The Invention of the Tibetan Alphabet (from the Pillar Testament)

Thereafter King Songtsen Gampo became a great ruler over Jambudvīpa. All kings from the far reaches of that realm offered yearly tribute gifts of wealth and foodstuffs. Apart from sending letters [in other scripts] saying “come bringing wealth, foodstuffs and the like,” there was no writing. So in order to create a Tibetan script, many intelligent men were sent to India. Some of those men were poisoned by quarrels and strife, others died after succumbing to the heat.So the king sent the brightest of his sixteen ministers, the insightful Tönmi Sambhoṭa, to study writing, having given him provisions and one measure of gold dust. Tönmi Sambhoṭa travelled to the south of India, where he met a scholar of letters, called Lijintika the Brahmin.

“Will you teach me writing?” said Tönmi said to the Brahmin, and offered half of the gold.

“I know twenty different writing systems,” the Brahmin replied, “Which one would you like to study, child of Tibet?”

So the Brahmin instructed the child of Tibet, using a pillar on the shore of a lake on which these twenty different scripts were carved very clearly. The child of Tibet said, “I have learned these scripts,” and formulated the system of the Tibetan script. In India the script has 50 letters. Tönmi discarded the gha group and the ṭa group, which do not appear in Tibetan speech. He subsumed the remaining Indian vowels and consonants [into Tibetan language]. Voicing them in his mind, he translated the 16 vowels into the naro, gigu and so on, and he translated the consonants into Tibetan speech.

That which is eka in the Indian language is gcig in Tibetan, and since he had difficulty [making the translation] Tönmi added the letter ca. Since he had difficulty translating dharma into chos, he added cha. Since he had difficulty translating the word loka into ‘jigs rten, he added ja. Since he had difficulty [translating] nāma into zhes, he added zha. Since he had difficulty distinguishing long and short [vowels] in the Tibetan language, he added ‘a. Thus there are six letters in the Tibetan alphabet that are not in the Indian.

The remaining sounds [in the Indian alphabet] remained the same in the Tibetan [alphabet]; these are used for the mantras in Tibetan script. Both the sounds and the words [of Indian mantras] can be represented in the written words of the Tibetan script.

These are the inerrent initial and final letters:

  • The five initial letters (‘phul yig): ga, da, ba, ma, ‘a.
  • The five final letters (rten yig): ga, nga, na, ma, ra, la, sa, da, ba, ‘a.

Tönmi found ca in the country of Chogro; he found za in the country of Zahor; he found zha in the country of Zhangzhung; he found ‘a in the country of Azha; cha and ja he thought up himself. Having added, through his insight, the affixed and subsidiary [letter forms], he transformed the 50 Indian letters into 30 Tibetan letters. It is said that there are six and a half letters not found in India. Since neither the initial nor final ‘a is found [in India], that half letter is said to be ‘a.

Thus Tönmi Sambhoṭa became skilled in writing and language, and was the original Tibetan Lotsāwa and writing expert. He is said to have been an emanation of noble Mañjuśrī.

Thereafter, young Tönmi Sambhoṭa trained Lotsāwas and writing experts, and found the sublime dharma of the Mahāyāna, bringing the following to Tibet:

  1. The dhāraṇī sūtra of the six syllables, known as the Saddharma Cintamaṇi (Dam chos tsin dha ma ṇi)
  2. The Nānānadī sūtra (Chu klung sna tshogs rol pa’i mdo)
  3. The Mūlanadī sūtra (Chu klung ba tsha’i mdo)
  4. The Saddharmapundarika sūtra (Snying rje padma dkar po)

He offered the sublime dharma of the Mahāyāna to the king, who was very pleased. The king said: “There is this Secret Puissance (gnyan po gsang ba) of my ancestor Lhatotori Nyenshel; can you read it?” Lotsāwa Sambhoṭa read it, and worked on:

  1. The Glorious Pangkong Homages of Vimalamitra (Bhi ma la mu ta’i dpal spang skong phyag brgya pa)
  2. The Karandavyūha sūtra (Mdo za ma tog bkod pa)
  3. The Glorious Pangkong Homages of the Nāgās (Klu’i dpal spang skong phyag rgya pa)
  4. The Ten Virtues of Men (mi dge ba bcu)

They established the four legal texts which created the laws of the ten virtues. Then the king trained in the script, and did not emerge till four years had passed. The ministers said, “This king hasn’t appeared for four years! He’s an know-nothing idiot! The happiness of the Tibetan people is down to us, the ministers.”

The king overheard this, and thought, “If they call me an idiot, it will not be possible to control the people.” Thus he spoke: “You ministers and people, come and gather around me! When I didn’t move around from place to place but remained alone in the palace, you were happy. Yet you ministers are saying that this very happiness of the Tibetan people is down to the ministers and that the people are under the command of the ministers. It has become necessary for me to formulate the laws of the ten virtues.”

[At this point the text moves on to a discussion of the formulation of the original Tibetan laws.]

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Edition: Smon lam rgya mtsho (ed.). 1989. Bka’ chems ka khol ma. Lanzhou: Kan su’u mi rigs dpe skrun khang. pp.105–108.