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History of religions in Tibet
Posted: March-18-2009Adjust font size:

Monasteries in Tibet, a mysterious land known as the Roof of the World, harmonize well with the natural scenery, symbolizing the impact of religion on the local people.

The Bon religion, the primitive religion of the ancient Tibetans, was flourish before the introduction of Buddhism. Its priests were powerful both militarily and economically, wielding control even over the nobility. In the 7th century, Songtsan Gambo (?-650) unified the Tibetan Plateau and established the Tubo Kingdom. Defying the Bon priests, he introduced Buddhism into Tibet. He married Princess Bhributi from Nepal, who brought a life-sized statue of Sakyamuni at the age of eight, and then married Princess Wencheng of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), who brought a life-sized statue of Sakyamuni at the age of 12, as well as 360 volumes of Buddhist sutras as her dowry. From then on, the civilization of the Central Plains of China started to flow into Tibet. Songtsan Gambo also constructed the Jokhang and Ramqe monasteries in the capital, Lhasa.

The following 100 years saw incessant conflicts between Buddhism and Bon. The latter half of the 8th century saw the construction of the Samyai Monastery, the first large-scale Buddhist monastery in Tibet. By the early 9th century, more monasteries were constructed, and the influence of Buddhism in Tibet reached its zenith.

However, internal strife ripped apart the royal house, and in the five years (838-842) of the reign of King Darma, the Bon religion revived; during the following 100 years, Tibetan Buddhism became almost extinct. By the end of the 10th century, Buddhism had become popular again, but it was divided into many sects, reflecting political loyalties. The leading sects included the Nyingma Sect (Red Sect), Sagya Sect (Flower Sect), Kagdams Sect, Kabrgyud Sect (White Sect), and Gelug Sect (Yellow Sect). Historians classify the period from the reign of Songtsan Gambo to that of Darma as the "Early Period of Buddhism, and the period of the renaissance of Buddhism and the emergence of the sects the "Later Period of Buddhism"

Many monasteries were constructed in Tibet during the Early Period of Buddhism. Besides the famous Jokhang, Ramqe and Samyai monasteries, the Potala Palace was built in that period too. During the 200 years, Tibet absorbed the culture and handicraft skills of the Han people. At the same time, a large number of Buddhist scriptures in Sanskrit, as well works on monastic architecture and other skills were translated into Tibetan. One can easily identify Han and Indian architectural influences on the monasteries in Tibet. However, few of the monasteries founded in the Early Period of Buddhism remain, apart from ruins.

Great changes took place in the monasteries in Tibet in the Later Period of Buddhism in both their architectural styles and their social functions. During this period, feudal serf-owners were usually the biggest benefactors or lamas of the monasteries, leading to a fusion of politics and religion. In the mid 13th century, religious leaders appointed by the Central Government administered local affairs. In the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, the policy of "integration of state and religion" in Tibet continued. For these several centuries, the local religious leader served as the ruler of his area, integrating politics, military affairs, economy and religion, leading to changes in the structures and functions of monasteries in Tibet. In the Early Period of Buddhism, temples and monasteries were constructed mainly in the plains, while in the Later Period of Buddhism, they were built at the feet of mountains. In addition, they contained residential areas, offices and military facilities, including defensive walls and watchtowers. This indicated that the monasteries were becoming seats of temporal as well as spiritual power. While creating the splendid Buddhist culture, monasteries, however, hindered the social progress and the popularization of civilization.

The cultivation of moral conduct in Tibetan Buddhism is divided into two forms - the Open School and the Secret School. The Secret School is the highest period of learning and the various sects of Tibetan Buddhism have long been split on which to emphasize. Tsongkhapa, founder of the Gelug Sect, preached a fusion of the two.

However, the systems of learning of different sects are almost the same. If a lama wants to enter a monastery to study the scriptures, he must first study in the preparatory class of the Open School and then enter the formal class in different grades. If he finishes studying all the scriptures, he is qualified to participate in the examination for the title of Gebshes (the Buddhist equivalent of doctor of divinity). One may obtain different Gebshes titles by passing different examinations. After obtaining a Gebshes title, one may enter the Secret School, where, after choosing a master, one passes through a ceremony named "vessel consecration." Usually, the master pours water from a pot or vase onto the head of the disciple, and then offers him wine from a bowl made of a skull to warn him to clear his mind of all evil thoughts. After this ceremony, the master starts to teach the disciple the scriptures. The disciple will undergo the ceremony of "vessel consecration" every time he moves to a higher level of the Secret School. Students receive instruction four times a day, sitting on a seat paved with sharp pebbles until he obtains the title of Living Buddha.

There are many ranks to the title Living Buddha. For instance, the highest Living Buddhas of the Celug Sect are the Dalai and Panchen lamas. The Dalai Lama is supposed to be the embodiment of Avalokitesvara (the Goddess of Mercy), and the Panchen Lama is said to be the embodiment of the Buddha of Infinite Life. The name Dalai Lama originated in 1579. "Dalai," a Mongolian word, means "Sea." While "Lama," a Tibetan word, means "Master." After Emperor Shunzhi of the Qing Dynasty conferred the title Dalai Lama in 1653, the title became a special term for Dalai's side. The title Panchen was first used in the year 1645. "Pan" is an abbreviation of the Sanskrit word "pandit," meaning "scholar," while "chen," a Tibetan word, means "big." The combination of the two words means "master." In the year 1713, Emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty conferred the title "Panchen Erdeni." "Erdeni" means "treasure" in Sanskrit. Under these two equal-ranking Living Buddhas, the hierarchy includes the Pro-consul Living Buddha who serves as the agent of the Dalai and Panchen lamas in handling local Buddhist affairs, the Living Buddha who is in charge of the major monasteries, the Master of Meditation, who represents the Dalai and Panchen lamas in capital Beijing, the teacher of classics of the Dalai and Panchen lamas, the Living Buddha who is head of the Buddhist Institute, and abbots of medium-sized monasteries. Living Buddhas have their own "palaces." The largest palace is the Potala Palace in Lhasa, where the Dalai Lama lives. In the past, the monastery expenses and funds for the support of the monks mainly came from begging for alms, soliciting contributions, chanting scriptures, donations, business, and practicing usury. In addition, the monasteries owned a large amount of private property, including serfs and slaves. The Buddhist scriptures in the Tibetan language are collected in the Rudduist Caiion, compiled in the second half of the 14th century. Its 4,569 volumes are divided into the Kagyur (Buddhist Teachings) and the Yangyurd (explanation of Buddhist Sutras and commandments). Printing houses specializing in the printing of the Tibetan Buddhist scriptures and various other types of books and records were set up, with the largest one in the Potala Palace and the one in the Zhaxi Lhunbo Monastery.

It has no doubt Buddhist Sutras and other ancient books nourish many folk arts in Tibet such as Thanka scrolls, frescoes, bronze sculptures, wood and stone carvings, and gold and silver ornaments.

In the past few decades, the Central Government of China has invested 200 million yuan in the renovation, maintenance and protection of temples and monasteries in the Tibet Autonomous Region. As a result, many places of historical interest, including the Samyai, Gahdan, Zhaxi Lhunbo, Xalu, and Palkor monasteries, are well preserved. In recent years, the central and local governments have jointly invested 50 million yuan to improve the environment of the Jokhang Monastery. At the same time, the project of "Saving and Protecting Cultural Relics in Ngari," which lasted three years, has passed appraisal by the national cultural relics experts. The project includes the overall maintenance and protection of the ruins of the Guge Kingdom and the mural paintings in the Toding Monastery. In the year 2000, the Central Government has invested 4.9 million yuan to upgrade the fire prevention installations in the Potala Palace, which is part of the world's cultural heritage. Meanwhile, the Central Government will organize a number of experts in various fields to investigate the maintenance work of the second phase of the renovation of the Potala Palace and the first phase of the renovation of the Sagya Monastery. This will be the third overall renovation of the Potala Palace following the renovations of 1989 and 1994 invested by the Central Government, at a cost of 53 million yuan. Nowadays there are no conflicts among religions or among the different sects of Buddhism in Tibet. Modern civilization has not only brought great changes to Tibet, but also make the divine light shine forth from the region's monasteries even more brightly.

Source: China Tibet Information CenterEditor: Lydia
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