Reflecting about God with our Tibetan friends – Part 5

In the last part, I introduced the only Catholic Church in the TAR, and thus a tiny minority; today, we talk of the majority religion of the Tibetans and get acquainted with their views on God.

Though there are many different Tibetan ethnicities, as pointed out in Part 3, something which connects them all is their religious identity, as they are either Tibetan Buddhists or adherents of their native religion Bön. A minority is Muslim, such as the Kaqê, Purik and Nubra, but they are most likely classified as Hui. Additionally, the Qiangic peoples in Sichuan which follow Tibetan Buddhism are classified as Tibetan by the Chinese government, even though they are actually not Tibetan by ethnicity, but are strongly influenced by the Tibetans, and thus are sometimes called Qiangic-speaking Tibetans.

Tibetan Buddhism has several different denominations. These are the Gelug, Kagyu, Sakya, Nyingma, Jonang and Bodong. All Buddhists believe that we are confronted by suffering in life starting with our birth. Through our life, we collect merits depending on how well we live our life, but in the end, after we died, we first have to go through a kind of purgatory in Tibetan belief, depending on how well we lived, and then we are reborn in one of the different realms. For this reason, Tibetans are extremely careful not to conduct any mistakes and lie a strong emphasis on living a correct life, so that they will neither suffer in a terrible purgatory nor will be reborn in a lower realm. To get out of the cycle of reincarnation, one has to attain enlightenment, a state which only a very few really achieve, which again is, why so many Tibetans are overly concerned with living a rightful life, so that they have a better starting point for reaching enlightenment in their next life. Among very conservative Tibetans, it is believed that women cannot reach enlightenment, since one first has to become a man, which is why women are in a very unfortunate position among human-beings. Archana Paudel and Qun Dong have made a scientific research about the discrimination of women in Buddhism. They write: “Talking about the present day status of women in Buddhism, it can clearly be seen that nuns are placed at an inferior positions as compared to monks. They should speak after the monks have spoken, eat after they have eaten, sit behind the monks in rituals and ceremonies, and cannot hold the highest positions in any ceremony and many more. […] Even in Taiwan, where nuns status is highest, and where nuns and laywomen far outnumber monks and laymen, only two leaders of orthodox Buddhist sects, Master Yin Shu and Master Xing Yun of Buddha’s Light International, have publicly rejected part of the Eight Garudhammas and other rules and teachings that imply that women are inferior to men and should be treated as such. […] In many cases, women themselves have deep rooted feelings that they are inferior to men. They think that they cannot be in the same place as men are because they are more jealous, short tongued, evil, weak, vain, and ignorant and so on. […] We come to see that Tibetan Buddhism has moved forward in this context. Many of the Tibetan leaders have expressed a desire for improvement of the current conditions” [Archana Paudel, Qun Dong: The Discrimination of Women in Buddhism: An Ethical Analysis. Open Access Library Journal 4 (4), 2017, 1-18]. So it is not only a problem among Tibetan Buddhists, and we can say that not all Tibetan Buddhists in Tibet today continue the conservative forms of belief, but still we should mention that they still exist. Also Amy Holmes-Tagchungdarpa points out that this very narrative exists: “According to some Buddhist narratives, female leadership is impossible due a woman’s inability to reach enlightenment, believed to be a limitation of her gender. These narratives state that enlightenment is only possible for women if they gain good karma and are reborn as men beforehand” [Amy Holmes-Tagchungdarpa: Can Women Become Leaders in the Buddhist Tradition?. Berkeley Center, 18 February 2015., retrieved on 9 January 2015].

So we can say that the Tibetan Buddhist sphere is very heterogeneous and not unified. One reason for this is that there is not one spiritual leader, but all these different denominations have their own leaders (if they have one at all) and traditions. The Oldest school in Tibet are the Nyingma, which are called the “Old Translation”, and which is the only school which belongs into this category: all other schools belong to the “New Translation”. The Nyingma believe in an Adi Buddha as embodiment of dharmakaya, so there is a primordial Buddha in the beginning who embodies the teaching, while the other bodies (kaya) are inseparably connected to the dharmakaya: so the historical Buddha is an embodiment of that very teaching. We can compare this very well with Christianity, where Jesus is the Son of God who embodies the living God on Earth. The Nyingma’s primordial Buddha is called Samantabhadra in Sanskrit or Kuntu Zangpo (ཀུན་ཏུ་བཟང་པོ་) in Tibetan. We can go so far and talk of the God of the Nyingma believers, because Samantabhadra is All-Goodness equaling pure perfection beyond any being. So God for the Nyingma is not the first cause, we think not in terms of causation here, but He is Pure Perfection and All-Goodness, two predicates which are also given to the Christian God. The reason why it is difficult to talk of causation is because God Himself is not thought to be of Being for the Nyingma, but instead He is beyond Being for them. Yet, He is the source and as such I think that we can identify Him with God. To discover the ultimate ground of existence, the Nyingma practice a philosophy called Dzogchen, aimed at accumulating rigpa (knowledge) and getting rid of delusions, such as ignorance and illusions called “ma-rigpa”. Therefore, Nyingma is highly wisdom-orientated and thus philosophical. As such, we can learn a lot from Nyingma followers and get out of our Eurocentric box, broaden our philosophical horizon.

The Gelug, Jonang, Kagyu, and Sakya belong to the New Translation, each with its own special focus. The Kagyu school for instance focusses a lot on the mind training called Lojong (བློ་སྦྱོང་) which they took from the now extinct Kadampa tradition, as well as the Mahamudra teaching as it was taught by Gampopa and his followers. The Sakya in contrast are known for their meditative teaching called Lamdre, but they also took over teachings of the Kadam. The Gelug school is very close to the Kadam school and is the strongest school within Tibetan Buddhism. Furthermore, Tibetan Buddhism is understood as Tantric Buddhism. As Reginald Ray explains, tantric practice was originally not a necessary element: “Though certainly not required or even necessarily recommended, the option of serious tantric practice was open, but only for monks who had proved themselves with many years of training in ethics and philosophy. This approach was later adopted, refined, and made more explicit by the Geluk founder Tsongkhapa” [Reginald Ray: Secret of the Vajra World – The Tantric Buddhism of Tibet. Boston: Shambhala, 2001, p. 45]. In other words: the Vajrayana lineages were considered unconventional in the beginning, compared to the Mahayana lineages. Virupa, the main source of Sakya school, originally practised Vajrayana at night secretly and when he was discovered, he was expelled from the monastery [ibid.]. The standard approach of the Sakyapa is as following: “one first lays a solid foundation through the study of the Hinayana and Mahayana, and the life of conventional monasticism. Only after this foundation has been well laid does one move on to practice the more elite, inner, and esoteric Vajrayana” [ibid.]. So we can see that the schools of the New Translation have a lot in common: one often finds the same practices among them, though some practices are more common, while others are less common and a very few even rejected in other schools, yet they are very closely related to each other.  As a result of quarrels and disputes between the schools, a non-sectarian movement known as Rimé was founded in the 19th century in which all the different traditions of Tibet were collected. The movement consists mainly of the Nyingma, Kagyu, and Sakya teachings, as the Jonang were thought to be extinct, and the Gelug were not really included, because the Rimé stood in opposition to the Gelug. The Gelug were extremely mighty and the Rimé movement wanted to preserve the smaller teachings and though the Nyingma differ very much from the ones of the New Translation, they work together very well. Actually, this can be seen as a very good example of harmony, to overcome sectarian differences and study each other’s points of view.

Finally, there is the Tibetan Shamanism, called Bön (བོན, 苯教), which is not a branch of Buddhism, but an own religion. Modern Bön religion goes back to Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche, sometimes referred to as “Buddha Shenrab” who “occupies a position very similar to that of Śākyamuni in Buddhism, but […] we have no available sources with which to establish his historicity, his dates, his racial origin, his activities, and the authenticity of the enormous number of books either attributed directly to him or believed to be his word” [Samten G. Karmey: A General Introduction to the History and Doctrines of Bon. Memoirs of the Research Department of the Toyo Bunko No. 33, 1975, pp. 175-176]. He gave a vow that he guides all people to find liberation through compassion. According to the legend, he lived before Siddhartha Gautama and, like him, was of royal origin. He probably refused to be the king’s successor around the same age than Siddhartha Gautama did, and like him, he wanted to find enlightenment. In his Nine Ways of Bön we find interesting similarities and differences concerning Buddhism. The Nine Ways of Bön are: Way of Prediction, Way of the Visual World, Way of Illusion, Way of Existence, Way of a Lay Follower, Way of a Monk, Way of Primordial Sound, Way of Primordial Shen, and Way of Supreme Natural Condition. The Way of Prediction deals with astrology and rituals, the Way of Illusion explains several rituals and energies and the Way of Existence explains funeral rituals. They seem to be of traditional Tibetan belief. The Way of the Visual World (concerning the universe) is based on psychophysics, and the Way of the Primordial Sound (close to mandala practice), the Way of Primordial Shen (which is close to samaya), and the Way of Supreme Natural Condition (which is about Dzogchen) are close to Buddhism. The Way of a Lay Follower and the Way of a Monk seem to be specific for the religious organization of Bön. So the closest practices to Buddhism are Mandalas, Samaya and Dzogchen. Like in the Buddhist trikaya, Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche has three forms.

The main philosophy of Bön is Dzogchen, which can also be found in the Tibetan Nyingma school as explained above. The Dzogchen tradition was brought to Tibet by Padmasambhava who arrived in Bhutan at about 747 according to Buddhists. Adherents of Bön believe instead that Dzogchen was taught by Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche thousands of years ago in West Tibet. However, this legendary account was spread between the 11th and 14th century and thus has no historical importance. The Bön cosmological philosophy however is mostly based on local belief. In Bön, one shall reach a realm which is beyond duality. This non-dual realm is called Tagzig Olmo Lung Ring and therefore we should not be surprised about the Dzogchen practise in Bön, because knowing (rigpa) turns around the ultimate oneness, and thus, the absense of duality to understand nature. The early myths describe this realm to be near Mount Kailash, unlike the early Buddhists who believed the mythical Mount Meru to be the center of the world.

The main deity in Bön is called Shenlha Ökar(in Chögyam Trungpa’s terma refered to as ‘Shiwa Ökar’), representing the sambhogakaya of Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche. The word ‘shen’ means priest or shaman, sounding close to Chinese ‘shén’ (神)meaning ‘spirit’ or ‘deity’, and Tibetan ‘lha’ means a kind of good heavenly spirit, which is also included in the word ‘shenlha’ (compare Lhasa: the location of good spirits). As such, we have one divine force which emanates in different forces, though this does not mean that Bön has a strict monotheism, but the deities are often rather divine manifestations, and we know from Buddhism that the divine can emanate in a myriad of forms, which is advocated by Buddhist monotheists who believe that the different bodhisattvas and transcendental buddhas which are venerated are just a piece of the one, and thus only one God is venerated. We would be very blindfolded to put our Western monotheist views on a 7th century shamanic religion. The thing is, as we will see, Bön developed into different stages with different denominations, so there is a strongly polytheistic spirit cult, and a strongly Buddhist influenced teaching emphasizing on the divine power. Especially in Dzogchen practise, as explained before, there is a cosmic force which comes close to God or might be identified as God who is the All-Goodness. Nonetheless, not everyone sees Shenlha Ökar as sambhogakaya, others refer to him as “corresponding exactly to the Buddhist category of dharmakaya” [Per Kvaerne: The Bon Religion of Tibet – The Iconography of a Living Tradition. London/ Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2001, p. 26]. And according to others, he is nirmanakaya in the person of Guru Shenrab. So as is typical for early religions, there is often not the one very account, but local interpretations as well as different interpretations which evolved during different epochs; nonetheless, he seems to be understood in a way close to trinity, though we should not exactly regard it as a trinity. I only use this image for comparison’s sake to make it more graspable: on the one hand, there is an Earthly emanation, someone who spread the teaching for our rescue, then there is ultimate accomplishment or merit, and then there is God Himself. We can see how the analogy with the trinity fails in several aspects, but we also see that it gives us understanding of that concept. Because in the trinity, the Holy Spirit is the essence and the Father God. Here, the essence is the teaching which was given by God, the accomplishment its goal, and the will to help for rescue the earthly person which helps the people to gain enlightenment. Only the dissolution of these bodies leads to unity and non-duality.

For instance, some see Kuntu Zangpo as ‘dharmakaya’. This is quite intriguing, because he is not only the primordial buddha of Bön, but also of the Nyingma. Nonetheless, many believe that Shenlha Ökar has created the world and he is often compared to Amitabha. As Amitabha is known for compassion and refuge, the Bön notion of God is one of an all-goodness (Kuntu Zangpo) and compassion (Shenlha Ökar). Another important deity is Yeshe Walmo, the protector deity of sacred texts. During religious struggles between Bön and Buddhist adherents, the Bön texts were hidden in the mountains to be kept safe and according to the Bön belief it was Yeshe Walmo who kept the texts safe. She is also called to help when one is in trouble and helps solving all kinds of problems. Thus, people believe that all Bön wisdom is united in her. There are several parallels to Bhaisajyaguru and Jainraisig. The male equivalent to Yeshe Walmo is Sidpa Gyalmo. Bön adherents believe in dakini (in Tibetan: Kazhoma, མཁའ་འགྲོ་མ), which means ‘sprit’, as well as in tertöns (གཏེར་སྟོན་ , gter ston), which are people discovering termas (‘hidden treasures’). Termas are the key teachings of both, Vajrayana Buddhism and Bön. A tertön normally needs a sexual energy to be able to discover the terma, as Fremantle states: “One of the special requirements for the discovery of termas is the inspiration of the feminine principle, just as it was necessary for their concealment. The great majority of tertöns have been men, and generally they are accompanied by their wives or female companions” [Francesca Fremantle: Luminous Emptiness – Understanding the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Boston: Shambhala, 2001, p. 19]. Bön can be taught through a spiritual teacher or non-monastic priest – which in Tibetan tradition is called Ngagpa (སྔགས་པ , sngags pa) – as well as through a monastic master. Same as in Vajrayana, followers of Bön conduct pilgrimages to holy places to perform dedication to the gods and spirits. These pilgrimages are called Kora (སྐོར་ར , skor ra).

The above mentioned practices of Bön are part of Yungdrung-Bön, often called ‘eternal Bön’, which was founded at least after the 7th century. It can be seen that there has been a huge practical exchange between Yungdrung-Bön and the Nyingma, the latter one incorporating several aspects of Indian philosophy. The pantheon of both religions was adopted to each other. The already existing Bön deities were compared to the Buddhist deities, and Buddhist deities of Nyingma were legitimated with their existence in Bön. Therefore, the spirits of Bön became a part of early Tibetan Buddhism, and the role of the buddhas and bodhisattvas was adopted in Bön. To understand this development, one has to know Black Bön. Black Bön was the pre-Buddhist shamanic tradition in Tibet. Although it is very controversial nowadays whether this tradition has anything to do with the nowadays common understanding of Bön, the priests in pre-Buddhist era were called ‘Bönpa’. In Black Bön, soteriology played a huge role. There was the belief in a life after death and to enjoy this life after death, there were complex funeral rituals and probably ancestral devotion. Despite the importance of funeral rituals, there is emphasis on magic. It is believed, that the whole nature consists of souls that can be influenced and conciliated. Therefore, the belief in gods, spirits and demons is very widespread. Magical rituals include experiences during trance, voyages to the underworld, influencing the weather, contacts to spirits, offerings to the gods, protection not to be attacked by demons, etc. These traditions are alive in some ways until today. In Yungdrung-Bön, it can be clearly seen that it emphasizes on the funeral rites and the soul belief in traditional ways. In Tibetan tradition, it is believed that the soul comes back home, and therefore after the death of a family member, one creates a vessel for the dead person for the soul to rest. The soul would then come back to the house and searches its vessel where it will stay in peace, close to its family.

Concerning religious practice, Yungdrung-Bön has nothing to do with Black Bön, but instead focusses on Nyingma-Buddhism. Mantras were adopted, same as the ideas of being able to practice one’s own mind. The first dzogchen texts, called Semde in Tibetan (and cittavarga in Sanskrit), emphasizing on mind, are going back to Padmasambhava and were not known much earlier. The earliest written-accounts still known nowadays are going back to the 9th century. The semde texts emphasize on samatha (‘calmness’ – also known by its Tibetan name Xinä), vipassana (‘awareness’), advaya (wholeness without borders or limits), and anabogha (‘spontaneous presence’) – all together called the ‘four yogas’. Samatha, in Buddhist tradition is a way on calming the mind (citta) and its sankhara. In the Kagyu school, as well as in Dzogchen tradition, the mindfulness of breathing is used to make the mind the object of meditation itself to generate vipassana [compare Daniel Brown: Pointing Out the Great Way – The Stages of Meditation in the Mahamudra tradition. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2006, pp. 221 ff.]. Important aspects of semde are säpa (‘clarity’) and ‘rigpa’ (profound awareness/ innate awareness).

As we can see, Bön and Buddhism influenced each other, leading to an exchange of practices. However, Bön is not the reason why Tibetan Buddhism is so different from other variants, but its way of transmission, since Tibetan Buddhism came from India, while Buddhism in Korea, Vietnam and Japan was spread via China. Many practices go back to either Indian masters that lived far after Buddhism was introduced to China or invented by local masters to help achieving the practice. The prayer wheel, for instance, existed even before Buddhism reached Tibet. Its earliest use was recorded by Chinese pilgrims in Ladakh. Since many people were illiterate, the script was put in the wheel, so that during turning the wheel, the energy of the sutra would reach its practitioner. Other possibilities of the introduction of prayer wheels have a non-spiritual use. While turning the wheel by hand, one has to concentrate very much on turning it regularly. So during daily activity one turns the wheel, it is said to activate the concentration, since one has to concentrate on two things: the wheel and the things one is doing. The daily practice thus can help the mind to get more attentive. It is said that the practice was invented by Nagarjuna. Same as in Buddhism, there are two main principles in Bön. While they are the Four Noble Truths and Noble Eightfold Path in Buddhism, in Bön they are the Four Gates and the Treasure Room and the Nine Ways. Both, the Tibetan Buddhist Canon and the Bön Canon consist of two categories.

The third school of Bön, the “New Bön” is often regarded as a school of Buddhism, since it is a syncretization of Yungdrung-Bön and the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism. The New Bön goes back to the 14th century, the final stage of development in Tibetan Buddhism. Like in many shamanic traditions, Bön deities did not only have a human-like appearance, but also could have other appearances, such as the bird Khyung, a mythical being with a head of a bull. The Buddhist deity Pelden Lhamo (also known as Shri Devi) is probably adopted from Bön and only venerated in Tibetan Buddhism, where she represents a dharmapala.

While the most famous mantra in Tibetan Buddhism is most likely ‘om mani padme hum’ (a devotion to Guanyin), in Bön tradition, the most important mantra is ‘om ma tri mu ye sa le du’. In Bön, ‘om’ represents compassion and thus stands for Tonpa Shenrab, ‘ma’ represents great-loving, ‘tri’ transforms anger into love, ‘mu’ transforms attachment into generosity, ‘ye’ transforms ignorance into all-pervasiveness, ‘sa’ transforms jealousy into openness, ‘le’ transforms pride into peace, and ‘du’ transforms laziness into awareness [The Love and Compassion Mantra. Audio Archive, Bon Shen Ling., retrieved on 7 August 2015]. It addresses important buddhas in Bön, but at the same time all these buddhas can be found united within Tonpa Shenrab. This is a huge parallel to Guanyin, since it is said that all bodhisattvas (and sometimes even all buddhas, or at least dhyani-buddhas) are like a mirror in her, and therefore united in her.

To put it in a nutshell, there are three kinds of Bön. The oldest version Black Bön is a shamanic tradition that has nothing to do with Buddhism at all. Some people even doubt that it has to do anything with modern Bön, although the adherents use the term themselves (by calling themselves ‘Bönpa’ – people belonging to Bön). The second variety, Yungdrung-Bön (founded between 9th and 11th century) is very close to Nyingma-Buddhism, the oldest form of Buddhism in Tibet. In the pantheon of Bön, despite buddhas, there can be found spirits, gods and demons. The latest school of Bön is New Bön which is a syncretization between Nyingma and Bön. It goes back to the 14th century. Unlike modern Buddhism, the Nyingma tradition incorporates a lot of elements from Indian philosophy, such as Dzogchen (which was founded around the 1st century) that is not present in most forms of Buddhist philosophy. Bön can be clearly grouped as as shamanic tradition which shares a philosophy together with the Nyingma. It can be doubted that there was any form of organized religion in Tibet before Buddhism came, but local beliefs were widespread instead. When Buddhism came to Tibet, the ‘Bönpa’ seemingly joined together to protect their land from the ‘foreign’ religion. Buddhism in return became very institutionalized and organized and is passed on in a master-student relation, making the Tibetan variety quite secretive. Additionally, Tibetan Buddhism is known as esoterical school of Buddhism, but this is not exclusively to Tibetan Buddhism: there is also an esoterical school among the Han-Chinese and in Japan in Mahayana. Many customs that are unique to Tibetan Buddhism go back to the fact that there has been a different transmission than in other Buddhist places (since the teaching came directly to Tibet through the Himalayas, unlike other scholars that always went around the Himalayas through Kashmir, since the large mountains were considered to be unpassable).

Now that we know the different Tibetan ethnicities (see Part 3), Christianity in Tibet (see Part 3 and 4), and the major religions of the Tibetans (in this part), we can reflect about God together.

Food for thought:

  1. What is God in a Tibetan understanding, especially for the Nyingmapa and Bönpa?
  2. The Nyingma understanding of the Adi Buddha shares parallels with the monotheist God. In which points could Buddhists and Christians agree on their view about God, where are major differences?
  3. The Tibetan Catholic Church is an extremely tiny minority (see Part 4) and incorporated local features. In contrast, followers of Tibetan Buddhism are a tiny minority in the West, so which elements are incorporated by Westerners in their practice of Tibetan Buddhism? Is the adoption of local features less authentic or does it even raise authenticity, since it speaks to the local believers and unfolds its uniqueness?
  4. How could you personally use the similarities between the religious understanding in East and West to encourage mutual understanding? How to tear apart barriers which are built up due to differences between East and West?
  5. Which role does religion play in the daily life of the Tibetans? What are the chances of Tibetan Buddhism in their daily practice?
  6. Keep in mind the tensions between the different religions in Tibet. Why is it important to promote tolerance and avoid proselytization (neither in trying to convert Tibetan Buddhists to Christianity nor in the wish of extremely conservative Buddhists which want to get rid of religions other than Buddhism in Tibet)?
  7. How are the Chinese authorities encouraging the harmony between the different ethnic groups in the Tibetan areas and the different religions?
  8. In your point of view, is religion the only characteristic which keeps the different Tibetan tribes together or are there also other factors? (Keep in mind that despite the Central Tibetans, most Tibetans do not call themselves Tibetans but name themselves after the area where they come from.) Is the term “Tibetan” thought too brought by the Chinese government as also Qiangic-speaking peoples are classified as Tibetan by the government or is the classification even brilliantly as this implements a unity among the Tibetan Buddhist peoples? How does Tibetan Buddhism support the identity building? If you are talking to Qiangic people, how do they think of the relation among Tibetan tribes and their own Qiangic ethnic groups? Do they support being called Tibetan or do they see themselves as an own ethnic group? (I think in this way, we might learn something about the diversity in Tibetan-inhabited regions and their self-understanding.) – Additionally, are the Christian and Muslim Tibetans less Tibetan because they do not share the characteristic religion which most peoples classified as Tibetans have in common?
  9. What are the chances and the risks of the domination of the Gelug school in Tibetan-inhabited areas? Which contribution does the Rimé movement do in preserving the diversity of the teachings?
  10. How does Buddhist salvation differ from Christian salvation?

Timo Schmitz, 23 January 2023


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