Tonmi Sambhota

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Tonmi Sambhota b.619?

The life of Tonmi Sambhota (thon mi sam+b+ho Ta) is largely shrouded in legend. He is said to have been born into a family of a minister of Tibet in a place called Tu (thu), a village at the foot of the Khambala ridge on the south side of the Yeru Tsangpo River in Yorwo (g.yor bo). According to some sources, the year of his birth was 619, the year of earth-sheep of the pre-sexagenary cycle; however, this date is far from certain. His family was of the Tonmi clan. His name is also recorded as Tumi, as in the Tengyur Index, reflecting the place of his birth; the man from Tu. The Sanskrit part of his name, Sambhota, is comprised of "sam", meaning scholar, and "bhota", meaning Tibet.

His father was called Tonmi Anu Ragata (thon mi a nu ra ga ta), and was a minister of the Tibetan Emperor Songtsen Gampo (srong brtsan sgam po, 617-698). Some sources have it that Tonmi was born in Nyalwa (gnyal ba) in Southern Tibet and that his father was named Nang-drak (snang grags) but the former seems more common.

Tonmi Sambhota's intelligence was such that he was noticed early by the Emperor. In 633, while still a teenager, the Emperor sent Tonmi and other young men to India to study and research scripts in order to create a script for the Tibetan language. The king sent with them enough gold dust to cover their expenses for the travel and subsistence during their study in India, and valuable gifts to be presented to the Indian king known to Tibetan history as Peljinje Bina Lhachen (dpal sbyin byed bi na lha chen), whose identity is not known.

Tonmi and his companions travelled to India via Nepal, where the Nepalese king gave them preventive medicines for fever in exchange to their presents, something that is credited for their reaching India safely. Tonmi then travelled a great deal within India in order to find a good teacher. Finally, in South India he came in contact with Brahman Lijinkara (bram ze li byin ka ra / Lipikara (bram ze li pi ka ra) and another teacher known in Tibetan as Lha Rigpa Sengge (lha'i rig pa seng ge), whose Sanskrit name was possibly Devavidyāsimha or Devavitsiṃha. With these and other teachers he studied language, grammar, lexicography, poetry, literature and related topics, and also philosophy for about seven years. He particularly focused on Lha Rigpa Sengge's phonological grammar texts (such as sgra paNi pa, ka lA pa, and can dra pa) in the gender relating parts of the grammatical construction. He also thoroughly studied some texts of moral science and other subjects.

He returned to Tibet with gifts from the Indian king to the Tibetan Emperor that included some important texts which were delivered to the Emperor safely. (These included the mdo sde dkon mchog sprin, dam pa'i chos pad ma dkar po, gtsog tor dri med kyi gzungs, and nor bu kee tu.) He brought along with him every available text on Sanskrit grammar, and also many other books from India to Tibet (such as the 'dus pa rin po che'i tog, mdo za ma tog bkod pa, spyan ras gzigs kyi mdo rgyud nyi shu rtsa gcig, dge ba bcu’i mdo, and others). The texts that he brought are said to be the first Buddhist texts to enter Tibet from India. According to some sources and also verbal history, all the youths accompanying Tonmi to India died because of the tropical heat.

He then sat in a long retreat at the Kukarmaru (sku mkhar ma ru) palace in Lhasa, and commenced the great project of inventing Tibetan scripts eagerly awaited long time by the Emperor. The script that Tonmi is reputed to have devised for the Tibetan language is based on the Devanagari and Kashmir scripts. He also is credited with the composition of six texts on Tibetan grammar based on Sanskrit grammars. (Two of the six treatises are contained in the Tengyur: the lung ston pa la rtsa  ba sum cu pa and the rtags kyi 'jug pa. The titles of the lost four are unknown.) It is generally believed that these two important treatises were in fact the work of several authors over a period of time.

It is commonly said among Tibetan scholars that the Tibetan printed script called Uchen (dbu can: "with a head") was based on Lanza, the rare ancient Sanskrit script; and the hand-written cursive form that is used in daily writing, called U-me (dbu med: "without a head") was based on Urdu, the script of Kashmir. However, there is no doubt that the current Tibetan script carries the pattern of Devanagari script. More strictly saying, it seems that the scripts said to have been invented by Tonmi were based on the Brahmi and Gupta scripts which had been in use in India since 350 CE. However, their later form does not seem different from the Devanagari script.

The construction of the Tibetan alphabet was much simplified and shorter than Devanagari. The thirty-four consonants and sixteen vowels of Devnagari were summarized into thirty and four respectively in Tibetan alphabet. Moreover unlike in Sanskrit or Hindi, only signs of vowels are used in conjunction with consonants in Tibetan. Thus, the Tibetan alphabet is syllabic and has only thirty letters as the vowels are only signs and not counted in the alphabet. However, six new letters were constructed and added to the Tibetan alphabet according to Tibetan tongue and dialogue. The new letters are tsa, tsha, dza, zha, za, ’a. A few— the so called “thick letters” and “reversed letters” were also constructed as extras for accurate transliteration of Sanskrit and Peli into Tibetan language.

According to the legend, Tonmi presented his script to Emperor Songtsen Gampo in a royal assembly that was attended by all the ministers. Thereafter he taught reading, writing, and grammar to the Emperor and earned the title Lobpon Tonmi (slob dpon thon mi): Master Tonmi. Emperor Songsten Gampo is said to have retired for four years to master the new script and grammar and then made many translations including twenty-one tantric texts of Avalokiteśvara. It is also commonly believed that the two large volumes of the Mani Kabum (ma Ni bka' 'bum) were composed by the Emperor Songtsen Gampo after learning the new scripts, although it is more likely that this text was composed by many authors over a long period of time.

It is important to note that while the Buddhist history credits Tonmi for the creation of the Tibetan script, Bon histories have it that a script for Zhang Zhung language predated it by centuries. The Bon tradition identifies as the source of the Zhang Zhung script a number of different scripts such as the greater and lesser Mar scripts (smar chen dang smar chung); greater and lesser Pung scripts (spungs chen dang spungs chung); and the Drusha script (bru sha). However, certainly, when you carefully look at these scripts they appear to be closely related if not derived directly from either the Lanza or Tibetan scripts. In any case, in the current Bon tradition, Tibetan script is used for printing.

According to legend, Tonmi was highly felicitated and heavily rewarded for his creation, but some of his fellow ministers grew jealous and slandered him to the Emperor. In his defense, at a gathering of the ministers, Tonmi explained the hardship that he had faced for his invention, convincing all of the value of his achievement. Tonmi Sambhota is counted as the fourth among the seven wise-ministers in the ministry of Emperor Songtsen Gampo.

Tonmi Sambhota is also said to have accompanied the minister Gar to Nepal to escort the Nepalese princess Balsa Tritsun (bal sa khri btsun) to Lhasa, and to China to escort the Chinese princess Wenchen Gongjo, known in Tibetan as Gyasa Kongjo (rgya bza' kong jo), to Lhasa, both being brought as brides for the Tibetan Emperor.

There is no record of the year of Tonmi Sambhota’s death or the length of his life. He is said to have had at least one son called Mahasata and grandson Nyima Longsel (nyi ma klong gsal). It is also said that the children of his nephews were called Depa Yargyabpa (sde pa yar rgyab pa). His apprentice translators were named Dharmakosha, Lhalung Dorje Pel (lha lung rdo rje dpal) and Drenka Mulakosha (bran ka mu la ko sha).




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Samten Chhosphel
September 2010