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Like a great melting pot, Tibetan Buddhism admits a multitude of powers, some celestial, others earth-based -- local deities, mountain gods, spirits of the air, water, earth and soil. Among this great pantheon of divinities and spirits, many derive from the folk religion, and others -- especially the multi-headed and multi-limbed ferocious gods -- derive from Tantrism and also, arguably, from Bon.

The process by which local deities and pre-Buddhist beliefs and rituals were adapted by the new dominant religion was eased by certain shared aspects or resemblances between the indigenous religion and Tibetan Buddhism, since Vajrayana includes a powerful element of magic. According to legend, many of the old native gods, some benevolent, others malignant, were vanquished and then "converted" by Padmasambhava, who bound them over through mighty oaths to serve Buddhism in new roles as protectors or defenders of the law. Local deities, such as the gods of particular mountains, lakes, etc., were also admitted to the accepted pantheon, justified by their acceptance of the law. Lesser deities, with supernatural but not supreme powers, became guardians of the entrances to sacred spaces, to defend against malicious spirits. In the hierarchy of the pantheon, these are of lower rank than the great supramundane beings, such as the Bodhisattvas, but could also be explained as manifestations of the more important deities.


However and whenever Buddhism came to Tibet, it found itself in a rough, mountainous country with a harsh climate: a country of struggling farmers, nomadic herdsmen, and traders whose livelihood depended on perilous journeys. Mystery was a condition of existence, not only because of the inexplicable sicknesses against which, until modern times, all people were helpless, but also in the wild, changeable, unpredictable mountain weather that ruled their lives; when a spring hailstorm destroyed the crops or a sudden blizzard covered the grazing land and froze the animals, starvation loomed. The ordinary Tibetan believed himself or herself to be continually at the mercy of supernatural powers, surrounded by multitudes of spirits, both beneficent and malicious, that needed to be appeased or destroyed. The old folk religion offered rituals, techniques with which to safeguard the home, purify the village, protect the crops and animals, cure the sick, and see the souls of the dead into safety.

The challenge for Buddhism was to persuade and induce a population who believed their lives were governed by a host of invisible but omnipresent spirits, to accept a highly focused set of teachings involving a relatively abstract mental discipline. Even now, one can speak of Buddhism as it is understood by the women who weed the fields and the men who drive the yaks, a faith heavily imbued with the pre-Buddhist ideas and practices of the folk religion, and of the Buddhism understood and practiced by monks, lamas, and the learned classes, those exposed to Buddhist texts and commentaries and formal teachings.

Elements of those indigenous beliefs and practices remain part of Tibetan religious life, existing alongside the liturgy of monks and lamas who expound the texts they hold authentic.

The Buddhism of the monastery proved itself flexible, accommodating to popular beliefs that in any case it could only with difficulty have tried to suppress, if not eliminate. The tantric rituals accepted by Vajrayana, with their element of magic, helped bridge the gap.

Rites of sacrifice, exorcism, and ransom make up a regular part of Tibetan life. In their origin they are, however symbolically they were subsequently explained, quite alien to the original, essential Buddhist beliefs. The resemblance of many of these rites to shamanism is often undeniable. And at times, some of the old gods seem less than convincing in their new Buddhist dress. The triumph of Buddhism was its ability to adapt the ancient, ingrained beliefs and customs without compromising its own fundamental insight and precepts, while teaching the new theology to the people of Tibet and firmly establishing their acceptance and understanding of its ethical code.

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