INTRODUCTION TO BASIC CONCEPTS OF "TIBETAN" BUDDHISM
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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