At dawn in Dharamsala, as the sun rises over the mountains,
a number of people are already awake and walking on the path around the residence
of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people. Dharamsala is a
small town perched on the side of a mountain in the foothills of the Himalayas,
the world's highest mountains, and Dharamsala today is the center of the Tibetan
Buddhist exile community in India and the home of the Dalai Lama. Tenzin Gvatso,
the fourteenth Dalai Lama, is considered by his followers to be a physical manifestation
of Avalokitegvara, the buddha of compassion and patron deity of Tibet. Forced
to flee his homeland in 1959 when the Chinese army forcibly annexed Tibet, he
and many of his people have resettled in India, where they continue to look over
the mountains, hoping someday to return to their homeland.
The harsh realities of diaspora and the tenuousness of their position in exile
have not dimmed the reverence of the Tibetan people for the Dalai Lama, and the
crowds of people who circumambulate his residence in Dharamsala are a testament
to their respect for him. The people on the path are a cross-section of Tibetan
society: young and old, laypeople, monks, nuns, and people from all levels of
society. Some are on their way to work or to shop, and chose the path around the
Dalai Lama's residence because it is thought that circumambulating it brings merit,
even if one only walks part of the way. Many of the people on the path will make
the circuit a number of times, and their walk will be an act of religious devotion.
Most carry prayer beads, used to mark the number of times they chant a mantra.
The use of mantras is deeply rooted in Tibetan Buddhism. They are short prayers
that are thought to subtly alter one's mind and make a connection with a particular
buddha, or enlightened being. Tibetan Buddhism has no gods in the Western sense
of the term-the deities of Tibetan Buddhism are buddhas, literally "awakened
ones," who in past lives were ordinary people, but who have transcended the
ordinary through their meditations and realizations. When Tibetans chant a mantra
associated with a particular buddha, they are not simply asking for the blessings
and aid of the buddha-the final goal of the practice is to become buddhas themselves,
since buddhas are sentient beings who have actualized the highest potential that
we all possess.
The Tibetins walking around the Dalai Lama's palace often chant the mantra of
Avalokitesvara-om mani padme hum-a practice that pays tribute to the Dalai Lama
as an incarnation of Avalokitesvara and focuses their minds on the goal of eventually
attaining his level of wisdom and compassion, the two qualities that buddhas embody.
Many will stop along the path at chodens (mchod rten, stupa),1 small shrines that
generally contain religious artifacts of some sort. Often the Tibetans will make
prostrations toward the chodens or toward the Dalai Lama's residence. This is
thought to bring great religious merit and, like the chanting of mantras, helps
to focus one's mind on the goal of buddhahood.
One of the truly striking features of this practice is its primary focus: other
living beings. It is generally thought that if one performs religious actions
solely for one's own benefit, the practices are ineffective and yield little or
no merit. Since one is trying to attain buddhahood, and since buddhas are beings
whose compassion extends to all living beings, anyone who chants the mantra of
the buddha of compassion or pays homage to the Dalai Lama solely for personal
gain is thought to be profoundly misguided. Tibetans recognize this, and when
asked they will generally indicate that they offer the merit of their religious
devotions for the benefit of all sentient beings.
All along the path are religious symbols, most of which are connected with Avalokitesvara
or his human manifestation, the Dalai Lama. There are several "mani walls,"
which are piles of stones, each of which is inscribed with the mantra om mani
padme hum. This literally means, "om jewel in the lotus hum," and it
has tremendous significance for devout Tibetan Buddhists. The syllable om is commonly
found in mantras and is said to symbolize the ultimate nature of all reality,
the final truth of things. The "jewel in the lotus" is compassion, the
quality that Avalokitesvara is thought to embody.
The symbolism of this mantra reveals a great deal about the presuppositions and
practices of Tibetan Buddhism. A lotus is born in the muck and mud at the bottom
of a swamp, but when it emerges on the surfice of the water and opens its petals
a beautiful flower appears, unstained by the mud from which it arose. Similarly,
genuine compassion arises from the muck of the ordinary world, which is characterized
by fighting, hatred, distrust, anxiety, and other negative emotions. These emotions
tend to cause people to become self-centered and lead to suffering and negative
actions. But just as the world is the locus of negative emotions, it is also the
place in which we can become buddhas, enlightened beings who have awakened from
the sleep of ignorance and who perceive reality as it is, with absolute clarity
and with profound compassion for suffering living beings.
Just as the lotus arises from the mud of the swamp, so buddhas were formarly human
beings, immersed in the negative thoughts and actions in which all ordinary beings
engage: the strife, wars, petty jealousies, and hatreds to which all ordinary
beings are subject. Through their meditative training, however, buddhas have transcended
such things, and like lotuses have risen above their murky origins and look down
on them unsullied by the mud and mire below. The symbolism may be extended still
further, because buddhas do not simply escape the world and look down on others
with pity or detached amusement; rather, like the lotus, which has roots that
still connect it with the mud at the bottom of the lake, buddhas continue to act
in the world for the benefit of others, continually taking human form in order
to help them, to make them aware of the reality of their situations, and to indicate
the path to the enlightenment of buddhahood, which can free them from all suffering.
All of these symbols are operating in the minds of the Tibetans who are making
the circuit around the residence of the Dalai Lama. They perceive him as the embodiment
of their own highest aspirations, a person who through individual effort, compassionate
activity, and diligent meditation has transcended the world, but who still continues
to emanate physical manifestations for the benefit of others. The compassion of
Avalokitegvara is completely unstained by any ordinary emotions; he has no need
for praise, does not seek the approval of others, and his actions are completely
untouched by thoughts of personal gain. Rather, he embodies the highest and purest
level of compassion, a compassion that is said to be inconceivable to ordinary
beings. The development of such pure compassion in the ordinary world of ignorance,
desire, and hatred is said to be as rare as a lotus growing up from the bottom
of a swamp and opening its petals to reveal a perfect jewel in the middle. This
indicates the multi-faceted nature of the symbolism of the mantra that Tibetans
chant as they circumambulate the residence of the Dalai Lama. As they walk, they
try to keep this symbolism in mind, because it is thought that the more one familiarizes
oneself with something, the more natural it becomes, and one comes more and more
to think and act accordingly.
This is a basic idea underlying the system of tantric meditation, which is considered
by Tibetans to be the most effective means for attaining buddhahood. In this system,
one tries to transform one's mind through meditation and through surrounding oneself
with symbols that resonate with one's religious goals, that draw the mind toward
thoughts of compassion, wisdom, altruism, ethical behavior, patience, etc. The
people on the path around the Dalai Lama's residence are making religious merit
that is expected to pay dividends in the future, but on a deeper level they are
trying to reorient their minds in the direction of greater and more spontaneous
compassion, since ultimately thev hope to ittain the sai-ne level as Avalokitesvara.
As they catch glimpses of the residence of Avalokitesvara's human manifestation,
they aspire to become like him, and the mani walls, chodens, and rock faces called
with his mantra all serve to draw their attention to the task at hand, which is
not just to ask some powerful deity for help, but to become deities themselves
and work for the betterment of others.
One aspect of life in a Tibetan community that strikes most Westerners immediately
is the pervasiveness of such symbolism. Everywhere one walks, Buddhist symbols
stand out: there are walls of prayer wheels inscribed with mantras, and people
who turn them are thought to be sending out a prayer for the benefit of all sentient
beings. Prayer flags with short mantras or invocations written on them flap in
the wind, each movement sending out a prayer for the benefit of others. Shrines
of various sizes, as well as monasteries, monks, nuns, temples, and statues catch
the eye everywhere, and many of the people one passes are engaged in activities
associated with Buddhist practice: a woman on the way to the market is holding
her prayer beads and softly chanting a mantra; a group of children is prostrating
in front of a temple; and a line of people is moving slowly around a wall of prayer
wheels, turning each one for the benefit of others.
Everywhere one looks, one perceives signs of activities that would be identified
by most Westerners as "religious," but they are so deeply woven into
the fabric of daily Tibetan life that it is difficult to single out a part of
the tapestry that is purely "religious" or a part that is only "secular."
There is no clear distinction between religious and secular life in Tibetan societies,
and "religion" is not compartmentalized into certain places and times
as it tends to be in Western societies. Rather, Buddhism is the very lifeblood
of the community, and its influence is seen in all aspects of daily life.
The Tibetan language does not even have a term with the same associations as the
English word religion. The closest is the word cho (chos), which is a Tibetan
translation of the Sanskrit word dharma. This term has a wide range of possible
meanings, and no English word comes close to expressing the associations it has
for Tibetans. In its most common usage it refers to the teachings of Buddhism,
which are thought to express the truth and to outline a path to enlightenment.
The path is a multifacteted one, and there are teachings and practices to suit
every sort of person. There is no one path that erveryone must follow and no practices
that are prescribed for every Buddhist. Rather, the dharma has something for everyone,
and anyone can profit from some aspect of the dharma.
Because of its multifaceted nature, however, there is no one "truth"
that can be put into words, nor is there one program of training that everyone
can or must follow. Tibetan Buddhism recognizes that people have differing capacities,
attitudes, and predispositions, and the dharma can and should be adapted to these.
Thus, there is no one church in which everyone should worship, no service that
everyone might attend, no prayers that everyone must say, no text that everyone
should treat as normative, and no one deity that everyone must worship. The dharma
is extremely flexible, and if one finds that a particular practice leads to a
diminishment of negative emotions, greater peace and happiness, and increased
compassion and wisdom, this is dharma. The Dalai Lama even states that one may
practice the dharma by following the teachings and practices of non-Buddhist traditions
such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, or Hinduism.2 If one belongs to one of traditions,
and if one's religious practice leads to spiritual advancement, the Dalai Lama
counsels that one should keep at it, since this is the goal of all religious paths.
In this sentiment he hearkens back to the historical Buddha, Sakyamuni. who was
born in the fifth century B.C.E. in present-day Nepal. As he was about to die,
the Buddha was questioned by some of his students, who were concerned that after
the master's death people might begin propounding doctrines that had not been
spoken by the Buddha himself and that these people might tell others that their
doctrines were the actual words of the Buddha. In reply, the Buddha told them,
"Whatever is well-spoken is the word of the Buddha."3 In other words,
if a particular teaching results in greater peace, compassion, and happiness,
and if it leads to a lessening of negative emotions, then it can safely be adopted
and practiced as dharma, no matter who originally propounded it.
This flexibility makes it difficult to write about Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism
is a multilayered tapestry comprised of many different strands, and anyone hoping
to write an introduction to this system is faced with the daunting task of sorting
through centuries of history, huge amounts of textual material, and multiple lineages
of teaching and practice. The problem is compounded by the scope of Tibetan Buddhism,
which is found throughout the Tibetan cultural area. This area includes the core
religions of central Tibet; large parts of western Tibet that have traditionally
been autonomous; Amdo and Kham in the eastern regions which, although culturally
Tibetan, speak distinctive dialects and have maintained their independence from
the central regions; the open plains of the Changtang, home of the Tibetan nomads;
much of present-day Mongolia; large areas of central Asia; smaller areas in present-day
Russia and parts of several republics of the former Soviet Union; much of the
Himalayan region of northern India, including Ladakh, Zanskar, and Sikkim; and
the neighboring countries of Nepal and Bhutan.
In addition, due to the diaspora of the Tibetan people brought about by the invasion
and occupation of Tibet by China, today Tibetan religion and culture are being
spread all over the world, and increasing numbers of people in the West consider
themselves to be adherents of Tibetan Buddhism. Millions more have heard teachings
or read books and articles by Tibetan teachers, with the result that Tibetan culture
is attracting unprecedented attention outside of its homeland at the same time
that it is being systematically eradicated in the land of its origin.
In the chapters that follow, some of the distinctive features of Tibetan Buddhism
will be discussed. Some specialists will no doubt question my choice of topics,
and it would be entirely possible to write an introductory study of Tibetan Buddhism
that would be far different from this one. The choices of which topics to discuss
and how much space to give them reflect my own orientation, which is primarily
concerned with philosophy, and meditative practice. Many important elements of
Tibetan culture, ethnographic studies, and historical issues have only been mentioned
briefly, or even omitted completely. However, it is hoped that this book will
serve its primary purpose, which is to draw students into the subject of Tibetan
Buddhism and open up further avenues of exploration in this rich and multifaceted
1. Throughout this book technical terms are mostlv consigned to the indexes at
the end. Important ones are placed in parentheses, with the Tibetan term first,
followed by a Sanskrit equivalent where appropriate.
2. See, for example, John Avedon, An Interview with the Dalai Lama (New York:
Littlebird Publications, 1980, p. 14.
3. See Anguttara-nikaya IV.163; and George Bond, The Word of the Buddha (Columbo:
M.D. Gunasena, 1982), p. 30ff.