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The religious practices found in the Tibetan cultural world, accepted by and even conducted by the monastic orders, include the incantation of mystic, magical formulas, the exorcism and destruction of demons, divination, auguries, oracles, and symbolic sacrifice and ransom -- aspects associated with Shamanism. It is this element within Tibetan Buddhism of magic and the supernatural, so remote from the original teachings and practices of Buddhism, that has led to its designation as Lamaism, as if it were a separate religion or at least a separate offshoot of the original faith. In attempting to account for these apparent contradictions, scholars have sought to identify the sources of these seeming divergences from what can be claimed as the pure, original Buddhist teachings.

Buddhism was a foreign import into Tibet, but Tibet made Buddhism its own, and that encompassing system of beliefs and practices known as Tibetan Buddhism can only be understood in the full context of the country, its history, its society, and its indigenous religious and cultural practices. It is also necessary to consider particular religious currents (i.e., Tantrism) within Buddhism that ultimately affected its form in Tibet.

At the core of Buddhist teachings are the four noble truths, explaining the nature and cause of suffering and the way to enlightenment: a focused approach that makes no mention of a creator and that seems in our contemporary world more a philosophy -- a perspective on reality -- and a guide to living, than a religion. Yet, although Tibetan Buddhism is based on those core teachings, it includes practices that extend into the supernatural realm, such as defense against omnipresent evil spirits. Thus the religion seems almost split into two paradoxical factions: the spiritual path to enlightenment, and rituals of protection against the hosts of evil. And although the original teachings of the Buddha do not mention a creator or other deities, Tibetan Buddhism embraces a vast pantheon of divinities.

These supramundane beings derive from the intersection of many sources and influences, both native and external. Only a general survey of this complex subject can be given here.

Shakyamuni, which was the Buddha's family name, was born in a small Indian state in what is now southern Nepal, although the present nation of Nepal did not come into existence until the late eighteenth century. He lived in the context of Indian culture and religion, and it was in India that Buddhism took root -- the original Buddhist stronghold. In its earliest, and some argue its purist or most authentic form, Buddhism was nontheistic, keeping its focus on a way of thought and a conduct of life that would release human beings from inevitable suffering. A basic premise of Buddhism is that neither the Buddha nor any divine being interferes in human life, or acts as a savior or intercedes as a saint might do. Rather, such beings teach, expound the Dharma (law), and show the way.

The concept of karma is fundamental to Buddhism. It is based on the premise of the inexorable relation of cause and effect: in familiar Western terms, you reap what you have sown. Your own actions, rather than the decision of a divine being who sits in judgment, or the intercession of any god, determine what will become of you.

Against its Hindu background, Buddhism has sometimes been seen as a reform movement analogous to the Protestant Reformation, an analogy that perhaps should not be stretched too far, and it has even been considered a revolutionary movement. Yet from its inception, and in the course of its subsequent development for many centuries, Buddhism was affected by the inevitable influence of its Hindu context, even as it was a reaction against the mother culture and religion. The Mahayana movement that flourished in the Buddhist universities of eastern India absorbed Hindu elements. These sources, Hindu and Buddhist, became interwoven and were the matrix for the later development, Vajrayana. Tantric texts depict the defeat of Hindu deities, most importantly the great god Shiva, by the Bodhisattva warrior, Vajrapani; the vanquished Hindu gods were converted, pledged allegiance to Buddhism, and were renamed and incorporated into the Buddhist structure. And tantric texts introduced yet other gods, such as Mahakala, who although one of the most important tantric deities in Tibetan Buddhism, has an ancient origin in Indian cults.

With the further development of Mahayana, and its cult of Bodhisattvas (whose numbers multiplied, along with the Buddhas with whom they were often paired), the pantheon expanded. Interweaving and building on these influences, introducing and absorbing yet more deities, Buddhism, like a living organism, continued to evolve, and the form that we would come to know as "Tibetan" grew increasingly labyrinthine.

Even that is not the end of the story. After Buddhism was first introduced into Tibet in the seventh century C.E., where it encountered a native culture, a struggle ensued between the new religion and the ancient, indigenous one. Ultimately and inevitably, Buddhism was influenced by that which it came to replace. This complex interaction developed into mutual adaptation, and the native traditions added their complement of gods to a growing Buddhist pantheon of deities and supramundane beings. A century after that first introduction, a Tibetan king summoned Padmasambhava, a mystic eighth-century yogin from an area northwest of India, now thought to be Pakistan's Swat valley, to establish the primacy of the new religion: this is known as the "first diffusion" of Buddhism in Tibet. Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, is honored and revered throughout the Tibetan cultural world, and even considered a second Buddha by followers of the Nyingma-pa sect. According to legend, this legendary master battled with and successfully overcame malevolent and hostile spirits, including the indigenous Tibetan gods, and bound them over with vows to serve the new faith. The old gods, former enemies, became champions of Buddhism; they joined the pantheon, swelling its prodigious array of deities and supernatural beings. Yet that, too, was not yet the end of the story.

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