Buddhadharma: The Practitioner's Quarterly

How the Sacred Treasure of Literacy Came to Tibet

TRADITIONAL SOURCES TELL US that the written word first came to Tibet in the form of indecipherable treasures, the material manifestation of a promise that would wait five generations to be fulfilled. In the year 233, as the twenty-eighth Tibetan king Lhatotori Nyentsen sat on the rooftop of his palace, several objects descended from the sky, carried on a beam of sunlight. The first was a silver choten, a symbolic representation of the Buddha’s mind. The other was a chest containing three Buddhist scriptures. As the books came to rest on the roof, a voice resounded from above, proclaiming, “In five generations’ time, there will arise a king who will understand the meaning of these objects.”

The king recognized these miraculous manifestations as holy relics but, as no one in the whole of Tibet was literate, their meaning remained impenetrable, hidden while plainly present. He therefore named them the “secret antidotes”: “secret” because their ultimate significance was unknown, and “antidote” because even the illiterate, non-Buddhist king intuited that these blessed artifacts could cure the suffering of sentient beings. For later generations of Tibetans, the appearance of the secret antidotes was believed to be the fulfillment of a prophecy made more than seven hundred years earlier by the Buddha, who declared that, in the future, objects would descend from the heavens as a harbinger of his sacred dharma coming to the “land of snows.”

Outsiders may dismiss this story as fantasy, but for the people of Tibet, it is foundational history, no less felt than the sealing of the Magna Carta or the signing of the United

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