Quarantine and Expulsion in Early Tibet: Reflections on the Padmasambhava Legend in the Age of the Coronavirus

From the Series: Responding to an Unfolding Pandemic: Asian Medicines and Covid-19

The novel coronavirus has forced each of us to reconsider our interpersonal relationships. Although most contemporary healthcare systems are designed to treat patients as individuals, Covid-19 has reminded us that contagions are communal problems that require coordinated solutions. Around the world, countless schools and businesses have closed, and government leaders have asked citizens to avoid gathering in large groups. This epidemiological strategy has been dubbed “social distancing” and it, along with an emphasis on hygiene, represents our global approach to limiting the spread of the novel coronavirus. Below we consider parallel examples of foreign monks who were quarantined and expelled from Tibet during its imperial period (ca. 600–850).1 As we shall see, the same fear that has led the world to social separation in 2020 also once gripped the Tibetan people.

When a foreign monk came to Rasa (modern-day Lhasa) in the 760s, Tibetan rulers were afraid. A fragment of an old Tibetan manuscript found at Dunhuang (ninth or tenth century) describes the arrival of a stranger, whom we can identify as the Indian monk Śāntarakṣita (725–788). Due to suspicions of “foreign spirits and evil spells,”2 the emperor asked the monk to stay alone in a temple and sent ministers and a translator to interrogate him. This is all that the manuscript tells us, but, as discovered by Sam van Schaik and Kazushi Iwao (2008), the fragment is nearly identical to part of the Testament of Wa (eleventh century?), which reveals some of the missing details of our story. Like this torn folio—only six lines of fragmented text—our understandings of xenophobia in eighth-century Tibet remain incomplete.

The Testament of Wa explains that the anxieties over the foreign monk were the result of anti-Buddhist sentiments among conservative ministers.3 Although later interpreters ascribe these sentiments to age-old conflicts between the supporters of Buddhism and Bön, the indigenous religion of Tibet, another early history found at Dunhuang provides a further explanation. As recounted in the History of Religion in Khotan (ninth or tenth century), the Chinese Princess Jincheng 金城 (698–739) supported the arrival of Khotanese monks and allowed their Buddhist teachings and institutions to flourish in Tibet.4 “A host of demons became agitated, however,” the History of Religion in Khotan recounts, “and they sent forth the black pox and many other sorts of disease. As for the princess, she died after a black pox appeared at her heart.”5 The Tibetan people blamed the foreign monks for the outbreak, and banished them to Gandhāra in the west. Although this language of demons may feel out of place in a modern context, blaming foreigners for the spread of contagious disease is all too familiar.6 But scapegoating strangers is not the only way to deal with a demon.

In light of the contagion-induced xenophobia of eighth-century Tibet, we can understand why an Indian monk would have been met with quarantine in the 760s. The Testament of Wa supports this hypothesis by stating that the presence of Śāntarakṣita and other foreign monks in Tibet caused further disease and disaster (Pasang Wangdu and Diemberger 2000, 46; Bde skyid 2009, 248). Like in the History of Religion in Khotan, the foreign monks were expelled from Tibet in an attempt to appease the local demons, but this story does not end here. Instead, the scholastic monk, Śāntarakṣita, enlisted the help of another foreigner, Padmasambhava, a lay ritual master from Central Asia, to come and ritually subdue the demons of Tibet.7 Using prasenā divination to communicate with the Four Great Kings, a technique still used in Tibetan ritual and medical contexts,8 he asked, “Two years ago a great flood overcame Pangtang, a fire raged in the Rasa castle, and disease spread among both people and livestock. Who are the gods and serpent spirits that did this?” (Bde skyid 2009, 254).9 The Four Great Kings, with their divine sight, shared the clan names of the spirits. Calling them by name, Padmasambhava forced the spirits to manifest in human bodies, probably by means of a spirit medium. He threatened them, but also taught them about the karmic consequences of their wicked deeds, finally binding them to an oath of moral rectitude. Echoing Śākyamuni’s defeat of Māra, Padmasambhava subdued the demons of Tibet and allowed Buddhism to flourish there once again.

This legend of Padmasambhava in the Testament of Wa represents a departure from the History of Religion in Khotan. In the latter account, people were frightened as they faced demonic disasters, and the Tibetan emperor blamed foreigners in an attempt to restore order to society. In the legend of Padmasambhava, however, rather than blame and expel seemingly dangerous foreigners, he identified and even educated the very demons who caused the disasters. As we confront our own demons in this age of the coronavirus, seeking out the ones responsible for its spread, let us take note. It is easy to feel the danger all around us, and to blame baleful groups of strangers for our own potential exposure to infection. But to truly convert our anxiety-inducing demons into protectors of order (dharmapāla), first we must understand them. By seeing others not as dangerous agents of disease, but as fellow members of a shared humanity, we can begin to practice social distancing in pursuit of communal health. Like Padmasambhava in eighth-century Tibet, this subtle expansion of identity will allow us to subdue our shared demons, and together we can take effective steps to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus across the contemporary world.


1. Quarantine is the temporary isolation of infected or potentially infected people, animals, or things, whereas social distancing usually refers to the voluntary separation of an individual or small group of people from larger gatherings during a period of contagious disease. For an overview of quarantines across diverse times, spaces, and cultures, see Alison Bashford (2016).

2. Or.8210/S.9498, line 2: lha [=lho] bal gy-i ngan sngags dang / ’phra men.

3. For a summary and translation of the Testament of Wa, see Pasang Wangdu and Hildegard Diemberger (2000).

4. For a historical account of Princess Jincheng in Tibet, see Christopher I. Beckwith (1983, 6–8).

5. PT 960, lines 59–60 (see Emmerick 1967, 85). This translation is based on Matthew T. Kapstein (2000, 41–42), to which the core of this essay owes a great debt.

6. For further analyses of demons, foreigners, and blame in this series, see the essays by Lynteris, as well as Arya and van der Valk.

7. For early depictions of Padmasambhava as a conqueror of demons, see Jacob Dalton (2004).

8. For prasenā in a modern ritual context, see Hildegard Diemberger (2007); for prasenā in a medical context, see William A. McGrath (2019).

9. Translated in consultation with Pasang Wangdu and Diemberger (2000, 55–56); but with important differences in interpretation.


Bashford, Alison, ed. 2016. Quarantine: Local and Global Histories. London: Palgrave.

Bde skyid, ed. 2009. Rba bzhed phyogs bsgrigs. Beijing: Mi rigs dpe skrun khang.

Beckwith, Christopher I. 1983. “The Revolt of 755 in Tibet.” In Contributions on Tibetan Language, History and Culture, edited by Ernst Steinkellner and Helmut Tauscher, 1–16. Vienna: Arbeitskreis für Tibetische und Buddhistische Studien.

Dalton, Jacob. 2004. “The Early Development of the Padmasambhava Legend in Tibet: A Study of IOL Tib J 644 and Pelliot tibétain 307.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 124, no. 4: 759–72.

Diemberger, Hildegard. 2007. “Padmasambhava’s Unfinished Job: The Subjugation of Local Deities as Described in the dBa’ bzhed in Light of Contemporary Practices of Spirit Possession.” In Pramāṇakīrtiḥ: Papers Dedicated to Ernst Steinkellner on the Occasion of His Seventieth Birthday, edited by Birgit Kellner, Helmut Krasser, Horst Lasic, Michael Torsten Much, and Helmut Tauscher, 85–93. Vienna: Arbeitskreis für Tibetische und Buddhistische Studien.

Emmerick, Ronald E. 1967. Tibetan Texts Concerning Khotan. London: Oxford University Press.

Kapstein, Matthew T. 2000. The Tibetan Assimilation of Buddhism: Conversion, Contestation, and Memory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McGrath, William A. 2019. “Tantric Divination and Empirical Diagnosis: A Genealogy of Channel Prasenā Rituals in the Tibetan Medical Tradition.” In Knowledge and Context in Tibetan Medicine, edited by William A. McGrath, 261–308. Leiden: Brill.

Pasang Wangdu and Hildegard Diemberger, trans. 2000. Dba’ bzhed: The Royal Narrative Concerning the Bringing of the Buddha’s Doctrine to Tibet. Vienna: Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.

van Schaik, Sam, and Kazushi Iwao. 2008. “Fragments of the ‘Testament of Ba’ from Dunhuang.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 128, no. 3: 477–87.

Dunhuang manuscripts (ninth or tenth century)

Or.8210/S.9498. No title [Early Testament of Wa (dba’ bzhed) fragment]. No date.

PT 960. L-i yul chos ky-i lo rgyus ky-i dpe [The History of Religion in Khotan]. No date.