Saturday, July 18, 2009

Buddhism in Tibet

A group of us has just returned from an 11-day trip to China's Qinghai and Tibet. This is the first of my blog on what I learned from this trip.

Buddhism was introduced to Tibet in the 7th century AD (some say earlier but that would spoil this story) when the great king of the Tubo kingdom, Songtsen Gampo united what was then the territory of Tibetan influence. As gestures of goodwill (or appeasement depending on your point of view), the kings of Nepal and Tang China sent their daughters to become consorts to the great king.

This 33rd king of Tubo did more than marry two princesses in addition to his principal wife of ethnic Tibetan origin. He was a military genius, ordered the creation of the Tibetan language in written form, began the construction that was to become the Potala Palace, among many other worthy undertakings.

Princess Wencheng, daughter of Li Shimin, himself one of the great Tang emperors in China’s history, brought with her a sacred statue of Buddha said to have been made in celestial heaven and resided there for many years before being sent down to earth. I don’t have the full story of how the statue ended up in Li Shimin’s hands or why he would willingly give it up, but this statue is on display in the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa.

Of course from Tibetan’s point of view, they can’t simply give Wencheng and China all the credit for introducing Buddhism to Tibet but gave partial credit to the beautiful princess from Nepal in influencing the great king to accept Buddhism. After all, the religion originated from Nepal.

All religions take on local flavor in part to ensure more ready acceptance by the indigenous population. It was no different with Buddhism in Tibet where much of the beliefs of Bon was incorporated into the rituals. Bon based on animism was the dominant religion before being supplanted by Buddhism which in Tibet was more commonly referred to as Lamaism to distinguish from other forms of Buddhism elsewhere. “Lama” is the Tibetan term for monk.

Ironically, while Songtsen Gampo, the 33rd king of the Tubo kingdom introduced Buddhism to Tibet, the 42nd and last king wanted to revert to Bon and he was assassinated by a monk. The lesser wife bore the king a son but had to contend with the senior wife who adopted a son to bolster her legitimacy. A bitter squabble ended inconclusively. Thus ended the continuous lineage of Tibetan kings and the kingdom fell into disarray from the 9th to the 11th century.

In the 17th century, the 5th Dalai Lama was invited to the court of the first emperor of the Qing dynasty where he was conferred the official title of Dalai Lama and granted the right to become the titular ruler of Tibet. Up to then, the Dalai Lama was merely the head of the yellow hat sect, which was founded in the 16th century and was a new comer and a minor sect compared to the other three major sects in Tibet at the time. Since then, thanks to the appointment by the emperor in Beijing, the yellow sect has flourished and today makes up perhaps 60% of all the Tibetan followers.

The practice of identifying the reincarnate of the deceased Dalai Lama as the successor and next ruler began with the 4th Dalai Lama who was attributed as the reincarnation of the 3rd. The 1st and 2nd were not part of the cycle and were apparently retrospectively revered for their learnedness and holiness.

With increasing wealth and power, the selection of the successor to the deceased Dalai Lamas became increasing crucial and a bone of contention. In fact the death of the 9th Dalai Lama even before he reached puberty, a suspected victim of poison, may have been because of violent disagreement among members of the “selection committee.”

Typically, the new Dalai Lama was selected at a very young age and then tutored intensively in preparation for the day when he will take over. In the meantime, a regent was appointed to rule in his place until he reached the age of majority at 18. It was undoubtedly tempting for some regents to hold onto the power a little longer by sending the young Dalai Lama on to reincarnation before his time.

Another indication of the risk involved in becoming the Dalai Lama is that while we are at the 14th of Dalai Lama, we are only at the 11th Panchen Lama. Since both exalted holy lamas were accorded their exalted titles at about the same time, the life expectancy of the Panchen Lama appeared to be longer than that of the Dalai lama.

It remained for Qianlong, emperor of Qing dynasty, to settle the dispute among various factions by establishing and formalizing on a procedure for the identification and selection of the reincarnate of the late Dalai Lama. The golden jar used to draw lots to help choose from among the finalists was on display in the Tibet Museum in Lhasa, another said to be Beijing at the Lama Temple. So you see, there is historical precedence for Beijing to take a hand in settling the domestic affairs of Tibet.

A tour of Potala Palace, even when limited by one hour per tour group during the tourist high season, can be quite revealing. We saw many statues and stupas (our guide called them tomb pagodas) made of solid gold. The 5th and the 13th were consider the greatest of the deceased Dalai Lamas. The stupa for the 5th weighed nearly 4 metric tons of solid gold. The 13th was so revered that his stupa was unveiled for public viewing only once every year. We were not there on that lucky day but were told that his stupa was as magnificent as the 5th. Perhaps a coincidence, they were the only two Dalai Lamas that wore a mustache during their time on earth.

By my seat of the pants estimate, there are easily 20 to 30 tons of gold sitting just in the Potala Palace. I felt indelicate to ask as to exactly how much gold there is in Potala but I did ask our guide as to where all that gold came from. We mined for our gold, he said, Tibet is rich in natural resources.

Good thing, I thought, the Spaniards did not hear about the gold of Tibet. They could have sacked Tibet the way they did in Mexico and Peru--which brings up the story of speculation as to why the 13th Dalai Lama is so revered by the Tibetans.

In 1904, the 13th led the Tibetans against the incursion of the British expeditionary force led by Francis Younghusband outside of Gyantse. The Tibetans had no concept of the destructive powers of modern weapons such as the machine gun. A tragic massacre ensued which gave Younghusband the pretext needed to march on to Lhasa. (Apparently the 13th was not there in person, he had removed himself to outer Mongolia out of harm’s way.)

A typical unequal treaty was the result, but even the British government felt repelled by the one-sided circumstances and the massacre of Tibetans needed for Younghusband to bring back this treaty. London promptly consigned it to the dust bins and never took advantage of any of the terms of the treaty.

It would take more research to understand why the 13th was so revered by the Tibetans, with a stature on par with the 5th. As the leader of the military confrontation with the British, he was an unmitigated disaster. The Tibetans probably looked upon him as the symbol of Tibet’s resistance to British imperialism. The Beijing government has erected a memorial in Gyantse in honor of all the “martyrs” of that historic confrontation.

It will take more scholarly research than represented here to understand why the Brits did not proceed to take over Tibet. Perhaps they were satisfied that then Czarist Russia were not in Tibet contrary to the rumors used to justify the invasion into Tibet. They had no idea of the amount of gold in Tibet nor the immense collection of art objects that could have overflowed the British Museum.

An interesting side note is that the 13th, the immediate predecessor of the current one residing in Dharamsala, eventually fled to Moscow, (USSR being the other player of the “Great Game,”) and died there. It would be interesting to find out exactly how the 14th was selected because there is a chance of history repeating itself when the current one passed on.


Charles Sie said...

Hi George:

Read your Tibet report with great interest. How many percent of the 2.8 million population in Tibet are han people?

Did you see Dalai Lama's portrait in any people's home?

Charlie Sie

George said...


Our guide told us that 20% of the people in Tibet are non-Tibetans. I do not have a breakdown of the 20% between the Hans, Huis and other ethnic groups. If we suppose that 15 of those 20% are Han people and 30% of all Tibetans live in urban area, then we can see that one out of two people we see in Lhasa would be a Han Chinese.

We did not actually visit homes of local Tibetans and therefore can't really answer your question concerning portraits of Dalai Lama. But as I mentioned in my next blog, most (~98%) Tibetans are Buddhists and revere the Dalai Lama as their spiritual leader. I would assume that many if not most would have his portrait hanging in their homes.