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.