Religions of Tibet in Practice is a landmark work, the first major anthology on the topic ever produced. It presents a stunning array of works (hagiographies, pilgrimage guides, prayers, accounts of visits to hell, epics, consecration manuals, sermons, and exorcism texts) that together offer an unparalleled view of the realities of those who have inhabited the Tibetan cultural domain over the centuries. The volume provides a wealth of voices that together lead to a new and more nuanced understanding of the religions of Tibet.
The thirty-six chapters are testimony to the vast scope of religious practice in the Tibetan world, past and present, offering works heretofore unknown. The chapters are organized thematically under five headings: "Accounts of Time and Place," "Remarkable Lives," "Rites and Techniques," "Prayers and Sermons," and "Dealing with Death and Other Demons." They juxtapose materials from different sects, historical periods, and geographical regions in an attempt to broaden the range of what we understand the religious practices of Tibet to encompass. Each chapter contains a translation and a substantial yet accessible introduction by a leading scholar of Tibetan religions. Religions of Tibet in Practice represents the largest sourcebook on Tibetan religions ever assembled, a work of great value to scholars, students, and general readers.
Donald S. Lopez, Jr., is Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan. He is also the editor of: Buddhism in Practice, Religions of India in Practice, Religions of China in Practice; and author of Elaborations on Emptiness: Uses of the Heart Sutra.
The religions of Tibet have long been objects of Western fascination and fantasy. From the time that Venetian travelers and Catholic missionaries encountered Ti- betan monks at the Mongol court, tales of the mysteries of their mountain home- land and the magic of their strange religions have held a peculiar hold over the European and American imagination. Over the past two centuries, the valuation of Tibetan society and, particularly, its religion has fluctuated wildly. Tibetan Buddhism has been portrayed sometimes as the most corrupt deviation from the Buddha's true dharma, sometimes as its most direct descendant. These fluctua- tions have occurred over the course of this century, as Tibet resisted the colonial ambitions of a European power at its beginning and succumbed to the colonial ambitions of an Asian power at its end.
Until some thirty years ago, knowledge of the religions of Tibet in the West had largely been derived from the reports of travelers and adventurers, who often found the religions both strange and strangely familiar, noting similarities between Tibetan Buddhism and Roman Catholicism, calling the Dalai Lama the Tibetan pope, for example. It is only since the Tibetan diaspora that took place beginning in 1959, after the Chinese invasion and occupation of Tibet, that the texts of the religions of Tibet have begun to be widely translated. Until this point, however, there has been no attempt to gather a wide range of Tibetan religious texts into a single volume. The present volume, therefore, unlike others in this series, is not intended as a supplement or a substitute for past anthologies (no such anthologies exist), but is a first attempt to represent the contours of Tibetan religious practices through Tibetan texts.
This volume is thus testimony to the vast scope of religious practice in the Tibetan world, past and present. It does not follow a chronological sequence or attempt to represent systematically the various Buddhist sects. Instead, it offers a selection of texts, in the broadest sense of that term, in order to provide the reader with a sense of the remarkable diversity and range of the practices of persons who have inhabited the Tibetan cultural domain. The chapters highlight types of dis- course (including ritual texts, epics, prayers, accounts of visits to hell, sermons, pilgrimage manuals, and autobiographies) and voices (vernacular, esoteric, cler- ical, prophetic, and female) that have not been sufficiently represented in previous accounts of Tibetan religion. The selections juxtapose materials from different "sects," historical periods, and geographical regions in an attempt to broaden the range of what we understand the religious practices of Tibet to encompass.
Because this volume, like the others in the series, is organized thematically, it is perhaps useful here to provide a brief historical overview of the religions of Tibet, with repeated excurses into some of the presuppositions and foundations of Tibetan religious life that are represented in the chapters of this book.
The history of Tibet prior to the seventh century C.E. is difficult to determine. According to a number of chronicles discovered at Dunhuang dating from the seventh through the tenth centuries, Tibet was ruled by a lineage of kings, the first seven of whom descended from the heavens by means of a cord or ladder. Each king ruled until his first son was old enough to ride a horse, at which point the king returned to heaven via the rope. (Buddhist historians say that the first king in the lineage was an Indian prince who arrived by crossing the Himalayas; when the Tibetans asked where he had come from he pointed up, and the cred- ulous Tibetans assumed he had descended from the sky.) These kings founded a system of law that reflected the cosmic order of heaven. As a literal descendant of heaven, the king was the embodiment and protector of the cosmic order and the welfare of the state. The king's stable presence on the throne thus ensured harmony in the realm.
It was only when the eighth king lost his protective warrior god (dgra Iha, see chapter 26) in battle that the sky rope was severed and the king was slain, leaving his corpse behind. To deal with this crisis, according to later sources-priests were invited from an area called Shangshung (Zhang zhung, the precise location and extent of which is unknown but is assumed to include much of western Tibet) to perform death rituals and bury the king. The story reflects the popular notion of Tibet as an untamed and uncivilized realm, with civilization arriving only from the outside. Recent scholarship thus does not assume from this account that foreign priests were actually summoned, seeing it instead as a creation myth meant to explain the origin of the elaborate royal mortuary cult. A class of priests called "reciters" (bon) performed a range of sacerdotal functions in service of the divine king, such as officiating at coronation ceremonies and in rites of allegiance to the king. There was also another class of priests, called shen (gshen), who seem to have performed divinations.
The cult of the divine king included the belief that he was endowed with both magical power and a special magnificence. There was a trinity of the king, the head priest, and the chief minister, with the active power of government in the hands of the head priest and the minister who represented the priestly hierarchy and the clan nobility. The king represented the continually reborn essence of the divine ancestor, who was reincarnated in each king at the age of maturity and remained incarnated in him until his son reached the same age of maturity and ascended the throne as the consecutive link of the ancestral reincarnation. This procedure applied also to both the priest and the minister, so a new trinity was instituted at the accession of each king. The king also had a special guardian called the "body spirit" (sku bla) who protected the king's power, encompassing everything from his body to his political authority to the order of the universe. One of the primary responsibilities of the royal priests and ministers, then, seems to have been the maintenance of the king's health, for if the king became ill or if the body spirit was determined otherwise to be displeased, the safety of the king- dom and even of the universe was in jeopardy. Epidemics and droughts were interpreted as signs of this displeasure.
The notion of la (bla) , generally translated as "soul," "spirit," or "life," dates from the ancient period and remains an important component in the religions of Tibet. The la is an individual's life force, often associated with the breath. It is seen as the essential support of the physical and mental constitution of the person but is mobile and can leave the body and wander, going into trees, rocks, or animals, to the detriment of the person it animates, who will become either ill or mentally unbalanced. The la is especially susceptible during dreams and can be carried off by demons, who particularly covet the life forces of children. There are thus rites designed to bring the la back into the body, known as "calling the la" (bla 'bod).
Even when the la is properly restored to its place in the body, it may simul- taneously reside in certain external abodes, most often in a particular lake, tree, mountain, or animal. The person in whom the la resides stands in a sympathetic relationship with these phenomena, such that if the la mountain is dug into, the person will fall sick. The Tibetan epic hero Gesar (see chapter 1) in his attempt to conquer a certain demoness cuts down her la tree and empties her la lake; he fails because he does not kill her la sheep. The identity of these external la are thus often kept secret, and portable abodes of the la, usually a precious object of some kind (often a turquoise), are kept in special receptacles and hidden by the person who shares the la.
There were thus regular offerings made to the king's body spirit at the site of the king's sacred mountain, the physical locus of his power. Of particular im- portance to the royal cult, however, were the funeral ceremonies. A king was still expected to abdicate upon the majority of his son and retire to his tomb with a large company of retainers, although whether this entailed the execution of the king and his retinue or simply their exile into a tomb complex remains unknown. The royal funerals were apparently elaborate affairs, with food and other neces- sities provided for the perilous journey to the next world, a bucolic heaven called the "land of joy" (bde ba can). Animals, especially yaks, sheep, and horses (see chapter 25), were also offered in sacrifice. Chinese sources suggest that humans were also sacrificed, perhaps to serve as servants to the departed king, perhaps to be offered as gifts or "ransoms" (glud) to various spirits who otherwise would block the king's route. This concern with death and the fate of the dead has continued throughout the history of Tibetan religions, as evidenced by the chap- ters in the section entitled "Dealing with Death and Other Demons."
Although Buddhism was flourishing all around Tibet in the first centuries of the common era, there is no mention of Buddhist elements in the chronicles apart from the account of a small stupa and an illegible Buddhist sutra falling from the sky into the palace of one of the prehistoric kings. The formal introduction of Buddhism to the Tibetan court seems to have occurred during the reign of King Songtsen Gampo (Srong btsan sgam po, ruled c. 614-650), at a time when Tibet was the dominant military power of Inner Asia. According to later chronicles, as a result of treaties with the courts of China and Nepal, the king received two princesses as wives. Each was a Buddhist, and each brought a precious statue of the Buddha with her to Lhasa, the capital. They are credited with converting their new husband to the dharma, although what this meant in practice is difficult to say. The king dispatched an emissary to India to learn Sanskrit and then return to design a written language for Tibet. Among the many purposes to which such a script could be put, it is said that the king's pious motivation was the translation of Buddhist texts from Sanskrit into Tibetan.
The script invented was modeled on one current in northern India at the time. Tibetan is, like Sanskrit, an inflected language, with case endings used to mark grammatical functions. Words are made up of combinations of independent syl- lables, each of which is constructed by grouping letters in various combinations. The simplest syllable can be made up of a single letter while the most complex can have as many as six, with a prefix, a superscription, a root letter, a subscrip- tion, a suffix, and an additional suffix, not to mention a vowel marker. Historical linguists speculate that originally all of these letters were pronounced, but over the centuries the auxiliary letters became silent, such that there is a vast difference today between the way a word is written and the way it is pronounced. To render the spelling of a Tibetan word in English requires that all of the letters be rep- resented. The result, however, appears to be utterly unpronounceable to someone who does not already know Tibetan. For that reason, phonetic renderings (for which there is no widely accepted convention) must be provided. For example, the name of the current Dalai Lama in transliteration is Bstan 'dzin rgya mtsho, but it is commonly written in English as Tenzin Gyatso. Although the same script is employed throughout the Tibetan cultural domain, dozens of regional dialects have developed, many of which are mutually incomprehensible.
The conversion of Tibet to Buddhism is traditionally presented as a process of forceful but ultimately compassionate subjugation (rather than destruction) of. native Tibetan deities by the more powerful imported deities of Buddhism, often invoked by Indian yogins. The profoundly chthonic nature of Tibetan religion is evident even from the traditional chronicles, which represent the conversion of Tibet to the true dharma not so much as a matter of bringing new teachings to the populace but of transforming the landscape by bringing the myriad deities of place-of valleys, mountains, hills, passes, rivers, lakes, and plains--under con- trol. Thus Songtsen Gampo was said to have ordered the construction of Buddhist temples at key points throughout his realm, each temple functioning as a great nail impaling a giant demoness (srin mo) lying supine over the expanse of Tibet, immobilizing her from impeding the progress of the dharma, the symmetry of a Buddhist mandala superimposed over the unruly landscape of Tibet.
Princeton Readings in Religions
Note on Transliteration
Introduction - Donald S. Lopez, Jr.
Language & Literature (443)
Sacred Sites (102)
Tantric Buddhism (87)
Send as free online greeting card
Email a Friend