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The Future of Tibetan Buddhism

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by Sangharakshita

The Venerable Sangharakshita

Lecture 62: the Future of Tibetan Buddhism As you've just heard, today we come to the eighth, and also the last lecture in our first winter series ­ Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. And those who have attended this series from the very beginning, or who might have joined us as it were en route, will perhaps have appreciated already the fact that, in the course of this series, in the course of the lectures given so far, we have covered quite a lot of ground. We started off by trying to understand something about Tibet, the country itself, as well as about the people of Tibet, these very colourful and nowadays rather unfortunate people whom we call the Tibetans. We traced the history, stage by stage, of the introduction of the Buddha's teachings into Tibet. We saw how Buddhism came to Tibet. We tried to understand something of the work of the three great religious kinds and the kind of Western Tibet, under whose auspices, with whose help and co-operation and support, the Buddha's Teachings were gradually made more and more known in the Land of Snows. And we saw at this stage, we saw that despite all these efforts, despite religious kinds and great teachers, great pundits, it took not less than 500 years, five whole centuries, to establish properly Buddhism in Tibet. And we saw that this establishment, this full and final establishment, of Buddhism in Tibet, after initial setbacks and difficulties and reverses, entailed a very great deal of devotion and determination and even self-sacrifice on the part of those concerned.

From here we went on, you may remember, to study the schools of Tibetan Buddhism. We saw that there are in the main four different schools; The Nyingmapas, the old-style ones, the traditionalists; the Kagyupas, those who transmit the ear-whispered teachings; the Sakyapas, renowned for their scholarship; and the Gelugpas, the virtuous ones, those who follow the great reformer Tsongkhapa. We traced the history of these four great schools, not in detail but at least in general outline. We tried to understand their general characteristics, We had also at the same time in passing just a few glimpses into the lives of the great founders of these schools; Padmasambhava, Milarepa, Tsongkapa, and so on.

The Gelugpa school, or consideration of the Gelugpa school, led us straight on to the subject of the Dalai Lama and his ­ what we've no better word for than ­ his reincarnations. And we tried to understand what the Dalai Lama represents for the Tibetan people, who he is in their eyes, and so on. And then from the Dalai Lama and his reincarnations, we passed to the more general subject of monks and laymen in Buddhist Tibet; and in the course of this talk we tried to explode the old myth that there were no bhikshus, no properly ordained monks, in Tibet. We saw that, on the contrary, there are in Tibet, or there were in Tibet, not less than six grades of the monastic life; from the genye (sp?), the lay brother, right up to the kenpo or the fully trained and authorised abbot.

We also, the course of this talk, tried to clear up certain misunderstandings which appear to have arisen in the West about the meaning of the word lama, and we saw it means a spiritual teacher, who may be a monk but may not be a monk. We went on then to speak of the place of the laity.

We tried to appreciate their sincerity and devotion. We saw that the Bodhisattva Ideal was a common bond amongst all Tibetan Buddhists, whether monks or laymen, and so on.

From here we rather changed our course. We left behind the historical and the institutional; we went on to the more religious, the more artistic, the more inspirational, and we studied first of all the symbols of Tibetan Buddhist art; we saw that Tibetan Buddhist art was mainly a blending of Indian and Chinese elements; we saw that it was traditional; we saw that it was religious; and we saw that it comprised four main categories of architecture, painting, ritual objects and decorative arts; and we saw that each of the departments of Tibetan Buddhist art had its own symbols. In architecture we found the symbol, the great symbol, was the stupa or chorten.

From here we went on to something even more practical ­ to the four foundation yogas of the Tibetan Buddhist Tantra; these four great practices, these four great disciplines if you like, which underlay the whole practice of the Vajrayana in Tibet. First of all, the Going for Refuge with prostration, a much more elaborate practice in Tibet than in any other part of the Buddhist world; then the development of the Bodhichitta, the aspiration after Supreme Enlightenment for the benefit of all living beings; thirdly, the meditation and mantra recitation of Vajrasattva for purification, for the realization of one's own innate primordial purity of mind, on the highest Transcendental level; and then finally the offering of the mandala, the offering to the Buddha and Bodhisattvas and lamas and great teachers generally of a symbolical representation of the entire universe.

And then finally, last week, we came on to the great, the all-embracing and the supremely important topic of Tibetan Buddhist meditation. And we saw last week that this Tibetan Buddhist meditation, so well known in the world by reputation but about which people know in fact so very very little, we saw that this was mainly Tantric or Vajrayanic. And inasmuch as it is Tantric or Vajrayanic, we saw that it involves by its very nature, by virtue of its very definition, wong or abhisheka or Tantric initiation: the passing on from the guru to the disciple of a charge, as it were, of spiritual power, a sort of Transcendental electric shock, if one may so call it. We saw that there are two forms of Tantric initiation, broadly speaking: the great wong, the great initiation, and the small wong, the small initiation. But to give just an example of Tibetan Buddhist, that is to say, Tantric, meditation as practised according to the outer Tantra by many hundreds of thousands of Tibetan monks and laypeople, a description, a brief description, was given of the meditation on the Green Tara in ten successive stages of practice and realisation.

So this is where we've come so far; this is the gorund that we've covered so far; this is the material which we have surveyed, and I think you will have agreed with me that, in the course of our seven lectures, we have surveyed a very rich, a very vital, a very dramatic, field in a way, and covered a very great deal of ground. But so far we have focussed on the past and present ­ or at least recent past. What about the future of Tibetan Buddhism? Having heard about the wonders and the glories of Tibetan Buddhism, after hearing about all its great traditions, spiritual disciplines, learned monks and masters, its wonderfully highly organized monastic life, when one contemplates the spectacle of a whole country organised around its religion, this is very inspiring.

Other countries have had their whole national life geared either to commerce or to politics, to conquest or to the arts; but in the case of Tibet, the whole of life ­ economic, social, political, artistic ­ was all geared ultimately to religion. So naturally we cannot help wondering what is going to happen to Tibetan Buddhism. It has such a glorious past, such an enthralling past; the past of Tibetan Buddhism has so many lessons to teach us; but what about the future? One can't just rest contented with the past, or even with the present. The human mind naturally looks to the future.

But having asked what is the future of Tibetan Buddhism, we have to face at one ­ and we might as well face it at once ­ a very unpalatable fact. That is that, so far as human eye can see, Tibetan Buddhism has in fact no future. It has had a very great and very glorious past, but so far as we can see it has, we must confess with regret, no future. This great form of Buddhism in its integrity, in its fullness, in its completeness, as it has existed for hundreds upon hundreds of years in Tibet, has no future. This is the first fact which we have to come to terms with.

In Tibet itself, there were many ancient prophecies about the future of Tibetan Buddhism, about the Dalai Lama, and so on. One of the prophesies, which was quoted very much among Tibetans just a few years ago, was to the effect that the fourteenth Dalai Lama, the fourteenth of this very distinguished line, would be the last. So Tibetans who were versed in the history and traditions of their own country and religion, were not surprised when in 1959 the Dalai Lama had to flee from Tibet and seek shelter as a refugee in India. They said among themselves: `It's unfortunate, it's a tragedy; but it has been prophesied that the fourteenth Dalai Lama will be the last.' And this, of course, does not just mean that everything will be the same in Tibet except that there will no longer be a Dalai Lama. This is impossible, just like saying, well, the queen bee may not be there, but the life of the hive will go on. The Dalai Lama is central to the whole system. The Dalai Lama summarized or embodies in his person, the whole of Tibetan Buddhism. And if the Dalai Lama goes, well, the system as we know it in Tibet for so many hundreds of years, this also goes.

So, according to these prophesies, the fourteenth Dalai Lama will be the last, and this does really seem likely, so that the whole way of life which he represents, which he incarnates if you like, will come to an end.

Since 1950, Tibet has been under Chinese domination. If I may strike a personal note, I remember that year 1950 very vividly. I'd just arrived in Kalimpong, in March, and all during that summer there were rumours of war from Tibet, from the borderlands between Tibet and China. We heard that the Chinese armies were on the march; ...

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