With Ralpachen building so many monasteries, more of the empire’s wealth was being absorbed by Buddhism. The tsenpo also sent out edicts to all of his lands ordering the production of vast numbers of Buddhist books. In every corner of the empire a short work on the ten Buddhist virtues was copied and circulated, with the aim of instilling Buddhist ethics in everyone under the empire. These ten virtues are: no actions that involve killing, stealing or improper sex; no speech that involves lies, slander, abuse or gossip; and no covetous, hateful or perverse thoughts.

At the same time hundreds of copies of prestigious scriptures, such as the Perfection of Wisdom sutras were made. In most Buddhist cultures there is great merit in certain activities, such as making donations to monks, helping to build temples, making statues and copying the scriptures. As these help to spread the Buddha’s teachings, they are one of the best things a Buddhist can do, and through the infallible system of cause and effect, or karma, they will help one towards happiness in this life and a good rebirth in the next.

Not surprisingly, the sudden spread of Buddhism throughout Tibet caused resentment among some Tibetans. The conspicuous new monks encountered abuse in the streets, ranging from muttered comments to shouted insults. Ralpachen is said to have announced a series of harsh punishments for anyone who so much as looked at a monk in the wrong way. He is also said to have shown his respect for eminent visiting monks by having a thread tied to a braid of his hair at one end, and the cloth on which the monk sat at the other, symbolically placing the monk above his head. In fact, Ralpachen was a rather feeble figure, who lacked the strong personality of a ruler, or the mental acuity to deal with the challenges facing the empire. The power behind the throne seems to have been the monk minister who had presided over the signing of the Sino-Tibetan treaty, Palgyi Yonten. The great increase in support for Buddhist institutions during Ralpachen’s reign was probably a direct result of the power wielded by this monk.

But the court was becoming polarised, and Palgyi Yonten’s Buddhist agenda was about to backfire badly. The aristocrats who disliked this agenda or were out of favour formed a secret group of revolutionaries. Their first target was Palgyi Yonten himself. The conspirators spread a rumour that the monk was having an affair with one of the queens. Ralpachen, lacking judgement and filled with suspicion, sent Palgyi Yonten into exile. The conspirators, leaving nothing to chance, then despatched assassins to kill the monk. According to one version of the story, Palgyi Yonten hid in an underground bunker, but was discovered there by a blind man and subsequently killed. But that was not enough to satisfy the discontented nobles: they flayed the corpse and stretched the skin across a frame to make a kind of dummy. Afterwards Palgyi Yonten’s relatives burned his remains, and from the smoke his spirit is said to have emerged as a white light. When one of his sisters called out in grief, the light turned red, a great wind blew up and Palgyi Yonten’s ghost swore vengeance on his killers.

The fact that Ralpachen allowed his most trusted minister to be treated like this shows how weak he had become. In the later years of his reign, his mental state declined so much that he was no longer fit to rule his kingdom: he remained in place as a figurehead while his ministers, and his brother Darma Wudunten, made the real decisions. Compared to Ralpachen, Darma cut a strikingly different figure. A tough guy who later earned the nickname Lang, ‘The Ox’, he was fond of wine and hunting parties. He was an unlikely candidate for the position of tsenpo, but the conspirators started to gravitate around him. With Darma waiting in the wings, the leaders of the Ba and Chogro clans plotted the assassination of Ralpachen. They arranged to see the tsenpo alone while he was staying in his castle outside Lhasa, and came upon him drinking beer and enjoying the sunshine in the gardens. Suddenly, they grabbed him and twisted his head until his neck snapped. It was the beginning of the end for the Tibetan empire.


With little opposition, Darma the Ox was placed on the bloodstained throne of Greater Tibet. While the new tsenpo continued to enjoy his lifestyle of drinking, hunting and partying, the ministers who had brought him to power set about drastically cutting the spending on Buddhist projects. They shut down the college that trained translators, where thousands of Buddhist scriptures had been rendered into Tibetan over the past hundred years. That was the end of that. The last great temple that Ralpachen had commissioned, Onchangdo, was left without the performance of a final consecrating ritual, so remaining an empty shell.

The Tibetan court was purged of the remaining Buddhist monk ministers, and the monasteries lost many of their privileges. With the life of a monk becoming more and more difficult, many disrobed and went back to lay life. Among the remaining monks there was no doubt that Darma was the source of their troubles. So once again a plan was hatched to assassinate the tsenpo. The shocking difference was that this time the assassin would be a Buddhist monk. Lhalung Palgyi Dorje was the ninth abbot of Samye, the great temple built in the reign of Trisong Detsen. He knew, of course, that killing was absolutely against the Buddha’s moral code. He knew that the law of cause and effect meant that killers were likely to be reborn as animals, or even in the fearful hell-realms. But he decided, as the most visible, perhaps the highest-ranking Buddhist in Tibet, to take the responsibility on himself. The abbot would be the assassin.

His chance came one day when Darma was out and about in Lhasa with his entourage. Disguising himself in an official’s robes, Lhalung took up a bow and arrow and rode out to find the tsenpo. When he came across the royal party, Darma was sitting at the base of the Sino-Tibetan treaty pillar, reading the inscription. Lhalung approached and bowed to the ground three times in the traditional way. At the first salutation, he pulled back the bow. The tsenpo looked up, but thought nothing of it. At the second salutation, he fitted the arrow to the string. At the third salutation, he loosed the arrow, which plunged into the heart of the tsenpo, who fell to the ground mortally wounded.

Suddenly there was confusion everywhere, and shouts of ‘the tsenpo has been murdered!’ Lhalung mounted his horse and fled, galloping away from Lhasa, never to return. According to the Buddhist historians, he used a clever ploy to avoid being captured. Before setting out to find the king, he chose a white horse and blackened its coat with coal. Then he put on a fur coat that was white on the outside and black on the inside. When he shot the tsenpo, he shouted: ‘I am the Black Spirit!’ Once outside Lhasa, however, he rode through a lake and washed the coal dust from the coat of his horse, then turned his coat inside out, and declared: ‘I am the White Spirit of the Sky!’

Thus Lhalung escaped, taking some Buddhist books with him, and headed for Kham, far to the east. The transformation from black to white has symbolic significance, of course. Lhalung’s deed has both a dark and a light side. He killed a man, but only to preserve the Buddha’s teaching in Tibet. One can find some justification for such an action in Buddhism itself, which did not shy away from difficult ethical dilemmas. In exceptional cases, it was said that a bodhisattva could kill to save the lives of others. For the Buddhist monks who later wrote the history of Tibet, the assassination of Lang Darma was just such an exceptional case. The deed may have looked black, but really it just white: the demon was a good spirit in disguise.

As Lhalung rode into the darkening east, the sun setting behind him, the situation in Central Tibet was dire. It was the year 842, and Darma had no clear heir. A baby had just been born to one of the junior queens, but the senior queen wanted to be part of the succession. She had not been able to conceive an heir herself, so her family found her a baby and she claimed to have given birth to it. Some say that when the queen showed the baby at court, he already had teeth, causing the queen to be questioned closely. Eventually the courtiers accepted her word, and the child became known as Yumten, ‘Supported by the Mother’. But the baby of the junior queen, Osung, also had his supporters among his mother’s own clan.

Once again, the tensions in Tibet were straining the unity of the empire to breaking point. For two centuries, the clans had only just been kept under control by the tsenpos. Now, with two tsenpos supported by different clans, the old hostilities threatened to break out in civil war. Plus the empire was overstretched. No major new territories had been conquered for years. A series of poor harvests had left the government poorer, and the people near starvation. It was an ideal climate for discontent, perhaps even revolution.


In fact, the whole of Asia was tottering. In China, the Tang dynasty was struggling to maintain its hold over the country. With funds running out, the Buddhist monasteries were more and more tightly controlled; eventually most were shut down, their precious statues being melted down to feed the government’s coffers. The Turkic empire which had ruled over Central Asia was being smashed up by other nomadic warriors, while the last great Turks, the Uighurs, fled into Central Asia, destabilising the lands held by the Tibetans in the process.

And Greater Tibet now fractured as the royal houses of the two Tibetan princes split the empire between them. The house of Osung tried to turn the clock back to the time before Darma’s reign, ploughing money back into Buddhist projects that reached into the distant corners of the empire, while the house of Yumten consolidated its power in Central Tibet. The aristocratic Tibetans sided with one house or the other, or just looked after their own interests.

The silken cloth of the Tibetan empire first began to fray and unravel at the edges. Dunhuang, the Silk Route city that we last saw being captured and converted to Tibetan ways, fell in 848 to a Chinese warlord, who called his army ‘The Return to Allegiance’. Disorder soon spread to the centre of Tibet. Some thought that the vengeful ghost of the assassinated monk minister Palgyi Yonten was behind the troubles. He was said to have been seen in places where the trouble was spreading, riding an iron-grey wolf and beating the ground with an iron staff. It was said that he went from place to place inciting the gods and demons of Tibet to kill all of the aristocrats, or at least to scatter them in every direction. This appalling figure was a powerful symbol of the fear and confusion of the times.

Still clinging to the old ways, the descendants of the split royal line tried to maintain power, but any semblance of authority was finally shattered by a major uprising that shook the whole of Central Tibet at the beginning of the tenth century. The clan leaders whose ancestors had sworn oaths of support to the first great tsenpos, and whose cooperation had allowed the Tibetan empire to come into being, now turned against the tsenpos. It was obvious that the unity achieved by Songtsen Gampo and his successors had only temporarily held in check the rivalries between the clans, which could now be expressed freely once again. In a return to the old ways, each clan leader set himself up as a local warlord ensconced in his castle.

The final death knell for the cult of the tsenpos sounded when four nobles got together to plunder the royal tombs. Each chose a different tomb and opened the sealed sacred gates. They removed the precious gold and jewelled wealth of the tombs; some even stayed to make these formidable barrows their personal strongholds. The royal cult was effectively finished. It did not take long before the Buddhist temples were pillaged as well, and the last remaining monks turned out to roam the land. This, rather than the acts of Darma and his cohorts, represented the coup de grâce for monastic Buddhism in Central Tibet.

The country was plunging into a dark age, and nobody had the power, or will, to stop the kingdom tearing itself to pieces. The clan leaders might have enjoyed their return to power, but the power they wielded was fragmented and unstable. The empire had crumbled away while they indulged in their petty feuds. Greater Tibet was no more, and the country would never be the same again. No Tibetan army would ever threaten a distant kingdom again. In fact, after the end of the empire, there would never be a serious Tibetan army again, and any leader aiming to wield power over significant parts of the country would have to rely on foreign military backing.

Now the last few monks who decided to keep their robes headed out of Central Tibet. Tibetan history remembers a few of these refugees, Buddhist heroes who chose the hard way of keeping the faith, taking little more than their essential books with them, packed onto the backs of mules. A group of three friends, Yo, Mar and Tsang, headed west after watching more and more of their fellow monks wearing ordinary clothes, and getting involved in unmonkish activities such as hunting. After months of wandering, the refugees arrived in the green pasturelands and wooded hills of Amdo. Here they found a haven from the maelstrom of Central Tibet, a place where many temples built by Ralpachen still stood, their golden roofs glittering in the sun. These temples ranged from the exquisite turquoise-tiled monasteries of Tsongkha to the rocky mountain retreat of Dentig. Exploring these buildings, the refugees found that other monks had settled there too. These monks had found that the local rulers were quite willing to support them. Amdo was, after all, on the Silk Route, where Buddhism had been practised for many centuries before it was taken up by the Tibetan tsenpos.

And while the Chinese ‘Return to Allegiance’ army might have taken over most of Gansu, towns such as Liangzhou and Tsongkha were home to thousands of people who were essentially Tibetan. Some of these were Tibetan soldiers who had stayed at their posts, and were unwilling to return without orders. Others were from different ethnic backgrounds such as the Azha, who had been under Tibetan rule so long that they were culturally very similar. Many local Chinese had also lived under Tibetan rule, and spoke and wrote the Tibetan language too. In fact, Tibetan had become a lingua franca, the common language of this multicultural region, used by Chinese, Turks and even the distant Khotanese. All of this meant that Tibetan Buddhists could find the support they needed to survive these dark times. Here the refugees made their home, keeping the flame of monastic ordination burning, a flame that would one day be brought back to ignite a Buddhist renaissance in Tibet.