Thonmi Sambhota

Thonmi Sambhota

Architect of the Tibetan Script

The legendary Thonmi Sambhota is widely regarded as one of the earlier incarnations of Dorje Shugden. His life, although shrouded in legend, is still very much an integral part of early Tibetan history. His name is written as Thonmi or sometimes as Tumi (man from Tu), reflecting the place of his birth. Sambhota is Sanskrit and it means Tibetan (Bhota) Scholar (Sam).

Thonmi Sambhota is said to have been born to Anu, a minister to King Songtsen Gampo and was from the Thonmi clan from Central Tibet. He grew to become such an intelligent young man that the Tibetan Emperor showed him favor. In 633, he was sent on an expedition to India with seven other brilliant young Tibetans to study and research the Indian scripts in order to develop one for the Tibetan language. At that time, he was just a teenager.

The Tibetan Emperor gave the traveling party enough gold to cover their expenses throughout their stay in India, as well as some valuable gifts to be presented to the Indian King, Peljinje Bina Lhachen, according to Tibetan records. Along their journey, the expedition passed through Nepal and the Nepalese King gave them fever preventive medicines in exchange for some of the valuable gifts they had in their possession. The medicines proved to be crucial for their survival through the long trek into tropical India.

Upon arriving in India, the expedition searched far and wide before finally discovering Brahmin Lijinkara and another teacher known in Tibetan as Lha Rigpa Sengge or Devavidyasimha. With these and other teachers, Thonmi Sambhota studied language, grammar, lexicography, poetry, literature and related topics, and also philosophy for about seven years. Unfortunately, the other Tibetan youths accompanying Thonmi Sambhota to India died because of the tropical heat, according to written records and also verbal history.

Upon completing his studies, Thonmi Sambhota returned to Tibet with gifts from the Indian King to the Tibetan Emperor. He also brought with him every available treatise on Sanskrit grammar, and also many other texts from India to Tibet. These texts are said to be amongst the very first Buddhist scriptures to enter Tibet from India.

Thonmi Sambhota then commenced the great project of conceptualizing the Tibetan script at the Kukarmaru Palace in Lhasa. He was reputed to have developed the Tibetan script based on the fusion of the Devanagari and Kashmiri scripts. He was also credited with the composition of six accompanying texts that delineate Tibetan grammar, which was based on the Sanskrit equivalent. However, only two texts are extant today (Sumchupa and Takjukpa) and are still very much in use in the study of Tibetan grammar.

According to one account, Thonmi Sambhota presented his creation to Emperor Songtsen Gampo in a grand assembly that was attended by all the ministers and dignitaries. Then, he began to teach the Emperor to read and write this new script, and the intricacies of grammar. In gratitude, the Emperor bestowed on him the title Lopon Thonmi. It was said that the Emperor then retired for four years to master this new script and grammar, and subsequently engaged in many translations including twenty-one Tantric texts on Avalokiteshvara. The Emperor was also said to have composed the two large volumes of the Mani Kabum, a collection of teachings and practices revolving around Avalokiteshvara.

According to legend, Thonmi Sambhota was highly regarded and heavily rewarded for his invention. But some of his fellow ministers harbored jealousy and defamed him in the Emperor’s presence. Thonmi Sambhota eventually won them over by explaining the value of his achievement and the sufferings he had endured.

There is no record of the year of Thonmi Sambhota’s passing or the length of his life. He is said to have had at least one son called Mahasata and grandson Nyima Longsel. He had two apprentice translators and they were known as Dharmakosha or Lhalung Dorje Pel and Drenka Mulakosha. Thonmi Sambhota would eventually be counted as the fourth of the seven most trusted and wisest ministers of the Emperor Songtsen Gampo.

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4 total comments on this postSubmit yours
  1. It could be roughly said that during the 7th to 9th centuries, Tibetan people saw the rise in their interests on Buddhism in general and developed their own writing systems through learning and translating from works of Buddhism originally written in Sanskrit.
    From contemporary documents, it would appear that the king(Songtsen Gampo) was motivated initially by economic and diplomatic concerns, and we find the script used to write treaty documents that were then inscribed on pillars. Before too long however, the alphabet was put to use during the state-sponsored translation of Buddhist texts from Sanskrit, Chinese and several Central Asian languages, which began during the reign of King Trisong Deutsen, and continued during the reign of King Tri Ralpachen (c. 877-896 CE), by whose decree the written language was codified.

  2. It is interesting to read about this great translator of Tibet. As with other illustrious incarnates of Dorje Shugden, Thonmi Sambhota was deeply entrenched in playing an important role in the dharma. From young, King Songtsen Gampo recognised he was special and nurtured him. He was then sent on a mission of learning and research to India and successfully brought back the very first Buddhist texts and treatises to Tibet, 7 years upon completing his studies. He created the alphabets and the Tibetan languages to translate the Buddhist texts and treatises from Sanskrit to bring the dharma to his King and people.

    Another similarity that I noticed is how he went through hardship to bring the dharma to the people. In his mission to India, Thonmi Sambhota was the only survivor out of a group of seven. Other incarnates like Magadha Sangmo had to marry a merchant who is non-Buddhist living in a land far away where she brought the dharma to them. She was also the first to offer beautiful altar, food, sang/incense praise to invite the Buddha, setting a precedent to today’s Buddhist practice. And Birwapa who left his position as Abbot of Nalanda monastery due to misunderstanding over visiting Dakinis seen as ordinary women. He then wandered about as a yogi and performed many magical acts to convert Kings, yogis and the people to Buddhism.

    The greatness of all his incarnates and their enlightened minds proves that Dorje Shugden being of the same mindstream, must be an enlightened Protector. Starting from the first incarnate, Magadha Sangmo, their very lives are of the Buddhadharma and bringing the dharma to the people.

  3. A great scholar and translator. He embodies determination and courage travelling to India via Nepal in the days when travelling in the mountains was treacherous. And, that he was the only surviving shows just how dangerous it was but he persevered and learnt all he could in 7 years to return to Tibet and invented a Tibetan script from his knowledge.

    And, that the King Songtsen Gampo went into retreat to learn the new Tibetan script shows the need and importance for a Tibetan script and Thonmi Sambhota delivered that to the King.

    All that he was for dharma for with the Tibetan script dharma could spread among the Tibetans.

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.…Instead of turning away people who practise Dorje Shugden, we should be kind to them. Give them logic and wisdom without fear, then in time they give up the ‘wrong’ practice. Actually Shugden practitioners are not doing anything wrong. But hypothetically, if they are, wouldn’t it be more Buddhistic to be accepting? So those who have views against Dorje Shugden should contemplate this. Those practicing Dorje Shugden should forbear with extreme patience, fortitude and keep your commitments. The time will come as predicted that Dorje Shugden’s practice and it’s terrific quick benefits will be embraced by the world and it will be a practice of many beings.

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