Tibetan Buddhism

Mural of Hayagriva, a Vishnu-related protector deity depicted in a tantric embrace with his consort, inside Gyantse Kumbum

I once read a quote from former Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens arguing that maintaining the fantasy of a “pristine” Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for liberal city-dwellers on the east and west coasts was not sufficient reason not to exploit the land for the country’s energy needs and profits.  It is true that, from far away, it is easy to idealize something as untouchable and sacred.

Although I was born in a country that is largely Buddhist, being from a Catholic family I knew little of Buddhism.  In my travels I’ve seen quite a few Buddhist places, from Kyoto (Japan) to Kandy (Sri Lanka) and from Sarnath (India) to Sukhothai (Thailand), but I still haven’t gained as deep an insight into Buddhist belief and practice as I have into Christian or Muslim worship.  Some of this is probably due to my lack of a foundational understanding (I read some of the major texts in college, but I guess the esoteric nature of Buddhist thought didn’t penetrate), but I think it’s also because the Buddhist religion, certainly in East Asia but even in parts of Southeast Asia, doesn’t play as large a role in how societies are structured as the Abrahamic faiths do in the Middle East and West.  I would argue that it’s not as important that you understand Buddhism to understand Vietnam as it is to understand Catholicism to understand Mexico or Islam to understand Egypt.

In this my trip to the roof of the world, I finally have been compelled to learn something of Buddhism, in this case Tibetan Buddhism, in large part because the religion plays such a central role in Tibetan society, perhaps as dominant a role as any religion anywhere. And I discovered that I had, to an extent, orientalized the religion, recreated in my mind a sort of Western fantasy version of how Buddhism might be experienced in Tibet.  I had pictured remote monasteries, and with their remoteness a vision of asceticism and austerity, the latter perhaps associated with the practices of fellow Mahayana believers in East Asia. I imagined Tibetan Buddhism to be even more austere, as stark as the landscape of the high plateau. Finally, I thought that with the isolation of the geography came some sort of “purity” of belief–that Tibetan Buddhism would be a sort of concentrated isolate, relatively free of foreign influences.

In this post, some aspects of Tibetan Buddhism that were not known to me prior to this trip and did not to comport with my preconceived notions. All this is not to say that Tibetan Buddhism is somehow less holy, or any less worthy of awe or respect, but I do want to bring to light that in Tibet as elsewhere, religion is a manifestation of history and culture, a messy accretion tied equally to historical accident as to relevation or faith.

Links to Hinduism

Buddhism of course originated in (Hindu) India–in a sense could be said to have arisen from Hinduism–and Hindu influence is very much visible in Buddhism, wherever it is found.  (I recall speaking to one woman in Laos who recognized this and newly considered Hinduism a sort of ancestral faith, one that she might ultimately find to have supremacy over her native Buddhism.) However, in most Mahayana Buddhist countries, the link is somewhat more difficult to make out, as East Asian austerity reigns in certain Hindu excesses and geographical distance has diluted more obvious theological and iconographic connections. In Tibet, however, baroque aspects of Tibetan Buddhist iconography, the individual connection between a person and a deity of his/her choosing and the actual identification of certain Tibetan Buddhist deities with corresponding Hindu gods all make clear the strong link between Hinduism and Buddhism as practiced in Tibet. If I could say one thing about Tibetan Buddhism, it is that, as may have been guessable from geography, it is very much a bridge between Hinduism and Buddhism as practiced in other places.

Avalokiteshvara, or the Bodhisattva of Compassion, is clearly identifiable as Shiva in his many-armed form. Other Tibetan Buddhist deities, and their depictions, are readily tieable to Hindu gods, and just as a Hindu may be a Vaishnava or Shaiva, individual Tibetans seem to have connections to particular deities.

The Bon Religion

Before Buddhism came to Tibet, the Tibetans already had a state religion–the Bon faith–which was deeply enough entrenched that Tibetan Buddhism came to adopt many Bon practices, including the worship of physical places and deities related to those locales, shamans and other concepts that would not be considered “orthodox” Buddhism.  The Bon faith survives to this day, with a relatively small number of adherents and dedicated monasteries, but has come to be influenced by Buddhism as much as Tibetan Buddhism was affected by Bon, making it hard to determine definitively whether certain practices are originally Buddhist or Bon in origin. However, one would suspect that many of the practices that are unique to Tibet (and do not appear in other Buddhist countries) may be originally Bon.

The prayer wheel appears in both Tibetan Buddhism and Bon, as at the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa (above) and the Yungdrungling Bon monastery (below).

On the hillside of the immediately preceding picture prayer flags are visible. Prayer flags are strung all over Tibet, often in places of natural/shamanistic significance, such as mountain passes and river crossings. Below, prayer flags at Nam-Tso (Lake) north of Lhasa.

The kora, or circumambulation, of holy places is also common to both Tibetan Buddhist and Bon religious practice. First, pilgrims on the Barkhor circuit around the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa; second, pilgrims on the Lingkhor on the Saga Dawa holiday. Circumambulation is also performed around certain mountains and lakes.

Talismanic markings on the outsides of houses appear to be a Bon practice that carried over into Tibetan Buddhism. First, markings on a Bon home near Yungdrungling Monastery; second, Buddhist markings as well as animal horns (see post of 2008.6.23 on pre-Islamic animal horn shrines in the Pamirs).

The coloration is reminiscent of Hindu gods, but this is also a god associated with a particular place–Nam-Tso (Lake) north of Lhasa–suggesting a pre-Buddhist origin.

Protector Deities and Violence

Definitely in the category of things I would not have associated with Buddhism, let alone Buddhism as I imagined for Tibet, fearsome Tibetan gods known as “protector deities” have an especially powerful and mystical connection to worshippers, holding court in their own mysterious chapels decorated with violent images (some of which are not open to women).

Flayed human skins on the doors to Nechung Monastery in Lhasa

Inside Nechung Monastery, a mural showing protector deities in their wrathful forms, with assorted human body parts hanging at the top

Below, pictures from inside the protector deity chapel in the Pelkor Chode Monastery in Gyantse. In the first picture, depictions of a Tibetan sky burial, where corpses are laid out to be eaten by animals (rather than corrupting nature by burying or burning the bodies–in a pre-Buddhist practice not dissimilar from Zoroastrian “burial”). In the second picture, a protector deity in his wrathful form is covered, because it is believed that the visage is too powerful for regular worshippers to view directly. In the third picture, frightening masks and an array of weapons. It was not uncommon, in Tibetan history, for monks to serve as armed soldiers in a political or theological dispute.


Other Mysterious Mystical Practices

In the pictures below, ritual cake–a sort of “cake” made primarily of flour and butter and presented at shrines (sometimes for up to a year) before being distributed and consumed. The decoration of the ritual cakes is about as strange as such things come.

To put it one way, Tibetans seem to subscribe to a range of “superstitious” practices that one would not imagine to have any connection to “orthodox” Buddhism. In the first picture, a woman in charge of a small shrine sells medicinal powders (ground up local rocks) to worshippers. In the second picture, pilgrims crouch and walk under shelves of books for blessings.

Islam in China

This is a post similar to others I have written broadly summarizing certain aspects of Islam in various countries/regions we have traveled in (see post of 2008.08.16 on Indonesia, 2008.11.14 on the Balkans and 2009.03.06 on India).

No-one would consider China a Muslim country, and it is not.  At no point in history was China majority Muslim nor was it ever ruled by a Muslim power (although it came close during Mongol rule, since more westerly Mongol rulers converted to Islam).  There are, however, almost 20 million Muslims in China–a number that may be small in relation to China’s population of over a billion but is still larger than the Muslim populations of countries such as Syria, Malaysia or Senegal or the total number of Muslims in Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman combined.

China has 55 official ethnic minorities, ten of which are predominantly Muslim.  Below, some photos showing the diversity of Muslim history and experience in China.

Ruined mosque, Quanzhou, Fujian Province.  This Iranian-style mosque ruin on the south coast of China marks a city which was, in the 13th century during the time of Marco Polo, a great and important port for Persian and Arab traders known as Zeitoun.  One can imagine an era when Persian and Arab sailors did substantial business in the region, setting up local operations and perhaps even converting some locals.

The 13th century Quanzhou ship is a particularly tangible relic from the city’s era as an international port. See this link.

Huaisheng Mosque, Guangzhou, Guangdong Province.  The Great Mosque of Guangzhou is said to be the oldest mosque in China, established by no less than an uncle of the Prophet Mohammed, who traveled east to spread Islam.  The mosque was rebuilt in the 14th and 17th centuries and is, like many other Chinese mosques and unlike the Quanzhou mosque, in Chinese rather than Arab or Persian style–it looks like a Buddhist temple.

Yunnan Province is said to have developed its significant Muslim population during the Mongol Yuan dynasty, after Emperor Kublai Khan appointed a Muslim governor (whose family originally hailed from Bukhara). The most famous Yunnanese Muslim is probably Zhang He, the great 15th century eunuch navigator who one author recently argued traveled all the way to the Americas before Columbus. Zhang He definitely sailed his huge ships as far as East Africa and is said to be in part responsible for outposts of Chinese Muslims in Southeast Asia. The Muslim population of Yunnan currently numbers in the hundreds of thousands.

Mosque, Dali. Again, in the style of a Chinese temple, but note the Arabic calligraphy on the doors, in gold.

Minaret, Dali

Some Dali Muslims. Almost half of Chinese Muslims, including those in Yunnan, are classified under the geographically dispersed Hui minority group. While all Hui are Muslim, Hui people fit in, in most respects (linguistic and cultural), with the local majority, be it Han in Guangzhou or Xian, or Bai in Dali.

Great Mosque, Xian, Shaanxi Province.  While Islam landed on the south Chinese coast with seaborne trade, it came to Xian through the overland Silk Road.  As the longtime imperial capital, Xian was not only the ultimate destination for Xuanzang, who brought the sacred Buddhist texts from India, an accomplishment commemorated by Xian’s great Big Wild Goose Pagoda, but the city also became a center of Chinese Islam, primarily in the city’s Muslim Quarter.

Yet further east, the Turkic Uyghurs of Xinjiang make up the greatest of China’s distinct Muslim minority groups. See my post of 2008.07.23 for more thoughts on the Uyghurs and the other Muslim ethnic groups of Xinjiang.

Inside the Id Kah Mosque, Kashgar

A Tajik woman, another of China’s Muslim ethnic minorities living in Xinjiang

Mosque, Lhasa, Tibet.  We were told by one local that this mosque was over 1000 years old, and only one of three mosques in the old part of Lhasa.  Although the Muslim presence in Tibet goes back hundreds of years, our small sample revealed that most of the city’s current Muslim inhabitants were recent immigrants, just like the Han Chinese who have flocked to the city.  However, instead of settling down with the Han in the more modern part of Lhasa, it seems that the Muslims (mainly from Gansu Province) prefer to live with the Tibetans in the city’s historical core.

Muslim man in Lhasa

There are certain ethnic groups in the world that have the advantage of having a great and popular culinary tradition to draw on, when emigrating and trying to make a buck.  Chinese people in the U.S., it seems, have often resorted to opening a restaurant; Egyptians and Turks are proliferating halal/shawarma/doner shops around the world; and in Tibet most of the new Han restaurants are owned by Sichuanese.  The usually Hui Muslim noodle shop can similarly be found in almost any city in China (and thankfully so, since they sell some of my favorite kinds of food).  Easily identifiable by their “Islamic” exterior–lots of green, strings of Arabic and pictures of sites such as Mecca or the Taj Mahal–friendly immigrants, many from Gansu Province, cook up delicious fresh made noodles all over China. Here, a Hui man making noodles in Yangshuo, Guangxi Province.

Inside a noodle shop, Lhatse, Tibet

A man selling nan in Shanghai

Muslim Seoul

Korea is one of the most homogenous countries in the world–through most of history, save the many invasions, nearly everyone in Korea has been ethnically Korean and Korean-speaking. What regional dialects there are are largely mutually intelligible (though perhaps still surprising for such a small country), and outside of a small number of Chinese, ethnic minorities are virtually non-existent.

Well, things are changing, due to two great forces at work.

First, as has been much noted in the U.S. press, a relative lack of young women (as a result of historical sex selection by parents) and the undesirability in marriage of relatively poor Korean farmers have resulted in a large number of international marriages between Korean men and Vietnamese and other women from poorer Asian countries. This has led to quite a large number of Vietnamese women in the Korean countryside and resulting children of mixed marriages.

The second cause is Korea’s prominence in the global economy. Korea is, more or less, a rich country now, and many people from countries around the world are attracted to live and work in Korea. This ranges from American, Canadian and Australian 20- or 30-somethings who get jobs teaching English to Uzbeks and Indians coming to Korea to work in factories. Among these of course are some Muslims, who have carved out a niche in Seoul.

I knew that there was a mosque in Seoul because I could see it from the Seoul Grand Hyatt, where I would occasionally stay on business, but didn’t bother to seek it out until recently. As it turns out, there is in Itaewon (Seoul’s primary “foreigner” neighborhood) a whole mini Muslim Seoul, an unexpected and interesting facet of the huge metropolis.

Sign for the Seoul Central Masjid, seen from the main road in Itaewon (note Dubai Restaurant)

Gateway to the Seoul Central Masjid, just up the hill

Seoul Central Masjid. While the mosque is located in Seoul’s “foreigner” neighborhood, I was surprised to find several Korean Muslims inside. Since I do not believe there is any historical presence of Islam in Korea, I assume they are all relatively recent converts.


Islamic School attached to the mosque

The mosque forms the center of a mini Muslim Seoul, complete with Islamic bookstores, travel agencies catering to Muslims and restaurants ranging from Pakistani to Uzbek to Turkish. We chatted briefly (in broken English and Korean) to a very nice Syrian man working at an Turkish/Arab sweets shop (many Korean women seem to drop by to flirt with him).


The Muslim footprint in Korea is not limited to Itaewon. Here, an Iraqi man carves up doner to patrons near Namdaemun market.