upon a Mongolian dream: the story of Khublai Khaan’s
legendary meeting with ‘Phags-pa
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”.
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
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
‘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)
Rossabi, Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times, University
of California Press, (1988).