated alongside the first abbot of Samyé Monastery, Śantarakṣita, and above all with the Nyingma’s central figure, the tantric yogi Padmasambhava or Guru Rinpoche. The emperor plays an important role in all the traditional accounts, making elaborate offerings, receiving tantric initiations, and sponsoring Padmasambhava’s extensive activities in the Tibetan empire.The emperor’s daughter, Princess Pema Sel died at the age of eight, but was brought back to life by Guru Rinpoche. He then entrusted her with the complete Khandro Nyingtik cycle. She was later reborn as the tertön Pema Lédrel Tsal, who revealed this terma cycle of teachings.

Supplication to King Trisong Detsen

བྱང་ཆུབ་སེམས་དཔའ་ཆོས་རྒྱལ་ཚུལ་འཛིན་ཅིང་། །
jangchup sempa chögyal tsül dzin ching
Bodhisattva appearing as a Dharma King,

གངས་ཅན་ཁྲོད་འདིར་གདུལ་བྱ་མ་ལུས་པ། །
gangchen trö dir dülja malüpa
in this remote Land of Snows you tamed every being in need

སྣ་ཚོགས་ཐབས་ཀྱིས་འདུལ་བར་མཛད་པ་ཡི། །
natsok tap kyi dülwar dzepa yi
through a myriad of skillful means—

ཁྲི་སྲོང་ལྡེའུ་བཙན་ཞབས་ལ་གསོལ་བ་འདེབས། །
trisong deutsen zhap la sölwa dep
I supplicate at the feet of Trisong Deutsen!

From A Short Prayer to the Abbot, the Master, and the Dharma King by Chokgyur Dechen Lingpa.

Advice from King Trisong Detsen for Responsible People

King Trisong Detsen offered this advice for living a meaningful life to his subjects.