This is the final part of a three part series on Tibetan Buddhism. If you haven’t read Part One or Part Two yet, you probably should.
Death rituals serve as another link between Buddhism and the ancient practices of Tibet. Modern Buddhist death rituals are complex, multi-part processes that take place over several days to guide the deceased toward liberation through the various stages of death (Kværne 494). Tsong Khapa, founder of the Geluk form of Tibetan Buddhism, highlighted the importance of death when he wrote: “the prejudice that one will not die is the source of all trouble, and the antidote to that—the mindfulness of death—is the source of all that is marvelous” (Lopez, “Mindfulness” 429). At least in the case of its kings, Tibet’s early religion had an equally elaborate preoccupation with death. When a king’s son was reached adulthood in ancient Tibet, the king, along with many servants retired to a tomb complex, ceding the throne to his child. This ceremony involved animal, and perhaps human, sacrifice and the supplying of the king and his retinue with food and other goods to aid in their journey to a land of joy. Whether or not the king and his servants were executed as part of this process or lived out their days in the tombs is unclear (Lopez, “Introduction” 5).
It is important to note that the cult of kings did not revolve solely around funeral rites. Later Buddhist records attribute magical powers to Tibet’s early kings (Klein and Rinpoche 180). Additionally, at least by the reign of Namri Songtsen, who began Tibet’s unification in the seventh century, kings were considered gods (Kirkland 260). Likewise, a Buddhist prophecy declared that “In the place called the divine land / Surrounded by snowy mountains, / A king called ‘God Among Men’ will be born” (Kapstein, “Royal Way” 72). This prophecy was identified with Namri Songtsen’s son, Songtsen Gampo, in a twentieth century text from the Nyingma school, which identified Songtsen Gampo as Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, a tradition that had currency by the fourteenth century (70-2). In this way Buddhism transition the traditional idea of divine kingship into Buddhist terms.
A further aspect of the cult of kings can be seen in the ancient views on the king’s spirit and essence. The king’s power was seen as emanating from his sacred mountain, where his la, his soul or life-force, resided and he was seen as the embodiment of the “continually reborn essence of the divine ancestor” (Lopez, “Introduction” 4). This divine essence would be reincarnated in the king’s son once he reached adulthood (4). Thus it appears that Tibetans held some notion of reincarnation, which would have made the Buddhist notion more accessible.
The idea of a perpetual reincarnated ruler also holds some striking, though perhaps indirect, parallels to the institution of reincarnated lamas. The practice of recognizing the reincarnation of Buddhist leaders seems to have arisen in the late twelfth century and became more widespread during the thirteenth century (McCleary 22). By the fourteenth century, the recognition of reincarnated lamas had spread across all Buddhist schools (Lopez, “Introduction” 22). These reincarnated leaders are viewed as the emanation bodies of buddhas who have complete control over their conditions of rebirth, thus loosely approximating the role of divine kingship (23). Such approximation becomes more precise when a reincarnated lama also holds political power. The first such lama was the Fourth Zhamar of the Kagyü school, who was installed as regent of Tibet in 1493 and ruled until 1524 (McCleary 23). In the early sixteenth century the Geluk school of Tibetan Buddhism established a line of reincarnation that in 1578 gained the title of Dalai Lama (24-6). In 1642, the Fifth Dalai Lama gained political control over Tibet after decades of civil war and claimed descent from Tibet’s ancient rulers (29). Thus was establish a new line of holy kings whose essence was continually reborn in their successors. This line would rule Tibet until the nation was invaded by China in 1951, deposing the Fourteenth Dalai Lama (Mitchell 185).
There are other ancient beliefs and practices that, although they may lack the profound impact of those discussed above, continue to influence Tibetan Buddhism. One of these is the belief in the la, the soul or life-force of a person. The la is able to leave the body and inhabit animals, plants, and objects such as stones, pieces of turquoise, and even mountains or lakes. If a person’s la leaves him, it can lead to illness or insanity. However, if the la resided in the person and external objects simultaneously, such an arrangement could help to preserve one’s life. Still if any abode of the la is harmed the person to whom that la belongs may likewise feel ill effects (Lopez, “Introduction” 5). Another is the smoke purification ritual, where fragrant wood, most often juniper, is burned and deities are invited to descend by way of the smoke and are praised (Nalanda Translation Committee 401). Everyday rituals such as those to exercise a spirit responsible for gossip, may also be traceable back to ancient Tibetan practices (Kapstein, “Gossip” 527).
All of this is not to say that Buddhism in Tibet is merely a veneer over ancient practices. Many Buddhist teachers and a vast body of Buddhist writings were imported into Tibet from India and have had a profound impact on the beliefs and practices of Buddhists in Tibet (Lopez, “Introduction” 10-11). Tibetans, excluding the Bön, emphasize the importance of Buddhism’s Indian origin and its correct transmission by tracing the lineages of their teachings back to India through a succession of gurus (Lopez, “Introduction” 15). The roots of Buddhism in Tibet are deep and there is little reason to see Tibetan Buddhism as any less Buddhist than that practiced in China, Japan, Korea, or Southeast Asia. But to ignore the influence of traditional religion on Tibetan Buddhism would mean disregarding many of the historical elements that make Tibetan Buddhism distinct from other forms as well as the remarkable vitality of Tibet’s indigenous traditions. In the end it is clear that Tibetan Buddhism is not only authentically Buddhist, it is also authentically Tibetan.