Fujisan's Kyareng

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

A Note on Religious History of Tibet

བོད་ཀྱི་ཆོས་འབྱུང་ལོ་རྒྱུས།   རང་གིས་མཐོང་ཐོས་རྣམས་རགས་ཙམ་བཀོད་པའི་ཟིན་བྲིས།

Tibet; the Land and the Early Belief

History of Tibet dates back to some more than 3000 years with rich culture and religion. Geographically, it is located on Pamir, the highest plateau in the world. Therefore, Tibet is also referred to as 'Roof of the World'. Tibet lies north to India and Nepal, south of Mongolia, and west to China. It has 2.50 million square kilometers in area, six times the size of Japan and almost the same as the California State. It is composed of three main provinces of U-Tsang, Kham and Amdo regions. Population of Tibet, before the Chinese occupation, is estimated at six million. Although there are different theory about the origin of Tibetan race, suffice it is to say here that it belongs to mongoloid prototype. People lived at the average height of 7,000 feet to 12,000 feet from the sea level. Tsampa, a roasted barley powder, and the yak meat, butter, and cheese are the major diets of the native. Nomad, agricultures and barter trades constitute the major occupation of the inhabitants.

Bon is the native religion of Tibet; Lord Tonpa Shenrab is believed to be the founder of Bon religion. The Bon, in its early form before Tonpa Shenrab is said to be animistic and crude involving animal sacrifice etc. But Bon at that time refers to varied acts of worship and mundane activities. With the advent of civilization and the coming of Buddhism, Bon religion also evolved into a more formal and acceptable doctrines at par with any other religions. It is said that to have a proper understanding of Tibetan culture, religion and the history, study of Bon is indispensable. 

Nyatri Tsenpo is considered as the first king of Tibet, who founded Yarlung dynasty in the Central Tibet. While the Buddhist history traces his origin to India in 127 BC, Bon history sticks to Bon myth at 1137 BC[1]. It must be noted that an independent kingdom by the name of Zhangzhung existed in western Tibet, which was the source of Bon teachings and culture. Many scholars attribute the origin of Tibetan script to Zhangzhung maryig. The kingdom was ultimately annexed to Tibet proper during the reign of king Songtsen Gampo [617 - 649 ][2]. Difference in historical dates and existence of Zhangzhung kingdom still needs a proper research to have a better glimpse of Tibetan history and civilization.

The Advent of Buddhism

The light of Buddhism first reached Tibet during the reign of Lhathothori Nyentsen [173 AD], the 28th King of Yarlung dynasty of Tibet, when Nepalese Pandit Losemtso and his associate delivered the Buddhist scripture, Dodepangyen, to the Tibetan king. As nobody could read or decipher the text at that time, it was kept in a safe for the future and named 'Nyenpo Sangwa' (melodious secret). The king is said to have a dream in which it was revealed that the text would be deciphered after five generations.

The thirty third King of Tibet, Songtsen Gampo, occupies an important place in Tibetan history. It was during his reign that Tibet emerged as a strong unified nation with a proper diplomatic relationship with the neighboring countries. Tibetan army entered and subjugated the territories of China, Nepal, Burma, and other hegemonies. Thonmi Sambhota, who was sent to India to study the Indian writing system, upon his return invented Tibetan script of thirty consonants and four vowels, and the grammar. With this, a number of Buddhist scriptures, including the Nyenpo Sangwa, were translated in the Tibetan language. The Tibetan king got into marriage alliances with Zhangzhung , Nepal and China. The queens from these three kingdoms played an important role in enriching the Tibetan culture and civilization. Queens from Zhangzhung, Nepal and China: Lithigmen, Belsa and Gyasa, brought with them sacred statues of Shenrab and Buddha, for which temples were built. While not much is mentioned about the Zhangzhung princess' Themchen temple, Rasa Trulnang and Ramoche by the later two Princesses are glorified and still revered highly in Tibet. Pilgrim across the country and from China come to seek the blessing of the sacred statues.

In 645[3], the Tibetan king visited Waitushan, the five-peaked-mountain of China and built 108 temples in the region[4]. This was how the Buddhist era ushered into the land of Tibet.

Royal Patronage and the Teachings

While Buddhism found its footing in Tibet during Songtsen Gampo, it grew and branched out during the reign of the thirty-eighth King Trisong Deutsen [ 755  ] and the forty second King Trirelpachen [866 - 902]. Despite the opposition from the Bon ministers and the priests, Buddhism grew under royal patronage and simmered into the Tibetan society. Initially, Indian saint Shantarakshita visited Tibet, but he found the power of local Bon deities too strong to go ahead with the teachings, he suggested that Guru Padmasambhava be invited from the land of Orgyen to pacify the local guardian spirits, and to expedite smooth establishment of Buddhism in Tibet.

Guru Padmasambhava conquered the local guardian sprits and oath-bound them to protect the land and the Buddhist teachings. The Guru and the Abbot Shantarakshita together started the Buddhist discourse in the royal court of King Trisong Deutsen and opened the insular Tibetan mind to the vast wisdom of Indian Buddhist teachings. The first seven Tibetan monks graduated with excellent result and many Indian saints visited Tibet. A large number of Sanskrit Buddhist texts were translated into the Tibetan language with great fervor under royal patronage. The Samye monastery, designed after the great Otantapuri monastery in India, which was supposed to represent the Buddhist concept of the universe, was constructed under the guidance of Shantarakshita. The first Sanskrit-Tibetan dictionary, Mahavyupatti, was published to authenticate, and to achieve uniformity in the translation of Buddhist texts. To remember the great contribution made by the king and the two masters in establishing the Buddhist religion in Tibet, Tibetans had immortalized them in reverence in Thangka paintings as Khen-lop-choe-sum, meaning the Abbot, the Teacher and the Dharma King.

King Trirelpachen [866 - 902] was an ardent follower and out of respect for the teachings, he had the priests sit at his sides on the long scarf extended from his crown. Monks were highly revered. Royal decree was passed assigning seven households to maintain the welfare of one monk. Monasteries and monks were exempted from the taxes and they began to a play major role in the royal court and civilian households.

But the period ranging from Songtsen Gampo to Trirelpachen was also the time when the Tibetan military might was at its zenith. Victorious wars that Tibet fought with the neighboring countries like China, Mongol and Nepal made Tibet popular throughout Central Asia as a strong military state around that time. Death in the battlefield was coveted; families took pride in having one of its members in the army. A long flag was hoisted before a house to proclaim that one of its family members is in the national army or has died the war. This gradually began to change, the barbaric Tibetans were pacified and the Buddhist teachings assumed the role of guiding force behind the royal decision, and the public approach to ethics and moral values. The flag before the house also began to mean welcome and to seek the protection and teachings of Dharma.

Downfall of the Yarlung dynasty

This change in national outlook was not welcomed by all, certain section of the populace, especially the adherent of the Bon religion did not took it with ease and honor. The seed of national dissent began to sprout, and turned it ugly into royal assassination and religious frictions. King Wudum Tsenpo [   - 842], widely known as Langdarma, totally disagreed with the way his predecessors embraced the new religion. Many say he sided with the Bon faction and suppressed the Buddhist religion. But there are other theories, which say he feared too much religious influence in the court would ruin Tibet and Tibetan economy. However, when the religious persecution became too much, Lhalung Paldor, the abbot of Samye monastery assassinated the king in 842.

 With the assassination of Langdarma, the forty third King of the Yarlung Dynasty, Tibet disintegrated into numerous factions and hegemonies without any unified central authority for more than 300 years. Wudumtsenpo's heirs, Od-sung and Yumten separated and ruled Western Tibet and Yarlung respectively. Though both Buddhism and Bon teachings were practiced, many misinterpreted and brought bad names to the teachings. People practicing sutra teachings criticized the tantric practitioners as misleading and false religon, and the tantric practitioners looked down upon the former as inferior. The period saw utter confusion among the practitioners and the lay people about the authenticity of Buddhist teachings in Tibet.

Buddhist Renaissance: Tenpa Chidar

Kyidegon, one of the grandsons of Odsung established his rule in Ngari, the western region of Tibet. Later, he gave up his kingdom to become a monk and assumed a religious name, Lha Lama Yesheod. In order to restore the true teachings of the Buddha and clear many misinterpretations rampant in Tibet around that time, he tried his best to invite the great Indian teacher Atisha Dipamkarashrijana of Vikramshila monastery in Magadha. But during his time, he was not successful. He was captured by the king of the neighboring state Garlok, wherein he was asked to give up the Buddhist faith or deliver gold equal to his weight as a ransom. When his great-nephew Changchub Od came to release him with the gold, he advised Changchub Od to use the gold to invite Atisha instead, and he died as a prisoner of Garlok state.

 India, around that time, was facing religious skirmishes and the Buddhist religion was in difficult situation resisting persecution from Muslim and Hindus. Therefore, the Vikramshila monastery could not afford to send the great master Atisha to a far away foreign land like Tibet. When the envoys from Tibet explained the state of Buddhism in Tibet and the sacrifice made by Lha Lama Yesheod, Atisha agreed and visited Tibet in 1042. He wrote Boddhipathapradipa, [Jangchub lamgyi donme], the lamp that shows the path to enlightenment, and taught extensively in western and central Tibet. His foremost disciple was Dromtonpa, who found the Kadampa [bound by oath] school of Tibetan Buddhism. The Visit of Atisha to Tibet greatly helped put Buddhism in Tibet in line with the genuine teaching of the Buddha and influenced renaissance of Buddha Dharma in Tibet. The period after the visit of Pandita Atisha Dhipamkarashirjana was known as Tenpa chidhar, second spread of the Dharma. First being the time of royal patronage.

 Although there was no single authority to represent Tibet politically, Buddhism flourished throughout the region. Political factions and hegemonies patronized influential masters for their spiritual and mundane pursuits. Braving the long hard journey through the Himalayas, Indian masters visited Tibet at the invitation of Tibetan masters and monasteries. Many Tibetan scholars also visited India to study under the Indian masters. In the process, new schools of Buddhism like Kagyu, Sakya and Geluk emerged in Tibet. Early Buddhism that entered Tibet under the royal patronage was referred to as Nyingma, [Old one], and those which emerged after the visit of Atisha in the eleventh century were termed as Sarma [New one]. But except for the method of practice of some sutras and tantras as taught by the respective masters, there was no difference in interpretation of the principle teachings of Buddha. Authenticity and unity of the practices in each of these schools could be deduced from the fact that the Kagyur, the Tibetan translation of Buddha's teachings in 108 volumes, and the Tengyur, the translation and commentaries on the teachings in 224 volumes are the principle texts of these schools. Lineages of all these schools could be traced to the Buddha through Indian pandits and saints. Nyingmapa to Guru Padmasambhava; Kadampa and Gelukpa to Atisha Dipamkarashirjana; Sakyapa to Virupa; Kagyupa to Naropa[5].

Early western visitors to Tibet coined the nomenclature 'Lamaism' to refer Buddhism in Tibet. Seeing that the lamas [monks] played a pivotal role in Tibetan religious and secular society, the foreign visitors found it apt to refer to Tibetan society as a Lamaist society and Tibetan Buddhism as Lamaism.

Buddhist Schools and the Politics of Tibet

Kagyu school, which has four major and eight minor traditions, was initially founded by Marpa Lotsawa [1012-1097], the great translator. He travelled to India three times and studied under Indian masters like Tilopa and Naropa for more than seventeen years. Milarepa, one of the Tibet's most beloved poets and ascetic yogis was his disciple. Milarepa's thirst for wisdom and enlightenment, and the trails and tribulations he underwent to receive the holy dharma has inspired many generations of practitioners and laymen alike. Other prominent masters of the Kagyupa school are - Gampopa, Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa, and Phagmo Drupa. The current 17th Karmapa Rinpoche belongs to this school; in fact, the Tibetan tradition of reincarnation of high lamas started from this school when the first Karmapa paased in 1193. Tsurphu monastery, established in Tolung valley in Central Tibet by the first Karmapa Rinpoche in 1159, was the main seat of successive Karmapa Lamas.

Four major traditions of this school are Phagdrupa, Karmapa, Tsalpa and Barompa. Early European travelers referred to this school as 'black hat' and 'red hat' schools, because of the use of black hats (Sha-nagpa) and red hats (Sha-marpa) by certain followers of this school of Tibetan Buddhism. Mahamudra and Six Yogas of Naropa are the main practices of this school. High lamas and patrons of this school played crucial, yet sometime controversial roles in shaping the political destiny of Tibet. Changchub Gyaltsen [1302 – 1364], founder of the Phagdrupa Dynasty, took over Tibet from the Sakya dynasty in 1354, and ruled Tibet for eighty years. Later, the Rinpung family and Depatsangpa ruled Tibet one after another till the advent of Fifth Dalai Lama in the 17th century.

The Sakya school was founded by Khon Konchok Gyalpo [1034-1102]. a disciple of Drogmi Lotsawa, who studied in India under Indian masters like Naropa. It has three sub-schools, Ngor, Dzong and Tshar traditions. The Sakya masters played an important role in the history of Tibet when the Mongol ruler Genghis Khan and his successors conquered most of Central Asia and Europe in the 13th century. Tibet escaped the onslaught of the belligerent force of the Mongol army because of the popularity and charisma of Sakya lamas.

Sakya Pandita Kunga Gyaltsen [1182-1251], a great scholar of the time taught Buddhism to Goden Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, during the peak of Mongol supremacy in Asia and Europe, thus establishing the unique cho-yon [priest-patron] relationship between the two states. This cho-yon relationship implied tacit understanding that the Priest would confer religious teachings and legitimacy to the Patron to rule; in return the Patron would provide the Priest the necessary protection against any domestic or foreign invasion. This relationship worked well and was later further extended to the Dalai Lamas and the Manchu Emperors of China. 

Successor of Goden Khan, Kublai Khan, who conquered China and established Yuan dynasty [1271-1368 ]to rule the eastern empire, was so impressed with the teachings of Drogon Chogyal Phagpa and his counsels that the Khan offered the Sakya Lama total political authority over Tibet. Phagpa invented Mongolian script based on the Tibetan language, which was used widely for official purpose at the time. Buddhism became the state religion of Mongolia. Because of this cho-yon relationship, Buddhism prospered in Tibet in peace, without any disturbance from the warring forces of the Mongols' hegemonies. This was the beginning of theocratic rule in Tibet, where the land is administered under the authority of a Lama. Starting from the Drogon Chogyal Phagpa, Sakya Lamas ruled Tibet for nearly one hundred year [1253 - 1349][6]. Some notable Lamas from this school are Sakya Pandita, Drogon Chogyal Phagpa, and Sachen Kunga Nyingpo.

Geluk school: Tsongkhapa [1357 - 1419], an outstanding Tibetan Buddhist master and philosopher, established this last of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism. His fame spread across Central Asia to such an extent that the Chinese Ming Emperor invited him several times to China to teach, but the Master was preoccupied with his religious work in Tibet and instead sent his disciple Jamchen Choje, from whom the Imperial court received the Dharma teachings. This incident alone shows to some degree that Tibet was a fully sovereign country at that time; that the Chinese emperor's invitation was not a summon that many Chinese scholars tend to misinterpret to claim Chinese suzerainty over Tibet.

Tsongkhapa founded Gadhen monastery in Central Tibet. His disciples Jamyang Choje and Jamchen Choje built Drepung and Sera monasteries in 1416 and 1419 respectively. These three monasteries later referred to as dhensa chenmo sum, 'the three great seats of learning', housed more than ten thousand monks, became the symbol of Geluk ascendancy in Tibet. Gedhun Drupa, the first Dalai Lama, was the principal disciple of Tsongkhapa, who built Tashi Lhunpo monastery at Shigatse in 1447. The third reincarnation of Gedhun Drupa was Sonam Gyatso, a highly learned scholar. Altan Khan of Mongolia received teachings from him and was so overwhelmed by the wisdom of the Lama, that he conferred him the title of Talai Lama. Talai in Mongolia means 'Ocean', inferring that the Lama's wisdom was as deep and vast as ocean. While Talai Lama is still used in Tibetan and other East Asian languages, its English translation somehow seems to have tripped to Dalai, and 'Dalai Lama' is used widely in the English language.

In 1642, when the political situation in Tibet was plunged into turmoil because of warring factions trying to establish their own authority, Mongol Prince Gushiri Khan supported the Geluk school and helped the 5th Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso [1617 - 1682], to take over the supreme seat of the spiritual and temporal authority of Tibet. This began the institution of the Dalai Lamas as the supreme head of spiritual and temporal authority of Tibet, since then the successive Dalai Lamas ruled Tibet as the sovereign heads of the state until the Chinese communist occupation of Tibet in 1949.

The fact that the written history of Tibet started from the time when the light of Buddhism began to touch the high plateau of Tibet indicates the profundity of the influence that Buddhism had on Tibetan society. With Buddhism as a guiding principle, various chieftains and lords ruled different regions of Tibet. Except for small army contingents that these warring lords maintained to safeguard their power and influence, there was no army battalion or military maneuvers to conquer the territories of the neighboring countries. And to legitimize their rule, most of these chieftains somehow aligned themselves with one of the five religious schools. The shift in the balance of power often brought religious disharmony and persecution to some extent. Otherwise, Tibet ruled by Tibetans prospered peacefully adhering to the principle and moral teachings of Buddha. Unfortunately, some disgruntled chiefs and lamas, when the domestic warfare and internal conflict did not result in their favor, sought alliances with armies of neigbhoring states which brought foreign forces into Tibet. These acts have done huge damage to the history of Tibetan independence.

Bon and Buddhism 

During all these developments and upheavals, Bon, the native religion just did not diminish into oblivion. Despite the religious rivalry caused by circumstances and by the leaders with vested interest, the Bon religion survived the domineering flood of the new religion because of the long cultural authority it enjoyed in Tibetan civilization and by the unwavering hard-work of the masters to present the religion more relevant to the time. Bon and Buddhism co-existed by sharing and absorbing the best of each other's teachings. Guru Padmasambhava, sensing the symbiotic relation that the Buddhism would need with the native religion for the best of Tibet, had had many Bon pantheon deities incorporated into Buddhist as Dharmapalas, guardian deities[7].

The twenty one mountain deities, dge sNyen nyer gCig, and the Five long-life sisters, Tsering mCheth nga, who were the sole guardian spirits of the land, rivers and mountains of Tibet been propitiated by the Tibetans from the early Zangzhung period. All these deities have found a respectable place in Buddhism and played important role as Dharmapalas and protectors of the land of Tibet and its religions. Yarlhashampo in the central Tibet; Am-nye machen in the east; Kulhahari in the south; Nojingansang in the west; and, Nyenchen thanglha in the north are considered the main guardian spirits of the land of Tibet by all Tibetans. Religious dances (tib. Cham) performed by the early Bonpos to propitiate and to receive the blessing of these guardian spirits are well adapted into all the schools of Tibetan Buddhism in different forms, making cham a unique manifestation of unity and dedication by the deities and the inhabitants of this land of snow. Tibetan religious culture of rlungta, prayer flags, sending kLud etc. all had its origin in Bon teachings.

Moreover, the Bon priests, not to be overwhelmed by the profundity and depth of Buddhist doctrine, compiled their own teachings into a more sophisticated way similar to Buddhism. According to some scholars, Bon and Buddhism are different in name only, contents of the teachings and the ultimate salvation is same. Profound Vajrayana teachings like Dzongchen are found in both traditions. So, it can be said that Bon and Buddhism influenced and benefited each other and co-existed in Tibet. Occasional or frequent discrimination faced by the Bonpos historically was the result of the ignorance of the general public who were in some way indoctrinated to view everything Indian as superior and sacred, and everything Tibetan as inferior and impure. Professor Namkhai Norbu has explicitly described this unfortunate side of Tibetan mentality in his small but enlightening book 'Necklace of dZi'.

But this unfortunate development has became a things of past, today, the Tibetan people are now beginning to realize that the ancient civilization of Tibet has its root in Bon culture and it has had an enriching effect to and from Buddhism. This evolution of Bon and Buddhism over a long period of time has resulted the unique culture and religion of Tibet.



1. An Introduction to Buddhism and Tantric Meditation by His Holiness the Dalai Lama
2. An Early History of Tibet according to Bon by Ven Tenzin Namdak
3. Indo-Tibetan Buddhism Vol. one by David Snellgrove
4. Kalachakra Initiations by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Dalai Lama.com 2011
5. The Practice of Kalachakra by Glenn Mullin, Snowlion Publications, 1991
6. The Kalachakra Initiation by D.R. Prodan, 1993

7. Oracles and Demons of Tibet by Rene de Nebesky – Wojkowitz, Paljor Publications, New Delhi
8. Tibet: A Political History by Tsepon W.D. Shakabpa, Potala, 1982
9. The Necklace of Dzi by Namkhai Norbur, DIIR, Dharamsala
10. The Third Dalai Lama; Essence of Refined Gold, Glenn H. Mullin, Snowlion Publications
11. The Highest Yoga Tantra; Daniel Cozort,
12. Bodkyi Nangchoe Ngotoe Nyingnor. the 14th Dalai Lama
14. Buddhism of Tibet by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Snowlion NY
15. The World of Tibetan Buddhims by His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Notes: The note is based on the books the author has come acrossed, and the formal and informal talks and discussions he had on the subject. It is by no mean a comprehensive and authoritative writing on the subject. Serious students may need to study the book references made in this article.

[1] Ven. Tenzin Namdhak, History of Tibet According to Bon, [Tib: sNga rab bod kyi jyung wa brJod pa' bel gTam lung gi sNyinpo] Paljor Publications, New Delhi
[2] Shakabpa, Tibet - A political History, 1984 Potala Publications, NY
[3] Ibid
[4] Bu-sTon, translated by Obermiller, History of Buddhism in India and Tibet, 2001 Paljor Publications, New Delhi
[5] Glenn H Mullin, translation, Essence of RefinedGold, Snowlion Publications, 1985
[6] Shakabpa, Tibet - A political History, 1984 Potala Publications, NY
[7] Rene de Nebesky – Wojkowitz, Oracles and Demons of Tibet, Paljor Publications, New Delhi