Ancient Present: The Influence of Indigenous Traditions on Tibetan Buddhism (Part. 2)

This is the second part of a three part series. If you’ve missed it, it’s best to begin at part one.

Another aspect of early Tibetan culture and religion that appears to have carried over into Tibetan Buddhism is the importance of ancestry and family lineage. In Buddhist Tibet kinship was the basic form of social organization, so much so that monks maintained close ties with their families, even continuing to participate in family life to a limited extent (McCleary 17). Modern anthropological evidence suggests such emphasis on kinship has pre-Buddhist origins. Eva K. Dargyay identified traces of such early beliefs among Tibetans in the Zanskar mountains of northeast India in the late 1970s (123). Dargyay identified Zanskar as likely being part of the ancient kingdom of Zhang Zhung, which was conquered by Tibet in the seventh century C. E. and eventually became predominately Tibetan (124). The isolation of Zanskar allowed it to avoid full Buddhist acculturation (126). Families in Zanskar group themselves into rus pa, all individuals who can trace their lineage back to a single male ancestor, and pha spun, members of a rus pa plus the wives of male members. Each rus pa worships a family god or goddess without bodily form that is believed to watch over the family and their property (127). Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf identified similar practices among the Sherpa of the Khumbu region of Nepal, formerly a part of Tibet in 1953 (49). The Sherpa, who practiced Tibetan Buddhism, also revered clan and family gods, as well as the mountain deity Khumbe-yül-lha, to whom they dedicated yaks (49-50). Yaks, once dedicated to Khumbe-yül-lha or another god could not be sold, slaughtered, or shorn, although females may still be milked (49). The clan gods, although identified with a specific locale, were worshiped by clan members even if they left that locale (50). The family gods of the Sherpa are known as lu, serpant gods, and correspond with ancient Tibetan lu, dragon-serpants that dwelt in water and clouds ( Fürer-Haimendorf 50, Kornman 82). When a son left his parents’ house for his own, he would ask the family lu to reside with him as well as his parents (Fürer-Haimendorf 50). he clan and familial gods of the Zanskari and Sherpa are, like Kirkland’s sacred landmarks, closely linked with ancestral lines.

The modern Sherpa practice of dedicating yaks to Khumbe-yül-lha is in line with traditional Tibetan reverence for yaks. According to the early histories of China’s Tang Dynasty, Tibetans showed hospitality by hosting meals of yak (Bushell 441). Stanley J. Olsen has noted that yaks played an important part in ancient Tibetan religion (84, 86). Olsen also discuses the importance of the yak in Tibetan Buddhism, noting that their horns and hair, along with yak-head masks, play various roles among shamans and monks (85-6). The continuity between pre-Buddhist and Buddhist reverence for yaks in Tibet can be seen in a Bön death ritual written in the early nineteenth century, which includes the passage:

The divine yak, king of knowledge (rig pa), is presented.

Having proceeded along the path to liberation to the end,
It quickly reaches the field of great happiness,
And having obtained the absolute body (bon sku)
Original buddhahood is obtained (ye sangs rgyas). (Kværne 497).

This invocation of the yak not only links back to pre-Buddhist funerary practices, but links it directly to the goal of buddhahood (495).

Continue with part three of this three part series.

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2 thoughts on “Ancient Present: The Influence of Indigenous Traditions on Tibetan Buddhism (Part. 2)

  1. Ancient Present: The Influence of Indigenous Traditions on Tibetan Buddhism (Part. 1) | Isn't it infomantic?

  2. Ancient Present: The Influence of Indigenous Traditions on Tibetan Buddhism (Part 3) | Isn't it infomantic?

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