A History of Buddhism in India and Tibet

Dan Martin (Trans)

984 pages, 2022, 97.95 USD (Hardback)

Wisdom Publication



Reviewed by Michael Ium


Dan Martin’s recent book—A History of Buddhism in India and Tibet: An Expanded Version of the Dharma’s Origins Made by the Learned Scholar Deyu—is the first full English translation of an important thirteenth century Tibetan historical work. Consisting of two broad sections, it covers key topics in Indian and Tibetan Buddhist history, such as the origins of the Dharma, the life of the historical Buddha, and the divisions of Buddhist scripture, as well as the origins and lineages of Tibetan rulers, the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet, and the “period of fragmentation.” The particular value of this text is that it represents a Tibetan witness for this history that foregrounds the distinctive perspectives of Tibetan historians and does so at a time when such presentations had not yet been standardized. Arguing forcefully for the value of such Tibetan literature, Martin opines that Tibet should not be viewed as “just a Sanskrit text repository,” asserting that “Tibet, the ‘father country’ (pha yul), has always led his own life.”[i]

Martin’s interest in foregrounding a Tibetan perspective is also reflected in the structure of the book. The introduction begins with a historical survey and description of Tibetan historical works, one that will be familiar to readers acquainted with Martin’s introductory survey to his comprehensive reference work Tibetan Histories: A Bibliography of Tibetan-Language Historical Works. It then proceeds via a set of five topics drawn from Tibetan commentarial literature: (1) the identity of the author-compiler, (2) the sources drawn upon and works with close affinities, (3) the allegiances or tendencies of thinking displayed by the author, (4) the purposes for which it may have been written, and (5) the significance of the text as a whole.[ii]

One striking finding is that the author of this work is unknown and that it is better understood as a work of compilation (perhaps of multiple hands) than as a composition.[iii] As a compilation, the style of the work is perhaps more reminiscent of an Indian “compendium” (saṃgraha) than a historical narrative, appearing to have functioned as an introduction or reference guide to Indian and Tibetan history for the thirteenth century Tibetan reader. For instance, rather than offering extensive explanations of topics such as the two truths, the three bodies, or the 1002 buddhas, the text instead offers terse statements and points readers to the relevant primary literature. In doing so, the text appears to function in a manner reminiscent of an Oxford Bibliography, a handbook, or even Wikipedia, modern reference works that also introduce readers to topics, refer them to other sources, and often bring together the work of multiple hands. For this reason, this book is a useful reference for readers today searching for references in primary sources for numerous aspects of Indian and Tibetan religious history.

In foregrounding an early Tibetan perspective, Martin also seeks to refute stereotypes about Tibetan history. For instance, although it has been observed that Tibetan historical works are often repetitive (or “cut and paste”), Martin notes that there are multiple idiosyncratic elements in this history, such as the absence of the famous monkey and ogress narrative for the origin of the Tibetan people. In a similar vein, although it is sometimes thought that Tibet was isolated both geographically and culturally for much of its history, Martin notes that this work contains references to various foreign phenomena, from female Amazon warriors to Mediterranean “sea silk.” As a historian, this latter point dovetails with Martin’s interest in taking a more cross-cultural perspective to the study of Tibetan phenomena, as he frequently points out instances of cross-cultural similarity, such as the fact that the miraculous opening of springs of healing waters is a theme in numerous cultures.

As an important thirteenth century Tibetan history, this text cites other influential works, such as the Pillar Testament of Songtsen Gampo (Bka’ chems ka khol ma) and the history of Nyangrel Nyima Öser (Nyang ral Nyi ma ’od zer, 1124-1192), perhaps the first Tibetan history that uses the genre term “Dharma Origins” (chos ’byung) in its title. In addition, one unique and important aspect of this work is that it cites long sections from a series of texts that date to the early ninth century, likely from the time of the ruler Relpachen. In doing so, they provide a glimpse of a Tibetan world where topics such as the formation of the universe are depicted in uniquely Tibetan terms, and not, for instance, in terms heavily influenced by Buddhist Abhidharma.

Most of all, Martin brings to his translation of this text the benefit of his years of study as a historian and scholar of Tibet. His expertise shines through in the copious annotations accompanying the translation, notes that are especially helpful in illuminating aspects of Tibetan history and culture that may have been opaque for the modern reader. For instance, Martin observes that unlike the modern Western world, in Tibetan Dunhuang texts it is the lungs (glo ba)—and not the heart—that is considered the seat of emotions.[iv] Elsewhere, Martin points out that since death by knife is especially ominous for the living, the word knife (gri) came to be used synecdochally for every death by murder or accident that was considered ominous. Thus, the unusual phrase “horse knife” (rta gri) is used to refer to death by horse, whether by being thrown or by being trampled.[v]  

In sum, Martin’s work is an extremely valuable resource, one that is based on both Martin’s wealth of expertise and informed by the work of multiple colleagues and former scholars. Thus, in one sense, this translation is much like the original text on which it is based, in that it is a handy reference work, the product of multiple hands, and reflective of the current state of knowledge and expertise of a particular culture. So, given that the text itself states that “in times to come there will be future generations of persons who will learn and teach this,” we might end by observing that the learned scholar known variously as rTen, Dan Martin, or Dan Yerushalmi has taken up the mantle of Khepa Deyu.[vi]



[i] Martin 46.

[ii] This category of “five headings” (rtsis mgo lnga) corresponds to the “five unities” (phun sum tshogs pa lnga) used to define scripture: teacher, place, time, audience, and teaching (Martin 2-3, n. 3)

[iii] Martin considers the eponymous “Learned Scholar Deyu” (Mkhas pa lde’u) the author of an original concise historical work, which was then expanded upon in a “short” (Lde’u jo sras) and a “long” (Mkhas pa lde’u) version, with the latter the focus of the translation (Martin 14). Martin argues that the perspective of the text is Nyingma, but that it is a universal and nonsectarian history, for instance one accepting of the Tantras of the New Schools.

[iv] Martin 366, n. 1200.

[v] Martin 37.

[vi] Martin 350.


Michael Ium received his PhD in 2023 from the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Department of Religious Studies, as well as MA degrees from UCSB and Maitripa College. Currently, he is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the University of Toronto’s Department for the Study of Religion and The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Centre for Buddhist Studies. A historian of religion, his research focuses on the early history of Ganden Monastery in Tibet and the construction of the Geluk tradition.