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Ratnaghosha, FBA Chairman
Coleen, FBA Team
Viryaja, Toowoomba, Australia
Viriyalila, Portsmouth, USA
Ratnavyuha, Auckland, NZ
Vajradarshini, Valderrobres, Spain
Nagabodhi, London, UK
Candradasa, FBA Team
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... civilization and culture were concerned she very much lagged behind all her neighbours.
So Songtsen Gampo embarked on a programme of social reform and cultural development. First he redistributed the land that was in the possession of the nobles and great landowners, to give the common people a bigger and better share. At the same time he encouraged agriculture, trying to persuade the wandering nomadic tribes to settle down and cultivate the soil. He introduced weaving, masonry, and carpentry. He also decided to prohibit blood sports, a step which hints at the beginnings of his sympathy with Buddhism. Another old custom he prohibited was that of face-painting. Apparently Tibetans, men and women alike, had a custom of painting their faces bright red, but Songsten Gampo outlawed this, thinking it rather uncivilized.
In the course of his travels and military campaigns Songtsen Gampo had observed that the culture of the surrounding countries was very closely linked with Buddhism, and this led him to decide that Buddhism should be introduced in Tibet. He was supported in this mission by his two principal wives, the daughter of the king of Nepal, and the daughter of the emperor of China.
What might have happened if the king's wives had followed religions other than Buddhism is an open question, but fortunately both were devout Buddhists. In Tibetan art they are often depicted on either side of Songtsen Gampo.
For his Nepalese wife, Songtsen Gampo built the Jokhang, literally `Lord's House', in Lhasa.
European writers often call it the `Cathedral of Lhasa'. It is the oldest religious building in the Tibetan capital, and the one the Tibetans consider the most sacred. For his Chinese wife he built a smaller temple known as the Ramoche. In these temples were installed images of Aksobhya and Sakyamuni brought from their respective countries by his wives. The temples were desecrated and demolished by the Chinese during the Cultural Revolution. Devout Tibetans later surreptitiously removed the battered heads of these two great images, which had been there for thirteen centuries, and brought them to India, where they presented them to the Dalai Lama. They were made of a sort of painted stucco, quite easily damaged, and I remember that many Indians were deeply affected by the photographs of them in the newspapers.
During the course of his reign, Songtsen Gampo built many other temples, the first Buddhist temples to be built in Tibet. He also sent a group of young Tibetans to study Buddhism in Kashmir, which in those days had a reputation for Buddhist learning. But such were the rigours of the climate (Kashmir being decidedly hot compared to Tibet, even though it is cool compared to the rest of India) that only one of the party survived to return to Tibet. This was the celebrated Tonmi Sambhota, who invented the Tibetan alphabet in around 632CE. Before that time the Tibetans had no script and therefore, of course, no literature. Tonmi Sambhota devised the Tibetan alphabet on the basis of one of the Indian scripts, probably the Sharada script, with which he had become familiar during his sojourn in Kashmir, and the first Tibetan translations of Indian Buddhist scriptures began to be made. According to tradition, the very first text to be translated was the Mani Kabum. Mani here refers to the om mani padme hum mantra, and kabum means 100,000 words, the text being a sort of encyclopaedia about the mantra - how it originated, what it means, how it should be recited, and so on. Paper and ink for printing were also introduced from China at this time, as well as painting and sculpture.
Thus Songtsen Gampo practically created Tibetan culture, at least in its rudimentary form.
Furthermore, he caused a new code of civil law to be drafted, and he ensured that the ethical precepts of Buddhism were widely taught throughout his domain. But as yet there were no Buddhist monks or monasteries in Tibet. In fact, Songtsen Gampo's interest in Buddhism appears to have been more cultural than religious. This was inevitable, given the state of Tibet in those days. The spiritual life can develop only when a certain standard of culture - in the sense not of material improvement but of the refinement of one's whole way of life - has been attained. But, even with this very important reservation, Songtsen Gampo's work remains of the first importance. He laid the foundations of the Tibetan nation, of its culture and literature, and of Tibetan Buddhism itself - surely a very considerable achievement for one man. The Tibetans show their gratitude to Songtsen Gampo even to this day by regarding him as a manifestation of the great Bodhisattva of Compassion, Avalokitesvara (the Dalai Lama being another, later, one).
Songtsen Gampo's work did not come to an end when he died. More and more texts were translated from Indian languages into Tibetan. Monks started coming from neighbouring countries, including refugees from Khotan where Buddhists were being persecuted, and even put to the sword, by the Muslim hordes that were beginning to sweep across Central Asia. At the same time, there was growing opposition to Buddhism in Tibet itself amongst the followers of the indigenous religion, Bon. This opposition stemmed mainly from noble families who resented the growing power and prestige of the Buddhist monarchy, and also the Bon priests who no doubt felt that their livelihood was under threat.
The second religious king of Tibet, Trisong Detsen, lived in the eighth century. He was an ardent supporter of Buddhism, but during the earlier part of his reign he was greatly hampered by the hostility of the followers of Bon. He invited to Tibet the Indian scholar and teacher Santaraksita, best known nowadays as the author of a great work of Mahayana Buddhist philosophy called the Tattvasangraha. But unfortunately Santaraksita's mission was not very successful. He visited several places, he spoke on Buddhism, he gave a number of lectures, but then apparently an epidemic broke out all over the country. This gave the Bonists the opportunity they had been waiting for. They said, `You see what happens. In comes this Indian Buddhist teacher, and there is an epidemic! The demons are angry.' Santaraksita could find no answer for this, and knew another approach was needed. He advised the king to invite to Tibet the great Indian master Padmasambhava, who was then living at Nalanda University near Bodh Gaya.
Padmasambhava is one of the most remarkable figures in the entire history of Buddhism. Not only was he a great scholar and an accomplished debater and philosopher; he was also a formidable yogi, a great meditator, and a mystic. He was a great master of the occult sciences, and according to tradition he was also a magician to be reckoned with. He spent only eighteen months in Tibet, but during that time he brought the Bon `demons' under control. Tradition tells us that he incorporated the lot of them, willy-nilly, into the Tantric Buddhist pantheon, converting them into guardian deities of the Buddhist faith.
We should not dismiss stories of this kind as mere legendary accretions to the historical facts.
The story has a profound psychological and spiritual significance. After all, what is Bon? What does it represent? Broadly speaking, it is the indigenous shamanistic religion of Tibet, and like all forms of shamanism it is very closely connected with the psyche of the people practising it.
One may go so far as to say that the Bon deities or `demons' are in a sense archetypes of the Tibetan collective unconscious. Thus their hostility to Buddhism, in the traditional account, can be said to represent the unconscious resistance of the Tibetan psyche to the higher and more spiritual ideals of Buddhism. The Tibetans could not take them in all at once. The Tibetan mind was, after all, very different from the Indian mind. It therefore put up resistance, and this is symbolized on the archetypal level by the resistance and hostility of the Bon deities who created the epidemic.
Santaraksita was a very great man, but he had his limitations. As a scholar, a philosopher, he could appeal to the conscious mind of the Tibetans, but he did not have the resources to overcome their unconscious resistance to Buddhist ideals. Padmasambhava, on the other hand, was not just a great scholar, not just an eminent philosopher; he was also a yogi and mystic, which meant that he could break through to a deeper level and make contact with the forces operating within the Tibetan collective unconscious. He was able to incorporate the Bon deities and the forces they represented into the framework of Buddhism, and even to use the energy contained in these archetypes in the interests of the spiritual life.
The Bon demons having been `converted', Padmasambhava and Santaraksita together founded the first monastery in Tibet, Samye, in 779CE. Built after the model of the famous Odantapuri Monastery in India, Samye was completed in the year 787CE. Much of it was recently destroyed by the Chinese, but a film of it made by the Indian representative in Lhasa before the desecration shows that it was a very beautiful place, reminiscent of what the great ancient Indian monastic universities must have looked like in their heyday. Santaraksita and Padmasambhava also ordained seven Tibetans as monks, thus founding the Tibetan monastic Sangha.
Padmasambhava left a permanent mark on Tibetan Buddhism, through the sheer force of his personality. Although he only stayed in Tibet for about eighteen months, the Tibetan accounts of his visit usually make out that it lasted for thirty-five years, presumably because he created such an impact in those eighteen months that it was as though he had been there for thirty-five years. He is traditionally regarded as the founder of the Nyingma School, but he is greatly revered by ...