Religion in Tibet
The establishment of Buddhism in Tibet was marked by its interaction with the native religion called Bon. Bon, which is a shamanistic faith encompassing gods and spirits, exorcism, and the cult of dead kings, had a definite influence on the direction that Buddhism took in Tibet. This faith believed in the power of the shaman, who has special powers to control or influence good and evil spirits, which enables them to discover the cause of illness, bad luck, etc.
Many popular Buddhist practices such as prayer flags, sky burial, the rubbing of holy rocks, the tying of bits of cloth to trees and the construction of spirit traps all are rooted deeply in the Bon tradition. However, it was Bon that was transformed by Buddhism, and not the other way around. As it survives today, Bon is essentially a school of Buddhism.
Historical Background of Buddhism:
Buddhism originated in northeast India around the 5th century B.C., when the local religion was Brahmanism. Some Brahmin adhered to an asceticism (renunciation of physical pleasures and comforts) that took them to remote places where they fasted, practiced yoga, and meditated. The Buddha (born Siddhartha Gautama into a noble family) was one such ascetic, and many of the fundamental concepts of Buddhism find their origin in the Brahmin society of this period.
Gautama renounced a life of comfort in order to pursue his quest of making sense of the world’s suffering. He embarked on a course of intense asceticism, before concluding that such a path was too extreme. It was while meditating under a bo tree that he achieved knowledge of the final obstacles to his enlightenment, and became Buddha (“the awakened” or “the enlightened”) at the end of the third night. Traditional Buddhist biographies do not start with the birth of Gautama, but instead with his early lives “100,000 eons ago.” His striving for Buddhahood was supposed to have passed through innumerable rebirths before he attained perfection. After achieving enlightenment, Brahma Sahampata, the god of compassion, asked the Buddha to share his perfect knowledge with all those who were ready to hear his teachings, and thus Buddhism was born.
Basic Buddhist Concepts:
Buddhists believe that life is a cycle of rebirths. There are six levels of rebirth, or realms of existence. It is important to accumulate enough merit to avoid the three lower realms, although in the long cycle of rebirth, all beings pass through them at some point. The three lower realms comprise hells of torment, ghost worlds, and the world of animals. The three higher realms are human beings, demigods, and gods. All beings are fated to tread this wheel continuously until they make a commitment to enlightenment.
All beings pass through the same cycle of rebirths, having lived at some point as an insect, as a god, and having suffered in one of the hell realms. Movement within this cycle is not left up to chance; it is governed by karma. Karma implies the consequences of an action. Every action in life leaves a psychic trace that carries over into the next rebirth. It is not thought of as a reward or punishment, but simply a result.
Buddhists try to accumulate as much good karma, or merit, as possible. It is best achieved through the act of rejoicing in giving, although it can also be achieved through giving that is purely motivated by the will for merit. Giving to the needy and to monks and temples, giving up a son to the monkhood, and acts of compassion all have positive karmic outcome and can help to reduce the number of rebirths.
The Four Holy Truths:
The four holy truths are the philosophical underpinning of the faith. They are the Buddha’s answer to the three principal aspects of existence: dukkha (stress, suffering, disease), anicca (impermanence, transience of all things), and anatta (insubstantiality or non-essentiality of reality – no permanent soul). These concepts were in direct contrast with the Hindu belief in an eternal, blissful self. Therefore, Buddhism was originally a heresy against India’s Hindu religion.
The Buddha spoke of the four noble truths as having the power to liberate any person that could realize them. These truths were 1) the truth of dukkha (suffering); 2) suffering is caused by grasping (or desire); 3) Eliminate the cause of suffering (i.e. grasping or desire) and suffering will cease (nirvana); 4) the Eightfold Path is the way to eliminate grasping and extinguish suffering.
It is thought that suffering extends through all rebirths and finds its origins in the imperfection of life and that the reason for our suffering is our dissatisfaction with imperfection and our desire for things to be other than they are. The ultimate goal of Buddhism is nirvana, which literally means “blowing out” or extinction of all grasping and desire, and thus of all suffering. It is the end of the cycle of rebirths. The object is to find a way to cool the passions through the practice of morality and mental development. If followed to conclusion, it will result in the wiping out of suffering caused by the human condition.
Both men and women may achieve nirvana, but it is easier for men, as they are considered to have a higher spiritual status than women. For example, if men perform misdeeds, they will return in a subsequent life as a woman (as punishment).
The Eightfold Path:
The Eightfold Path consists of 1) right understanding; 2) right mindedness; 3) right speech; 4) right bodily conduct; 5) right livelihood; 6) right effort; 7) right attentiveness; 8) right concentration. The word “right” can be translated as “complete” or “full.” The path is also called “the Middle Way” because it avoids the extremes of austerity and of sensuality. It involves moderation, not renunciation.
The Ten Prohibitions:
Do not kill, do not steal, and restrain from inappropriate sexual activity, lying, gossiping, cursing, sowing discord, envy, malice, and opinionatedness.
The Two Major Schools of Buddhism:
Not long after the Buddha’s death, disagreements arose among his followers over whose interpretations best captured the true spirit of his teachings. Two principal schools eventually emerged: the Theravada school which made its way south into Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia; and the Mahayana school, found in the Himalayas and eastern Asia (China, Japan, Korea).
Theravada Buddhism is older and more conservative, emphasizing scholaticism and limiting its doctrines to only those canons that were codified by the first Buddhists. The school is based on the teachings of Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha, where were recorded in the Sutras of the Pali Canon. The Biblical equivalent of “Sutras” is “Scriptures.”
Mahayana Buddhism respects the teachings of the first Buddhists, but also encompasses other teachings. It is the Mahayana School that is followed in Tibet.
The principal difference with Theravada Buddhism is that Mahayanists changed the direction of Buddhism from the individual pursuit of enlightenment and complete nonattachment to bodhisattvahood, which aims, through compassion and self-sacrifice, to achieve enlightenment for the sake of all beings.
Mahayanists also claim that Gautama the Buddha had already attained Buddhahood eons ago and that he was a manifestation of a long-enlightened transcendent being who sent such manifestations to many world systems in order to help all beings on the road to enlightenment. Mahayanists believe that there are many such transcendent beings. This belief had the effect of allowing Mahayanists to produce new revealed texts that recorded the words of Gautama as they appeared in dreams and visions, and also of making Mahayana Buddhism more palatable to cultures that already had gods of their own. In Tibet, as in China, Korea, and Japan, the Mahayana pantheon of gods came to be identified with local gods. Especially in Tibet, many stories arose about the taming of local gods by their Mahayana equivalents.
Mahayanists claimed to have discovered another body of sutras (scriptures), which were entrusted to supernatural beings until humans that were sufficiently spiritually advanced appeared in the world to receive them. Thus, a second, Mahayana, canon came into being. It set the precedent that Buddhist practice could be informed not only by the teachings of a living Buddha, but also through otherworldly revelations.
Tibetan Buddhism – Tantrism (Vajrayana):
A unique form of Mahayana Buddhism is practiced in Tibet and Tibetan areas of western Sichuan and NW Yunnan provinces: Tibetan, or Tantric, Buddhism. It has been practiced since the early 7th century and is largely influenced by Tibet’s pre-Buddhist Bon religion, which relied on priests and shamans to appease spirits, gods, and demons. It is much more mystical than other forms of Buddhism, and relies heavily on mantras (sacred speech), yantras (sacred art), mudras (ritual posture), and secret initiation rites to jolt the follower towards enlightenment.
According to those who adhere to this school of thought, Gautama left a corpus of esoteric instructions to a select few of his disciples. These were known as “tantra.” Adepts claimed that they could jolt themselves towards enlightenment (and thus shorten the path to bodhisattvahood) by using unconventional techniques. Their practices employed Indian yogic techniques and involved identification with a tutelary deity invoked through deep meditation and recitation of the deity’s mantra. A lot of the ritual objects and images of deities in Tibetan monasteries and temples are Tantric in nature.
Just as sutras reveal the teachings of Sakyamuni, every Tantra can be traced back to a revelation from a particular deity. They involve practices and rituals that were revealed to an adept by a particular deity and then transmitted by that adept to a disciple and so on for hundreds of years.
The earliest Tibetan Tantra came to Tibet from Guru Rinpoche in the 8th century and are called the Old Tantra. Later schools of Tibetan Buddhism (Kagyupa and Sakyapa) supplemented these with tantras of their own and came to be known as the New Tantra.
Schools of Tibetan Buddhism:
Legend has it that when Buddhism was introduced to Tibet, the local gods and spirits were tamed and converted to Buddhism as protective deities. There are two orientations: the clerical side of Buddhism that is largely concerned with textual study and analysis; and the Tantric shamanistic-based side that seeks revelation through identification with deified beings and through their revealed words or writings. It is a bit of a difference between the state-sponsored Buddhism and the popular Buddhism.
There are four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism. The first is the Nyingmapa Order, or Old Order, which came to Tibet with Guru Rinpoche from India in the 8th century. The second is the Kagyupa Order, which gained momentum in the 11th century, and for whose adepts Tantric experience is very important. It was with one of these sub-orders that the practice of lamas reincarnating after birth first occurred. The Sakyapa Order came to power in the 11th and 12th centuries. And the Gelugpa Order gained impetus in the 15th century with a call for a return to doctrinal purity and monastic discipline as prerequisites to advanced Tantric studies. The Dalai Lamas came to be increasingly identified with this order’s growing spiritual and political prestige.
Reincarnation Lineages and the Dalai Lamas:
A lama is a Tibetan or Mongolia Buddhist monk. Important Tibetan lamas are often “trulkus,” or “incarnate lamas,” believed to be reincarnations of highly evolved beings. There are thought to be several thousand of them in contemporary Tibet. The abbots of many monasteries are trulku, and thus abbotship can be traced back through many rebirths to an important figure associated with the founding of the monastery. A trulku is a manifestation of a Tantric deity that repeatedly expresses itself through a series of rebirths.
The most famous manifestation of a deity is the Dalai Lama lineage. The Dalai Lamas are manifestations of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhissatva of Compassion. The Dalai Lama is the supreme leader of Tibetan Buddhism.
Generally, the reincarnations of high-status lamas are found in aristocratic families (as in the early Dalai Lamas) or in families where trulkus have already been identified. The present Dalai Lama is not from an aristocratic family, but his elder and younger brothers are both trulkus.
As they approach death, lamas often leave behind clues pointing to the location of their reincarnation. The Panchen Lamas are confirmed by lots drawn from a golden urn. Disputes over trulku status are not uncommon, as a family’s fortunes are likely to improve if an incarnate lama is discovered among the children.
Some see the trulku system as a substitute for hereditary power in a society where many of the major political figures were celibate. The major flaw of the system is the time needed for the reincarnation to reach adulthood. Regents have traditionally been appointed to run the country but this takes on an added dimension to the political situation, as many regents have been reluctant to give up power once the reincarnation comes of age. The present Dalai Lama has made it clear that he will not be reincarnated in Chinese-occupied Tibet and may be the last Dalai Lama.
Monks and Nuns:
Every male Buddhist is expected to become a monk for a short period in his life, optimally between the time he finishes school and the time he starts a career or marries. Traditionally, the amount of time spent in a temple is three months and coincides with the rainy season.
Monks must adhere to 227 monastic vows or precepts. They rise early (generally around 5 AM), pray, study, and may eat only twice per day – before noon. They are required to remain strictly celibate and should at all times remain sober and restrained in behavior. According to the Buddhist scriptures, their life should represent a striving for self-denial and the quenching of earthly appetites. Their life should be one of meditation, asceticism, learning, and in the case of senior members, teaching, interpreting the scriptures, and offering moral guidance.
In addition to prohibitions against alcohol and drugs, monks are not allowed to listen to music or dance, wear jewellery or perfume, sleep in elevated beds (off of the ground), or accept money for their personal needs. They are allowed to own a razor, a cup, a filter (for their drinking water), a bowl, and an umbrella. They enjoy high status in society and are recognizable by their maroon-colored robes.
Nuns wear white robes. Temples that have sizeable numbers of nuns are respected because it implies that the quality of teaching in the temple is high. Having to adhere to only 8 vows, nuns have an inferior social standing to monks and may not perform religious ceremonies.
Pilgrimage, Prayer Flags, and Prayer Wheels:
The Tibetans are an extremely religious people and one can see evidence of this in the number of prayer flags that are hung across bridges and at the tops of mountain passes, and in the number of pilgrims that make their way to Lhasa.
To the average Tibetan, pilgrimage is primarily a means of accumulating merit or good luck. It may be undertaken in the hopes of winning a better rebirth, ending a run of bad luck, curing an illness, or simply because of a vow to undertake a pilgrimage if a bodhisattva granted a wish.
Tibetans believe their natural landscape is imbued with a series of sacred visions and holy power places. There are countless sacred destinations, ranging from lakes and mountains to monasteries and caves that once served as meditational retreats for important yogin. Specific pilgrimages are often prescribed for specific illnesses, ie. Certain mountains wipe out certain sins. A circumambulation of Mt. Kailash offers the possibility of liberation within three lifetimes, while a circuit of Lake Manasarovar can result in spontaneous Buddhahood. A circuit of Mt. Tsari can improve a pilgrim’s chance of being reborn with special powers, such as the ability to fly. Pilgrimage is even more powerful in certain auspicious months.
Pilgrimage is so important that many pilgrims go to great lengths to arrive in the holy city of Lhasa. Some will walk months or even years on the road in order to reach their destination.
Pilgrim guidebooks help pilgrims interpret the 24 “power places” of Tibet. Prostration and “kora” (circumambulating the object of devotion) are powerful ways of showing devotion. Pilgrims rub special healing rocks and squeeze through narrow gaps in a rock as a method of sin detection. Painted Buddha images and rock-carved syllables are said to be “self-arising,” or not carved by a human hand.
Offerings include yak butter or oil, fruit, tsampa (food), seeds, and money. Pilgrims often throw printed prayers or tsampa into the air at holy mountain peaks, passes, bridges, or outside chapels.
Prayer flags – or strips of colored cloth printed with Buddhist sutras – are strung up at the top of passes, streams, and houses to purify the air and pacify the gods. Prayers are thought to be released to the heavens when the flags flutter in the wind. The colors are highly symbolic: red, yellow, green, blue, and white represent the elements of fire, earth, wood, water, and iron.
Prayer wheels are filled with up to a mile of prayers and range from the hand-held variety that are twirled to huge, water-powered versions. Prayers are “recited” with each revolution of the wheel. They range in size from a fist to a small building and can be powered by hand, water, wind, or hot air. Prayer wheels line circumambulation circuits (koras) and pilgrims spin them to gain merit and to concentrate the mind on the mantras and prayers that they are reciting.
How Politics has Shaped Religion in Tibet over the Last Half-Century:
When China overthrew the Tibetan government in 1959, the Dalai Lama was forced into exile. As the Cultural Revolution began and the Chinese tried to eradicate all signs of Tibetan culture, religion fell victim to the fury of the Revolution, and the wholesale destruction of Tibet’s monastic heritage began in earnest. Riches were stolen, monks were forced to discard their robes and marry, and scriptures were burnt and used as toilet paper. The Dalai Lama was declared Enemy of the People Number One and Tibetans were forced to denounce him as a traitor and parasite.
One year after Mao’s death, in 1977, the Chinese government announced that it would welcome the return of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan refugees. The Dalai Lama sent a fact-finding mission to Tibet first, and two others followed. They determined that 6254 monasteries had been destroyed, 1.2 million people killed, 100,000 Tibetans forced into labor camps, extensive deforestation carried out, and 2/3 of Tibet absorbed into China. Limited religious freedoms came back in the early 1980s, but those who exercised those freedoms openly did so at considerable risk.
In more recent years, there has been a more earnest reopening and reconstruction of monasteries, largely encouraged by the Chinese government for outside appearances and because they realize that it draws tourists (and thus money). But the monks and the monasteries are often under close surveillance by the authorities. Frequent travelers say that some of the monks in Tibet’s larger monasteries are not what they seem and that many are undercover Chinese agents in monk’s or nun’s clothing. Tourists that hand out photos of the Dalai Lama may be arrested and expulsed from the country, and the local Tibetans to whom they hand them may be in for even bigger trouble.