When Buddhism came to Tibet it encountered a rich and diverse religious landscape. Ancient Tibet was a land of countless gods and spirits ruled over by divine kings whose sacred essence passed from one ruler to the next. Tibet was a nation not just of people but of the land itself. As it had to contend with Confucianism and Taoism when it entered China, Buddhism was forced to contend with the indigenous religion when it came to Tibet. To accomplish the conversion of Tibet Buddhists, by and large, did not seek to destroy local traditions, but rather incorporated them into Buddhist practice. This process of incorporation did lead to Buddhism’s eventual dominance over Tibet’s religious landscape, but it also preserved a significant number of non-Buddhist traditions that continue to help color and shape Tibetan Buddhist¹ practices into the present.
Prior to the seventh century, the history of Tibet is obscure at its best. Nevertheless, something can be gleaned of the region’s early faith traditions. J. Russell Kirkland notes that early beliefs and practices in Tibet were “remarkably heterogeneous and fluid” (265). Even with this diversity and fluidity, there emerge certain broad trends in early Tibetan Buddhism. One of these trends is a reverence for the landscape. Kirkland notes that, allowing for local variations, there was at least one widespread belief in early Tibet: the idea a sacred landmark, usually a mountain, that was often deified and said to be the ancestor of a given group of Tibetans (265-6). Beyond itself the land was also important because of the numerous gods, demons, and other supernatural beings who were believed to reside in the landscape as well as trees and rocks. Likewise, a plethora of demons and spirits populated Tibet’s land, air, rivers, and lakes (Lopez, “Introduction” 8).
This reverence for the land and for sacred landmarks has survived in Tibetan Buddhism in the practice of pilgrimages to sacred landmarks. Matthew Kapstein describes pilgrimages as a central part of Tibetan life “in which virtually all Tibetans at some time or other participated” (“Guide” 103). Popular sites of pilgrimage include Tibet’s capital of Lhasa and various shrines, temples, mountains, valleys, caves, and lakes (103-4). Mount Kailash in southwest Tibet is viewed as the center of a sacred mandala (a Tantric Buddhist meditative diagram) that extended for hundreds of miles incorporating the surrounding landscape into its pattern (104). The importance of the land even in contemporary Tibet can be seen in the modern Guide to Crystal Peak, which Kapstein translates. The guide imbues the Crystal Peak in Western Nepal with deep symbolic meaning, describing the mountain as a representation of the world-system of Buddhist cosmology and as the home of bodhisattvas and Buddhist deities (106). The guide further incorporates Buddhism into the ancient Tibetan reverence for land by identifying certain places as being advantageous for enlightenment (107). However, even this modern guide retains references to ancient Tibetan deities and demons (111).
Tales of Buddhism’s introduction into Tibet make clear the importance of the land in Tibet and how Buddhism incorporated indigenous deities and spirits into its own pantheon. Songtsen Gampo, who united Tibet and expanded its borders, is said to have had Buddhist temples built at specific locations throughout Tibet to pin down a giant demoness so that she would not impede Buddhism’s dissemination (Lopez, “Introduction” 6). Buddhist chronicles also include tales of Padmasambhava, and Indian guru invited to Tibet during the reign of Tri Songdetsen (754-797 C. E.). Padmasambhava is said to have subdued Tibet’s many gods and spirits by converting them to Buddhism (Kohn 387). An interesting example of the interplay of old and new religions can be seen in treasure text2 discovered in the fourteenth century recounts a prayer Padmasambhava is said to have used to subdue Nyenchen Tanglha, the god of an extensive mountain range (387, 390). In the prayer Padmasambhava calls on Nyenchen Tanglha to “Circumambulate Samye [Buddhist] temple! / Actualize what we yogins think!” and identifies the Tibetan deity with an Indian celestial spirit, “King of the Scent Eaters—He of Five Topknots” (389, 392-3). Yet, this ostensibly Buddhist prayer also includes many ancient Tibetan themes such as associating Nyenchen Tanglha with whiteness and mountain tops, alluding to the ancient belief that gods lived in parts of the human body, and giving importance to turquoise, a stone ancient Tibetans connected with both the human and the divine. The prayer also modifies the ancient notion of the religion of men, or folk religion, and the religion of the gods, or high religion, by associating the latter not with courtly worship, but with Buddhism (389). This assimilation, interestingly enough, also ran in reverse on occasion. The nineteenth century master Do Khyentse of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism, in recounting the tale of his tribe and his birth uses Buddhist philosophy to express indigenous religious ideas and details native Tibetan practices and ideas that it seems safe to presume existed at least into the nineteenth century (Kornman 77, 82).
Taking a look at Tibet’s secular history, divorced from sacred mythology, indicates another way in which Buddhism incorporated earlier Tibetan culture for its own purpose. Tibetan Buddhists uphold Songtsen Gampo and the later ruler Tri Songdetsen as paragons of Buddhist virtue (Mitchell 160-1). Songtsen Gampo is even identified as an incarnation of Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion (Kapstein, “Royal Way” 72). Yet the available historical record, Donald S. Lopez, Jr., asserts, suggests that neither ruler was a devout Buddhist. Gampo, it seems, supported local deities, the belief in the king as divine, and the associated funerary cult. Songdetsen did support Buddhism; however, he also continued traditional Tibetan practices, including animal sacrifice. It appears that Tri Songdetsen’s Buddhism was elevated after the fact and that Buddhism’s connection to Songtsen Gampo was made centuries after his death in order to link the religion to Tibet’s great unifier (“Introduction” 7).
Continue with part two of this three part series.
1. For the purpose of this article the terms Tibetan Buddhism/Buddhist includes the various schools normally described as such (Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyü, and Geluk) as well as the Bön tradition, which is sometimes considered separate. Although Bön-pos trace their faith to a different progenitor than the other sects and does not see Gautama Buddha as the true originator of Buddhism, the sect considers itself Buddhist and many of its beliefs and practices would be described as unquestionably Buddhist were it not known that they are from the Bön tradition. For further discussion of the close relationship between Bön and other forms of Tibetan Buddhism, particularly the Nyingma school, please see Per Kværne’s “Aspects of the Origin of the Buddhist Tradition in Tibet” Numen 19.1 (1972): 22-40 and Donald S. Lopez’s discussion of Bön in Religions of Tibet in Practice, 28-30.
2. A treasure text (terma) is a sacred writing said to have been hidden by an ancient master either to preserve it from destruction during a time of persecution or to serve as a future source of enlightenment. The validity of such texts are generally only recognized within the Nyingma and Bön traditions.