Introduction To Tibetan Buddhism

The following article is from the Winter, 1995 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

by John Powers

350 pp. #INTIBU $18.95

[The following is the author's introduction to the book.]

At dawn in Dharamsala, as the sun rises over the mountains, a number of people are already awake and walking on the path around the residence of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people. Dharamsala is a small town perched on the side of a mountain in the foothills of the Himalayas, the world's highest mountains, and Dharamsala today is the center of the Tibetan Buddhist exile community in India and the home of the Dalai Lama. Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, is considered by his followers to be a physical manifestation of Avalokitesvara, the buddha of compassion and patron deity of Tibet. Forced to flee his homeland in 1959 when the Chinese army forcibly annexed Tibet, he and many of his people have resettled in India, where they continue to look over the mountains, hoping someday to return to their homeland.

The harsh realities of diaspora and the tenuousness of their position in exile have not dimmed the reverence of the Tibetan people for the Dalai Lama, and the crowds of people who circumambulate his residence in Dharamsala are a testament to their respect for him. The people on the path are a cross-section of Tibetan society: young and old, laypeople, monks, nuns, and people from all levels of society. Some are on their way to work or to shop, and chose the path around the Dalai Lama's residence because it is thought that circumambulating it brings merit, even if one only walks part of the way. Many of the people on the path will make the circuit a number of times, and their walk will be an act of religious devotion.

Most carry prayer beads, used to mark the number of times they chant a mantra. The use of mantras is deeply rooted in Tibetan Buddhism. They are short prayers that are thought to subtly alter one's mind and make a connection with a particular buddha, or enlightened being. Tibetan Buddhism has no gods in the Western sense of the termthe deities of Tibetan Buddhism are buddhas, literally awakened ones, who in past Lives were ordinary people, but who have transcended the ordinary through their meditations and realizations. When Tibetans chant a mantra associated with a particular buddha, they are not simply asking for the blessings and aid of the buddhathe final goal of the practice is to become buddhas themselves, since buddhas are sentient beings who have actualized the highest potential that we all possess.

The Tibetans walking around the Dalai Lama's palace often chant the mantra of Avalokitesvaraom mani padme huma practice that pays tribute to the Dalai Lama as an incarnation of Avalokitesvara and focuses their minds on the goal of eventually attaining his level of wisdom and compassion, the two qualities that buddhas embody. Many will stop along the path at chodens (mchod rten, stupa), small shrines that generally contain religious artifacts of some sort. Often the Tibetans will make prostrations toward the chodens or toward the Dalai Lama's residence. This is thought to bring great religious merit and, like the chanting of mantras, helps to focus one's mind on the goal of buddhahood.

One of the truly striking features of this practice is its primary focus: other living beings. It is generally thought that if one performs religious actions solely for one's own benefit, the practices are ineffective and yield little or no merit. Since one is trying to attain buddhahood, and since buddhas are beings whose compassion extends to all living beings, anyone who chants the mantra of the buddha of compassion or pays homage to the Dalai Lama solely for personal gain is thought to be profoundly misguided. Tibetans recognize this, and when asked they will generally indicate that they offer the merit of their religious devotions for the benefit of all sentient beings.

All along the path are religious symbols, most of which are connected with Avalokitesvara or his human manifestation, the Dalai Lama. There are several mani walls, which are piles of stones, each of which is inscribed with the mantra om mani padme hum. This literally means, om jewel in the lotus hum, and it has tremendous significance for devout Tibetan Buddhists. The syllable om is commonly found in mantras and is said to symbolize the ultimate nature of all reality, the final truth of things. The jewel in the lotus is compassion, the quality that Avalokitesvara is thought to embody.

The symbolism of this mantra reveals a great deal about the presuppositions and practices of Tibetan Buddhism. A lotus is born in the muck and mud at the bottom of a swamp, but when it emerges on the surface of the water and opens its petals a beautiful flower appears, unstained by the mud from which it arose. Similarly, genuine compassion arises from the muck of the ordinary world, which is characterized by fighting, hatred, distrust, anxiety, and other negative emotions. These emotions tend to cause people to become self-centered and lead to suffering and negative actions. But just as the world is the locus of negative emotions, it is also the place in which we can become buddhas, enlightened beings who have awakened from the sleep of ignorance and who perceive reality as it is, with absolute clarity and with profound compassion for suffering living beings.

Just as the lotus arises from the mud of the swamp, so buddhas were formerly human beings, immersed in the negative thoughts and actions in which all ordinary beings engage: the strife, wars, petty jealousies, and hatreds to which all ordinary beings are subject. Through their meditative training, however, buddhas have transcended such things, and like lotuses have risen above their murky origins and look down on them unsullied by the mud and mire below. The symbolism may be extended still further, because buddhas do not simply escape the world and look down on others with pity or detached amusement; rather, like the lotus, which has roots that still connect it with the mud at the bottom of the lake, buddhas continue to act in the world for the benefit of others, continually taking human form in order to help them, to make them aware of the reality of their situations, and to indicate the path to the enlightenment of buddhahood, which can free them from all suffering.

All of these symbols are operating in the minds of the Tibetans who are making the circuit around the residence of the Dalai Lama. They perceive him as the embodiment of their own highest aspirations, a person who through individual effort, compassionate activity, and diligent meditation has transcended the world, but who still continues to emanate physical manifestations for the benefit of others. The compassion of Avalokitesvara is completely unstained by any ordinary emotions; he has no need for praise, does not seek the approval of others, and his actions are completely untouched by thoughts of personal gain. Rather, he embodies the highest and purest level of compassion, a compassion that is said to be inconceivable to ordinary beings. The development of such pure compassion in the ordinaiy world of ignorance, desire, and hatred is said to be as rare as a lotus growing up from the bottom of a swamp and opening its petals to reveal a perfect jewel in the middle. This indicates the multifaceted nature of the symbolism of the mantra that Tibetans chant as they circumambulate the residence of the Dalai Lama As they walk, they try to keep this symbolism in mind, because it is thought that the more one familiarizes oneself with something the more natural it becomes, and one comes more and more to think and act accordingly.

This is a basic idea underlying the system of tantric meditation, which is considered by Tibetans to be the most effective means for attaining buddhahood. In this system, one tries to transform one's mind through meditation and through surrounding oneself with symbols that resonate with one's religious goals, that draw the mind toward thoughts of compassion, wisdom, altruism, ethical behavior, patience, etc. The people on the path around the Dalai Lama's residence are making religious merit that is expected to pay dividends in the future, but on a deeper level they are trying to reorient their minds in the direction of greater and more spontaneous compassion, since ultimately they hope to attain the same level as Avalokitesvara. As they catch glimpses of the residence of Avalokitesvara's human manifestation, they aspire to become like him, and the mani walls, chodens, and rock faces carved with his mantra all serve to draw their attention to the task at hand, which is not just to ask some powerful deity for help, but to become deities themselves and work for the betterment of others.

One aspect of life in a Tibetan community that strikes most Westerners immediately is the pervasiveness of such symbolism. Everywhere one walks, Buddhist symbols stand out: there are walls of prayer wheels inscribed with mantras, and people who turn them are thought to be sending out a prayer for the benefit of all sentient beings. Prayer flags with short mantras or invocations written on them flap in the wind, each movement sending out a prayer for the benefit of others. Shrines of various sizes, as well as monasteries, monks, nuns, temples, and statues catch the eye everywhere, and many of the people one passes are engaged in activities associated with Buddhist practice: a woman on the way to the market is holding her prayer beads and softly chanting a mantra; a group of children is prostrating in front of a temple; and a line of people is moving slowly around a wall of prayer wheels, turning each one for the benefit of others.

Everywhere one looks, one perceives signs of activities that would be identified by most Westerners as religious, but they are so deeply woven into the fabric of daily Tibetan life that it is difficult to single out a part of the tapestry that is purely religious or a part that is only secular. There is no clear distinction between religious and secular life in Tibetan societies, and religion is not compartmentalized into certain places and times as it tends to be in Western societies. Rather, Buddhism is the very lifeblood of the community, and its influence is seen in all aspects of daily life.

The Tibetan language does not even have a term with the same associations as the English word religion. The closest is the word cho (chos), which is a Tibetan translation of the Sanskrit word dharma. This term has a wide range of possible meanings, and no English word comes close to expressing the associations it has for Tibetans. In its most common usage it refers to the teachings of Buddhism, which are thought to express the truth and to outline a path to enlightenment. The path is a multifacteted one, and there are teachings and practices to suit every sort of person. There is no one path that everyone must follow and no practices that are prescribed for every Buddhist. Rather, the dharma has something for everyone, and anyone can profit from some aspect of the dharma.

Because of its multifaceted nature, however, there is no one truth that can be put into words, nor is there one program of training that everyone can or must follow. Tibetan Buddhism recognizes that people have differing capacities, attitudes, and predispositions, and the dharma can and should be adapted to these. Thus, there is no one church in which everyone . should worship, no service that everyone must attend, no prayers that everyone must say, no text that everyone should treat as normative, and no one deity that everyone must worship. The dharma is extremely flexible, and if one finds that a particular practice leads to a diminishment of negative emotions, greater peace and happiness, and increased compassion and wisdom, this is dharma The Dalai Lama even states that one may practice the dharma by following the teachings and practices of non-Buddhist traditions such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, or Hinduism. If one belongs to one of these traditions, and if one's religious practice leads to spiritual advancement, the Dalai Lama counsels that one should keep at it, since this is the goal of all religious paths.

In this sentiment he hearkens back to the historical Buddha, Sakyamuni, who was born in the fifth century B.C.E. in present-day Nepal. As he was about to die, the Buddha was questioned by some of his students, who were concerned that after the master's deathpeople might begin propounding doctrines that had not been spoken by the Buddha himself and that these people might tell others that their doctrines were the actual words of the Buddha In reply, the Buddha told them, Whatever is well-spoken is the word of the Buddha In other words, if a particular teaching results in greater peace, compassion, and happiness, and if it leads to a lessening of negative emotions, then it can safely be adopted and practiced as dharma, no matter who originally propounded it.

This flexibility makes it difficult to write about Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism is a multilayered tapestry comprised of many different strands, and anyone hoping to write an introduction to this system is faced with the daunting task of sorting through centuries of history, huge amounts of textual material, and multiple lineages of teaching and practice. The problem is compounded by the scope of Tibetan Buddhism, which is found throughout the Tibetan cultural area. This area includes the core regions of central Tibet; large parts of western Tibet that have traditionally been autonomous; Amdo and Kham in the eastern regions which, although culturally Tibetan, speak distinctive dialects and have maintained their independence from the central regions, the open plains of the Changtang, home of the Tibetan nomads; much of present-day Mongolia; large areas of central Asia; smaller areas in present-day Russia and parts of several republics of the former Soviet Union; much of the Himalayan region of northern India, including Ladakh, Zanskar, and Sikkim; and the neighboring countries of Nepal and Bhutan.

In addition, due to the diaspora of the Tibetan people brought about by the invasion and occupation of Tibet by China, today Tibetan religion and culture are being spread all over the world, and increasing numbers of people in the West consider themselves to be adherents of Tibetan Buddhism. Millions more have heard teachings or read books and articles by Tibetan teachers, with the result that Tibetan culture is attracting unprecedented attention outside of its homeland at the same time that it is being systematically eradicated in the land of its origin.

In the chapters that follow, some of the distinctive features of Tibetan Buddhism will be discussed. Some specialists will no doubt question my choice of topics, and it would be entirely possible to write an introductory study of Tibetan Buddhism that would be far different from this one. The choices of which topics to discuss and how much space to give them reflect my own orientation, which is primarily concerned with philosophy and meditative practice. Many important elements of Tibetan culture, ethnographic studies, and historical issues have only been mentioned briefly, or even omitted completely. However, it is hoped that this book will serve its primary purpose, which is to draw students into the subject of Tibetan Buddhism and open up further avenues of exploration in this rich and multifaceted tradition.

Back to all Snow Lion Articles