Genghis Khan, born in the 1160s and died in 1227, profoundly changed the world. He unified the tribes of the steppe in northern China, his armies of horsemen conquered during his lifetime the territories between Persia (now Iran) and northern China.
His sons shared the empire, which they extended by their conquests, while electing one of their supreme khan – to him returned the lands which they considered the most important, Mongolia and China. Genghis Khan's grandsons, after bitter struggles, finally yielded pre-eminence to one of their own, Kublai Khan (1215-1294).
Once elected supreme khan in 1260, Kublai unified China by conquering its southern half. He also commanded the current Mongol territories and Tibet. His cousins paid him homage, which makes him, nominally, the most powerful emperor of all time – he reigned over thirty million km2, from Korea to Russia.
The Emperor's Choice
Coming from the steppes where shamanism was practiced, Kublaï chose to convert to Tibetan Buddhism, after having been, in his youth, attracted by the Chan (Zen in Japanese). It is to the Tibetan monk Drogön Chogyal Phagpa (1235-1280) that we owe his conversion.
Phagpa was the fifth patriarch of the Sakyapa lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. Nephew of the fourth Sakya patriarch, Pandita (1182-1251), he entered holy orders at the age of eleven. Pandita, the leader of an important school of Tibetan Buddhism, closely followed the military progress of the Mongols, who had annexed Tibet in 1240. In 1244, Pandita left the great monastery of Sakya to visit the Mongol prince Godan Khan. He was accompanied by two of his nephews, Phagpa and his six-year-old brother Chakna Dorje. The two children pronounced their vows when the group passed through Lhasa.
It took three years for the monks to reach the Mongol troops, who were busy exterminating the Chinese who resisted them. In Liangzhou, Pandita, horrified by the massacres, reportedly lectured the soldiers vigorously. His determined sermons impressed Godan Khan, and Pandita is said to have increased his audience by curing this ruler of an illness. He was therefore enthroned by the Mongols as regent of the military districts that they were going to establish in Tibet.
After Pandita's death, Phagpa and his brother remained under the protection of Godan. In 1253 Kublai Khan asked Godan to send him a master to teach him Buddhism. Thus, at the age of eighteen, Phagpa, who had mastered Mongolian, found himself advising the grandson of Genghis Khan.
Tradition has it that the guru and his pupil adopted an unusual protocol: when they were discussing religion, the monk was seated higher than the prince – they were preoccupied with the affairs of the court, and Kublai regained his rightful elevated position. traditionally.
In 1258, Kublai officially converted to Buddhism and made Phagpa his master (guru) in Tantrism. Tradition has it that the guru and his pupil adopted an unusual protocol: when they were discussing religion, the monk was seated higher than the prince – they were preoccupied with the affairs of the court, and Kublai regained his rightful elevated position. traditionally.
In 1260, Kublai became supreme khan of the Mongols, and he gave Phagpa the title of imperial preceptor. The Mongolian annals then suggest that Phagpa would have theorized the concept of "chakravartin" (universal sovereign) by applying it to the temporal leader Kublai. A new idea of the Chinese state, imperialist and sovereign in ideological matters, would then have appeared (1). In this architecture of political theology, Phagpa defines a close relationship of patronage from the state to the monasteries. With Kublai's help, he established the Sakyapa school as the main Tibetan political power.
The creation of a writing
Phagpa also inherited the most important mission: to invent writing. In this case, a script likely to unify the multiple languages spoken in the empire, while being easy to learn – in the eyes of the Mongols, the Chinese ideograms were too complex. Phagpa adapted the Tibetan script to the needs of his sponsor. This new spelling, known as the “phagpa script”, was declared the official writing of the empire when Kublai proclaimed himself emperor of China in 1271. It then replaced the Uighur alphabet, hitherto used by the Mongols.
The Phagpa script remained little used, because the scribes persisted in using sinograms or Uighur. The Ming, when they overthrew the Yuan dynasty founded by Kublai in 1368, gave it the final blow. Similarly, the religious authority of Sakya Monastery over all Mongol-administered Tibetan territories, granted by Godan and repeatedly confirmed by Kublai, made Phagpa and his successors the highest religious authorities in Tibet for a small century, until the 1350s. The Sakya school was then able to survive the vagaries of history, and its monastic lineages remain active today – especially in exile.