Tibetan Society and Way of Life

Tibetan Society and Way of Life:

The Tibetans are deeply religious and Buddhism permeates most facets of daily life in Tibet. It largely shapes the way the people think. Although foreign to us, the ideas of accumulating merit, undertaking privileges, appeasing spirits, sending sons to be monks, and worshiping the sanctity and power of natural places is all a part of their daily lives.

Individual households normally have a shrine or several religious texts in the house or in a small building in the family compound. It is not unusual for monks or holy men to visit villages in their “parish” and to read from holy texts and say prayers for families before sprinkling them with water to drive away evil.

There is little entertainment for the people, who go to bed with the sun and rise with the sun (in many places, lighting is still only available from yak-butter candles or gas lamps). Traditionally, wandering minstrels or performing troupes passed through an area and provided entertainment. Singing and picnics are popular, as is Tibetan opera at festival time. Nowadays, there is also Chinese karaoke and videos. One of the highlights during the year has always been visiting nearby monasteries during festival times. Religion was brutally repressed under the Communist regime and especially during the Cultural Revolution, but as Chinese policies are relaxing a little, many of these traditions are making a comeback.

Tibetan culture is markedly different from its neighbors, perhaps because it is geographically isolated. It never had a caste system, and religious leaders play a great role in society. Monks and incarnate lamas (priests) may come from any level of society (for more on the religion, please see the section entitled “Religion in Tibet”).

For centuries, the Tibetan lifestyle remained fundamentally unchanged. Technological invention was unheard of (until the early 20th century, even the wheel was not used, except as a device for activating mantras). Although traditional Tibet changed little over the centuries, it has changed more in the past 50 years than during the previous 500. Many social structures have, however, managed to survive the Chinese attack on traditional Tibetan beliefs and institutions.

Traditionally, there have been three segments of Tibetan society: the nomads, the farmers of the valleys, and the community of monks and nuns. One-quarter of Tibetans are nomadic. They travel in groups from several up to 20 families, living in four-sided yak-hair tents that are usually shared by one family. The men tend the herds of yaks and sheep during the daytime, while the women and children stay together in the camp, where they are guarded by a man and their ferocious mastiffs. The women and children do chores around the camp, weave blankets, tan sheep skins, and make dairy products such as butter and cheese. They survive mostly off the yak, using it for meat, hide, blankets, food, butter, milk, tea, etc. In the autumn, they go to the towns, where they trade with the farmers. The annual caravans are dying out. They suffered terribly at the hands of the Communists, especially when they were collectivized in 1968 and forcibly settled by the government. Their communes were dissolved in 1981 and livestock divided equally among everyone. The nomads are the poorest group in Tibet.

Manual agriculture and animal husbandry were, and still are, the principal industries and activities in Tibet. Farming is carried out with the assistance of a dzo, a crossbreed between a bull and a female yak. If no cattle is available, farming is done by hand. Until recently, Tibetan communities were basically self-sufficient. They exported wool and skins and imported tea, porcelain, copper, and iron from China. Trading was usually carried out by nomads or in combination with pilgrimage.

This is changing rapidly as several regions are becoming more developed and immersed in a cash economy. Most villages have at least one shop that ships in Chinese goods from the nearest town or city. Communications have improved and officials are encouraging foreign investment. Many Han Chinese have immigrated to Tibet recently, attracted by preferential loans and tax rates, higher salaries, and a stipend for hardship posting. The government in exile estimates that of Lhasa’s 13,000 shopkeepers, only about 300 are Tibetan. (For more on the Chinese government’s immigration and population control policy in Tibet, please see the journal entry entitled “Are Tibetans in Danger of Becoming a Minority in their Own Land?”).

Although many Tibetans in Lhasa are beginning to wear Chinese clothing, traditional dress in the countryside is still the norm. The national dress is a long-sleeved sheepskin cloak, tied around the waist with a sash and often worn off the shoulder by nomads and Khampas. Most men wear a long dress with a colorful striped apron over the front. Traditional boots are made of leather strips and turn up at the toes. Women traditionally wear their hair in 108 braids and their personal wealth and dowry are often invested in jewellery. Coral is particularly valued. Men and women commonly wear earrings, and fur hats are common in the winter. Many pilgrims wear an amulet with a picture of the Dalai Lama or the owner’s personal deity.

Tibetans often gesture with their lips to show a direction, and older people in the country sometimes stick out their tongue when they meet you, as a traditional form of respect. Some say that this was done to prove that the person was not a devil, since devils have green tongues even when they take human form!

Marriage and Death:

Families, in consultation with a lama or shaman, have traditionally arranged marriages. Until very recently, many Tibetan farming villages practiced polyandry, meaning that when a woman married the eldest son of a family, she also married his younger brothers (assuming that they did not become monks). The purpose of this practice was to avoid the break-up of small plots and to ease the inheritance of family property, which was mainly farming land. Children of such marriages referred to all the brothers as their father.

Tibetans have a unique way of disposing of their dead. Ordinary Tibetans have not traditionally buried their dead. The very poor were usually dumped in a river and the very holy were enshrined in a chorten. But soil is at a premium in Tibet and wood for cremation is very scarce, and so most Tibetans disposed of their dead by sky burial.

Sky burial involves taking the body to a designated high place, chopping it up, and leaving the remains to vultures. The body is kept for 24 hours after death in a sitting position while a lama recites prayers from the Tibetan Book of the Dead to help the soul on its journey through the 49 levels of Bardo, the state between death and rebirth. Three days later, the body is blessed, folded, and carried on the back of a close friend to the burial site. At the burial site, special body-breakers cut off the hair, chop up the body, and pound the bones together with tsampa for vultures to eat, although as often as not it might be done by wild dogs. There is little overt sadness at sky burials, as the soul is considered to have already departed. Sky burial is more about reflecting upon the impermanence of life, and Tibetans are encouraged to witness the disposal of the body in order to confront death openly and without fear. Tantric ritual objects like trumpets and bowls are made from human bone.

Sky burial practices are now widely-known, but foreigners are not encouraged to attend, and can even be arrested by Chinese officials if they are discovered there. In any case, the Tibetans themselves do not appreciate the presence of a foreigner, either.