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Tibet became one of the last major zones in Buddhist Asia to accept Buddhist ideology and rituals into its culture, which assumed a unique position as the perceived source for true dharma study during the twelfth to the twentieth centuries. Throughout their religious history, Tibetans have emphasized a balance of scholarship, contemplative meditation, and the indivisibility of religious and secular authority; most of these values were formulated under the aegis of Buddhist tantrism. Tibetan Buddhism matured over the course of fourteen centuries and will be assessed in this entry in phases that, if somewhat contested in scholarly literature, still represent important stages in its development.

The Royal dynasty and the early translation period

Tibetan literature attributes the formal introduction of Buddhism to the reign of its first emperor, Srong btsan sgam po (Songtsen gampo, d. 649/650). Undoubtedly, though, proto-Tibetan peoples had been exposed to Buddhist merchants and missionaries earlier. There is a myth that the fifth king before Srong btsan sgam po, Lha tho tho ri gnyan btsan, was residing in the ancient castle of Yum bu bla mkhar when a casket fell from the sky. Inside were a gold reliquary and Buddhist scriptures. While the myth is not early, it possibly reveals a Tibetan memory of prior missionary activity. We do know that official contact with Sui China was accomplished from Central Tibet in 608 or 609 and that, as Tibet grew more powerful, Buddhist contacts increased.

Nonetheless, two of Srong btsan sgam po's wives—Wencheng from China and Bhṛkuṭī from Nepal—were credited with constructing the temples of Magical Appearance (Sprul snang, or the Jo khang) and Ra mo che. Other temples were built as well, and twelve were later considered limb-binding temples, where a demoness representing the autochthonous forces of Tibet was subdued by the sanctified buildings. Srong btsan sgam po is also credited with having one of his ministers, Thon mi Sambhota, create the Tibetan alphabet from an Indian script and write the first grammars.

Buddhist progress occurred with the successors to Srong btsan sgam po. Notable was the foundation of the first real monastery in Tibet, Bsam yas (Samye, ca. 780) and the influx of Indian, Chinese, and Central Asian monks around that time. Particularly influential were Śāntarakṣita, an important Indian scholar, and his disciple Kamalaśīla. Śāntarakṣita and his entourage were responsible for the first group of six or seven aristocratic Tibetans to be ordained in Tibet. These authoritative monks did much to cement the relationship between Indian Buddhism and Tibetan identity. Another teacher, Padmasambhava, was a relatively obscure tantric guru whose inspiration became important later.

Translation bureaus in Dunhuang and Central Tibet were opened by the Tibetan emperors, from Khri srong lde'u btsan (Trisong détsen, ca. 742–797) through Ral pa can (r. 815–838), but unofficial translations were recognized sources of concern. While the official bureaus emphasized the MahĀyĀna monastic texts, unofficial translations tended to feature more radical tantric works. During the reign of Sad na legs (r. 804–815) a council was convened to regularize Tibetan orthography and to establish both translation methods and a lexicon of equivalents for official translators. The result was the emergence of classical Tibetan, a literary language developed to render both sophisticated Buddhist terminology and foreign political documents into the rapidly evolving Tibetan medium.

Translations were initially made from several languages, but principally from Sanskrit and Chinese, so that a consistent tension between Indian and Chinese Buddhist practice and ideology marked this period. The Northern Chan school was present in Tibet, but from 792 to 794 a series of discussions between Indian and Chinese exegetes at the Bsam yas debate was ultimately decided in favor of the Indians. Eventually, Buddhist translations from Chinese were abandoned for exclusively Indic sources.

Fragmentation and the later spread of the dharma

The last of the emperors, Dar ma 'U dum btsan (r. 838–842) began a campaign of suppression of Buddhism contemporary to the Huichang suppression in China. Dar ma was assassinated by a Buddhist monk, and the vast Tibetan empire fragmented over imperial succession. The period from 850 to 950 was a chaotic time marked by popular revolts and warlordism. Surviving Buddhist monks fled, and monastic practice was eclipsed in Central Tibet for approximately a century. Aristocratic clans that had accepted Buddhism, however, continued to develop indigenous rituals and new literature based on the received tradition. This is the time that the classical persona of the nonmonastic religious teacher coalesced: the lay lama, sometimes a mystic inspired by visions of imperial preceptors. With the reestablishment of records in the late tenth century, we see active lay Buddhist behavior—pilgrimage, lay rituals, autochthonous divinities as protectors, and so on—that was to endure to the present.

Yet the monastic religious form was closely allied to the memory of the empire, and Bsam yas stood empty. Eventually several Tibetans under the leadership of Klu mes from Central Tibet traveled to Dan tig Temple, in modern Xining, and received monastic ordination from Tibetan monks who had maintained it. Returning to Central Tibet around 980, Klu mes and others began to refurbish Bsam yas as well as construct networks of new temples. Their position, though, was often threatened by the lay lamas called Ban de, and the new monks were sometimes physically attacked.

One line of the imperial house established itself in Gu ge, in West Tibet, and some two dozen men, preeminently Rin chen bzang po (958–1055), were sent to study in Kashmir. Like the Tibetan emperors, the Gu ge kings supported Mahāyāna scholarship and were critical of extreme tantric behavior, whether Tibetan or Indian. While Rin chen bzang po principally translated esoteric works, many other translators, especially Ngog Blo ldan shes rab (1059–1109), specialized in Mahāyāna philosophical treatises, rendering many into Tibetan for the first time. Thus, the Five Treatises of Maitreya and much of the work of DharmakĪrti and other scholastic authors were introduced to Tibetans through their activity. A great translator's convocation, where scholars discussed their texts and procedures, was called by the Gu ge king in 1076.

In Central Tibet, the later translation movement began with 'Brog mi (ca. 990–1060), who studied in Vikramaśīla and elsewhere in India. Following him, Dgos lo, Rwa lo, Mar pa, Kyung po rnal 'byor, and other scholars began the new translation or revision of Indian works. Many of these eleventh-century Central Tibetan translators were concerned with the newly evolving tantras, which they presumed had not been revealed to earlier Tibetans. They also believed that the imperially sponsored systems had become mixed with indigenous Tibetan practices and derided them as "old style" (rnying ma).

For their part, certain Rnying ma (Nyingma) teachers—especially Rong zom Chos kyi bzang po (late eleventh century)—were also translators and defended their own texts by decrying perceived inadequacies of the new translators and their Indian informants. Rong zom also composed the first synthetic Tibetan treatment of the Buddhist path in a detailed manual called the Theg chen tshul 'jug (Entering the Method of the Mahāyāna), which begins with monastic Buddhism and culminates in the Great Perfection (rdzogs chen) teaching. The Zur clan was also involved in Rnying ma defense, and Zur chen and Zur chung put together the earliest Rnying ma rgyud 'bum (Old Tantric Canon).

Another Rnying ma response became the development of the "treasure" literature (gter ma), grounded in indigenous scriptural composition during the tenth century, when Central Tibet was isolated. Scriptural composition was normative Buddhist behavior, liberating the intention of the Buddha from excessive literalness. In India, the practice was inhibited by various conservative strategies, but Tibetans began to stretch the form in creative ways. By the eleventh century, they realized that texts revealed in Tibet could not be justified on standard literary grounds. They therefore formulated the ideology that these works had been hidden, physically or spiritually, as treasures by saints of the Royal dynasty. Many of these early treasures were dedicated to the Great Perfection view and practices.

In 1042 the important Indian missionary, Atisha Dīpaṃkara Śrījñāna (982–1054), arrived, invited by the Gu ge king. Atisha introduced the popular Bengali cult of the goddess Tārā and reframed tantric Buddhism as an advanced practice on a continuum with monastic and Mahāyāna Buddhism. This systematization, already known in India, became designated the triple discipline (trisaṃvara: the monastic, bodhisattva, and tantric vows) and Atisha embedded this ideal in his Bodhipathapradīpa (Lamp for the Path to Awakening). Atisha also promoted the basic Mahāyāna curriculum of his monastery Vikramaśīla, where works like ŚĀntideva's BodhicaryĀvatĀra (Introduction to the Conduct That Leads to the Enlightenment) were fundamental to monastic stability. Atisha's lay lama disciple 'Brom ston Rgyal ba'i byung gnas (1004–1064) founded the monastery of Rwa sgreng in Central Tibet (1057) and organized the Bka' gdams pa order.

The tantric orders evolved out of the activity of the early Central Tibetan translators. Preeminent were the various traditions of the Dwags po Bka' brgyud that derived from Mar pa (Marpa, 1002/1012–1097). While some of Mar pa's disciples were concerned with tantric scholarship, it was Mar pa's poet disciple Milaraspa (Milarepa, (1028/40–1111/23), and Milarepa's disciple Sgam po pa, who effectively grounded the tradition in both tantric and monastic practice. Likewise, 'Brog mi's center in Mu gu lung did not last, but his later follower 'Khon Dkon mchog rgyal po (1034–1102) founded Sa skya (Sakya) Monastery in 1073, and the Sa skya order became widely acknowledged through the influence and learning of 'Khon clan members. Beyond these, many smaller lineages were received from Indian masters but only partially succeeded in the institutionalization process of the twelfth century, eventually becoming subsets of one or another of the major orders.

Tanguts, Mongols, and Buddhist efflorescence in the twelfth to fourteenth centuries

By the twelfth century, small lineages began developing into specific orders that compiled the writings of exemplary figures. The initial cloisters were expanded, becoming "mother" monasteries for a series of satellite temples and monasteries. Orders established dominion in their areas, so that lay practice tended to come under the aegis of important teachers. Buddhist doctrinal and philosophical material became an important part of the curriculum. Translation activity continued, but with an emphasis on the revision of previous translations. A canon of translated scripture and exegesis was compiled throughout this period, so that by the end of the fourteenth century its major outlines became relatively clear. Finally, the aura of the emerging orders attracted the interest of Central Asian potentates, beginning with the Tanguts and extending to the grandsons of Genghis Khan.

The Rnying ma order had coalesced around the received teachings derived from the Royal dynastic period, whether transmitted in a human succession (bka' ma) or as revealed treasure teachings (gter ma). Preeminently, Vimalamitra and Padmasambhava among the Indians, and Bai ro tsa na among the Tibetans, were the mythic sources for treasure scriptures. The important treasure finder Nyang ral Nyi ma 'od zer (1142–1192) and his school in southern Tibet promoted Padmasambhava over other figures. From Nyang ral's group came the Maṇi Bka' 'bum, the vehicle for the spread of the cult of Avalokiteśvara as the special protector of Tibet, purportedly embodied in Emperor Srong btsan sgam po. Treasure hagiographies of Padmasambhava by U rgyan gling pa (1323–?) have proven classics of the genre. Karma gling pa revealed the Bar do thos grol, widely known in the West as the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Although Rnying ma philosophical authors were relatively few, Klong chen rab 'byams pa (1308–1363) set the standard for tantric scholarship. Basing himself on treasures of the Snying thig (seminal drop) tradition of the Great Perfection, Klong chen pa authored important discussions of Rnying ma theory and practice.

The 'Khon clan continued to develop Sa skya Monastery, with the help of such individuals as Ba ri lo tsā ba (1040–1112), who assembled many relics at Sa skya. The great literary contributions, though, came from the five Sa skya masters: Sa chen Kun dga' snying po (1092–1158), Bsod nams rtse mo (1142–1182), Grags pa rgyal mtshan (1147–1216), Sa skya PaṆḌita (Sakya PaṆḌita, 1182–1251), and Chos rgyal 'Phags pa (1235–1280). Sa chen specialized in tantric scholarship, writing the first summary of the tantric path in Tibet and compiling eleven commentaries on the central text of the esoteric Lam 'bras (Path and Fruit), attributed to the Indian saint Virūpa. Sa chen's sons, Bsod nams rtse mo and Grags pa rgyal mtshan, contributed to the myth of the Buddha, established tantric exegesis, commented on Śāntideva's Bodhicaryāvatāra, and codified the Sa skya understanding of the tantric path. With Sa skya Paṇḍita, the Sa skya took to conservative philosophical scholarship, and the Sa skya order came to be known for its maintenance of the triple discipline and its defense of Dharmakīrti's epistemological system.

However, many original Tibetan contributions to Buddhism also came from this period. Among his innovations, Phya pa Chos kyi seng ge (1109–1169) developed philosophical definitions, doctrines of universals, and methods of argumentation; many challenged Indian assumptions, especially those of Dharmakīrti. In an entirely different direction, seminal Bka' brgyud (Kagyu) representatives, like Sgam po pa bsod nams rin chen (1079–1153), delineated the doctrines of the self-sufficient white remedy (dkar po gcig thub). These doctrines posited a soteriology of a single meditative method under the rubric of the Great Seal (māhamudrā). Another Bka' brgyud pa, 'Bri gung 'Jig rten mgon po (1143–1217), additionally proposed that all the Buddha's statements were of definitive meaning (nītārtha), so that they all had the same intention (dgongs gcig). Also based on esoteric Buddhist ideals, Dol bu pa Shes rab rgyal mtshan (1292–1361) represented the newly formed Jo nang school, a tradition grounded in KĀlacakra exegesis. Dol bu pa's reading of ŚŪnyatĀ (emptiness) emphasized an emptying of attributes from a ground of reality and became technically known as the "other emptiness" (gzhan stong). This position stood in opposition to the "self emptiness" (rang stong) of orthodox Madhyamaka school philosophy. Like the ideology of the eighth-century Chinese Heshang Moheyan and the more radical Rnying ma doctrines, most of these Tibetan contributions became refuted by the orthodox, who adhered to a narrow definition of acceptable statements based on conformity to Indian texts by specific authors.

The Sa skya were granted control over Tibet during the Yuan dynasty, with the fifth of the great Sa skya teachers, 'Phags pa blo gros rgyal mtshan (1235–1280) proclaimed Kublai Khan's national preceptor in 1261. Sa skya leaders supported Mongol policies, such as the first census of Tibet, and some scholars became influenced by Mongol and Chinese literature, with Chinese imperial records translated into Tibetan. However, about 1350, during the Yuan decline, the Bka' brgyud pa monk Ta'i si tu Byang chub rgyal mtshan (1302–1364) challenged the Sa skya for control of Central Tibet. He was successful in some measure, and his Phag mo gru pa subtradition was the dominant political force for most of the next century.

One result was the formalization of the Tibetan canon under Ta'i si tu's patronage, by Bu ston (ButÖn) Rin chen grub (1290–1364). Bu ston catalogued the tantric canon (rgyud 'bum) section of the translated scriptures (Bka' 'gyur) and compiled the translated authoritative treatises (Bstan 'gyur). In the canonical compilation process, Bu ston wrote a history of the dharma, where scriptures and treatises were set out in a grand schematism of history, cosmology, and mythology. About the same time, the learned Sa skya hierarch, Bla ma dam pa Bsod nams rgyal mtshan (1312–1375), wrote the Rgyal rabs gsal ba'i me long (Mirror Illuminating Royal Genealogy), representing the popular mythology of the imperial period and origin of the Tibetan people.

Moreover, the peculiarly Tibetan office of the reincarnate lama became institutionalized. One of Sgam po pa's important disciples, the Karma pa I Dus gsum mkhyen pa (1110–1193) was said to have prophesied his own rebirth as Karma pa II Karma Pakshi (1204–1283). While earlier teachers were said to be the reembodiment of specific saints or bodhisattvas, this was the first formalization of reincarnation, with the previous saint's disciples maintaining continuity and instructing his reembodiment. Following the lead of the Bka' brgyud pa, most traditions eventually appropriated the institution.

Great institutions and the Dga' ldan pa in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries

If the previous three centuries represented an intense struggle with intellectual and canonical issues, the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries demonstrated the struggle for institutional authenticity. In part because of the political power wielded by the Sa skya and Bka' brgyud orders, many of the cloisters had become more social or political institutions, with religious involvement in the hands of the great clans or landed interests. Indeed, Tibetan monasteries were ripe for reformation, with great wealth and political authority eclipsing aspects of spirituality.

The most important event of this period was the rise and development of the reform order of Tsong khapa Blo bzang grags pa (1357–1419). Born in Amdo, Tsong kha pa originally studied in many traditions, but his most important intellectual influence was the Sa skya monk Red mda' ba (1349–1412), who had championed the radical Prāsaṅgika-Madhaymaka system of CandrakĪrti (ca. 600–650). However, Tsong kha pa became dissatisfied with the contemporary understanding of monastic institutions and more general aspects of scholarship. With successive visions of Mañjuśrī, Tsong kha pa understood that he was to emphasize the system that Atisha had brought to Tibet. Eventually, after many years of wandering through Tibet bestowing instruction, he was persuaded to settle down and in 1409 founded the monastery of Dga' ldan, the Tibetan translation of Tuṣita, the name of Maitreya's heaven. Tsong kha pa's order was called the Dga' ldan pa, although it was also known as the new Bka' gdams pa or the Dge lugs (Geluk; Virtuous Order). He changed the color of their hats to yellow as well, giving them the name Yellow Hats in the West.

In a series of important treatises, he articulated a systematization of the exoteric Mahāyāna meditative path (Lam rim chen mo) and the esoteric practice according to the VajrayĀna (Sngags rim chen mo). In the latter instance, he employed interpretive systems developed by exponents of the Guhyasamāja tantra to articulate a systematic hermeneutics that could be applied to all tantras. Tsong kha pa, though, is best noted for his intellectual synthesis of the Madhyamaka and Yogācāra systems of Buddhism, using Indian treatises as a basis for his great commentaries and subcommentaries, and emphasizing the philosophical position of Candrakīrti.

Three of his disciples were most important in the continuation of his work. Rgyal tshab Dar ma rin chen (1364–1432) was Tsong kha pa's successor at Dga' ldan and was especially noted for his orthodox summaries and commentaries that became the basis for much of Dge lugs pa scholasticism. Mkhas grub Dge legs dpal bzang (1385–1438) succeeded him at Dga' ldan and was known for his acerbic tone toward his contemporaries as well as his epistemological treatises and his Kālacakra tantra exegesis. Dge 'dun grub pa (1391–1474, posthumously the first Dalai Lama) founded the great monastery of Bkra shis lhun po in 1447 and was also noted for his scholarly work on epistemology. The rush to construct new Dga' ldan pa monasteries continued through the fifteenth century, with 'Bras spung (1416) and Se ra (1419) founded in the area of Lhasa, while others spread out east and west. Some of these monasteries eventually enrolled several thousand monks and were virtual religious cities. Part of this process led to the mission of Bsod nams rgya mtsho (1543–1588) to the Mongols, who had lapsed from Buddhist practice after their involvement with the Sa skya. Widely received, he was given the title Dalai Lama by Altan Khan, a title extended to his earlier incarnations beginning with Dge 'dun grub pa. Bsod nams rgya mtsho's reincarnation (Dalai Lama IV, Yon tan rgya mtsho, 1589–1616) was discovered as the great-grandson of Altan Khan, the only Dalai Lama not Tibetan by birth.

The intellectual and institutional vitality of the Dga' ldan pa did not go unopposed, and the Sa skya in particular found much to criticize. Interestingly, the Sa skya tradition also became involved in its own reform movement. Ngor chen Kun dga' bzang po (1382–1456) founded the monastery of Ngor E wam chos ldan in 1429 and established it as the most important tradition of esoteric Lam 'bras instruction, supplemented by the personality and work of Tshar chen Blo gsal rgya mtsho (1502–1566).

The sixteenth century was a high-water mark for scholarship in other traditions as well. Karma pa VIII, Mi bskyod rdo rje (1504–1557), questioned the basis for Dga' ldan pa confidence and provided a critique of the Rnying ma as well. The Bka' brgyud pa historians Dpa' bo Gtsug lag phreng ba (1504–1566) and 'Brug chen Pad ma dkar po (1527–1592) forcefully established their readings of Tibetan history and the tantric movement. Mnga' ris pan chen Pad ma dbang rgyal (1487–1542) formulated the classic Rnying ma statement of the triple discipline. Sog bzlog pa Blo gros rgyal mtshan (b. 1552) compiled the statements of Rnying ma opponents and established a defense of Rnying ma and treasure legitimacy.

The Dalai Lamas and Rnying ma revitalization in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries

The Tibetan religious landscape changed dramatically again in the seventeenth century. Clans in the provinces of Dbus and Gtsang had been warring for several decades, and each had its associated religious affiliation. In Dbus, the fifth Dalai Lama—affectionately known to Tibetans as the Great Fifth (Za hor ban de Ngag dbang blo bzang rgya mtsho, 1617–1682)—had developed a base of power in 'Bras spung Monastery. The Great Fifth Dalai Lama was extraordinarily learned, with teachers from the Dga' ldan, Sa kya, Zha lu, and Rnying ma traditions. He was also highly ambitious and built on the previous Dalai Lamas' Mongolian connections, finally using the military might of Gushri Khan's Qoshot Mongols to solidify control over Tibet in 1642, inaugurating the reign of the Dalai Lamas.

Some traditions favored by the Great Fifth were greatly benefited. Because of his strong Rnying ma connections (he was one of the very few Dgan' ldan pa treasure finders) the Rnying ma tradition prospered. This was an important time for treasure traditions, with visionaries like Mi 'gyur rdo rje (1647–1667) and U rgyan gter bdag gling pa (1616–1714) revealing new textual cycles. Likewise, Rnying ma scholarship flourished, with scholars like Lo chen Dharma śrī (1654–1717). Virtually all the greatest Rnying ma monasteries were built during this period—Rdo rje brag (1632), Kaḥ tog (originally 1159 but resurrected in 1656), Dpal yul (1665), O rgyan smin grol gling (1670), Rdzogs chen (1685), and Zhe chen (1735). Despite a short-lived suppression from 1717 to 1720, the Rnying ma tradition in the eighteenth century was graced by exceptional figures as well, especially the historian Kah tog rig 'dzin Tshe dbang nor bu (1698–1755) and the Omniscient 'Jigs med gling pa (1730–98). 'Jigs med gling pa was to dominate Rnying ma meditative traditions for the next two centuries with his Klong chen snying thig revelations.

Conversely, traditions not favored by the Great Fifth experienced significant problems. Most notoriously, he suppressed the Jo nang order, which had been undergoing a revival through the profound influence of Jo nang Tārānātha (1575–1634), an erudite scholar and historian. However, after 1642 the monastery was placed in Dga' ldan pa hands, the literature of the Jo nang pa was suppressed, and the order survived only in a few minor convents in far northeastern Tibet. The works of scholars critical of Tsong kha pa or his disciples were also suppressed, so that copies survived only in rare collections. The unfortunate sectarianism displayed by the Dga' ldan pa at this time was embodied in the literary form of the monastic syllabus (yig cha), the obligatory textbook of sectarian principles. Sectarianism was occasionally mitigated by open-minded Dga' ldan scholars like Lcang skya rol pa'i rdo rje (1717–1786).

This period was the great printing period for Tibetan Buddhism. Despite Tibetan forays into wood-block printing as early as the thirteenth century in Mongolia, the entire Tibetan canon (Bka' 'gyur and Bstan 'gyur) was not completely printed until the eighteenth century. The first Bka' 'gyur editions were printed under Chinese patronage, which continued through the eighteenth century (Yongle, 1410; Wanli, 1606; Kangxi, 1684–1692, 1700, 1717–1720; Qianlong, 1737). Editions produced in Tibet included the Li tang (1608–1621), Snar thang (1730–1732), Sde dge (1733), Co ni (1721–1731), and the Lha sa (1930s). The Bstan 'gyur editions include the Qianlong (1724), Sde dge (1737–1744), Snar thang (1741–1742), and Cho ni (1753–1773). In this same period, the collected works of the Sa skya masters were printed in Sde dge (ca.1737), and 'Jigs med gling pa reorganized and expanded the Old Tantric Canon; it was eventually printed from 1794 to 1798.

The modern nonsectarian movement and monastic intransigence in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries

The nineteenth century saw the rise of a nonsectarian movement in Eastern Tibet (Khams), where the Sa skya and the Rnying ma orders were especially supported. This movement tried to move Tibetans from a narrow view of lineage toward an ecumenical vision of Buddhist study and practice and specialized in the collection and publication of compendia of religious practice and ideas. 'Jam dbyang Mkhyen brtse'i dbang po (1820–1892) received training in both Sa skya and Rnying ma schools, and he promoted the study of their esoteric systems. Kong sprul Blo gros mtha' yas (1813–1899) developed a synthetic vision of treasure, one that integrated Rnying ma, Bon po, and Bka' brgyud systems all together in his great Rin chen gter mdzod (Treasury of Gems). In the Sa skya order, 'Jam dbyang Blo gter dbang po (1847–ca. 1914) brought together two great compendia of new translation practices, as well as editing and publishing the Sa skya esoteric system of the Lam 'bras in the face of criticism about the loss of secrecy. Two Rnying ma scholars established specifically Rnying ma scholastic syllabi: 'Ju Mi pham (1846–1912) and Mkhan po Gzhan dga' (1871–1927), the former studied by Rnying ma students, while Gzhan dga' was also favored by the Ngor pa subsect of the Sa skya.

By the turn of the twentieth century, Tibetans were becoming exposed to the wider world, especially through the Younghusband expedition (1904). With a British trade agent forcibly placed in Tibet, the Chinese responded, and the thirteenth Dalai Lama alternatively took refuge with the Chinese and the British, with Tibetans becoming aware that the world was unexpectedly changing. Sometimes this awareness had unforeseen consequences, and the scholar Dge 'dun chos 'phel (1901–1951) was especially provocative, as a monk with an interest in journalism, erotic literature, and intellectual criticism.

Communism and the Tibetan diaspora

The Communist Chinese military success of 1949 and subsequent invasion of Tibet in 1950 succeeded in subduing Tibet, where centuries of prior Chinese efforts had failed. For Buddhist traditions, the initial destruction of temples and monasteries in Eastern Tibet was still relatively modest, and many believed that Tibet could negotiate with Mao Zedong. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976 changed everything, with the resultant massive destruction of virtually all monastic institutions and much of the religious art and literature. Some had read the signs, and Tibetans carried out or hid an astonishing amount of their portable art and books.

The fourteenth Dalai Lama had already fled Tibet in 1959, and over the next decade a steady stream of refugees began to populate the camps on Indian soil—perhaps 100,000 in all. Ever true to their traditions, Tibetans immediately set about to construct temples, monasteries, monastic schools, and print their sacred books. The latter project was assisted by the Public Law 480 Program of the United States, especially when directed by the brilliant Tibetologist E. Gene Smith, so that Tibetan (and other) books were purchased as part of Indian debt servicing to the United States. The Public Law 480 Program allowed foreign scholars access to Tibet's great literature for the first time, while publishers could provide monasteries with discounted copies of their literature.

Post-Maoist Tibet

Since the opening of Tibet after the Cultural Revolution, there has been a resurgence of Buddhist practice. The Chinese have resurrected religious buildings—the Potala, Norbulinka, the Jo khang, and so on—as museums for tourism, and Tibet's cities have become Han Chinese enclaves, but Buddhism is thriving in the countryside. Ever suspicious of religion, the Chinese have sought to control monastic construction and the number of clergy. The participation of monks (and foreign sympathizers) in insurrections has exacerbated Beijing's mistrust. Even then, individual teachers have temporarily managed against great obstacles, although their building efforts are often dismantled. Certain lamas find allies in Han businessmen, who provide capital and political legitimacy to construction projects. China has also played politics with the process of reincarnation, installing its own Panchen Lama and incarcerating the Dalai Lama's choice. More curiously, Tibetan publishing has taken off in the People's Republic of China since Mao's death, making many rare chronicles available for the first time.

The continued tug-of-war between the Dalai Lama's government in Dharamsala and Beijing over human rights and religious freedom is in part incomprehension by Beijing, in part stalling tactics until the Dalai Lama's death. Many young Tibetans in diaspora chafe at the Dalai Lama's pacifism, and there is unhappiness among some Tibetans in India or Nepal about either the Dalai Lama's policies or his ecumenical religious position. Some Dga' ldan pa sectarianism continues and promotes Rdo rje shugs ldan, a divinity representing the dominance of the Dga' ldan pa. American movie stars and the 1989 Nobel Prize for peace for the Dalai Lama have provided legitimacy to Tibetan aspirations, at the cost of some integrity. Yet, despite tensions inside Tibet and elsewhere, there can be little doubt that Buddhism and national identity are so intertwined in Tibetans' minds that the continuation of some sort of Buddhist practice by Tibetans is assured.

See also:Apocrypha; Communism and Buddhism; Himalayas, Buddhist Art in


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Stein, R. A. Tibetan Civilization. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1972.

Thondup, Tulku. Hidden Teachings of Tibet: An Explanation of the Terma Tradition of the Nyingma School of Buddhism. London: Wisdom, 1986.

Tucci, Giuseppe. Tibetan Painted Scrolls. Rome: La Libreria Dello Stato, 1949. Reprint, 3 vols., Bangkok, Thailand: SDI, 1999.

Tucci, Giuseppe. The Religions of Tibet, tr. Geoffrey Samuel. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.

Ronald M. Davidson


views updated May 18 2018


ETHNONYMS: Bodpa, Bhotia (Chinese terms for Tibetans)


Identification. The Tibetans are a Central Asian group living primarily on the high plateau of southwestern China and throughout sections of the Himalayas. The term "Tibet," which appeared in various forms on early maps of Arabic explorers, is thought to be derived either from the Tibetan term for "upper Tibet," stod bod, or from the early Indian name for Tibet, bhot. Ethnic Tibetans often refer to themselves by the place-names of their geographic area or a tribal name, such as the Ladakhi and Zanskari people of northern India and the Golock tribal people of Amdo.

Location. Prior to 1959, the majority of Tibetans lived on the Central Asian plateau bounded on the south by the Himalayas, on the west by the Karakorum, on the east by the Tangkula Mountains, and on the north by the Kunlun Mountains and the Taklamakan Desert. This is a high mountain plateau of more than 3.9 million square kilometers, which averages 12,000 feet above sea level, has extreme temperature fluctuations, and receives 46 centimeters or less of annual precipitation.

Following 1959, a substantial number of Tibetans migrated from the plateau to Bhutan, Nepal, India, and other countries. There are currently several large reserves of Tibetans in India, some with as many as 5,000 inhabitants.

Demography. Estimates of the Tibetan population are subject to dispute. No internal census was taken prior to 1950; various foreign visitors estimated the total population of Tibetans at between 3 and 6 million. The fighting in the 1950s over control of the plateau caused substantial human loss. The current (1990) Chinese figures for the total population of ethnic Tibetans within Chinese borders is 4.5 million, about half in the Tibet Autonomous Region, the rest in Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan provinces. The Indian government has estimated the number of ethnic Tibetans currently in India at approximately 100,000.

Linguistic Affiliation. Tibetan belongs to the Tibetan-Burmese Branch of the Sino-Tibetan Language Family. It is also known as "Bodish." There are two Tibetan languages, Central Tibetan and Western Tibetan, with many regional dialects spoken throughout the plateau, the Himalayas, and parts of South Asia. Tibetan is monosyllabic with no consonant clusters, five vowels, twenty-six consonants, an ablaut verb system, tones and a subject-object-verb word order. The Tibetan script is a readaptation of a northern Indian script devised for the first historical king around a.d. 630.

History and Cultural Relations

Archaeological and linguistic evidence indicate that people entered the plateau from the northeast approximately 13,000 years ago. In time they migrated throughout the plateau and settled in larger numbers along the Tsangpo River, which runs parallel to the Himalayas in the southern region. In this southernly arc, Tibetan kingdoms began to develop as early as a.d. 400, according to some commentators. The oldest extant example of Tibetan writing, which dates from around a.d. 767, indicates the presence in this region of a settled kingdom. Tibetan history begins with the Tibetan Empire period (a.d. 632 to 842): armies conquered and controlled large sections of Central Asia to the northwest and northern China and Mongolia to the northeast. After the murder of the last king of the Yarlung dynasty, decentralizaion ensued and many smaller states were formed throughout the plateau. Buddhism, which had first been introduced during the empire period, gained popularity during this time and became a central feature of Tibetan ethnicity.

In the thirteenth century one sect of Tibetan Buddhism (the Sa skyas pa), with the help of Mongolian supporters, took control of much of central Tibet and established a theocracy that lasted for 100 years. Three secular dynasties followed between the years 1354 and 1642the Phagmogru, the Rinpung, and the Tsangpa. In the middle of the seventeenth century the Gelugspa, or Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism, with the help of Mongolian supporters of their charismatic leader, the Dalai Lama, took control of the central part of the plateau, which they held for 300 years. British incursion into the country from the south and Chinese incursions from the north in the twentieth century demonstrated that the Tibetans had not cultivated military strength. In late 1950 the army of the People's Republic of China marched into eastern Tibet and claimed sovereignty over the plateau but left the Dalai Lama as leader and administrator of the country. A decade of negotiation and military skirmishes ensued, which culminated in a general uprising and the flight of the Dalai Lama and thousands of his supporters to India in 1959.

The plateau and contiguous areas of Tibetan settlement are now part of the People's Republic of China (PRC) and divided between the Tibet Autonomous Region and the neighboring provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan, where several prefectures or counties are designated for Tibetans as autonomous areas. In Dharamsala, India, the Dalai Lama heads the administration of the government-in-exile of Tibet, which oversees the affairs of over 100,000 Tibetans in exile in India, Nepal, and abroad. Negotiations conducted in the 1980s did not produce any compromises nor result in the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet.


Tibetans are traditionally divided into groups according to geographic origin, occupation, and social status. The plateau was divided into five general regions, each with a distinctive climate: the northern plain, which is almost uninhabited; the southern belt on the Tsangpo River, which is the heart of the agricultural settlements; western Tibet, a mountainous and arid area; the southeast, which has rich temperate and subtropical forests and more rainfall; and the northeast terrain of rolling grasslands dotted with mountains, famous for its herding. Traditionally, settlement patterns were determined by region and by the three major occupations: peasant farming, nomadic herding, and monkhood. Peasants lived in single dwellings as well as village clusters, whereas nomads lived in tents, camping both individually and in clusters as they followed their herds through seasonal migration patterns. Monks lived in monasteries of varying sizes, some reportedly with as many as 10,000 individuals. There are only three major urban centers, all located in the southern belt of the plateau. The nonnomadic society was also divided into hierarchic social groups ranging from the ruler and the noble elite to private landowners, peasants, and craftspersons.

Since the incorporation of Tibet into the PRC after 1950, many Han Chinese have migrated onto the plateau, primarily to the urban centers, where they now outnumber the ethnic Tibetans. Nomads were originally settled into camps but have recently been allowed to resume transhumance patterns.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Prior to 1950, Tibetan farmers' primary crop was high-altitude barley, with wheat, buckwheat, peas, mustard, radishes, and potatoes following in importance.

Irrigation systems were coordinated by the village, which was also the cooperative unit for corvée. Nomads raised yaks (animals particularly suited to the high altitude and severe climate of the north), sheep, a cow-yak crossbreed, and at lower altitudes, cattle and goats. At annual or biennial markets throughout Tibet, rural nomads and farmers exchanged produce and purchased other commodities. For distant nomadic communities, annual grain-trading expeditions occurred in the late fall; each encampment of tents functioned as a unit and each family contributed a member or supplies to the group traveling down to the market in the lower regions. The large urban centers, such as the capital city of Lhasa, had daily markets displaying goods from all over the world. Particular areas of Tibet were well known for the production of certain crops or the manufacture of certain items or raw products. For example, bamboo for pens and high-quality paper came from the southeast, excellent horses from the northeast, wood products from the east, and gold, turquoise, and other gems from two or three specific areas in the south and west. Currently, most of the manufactured products in Tibet come from urban centers in the PRC, but local markets in the rural areas continue to allow for pastoralist-peasant exchange.

Industrial Arts. Tibetans practiced a wide range of traditional trades, including flour milling, canvas painting, paper making, rope braiding, wool and fiber processing, weaving and textile production, tanning, metalwork, carpentry, and wood carving. Individual household or small-scale production was the norm, with the exception of a few activities, such as the printing of religious manuscripts and books, which was handled at large monasteries on more of a mass-production basis.

Trade. There is evidence of Tibetans trading extensively both on and off the plateau as early as the seventh century a.d.exporting raw materials and importing manufactured products. Overland routes to China, India, Nepal, and Central Asia allowed the large-scale export of animals, animal products, honey, salt, borax, herbs, gemstones, and metal in exchange for silk, paper, ink, tea, and manufactured iron and steel products. The government granted lucrative yearly monopolies on products such as salt. In the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, British, Russian, and Chinese missions to Tibet tried to control trade and open markets in the country. Since 1950 trade has been regulated by the PRC.

Division of Labor. There were traditional distinctions in wealth and status among both the peasants and nomads. Hired laborers and servants freed wealthier families from most of the manual labor of daily life. Social distinctions between aristocrats and commoners or between different strata of the commoner class were reflected in dress, housing, and speech used to one's superiors, peers, and inferiors.

Although Tibetan women are in charge of child rearing, food preparation, cooking, and other domestic activities and men do the bulk of the work outside of the home, both genders are commonly capable of performing all basic household and nonhousehold tasks. In the monasteries and nunneries, same-sex occupants perform all of the household and external tasks for the community. In larger cities, butchering, metalworking, and other low-status crafts were traditionally confined to particular groups.

Land Tenure. Prior to 1955, much of the Tibetan plateau was considered the ultimate property of the central government in Lhasa and the ruler of Tibet, the Dalai Lama. Each peasant household had a deed, in the name of the eldest male, to the property that it farmed. Many of the peasant farmers were also organized into estates, which were an intermediate form of title holding by monasteries, incarnate lamas, or aristocratic families. The laborers attached to the estate owed taxes and corvée to the lord and were not free to move elsewhere without permission. Being bound to an estate, however, did not prevent some families from hiring others to fulfill their obligations to the lord or from traveling for purposes of trade and pilgrimage. These three levels of ownership constituted the bulk of Tibetan land tenure before 1950. Land-reform policies in Tibet under the Communist government have involved a few experiments with collective farming and ownership. Most rural peasants still farm the land of their family household, but intermediate titles have generally been extinguished.


Kin Groups and Descent. The most important functioning kin group is the extended family constituted as a household. Family names, which are carried by the males of some families, reflect the patrilineal inheritance pattern and are also used to demarcate the noble families.

Kinship Terminology. Formal kinship terminology in the southern region, among the peasant population, distinguishes between patri- and matrilaterals at the second ascending generation, is bifurcate-collateral at the first ascending generation, and shows a typical Hawaiian generational pattern at Ego's generation level. In practice, this system results in a strong bias toward distinguishing between one's matrilateral and one's patrilateral kin for the purposes of inheritance. For relatives of his or her own level, including cousins, the average Tibetan simply uses the terms "brother" and "sister." There is local and regional variation in terminology throughout the plateau.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Among the peasants of the southern arc of the Tibetan plateau, traditional marriage patterns exhibited a great deal of variety and flexibility through the individual's life cycle. The seven forms of marriage were: fraternal polyandry (a set of brothers marries one woman), father-son and unrelated male polyandry, sororal polygyny (a set of sisters marries one man), mother-daughter and unrelated female polygyny, and monogamy. Monogamy was the most frequent form of marriage. Traditionally, Tibetans calculated the degree of relation allowed in marriage as five generations back on the mother's side and seven on the father's, although many were unable to determine genealogy this far back. Although of astrological and cosmological import, marriage was viewed as a nonreligious joining of two households and individuals. Postmarital residence was generally virilocal.

Marriages were class-endogamous. Serfs from different manors who wished to marry required permission from their lords or their lords' agents. Yellow sect lamas do not marry, but lamas of most other sects are free to do so.

Domestic Unit. The peasant household was the chief domestic unit; it was often, but not necessarily constituted of three generations of males and their wives and children. Individuals of both genders rotated in and out of the household with great flexibility.

Inheritance. Although the traditional inheritance pattern for peasant land was patrilineal descent and primogeniture, both males and females could inherit land or receive it as a gift. Maintenance of the household as the landholding, tax-paying unit could be accomplished by any member of the family. Personal property could also be inherited by any member of the family, although women commonly passed on to their daughters their jewelry, clothing, and other personal possessions. Monks and nuns did not inherit. Wills, oral or written, could alter the inheritance pattern.

Socialization. Tibetans dote on their children but believe in strong discipline and religious instruction. Traditionally, the pattern in Tibet was to raise children to follow the same occupations as their parents unless they chose to become traders or take religious vows and leave the family. Only those children entering government service were given formal education.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The web of bilateral kin associated with households was the basis for local social organization. Villages had headmen and head irrigators who coordinated agricultural projects.

Titleholders coordinated estates into social units. Monasteries and nunneries operated as independent social units within communities. Tibetans also form associations called skyid sdug for a variety of purposes: to coordinate prayers, dances, singing, religious festivals, marriages, pilgrimages, funerals, commercial ventures, and other activities.

Political Organization. Much of the Tibetan plateau has been governed, since as early as the seventh century, by a central dynasty or theocracy with a small administrative bureaucracy. This bureaucracy was supplied with officials from the elite nobility and the monasteries in exchange for intermediate title to estates of land. For 300 years prior to 1950, the government was headed by a Buddhist monk, the Dalai Lama, who, upon death, reincarnated into a small child and resumed leadership in a new body. Under his leadership, the bureaucracy was divided into an ecclesiastical branch and a secular branch that handled a redistributive economy based on taxation by household. Networks of monasteries controlled by sects of Tibetan Buddhism were also important political players. Local authority was placed in the village headman or estate steward, who coordinated tax collection and corvée and handled local disputes. Historically, Tibetans have embraced the union of religion and politics and left the functions of the military, thought to be irreligious, to foreign groups such as the Mongols or Chinese. Since 1950 Tibet has been gradually incorporated into the government of the PRC.

Social Control. Tibetans have an ancient and unique set of legal procedures that were based on early law codes and commonly used throughout the plateau. There were few governmental sanctions for any crimes other than murder and treason. A variety of forums was available for the settlement of disputes, and most cases remained open until all parties had agreed. Traditional social control was based on family and village relations.

Conflict. Conflict occurred over land boundaries, animal ownership, commercial agreements, injuries, fights, and a wide range of other issues. In general, it was disdained as an indication of a lack of religious training.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Tibetans are devoutly religious. Tibetan Buddhism, the religion of the entire population except for a tiny Muslim minority, is a syncretic mix of Indian Buddhism, Tantrism, and the local pantheistic religion. The organization of the religion, its public practice, and the observance of religious holidays are coordinated primarily by monasteries associated with temples. The priests, called lamas, were estimated to constitute from one-sixth to one-fourth of the population prior to 1950. Although the goal of Tibetan Buddhism is individual enlightenment, the social organization of the religion rests on a laity that is expected to support the religious practices of the monastic population. Thus, Tibetans contributed sons, produce, savings, and labor to the monasteries to acquire religious merit.

Religious Practitioners. Monasteries of various sects of Tibetan Buddhism were the centers of educational training in all the basic arts, crafts, and professions, including medicine. Monk initiates were divided into groups according to social status and ability and given training for a variety of tasks. The degree of religious teacher, dge bshe, required more than ten years of diligent study, memorization of texts, practice in debate, and examinations. Monks conducted most public religious ceremonies (including operatic performances), which constituted the bulk of Tibetan ceremonial life and followed the traditional Buddhist calendrical cycle. Oracles, mediums, and exorcists were also commonly monks but could be local peasants in rural areas. In western Tibet and pastoral areas of Qinghai, an earlier form of Buddhism mixed with the pre-Buddhist native religion (Bon) is practiced.

Arts. Tibetan traditional arts focused on religious worship and included scroll paintings of deities, sculpture, carved altars, religious texts, altar implements, statues of precious metal inlaid with gems, appliquéd temple hangings, operatic costumes for religious performances, religious music, and religious singing. Most of these crafts were carried out by monks in monasteries. In addition to collections of older Buddhist scriptures, Tibetan writing and literature includes works on history, philosophy, medicine, mathematics, and astronomy as well as works of fiction and poetry. Local peasants produced utilitarian household objects for their own use or purchased them at a local market. Women wore multibanded front aprons, regionally specific headdresses, and jewelry.

Medicine. Tibetan medicine evolved over a thousand years into a series of nonintrusive techniques including listening to blood flow through the wrist, analysis of urine and anatomical parts, listening to the heart and lungs, questioning the patient, and administering carefully prepared herbal pills. The body is considered to be composed of various elements balanced by nutrition, religious practices, mental states, and relations with deities. The training process for physicians was long and often limited to monks.

Death and Afterlife. Tibetans practice sky-burial, a process of returning the corporal body to the environment by pulverizing the parts and leaving them exposed to the elements and the vultures. An individual's karmic seeds are thought to remain in bar do, a liminal zone, for forty-nine days after death, during which time they enter a new body (that of a human, a hell being, a god, or an animal) to start a new life cycle. This recurrent process of life, death, and rebirth continues until an individual achieves enlightenment.


Aziz, Barbara (1978). Tibetan Frontier Families. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press.

Dalai Lama (1962). My Land and My People. New York: Potala Corporation.

French, Rebecca (in press, 1993). The Golden Yoke: The Legal System of Buddhist Tibet. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Snellgrove, David, and Hugh Richardson (1980). A Cultural History of Tibet. Boulder, Colo.: Prahna Press.



views updated May 14 2018


Historical Background

Tibet is a country with ancient religious and mystical traditions that, over the last two centuries, have become the focus of occult legends. The peaceful accumulation of data on Tibet was abruptly altered following the Chinese communist invasion in October 1950, when Tibet lost its independent status. On May 23, 1951, Tibetan leaders were obliged to sign a Sino-Tibetan agreement for "the peaceful liberation of Tibet."

Tibetans had formerly been a separate people with a distinctive language, culture, and religion, but had been in an uneasy relationship with China since 1720, when the Manchus entered Tibet to help drive out Mongol invaders and used the situation to become overlords. Over the subsequent period, the acknowledgment of Chinese suzerainty was the price of Tibetan autonomy, but for practical purposes Tibet was an independent state.

The 1950 invasion was justified by the Chinese as necessary in order to destroy inequitable feudalism in Tibet and to bring progress, education, and social justice. In practice, this involved suppression of the Buddhist religion, destruction of monasteries and their libraries, and the public humiliation of priests. Tibet was a theocratic society and any reorganization of its governmental system would necessarily involve the destruction of the power held by the Buddhist religious functionaries.

In all fairness, it must be said that these and other reported violations of human rights were largely paralleled by similar excesses in China itself in the early period of the communist revolution and the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution. Since then, however, the age-old Buddhist religion of Tibet has been largely suppressed and related occult practices replaced by practical socialism and exploitation of Tibetan resources and territory.

Religion and Superstition

Buddhism came to Tibet from India in the eighth century

C.E. and it pushed aside the earlier polytheistic and magical religion of the Tibetan people. However, the price of the conquest was the integration of many of the old deities, beliefs, and occult practices into the unique form of Buddhism that emerged in the land. Also moving into Tibet from India was a form of Hindu tantra, with its emphasis upon the subtle energies of the body and ritualized sex. Strong superstitions, belief in ghosts, demons, and magic coexisted with deep mystical thought.

The apostle of Buddhism in Tibet was named Padmasambhava and entered the country in the 1740s. As Buddhism developed, it divided into various sects, the degree of acceptance of the local religion being an important differentiating factor. The four main groups are popularly distinguished by the color of the hats their followers wear. The older Red Caps or Ningmapas, for example, follow the Adi-Yoga or path of the Great Perfection, founded by the guru Padmasambhava, while the Yellow Cap sect or Gelugpas follow a Middle Way Buddhism; the Kargyütpas, or Followers of Successive Order (deriving from the great Tibetan saint Milarepa, died 1135, successor of the revered gurus Marpa, Tilopa, and Naropa) follow the way of Mahamudra or Great Symbol. As with the various sects of Hindu

religious philosophy, with their many subtle emphases, the general overall philosophy of the four groups is the same.

By the fifteenth century a teaching had emerged in Tibet that the heads of all of the many monasteries were bodhisattvas, highly evolved beings who were refraining from entering Nirvana to assist other souls in their spiritual pilgrimage. The monastic rulers, or lamas, thus attained a unique role in Tibetan Buddhism as well as significant political power as temporal rulers.

The present spiritual leader of Tibet, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, who escaped to India in 1959, and the other lamas and their successors, are dedicated to keeping alive the spiritual traditions and the political aspirations to independence of the Tibetan people.

Like his predecessors, the Dalai Lama is claimed as a living incarnation of the Divine Spirit, and was discovered as such by traditional search and testing. When a Dalai Lama (or any lama for that matter) departs from life, priests traditionally conduct a search for his successor through signs and visions. Selected children are tested by their ability to recognize objects belonging to the former Dalai Lama. After identification, the child is brought to the holy city of Lhasa and initiated as a monk in the monastery of the Potala, which becomes a power center of the Divine Spirit, which issues forth from the Dalai Lama over the whole of Tibet. As Tibetan Buddhism has spread to the west and lamas have died in the west, the search for successors has also been conducted in the families of Western converts and several European children have been "identified" as reincarnated lamas.

The title "Dalai Lama" is from a Mongolian term meaning "Wide Ocean," and is not normally used by Tibetans among themselves, who prefer such terms as "Precious Protector" or "Precious Ruler," of Kundun (Presence), implying spiritual association. The first Dalai Lama was Tsong Ka-pa, born in Am-do in 1358. His disciples became the Yellow Hat sect, as distinct from the earlier priesthood of the Red Hats.

In addition to the regular monastic disciplines of complex prayer, meditation rites, and regular religious festivals, lamas traveling through Tibet were expected to act as oracles, fortune-tellers, and healers for the ordinary people. Prayer wheels with the mystic mantra "Om mani padme Hum" (Om, The Jewel in the Lotus) and rosaries were in use all over the country, and groups of prayer-flags fluttered around the villages. In the monasteries, tankas (complex symbolic mandala banners) became a focus for mystical meditation.

It is not difficult to understand why Lamaism should be permeated with demonology in view of the vast and terrifying grandeur of the Tibetan environment, in which the forces of nature appear to have the power of supernatural beings. Belief in magic was once universal.

The Dalai Lama came under attack in 1998 when he publicly announced that Dorje Shugden practices should no longer be performed by any sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Shugden has been regarded as a protector spirit of the Geluk sect, to which the Dalai Lama himself belongs. However, after studying ancient texts and consulting the state oracle, the Dalai Lama is convinced that Shugden is a hungry spirit and therefore incorrect to worship and regard as a protector for the Buddhist. Due to the Dalai Lama's opposing view, he is accused by some Buddhists for being a religious censor. Since the Tibetan culture and religion is thought to be near extinction, the Dalai Lama attempted to set a level of commonality between all sects of Buddhism. The great controversy that resulted from this attempted act of unification, may have also been the cause for the deaths of three monks in the Dalai Lama's inner circle.

Dissent within the Tibetan culture may be the result of the larger issues that still exist between Chinese and the Tibetan government-in-exile. The Chinese government seeks to control, and ultimately squelch, the Tibetan Buddhism religion. Ultimately the set-up of the religious hierarchy may become the demise of the religion itself. The Dalai Lama exists as the highest, top authority, while the Panchen Lama is the second in command, and the Karampa is the third in power. Presently the Panchen Lama, a boy of ten years, will be the one to choose the next Dalai Lama. However, with the aging Dalai Lama living in India, the Panchen Lama is still being held under Chinese supervision. This is a direct example of the Chinese wishing to control the Buddhist chain of command, and influence the continuity of the religion. The Chinese government conducted the search for this present Panchen Lama but the Dalai Lama announced their discovery publicly before ever having met him. The boy has never even been in Dharmsala, India. Thus, the boy has become a political pawn between the Dalai Lama (Tibetan Buddhism) and the Chinese government.

The Karampa, third in command, has been raised to heed the Chinese government as well. However, on December 28, 1999, he made his escape from Tibet to India to be united with the Dalai Lama. The two men met " 'as if a father was meeting his dear son after a long separation' ". The Dalai Lama reported his spirit as clear and strong saying after proper instruction he will be able to make great contributions. The struggle between Tibet and China continues and therefore the outcome of the survival of Tibetan Buddhism.

David-Neel's Psychic Sports

For centuries, Tibet was a forbidden territory to Westerners, and only a handful of Europeans succeeded in penetrating the country, usually in disguise. From 1912 on, an intrepid French-woman, Alexandra David-Neel, began a series of travels through Tibet over fourteen years. She acquired the rank of lama.

An Oriental scholar, David-Neel learned Sanskrit and Tibetan and studied the various forms of Buddhism and Lamaism. She became the first European woman to penetrate the holy city of Lhasa. Although skeptical regarding the supernatural, she gained firsthand experience of Tibetan ghosts and demons and saw the paranormal feats of mystics. In her book With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet (1931), she revealed how Tibetan mystics acquired the ability to live naked in zero temperatures by generating a protective body heat (tumo ), how they learned to float in air and walk on water, and how they brought corpses back to life or created thoughtforms that had independent existence.

She described such feats as "psychic sports," acquired by special mind and body training. Amongst such feats was the lung-gom training of "inner breathing" and meditation, which enabled an individual to travel at high speed for days and nights without stopping, sometimes with the feet hardly touching the ground. David-Neel herself witnessed a lung-gom-pa, or swift traveler. She described the special training necessary for feats of levitation and for thought-reading and telepathy ("sending thoughts on the wind").

She successfully experimented in the creation of a tulpa or phantom thoughtforms. After a period in isolation following special concentration techniques, she claimed that she succeeded in creating a phantom monk, who became a guest in her party, seen and accepted by the others. But in the course of time, this phantom form changed from a fat jolly monk, becoming lean, mocking, and somewhat malignant, and it was necessary for her to concentrate on special techniques to destroy a phantom, which was beginning to take on independent life.

She explained that Tibetans believed that such psychic phenomena were the result of utilizing natural forces by the powers of the mind. Her experiences seem to have been the result of a long and intimate association with Tibet and its peoples in a period when magic and mystery were more common. Few subsequent travelers have reported such remarkable phenomena, and her books survive as a unique record of a Tibet that has largely been destroyed. However, they helped create the image of Tibet as a place where the most successful mastery of the occult arts had been made. The spread of Buddhist masters to the

west has done much to offer a more mundane picture of Tibetan life.

Tibetan medicine, the fundamentals virtually unchanged for 2,000 years, is completely intertwined with Tibetan Buddhism, in that they are based on the most essential Buddhist belief, that of karma. Thus, unhealthy human actions, such as, greed, hatred, and desire can be the cause of disease. Like karma, disease can be caused from present as well as past actions. Disease is also thought to be caused by an imbalance of the three basic humors of the bodyair, bile, and phlegm. Diagnosis consists of three techniques, visual observation, pulse reading, and questioning. Simply put, Tibetan medicine is highly holistic in the areas of diagnosis and treatment. Treatments are usually always of the non-invasive variety. Lifestyle changes are recommended, medicines are made of herbs, and "surgery" consists of acupuncture, cauterization, hot and cold compresses, hot springs and vapor treatments.

A lot can be learned from Tibetan medicine by Western countries, as it and its practitioners listen and are aware of the individual body, as an extension of religion. The body then exists as only part of the whole scheme of the universe.

It is still too early to predict whether the upheavals of the last half of the twentieth century will involve a permanent loss of spiritual and psychic identity for the Tibetan people. Those many Tibetans who moved into exile have established strong enclaves of traditional Tibetan culture and many people have given of their time, energy, and financial resources to see that the manuscripts and artifacts taken out of the country are preserved.


Bernard, Theos. Land of a Thousand Buddhas. London: Rider, 1952.

Bromage, Bernard. Tibetan Yoga. London: Aquarian Press, 1952.

"A Buddha Busts Out: Inside the Dramatic Escape of a Living Buddha." Newsweek 135 (March 6, 2000): 38.

Chang, Garma C. C., trans. The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa. 2 vols. New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1962.

. Teachings of Tibetan Yoga. New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1963.

David-Neel, Alexandra. My Journey to Lhasa. London: William Heinemann, 1927.

. With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet. London: John Lane, 1931. Reprinted as Magic & Mystery in Tibet. New York: Claude H. Kendall, 1932. Reprint, New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1956.

David-Neel, Alexandra, and Lama Yongden. The Secret Oral Teachings in Tibetan Buddhist Sects. Calcutta, India: Maha Bodhi Society of India, n.d.

Evans-Wentz, W. Y. Tibet's Great Yogi Milarepa. London: Oxford University Press, 1928.

Gore, Donald R. "Tibetan Medicine." Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 42 (Winter '99): 270-71.

Harrer, Heinrich. Return to Tibet. London: Weinfeld & Nicholson, 1984.

. Seven Years in Tibet. London: Rupert Hart-Davis; New York: E. P. Dutton, 1953.

Klein, Richard. "The World's Youngest Political Prisoner." The Humanist. 59 (March 1999): 91.

Tibet and Freedom. The Tibet Society of the United Kingdom, 1961.

Tibetan Government in Exile Official Website. http://www.tibet.com/. June 19, 2000.

Waddell, L. Austine. Tibetan Buddhism: With Its Mystic Cults, Symbolism and Mythology, and in Its Relation to Indian Buddhism. London: W. H. Allen, 1895. Reprint, New York: Dover Publications, 1972.

Wilson, Mike. "Schisms, Murder, and Hungry Ghosts in Shangra-La." Cross Currents 49 (Spring 1999): 251.

Woodward, Kenneth. "A Scratch in the Teflon Lama." 131 (May 11, 1998): 64.


views updated Jun 08 2018


Tibet has been an independent country throughout the historical period and since time immemorial according to Tibetans' own myth-based sense of national identity. That independence is supported by the country's geography, history, language, culture, religion, and race.

Tibet's Rich Culture

Geographically, the Tibetan high plateau is a distinctively demarcated region, with boundaries starting at approximately the 10,000-feet altitude line. It can be clearly perceived on any relief map.

Historically, Tibetan dynasties often conflicted with Chinese dynasties. The Tibetan Yarlung dynasty (which ruled during the sixth through ninth centuries) conquered the Chinese T'ang dynasty (seventh through tenth centuries) for most of the eighth century. No indigenous Chinese dynasty ever conquered Tibet, though the Mongol Empire (thirteenth through fourteenth centuries) and the Manchu Empire (seventeenth through twentieth centuries) incorporated both China and Tibet under their imperial hegemony. The British Empire invaded Tibet and imposed a trade treaty on it, doing the same with China. However, none of these three empires made any attempt to homogenize China and Tibet into a single national entity, or to colonize Tibet with Mongolian, Manchu, British, or surrogate subject Chinese settlers. Except for a few border regions in the Far East, there was almost no Chinese population in high plateau Tibet until the People's Republic of China (PRC) invasion between 1949 and 1951.

Linguistically, the Tibetan language differs from the Chinese. Tibetan is written in an alphabetic system with noun declension and verb conjugation inflections based on Indic languages, as opposed to an ideographic character system. Formerly, Tibetan was considered a member of the "Tibeto-Burman" language group, a subgroup assimilated into a "Sino-Tibetan" language family. Chinese speakers cannot understand spoken Tibetan, and Tibetan speakers cannot understand Chinese, nor can they read each other's street signs, newspapers, or other texts.

Culturally, Chinese people tend not to know the myths, religious symbols, or history of Tibet, nor do Tibetans tend to know those of the Chinese. For example, few Tibetans know the name of any of the Chinese dynasties, nor have they heard of philosophers Confucius or Lao-tzu, and fewer Chinese know of the Yarlung dynasty, or have ever heard of Songzen Gampo (emperor who first imported Buddhism, seventh century), Padma Sambhava (eighth century religious leader), or Tsong Khapa (philosopher 1357–1419). Tibetan and Chinese clothing styles, food habits, family customs, household rituals, and folk beliefs are utterly distinct. The Chinese people traditionally did not herd animals and did not include milk or other dairy products in their diets; in fact, the Chinese people are the only large civilization on the earth that was not based on a symbiosis of upland herding people and lowland agriculturalists. Hence they were the only culture to create a defensive structure, the "Great Wall" in order to keep themselves separate from upland herding peoples such as Tibetans, Turks, and Mongolians.

Religiously, Buddhism is common to both Tibetan and Chinese cultures, being the main religion in Tibet and one of the three main religions in China. However, the main Chinese forms of Buddhism are quite different from the Tibetan forms (widely considered by Chinese Buddhists as an outlandish form of Buddhism they call "Lamaism," or Lama jiao in Chinese). Only in the twentieth century, among overseas Chinese and underground on the mainland, has interest arisen among Chinese in the spiritual leader known as the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhist teachings and rituals.

Racially or ethnically, while there is some resemblance in facial features and other physical characteristics among some eastern Tibetan and Chinese individuals, most Chinese and Tibetans are easily distinguishable on sight, and generally do not perceive each other upon meeting as racially or ethnically the same. The Tibetan acclimatization over many centuries to an altitude of two miles or higher has created a pronounced internal physical difference, as Chinese individuals do not acclimatize easily to Tibet, and long years of exposure to the altitude tends to produce various lung disabilities among Chinese settlers. Chinese mothers in wealthy families that settle in Tibet prefer to give birth to their babies in hospitals in neighboring, low-altitude cities such as Hsining or Chengdu.

Chinese Invasion and Dominance

In 1949 the People's Republic of China began invading, occupying, and colonizing Tibet. China entered into Tibet immediately after the communist victory over the Chinese Nationalists, imposed a treaty of "liberation" on the Tibetans, militarily occupied Tibet's territory, and divided that territory into twelve administrative units. It forcibly repressed Tibetan resistance between 1956 and 1959 and annexed Tibet in 1965. Since then it has engaged in massive colonization of all parts of Tibet. For its part, China claims that Tibet has always been a part of China, that a Tibetan person is a type of Chinese person, and that, therefore, all of the above is an internal affair of the Chinese people. The Chinese government has thus sought to overcome the geographical difference with industrial technology, erase and rewrite Tibet's history, destroy Tibet's language, suppress the culture, eradicate the religion (a priority of communist ideology in general), and replace the Tibetan people with Chinese people.

In China itself, communist leader Mao Zedong's policies caused the death of as many as 60 million Chinese people by war, famine, class struggle, and forced labor in thought-reform labor camps. As many as 1.2 million deaths in Tibet resulted from the same policies, as well as lethal agricultural mismanagement, collectivization, class struggle, cultural destruction, and forced sterilization. However, in the case of Tibet, the special long-term imperative of attempting to remove evidence against and provide justification for the Chinese claim of long-term ownership of the land, its resources, and its people gave these policies an additional edge.

The process of the Chinese takeover since 1949 unfolded in several stages. The first phase of invasion by military force, from 1949 to 1951, led to the imposition of a seventeen-point agreement for the liberation of Tibet and the military takeover of Lhasa. Second, the Chinese military rulers pretended to show support for the existing "local" Tibetan government and culture, from 1951 through 1959, but with gradual infiltration of greater numbers of troops and communist cadres into Tibet. A third phase from 1959 involved violent suppression of government and culture, mass arrests, and formation of a vast network of labor camps, with outright annexation of the whole country from 1959 through 1966. Fourth, violent cultural revolution, from 1966 through 1976, destroyed the remaining monasteries and monuments, killed those resisting the destruction of the "four olds," and sought to eradicate all traces of Tibetan Buddhist culture. A fifth phase of temporary liberalization under Hu Yao Bang was quickly reversed by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and led to a mass influx of settlers beginning in the early 1980s. Martial law and renewed suppression took place between 1987 and 1993, with intensified population transfer of Chinese settlers. Finally, from 1993, direct orders of the aging Chinese leadership placed Tibet under the control of an aggressive administrator named Chen Kuei Yuan. Chen proclaimed that the Tibetan identity had to be eradicated in order for remaining Tibetans to develop a Chinese identity. Since Tibetan identity was tied up with Tibetan Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhist culture was in itself seditious, or "splittist," as the Chinese call it.

Chen also was able to use China's growing economic power to invest heavily in internal projects in Tibet, bring in millions more colonists, and he extracted unprecedented amounts of timber, herbs, and minerals from the land. He also toughened up the policies of the People's Liberation Army and the Public Security Bureau.

In 1960 the nongovernmental International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) gave a report titled Tibet and the Chinese People's Republic to the United Nations. The report was prepared by the ICJ's Legal Inquiry Committee, composed of eleven international lawyers from around the world. This report accused the Chinese of the crime of genocide in Tibet, after nine years of full occupation, six years before the devastation of the cultural revolution began. The Commission was careful to state that the "genocide" was directed against the Tibetans as a religious group, rather than a racial, "ethnical," or national group.

The report's conclusions reflect the uncertainty felt at that time about Tibetans being a distinct race, ethnicity, or nation. The Commission did state that it considered Tibet a de facto independent state at least from 1913 until 1950. However, the Chinese themselves perceive the Tibetans in terms of race, ethnicity, and even nation. In the Chinese constitution, "national minorities" have certain protections on paper, and smaller minorities living in areas where ethnic Chinese constitute the vast majority of the population receive some of these protections.

In the 2000s, many view the Chinese genocide in Tibet as the result of the territorial ambitions of the PRC leadership. It is seen as stemming from their systematic attempt to expand the traditional territory of China by annexing permanently the vast, approximately 900,000-square-mile territory of traditional Tibet. Tibet represents about 30 percent of China's land surface, while the Tibetans represent .004 percent of China's population. Tibetans were not a minority but an absolute majority in their own historical environment. Chinese government efforts can be seen as aiming at securing permanent control of the Tibetans' land. For this reason, some observers see genocide in Tibet as not merely referring to the matter of religion, that is, of destroying Tibetan Buddhism. Chinese policies have involved the extermination of more than 1 million Tibetans, the forced relocation of millions of Tibetan villagers and nomads, the population transfer of millions of Chinese settlers, and systematic assimilation.

The Dalai Lama

A Tibetan government in exile exists under the leadership of the Dalai Lama in India and Nepal. During the cold war years, the Dalai Lama avoided politics, but tried to work with the Chinese occupiers from 1951 until 1959. He left Tibet to bring the Tibetan genocide to the world's attention. In the early 1980s, he tried to negotiate with Deng Xiaoping and succeeded in sending several fact-finding missions to Tibet. In the meantime, the exile government has worked to preserve the seeds of Tibetan culture and society.

In 1989 the Dalai Lama received the Nobel Peace Prize for his travels around the world to spread the Buddhist message of peace and reconciliation. He has informed the general public of many countries about the Tibetan struggle. His overall policy of nonviolence has been followed by most Tibetans. Despite the historical record, the Dalai Lama calls for dialogue and reconciliation. He has publicly offered to Beijing to lead a plebiscite and campaign to persuade his people to join the Chinese union in a voluntary and legal manner, under a "one country, two systems" formula, as in the cases of Hong Kong and Macao under the following circumstances: (1) all the high-plateau provinces are reunited in a natural Tibet Autonomous Region; (2) Tibet is allowed to govern itself democratically with true autonomy over internal matters; (3) Tibet is demilitarized except for essential border garrisons; and (4) the environment is respected and economic development controlled by the Tibetans themselves.

There were renewed discussions over Tibet starting in 2002 and several delegations made visits to the region.

SEE ALSO China; Mao Zedong; Religion


Avedon, John (1986). In Exile from the Land of Snows. New York: Vintage Books.

International Commission of Jurists (1960). Tibet and the Chinese People's Republic: A Report to the InternationalCommission of Jurists by its Legal Inquiry Committee on Tibet. Geneva: Author.

International Commission of Jurists (1997). Tibet: Human Rights and the Rule of Law. Geneva: Author.

Shakabpa, W. D. (1984). Tibet: A Political History. New York: Potala Publications.

Smith, Warren W. (1996). Tibetan Nation: A History of Tibetan Nationalism and Sino-Tibetan Relations. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.

Snellgrove, David, and Hugh Richardson (1968). A Cultural History of Tibet. Boston: Shambhala, 1995.

Van Walt, Michael C. (1987). The Status of Tibet. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.

Robert A. F. Thurman


views updated May 23 2018




LOCATION: China (Tibet Autonomous Region); India

POPULATION: 4.6 million

LANGUAGE: Tibetan; Chinese



Tibetan civilization began near the Yarlung Zanbo River in present-day Tibet. A Tibetan kingdom was created in the sixth century ad. In the seventh century, the ruler Songtsen Gampo made Lhasa the capital of Tibet. While he ruled, the Tibetan laws, calendar, alphabet, and system of weights and measures were created. Princess Wenchen, his Chinese bride, came to Tibet in 641. She had a great effect on Tibetan culture.

Warfare and political strife weakened the Tibetan dynasty and it collapsed in 877. Tibet was conquered by the Mongolians in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Later it came under Chinese control. The Qing Dynasty (16441911) recognized Tibet's spiritual leaders, the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama. A local government was set up in Tibet, with its own minister from the emperor. This system continued under the Republic of China until 1949, when the communist revolution created the People's Republic of China. The new government created the Tibetan Autonomous Region, covering all of Tibet. The political power of the lamas was taken away and given to Tibetan leaders nominated by the central government in Beijing.


The Tibetans live on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. It extends to the Himalayas, the highest mountain range in the world. Most Tibetans are found in the Tibet Autonomous Region. However, many live in Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan provinces. China's total Tibetan population was 4.6 million in 1990. There are about 100,000 Tibetans in India, and tens of thousands live in North America and Europe. Southwest Tibet has a damp, mild climate. Northwest Tibet is quite barren, but its river valleys provide land for nomads to raise their cattle.


The Tibetan language belongs to the Sino-Tibetan family. It has three dialects. Tibetan is written from left to right. Tibetan writing was developed in the seventh century. In urban Tibet, many Tibetans also speak Chinese.


According to a Tibetan myth, a divine monkey married a female monster in Yarlung Valley long ago. They gave birth to six children whose descendants spread over the earth but had a hard life. They lived off of wild fruits of the forest. Then the monkey gave them seven kinds of grain, and they learned how to farm and began to speak.


Mahayana Buddhism combined with the native Tibetan religion (Bon) to create a new form of Buddhism, called Lamaism. Many different lamaist sects arose. The Gelupa, or Yellow Sect, which came to dominate Tibet, was founded by Tsong Khapa (13571419).

Reincarnation (the belief in rebirth) was an established Buddhist doctrine. When an important lama died, his successor (the divine child) was sought among male children who were born at about the time he died.

Bon, the native Tibetan religion, is still practiced in western Tibet and in parts of Qinghai and Sichuan. It calls for worship of gods, spirits, and nature. Its practices include ritual dance.


The Tibetan New Year takes place the first week of January and lasts three to five days. Tibetans all dress in their finest clothes. Relatives and friends pay New Year calls and visit monasteries to pray for a good year. Tibetan operas are performed. People wear masks and pretend to be gods. They sing and dance to drive away the ghosts.

The Lantern Festival is held on January 15. Huge sculptures of birds, animals, and humans made from colored yak butter are paraded in the streets of Lhasa. Festive lanterns, also made of yak butter, are hung on fences. People dance under the lanterns all night.

April 15 marks both the Buddha's enlightenment and the Chinese Princess Wenchen's arrival in Tibet. The streets overflow with people on pilgrimages, and the monks pray. People walk around the Potala Palace, go boating on the lake, and then pitch tents to rest.


Three or four days after a baby is born, a tiny piece of zamba (the Tibetans' main food) is stuck to the infant's forehead. This is a rite to make the baby pure. When the baby is one month old, the parents paint the tip of its nose with soot from the bottom of a pan to keep away ghosts. With their relatives, the child's parents go to the monastery and pray to the Buddha for protection.

Girls' hair is combed into two braids when they are under twelve years of age. They wear three braids when they are thirteen or fourteen, and five braids at the age of fifteen or sixteen. When a girl reaches seventeen, her hair is combed into dozens of braids to show that she is an adult.

There are several types of Tibetan funerals, depending on the social status of the person who has died. In a "sky burial," friends burn piles of pine tree branches and scatter food over them. The smoke is supposed to draw vultures. The body is chopped up and the bones are pounded together with zamba. Vultures eat what remains of the body. The rest of the remains are burned and the ashes are scattered over the ground. "Water burial" is for widows, widowers, and poor people. "Fire burial" is for lamas, and "ground burial" is for people who died of infection or were executed as criminals.


Tibetans are polite. When they meet, they stretch out their arms with their palms turned up, and bow to each other. To show respect, one person nods his head and sticks his tongue out. The other nods and smiles. When two people meet for the first time, one gives the other a hada. This is a long, narrow strip of white or light blue silk that is a sign of respect. It is held in both palms while bowing.

Today, young boys and girls mingle freely but still have some traditional restrictions.


Tibetans build their houses on high ground, facing south, and close to water. The walls are made from earth or piled up stones. Houses are two or three stories high. They have flat roofs, many windows, and courtyards. The living room and bedrooms are on the second floor, and the first floor is for storage or to house livestock. Herdsmen dwell in large tents made of canvas or woven yak wool.


The Tibetan family centers around males. The man inherits property. A woman must obey her husband, even when he lives with her parents. Today, most Tibetans are monogamous (married to only one person). Nomads and peasants still have arranged marriages. Lamas and shamans (spiritual leaders) are usually consulted.


Men in urban areas wear a felt or fur-trimmed hat, a short vest with sleeves, trousers, and a robe. Those in rural areas wear a very long robe with long sleeves and a loose collar. The robe is tied around the waist with a long band. Herdsmen wear the fur of a sheep year-round, and a pair of long trousers. Tibetan men all wear boots. Women usually wear a sleeveless robe with a shirt under it and a beautiful apron around the waist. A long robe with sleeves is worn during the winter. Women living in rural areas wear a sheep fur over a long skirt.


In rural areas, Tibetans eat barley, wheat, corn, and peas. They stir and fry barley and peas and grind them into flour. Then they mix it with yak butter and tea. This is called zamba. They press it with their fingers in a wooden bowl and make it into a ball before eating it. They may also cook zamba into a porridge with meat, wild herbs, and water. Their favorite drinks are barley wine and tea with butter. The main foods of Tibetan herdsmen are beef, mutton, and milk products.


Education was once reserved for monks in monasteries. Since 1949, a complete educational system from primary school to university has been created in Tibet and Qinghai. It includes medical and technical schools. However, Tibet's small population is scattered over such a wide geographic area that it is difficult for many students to travel to a school. A growing number of young Tibetans go to the cities to study.


Tibetan dances differ strongly from those of China's other minorities. The dancers' long sleeves add to their charm. They sing on high pitches and mostly in minor keys. Tibetan opera is performed in the street without any stage. There is a band, and performers sing while they dance.

Tibetan literature includes novels, poems, stories, fables, and dramas. Many works have been translated and published in other countries. The Tibetan religion has effected every part of Tibet's culture.


Tibetan herdsmen raise sheep, goats, yaks, horses, mules, and oxen bred from cattle and yaks.


Yak racing is one of the favorite Tibetan sports. It is similar to horse racing. It takes a highly trained expert to ride a racing yak. Tibetans are also excellent mountain climbers.


The Tibetans have their own theater company, opera, music and ballet performers, broadcasting stations, and film studio. Many Tibetan newspapers, magazines, and books are published each year.


Tibetan folk art includes figures of the Buddha found in monasteries and figures made of yak butter. Goldsmiths and silversmiths craft items for daily use. These include spoons, chopsticks, bowls, plates, and dishes. They also make bracelets, rings, and necklaces. Tangka is a painted Tibetan wall-hanging depicting Buddhist themes.


Lack of formal education is one of the major social problems facing Tibet today. It is hard to educate Tibet's small population because the Tibetans are scattered over huge stretches of land.


Kendra, Judith. Tibetans. Threatened Cultures. New York: Thomson Learning, 1994.

Snellgrove, David L., and Hugh Richardson. A Cultural History of Tibet. New York: F. A. Praeger, 1968.

Stein, R. A. Tibetan Civilization. Trans. by J. E. Stapleton Driver. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1972.


Embassy of the People's Republic of China, Washington, D.C. [Online] Available http://www.china-embassy.org/, 1998.

World Travel Guide. China. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/cn/gen.html, 1998.


views updated May 17 2018


Type of Government

From the thirteenth century until the Chinese occupation of 1959, Tibet was governed as a theocracy, or religious monarchy, in which a single individual served as head of state and spiritual leader for the population. The theocrat was assisted by an appointed desi (prime minister), who served as head of government. Beneath the executive department was a system of religious and military leaders who functioned as regional governors. Since 1959, Tibet has been designated an “ethnic autonomous region” within the control of the People’s Republic of China. More than 80,000 Tibetans are currently living in exile in India, Bhutan, Nepal, the United States and Europe.


Archaeological evidence indicates that the Tibetan plateau, located between China and India, has been occupied for twelve to fifteen thousand years. Over the centuries, a succession of tribal states evolved through cultural interchange with China and India to form transient, local kingdoms.

Tibet’s imperial period began in 120 BC but produced no written records until the seventh century, when the Yarlung Dynasty, under King Songtsan Gampo (605–650), introduced Indian Sanskrit to Tibet. Gampo was the first monarch to unify the nation and to establish Lhasa as the administrative capital.

Under a succession of kings, the Yarlung Dynasty gained control over portions of the Silk Road—the famed trade route from China to the Mediterranean Sea—and, through military conflicts, established its independence from the Chinese Tang Dynasty, which threatened from the east. Throughout the seventh century, the Yarlung was a powerful empire, rivaling those in China and India. Within a century, however, the Tibetan empire had begun to devolve into smaller states ruled by warlords.

In the late eighth century, thousands of Buddhists from India and China fled to Tibet to escape the armies of the Mongol empire. Though Buddhism already existed in Tibet, the influx of immigrants facilitated the growth of Tibetan Buddhism, which by the ninth century had become the official state religion.

When the Mongol leader Kublai Khan (1215–1294) took control of China, Tibet dispatched envoys to swear allegiance to Mongol rule. Kublai Khan allowed Tibet to remain marginally independent and invited Tibetan Buddhists to take part in his court. In 1270, ’Phags-pa (1235–1280), the abbot of the Sakyapa Buddhist sect in Tibet, converted Kublai Khan to Buddhism. In recognition, Kublai Khan made ’Phags-pa the viceroy of a semi-autonomous Tibetan theocracy.

Government Structure

The Tibetan theocracy was organized around the state’s powerful lamaseries. A lama, or spiritual leader representing the state’s leading Buddhist sect, served as head of state and leader of the armed forces. Under the Dge-lugs-pa sect, which supplanted the Sakyapa sect in the seventeenth century, the leader of the state was the Dalai Lama—a spiritual leader believed to be the reincarnation of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, a Buddhist saint representing mercy and compassion. Each newly appointed Dalai Lama, found and trained by leaders of the sect, was believed to be the reincarnation of the former Dalai Lama.

The leading lama had the power to appoint a desi (prime minister) to serve as the nominal head of government assisted by an informal “cabinet” of military, business, and religious leaders. Regional districts were placed under the control of local lamaseries and wealthy clans of landowners with ties to the government.

Tibet supported a system of serfdom, in which most of the population lived and worked on land belonging to one of the nation’s lamaseries or to wealthy political, religious, or military leaders. Members of the serf class transmitted their caste to their offspring, constituting a system of hereditary servitude. Above the serf class was the “middle” or “citizen” class, consisting of individuals with sufficient wealth to purchase or lease property. Popular representation for both the serf and middle class was possible only by directly petitioning local leaders or by joining influential secular or religious societies.

The Tibetan judicial system was based on Buddhist law and enforced by the military. Both the military and some of the larger lamaseries maintained courts and prisons. Leading lamas, appointed by the central government, served as justices for civil and criminal proceedings.

Political Parties and Factions

The Dge-lugs-pa sect, founded by Tsong-kha-khapa (1357–1419) in the fourteenth century, is Tibet’s largest and most influential Buddhist sect. Ngawang Losang Gyato (1617–1682) was the first Dge-lugs-pa leader to serve as theocrat, supported by the Mongolian Empire. Under a succession of Dalai Lamas, the Dge-lugs-pa sect remained in power from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. Since the Chinese occupation, the Dge-lugs-pa sect has been the leading sect in the exiled government.

The Sakyapa sect of Tibetan Buddhism was founded in the eleventh century by Khon Konchog Gyalpo (1034–1102) and was the dominant school until the fifteenth century. Emperor Kublai Khan (1215–1294) granted the Sakya sect control of Tibet from 1264 to 1340. After the rise of the Dge-lugs-pa sect, the authority of the Sakya diminished, though the sect remained influential and plays a leading role in the exiled government.

The Nyingma and Kagyu sects, though never achieving government leadership, are two of Tibet’s most influential Buddhist schools. The Nyingma is Tibet’s oldest Buddhist school and has developed through a focus on scholarship, while the Kagyu sect focuses on asceticism and meditation. Both the Nyingma and Kagyu remained active during the Tibetan theocracy and continue to play a role in the exiled government.

Major Events

The Sakyapa theocracy collapsed in the sixteenth century and the nation lapsed into an extended period of disunity, dominated by warring factions. During the interim period, the Dge-lugs-pa sect, under the leadership of Tsong-kha-khapa, eclipsed the Sakyapa as the leading Buddhist school in Tibet. In 1641, the Mongolian army entered Tibet and reestablished the theocracy under the leadership of the Dge-lugs-pa sect.

By the eighteenth century, the Mongol Empire had disintegrated and two warring factions were vying for control of Tibet. In 1720, the Chinese Manchu Dynasty assisted the Tibetan military in ousting the Mongols and thereafter assumed a degree of political control, while allowing the theocracy to function as an independent state.

In 1912—as the Qing Dynasty fought the Manchu Dynasty for control of China—the Tibetan government utilized the opportunity to expel ethnic Chinese from the country. After defeating the Manchus, the Qing government continued to assert that Tibet was a territory of China, although they allowed the government to function with relative autonomy.

Tenzin Gyatso (1935–), the fourteenth Dalai Lama of the Dge-lugs-pa sect, became the reigning theocrat in 1950, though the Chinese government recommended alternative candidates. In October 1950, the Chinese army invaded Tibet and installed a permanent military presence. The following year, the Dalai Lama signed treaties establishing Tibet as an autonomous region of China.

The Chinese government attempted to introduce a system of reforms that would gradually reduce the power of the theocracy and introduce communist leadership through state assemblies. Conflict between native Tibetans and the Chinese military became more frequent after 1956, culminating in marches, protests, and public demonstrations. In 1959, amid rumors that the Chinese government was planning to remove or even assassinate the Dalai Lama, pro-independence supporters rebelled against the Chinese military. Thousands of Tibetans were killed in the uprising while thousands more fled to neighboring countries. The Dalai Lama and a small entourage escaped to India.

Twenty-First Century

Since 1960, Tenzin Gyatso has overseen the development of a new Tibetan government operating from exile in India. The government, called the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), takes the form of a parliamentary republic. The Dalai Lama serves as head of state and spiritual leader, assisted by a prime minister, who serves as head of government, and an executive cabinet. The legislature is popularly elected from among exiled Tibetans living in India, Nepal, Bhutan, the United States, and Europe. The CTA also maintains an independent judicial commission.

Under the control of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Tibet has been designated an “ethnic autonomous region.” In practice, the Chinese military and the Communist Party of China control Tibet through a series of regional assemblies. Though the exiled government and the Dalai Lama have drawn significant support from foreign nations and human rights groups, the PRC government has so far refused to grant requests for independence.

Goldstein, Melvyn D. “The Snow Lion and the Dragon: China, Tibet, and the Dalai Lama” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Powers, John. “History as Propaganda: Tibetan Exiles versus the People’s Republic of China.” New York: Oxford University Press USA, 2004.

Shakya, Tsering. “The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Tibet since 1947.” New York: Penguin Books, 2000.


views updated May 14 2018


Remote and largely inaccessible until recent times, Tibet never experienced Western colonial rule. Its strategic location, however, incited competition between the Mongols, Manchus, Chinese, Russians, and British for influence or control. China's Qing empire (1644–1912), established when the Manchus conquered China in the seventeenth century, exercised loose suzerainty over Tibet, while allowing it to be essentially self-governing. Tibet achieved de facto independence when the dynasty fell in 1912, although the Republic of China that succeeded the Qing continued to claim Tibet. In 1950, following the Communist victory in China, Tibet was occupied by the Chinese army and incorporated into the People's Republic of China. In 1959 it lost its vestigial autonomy.

By the mid-seventeenth century, the Dalai Lama, head of the reformed Geluk (Yellow Sect) branch of Tibetan Buddhism, exercised both temporal and spiritual authority over a theocratic Tibetan government. Each successive Dalai Lama, identified by oracles in infancy, was considered a living buddha, the incarnation of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara.

In the meantime, the Manchus conquered China and established the Qing dynasty. In 1656 the Fifth Dalai Lama (1617–1682) visited Beijing and met the Qing emperor Shunzhi (r. 1644–1661). The priest-patron relationship between the two, between a religious teacher and a lay patron, did not imply Tibet's subordination to the Qing. Nevertheless, the death of the Fifth Dalai Lama ultimately led to conflict over control of Tibet between the Manchus and their rivals, the Jungar Mongols, who had established hegemony over Tibet.

In 1720 a Qing army, accompanied by a Manchu-sponsored reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, expelled the Jungars and occupied Tibet. The Manchus established a protectorate, leaving Tibet essentially autonomous under the Dalai Lama while controlling Tibet's relations with its neighbors. A Qing garrison was stationed in Lhasa, Tibet's capital. Two Qing imperial commissioners (ambans) were assigned to Lhasa to protect Qing interests and supervise the oracles identifying new incarnations of the Dalai Lama and other incarnated lamas. Parts of eastern Tibet were placed under direct Qing administration. Manchu hegemony over Tibet eventually weakened, however, as the Qing dynasty went into decline. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Tibet was, for practical purposes, independent.

Few westerners traveled to Tibet before the twentieth century. In 1707 Capuchin friars established a Catholic mission in Lhasa, and the Jesuit Ippolito Desideri (1684–1733) lived there from 1716 to 1721. The Catholic mission was abandoned in 1745. Soon the Tibetan authorities closed Tibet to westerners. Nonetheless, by the end of the nineteenth century, two Western empires, British India and Russian Central Asia, abutted Tibet. Despite British suspicions of Russian designs on Tibet, however, Russia had little influence in Lhasa. Britain, on the other hand, was eager to develop trade with Tibet, but the Tibetan government rebuffed British diplomatic contacts. In 1904 a British military expedition commanded by Francis Younghusband (1863–1942) fought its way to Lhasa, forcing the flight of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama (1876–1933) to Mongolia. The British established a consular office in Lhasa, the only Western country to do so. In 1947, upon independence, India inherited the British mission there.

The fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912 severed Tibet's subordination to China. The new Republic of China was unable to enforce its claim to Tibet as part of its territory. China did, however, continue to control ethnic Tibetan areas in Qinghai Province (Amdo) and Western Sichuan (Kham). In the decades that followed, Tibet isolated itself and did not seek international recognition or diplomatic representation until the 1940s. It also sometimes compromised its claims to independence in its dealings with the Nationalist government in China. The international community generally acquiesced in China's claims to Tibet.

The People's Republic of China, established in 1949, inherited its predecessor's territorial claims. China invaded Tibet in 1950. Tibetan resistance collapsed quickly, and the government of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama (b. 1935) signed an agreement recognizing Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. The agreement, however, stipulated that Tibet would be self-governing under the Dalai Lama. Nevertheless, the Chinese government undermined the old order by cultivating the Panchen Lama, the second-ranking leader of Tibetan Buddhism, and recruiting Tibetan collaborators. The Chinese organized serfs in Tibet, carried out antireligious propaganda, and recruited and trained Tibetan cadres. Nonetheless, the Chinese government worked officially through the Dalai Lama's government. In most of Tibet, life continued on with little interference by the Chinese authorities through the 1950s.

Resentment over Chinese occupation sparked an uprising and the Dalai Lama's flight to India in 1959. Chinese forces crushed the rebellion and used it as a pretext for ending Tibetan autonomy, imposing martial law, and instituting severe political and religious persecution. In 1964 the Panchen Lama was arrested and imprisoned for fourteen years. After 1966, China's Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) reached Tibet, with devastating effects. Monasteries were closed, monks and nuns were forced to return to lay life, and "struggle sessions" were carried out against Buddhist clergy and landlords. Red Guards—militant young Maoist activists—both Chinese and Tibetans, destroyed much of Tibet's cultural heritage.

Cultural and religious liberalization began in the 1980s, but Tibet remains securely under Chinese control. In recent decades a significant number of Chinese immigrants have moved to Tibet, and Chinese now constitute the majority of Lhasa's population.

see also China, After 1945.


Fleming, Peter. Bayonets to Lhasa: The First Full Account of the British Invasion of Tibet in 1904. New York: Harper, 1961.

Goldstein, Melvyn C. A History of Modern Tibet, 1913–1951: The Demise of the Lamaist State. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

Goldstein, Melvyn C. The Snow Lion and the Dragon: China, Tibet, and the Dalai Lama. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Goldstein, Melvyn C., Dawei Sherap, and William R Siebenschuh. A Tibetan Revolutionary: The Political Life and Times of Bapa Phüntso Wangye. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

Grunfeld, A. Tom. The Making of Modern Tibet, rev ed. Armonk, NY: Sharpe, 1996.

Shakya, Tsering. The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.


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Tibet (Xizang) Autonomous region in sw China. The capital and largest city is Lhasa. Tibet is the highest region on earth, with an average altitude of 4875m (16,000ft). An historically inaccessible area, mountains surround Tibet on three sides. The Tibetan Himalayas include the world's highest mountain, Everest. Nam Co is the world's largest natural salt lake. Many of Asia's greatest rivers (including the Yangtze, Mekong, Huang He, Indus, and Ganges) have their source in Tibet, although its major river is the Brahmaputra. The area has scant rainfall, and the Brahmaputra valley is the only agricultural area and the location of the major cities. Many of the people remain nomadic pastoralists. Tibet is rich in mineral resources, such as gold, copper, and uranium. The Chinese government built internal highways and links to the Chinese provinces. The principal religion is Tibetan Buddhism. Until 1959, a large percentage of the urban male population were Buddhist monks (lamas). Tibet flourished as an independent kingdom in the 7th century, and in the 8th century Padmasambhava developed the principles of Mahayana Buddhism and founded Lamaism. The spiritual leaders of Lamaism (the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama) also acted as the country's temporal rulers. In 1206, Genghis Khan conquered the region, and it remained under nominal Mongol rule until 1720, when the Chinese Qing dynasty claimed sovereignty. At the close of the 19th century, the Tibetan areas of Ladakh and Sikkim became part of British India, and in 1906 Britain recognized Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. In 1912, the fall of the Qing dynasty prompted the Tibetans to reassert their independence. China, however, maintained its right to govern, and in 1950 the new communist regime invaded. In 1951, Tibet was declared an autonomous region of China, nominally governed by the Dalai Lama. The Chinese government began a series of repressive measures, principally targeting the Buddhist monasteries. In March 1959, a full-scale revolt was suppressed by the Chinese Army. On December 25, 1959, the Dalai Lama fled to n India, and established a government-in-exile at Dharamsala. In 1965, China formally annexed Tibet as an autonomous region. The Cultural Revolution banned religious practice and destroyed 4000 monasteries. Many thousands of Tibetans fled into exile to escape the brutality of the communist regime. Despite the restoration of some of the desecrated monasteries and the reinstatement of Tibetan as an official language, human rights violations continued. Pro-independence rallies between 1987–89 were violently suppressed by the Chinese army. Area: 1,222,070sq km (471,841sq mi). Pop. (2000) 2,620,000.


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Ti·bet·an / təˈbetn/ • n. 1. a native of Tibet or a person of Tibetan descent.2. the Tibeto-Burman language of Tibet, also spoken in neighboring areas of China, India, and Nepal.• adj. of or relating to Tibet, its people, or its language.