Worship and Devotional Life: Buddhist Devotional Life in Tibet

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Tibetan Buddhism is a continuation of the form of Buddhism that gradually developed over fifteen hundred years in India. The Indian masters who came to Tibet as missionaries encountered folk traditions and beliefs and either suppressed them or incorporated them, in modified form, into the Buddhist universe. Tibetan Buddhism is therefore a complex and layered set of philosophical concepts, rituals, and local beliefs symbolically represented by a pantheon of deities who are either considered Buddhist or have been integrated into Buddhism. The faith of the people is rooted in the historical presence of the Buddha Śākyamuni, his teachings, and the monastic community (i.e., "the three refuges"). Their faith focuses on the celestial Tantric emanations of Śākyamuni, especially on the "wrathful tutelary deities" and the bodhisattvas, in particular Avalokiteśvara, Mañjuśrī, Vajrapāi, and Tārā in all her forms; these bodhisattvas symbolize compassion, knowledge, and power to overcome obstacles. Tibetans also believe in numerous spirits of the land, sky, and underworld. While they consider these spirits to be inferior to the elevated Buddhist pantheon, Tibetans believe that they can have more immediate influence on their daily mundane life than the bodhisattvas, and therefore they worship them.

There is a complementarity between the monastics who live in communities and the lay people. According to the Tibetan Buddhist idea of spiritual evolution, merit and wisdom must be gathered for a person to advance towards better rebirths and eventual buddhahood. A lay person mainly concentrates on merit, while also gathering wisdom by supporting the members of the monastic community, who pursue study, reflection, and contemplation in order to gain wisdom. The duty of monastics is to attend to the spiritual aspect of humankind, while lay people provide material support to the religious communities.

Karma, the consequence of the actions of past lives, along with the consequences of this life's actions in a subsequent life, form the theological basis of the people's beliefs. The maintenance of the right attitude and the right mind so as to accumulate merit is the key to a better future life; few people hope to reach the enlightened state, by which they will escape the wheel of reincarnation. Each being has to practice religion in the best way possible at the level reached in this present life. The worship and devotional life of Tibetans reflect these specificities of Tibetan Buddhism.

For most people, including monastics, worship as an individual or a community revolves around thanksgiving and pleasing the deities in order to be safeguarded; worship also involves beliefs concerning protection against evil influences, which can take the form of spirits, and the accumulation of meritorious actions. Most of the devotional life of Tibetans is made up of rituals or actions directed toward these aims.

In monastic communities, besides individual practices, worship takes the form of common daily rituals to the Buddha, bodhisattvas, and deities who are specific to each religious tradition within Tibetan Buddhism. The recitation and chanting of prayers accompanied by music is one of the best-known features of Tibetan Buddhism. Certain sequences of prayers and gestures form a liturgy, also called ritual, which can be performed for different purposes and be more or less elaborated. Sacrificial cakes (gtor ma ) made of cereals and butter are erected and offered to deities by the monastics. Each deity has a specific sacrificial cake. Sand maalas, which take days to make according to a prescribed text, are sometimes offered and then destroyed at the end of the ritual, demonstrating the impermanence of all things. Monastics have other important ceremonies as well: rituals of ordination (for novices and fully ordained monks), monthly rituals of purification, summertime rituals of retreat, and rituals of accession to higher ranks and offices within the monastic hierarchy.

Lay people visit temples on auspicious days to offer butter lamps and incense sticks, and to prostrate in front of the deities, asking for their blessings. They can also offer tea or make any other kind of offering to the whole monastic community, actions that will bring them merit. Out of devotion, lay people often use all their extra earnings to make religious contributions towards new statues or paintings in a temple, or toward building a Buddhist memorial mchod rten (chorten, in Sanskrit, stupa), or to go on pilgrimage. These actions are believed to not only add merit to a person's karma, but also to increase positive influences for the whole community and beyond to all sentient beings. Collective or individual practices are based on the same belief. Devotional actions are not only meant for oneself but for humankind, and they take different forms.

Nyung gnas (nyungne, prayer and fasting), which can last for several days, is practiced mainly by groups of village women and nuns for the benefit of all. Dbyar gnas (yarne ) is the summer retreat made by monastic communities after the model of Buddha's life. The Phyag 'bum (cha bum, 100,000 prostrations) are also performed by individuals as a spiritual and devotional exercise that should be done once in a lifetime; it is very strenuous and usually takes three months to complete. A person performing a large number of prostrations can wear a leather apron and gloves, especially during pilgrimages.

Recitation of formulas called mantras, which are dedicated to a single deity, is performed with a 108-bead rosary or a prayer wheel and is the most common and ubiquitous form of worship. The two main formulas are o mai padme hū, the six-syllable mantra of Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, who can release sentient beings from the six realms of rebirth, and o vajra gurū siddhi hū, the mantra of Padmasambhava, whom Tibetans call Gurū Rinpoche. Women have a special devotion for Tārā, the savior and female aspect of Avalokiteśvara, and they recite her mantra as protection. These mantras can be recited whenever people have free time and while traveling. Elderly people devote most of their time to recitations for their own accumulation of merit, as well as for the merit of all sentient beings. Collective 100,000 recitations are also organized by monastic communities.

Circumambulations around holy places are the third most popular form of devotion, following prostration and recitation; all three are often combined. The holy place could be a monastery, a temple, a mchod rten (Buddhist memorial), even a whole city like Lhasa or a mountain like Kailash in Western Tibet. Buddhists perform their circumambulation with the holy place on the right-hand side (Bonpos keep it on the left-hand side). The manner of performing circumambulation is left to each person's initiative; the practice may be performed daily or on auspicious days, and may include fast walking and half or complete prostrations individually or in a group.

The cult of relics is another manifestation of worship in Tibetan Buddhism. Miraculous imprints of parts of the body of a saint are found in rocks, and people touch them with their forehead in order to attain blessings. Bones found after the cremation of high lamas and even mummies are enshrined in mchod rten and are objects of great veneration and a source of blessings. One impressive example is the temple containing the reliquary mchod rten of the Dalai Lamas in the Potala in Lhasa. Tibetans, in an uninterrupted flow, pass in front of them, touch them with their forehead, burn incense sticks, and pour butter and oil into the butter lamps. This manifestation of faith is all the more poignant now that the Potala is officially a museum and people have to move very quickly through the temple. In addition, designated holes and passages in rocks at "power places" are associated with a means to purify oneself from sins. They are matrices symbolizing rebirth to a new life.

All these devotional manifestations find their apex in pilgrimages. During pilgrimages, monastics and lay people alike combine all of them. This is probably one reason why pilgrimages are so highly regarded in Tibetan Buddhism. They often represent a lifelong dream, the realization of which demands financial investment and hardship for most people. But these material conditions make the pilgrimage even more meritorious, and the devotion shown by pilgrims amply demonstrates the total spiritual fulfillment of this act.

Holy cities like Lhasa, monasteries like Bsam yas (Samye), and sacred mountains like Gang Tise (Kailash), A myes ma chen (Amnye Machen) in northeastern Tibet, and Tsa ri (Tsari) in southeastern Tibet are the most rewarding in terms of blessings and merit. But people also make pilgrimages to sites that are not far from their region, and some pilgrimage destinations are purely local. Travel to a distant pilgrimage site, which can take weeks to reach, is usually organized by a group of villagers headed by a monk. With the assistance of a religious guidebook, the monk points out the important places en route and explains their symbolic meaning. The skor ra (kora), or circumambulation of a mountain (mountains are considered the abode of a manifestation of the Buddha), can take several days.

Only the most determined do the full prostration all the way; helped by a friend, they may live off alms on a physically exhausting but spiritually fulfilling journey. Today in Lhasa one can still meet such leather-clad pilgrims who have prostrated all the way from their home regions to the holy city, continuing their devotion through the fumes and the noise of the traffic. The pilgrim is oblivious to the ugly aspects of the modern city and sees only the holy places. India and its historical Buddhist sites, such as Bodh Gayā, are the ultimate pilgrimage destinations for Tibetan Buddhists.

One of the strongest aspects of Tibetan devotional life is the veneration in which high incarnate lamas (addressed as rinpoche, "precious jewel") are held. Such a lama is a sprul sku (tulku), which, in Tibetan, means a body of incarnation, implying that he is a human embodiment, a quintessential representative, of the Buddha or a bodhisattva, or the present form of a saint. The Dalai Lama is the best known of such high lamas: he is the incarnation of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, the all compassionate, and the Buddhist protector of Tibet. However, there are hundreds of incarnate lamas. Some are the embodiment of a long lineage of past lamas, some are more reputed for their spiritual achievement and teachings than others, but all command a veneration that is difficult to describe in rational terms. Being in their presence, listening to their teaching, and getting blessed by them are among the greatest benedictions a devotee can hope for. This explains the gathering of thousands of people who come from all over the world when one of these high incarnates gives a public initiation. It also explains the blessing on the head given by the touch of a lama's photograph.

According to Tibetan Buddhism, rites fall into four main categories: (1) pacification rites (to pacify, bless, and heal); (2) augmentative rites (to increase lifespan and good luck, and to generate bounty and wealth); (3) empowering rites (to enhance control of divine and human individual and social forces, and to tame and discipline); and (4) wrathful rites (to protect against evil and remove obstacles; exceptionally, these rites may involve the taking of sentient life). This four-fold philosophical categorization of rites is understood by most educated monks, but common people often do not perceive the rites in this way. They see rites as a means to remedy a particular situation.

An important aspect of devotional life is made up of rituals performed at home. Each house has an altar room or, in the case of very poor people, a corner devoted to religious activities. Monastics, or simply religious practitioners in some areas, are called into a family's house and stay there for one or several days, depending on the length of the ritual they have been asked to perform. The reading of a specific text, often a version of the Prajñāpāramitā in 100,000 verses ('bum ) or 8,000 verses (brgyad stong pa ) is done, if possible, once a year in each household to insure blessings to the family. On a grander scale, a noble family can ask for the reading of the 120 volumes of the Bka' 'gyur (Kanjur), considered to be in the Tibetan Buddhist canon the words of the Buddha. There are religious communities that specialize in reading the scriptures.

Other rituals have different purposes, and they usually involve lengthy preparations in the making of sacrificial cakes, effigies, or thread crosses, and the gathering of special ingredients and vessels. A ritual has more value if it is presided over by a reincarnate lama. The purpose of these rituals is to cleanse the house after a birth or a death; to ensure the prosperity of the family, the harvest, and the cattle; to ward off evil spirits who have caused sickness or misfortune; to call back prosperity and fortune or g-yang (yang ); to protect members of the family while they travel; or to redeem sins. It may be in the rituals that the assimilation of pre-Buddhist or non-Buddhist beliefs into Buddhism is most obvious. The best example might be the state oracle ceremony, still performed today. During every New Year festival, the oracle monk of Gnas chung (Nechung) monastery, next to 'Bras spung (Drepung) near Lhasa and now rebuilt at Dharamsala in India, dressed in ceremonial garments and crowned by heavy headgear, is brought before the Dalai Lama in public. While in a trance, possessed by the deity Rdo rje drag ldan (Dorje Dragden), he blesses the state and the people and shoots a symbolic arrow at the heart of the scapegoat effigy in which all the evil of the previous year is magically entrapped. The effigy is then burned in a bonfire. In coded language, the oracle monk provides information to the state, responds to questions, and gives warnings of impending dangers.

Many rituals that Tibetans perform as part of their devotional life find their origins in the pre-Buddhist religion, commonly called Bon. Once a year, community rituals dedicated to the local guardian deity of the territory are performed; these involve the burning of incense and juniper, as well as the erecting of prayer flags near the abode of the deity, usually on a mountain. The burning of juniper, called bsangs (sang), is also done daily by each family in order to please the local deity. This does not prevent Buddhist prayers being said every morning in the family altar room, where butter lamps and water bowls are placed as offerings to the Buddha and bodhisattvas.

The great capacity of Tibetans to assimilate or maintain, side by side, different beliefs in a religion called Tibetan Buddhism has led to a rich devotional life that is supported by an unwavering faith in meritorious acts and compassionate beings.

See Also

Buddhism, article on Buddhism in Tibet; Buddhism, Schools of, articles on Early Doctrinal Schools of Buddhism, Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhism; Maalas, article on Buddhist Maalas; Tibetan Religions, overview article.


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