Tibet has always been overshadowed by other neighbouring nations. Thus, nothing much about its culture is known. Here is a brief history abouta sacred religion called Bon, Tibet’s pre-Buddhist religion, now better know as Tibetan Buddhism.

RECORDS OF human civilisation on the Tibetan plateau stretch back thousands of years. However, Tibetans are only starting to be widely recognised now. Even so, it is only their recent history and some of their Buddhist past. I hope that this section will give a brief, but comprehensive, explanation of the basic history of Tibetan Buddhism and its pre-Buddhist roots, prior to the Chinese invasions of 1912 and 1949.

Early Tibetan history:

Bon: The first religion of Tibet Prior to the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet, the majority of the Tibetan people practiced an animistic religion called Bon. Bon originated in Olmo Lungring, a region west of modern day Tibet; it then spread east to Zhang Zhung and finally, to Tibet where it took root. It is still practiced by a minority of Tibetans today as well as, by a significant percentage of Lepchas, the indigenous inhabitants of Sikkim.

Unfortunately, although Tibetan history stretches back thousands of years,writing was only brought to Tibet with Buddhism. In addition to this hindrance, due to persecution of Bon religion, Bon adopted many Buddhist practices (and vice versa). So while we have a good oral history of Bon, no one knows how accurate it is and what the original Bon religion was like.

Bon lore states that the religion was founded by Tonpa Shenrab 16,000 years ago. Tonpa Shenrab was believed to have studied Bon philosophy in past ages in heaven and was born on earth to teach them. Similar to the Buddha, he was born a prince, married, had children but then later, chose to renounce the palatial life he was born in to, in order to spread the Bon teachings and bring the doctrine to Tibet. However, Tonpa Shenrab found Tibet to be inhospitable to the Bon teachings and was forced to give up. He hid the Bon teachings throughout Tibet and died at the age of 82 years. Much later teachers were able to teach Bon in Tibet, which took root and flourished.

Bonpos believed that Tonpa Shenrab and other Bon teachers were enlightened beings (similar to Buddha), who existed prior to the birth of Buddha Shakyamuni. Bon is another path to enlightenment that was not taught by Buddha Shakyamuni but instead was taught by these sages. As an animistic religion, Bon also has a great respect for nature and a desire to be in harmony with it. It also includes many spirits who must be satisfied. Overtime, Bon beliefs merged with the Buddhist beliefs brought from India. Both Bon and Buddhism changed, as a result. Nyingma, the oldest of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism, is in fact very similar to Bon and the two religions practice some of the same forms of meditation and share certain teachers and deities.

Buddhism started to gain popularity in Tibet, the Buddhist leaders repressed Bon, in their attempts to establish Buddhism as a state religion. In order to preserve the teachings, Bonpo teachers hid ‘terma’ or treasure teachings, throughout Tibet. In 1017, Shenchen Luga uncovered many of these ‘termas’ and brought about a Bon revival. Although Bon never overtook Buddhism in popularity in Tibet, Bon was openly studied for many years after this revival.

In 1727, the Dzungars invaded Tibet. A great repression of the Bonpos and Nyingmapas followed and many were killed. The Dzungars would make people stick out their tongues believing that speaking mantras would turn one’s tongue black. The Nyingmapas and Bonpos were known for their constant recitation of mantras and this test was part of the witch-hunt to find them.

The fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Losang Gyatso, declared Bon to be a fifth school of Buddhism in Tibet - a stance, which has been reiterated by the present 14th Dalai Lama. However, Tibetans differentiate between Bonpos and Buddhists, referring to practitioners of Bon as ‘Bonpo’ while calling members of the other four schools of Buddhism ‘Nangpa’ (literally‘Insider’).

Buddhism was introduced in Tibet in the eighth century by the Indian saint, Padmasambhava (Tibetan: Pema Jugne, Guru Rinpoche) at the invitation of King Trisong Duetson. King Songsten Gampo had introduced Buddhism a few decades earlier; it did not gained much popularity then. Padmasambhava subdued the local demons (presumed by many to be Bon spirits, or a metaphor for the Bon priests themselves) and created Samye, the first Buddhist monastery. Trisong Deutson, Songsten Gampo and Ralpachen, all Buddhist are considered the three great kings of Tibet. Under their rule, Buddhism flourished and became the state religion of Tibet and Zhang Zhung and Olmo Lungring were annexed by Tibet. Buddhist scholars were brought in from neighboring countries to visit Tibet and teach Buddhist philosophy and many temples and monasteries were built for that purpose. Tibet became famous for its Buddhist teachers that the Mongol Khans and the Chinese Emperors both sent for Buddhist teachers from Tibet to advice the courts.

However the 42nd and final king of the Tibetan dynasties, Langdharma, brought an end to this religious honeymoon. Langdharma was a practitioner of Bon and was very bitter against Buddhism’s popularity. He forced monks and nuns to leave their monasteries and attempted to destroy Tibetan Buddhism through systematic persecution. Langdharma was assassinated during a ceremonial dance performance by an ex-monk, posing as a performer.

The Four Schools of Buddhism Tibetan Buddhism is split into four schools (five, if one counts Bon). While these schools follow the same basic philosophy, they have different teachers and often put the emphasis on different aspects of the Buddhist teachings.

Nyingma:This is the oldest of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism? In fact, its name literally means ‘old’? Unlike the other three schools, Nyingma does not always have one set leader who is the most important lama in the school. Like Bon, the ‘dzogchen’ form of meditation is very important; likewise, they share many teachings and deities. Padmasambhava is very important in the Nyingma School and the school emphasises practice, versus study of the sutras.

Sakya-Sakya: Meaning ‘gray earth’, is the next school of Buddhism? Leadership is passed down through the family line versus reincarnation of leaders. Its monasteries are distinguished by very high walls. The Sakya School is historically important, as it was the school of choice among many of the Mongol Khans.

Kagyu: The Kagyu School was the first school to use reincarnation as a form of continuing teachings with the same masters. The first lama recognised as a reincarnation was the Karmapa, who is the head of the Karma Kagyu sect. The Kagyu sect includes many subsections, such as Karma Kagyu and Drikung Kagyu. The Kagyu School held power in Tibet for many years before the Gelug School took power with the fifth Dalai Lama. It is also the main school in Bhutan and Sikkim and predominant in southeastern Tibet. It is also the main school of Tibetan Buddhism practiced in the west.

Gelug: The Gelug School is the predominant school in Tibet as well as the most famous, world over, due to its leader, the Dalai Lama. It is, however, the youngest school of Tibetan Buddhism. The Gelug School was founded by Tsongkhapa, who created it as a way to reform Tibetan Buddhism. It is very strict on the ‘vinaya’, or rules of monastic life, and unlike the other schools does not allow its monks or lamas to marry under any circumstances, unless they revoke their vows, which are frowned upon. It also places a strong emphasis on debate and study.

The Kagyu School held power in Tibet for many years, however the Gelug School rapidly gained popularity quickly after its creation. This created some tension that was made worse by each school taking political sides in wars. The losing side would often be oppressed by the political faction of the winning side. These political flip-flops occurred so often, the monks had to find an interesting way to deal with it. The Kagyu School started wearing red hats, while the Gelugpas wore yellow hats. The monks started making yellow hats lined with red that, were reversible and they could easily turn them inside out whenever a new ruler came to power.

In the 17th century, the Gushri Khans invaded Tibet and installed the fifth Dalai Lama as both religious and secular leader of Central Tibet. The Gelug influence was already strong in Amdo, due to Tsongkhapa’s roots there, and so it was easy for the Gelug School to gain political control over the majority of Tibet. The ‘Great Fifth’, as he is called started the construction of the Potala Palace, a 13-story structure with over one thousand rooms, in Lhasa. He also brought greater stability to Tibet, demanding that the Mongols stop plundering Eastern Tibet, and organising the Tibetan government in Lhasa. The Gelugpa School remained in political power up until 1959.

The city of Lhasa, meaning, ‘land of the gods’, became the centre of religion and politics of Tibet. The holiest temple in Tibetan Buddhism, the Jokhang, is located right in the middle of the Lhasa market area. Major monasteries containing thousands of monks surround the city. In addition, Lhasa became home to the majority of ‘gutrag’, or nobility, who usually held positions of political influence.

The Tibetan government was a mix of a theocracy and an aristocracy. Positions were given to two people; one noble and the other, monk. The monk might be a Rinpoche (Incarnate lama) or simply a monk who had studied hard and gained a position of importance. The noble was almost exclusively someone born into the position, who may have slightly raised his position through hard work. At the centre of the government was the ‘kashag’, or congress, which likewise, consisted half of laymen and half of monks. Women never held positions in politics.

At the head of the government was the Dalai Lama, a monk in all but one occasion, who held supreme political and religious power over Tibet. Although not all Tibetans followed the Gelug School, due to his political influence, the Dalai Lama held sway over religion as well.

However, one should not be mistaken and starts believing that, the Dalai Lama was an all-powerful dictator. The Dalai Lamas spent most of their lives in religious study and retreat, leaving political decisions mostly up to the ‘kashag’. In addition, very few Dalai Lamas even made it to maturity?

Written by: Amalia Rubin

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