'BUDDHISM'

From: Trespassers on the Roof of the World:
		The Race for Lhasaby Peter Hopkir Oxford University Press, 1983k[Reprinted with 
		permission of Oxford University Press]


excerpt
Buddhism first reached Tibet in the middle of the seventh century, and was destined to bring about a remarkable change in the Tibetan people. Until their conversion to Buddhism, they had always been a warlike race with imperialist ambitions who represented a perpetual threat to their neighbours, particularly the Chinese. For a while they had even ruled Chang'an, China's ancient capital, and occupied virtually the whole of Kansu, much of Szechuan and northern Yunnan, as well as Upper Burma and Nepal. But following their gradual conversion to Buddhism, with its gentle message of submission, the once dreaded martial reputation of the Tibetans began to decline. Finally, around the tenth century, the last of their empire collapsed. The Tibetans withdrew behind their mountain ramparts and their centuries of isolation began.

The Buddhism which reached Tibet more than a thousand years after its founder's death was of the late and debased northern Indian school. This debasement was due to an infusion of Tantrism, an animistic creed which embraced magic, witchcraft and spells. In Tibet the new religion immediately found itself in violent conflict with the old Bon faith and its devotees. The latter practised an even more primitive kind of aniinism, indulging in human sacrifice, cannibalism, devil worship and sexual orgies. Although banned altogether at one time, Buddhism gradually prevailed. But the Bon faith nonetheless continued to be practised, never being completely ousted. In fact, Tibetan Buddhism was to borrow freely from the Bon pantheon as well as from other religions, including Nestorian Christianity, which by then had reached Central Asia. In its final form, the Buddhism of Tibet - or Lamaism as it is sometimes called - would scarcely have been recognised by its saintly founder. One Catholic missionary who visited Tibet in the seventeenth century even claimed that it was simply a degenerate form of Christianity.

Lamaism is so named after its priestly upholders, the lamas, or 'superior ones'. In effect it came to mean rule by a religious hierarchy headed by the Dalai Lama. The first Tibetan Buddhist monastery is said to have been built around the year 775, the final total of such institutions eventually reaching some 2,700. One early traveller described the country as 'a huge monastery inhabited by a nation of monks'. For every Tibetan family was expected to provide one child for the church. It was a custom which their Chinese neighbours - and at times overlords - were to encourage, for more monks meant fewer soldiers. As a result every town and village had its own monastery, often perched strategically on hill-top or Mountainside, from where a disciplinary eye was kept on the local populace.

The first Dalai Lama dates back to the fifteenth century, although the actual title was introduced, retrospectively, a century later. He was the leader of a sect called the Yellow Hats (so called because of their yellow garb) of Tibetan Buddhism which, with powerful Mongol support, gradually supplanted the rival Red Hat sect as the dominant power in Tibet. Until then the country had been ruled by a dynasty of kings supported by the Red Hats. Nominally the kings continued to rule, but gradually temporal as well as religious power passed to the Dalai Lamas. By the middle of the seventeenth century this transfer of power was complete, and Tibet was firmly controlled by the formidable fifth Dalai Lama from the Potala, the now world-famous palace which he built specially for himself and his successors or, more correctly, his reincarnations. The Great Fifth, as he is still known, also created an institution which some of his successors had cause, to rtie. This was the office of Panchen - or Tashi - Lama which he bestowed as a gesture of veneration upon his aged and revered teacher, the Abbot of Tashilhunpo monastery, near Shigatse, Tibet's second largest town. Both the Dalai and Panchen Lamas, Tibetans believe, are reincarnations of different aspects of the Buddha himself, the Panchen being concerned exclusively with spiritual matters while the Dalai is additionally entrusted with the nation's sovereignty. So long as the Panchen Lamas confined themselves to spiritual affairs, leaving all temporal matters to the Dalai Lama, no problems arose, but this did not always prove to be the case.

Whenever a Dalai Lama died a search began for his reincarnation. The chosen male child had to possess certain mystic qualities which distinguished him from ordinary mortals. One was the ability to identify the possessions of his predecessor, or rather his previous self. Another requirement was that he should have large ears, upward-slanting eyes and eyebrows and that one of his hands should bear a mark like a conch-shell. The successful candidate, usually aged two or three, was then removed from his family to Lhasa to begin a long period of spiritual training for his future role. The Panchen Lamas were chosen in a similar way. Invariably the reincarnated leaders were 'discovered' in the households of lowly families rather than of noble ones. This, it has been said, was deliberate, to ensure that no single and powerful lay family could seize the title and make it hereditary.

Until he reached the age of eighteen, the young Dalai Lama's temporal responsibilities were carried out by a Regent. Some of these were clearly reluctant to relinquish their powers, for a suspiciously large number of young Dalai Lamas died before attaining the age of eighteen. During one period of a hundred and twenty years, five successive Dalai Lamas ruled for a total of only seven years. Nor were all the Dalai Lamas models of saintliness. The sixth, who was enthroned in 1697, showed little interest in his spiritual and secular responsibilities, preferring to indulge in sexual adventures, drunkenness and writing erotic poetry. He was nonetheless popular with his people who resisted an attempt to have him deposed.

Religious belief and everyday life were inextricably entwined in this unique theocracy. Until the Chinese invasion, every Tibetan family worshipped daily at the household shrine. Whether rich or poor (and the rich were only modestly so by comparison with other countries), whether dwelling in palace, hovel or nomadic tent, each household set aside a corner in which were placed devotional objects. In addition to the numerous monasteries and nunneries scattered across the country, there were many thousands of chortens or stupas, erected as monuments to saints or as repositories for offerings and sacred relics. It is necesssary to use the past tense as almost all of these were destroyed by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, if not before. Everywhere too there were strings of prayer flags, either hung from poles or draped over the rooftops. Each flutter of one of these flags, the Tibetans believe, sends the prayer written on it heavenwards.

Another ingenious idea, unique to Tibet, is the prayer-wheel, or mani-chuskor. This consists of a metal cylinder - ranging in height from a mere two inches to a colossal eight or nine feet - and containing a long scroll of paper bearing countless repetitions of the mystical, all-powerful Tibetan prayer: 'Om! Mani Padme Hum!'Translated literally, this means'Hail! Jewel in the Lotus!', although its actual meaning is obscure. Every time the cylinder is rotated, Tibetans believe, a stream of prayer ascends skywards. The most common type of prayer-wheel is the small, individually-owned and hand-rotated kind. Attached to a wooden handle, the cylinders of these are usually made from copper or silver and often finely decorated. A small metal weight on a short chain attached to the cylinder enables the user to whirl it at speed. Some of the largest prayer-wheels, to be found in monasteries or temples, are said to contain as many as a million printed repetitions of the mystical formula. Because of their weight, these giant wheels are usually rotated by means of a hand-turned crank, or by wind or water power, thus enabling hundreds of millions of invocations to be released heavenwards with the minimum of effort.

Another aid to prayer is the Tibetan rosary. Usually of bone (often human), coral or wood, these always consist of one hundred and eight beads, a sacred number. A bead is slipped each time a prayer is repeated, until a complete circuit has been made of the rosary. Also attached to the rosary are two or more secondary strings, each consisting of ten much smaller beads. These are used to register each completed circuit of the rosary. Thus very large numbers of prayers can be recorded. These rosaries, as well as the innocent seeming prayer-wheels, were adapted by the Raj spymasters to less reverent use, as will be seen.

Learned tomes have been written on the religion of the Tibetans to which those wishing to pursue the subject further can turn. For it is too complex to go into here and beyond the scope of this book. But there are certain beliefs and practices of interest to us because they illustrate Tibetan attitudes to life and death and the immense power of their faith. (If they seem repugnant to us, it should be pointed out that some western customs strike Tibetans as equally bizarre.)

One of the most horrifying of these was self-immurement. The length of time a hermit might spend in solitary confinement walled up in a pitch-dark cave could vary from a few months' retreat to a lifetime, in which case the ordeal ended only at death. Recourse to this slow form of suicide, it was believed, would enable the devotee to avoid endless cycles of rebirth, and so achieve Nirvana, or self extinction, in one lifetime. Many of those who attempted this feat understandably went mad. Their only human contact was the gloved hand which once a day, and in total silence, passed food through a tiny aperture in the wall. It needs no imagination to visualise the conditions inside a cave cell thus occupied for thirty or forty years. When the anchorite knew that death - and hopefully Nirvana - was close, he would drag himself into a comer and compose himself, Buddha-like, in cross-legged posture to await the end. When those outside noticed that he had failed to accept food for several days, death would be assumed. The wall was then knocked down and the devotee's body reverently removed and ceremoniously burned instead of being cut up and fed to the vultures.

Another harsh ritual was that of making a pilgrimage by the slow and painful means of repeated prostrations of the body. Pilgrims sometimes covered hundreds of miles in this way, each time placing their feet on the spot where their foreheads had previously touched the ground. Usually Lhasa, with its holy places, was the pilgrim's goal, but it could be any sacred site. Sven Hedin once came upon two young lamas engaged in such a pilgrimage around Mount Kailas, regarded by Tibetans as the centre of the universe. It had taken them nine days to reach this spot from their village, and they calculated that it would take a further twelve or so days to complete the circuit of the mountain. After that, one of the two - just twenty years old planned to wall himself up for the rest of his life. Other pilgrims sometimes carried heavy rocks with them to demonstrate their devotion.

Tibet abounds in tales of supernaturally-endowed saints, wizards with great destructive powers, and mystics who could fly to the tops of Himalayan peaks, raise the dead and perform other miracles. Many of these stories were no doubt invented by the priestly hierarchy to impress their authority on simple villagers, whose aims and faith they depended upon. But many modern-minded Tibetans still half believe in these miracles. Tibetan refugees tell of the lung-pa, or wind men, who after years of extreme asceticism and preparation can free themselves from the normal weight of their bodies and thereafter defy gravity, flying hundreds of miles in a day. One well-known European traveller actually claimed to have observed one of these.

Magic plays a key role, too, in traditional medicine. Tibetan doctors claim to be able to tell from a patient's pulse when another member of his or her family, however far away, is ill, and then to be able to diagnose and cure the malady. There are four hundred and forty different forms of illness, it is claimed, each of which can be cured by a special charm or spell, although herbal medicines are also used.

[End of Excerpt]


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