History of Religions in Tibet
   2013-07-10 12:55:53    tibet.cn      Web Editor: Guo Jing


Ragdi (2nd L), former vice chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, the 11th Panchen Lama (2nd R), and Chen Feng (1st L), board chairman of the HNA Group (Hainan Airlines), read an excerpt of classic Tibetan Buddhist text the "Tripitaka" at the Tibetan Cultural Museum in Beijing, capital of China, June 8, 2013. A ceremony was held at the museum on Saturday to mark the purchase from overseas and donation of the sutra to southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region's Sakya Monastery. It was bought and donated by Chen Feng. [Photo: Xinhua/Ma Zhancheng]


The Bon religion, the primitive religion of the ancient Tibetans, was flourish before the introduction of Buddhism. Its priests were powerful both militarily and economically, wielding control even over the nobility. In the 7th century, Songtsan Gambo (?-650) unified the Tibetan Plateau and established the Tubo Kingdom. Defying the Bon priests, he introduced Buddhism into Tibet. He married Princess Bhributi from Nepal, who brought a life-sized statue of Sakyamuni at the age of eight, and then married Princess Wencheng of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), who brought a life-sized statue of Sakyamuni at the age of 12, as well as 360 volumes of Buddhist sutras as her dowry. From then on, the civilization of the Central Plains of China started to flow into Tibet. Songtsan Gambo also constructed the Jokhang and Ramqe monasteries in the capital, Lhasa.

The following 100 years saw incessant conflicts between Buddhism and Bon. The latter half of the 8th century saw the construction of the Samyai Monastery, the first large-scale Buddhist monastery in Tibet. By the early 9th century, more monasteries were constructed, and the influence of Buddhism in Tibet reached its zenith.


However, internal strife ripped apart the royal house, and in the five years (838-842) of the reign of King Darma, the Bon religion revived; during the following 100 years, Tibetan Buddhism became almost extinct. By the end of the 10th century, Buddhism had become popular again, but it was divided into many sects, reflecting political loyalties. The leading sects included the Nyingma Sect (Red Sect), Sagya Sect (Flower Sect), Kagdams Sect, Kabrgyud Sect (White Sect), and Gelug Sect (Yellow Sect). Historians classify the period from the reign of Songtsan Gambo to that of Darma as the "Early Period of Buddhism, and the period of the renaissance of Buddhism and the emergence of the sects the "Later Period of Buddhism"


Many monasteries were constructed in Tibet during the Early Period of Buddhism. Besides the famous Jokhang, Ramqe and Samyai monasteries, the Potala Palace was built in that period too. During the 200 years, Tibet absorbed the culture and handicraft skills of the Han people. At the same time, a large number of Buddhist scriptures in Sanskrit, as well works on monastic architecture and other skills were translated into Tibetan. One can easily identify Han and Indian architectural influences on the monasteries in Tibet. However, few of the monasteries founded in the Early Period of Buddhism remain, apart from ruins.


Great changes took place in the monasteries in Tibet in the Later Period of Buddhism in both their architectural styles and their social functions. During this period, feudal serf-owners were usually the biggest benefactors or lamas of the monasteries, leading to a fusion of politics and religion. In the mid 13th century, religious leaders appointed by the Central Government administered local affairs. In the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, the policy of "integration of state and religion" in Tibet continued. For these several centuries, the local religious leader served as the ruler of his area, integrating politics, military affairs, economy and religion, leading to changes in the structures and functions of monasteries in Tibet.


In the Early Period of Buddhism, temples and monasteries were constructed mainly in the plains, while in the Later Period of Buddhism, they were built at the feet of mountains. In addition, they contained residential areas, offices and military facilities, including defensive walls and watchtowers. This indicated that the monasteries were becoming seats of temporal as well as spiritual power. While creating the splendid Buddhist culture, monasteries, however, hindered the social progress and the popularization of civilization.


The cultivation of moral conduct in Tibetan Buddhism is divided into two forms - the Open School and the Secret School. The Secret School is the highest period of learning and the various sects of Tibetan Buddhism have long been split on which to emphasize. Tsongkhapa, founder of the Gelug Sect, preached a fusion of the two.


However, the systems of learning of different sects are almost the same. If a lama wants to enter a monastery to study the scriptures, he must first study in the preparatory class of the Open School and then enter the formal class in different grades. If he finishes studying all the scriptures, he is qualified to participate in the examination for the title of Gebshes (the Buddhist equivalent of doctor of divinity). One may obtain different Gebshes titles by passing different examinations. After obtaining a Gebshes title, one may enter the Secret School, where, after choosing a master, one passes through a ceremony named "vessel consecration." Usually, the master pours water from a pot or vase onto the head of the disciple, and then offers him wine from a bowl made of a skull to warn him to clear his mind of all evil thoughts. After this ceremony, the master starts to teach the disciple the scriptures. The disciple will undergo the ceremony of "vessel consecration" every time he moves to a higher level of the Secret School. Students receive instruction four times a day, sitting on a seat paved with sharp pebbles until he obtains the title of Living Buddha.

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