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Buddhism: Buddhism in Tibet


Religion pervades many aspects of Tibetan life and culture, and the dominant, institutional religious system of Tibet is Buddhism (sangs rgyas kyi bstan pa ). The Tibetan Bon religion, in its organized, clerical dimension, is a form of Buddhism whose first human teacher, Ston pa Gshen rab (Tönpa Shenrab), is always referred to by the Bon po as a buddha (sangs rgyas ) who lived long before Śākyamuni. Bon, like the other forms of Buddhism in Tibet, embraces a wide-ranging sphere of cultural and religious activity, whose elaborate traditions of ritual, art, and learning derive from both indigenous sources and the ancient religious matrices of India, Iran, and China.

Besides the originally "foreign" traditions of Buddhism and Bon, Tibetan religions embrace a broad range of beliefs, practices, and specialist practitioners that appear to be of autochthonous origin. These may be found in both Bon po and Buddhist settings as well as in some contexts in which sectarian affiliation is left unclear. At issue are the elements of Tibetan religious life that constitute what R. A. Stein has called the "nameless religion," in preference to the misleading designation of "popular religion." What is at stake here is not a distinction between the beliefs of the general populace and those of the religious or social elite. In actual practice, the nameless religion, centering on the cults of local divinities and spirits, the harmony or conflict between humans, and the invisible forces with which they must interact, is the concern of persons belonging to all strata of Tibetan society, and it is in fact almost named Buddhism or Bon, depending upon the contexts in which it occurs. For the purposes of the present survey, however, the point of focus must be restricted to Tibetan Buddhism as represented in the historical and doctrinal traditions of the major Buddhist orders apart from Bon, with some attention too to the role of Buddhism in Tibetan society overall.

Tibetan Buddhist Beginnings

It is not clear when, exactly, Tibetans made their first contact with the Buddhist religion. Indigenous tradition holds that in the time of the legendary king of the Yar lung principality, Lha Tho tho ri (Lha Thotori, c. fourth century ce), Buddhist scriptures and images miraculously fell onto the palace or else that these objects were carried there by a central Asian Buddhist monk. Though these tales must be considered as legends, it is not implausible that some knowledge of Buddhism may have found its way to Tibet during this late period of its prehistory for the Tibetan plateau was by then surrounded on all sides by lands in which Buddhism was well established as a religious and cultural system: Nepal and India to the south, China to the east, the Silk Road states to the north, and the Iranian world to the west.

History proper begins in Tibet with the emperor Srong btsan sgam po (Songtsen Gampo, c. 617649), who politically unified the peoples occupying the Tibetan plateau and whose armies then penetrated deep into the surrounding territories. The Tibetan system of writing was also developed at this time. The emperor's marriage to the Chinese princess of Wencheng (d. 678) was accompanied by the installation in his capital, Lhasa, of a precious image of Śākyamuni Buddha brought from China as part of her dowry and said to have been originally manufactured in India as an exact likeness of the Buddha himself. The statue, known as the Jowo (Lord), remains Tibet's holiest object of pilgrimage. Later accounts relate that the monarch also married a Nepalese Buddhist princess, Bhkuī, and that, inspired by the devotion of his two foreign queens, Srong btsan sgam po and the inner circle of his court embraced the Indian religion. Indeed, the emperor was regarded in later times as a Tibetan emana-tion of the regal bodhisattva of compassionate love, Avalokiteśvara.

Though Srong btsan sgam po may have extended some degree of official tolerance to Buddhism, at least in order to accommodate his Chinese bride and her court, it is unlikely that the alien faith made much progress in Tibet before another half century or more had passed. In the time of the ruler Khri 'Dus srong (Trhi Düsong, d. 704), a temple was founded in the region of Gling, in far eastern Tibet, perhaps in connection with military campaigns in the southeastern part of the Tibetan Empire, aimed at subjugating the Buddhist kingdom of Nanzhao (in modern Yunnan). Nevertheless, it was only during the reign of Khri 'Dus srong's noted successor Khri Lde gtsug btsan (Trhi Detsuktsen, 704755) that there is clear evidence of Buddhist advances in central Tibet. Once again, it was a Chinese princess who played an instrumental role in supporting the faith.

The princess of Jincheng arrived in Tibet in 710, two years before her then six-year-old husband-to-be was granted his regal title. She is said to have been much saddened by the absence of Buddhist funerary rites for the deceased nobility and so introduced the Chinese Buddhist custom of conducting rites for the dead during a period of seven weeks of mourning. This practice later gave rise to the belief, famed in such works as the so-called Tibetan Book of the Dead, that forty-nine days intervene between death and rebirth. The princess also invited to central Tibet Khotanese monks, who formed the first community of the sagha in that land. However, following the death of the princess in 739, probably due to an outbreak of the plague, there was a sharp anti-Buddhist reaction, and the foreign monks were expelled.

The last years of Khri Lde gtsug btsan's reign were marked by grave factional conflict among the nobility, resulting finally in the monarch's assassination. When his thirteen-year-old son was placed on the throne in 755, the factions dominating the court were implacably hostile to Buddhism. The young emperor, Khri Srong lde'u btsan (Trhi Songdetsen, 742c. 797), nevertheless became imperial Tibet's greatest ruler as well as an unparalleled Buddhist benefactor. In the monarch's own surviving edicts, it was written that during the early years of his reign Tibet faced severe epidemics, afflicting both humans and livestock. When no other viable solution appeared, he rescinded the ban on the practice of Buddhist rites and matters rapidly turned for the better. As a result, he himself adopted the Buddhist religion and undertook to study its teachings in depth. His conversion took place in 762, when he was just twenty years of age.

It is sometimes thought that the adoption of Buddhism by the Tibetan court pacified the formerly warlike Tibetan people and thus contributed to the decline and fall of the empire. Research, however, makes clear that Tibet continued aggressive policies of imperial expansion long after Buddhism became a key aspect of Tibetan imperial ideology. Buddhism, in this context, provided the empire with the symbolic means to represent itself throughout its domains and to its neighbors as embodying a universal spiritual and political order.

Khri Srong lde'u btsan went on to construct Tibet's first Buddhist monastery, Bsam yas (Samye, c. 779), and invited the learned Indian monk Śāntarakita to ordain the first officially recognized Tibetan Buddhist monks. Henceforth, the Tibetan Buddhist monastic community adhered to the Vinaya of the Indian Mūlasarvāstivāda order as the basis for its monastic code. The court also sponsored the translation of Buddhist canonical scriptures, and the hundreds of texts translated into Tibetan by the imperial translation committees may be counted among the greatest achievements of the art of translation in world history. The Tibetan translation canon, later organized into the complementary collections of the Kanjur (bka' 'gyur, "translated scriptures") and Tanjur (bstan 'gyur, "translated commentaries"), preserves numerous Indian and Chinese texts now unavailable elsewhere.

The foundation of Bsam yas is said also to have involved the intercession of Padmasambhava, a renowned Tantric adept from Oiyāna in northern India, whose services were required to quell the hostile spirits and divinities of Tibet and to win their allegiance to Buddhism. Together, the king Khri Srong lde'u btsan, the monk Śāntarakita, and the adept Padmasambhava are popularly revered as the trinity of the Tibetan conversion and represent three of the major constituents of the Tibetan Buddhist world: patron, monk, and Tantric adept.

During the 780s, Khri Srong lde'u btsan's armies conquered Dunhuang, a major center of Chinese Buddhism. The Chinese Chan master Moheyan was invited to central Tibet and became involved in a debate or discussion at Bsam yas with Śāntarakita's disciple, the Indian philosopher Kamalaśīla. Their debate may well have led to a draw, but later tradition reviles Moheyan as representing an irrational doctrine of mystical intuition and regards Kamalaśīla's emphasis upon the gradual cultivation of the virtues of a bodhisattva as the enduring paradigm to be emulated by Tibetan Buddhists. The Tibetan occupation of Dunhuang in any event broadened Tibet's relations with Chinese Buddhism. The preservation there of numerous Tibetan manuscripts, which first became known in Europe through the work of the British explorer Marc Aurel Stein in 1907, provides the richest source of Tibetan documentation for the religious life of the late first millennium.

Decline and Renaissance

Under Khri Srong lde'u btsan's successors, Khri Lde srong btsan (r. 804815) and Khri Ral pa can (Trhi Relpacen, r. 815838), Buddhist monasteries and schools continued to flourish with royal support. In the reign of U'i dum btsan (Üdumtsen, popularly known as Glang Dar ma [Lang Darma], "Ox Dharma," 838842), state sponsorship of the monasteries was reduced or withdrawn, perhaps for fiscal reasons. Later tradition, however, recounts that there was a persecution of Buddhism culminating in Glang Dar ma's assassination in 842 by the Buddhist monk Lha lung Dpal gyi rdo rje (Lhalung Pelgi Dorje). The collapse of the Tibetan Empire soon followed, and Tibet remained without central authority for a full four hundred years. Though much of Buddhist activity was curtailed, some traditions of study and practice nevertheless survived, and the Tantric traditions appear actually to have flourished following the empire's fall. Monastic Buddhism, however, virtually disappeared in central Tibet for more than a century and was preserved among Tibetans solely in what had been the empire's far eastern districts, in the modern Chinese provinces of Qinghai and Gansu. It was here, at some time during the mid-tenth century, that a young Bon po converted and received Buddhist ordination. Known to posterity as Bla chen Dgongs pa rab gsal (Lachen Gongpa Rapsel), the "great lama whose spirit was clear," he later ordained a group of seekers from central and western Tibet, thus sparking the late-tenth-century monastic revival movement that came to be called the "later promulgation of the teaching" (bstan pa phyi dar ).

Tibet had now entered a new period of economic and political development and change. Throughout much of the Tibetan world, local lords struggled for supremacy, and religious authority was no less contested than temporal power. Seekers and adventurers looked for authoritative sources of Buddhist teaching in India and Nepal, traveling there in search of gurus, scriptures, and esoteric lore. These developments were particularly prominent in western Tibet, where the great translator Rin chen bzang po (Rinchen Zangpo, 9581055) was patronized by the devout monarch of the Gu ge Kingdom, Ye shes 'od (Yeshe-ö), who was concerned to purify Tibetan Buddhism from what he regarded as the corrupt forms of Tantrism that had emerged during the post-imperial period. At the royal monastery of Tho ling, one of a number of religious establishments newly founded in Gu ge's domains, a translation academy was created, where Indian Buddhist scholars were invited to collaborate with Rin chen bzang po and his disciples. The Tibetan Buddhist translations, particularly of Tantric materials, produced from this time on became known as the "new translations" (gsar 'gyur ) in contradistinction to the "former translations" (snga 'gyur ), whose Tantric texts some believed to be apocryphal or corrupt. Tho ling continued to flourish long after Ye shes 'od's decease, and in 1042 his successor Byang chub 'od (Changcup-ö) invited the renowned Bengali scholar and adept Dīpakaraśrījñāna, known to posterity as Atīśa, to teach there. Three years later Atīśa traveled to central Tibet, where he continued to augment his Tibetan following until his death at Snye thang, not far from Lhasa, in 1054.

Atiśa appears in Tibetan accounts to have been an enthusiastic, generous, and saintly teacher, austere but at the same time humorous and good-natured, learned but more concerned with the quality of practice than with scholarship per se. His successors, above all those affiliated with the line of his lay disciple 'Brom ston Rgyal ba'i 'byung gnas (Dromtön, 10041064), came to be known as Bka' gdams pa (Kadampa), "adherents of the scriptures and precepts," the first such named Tibetan Buddhist order. 'Brom ston founded the seat of the order at the monastery of Rwa sgreng (Reting), to the north of Lhasa, in 1057. Buddhist philosophical education came to flourish at some Bka' gdams pa centers as well. Especially notable in this regard was the monastery of Gsang phu (Sangphu), founded in 1071, where Rngog Blo ldan shes rab (Ngok Loden Sherab, 10591109) established a formal curriculum emphasizing debate and scholastic study, which formed the model for all later Tibetan monastic education.

The renewal of Buddhist activity was marked by intermittent tensions due to a variety of factors: competing lines of transmission, regional and clan affiliations, relations between preexisting Tibetan Buddhist traditions and newly imported Indian teachings, orientations favoring monastic scholarship versus Tantrism and yoga, and competition for patronage among them. It was in this setting that the guru, or lama (bla ma ), began to emerge as a focal point of religious and political authority. Though foreigners have sometimes followed the Chinese in using the word lama to refer to Tibetan monks in general, it is a term that retains for Tibetans a special reference to the religious teacher who guides the spiritual life of the individual and often the practical life of the community as well.

Despite the reticence evinced by some factions toward aspects of Tantrism, particularly ritualized sex and violence, it was precisely during this same period that new efforts were made to translate and transmit Buddhist Tantric traditions. These efforts moreover reflected important changes within the Indian Buddhist Tantrism itself: roughly, a shift to systems emphasizing internal yoga over external ritual, which were often strongly eroticized in symbolism and sometimes in practice as well. Indian Tantric adepts active at this time claimed to possess particularly efficacious means for the swift attainment of spiritual powers of various kinds, including and culminating in enlightenment. Hence, the claims on the part of Tibetan masters to continue the authoritative transmission of such esoteric knowledge in Tibet came to play a special role in authenticating new sources of power, prestige, and authority.

Though the age of the new Tantric translations is generally said to have begun with Rin chen bzang po, it is one of his junior contemporaries who is regarded as the first great proponent of these innovative forms of Indian Buddhist Tantrism. 'Brog mi Śākya ye shes (Drokmi, 9931050) was, like most who entered the sagha in Tibet during the late tenth century and early eleventh century, ordained within monastic traditions stemming from the indigenous tenth-century monastic revival. But after years of study in Nepal and India, he established his own monastic center and translation academy at Myu gu lung (Nyugulung), where he collaborated with the Indian Tantric master Gayadhara. His most renowned contribution to later Tibetan Buddhism was the transmission of a system of Tantrism and yoga based upon the Hevajratantra that came to be the central esoteric tradition of the Sa skya pa (Sakyapa) order, founded by the aristocratic 'Khon (Khön) household in 1073.

Among those who studied with 'Brog mi was Mar pa Chos kyi blo gros (Marpa, 10121096), who was sent to study translation when his parents found him otherwise impossible to control. Eventually he rebelled against his teacher's exactions, for 'Brog mi's tutelage did not come cheap, and set out to make his own way among the celebrated masters of India. Famed as the leading Tibetan successor of the renowned Indian siddhas Nāropa and Maitrīpa, he attracted many disciples, who, with their successors, came to be known as Bka' brgyud pa (Kagyüpa), "adherents of the oral lineage." Most famous among them was Mi la ras pa (Milarepa, 10401123), the great Tibetan mystical poet. The latter's disciple Sgam po pa (Gampopa, 10791153) sought to harmonize the esoteric teachings of Mar pa's tradition with the ethical instructions of the Bka' gdams pa, thus "mingling the two streams." The several monastic orders of the Bka' brgyud pa stem from among his disciples and played an important role in later Tibetan religious and political life.

The new infusion of Indian Buddhist teaching during this period gave rise to a large number of new Tibetan Buddhist sects and schools, focusing on both philosophical and Tantric teachings. At the same time, the reassertion of the Bon and Rnying ma pa (Nyingmapa) traditions was advanced by means of rediscovered "treasures" (gter ma ), texts, and religious objects said to have been cached by famous teachers in ancient times and now recovered. Among the Rnying ma pa, their concealment was mostly attributed to Padmasambhava. By means of their revelation, Nyang ral Nyi ma 'od zer (Nyangrel Nyima Özer, 11241196) and the later "treasure revealers" (gter ston ) elaborated an abundant and influential body of ritual, historical, and legendary literature. Here the memory of the Tibetan Empire of the seventh to ninth centuries is transformed to become a national religious myth in which the emperor Srong btsan sgam po figures as the worldly presence of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara and his Chinese and Nepalese brides as that of the savioress Tārā. Padmasambhava himself is now transfigured to become the "Precious Guru" (Gu ru Rin po che ) of the Tibetan people overall. A famous later example of the gter ma literature is the so-called Tibetan Book of the Dead, the book of "liberation by hearing in the intermediate state" (Bardo Thödröl ). This fourteenth-century revelation reflects in part the ancient Tibetan religious concern with the safe passage of the deceased.

Later Developments

In 1204 the Kashmiri scholar Śākyaśrī arrived in Tibet with a retinue of learned followers. Their visit did much to catalyze a new enthusiasm for Indian scholarship. Kun dga' rgyal mtshan (Kunga Gyaltsen, 11821251), an heir to the 'Khon family of Sa skya and later famed as Sa skya Paita, was among those inspired to devote himself to the advancement in Tibet of Indian intellectual traditions. Contemporaneously, much of Eurasia experienced the devastating upheaval of the Mongol conquest, which had begun with the rise of Chinggis Khan (d. 1227). By the end of the third decade of the century, prophecies began to appear warning of an impending Mongol attack on Tibet. These proved true when in 1239 an army commanded by Dorta the Black swept into central Tibet, sacking the temple of Rwa sgreng. The Mongols, however, withdrew without consolidating their rule in Tibet. In 1246 Sa skya Paita embarked on a mission to the Mongol ruler, Godan Khan, and remained among the Mongols until his death. His visit established a precedent for Mongol relations with Tibet and for the eventual adoption of Buddhism by the Mongols. Sa skya Paita's nephew 'Phags pa (Phakpa, 12351280) later became the Tibetan preceptor of Kublai Khan. As the preeminent Tibetan clergyman in the eastern Mongol Empire (the Chinese Yuan dynasty), he would be instrumental in the establishment of Sa skya pa preeminence in Tibet under the Mongols.

Members of nonSa skya pa orders also maintained relations with the Mongol lords: examples are the second Karma pa hierarch, Karma Pakshi (12061283), and his successor, Karma pa III Rang byung Rdo rje (Rangjung Dorje) (12841339). The Karma pas, who headed one of the prominent Bka' brgyud pa orders, were instrumental in creating Tibet's unique form of ecclesiastical succession, in which a child is identified as the reborn emanation (sprul sku ) and legal heir of a deceased master. During the period of the MongolSa skya pa hegemony, Tibetan Buddhist scholastic philosophy also came into flower, thanks in part to Sa skya Paita's example. The many famous figures active during this period included the Bka' gdams pa scholiast Bcom ldan rig ral (Comden Raldri, early fourteenth century), the celebrated canonical editor Bu ston (Butön, 12901364), the promulgator of the Jo nang pa (Jonangpa) order's controversial "extrinsic emptiness" (gzhan stong ) doctrine, Dol po pa (12921361), and the redactor of the Great Perfection system, Klong chen Rab 'byams pa (Longchen Rabjampa, 13081363).

Toward 1350, under the leadership of Ta'i Si tu Byang chub rgyal mtshan (Tasi Changcup Gyaltsen, 13021364) of the Phag mo gru pa (Phakmotrupa) order, a Bka' brgyud pa offshoot, Tibet was freed from the Sa skya paMongol regime. It was during the period of Phag mo gru pa dominance that followed that Rje Tsong kha pa Blo bzang grags pa (Je Tsongkhapa, 13571419) founded the Dga' ldan (Ganden) monastery to the east of Lhasa (1409), which emerged as the main seat of a new order, best known as Dge lugs pa (Gelukpa), the "adherents of virtue." Though Tsong kha pa was greatly revered for his vast learning and rigorous standard of practice, relations between his disciples and some representatives of the older orders grew increasingly contentious. The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries witnessed intensive doctrinal debate between the Dge lugs pa and their Sa skya pa and Bka' brgyud pa rivals.

The connection between Tibetan Buddhism and imperial China, which had been formed under China's Mongol rulers during the Yuan dynasty, did not come to an end after that dynasty fell in 1368. An example may be found in the relationship between one of the greatest Ming emperors, Yongle (r. 14031424), and the fifth Karma pa hierarch De bzhin gshegs pa (Dezhinshekpa, 13841415). Though the Ming dynasty is often regarded as a period of Karma pa dominance in Sino-Tibetan affairs, the Ming emperors were by no means exclusive in their allegiance to a single Tibetan school. Tsong kha pa's disciple, Byams chen Chos rje (Jamchen Chöje, 13521435), for instance, who established Se ra Monastery near Lhasa in 1419, traveled to the Chinese capital and enjoyed an enthusiastic reception at the court, where he was showered with honors and gifts.

Throughout the fifteenth century, Tsong kha pa's successors continued to found important new monastic establishments, gathering the patronage and support of leading princes and powerful families. One of those who succeeded in this way was Dge 'dun grub (Gendündrup, 13911474), founder of the Bkra shis lhun po (Tashi Lhünpo) monastery in Gtsang (Tsang) province. This had significant political ramifications during the seventeenth century, when the rulers of Gtsang came to favor the Dge lugs pa's rivals, above all, the Karma pas. Dge 'dun grub and his successor, Dge 'dun rgya mtsho (Gendün Gyatso, 14761542), were, however, primarily famed for their learning and sanctity, and under their guidance Bkra shis lhun po soon became the preeminent Dge lugs pa institution in Gtsang and the base for the expansion of the order throughout western Tibet.

During the sixteenth century, important powers in central Tibet were allied with the Dge lugs pa, while the kings of Gtsang in the west supported hierarchs of the Bka' brgyud pa, Jo nang pa, and other orders. Dge 'dun rgya mtsho's successor, Bsod nams rgya mtsho (Sonam Gyatso, 15431588), at this time became a missionary to the Mongols, and on winning the allegiance of the chieftain Altan Khan (1578) of the Tumed tribe, he received the Mongolian title Dalai Lama (oceanic guru). Because the title was bestowed posthumously on his predecessors, he became the third in the line. The connection forged with the Mongols encouraged the renewed interest of the Mongolian leadership in Tibetan affairs, and in 1642 Gushri Khan of the Khoshot tribe conquered all of Tibet, establishing the fifth Dalai Lama (16171682) as ruler of the reunified realm. The kingdom of Gtsang was suppressed together with the religious traditions it had favored, above all the Jo nang pa, who were banned from all but a few Tibetan territories outside the sphere of the Dalai Lama's control. The government of the fifth Dalai Lama strongly supported the development of mass monasticism in all parts of the country, and new Dge lugs pa establishments were founded everywhere. Many centers of the older orders and of the Bon religion were now required to become Dge lugs pa.

The fifth Dalai Lama forged Tibet's unique political system, based in principle upon a reciprocal relationship between the religious and secular branches of government (chos srid gnyis ldan ), with the Dalai Lama or his regent directing the affairs of state. This system required that monastic hierarchs and officials be directly involved in most offices of the Tibetan government. The authority of the Great Fifth's regime was given concrete form in the imposing Potala Palace, a large complex of government offices, shrines, and residences. His tutor, the Pachen bla ma Blo bzang chos rgyan (Lozang Chögyen, 15671662), a distinguished scholar, rose to prominence at this time as well. Thereafter, the successive rebirths of the Panchen Lamas were recognized at Bkra shis lhun po, where they often wielded considerable political power. The Panchen Lamas were officially second in rank to, but sometimes actually rivaled, the Dalai Lamas themselves.

The Manchu rulers of China's Qing dynasty (16441911) became directly involved in Tibetan affairs in opposition to the renewed Mongol power in Tibet, and the fifth Dalai Lama visited the court soon after the new dynasty's inception. Tibet was soon a focal point of competition between Manchus and Mongols in their struggle for hegemony in central Asia. The controversial sixth Dalai Lama, Tshangs dbyangs rgya mtsho (Tshangyang Gyatso, 16831706), a libertine who preferred the company of women to the life of a monk, was forcibly removed from office and died under mysterious circumstances enroute to the Chinese capital. In 1717 the Mongolian Dzungar tribe invaded Tibet, bringing renewed civil war and intersectarian violence. During the 1720s, the Manchus sought to consolidate their rule over large parts of the eastern Tibetan provinces of Amdo and Kham. Leading Dge lugs pa hierarchs from Amdo, such as the Qianlong emperor's teacher Lcang skya Rol pa'i rdo rje (Jangkya Rölpe Dorje, 17171786), came to play an important role in the religious affairs of the Manchu Empire.

The political turmoil in central Tibet throughout much of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries contributed to a remarkable shift in Tibet's cultural geography. Whereas central Tibet had been, throughout the preceding centuries, the unrivaled heart of Tibetan religious life, it became now the tendency for masters of eastern Tibetan origin to devote much of their energy to activities in or near their native districts. The eastward displacement of cultural activity had many causes and consequences. Thus, for example, the civil wars of the seventeenth century made an exile of the tenth Karma pa, Chos dbyings rdo rje (Chöying Dorje, 16051674), a talented painter and patron of the arts, and led him to spend much of his career in the far southeast of Tibet, in what is now Yunnan. The patronage of his order by important princes in Khams encouraged his followers to regard the east as their true base, so that in succeeding centuries the major center of learning and culture in the Karma pa order was Dpal spungs (Pelpung) monastery, in the eastern principality of Sde dge (Derge). With the patronage of the rulers of Sde dge, eastern Tibetan Karma pa and Sa skya pa masters contributed to the foundation of Tibet's greatest publishing house, the Sde dge Printery, whose eighteenth-century edition of the Tibetan Buddhist canon is considered one of the masterworks of traditional Tibetan printing. At the same time, some of the Dge lugs pa monasteries in eastern Tibet for the first time also became important centers of learning in their own right, particularly in Amdo. The best-known examples were no doubt Sku 'bum (Kumbum), near Tsong kha pa's birthplace not far from the city of Xining (Qinghai province), and Bla brang Bkra shis 'khyil (Labrang Tashikhyil), founded by 'Jam dbyangs bzhad pa (Jamyang Zhepa, 16481721) in southern Gansu.

Nineteenth-century Khams became home to a dynamic movement often characterized as "eclectic" or "universalist" (Ris med ), which sought to defuse the intense sectarianism that had often plagued Tibetan Buddhism. The encyclopedic writings of 'Jam dbyangs Mkhyen brtse'i dbang po (Jam-yang Khyentse, 18201892) and 'Jam mgon kong sprul (Jamgön Kongtrül, 18131899) became in some respects a new canon for the adherents of this movement. One of their disciples, Mi pham rnam rgyal (Mipham Namgyal, 18461912) also elaborated a new scholastic curriculum emphasizing the doctrinal standpoint of the Rnying ma pa order. Though the thirteenth Dalai Lama (18761933) was sympathetic to the goals of the eclectic movement, some factions within the Dge lugs pa leadership were not. Prominent among them was Pha bong kha pa Bde chen Snying po (Phabongkhapa Dechen Nyingpo, 18781941), whose visions of the spirit Rdo rje shugs ldan (Dorje Shukden) seem to have entailed a commitment to oppose actively the other schools of Tibetan Buddhism and the Bon religion. There has been, as a result, a continuing legacy of sectarian dispute among Tibetans to the early twenty-first century.

Essential Beliefs and Doctrines

The several orders and schools of Tibetan Buddhism have a great many particular doctrines and precepts, which impart to them each a distinctive character. Here, however, only salient features of the common heritage of Tibetan Buddhism will be considered.

Like many Buddhist traditions, Tibetan Buddhism emphasizes the impermanence of conditioned reality and the resulting inevitability of suffering and death. Living beings who have not achieved nirvāa (myang 'das ), that is, the enlightenment of a buddha, are subject to a perpetual, painful round of rebirth, or sasāra ('khor ba ), their condition in any given lifetime, whether human, divine, or infernal, being determined by the impetus of their past meritorious and demeritorious karma (las ). Tibetan Buddhism therefore stresses the necessity of gaining merit (bsod nams ) through donations to monks and religious institutions, offering of lamps and incense, recitation of scriptures, performance of prostrations and circumambulations, "ransoming" of animals from the butcher, and many other types of religiously valued actions. One must turn from worldly activities to religion by taking refuge in the Three Precious Jewels (dkon mchog gsum ): the Buddha, his teaching (chos ), and the religious community (dge 'dun ). Often one's lama is added to this universal Buddhist trinity as a fourth refuge.

Tibetan Buddhists are encouraged not to seek nirvāa for themselves alone but to cultivate compassion (snying rje ) for all living beings. One is to embark upon the Great Vehicle, the Mahāyāna (theg chen ), that is, the path of a bodhisattva (byang chub sems dpa'), and to develop the virtues of charity, self-restraint, patience, diligence, meditation, and insight. This last is, above all, insight into the radically contingent nature of conditioned things, that is, their emptiness (stong nyid ). To comprehend this difficult concept through reason is among the central concerns of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy and is a source of considerable debate.

Monastic Institutions and Education

The institutional heart of Tibetan Buddhism is the monastery. Mass monasticism was encouraged in traditional Tibetan society, particularly after the consolidation of political power by the fifth Dalai Lama. This was justified ideologically by the notion that the monk was in an especially privileged position to avoid evil and to achieve merit, so that by maximizing monasticism, the maximum merit accrued to Tibetan society as a whole and especially to those individuals and families who most contributed to the monastic system by dedicating sons to the religious life and who used their wealth to support religious activities. Nomadic groups in the east often felt this to be a particularly urgent matter, for the merit earned by supporting good monks and their monasteries was believed to counterbalance the burden of sin that one acquired through actions prohibited by the system of religious ethics, especially the slaughter of animals, that were nevertheless unavoidable in a nomadic livelihood. Although worldly life was thought to be inevitably ensnared in various evils, a family could still better itself spiritually by committing some sons to the clergy. And if those sons achieved religious distinction, this could sometimes also impact favorably upon the status of the family concerned.

The monastery fostered a concentration of cultural resources, serving as a center for education and for the cultivation of the arts (though in most cases, only a minority of the monks participated in these pursuits). Significantly too the monastery absorbed surplus labor. Whenever the rate of fertility outpaced the expansion of economic activity, monasticism provided a socially valued alternative to production. For religious girls and women, nunneries also existed, though nuns appear to have been less numerous than monks and seldom had access to resources for more than a rudimentary education.

Most monks entered the monastery as children and did so at the wish of their parents. Such children were granted the essential vows of the Buddhist novitiate and became eligible to receive full ordination as bhiku (dge slong ) only in later adolescence. Rudimentary alphabetization seems to have been relatively widespread among monks and nuns, though the numbers able or inclined to pursue a higher education in Buddhist philosophy, or in such disciplines as medicine, art, or astrology, were few. The majority of the monks participated when possible in prayer services sponsored by lay patrons, who offered tea, butter, grain, and cash to the assembled congregation. Monks also pursued economic or administrative activities required for their own support or for that of the monastic community. They therefore were regularly involved in commerce and in various trades. Larger monasteries had their own complex bureaucracies, in which some offices were filled according to merit and ability and others occupied by incarnates (sprul sku ) groomed for the task since childhood.

Some monasteries housed colleges where advanced studies could be pursued by those who were motivated to do so. Aspirant monk-scholars sometimes traveled for months across the whole of the Tibetan world to enter an especially famous college. Besides the economic and ritual functions of the monastery therefore, almost the entire apparatus of Tibetan formal education was concentrated within the monasteries as well. Literacy in traditional Tibet was a preeminently religious affair, and so, not surprisingly, the clerical services of trained monks were required by the old Lhasa government and by the administrations of the eastern Tibetan principalities as well.

It has become customary to characterize the intellectual life of the Tibetan monastic colleges as a type of scholasticism. From the late eleventh century onward, the Tibetan colleges emphasized a highly rationalized approach to Buddhist doctrine, over and against one dominated exclusively by faith. The curriculum of the colleges required the careful study of Indian Buddhist philosophical writings, with the epistemological and logical works of Dharmakīrti (c. 600) supplying the major methodological organ. Other required topics included the monastic code or Vinaya ('dul ba ), the "meta-doctrine" or Abhidharma (chos mngon pa ), the Perfection of Wisdom or Prajñāpāramitā (phar phyin ), and the teaching of the Middle Way (dbu ma ), that is, the Mādhyamika dialectic of the Indian philosopher Nāgārjuna. In the Dge lugs pa colleges, those who completed this curriculum were awarded the title of dge bshes, "spiritual benefactor" (equivalent to the Sanskrit kalyāamitra ).

Among the most contentious of topics for doctrinal debate was the relationship between the Mādhyamika teaching of emptiness and the positive conception of a "buddha nature" pervading living beings and forming the basis for their potential to achieve enlightenment. While some interpreted the latter as just a metaphorical description of emptiness, the proponents of "extrinsic emptiness," following the teaching of the Jo nang pa master Dol po pa, argued that the absolute, in its proper nature, was not intrinsically empty at all but embodied instead the plenitude of the attributes of the Buddha's enlightenment.

Tantrism and Yoga

Tibetan Buddhism was especially influenced by the esoteric Indian teachings of Vajrayāna, the "Vajra Vehicle" (rdo rje theg pa ), so-called because the primary symbol of this branch of Mahāyāna Buddhism is the vajra (rdo rje ), a ritual implement at once symbolizing the diamond-like clarity and unalterabilty of mind as emptiness and its lightning-like brilliance. Vajrayāna Buddhism has its own authoritative texts, called Tantras (rgyud ), which are primarily manuals of ritual and esoteric lore. Among the major topics treated in the Tantras is abhieka (dbang ), the consecration or "empowerment" whereby a disciple is initiated into a sphere of meditation called a maala (dkyil 'khor ), which is most often represented as a heavenly palace. This is the residence of the deity, who is the focal point of the initiate's meditation and who is invoked by means of special formulas called mantras (sngags ). The central deity may be male, femalein which case she is sometimes referred to as a ākinī (mkha' 'gro ma ), a term also used to describe women who are Tantric adeptsor a couple in union and is often surrounded by a retinue of divine attendants, arranged symmetrically throughout the maala. Avalokiteśvara (spyan ras gzigs ) in particular was identified as the national patron-deity and became the focus of a much-elaborated cult. Of central importance is the recitation of Avalokiteśvara's famous six-syllable mantra, O Maipadme Hū, invoking the divinity as the "bearer of jewel and lotus. " The ubiquitousness of this formula in Tibetan religionit is often uttered aloud while turning a prayer wheel containing the mantra written many times on a paper scrollwas noted even by medieval European visitors to Tibet.

The systems of meditation taught in the Tantras are referred to as yoga (rnal 'byor ), or "union," for yoga is a discipline said to unite the adept with the realization of ultimate reality. This unification of the enlightened mind and the absolute is symbolized by the depiction of deities as couples in sexual embrace. Besides those types of yoga concerned with the visualization of maala and deity and the recitation of the mantra, there are also more advanced disciplines involving visualizations and exercises in which one's body is conceived as a network of subtle channels and energies, the skillful manipulation of which is believed to hasten the adept's progress toward enlightenment and also to lead to the acquisition of uncanny, magical abilities: clairvoyance, miraculous flight, and the resurrection of the dead. These advanced techniques of yogas are often described in terms of six doctrines (chos drug ):

  1. Inner Heat (gtum mo ), whereby the adept learns to master the subtle physical energies of the body;
  2. Body of Apparition (sgyu lus ), through which the illusion-like nature of experience becomes known;
  3. Dream (rmi lam ), whereby one achieves the ability to consciously explore the possibilities revealed during dreams;
  4. Radiant Light ('od gsal), referring to the luminous dimension of the mind;
  5. Transference ('pho ba ), the means to cause one's consciousness to leave the body abruptly at the moment of death and to seek rebirth in a pure realm;
  6. Intermediate State (bar do ), which here refers primarily to the state of consciousness in the course of migration between death and rebirth.

The first four doctrines enable one to attain enlightenment swiftly during this very lifetime, the last two to achieve it at death. Adepts who have attained the goals of this esoteric path are called siddha (grub thob ), "accomplished" or "perfected," because they have attained siddhi (dngos grub ), the mundane or supermundane powers and realizations that are especially cultivated on the path of the Vajrayāna.

The highest teachings of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism are those relating to the abstract realization of the ultimate nature of mind. For the Rnying ma pa tradition, these are represented primarily by the Great Perfection (rdzogs chen ) teaching, while for the Bka' brgyud pa and Dge lugs pa, the Great Seal (phyag chen ) system in the tradition of Mar pa is preeminent. Although there are many special points of emphasis, particular to each of these approaches to the absolute, the words of Klong chen Rab 'byams pa summarize their common orientation:

The luminous nucleus is the absolute truth, permanent, stable, not subject to change or transformation, quiescent, undeceiving, the essence of gnosis that accords with the ground from beginning to end and is free from all the limits of intellectual elaboration. It should be known to be by nature neither stained, nor being stained, nor about to be stained by any of the principles of mind or mental events, and like unto the taintless orb of the sun.

Pilgrimages, Festivals, and Ritual Cycles

Among the many characteristic religious activities in which virtually all Tibetans at some time or other participate, pilgrimage is particularly prominent. Pilgrimage was traditionally one of the central phenomena contributing to, and perhaps even to some extent engendering, the cultural unity of Tibet. Pilgrimage, among other things, promoted trade in both goods and information. It brought persons from distant parts of the Tibetan world into direct contact with one another and thus militated to some extent against divisive regional tendencies.

Among the many famous Tibetan places of pilgrimage, most Tibetans regarded the religious shrines of Lhasa to be particularly important to visit. There, in the ancient Tibetan capital, they could behold and be blessed by contact with the Jowo Śākyamuni image residing in the central temple that was thought to have been brought from China by the princess of Wencheng. The pilgrims who flocked to Lhasa brought offerings for the temples and monks and also frequently engaged in trade to finance their journeys. Thus, besides its purely religious significance, pilgrimage also came to play an important role in the Tibetan economy.

The capital, however, was not the sole center of pilgrimage. In fact, there was a sort of national pilgrimage network in Tibet, whose routes, extending the length and breadth of the country, joined great and small temples and shrines as well as caves, mountains, valleys, and lakes that were imbued with sacred significance. In far western Tibet, the greatest pilgrimage center was undoubtedly Mount Kailash, regarded popularly as being substantially identical with the world-mountain, the axis mundi. As such it was a major destination for both Hindus and Buddhists. Other important centers of pilgrimage included Tsa ri, where a great procession that convened once every twelve years was said to purge even the taint of murder, and Mchod rten Nyi ma (Chöten Nyima), to the north of Sikkim, where incest pollution could be cleansed.

Related in some respects to the pilgrimage cycles are the festivals of Tibetan Buddhism. The celebration of the Buddha's enlightenment (sa ga zla ba, equivalent to the Vesakh of Theravāda Buddhism) is marked by fasting and communal prayer. The Tibetan New Year requires the performance of extensive rites on behalf of the protective divinities and is the occasion for the convening of the Great Prayer Festival (smon lam chen mo ) in Lhasa. The tenth day of each lunar month is consecrated to the guru and, among the Rnying ma pa in particular, is a time for communal feast rituals and sometimes also the elaborate masked dances known as 'cham.

Tibetan Buddhism in the People's Republic of China

When the course of events in China turned decisively in favor of the communists after World War II, some Tibetan modernists felt that the revolutionary programs of the Communist Party offered them the best opportunity for modernization and reform. An example was the celebrated monk-scholar Rdo bis Shes rab rgya mtsho (Dobi Sherab Gyatso, 18841968), who after allying himself with the Chinese Nationalists during the 1930s, later turned to the Communists. In 1952, two years after China assumed control of Tibet, he became the first chairman of the Chinese Buddhist Association. His attempt to find a common ground between the policies of the party and the interests of Tibetan Buddhism came to represent in some measure the norm among educated Tibetan clergy during the 1950s, when both the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama embraced the hopeful idea that Mao Zedong's revolution had room for their religion and indeed that the ethical concerns of Mahāyāna Buddhism for universal well-being would be realized by the dawning socialist order.

Soon, however, the promise of a harmonious relationship between Chinese Communism and Tibetan Buddhism came undone. As the monasteries were considered by China's leadership to be among the centers of resistance to the implementation of Communist programs and also to be giving shelter to rebels in the eastern Tibetan province of Khams, they became increasingly prone to direct attack, and in 1956 a number of eastern Tibetan monasteries were subjected to aerial bombardment. These circumstances were deeply shocking to Tibetan sensibilities and led to the flight of large numbers of eastern Tibetans to central Tibet. With the events surrounding the Lhasa Uprising of 1959 and the subsequent flight of the Dalai Lama to India, the steadily worsening relations between the Tibetan Buddhist establishment and the Chinese government spun altogether out of control. The Dalai Lama and many religious Tibetans fled into exile in India, and many who remained behind were persecuted and imprisoned. By 1962 both the tenth Panchen Lama and Shes rab rgya mtsho, the two leading Tibetan clerics remaining in China, openly expressed their disillusionment and were subsequently dismissed from their posts. The assault on religion intensified throughout the 1960s and during the Cultural Revolution (19661976), when all but a few of the thousands of Tibetan temples and monasteries were razed, their artistic treasures and libraries destroyed or plundered. Tens of thousands of monks and nuns were forced to undergo "reeducation," and many perished under extraordinarily harsh conditions or suffered prolonged maltreatment in prison.

The conclusion of the Cultural Revolution and the consolidation of Chinese power by Deng Xiaoping in 1978 brought great changes to cultural and religious affairs. A visit to Tibet in 1980 by the party secretary Hu Yaobang clearly signaled that cultural redevelopment was now possible. In view of new policy directives, a dramatic revival of Tibetan Buddhism now ensued, which took many different forms. At its most basic level, it meant that ordinary believers could now engage publicly once more in a variety of devotional and ritual activities: performance of prostrations, circumambulations, offerings, and prayers at temples and other sacred sites; erecting prayer flags and stone walls with prayers carved upon them; copying and distributing prayer books and religious icons. The small number of temples and monasteries that had survived in more or less usable condition began to be refurbished and reopened, and efforts were made to rebuild some that had been destroyed. As the monasteries reopened, the few aged monks who remained were joined by numbers of young new recruits. The reinception of religious festivals and pilgrimages was also a development welcomed by both monks and laypersons.

The revival that began in the late twentieth century continued into the twenty-first century and even attracted non-Tibetan, Chinese converts to Tibetan Buddhism, but it has nevertheless been marked by repeated tensions with the Chinese political leadership. Most dramatically, a series of demonstrations in support of the exiled Dalai Lama, staged by monks in Lhasa beginning in 1987, led to rioting that culminated in the declaration of a state of emergency in 1989. Subsequently, the government's view of the Dalai Lama steadily hardened, and after a period during which the expression of purely religious devotion to him was tolerated, any explicit manifestation of loyalty to him became treated as fundamentally political in nature.

In 1989 the highest-ranking Buddhist hierarch who had remained in Tibet after 1959, the Panchen Lama, died suddenly, and his passing led to new disputes between Chinese authorities and the partisans of the Dalai Lama. This received worldwide attention when, on May 14, 1995, the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile announced the discovery of the young incarnate Panchen in Tibet. The Chinese responded harshly: the acting abbot of Tashi Lhünpo monastery, Chadrel Rinpoche, was arrested in Chengdu, Sichuan, and Gendun Choekyi Nyima, the young boy who had been recognized as the Panchen Lama by the Dalai Lama, was detained with his family. Shortly thereafter, his recognition was rejected by the Chinese government, and a lottery was held on November 29, 1995, to choose a new Panchen Lama from among several officially approved candidates.

The Dalai Lama, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate in 1989, remained of course the best-known symbol of Tibetan aspirations in the world at large and also for Tibetans themselves. During the late 1980s and the early 1990s, photographs of the Dalai Lama were so ubiquitous as to be seen plentifully in temples, homes, shops, and markets. In reaction to the Panchen Lama affair, the Communist Party launched a campaign in April 1996 to remove such images from view, particularly from public and otherwise high prestige venues, such as schools and the homes and offices of Tibetan officials. With the beginning of the new millennium, the Dalai Lama's government-in-exile and the Chinese leadership cautiously resumed efforts to settle their differences through negotiation. These seem to have made little progress so far, and Buddhism in the Tibetan autonomous region remains hampered by severe restrictions placed on religious recruitment, livelihood, and education.

See Also

Bon; Buddhism, Schools of, article on Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhism; Dalai Lama; Dge lugs pa; Mahāsiddhas; Pilgrimage, article on Tibetan Pilgrimage.


Blondeau, Anne-Marie. "Les religions du Tibet." In Histoire des Religions, edited by Henri-Charles Peuch, vol. 3. Paris, 1970. Now dated in respect of some particulars but nevertheless offers a still useful overview.

Cabezón, José Ignacio, and Roger R. Jackson, eds. Tibetan Literature: Studies in Genre. Ithaca, N.Y., 1996. Provides useful surveys of the main classes of Tibetan religious writings.

Demiéville, Paul. Le concile de Lhasa: Une controverse sur le quiétisme entre bouddhistes de l'Inde et de la Chine au VIII e siècle de l'ère chrétienne, Vol. 7: Bibliothèque de l'Institut des Hautes Études Chinoises. Paris, 1952. Magisterial study of Dunhuang Chinese sources on the Chan master Moheyan's mission in Tibet.

Dreyfus, Georges. The Sound of Two Hands Clapping. Berkeley, Calif., 2003. Invaluable exploration of Tibetan monastic education.

Dudjom Rinpoche, and Jikdrel Yeshe Dorje. The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism: Its Fundamentals and History. Translated by Gyurme Dorje and Matthew Kapstein. Boston, 1991. A Tibetan master's synthesis of Rnying ma pa doctrinal and historical traditions.

Goldstein, Melvyn C., and Matthew T. Kapstein, eds. Buddhism in Contemporary Tibet: Religious Revival and Cultural Identity. Berkeley, Calif., 1998. Survey and case studies of the postCultural Revolution revival of Tibetan Buddhism through the early 1990s.

Kapstein, Matthew T. The Tibetan Assimilation of Buddhism: Conversion, Contestation, and Memory. Oxford, 2000. Includes studies of the formation of some of the major Tibetan Buddhist myth-historical traditions.

Karmay, Samten Gyaltsen. The Great Perfection: A Philosophical and Meditative Teaching of Tibetan Buddhism. Leiden and New York, 1988. A valuable study of the earliest known works of the Great Perfection system.

Klimberg-Salter, Deborah E. Tabo: A Lamp for the Kingdom. New York, 1998. Thorough art historical study of one of the major temples founded by Ye shes 'od and Rin chen bzang po, with a valuable historical contribution by Luciano Petech.

Lopez, Donald, Jr., ed. Religions of Tibet in Practice. Princeton, N.J., 1997. Provides translations, with brief introductions, of texts on many aspects of religious life in Tibet.

Obermiller, E. History of Buddhism (Chos-zbyung ) by Bu-ston, Part 1: The Jewelry of Scripture, Part 2: The History of Buddhism in India and Tibet. Suzuki Research Foundation Reprint series 5. Heidelberg, 19311932. Translation of a key fourteenth-century historical and doctrinal treatise.

Roerich, George, trans. The Blue Annals. Delhi, 1976. Translation of 'Gos lo Gzhon nu dpal's celebrated history of Tibetan Buddhism through the early fifteenth century.

Samuel, Geoffrey. Civilized Shamans: Buddhism in Tibetan Societies. Washington, D.C., and London, 1993. A wide-ranging anthropological investigation of Tibetan Buddhism as a cultural system.

Smith, E. Gene. Among Tibetan Texts. Boston, 2001. A leading Tibetanist's introductions to a wide range of major textual sources.

Snellgrove, David. Indo-Tibetan Buddhism: Indian Buddhists and Their Tibetan Successors. Boston, 1987. Detailed survey of esoteric Buddhism and its history in India, Nepal, and Tibet.

Snellgrove, David, and Hugh Richardson. A Cultural History of Tibet. New York and Washington, D.C., 1968. Accessible survey, though now dated.

Snellgrove, David, and Tadeusz Skorupski. A Cultural History of Ladakh. 2 vols. Boulder, Colo., 19771980.

Sørensen, Per K. Tibetan Buddhist Historiography: The Mirror Illuminating the Royal Genealogies. Wiesbaden, 1994. Critically annotated translation of a famous fourteenth-century retelling of the legends of the early Tibetan Empire.

Stein, R. A. Tibetan Civilization. Translated by J. E. Stapleton Driver. Stanford, Calif., 1972. A fine general account of Tibet as a civilizational sphere.

Tucci, Giuseppe. The Religions of Tibet. Translated by Geoffrey Samuel. Berkeley, Calif., and Los Angeles, 1980. The renowned Italian Tibetanist's survey of Tibetan religions.

Vitali, Roberto. The Kingdoms of Pu.hrang. Dharamsala, 1996. Thorough account of the history of the main kingdoms of western Tibet.

Matthew T. Kapstein (2005)

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