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Once upon a Mongolian dream: the story of Khublai Khaan’s legendary meeting with ‘Phags-pa

By Gerald Marchewka

Dreams have been an integral part of the cultures of the Orient since the dawn of time.
In particular, India and China have a vast treasure trove of dreams that have been a part of their respective cultures for millennia. Of all of these dreams however, arguably one of the most interesting is that of ‘Phags-pa, a Tibetan monk, who, according to legend, altered the course of Mongolian history and culture as a result of his dream.

It is said that ‘Phags-pa’s dream occurred after Khublai Khaan, the exalted ruler of the vast Mongol Empire, made a specific request to meet with the monk to come to understand the central tenets of Buddhism. Unfortunately their initial meeting did not go as planned as ‘Phags-pa was asked to interpret a text, which he struggled to understand.

Thoroughly distraught by his inability to complete this important task, he then saw a series of images in his sleep that allowed him to understand the essential meaning of the sacred book. Shortly thereafter the monk provided an explanation to Khublai Khaan. The great Khaan then became an advocate for the Buddhist faith. And ‘Phags-pa became known as “The King of the Doctrine of Three Nations: China, Mongolia and Tibet”.

An illuminating dream
While ‘Phags-pa’s remarkable life is documented in various accounts of Mongolian history, relatively little is known about his illustrious dream. In Mongolian and Tibetan folklore however, it is reported that as ‘Phags-pa slept, he had a vision of an old man within his fateful dream. The man purportedly appeared as a Brahman with snow-white hair.

With a knot tied atop the crown of his head, and a flute made from a human thigh-bone held in his quivering hand, the old man ordered ‘Phags-pa to light a lamp. The man then produced a box from which he took the sacred book. He handed it to ‘Phags-pa, who Pa perused its pages. And shortly thereafter the monk memorized its contents.

On the following day ‘Phags-pa again met with the great Khaan as instructed. On this occasion he however did not fail. After hearing ‘Phags-pa’s inspired explanation, Khublai Khaan, impressed by his words, was able to appreciate the basic essence of the text. Soon after, the monk performed a benediction and the great Khaan became a proponent of the Buddhist faith.

The appearance of Lord Shiva
While it would appear that this story is relatively simple in nature, a closer examination reveals that the old man in this dream was in fact a representation of the Hindu god, Lord Shiva. He is worshipped by millions of Hindus the world over and is believed to be behind one of the central forces of the universe. But unlike the other two major divinities Brahma the Creator and Vishnu the Preserver, Shiva is the dissolving destructive force of life. He destroys life so that new forms may be created. For Shiva, a fierce intimidating god, death is the primary medium for rebirth. And it is through death that meaningful life will ultimately recur. Shiva is at once respected and feared and ceremonial acts are performed not just to praise his wisdom but also to placate him and prevent potential acts of serious harm.

Understanding the dream
Sh.Erdenechimeg, a social psychologist at the National University of Mongolia comments on ‘Phags-pa’s dream: “Mysticism has certainly played an important role in the development of Buddhist thought. It is therefore no surprise that a number of folk stories have focused upon lamas of historical prominence. When we consider ‘Phags-pa, a monk who had a major effect upon Mongolian history, we can assume that his vision of the Hindu deity was a manifestation of his wish to understand, and ultimately, to resolve the various concerns that were occupying his mind. If someone is troubled, dreams may function as a means to find a suitable solution to a pressing problem. Human memory, imagination and fantasy are the important elements which allow the important dream work to take place.”
She also says that Mongolians and perhaps Asian people in general may place great emphasis upon the detailed images that exist within dreams.

Mongolians for example believe that if a dream happens at a particular time, on a specific day, or during an important period of time, certain events, either good or bad, are more likely to occur. Perhaps it is somewhat akin to the ancient practice of divination in which future events were believed to be controlled or predicted by specific behaviors, or other important rituals.

She adds that, as Asian people are perhaps more likely to be introverted than their European counterparts, the content of these dreams may be more firmly rooted in the deep recesses of the human mind. Outward expression of the content of the dream may be less likely to occur. And expressions of the dream in daily life may be more subtle and less direct. She also refers to the ancient customs and traditions of various cultures across the Asian continent that encouraged people to safeguard their dreams behind a number of trusty locks.

Perspectives of a modern monk
M.Gankhuyag, an erudite young monk at Ulaanbaatar’s Gandan Monastery says, “Although I am not familiar with references to Shiva in ancient Buddhist texts, there are other fearless deities who have protected the Dharma as well. They include Mahakala, and Vajrapani, among others. Both of them are typically shown with an angry face. And although they have been described as wrathful, beneath their rough exterior lies a very compassionate merciful heart.”

Gankhuyag continues: “So when we consider the vision of Shiva in ‘Phags-pa’s dream it is reasonable to conclude that he may have experienced considerable pressure as he sought to fulfill his mission as an important propagator of the Buddhist faith. In fact it is well known that Khublai Khaan had initially rejected the fledgling spiritual leader. It was only during subsequent meetings that Khublai Khaan was able to appreciate the wisdom of the great Tibetan lama.

“And quite amazingly, according to ancient Buddhist texts, it is reported that ‘Phags-pa even severed his own body parts, to show his formidable magical power to the great Khaan. It was shortly thereafter that a strong relationship between Khublai Khaan and ‘Phags-pa developed. ‘Phags-pa then became the official spiritual leader of Tibet. And the spiritual foundation between Mongolia and Tibet was firmly established.”

A legendary meeting
The extent to which ‘Phags-pa’s dream is merely a myth rather than real life experience is certainly worthy of further exploration. The fact remains however that ‘Phags-pa and Khublai Khaan formed a strategic partnership that has had significant impact upon Mongolia-Tibetan relations to this day. The nature of this relationship and the various motives behind it continue to have a major impact upon how this important part of Mongolian history is construed.

A review of the historical record does however indicate that several theories abound. Perhaps the most common hypothesis is that the relationship between these two legendary men was born not of divine inspiration, but rather it was the product of a pragmatic calculated decision made in the clear light of day. The theory suggests that because Khublai Khaan possessed the political and military power to propel Phag’s Pa to a position of considerable power, ‘Phags-pa’s motivation to form and maintain such a relationship could also have been simply due to personal interest.

Other theorists have argued that the relationship between these two legendary men was based upon Khublai Khaan’s desire to make a favorable impression upon the Tibetan people. Certainly Khublai Khaan’s ability to work closely with a Buddhist monk in an era of religious fervor would have given him a certain degree of moral credibility. It also provided Khublai Khaan with the opportunity to counter any animosities that were undoubtedly an inseparable part of his violent military conquest.

It is also important to note that the power held by ‘Phags-pa and Khublai did not proceed unchallenged. Reports of insurrections were common and in the end ‘Phags-pa was purportedly poisoned by political foes. This alleged murder was part of a larger effort to facilitate a widespread coup d’état.
Not long after the death of ‘Phags-pa conflicts between rival groups competing for power continued. The Sa-skya sect of which ‘Phags-pa was a part was able to maintain its power until the middle of the 14th century despite challenges from the Brikhung sect with the assistance of the Hulegu and the Il-Khanate.

A contemporary interpretation
‘Phags-pa’s unofficial title, “The King of the Doctrine of Three Nations: China, Mongolia and Tibet” and the optimism expressed within his dream appears bittersweet in the context of the present situation of the religion. The Buddhist faith in some parts of Asia, notably China and Tibet is experiencing less of a spread and more of a recession. The current Dalai Lama remains in exile. Tibet and Inner Mongolia have become increasingly sinisized. And vile forms of abuse continue to be perpetrated against people who challenge the governments’ leadership.

One would hope that the people of Tibet and Inner Mongolia will some day enjoy the freedom to make their own choices in a system of government that represents their own collective goals. At the present time however, there is no reason to believe that the current leadership will allow freedom of worship, without the governmental regulation and periodic acts of highly repressive intimidation. Sadly the current political leadership routinely rationalizes their own aggressive hard-line tactics, arguing that they are conducive to both the social stability and economic growth of the entire Chinese nation. But as large numbers of Han Chinese continue to migrate into the Tibetan region and the basic human rights of the people in both Tibet and Inner Mongolia continues to be undermined, the decimation of these two vibrant cultures continues to be a frightening possibility.

In the context of ‘Phags-pa’s dream, perhaps the real solution lies in winning the hearts and minds of people who remain apathetic about the fate of the people of Tibet and Inner Mongolia. If anything, we could hope that the sentiment contained in this legendary tale will contribute, however modestly, to a renewed commitment to keep ‘Phags-pa’s inspirational dream very much alive.

B. Laufer, Inspirational Dreams in Eastern Asia, Journal of American Folklore, Volume 44, No. 172 (April 1931) pp. 208-216.

M. Rossabi, Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times, University of California Press, (1988).

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