7TH CENTURY CHINESE QUEEN’S SHOWER OF BLESSINGS ON A 21st CENTURY AMERICAN WILDFIRE: Garchen Rinpoche and the Gyanagma Wheel of Princess Wencheng: her life, influence and sacred objects in Tibet
“Thank you! Now people worldwide will hear about the Gyanagma Wheel. This is a great addition to its rich history. Thank you, now we can show Gyanagma to the world! Everyone has to know.” —HE 8th Garchen Rinpoche
“Above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” —Roald Dahl
At 12pm June 17 2021, a wildfire threatened to consume the Garchen Institute, Arizona, USA where HE 8th Garchen Rinpoche is based. His translator, Ina Bieler, and fellow lamas were at the Institute during that time. This Youtube video below reports what happened and how Garchen Rinpoche implored his Lama Abao to
contact Gar Monastery in Tibet, requesting them to speedily make prayers to the Gyanagama Prayer Wheel (personally gifted to Gar Tsongtsen by the 7th Century Chinese-Tibetan Queen, Wen-Cheng, wife of Tibetan king, Songsten Gampo) in order to stop the fire from spreading to the Institute.
Although they could not immediately contact the monastery, as it was in the middle of the night in Tibet, Genphel Lama, a resident lama at the monastery, got up early in the morning and started praying to the Gyanagma Prayer wheel as requested. Despite airplanes continuing to try and put out the wildfire, it was only when some miraculous rainfall started that it was finally extinguished The video reports that the area in Arizona had not had rainfall for three months.
“Thank you Genphel Lama! It rained today and the fire stopped. It came very close to our center and we even packed up ready to evacuate. Now the fire is extinguished. Thank you! Now people worldwide will hear about the Gyanagma. This is a great addition to its rich history.”
“Thank you, now we can show Gyanagma to the world! Everyone has to know.”
Prior to this event, I had not heard about the Gyanagma (as am sure many others will not have either) nor knew much about Princess Wencheng, the owner. Thus as an offering to Garchen Rinpoche and the ‘prayer wheel, I offer this short post on its history, the life and influence of its female owner, Princess Wen-Cheng, including a more feminist analysis/reading of her life, with some collated images of sacred objects and temples dedicated to her in Tibetan areas.
Princess Wencheng’s Gyanagma Prayer Wheel and Gar Monastery, Tibet In Tibetan, ‘gyanag’ means Chinese and ‘ma’ means ‘female’. So Gyanagma, , means ‘Chinese female’, the prayer wheel of the Chinese female. The video of this event explains that:
“The Gyanagma Prayer Wheel is spun day and night at Gar Monastery in Tibet. It is the most precious holy object at Gar Monastery. Princess Wen-Cheng’s wheel was hidden for many years and was returned to Gar Monastery in the early 1980s.”
In Vietnam 2019, Garchen Rinpoche described the prayer wheels and the special butter produced from them here. He states that the prayer wheel was brought by Princess Wen-Cheng when she came from China to meet the Tibetan King Songsten Gampo. The person who escorted her was Gar Songtsen and he received that prayer wheel from her. See below some pictures of the Prayer Wheels being returned to Gar Monastery in Tibet at that time (taken from the video above).
“The special balm (called Blessed Chokor Jodrag) is made from the greasy residue of the precious Gyanagma prayer wheel at Gar Monastery which contains all the words of the Buddha that was miraculously built by the
Great Hearer Licchavi Vimalakirti. The balm confers Liberation Upon Smelling and can be applied on the nostril of the sick, dying or deceased. Through the blessings endowed in it, one will be able to repel contagious diseases and be protected.”
Below, I give a brief overview and collation of available resources and studies on Princess Wencheng and her marriage to the famous Tibetan King, Tsongtsen Gampo, her remarkable overland trip from China to Tibet, her influence on Tibetan Buddhist culture and precious sacred objects and statues in Tibet and China commemorating her.
Princess Wencheng (628-680 or 682), is an ancient historical figure who holds great significance in China. Her story was recorded and written about in many ancient Chinese literatures. She married King Songtsen Gampo (srong btsan sgam po; 569–649) of the Tibetan Empire in 641[i], her Treasury of Lives biography says:
“Gyaza Kongjo (rgya bza’ kong jo) was born between the year 623 and 631, probably in or near the Tang Dynasty capital Chang’an (長安, modern-day Xi’an 西安). Her name in Chinese was Wencheng Gongzhu (文成公主), “gongzhu” meaning “princess” or “noblewoman.” That title is rendered in Tibetan as Kongjo (kong jo), while the “Gyaza” in her Tibetan name means “Chinese wife.” Her family name was Li (李), and she was possibly a daughter of Li Daozong (李道宗, circa 603-656), a military officer and cousin to the Chinese Emperor Taizong (太宗598-649).
Princess Wencheng’s life is said to be depicted in Tibetan novels such as the Hundred Thousand Mani (Maṇi bka’ ‘bum) and the famed historiographies of The Victorious Clear Mirror (Rgyal rabs Gsal ba’i Me long). However, as with most historical accounts of women in religious histories, the female first-person voice
has been completely erased. There are no historic autobiographical accounts from Princess Wen-Cheng on her life and marriage with the Tibetan King. Her biography states that she was married off at a very young age, almost a child:
“At a young age, possibly ten, twelve or sixteen, she was sent to Tibet as a bride for either the son of King Songtsen Gampo (srong btsan sgam po, circa 617-650) or for the king himself. The marriage appears to have been made in the wake of Tibetan and Chinese military clashes in Amdo between 635 and 636, and the
negotiation was undertaken by the Tibetan minister Gar Tongtsen (mgar stong btsan, d. 667). If indeed she was intended for the prince, he died before she arrived, and Songtsen Gampo took her as a wife. In some
narratives the king met her in Amdo with great ceremony. He had previously accepted (or demanded) a Nepali wife, the Liccavi princess Bhṛkutī (bal bza’ khri btsun). The year of Wencheng’s arrival in Lhasa is recorded in a Tibetan stele as 641.”
“…both Tibetan and Chinese historiography texts erase Wencheng’s agency. Tibetan texts subsume her actions under that of Songtsen Gampo (Warner 2011: 248). Chinese texts do the same by referring to the union between the Tang Emperor and the Tang’s “superior country”, rather than as Wencheng as an individual, as the marriage’s main benefit (Warner 2011: 249).”[iii]
In terms of extant historical accounts about how Wencheng’s hand in marriage was ‘won’, both appear to agree that Songstan Gampo launched a murderous attack on people living in the Tang dynasty territory and
that this attack apparently was what led to the Tang Emperor to present his daughter as a ‘peace offering’ or ‘truce’ to the Tibetan King, after a humiliating defeat. Needless to say, it does not sound like Princess Wencheng had much to say in the whole matter!
“According to Chinese accounts, in the spring of 634 on an official state visit to Imperial China, Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo fell in love at first sight and had relentlessly pursued the princess hand by sending envoys and tributes but was refused.
Allegedly, in 635/636, Royal Tibetan forces were deployed, attacking and defeating the peoples of Tuyuhun who strategically lived near the Lake of Koko Nor in present-day Qinghai, impeding a trade route into Imperial China. News of Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo’s attack on Songzhou quickly spread from the ground to
the Royal Courtiers, and Emperor Taizhou despatched his Militia and defeated Songtsen Gampo’s army, causing Songtsen Gampo’s retreat. He then sent a written expressed apology to the Tang Emperor] The Tang Emperor upon seeing Songtsen Gampo’s sincerity, then agreed to marry the princess to the Tibetan king.
Tibetan sources (and Chinese sources not aligned with the PRC government), by contrast, say Songtsen Gampo sent an envoy to Luoyang, the Tang capital demanding (rather than requesting) a Chinese bride and insisting he would lead 50,000 battle-hardened Tibetan troops to the sparsely defended capital and slaughter the
inhabitants if he was not given this tribute. According to historian Pan Yihong, the Tang emperor refused this demand and Gampo’s army marched into China, burning city after city until they reached the walls of
Luoyang, where the repeatedly-crushed Tang Army finally defeated the Tibetans in a single minor skirmish, thus enabling the Tang Emperor to save face by presenting his daughter as a “truce” rather than the tribute of the vanquished to the vanquisher.”
Despite the violent start to their union, according to Tibetan history, the Songtsen Gampo’s and Princess Wencheng’s marriage is said to have brought hopes of promoting a harmonious, matrimonial relationship between the peoples of Tibet and China. As further evidence of the patriarchy at that time, and women being exchanged like property and trade agreements, a dowry was also given with her:
“A substantial dowry accompanied her, as did promises of trade agreements and safe passage on this Silk Road route which connected the capital at Xian and Llasa. Wencheng’s dowry contained not only gold, but fine furniture, silks, porcelains, books, jewelry, musical instruments, and medical books.”
“…she arrived with the intent of introducing new agricultural methods. Seeds of grains and rapeseed which can adapt to high altitude climates were planted by Chinese craftsmen. Hoe plows, and other farm tools, and technical advice to on how to increase Tibetan agricultural productivity appeared. Han artisans also were
“The Chinese and Tibetans today venerate Wencheng for somewhat different reasons. In the Chinese view, Wencheng was one of a number of so called “diplomat brides” who brought much needed Han Chinese culture to
the peoples beyond their borders, whom the imperial court often looked down upon as barbarians. Wencheng thus served to forge a cultural as well as political link between China and Tibet, which today is still cited in their claim of long historic ties to Tibet.
The Tibetan perspective has important differences. For Tibetans, Wencheng is venerated most often because she was Buddhist, and, along with Songtsan Gambo’s Nepalese wife, Bhrikuti Devi, is said to have introduced Buddhism to Tibet. In Tibet, Wencheng is popularly known as Gyasa, and sometimes is worshiped as a goddess of mercy. She is praised for bringing a sacred image of Sakyamuni (the Buddha) with her, which is still enshrined in the center of the main hall of the Jokhang Monastery. The Jokhang is the spiritual center of Tibet and the holiest destination for all Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims.
The view that Wencheng was a “savior” of a backward Tibetan culture, is challenged by Tibetans who chafe at the idea that it was, and is, China who promoted Tibet’s technical and social progress. They say that Songtsan Gambo, who established his capital at Lhasa and built the Tubo regime into a powerful kingdom, was the one whose nation building strategy purposely sought ways to inject new cultures into his kingdom. His marriages to important women from Nepal and China were planned as ways to foster improvements in Tibetan life.
Regardless of divergent views, the marriage of Princess Wencheng and Songtsan Gambo did solidify this portion of the Silk Road as a major route for trade and cultural connections between the two kingdoms.”
Specially built for Princess Wencheng, Potala Palace has a total of 1000 rooms and is magnificent. After two expansions in later generations, the present scale was formed. It is in the preservation of a large number of the rich content of the murals. Among the murals, including the scene of the difficulties and
dangers Princess Wencheng encountered along the way to Tibet, as well as the scene of a warm welcome when she arrived in Lhasa. Princess Wencheng is said to have presided over the construction of Ramoche Temple and Jokhang Temple and that the willow trees outside the Jokhang Temple were planted by her, which has
become the famous Tang willow of later generations. The statue of Buddha brought by Princess Wencheng is still enshrined in Jokhang Temple and worshipped by the Tibetan people and all the Buddhist pilgrims all over the world. Today, in the Potala Palace and Jokhang Temple of Lhasa, there are also statues of Princess Wencheng, which are very exquisite and vivid (see above).
According to Ngiam (2017):
“ Historical sources disagree on the significance of Wencheng’s role in establishing Buddhism in Central and Eastern Tibet. In fact, the two Tang texts do not even mention Wencheng as bringing any statue to Tibet. A proposed explanation is that Buddhist influence had dwindled during the 10th and 11th centuries of
Tang rule, with historiography dominated by Confucian literati instead (Slobodnik 2006: 271). ….In Vase-shaped Pillar Testament, Songtsen Gampo’s symbolic role is emphasized. Wencheng, as the goddess Śyāmā Tārā,
came into existence out of his tears for the Tibetans. Songtsen Gampo was hence the ultimate harbinger of Buddhism, as Wencheng could have only built the temples if she had lived — and it was his tears that had brought her into existence in the first place (Warner 2011: 247)!
In the older Pronouncement of Ba, Wencheng’s dowry included the Buddhist statue of Jowo Śākyamuni. She then built a temple to both display the statue as well as to reside within. However, her actions are again attributed to “what the ancestor Songtsen Gampo did to introduce the practice” (Warner 2011: 245, quoting
Pronouncement of Ba). Wencheng could only bring Buddhism to Tibet because Songtsen Gampo had married her in the first place. Naturally he is given credit for the introduction of Buddhism. In Old Tang History (Jiu Tang Shu) and Institutional History of the Tang (Tang Huiyao), Songtsen Gampo reacted to his marriage to
Wencheng as the “honour” of “join[ing] in marriage with the superior country”. Thus, although Wencheng is named as the individual who brought Buddhism from the Tang over to Tibet, she is an empty vessel of
transportation: who “brought” the statue in the “lap of a horseman” in the Pronouncement of Ba; used in Vase-shaped Pillar Testament to paint a picture of Tibet ‘before’ Buddhism; and used by the Chinese texts to contrast the “Great Tang” to the subservient Tibetan King (Warner 2011: 246 & 249).”
‘O Father King, listen with your ear and grant me the words of my dear Father! Grant me the words of my dear Mother! Dear brother and Sister, have you lost the ability to speak?!? Alas, I cannot believe it! O Father, King, listen to me! If I go to the land of Tibet, in the direction of the Land of Snows, it is cold
and freezing with big rocks, many poisonous gods, (nāgas, dré, rakṣasas), where the mountains resemble the tusk of a beast of prey, the rocks resemble the horns of a wild yak, unhappy, depressed, a remote place (dgon) of famine, where no grain [can] grow, the lowliest outcastes [from] the lineage of beasts of burden
who [are like] lice, rude barbarians, who act like demons (dron po) who eat their brothers, a borderland never trodden by the Teacher, a low- caste country without the fourfold retinue [of monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen], lacking sacred places and any basis for worship, completely without fields for cultivating
merit. So if I am to go there, give me a sanctuary, the tutelary deity of my Father, Śākyamuni. The Land of Snows is a starving country. Grant me a treasury of precious gems. The Land of Snows is a cold country. Grant me clothing for my whole life. The people of Tibet are impudent, carelessly practising coarse
doctrines, [therefore] grant me 500 female servants. The people of Tibet are unclean with unclean hearths, [so] grant me a clean handmaiden. If they do not respect me, I will not die in that place. [Now] I will go to Tibet.’ The Princess Wencheng said this in the great garden of the Queen.[iv]
book, “The Ancient Tangbo Road, Princess Wen Cheng’s Route to Tibet.” Tourists can also now follow the ancient Tangbo Road, the route Wencheng took going from Xi’an (then called Chang’an), China, to Lhasa,
Tibet, a route which was part of the southern Silk Road until the end of the Tang and Tubo dynasties in the early 900s. See images below of the route (taken from a travel blog, Re-walking Princess Wencheng into Tibet, what will we meet?:
According to her biography:
“Songtsen Gampo is known to have constructed a series of temples across the Tibetan Plateau, which were evidently an expression of his kingship–they are laid out in concentric squares much like the royal geography of imperial China. Tibetan legend holds that Wencheng’s journey to Lhasa was plagued by multiple
hardships. After her arrival she used Chinese divination to discover that the Tibetan landscape, personified as a great demoness (srin mo) laying on her back, had attempted to block her from bringing Buddhism to Tibet. In this legend Wencheng commissioned the temples in order to subjugate that demoness by pinning her down at key points of her body.”
Through the centuries, Wencheng’s influence was and is celebrated. In Tibet, generations of poets have written numerous verses to eulogize her. Two traditional days are still devoted to her: the fifteenth day
of the fourth month of each Tibetan year (the day of her arrival) and the fifteenth day of the tenth month of each Tibetan year (her birthday). At each, the population turns out to sing and dance in commemoration of her influence. In Tibet, a butter-flower ceremony is also held that commemorates her[v].
Tradruk Temple (khra-’brug dgon-pa, referred to as Changzhu Monastery in Chinese) in the Yarlung Valley, located in Nêdong County of Lhoka in the Tibet Autonomous Region, is the earliest great geomantic temple
after the Jokhang and some sources say it predates that temple. The temple allegedly commemorates Princess Wencheng: a thangka embroidered by the Princess is kept in one of its chapels. I have not been able to locate an image of this thangka, so if anyone has one please let me know.
It is said to be the largest and most important of the surviving royal foundations in the Yarlung Valley and founded in the 7th century under King Songtsen Gampo. The most important treasure of Tradruk is said to be a thangka embroidered with thousands of pearls which is made by Queen Wencheng herself. It depicts
Wencheng as White Tara. The thangka is kept in the central chapel on the upper floor. It is one of only three thangkas made by Wencheng. The two others are said to be in the reliquary stupa of the 5th Dalai Lama in the Potala Palace in Lhasa and in Xigazê[vi].
Even today, the influence and legacy of the Chinese Queen lives on, both in Arizona, USA and in Tibet. For example, in 2009, the major event of Wencheng arriving in Tibet to meet Songtsen Gampo, was depicted in a new thangka scroll painting by Niangben, artist from Rebgong Region, Huangnan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, southeastern Qinghai.
Cynics may say that the rainfall at Garchen Institute was just a mere coincidence. However, those with faith and understanding believe that the power of her prayer wheel brought the heavy rainclouds that hadn’t been seen for three months in dry, arid Arizona. As the famous childrens’ author Roald Dahl said:
Benard, Elisabeth. 2000. “Transformations of Wen Cheng Kongjo: The Tang Princess, Tibetan Queen, and Buddhist Goddess Tara.” In Goddesses Who Rule, Elisabeth Benard and Beverly Moon, editors. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Bsod nams rgyal mtshan and Per Sørensen. 1994. The Mirror Illuminating the Royal Genealogies: Tibetan Buddhist Historiography, an annotated translation of the XIVth century Tibetan chronicle: Rgyal rabs gsal ba’i me long. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.
Ngiam, Janice. 2017. PRINCESS WENCHENG (文成公主) TRAVELS TO THE LAND OF SNOWS [~635 CE]. See: https://tributaryprincesses.wordpress.com/2017/10/22/princess-wencheng-travels-to-the-land-of-snows-635-ce/
Richardson, Hugh E. (1965). “How Old was Srong Brtsan Sgampo” (PDF). Bulletin of Tibetology. 1 (2): 5–9.
Slobodník, Martin (2006). “The Chinese Princess Wencheng in Tibet: A Cultural Intermediary between Facts and Myth”. In Gálik, M.; Štefanovičová, T. (eds.). Trade, Journeys, Inner- and Intercultural Communication in East and West (up to 1250). Bratislava: Lufema. pp. 267–276.
Wangdu, Pasang, and Hildegard Diemberger, et. al. 2000. dBa’ bzhed: The royal narrative concerning the bringing of the Buddha’s doctrine to Tibet. Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenchaften.
[ii] Ngiam says: “In the blog, I use quotidian details to try and bring Wencheng out of her one-dimensional portrayal. I try to humanize her by creating motivation for bringing the statue to Tibet. I also draw some sentiment out of the Vase-shaped Pillar Testament, containing an apparently verbatim record of her lament
to her father at the news of being sent to Tibet. [This is interestingly also a Tibetan text which voluntarily includes the criticism of Tibetan geography, the lack of Buddhist institutions, its people, etc. Actually, it is more accurately described as a total bashing of Tibet itself — in a Tibetan text —
including things like “the people of Tibet are unclean with unclean hearths”. Warner (2011:248) reads this not as Tibetan historians submitting to the Tang, but as justification for the conversion to Buddhism]. In addition to giving a voice to Wencheng, I use archaeological findings to describe the Jokhang Temple (Bríd
2006; Alexander 2005). The temple itself mostly resembles the architecture of Indian and Nepalese viharas. While Wencheng is credited in historical texts for bringing Buddhism over, Bríd (2006) and Alexander (2005)
report that there is virtually no evidence for any Tang influence. Viharas from the Tang era were unique in their architecture of hip and gable roofs, double eaves, and longitudinal arrangement of buildings with ponds and bridges (Bríd 2006: 22).”
[iii] The full quote from Ngiam is: “I drew from 4 sources translated by Warner (2011) that describe Princess Wencheng’s role in the establishment of Buddhism in Tibet: (1) Vase-shaped Pillar Testament; (2) Pronouncement of Ba; (3) Old Tang History [Jiu Tang Shu]; (4) The Institutional History of the Tang [Tang
Huiyao]. I tried to use Warner’s (2011) translated excerpts to draw a holistic picture of heqin as a means of religious transferral…both Tibetan and Chinese historiography texts erase Wencheng’s agency. Tibetan texts subsume her actions under that of Songtsen Gampo (Warner 2011: 248). Chinese texts do the same by referring to the union between the Tang Emperor and the Tang’s “superior country”, rather than as Wencheng as an individual, as the marriage’s main benefit (Warner 2011: 249).”
“On the fifteenth of the first month in 1409, Tasong-kha-pa held a ritual in front of Jokka Khang Temple in Lhasa to commemorate Sakyamuni. During the ritual, the Sakyamuni (Buddha) image brought by Princess Wencheng from Xian [then capital of China) when she came to Tibet was decorated with a golden canopy and a robe. In front of the statue were flowers made of butter. When the ritual was concluded, Tasong-kha-pa was so exhausted that he fell asleep as soon as he lay down. In a dream, he went to a mountain covered with
thick forests…While Tasong-kha-pa was gazing at this scene, Princess Wencheng flew gracefully down and stood before him. She was dressed in Tang dynasty clothing, and, though she was beautiful, her expression was sorrowful. Tasong-kha-pa said, “Your Highness came to Tibet at the emperor’s command and married
Songtsen Gampo, the Tibetan King, thus joining the Chinese empire and Tibet. You are highly respected by all the people. Today, I decorated the Buddha image with a gilded canopy, offered it butter flowers, and
chanted scriptures in worship. So why are you so sad?” Princess Wencheng said…”When I saw the butter flowers, I was reminded of my life in Chang-an [[[Wikipedia:Xian|Xian]]] and am tortured by past memories. I won’t think of Chang-an if I can see such butter flowers every year.” Tasong-kha-pa thought for a moment, then said,
“Rest. I promise that we will hold a ritual every year in Jokka Khang Temple with many butter flowers.” ‘That is very kind of you,’ said Princess Wencheng, and she left. Tasong-kha-pa then awakened from his dream. He summoned skilled craftsmen, divided them into two groups, and had them make butter flowers. The
two groups competed with each other, and their butter flowers were very beautiful. On the same day the next year, Jokka Khang Temple again held a ritual and the two groups of butter flowers were exhibited. One group depicted Sakyamuni’s life, while the other depicted Wencheng’s journey to Tibet. Both butter-flower
exhibits were splendid. They were shown exactly at the hour when Tasong-kha-pa had earlier dreamed of Princess Wencheng, and taken away the following morning. Afterwards, Jokka Khang Temple exhibited flowers every year.” See: http://www.womeninworldhistory.com/essay-07-02.html
[vi]”The centre of the temple is the innermost chapel, which is said to date back to the original temple built by Songtsen Gampo; according to the legend, it held Buddha statues of stone and a Tara statue. Today, the chapel houses clay figures which are said to contain fragments of the original statues. There is a famous “talking” statue of Padmasambhava at the age of eight years in the same room in Tradruk.”