Buddhism of Tibet

31 Aug

India -Tibet and Buddhism

1. Early Days

1.1 India and Tibet (known to Tibetans themselves as Bod and to Indians as Bhota Desha) have had a long and a continuous cultural contact. The links between the old neighbors intensified when in 620 AD the emperor Sorang – sGam-Po (569 – 650 AD) sent his emissary to Kashmir to evolve a suitable script for the Tibetan language and to invite Buddhist scholars to Tibet. Interestingly this move, it said, was initiated at the wish of two women one from Nepal and the other from China who were married to the monarch .The two queens were pious Buddhists .It does not however mean Buddhism was not known in Tibet until then. It appears that at least a hundred years earlier when LHa- THo- THo ruled the land a number of Buddhist texts were available in Tibet but not many could read the script. The initiative taken by the monarch not only brought in a gentler religion and a mellowed way of life but also a new “religious speech” (CHos – sKad) enriched by Sanskrit. Since then Tibet has regarded India as its sacred land and India in turn looks upon Tibet as its religious frontier. The mutual regard and respect has continued to this day.

2. Buddhism Enters

2.1 The introduction of Buddhist influence into Tibet was neither sudden nor violent. It was a gradual and a gentle process. This was a remarkable feat considering that the Tibetans and their religion at the time were “wild “and that the Monarch did not resort to violence or repression to usher in Buddhism. The Tibetans were mostly nomadic in nature, Spartan in their ways of life and were fiercely warlike. The religion native to Tibet called Bon –pronounced Pon – meaning “to mutter magic spells”, often described as shamanism, fetishism filled with rituals, spells, dances etc. had a strong influence on its followers. Yet the transformation brought about following the introduction of Buddhism is astounding. Today there is no gentler race than the Tibetans .No other people have preserved the high ideals of Buddhism as the Tibetans have even in the face of persistent trials, tribulations, displacements of immense proportions forced on them. How did this come about?

3. Synthesis

3.1 The religion that Indian monks planted in Tibet was not the one practiced in India at the time. In order to become acceptable to the populace of Tibet it was necessary Buddhism evolve itself into a new form by letting in Bon practices and ideas while firmly retaining its basic Buddhist tenets. In the process Buddhism took in materials and attitudes native to the soil, lent them a new sense of direction and grafted them with the Mahayana doctrines. It allowed many Bon attitudes, ideas, tribal gods, goddesses, and the associated rituals and instilled in them the spirit of piety (Karuna). Thus While the form was traditional to the soil, the soul was Buddhist. Bon at the same time also adopted numerous Buddhist practices, attitudes and ideas.

3.2 It is important to remember that the Indian monks who brought in Buddhism were not missionaries in the usual sense of the term. They were not interested in conversions.

3.3 Some call the Tibetan religion as Vajrayana. It may perhaps be more appropriate to recognize it as Bon- CHos (Buddhism grafted on Bon). Because, what we have here is a harmonious synthesis of two religious practices and ideas rather than domination of one over the other. For this reason, we may say Tibet has manifested a truly unique CHos (Dharma) with its own scheme of values.

4. Vajrayana

4.1 The form of Buddhism that took root in Tibet belongs to Vajrayana (the path of the thunderbolt) an offshoot of the Yogachara branch of the Mahayana. Vajrayana had its origin in South India, blossomed in the universities of Nalanda, Vikramashila and Odantapura in North India .It later took root in Tibet and Mongolia. Its characteristics are involvement in Tantric rituals, incantations (Mantras) and visualization of deities. At the same time the adaptable integration of the body (Kaya – Snkt,), speech (Vacha – Sanskt) and mind (manas – Sanskt.) is also a main plank of the Vajra (Diamond) path.

4.2 The Yoga – Tantra ideology (known to Tibetans as Grub –Thob) developed during the early part Christian era by a class of Indian seers called Siddhas became the driving force of the Vajrayana. Siddhas brought in the concept of Bhodhi –chitta.

4.3 As per the concept, Bhodhi-Chitta resides in all of us in its twin aspect :(1) as ordinary consciousness soiled by actions and agitated by thoughts, and (2) as a hidden pool of tranquility, unaffected, “ever washed bright”, beyond the phenomenal involvements. The former aspect is mind (Manas -Sanskrit) (Yid – Tibetan) and the latter is consciousness (Chitta – Sanskrit) (Sems – Tibetan). The object of the Tantra is to transform the former (characterized by Stress – Klesha) into the latter (experienced as Bliss – Sukha).

4.4 To illustrate the Bhodhi – Chitta, the mind is like a pool of water. The agitated water should become still before what lies beneath (consciousness) becomes visible. Beating or stirring the water does not help. The pool should be left undisturbed .The art of letting the mind alone (“let go”, “open hand”) to allow it to settle naturally into silence and tranquility is at the core of the disciplines advocated by the Siddhas. The instruction is “cast aside all clinging and essence will at once emerge”.

This concept gives rise to another one viz. Vipasyana meaning clear vision, which comes about because of stilling the constitutional mind.

4.5 These concepts entail a process that lays stress on utilizing the mind to reach a state of “no mind”, refinement and sharpening of the mind, purifying it and making it “like a cloud less sky”, “like a wave less occasion”,” like a bright lamp in a windless night” etc. In short, the object is to attain a clear, bright and a stable state. This process is also called as emptying the mind. The Tantra here not only suggests a path from a cruder form of thought and emotions to a higher level of functioning but also prescribes practices that transform and elevate the human being.

5. The Masters

5.1 The credit for evolving a wonderful synthesis of the two religious practices goes to the Tibetan monks and their Indian Gurus the prominent among whom, in the early stages, were Padmasambhava and Santarakshita. Padmasambhava built the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet (bSam Yas) around 749 AD modeled on the Odantapura monastery while combining three styles of India, Tibet and China. He persuaded the great scholar Santharakshita of Nalanda to preside over the monastery. Both were men of great learning. While Padmasambhava had his roots in Tantra, Santarakshita was a quiet ascetic in the traditional mold. The Padmasambhava – Santarakshita team was a curious combination of dissimilar capabilities .One complimented the other. One would argue, thunder and coerce while the other could explain, expound, teach and convince. One had a mass appeal; the other had the quiet regard of the elite. One emphasized magic, rituals and success; the other highlighted the value of virtues, contemplation and wisdom. Padmasambhava stood for powerful action; Santarakshita symbolized gentle being. The two great men together molded the attitudes and approach of later day Tibetans. If the Tibetans have successfully accommodated the thunderbolt (Vajra) with the abiding peace of vacuity (Shunya) then a large share of the credit must go to these Masters each working in his own way for the betterment of humanity.

5.2 If the Padmasambhava – Santarakshita team introduced the Buddhist excellence the other team of Dipankara and Brom firmly established Buddhist influence in Tibet Dipankara, a prince from Bengal earlier in his life, presided over the Vikramsila University. He was a great Mahayana scholar in the mould of Santharakshita. He was 60 when he arrived in Tibet where he lived for 13 years until his death in 1054 AD. He was fortunate in securing a very capable and devoted Tibetan disciple in Brom. The two together strived to clean up the cobwebs since settled in the Tibetan Buddhism and to restore the traditional values and virtues.

5.3 Another revered name in the annals of Tibetan Buddhism is TSong –Kha – Pa (1357 – 1419 AD), a scholar of great renown and author of the celebrated Lam – Rin CHen Mo. He is worshipped even today as a living presence, next only to Buddha. The Chinese emperor honored TSong –Kha – Pa’s nephew as a Bhodhi Sattva. Later in 1650, the Mongolian emperor conferred the all-powerful status of Dalai Lama on a descendent of TSong –Kha – Pa. Since then the successive abbots have been the religious and secular heads of Tibet.

TSong –Kha – Pa brought large scale and enduring reforms in the Buddhist monastic organizations in Tibet. The achievements of TSong –Kha _Pa and his contribution to Tibetan Buddhism in particular and to Dharma in general are too numerous to recount here.

6. India’s Debt to Tibet

6.1 India owes a debt of deep gratitude to Tibet for preserving Yoga-Tantra tradition and keeping it alive even though it has become extinct in the land of its origin.

6.2 Further, because of the large-scale destruction of Buddhist and Hindu texts stored in Nalanda when Muslim forces attacked it during the middle periods, many ancient texts are no longer available in India. The only credible source for such ancient texts is the body of Tibetan translations carried out centuries earlier by Tibetan monks.

6.3 More importantly, the extraordinary sprit of tolerance, non-violence and resilience displayed by the large population of ordinary men and women displaced from their homeland is a true tribute to Buddha and his ideals.

1. Tibetan Tantric Traditions
– Prof. S K Ramachandra Rao
2. The Buddhist Tantras
– Alex Wayman

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Posted by on August 31, 2012 in Buddhism, History, Sri Sankara


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