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How Buddhism came to Tibet

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 55: How Buddhism Came to Tibet (Edited)

THIS IS A STORY OF SPECIAL INTEREST because of its sheer improbability. It is quite remarkable that Buddhism should have come from India to Tibet at all. We are accustomed to thinking of Tibet as a Buddhist country, perhaps the Buddhist country. But it wasn't always such.

Before it actually happened, the chances that Buddhism might ever be transplanted from India to the Land of Snows must have appeared pretty remote.

India and Tibet may be very close as the crow flies, but they are in fact worlds apart. Between them there is a tremendous barrier: the Himalayas. This colossal mountain range extends roughly 2,000 miles, dividing India, on the southern side, from Tibet in the north. The two countries are therefore virtually cut off from each other. They are also divided climatically. India's climate is subtropical, characterized by blazing hot sunshine, torrential monsoon rains, and periods of drought. Tibet, on the other hand, at 12,000 feet above sea-level, has clear skies, a bracing atmosphere, and temperatures that are often well below freezing point.

With different climates we find different ways of life. India was, and still is, a predominantly agricultural country. The land has been cultivated for centuries, and its people enjoy a settled, placid existence in thousands of little villages. But in Tibet the economy was mainly pastoral.

People kept great flocks of sheep and herds of yaks, and followed a nomadic way of life, wandering all over the vast open spaces, living in tents and on horseback. Indians and Tibetans also belong to quite different ethnic groups. India is inhabited by a mixture of the predominantly Aryan peoples of the north and the Dravidians of the south, while the Tibetans belong to a sub-group of the Mongolian peoples which also includes the Burmese and the Newars of Nepal.

All these factors are reflected in the marked differences of temperament which exist between Indians and Tibetans. At the risk of over-generalizing, I would say that Indians tend to be rather mystical, in the broadest sense of the term. They are very aware of the presence of a higher spiritual world or transcendental dimension. If you happen to meet someone in India, say on a bus or train or simply walking along the road, you can very quickly strike up a conversation about things of a religious or mystical nature. This is the sort of language Indians understand, the sort of outlook they accept and, in a sense, take for granted. Where practical matters are concerned, they can sometimes be rather vague and uncomprehending, but speak to them in terms of ultimate reality and they will know at once what you are talking about.

The Tibetan character is quite different. In the West we like to think of Tibetans as mysterious, exotic, other-worldly people. We imagine that when they are not levitating or flying through the air they are busy opening their third eye. But in reality they are not like this at all. From my experience of living among the Tibetans of Kalimpong, I would say that there are no people on earth more practical. They are hard-headed businessmen; even the monks know how to handle complex business transactions. And when it comes to practical tasks, even if they have not done something before they will study it, find out all about it, and puzzle out the secret of how to do it. Tibetans coming to India often made good motor mechanics; in fact they take well to anything of a mechanical nature. So whereas Indians are rather mystical, with their heads in the clouds (the Sikhs are an exception to this), Tibetans are very practical, with their feet firmly on the ground.

Tibetans also have this practical, down-to-earth approach when it comes to the religious life, as we shall see in subsequent chapters.

Then again Indians, especially Hindus, are generally peaceable people. As individuals, at least, they don't like getting into a fight. In India a dispute in the street usually remains verbal. The disputants may scream at each other, they may dance around each other in a rage, and perhaps even go so far as to pull one another's hair, but they are very unlikely to come to blows. Tibetans, on the other hand, tend to be war-like and aggressive, even swashbuckling. In Kalimpong some of the refugees used to strut around as though they had conquered the place. Many of them wore short swords, and they would swagger along the road, shouldering any Indians who happened to get in their way roughly aside, sometimes sending them flying. People learned to be wary of the Tibetans, especially of the Khampas of eastern Tibet.

I used to teach English to Tibetan students in Kalimpong, and I sometimes gave them an exercise in which they had to complete a sentence like `I ... my brother,' filling in the blank with a suitable verb. In nine cases out of ten they would come up with `I killed my brother.' A Nepalese friend of mine, who was the police surgeon and worked in the local hospital, told me that every week he had to deal with at least two cases of stabbing from within the Tibetan community, which at that time numbered about 2,000. Occasionally the stabbings were fatal.

In my experience Tibetan Buddhists are thus quite a fierce people, quite rough at the edges, so to speak. Indians are rather more gentle and refined. Even those leading a materially simple rural existence are often more truly cultured than many Westerners. Tibetans, by comparison, I found to be on the whole rather unpolished, though members of the Lhasa aristocracy could be very sophisticated indeed.

When Indian Buddhism came to Tibet, it therefore encountered a completely different culture and way of life. Of course, when the Buddha gained Enlightenment, he rose above all distinctions of race and nationality. What he had reached, what he had realized, was something purely spiritual, something transcendental. Historically speaking, however, Buddhism is a product of markedly Indian origin, reflecting Indian modes of thought, Indian cultural attitudes and assumptions. For instance, when we read Indian Buddhist texts, especially the great Mahayana sutras, we encounter the characteristically Indian tendency to exaggerate. If a story is being told, say about a woman who had so many children, the story might begin by saying that she had a dozen children; but then, not content to leave it at that, the author will go on to say that she had twenty children, or even fifty or a hundred. This kind of exaggeration is typically Indian.

In view of the vast differences between the Indian and Tibetan people, and the fact that after fifteen hundred years in India Buddhism possessed many typically Indian characteristics, one might have thought that Indian Buddhism was the last religion the Tibetans would choose to adopt. But, strange as it may seem, they did choose it. It took them, however, a very long time, a fact which is not always appreciated. It was not that one day someone went from India to Tibet and preached Buddhism, and then a few years later the Tibetans were all Buddhists. The Tibetans, especially the Tibetan nobles, put up considerable resistance, and the establishment of Buddhism as the religion of Tibet was a long and sometimes difficult process.

Perhaps we in the West can derive some comfort from this. We might think that things here are moving pretty slowly. Buddhism has been known in the West for about a century, yet we do not seem to have got very far with it. But in the case of Tibet it took very much longer. In fact the mere introduction of Buddhism into Tibet took approximately 500 years - much longer than it took, for example, to introduce Christianity into Britain. The 500 year period in question, from the seventh to the eleventh centuries CE, was a time of constant political upheaval. This was no coincidence, much of the upheaval being directly connected with the introduction of Buddhism.

In the East at that time - as in the West - the predominant form of government was absolute monarchy. (Throughout the East, wherever Buddhism spread, it did so under the patronage of powerful kings.) This is true of India, where Buddhism was given a great impetus by the emperor Asoka, it is true of China and Japan, and it is also true of Tibet. The introduction of Buddhism into Tibet was associated particularly with four dharmarajas, or religious kings, and with the Buddhist monks and scholars, both Indian and Tibetan, with whom these kings collaborated. The first three of these kings ruled over the whole of Tibet, and the fourth was a king of western Tibet after the country had split up into a number of independent states.

The first religious king of Tibet was Songtsen Gampo, who ruled in the seventh century, and seems to have been a remarkable man. His earliest achievement consisted in continuing the political and administrative reforms initiated by his father. Until that time, Tibet had been split into a number of different feudal principalities, but Songtsen Gampo - and his father before him - gradually brought them all together, centralizing the administration and establishing Tibet as a single political unit with a military power which was greatly feared by all her neighbours.

This was itself a great achievement, but it was not enough for Songtsen Gampo. At that time Tibet was surrounded by a number of highly civilized states: Khotan to the north-west; Kashmir (then an independent kingdom) to the west; Nepal to the south-west (and beyond Nepal, of course, India); and the great empire of China, then under the T'ang emperors, to the east. All these states were Buddhist in those days, and all of them had attained a very high level of civilization and culture. Songtsen Gampo could not help noticing this. He saw that although Tibet was politically united and in military terms a force to be reckoned with, where ...

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