Religion & Culture

Developments of Tibetan Religion and Culture

Updated: 2011-11-16 16:38

Developments of Tibetan Religion and Culture

Zhuo Xinping

Researcher and Director of the Research institute of World Religions of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

As an ethnical region of China, Tibet had established unique close relationships with the central government as early as in the Tang Dynasty (618--907). In 634, the 8th year of the Zhenguan Reign (627--649) of the Tang Dynasty, 18-year-old Srong-btsan-sgam-po (617-650 or 617-698) sent envoys to present tributes to Emperor Taizong (r. 626-649) of the Tang Dynasty, and Emperor Taizong in turn sent messengers to express thanks, the official relationships between the Tang Dynasty and Tibet thus began. In 641, the 15th year of the Zhenguan Reign, Princess Wencheng of the Tang Dynasty travelled from Chang'an to Tibet to marry Srong-btsan-sgam-po; this marital relation between the Tang Dynasty and Tibet deepened their political and cultural intercourses, and thus established religious communication between the two sides. That marked the beginning of the introduction of Buddhism from the inland into Tibet. In 649, the first year of Yonghui Reign (649-655), Emperor Gaozong (r. 649-683) conferred the titles "phu-mav-tu-we" and "zhi-has-cun-wang" on Srong-btsan-sgam-po after he was enthroned. Since the 13th century, Tibet had been completely included into the dominion of the Yuan Dynasty (1271--1368), a dynasty of China. Afterwards, the central government of the Ming Dynasty (1368--1644) had also administered the local affairs of Tibet, the emperors of the Ming Dynasty had conferred official posts, ranks and titles both on local secular leaders and Buddhist dignitaries, granting them decrees which authorized them with local affairs. In particular, Emperor Yongle (r. 1402--1424) of the Ming Dynasty once planned in 1413 to receive Tsong-kha-pa (1357-1419), the initiator of the Gelug Sect of Tibetan Buddhism, for his visit to the inland, and grant him golden-character decree and titles. Tsong-kha-pa failed to make the journey himself, but still, he sent his disciple Jamchen Choje Shvakya-ye-shes to go to the inland and present himself before the emperor of the Ming Dynasty. After its founding, the government of the Qing Dynasty (1636--1911) established relations with the Fifth Dalai Lama in 1643, the emperors of the Qing Dynasty awarded golden decrees and golden seals to Dalai Lamas and other supreme rulers of Tibet, and invited the Fifth Dalai Lama to head more than three thousand monks and officials of Tibet to pay a visit to the capital. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, the reincarnation of living Buddha in Tibet were gradually included into the administration of the central governments and the system of national institution and codes. In 1792, the government of the Qing Dynasty proclaimed a decree to perform a system of "lot-drawing from the golden urn" for the grand living Buddhas above the level of ho-thog-thu, which means the "saints"), hence a set of religious rites of Tibetan Buddhism was formed, and they have come down up to now as a historical convention. In 1995, after the "lot-drawing from the golden urn" and the approval of the State Council, people conducted the search and recognition of the reincarnated child of the 10th Panchen Lama and the conference and enthronement of the 11th Panchen. From 1792 to the present, more than 70 reincarnated children in the reincarnation system of important living Buddhas of Tibetan Buddhism have been recognized through "lot-drawing from the golden urn" and approved by the central government.

After the central government of the Yuan Dynasty of China directly took over the administration of Tibetan areas, the Tibetan people, mainly the Tibetan minority, including the Moinba minority, Lhoba minority and the Deng minority, have established close relationships with the people of other ethnical groups of the motherland. Since the Opium War in 1840, however, the Western powers' invasion into all places of China also involved Tibet. In 1841, Britain assented in silence to the Cenba (the Dogra royal family, Sikh) from Punjab, India, in their invasion to the Ngari area of Tibet. In 1888 and 1903, Britain even directly launched two aggressive wars against Tibet, and the Tibetan people were roused to resist. Due to the invasion of foreign powers and the flaccidity and inability of the government of the Qing Dynasty, as well as the theocratic serf system of Tibet, the Tibetan society developed very slowly, and the common people's human rights were not guaranteed at all. In 1951, Tibet was peacefully liberated, and great changes have taken place in the social development of Tibet ever since. Such historic changes can be clearly seen through the development of population in Tibet. During the Yuan Dynasty in the 13th century, the population of Tibet was about one million, by 1951, it was 1.14 million, and the population growth of its population during these hundreds of years was merely 140,000 or so. The population of Tibet remarkably grew after the liberation; by 1964, it has increased up to 1.20 million. After China's reform and opening to the outside world, Tibet entered a period of rapid development. By 2000, its population reached 2.616 million, in particular, the population of Tibetan minority was 2.427 million; in 2010, the population in Tibet increased to 3 million, in particular, the population of the Tibetan minority increased up to 2.716 million, accounting for 90.48% of the total population of Tibet. The average growth rate of the whole population of China from 2000 to 2010 was 0.5%, and that of Tibet in this decade was 1.39%, far higher than the average population growth rate of the whole country. In addition, the life expectancy of Tibetan people has also greatly expanded. In 1951, the life expectancy of Tibetan people was 35.5 years old, but by 2006, it had reached 67.

The major religion in Tibet is mainly Tibetan Buddhism, meanwhile, there are also a few other minor religions. Buddhism was introduced into Tibet in the 7th century after Srong-btsan-sgam-po married Princess Tritsun from Nepal and Princess Wencheng of the Tang Dynasty. These two princesses had Buddhist monasteries built up in Lhasa, namely the Jokhang Monastery and the Ramoche Temple, so as to specially enshrine the Buddha images transported from the inland and Nepal to Tibet. Therefore, "Lhasa" just means "the land of the Buddha". The Samye Monastery, which was built up in the middle 8th century after Buddhism was introduced into Tibet, was the first formal monastery of Tibetan Buddhism; its main palace is a three-storey building, which is respectively in the architectural styles of the Tibetan, ancient India and the central plains of China; this indicates that Tibetan Buddhism is a typical representative of integration of multiple cultures. Before Buddhism was introduced into Tibet, the primitive belief in Tibet was "Bon-po", the believers of Tibetan Buddhism called "Bon-po" "black cult", so as to indicate their own belief was "white", that is, "pure". However, the development of Tibetan Buddhism later on also combined the local Bon-po. The Tibetan Buddhism in its early stage was "Rnin-ma-pa", which means the "ancient sect"; before the 9th century it was the major sect of Tibetan Buddhism, and was called "Red Sect" because its monks and nuns wore red hats. In 1073, a Buddhist sect half in the form of innovation set up the Sakya Monastery, where Sa-akya-pa arose. "Sa-akya" means "grey soil", alluding to a monastery built up on a grey land, but because its monastery walls were painted with the three strips in red, white and black, which respectively stands for Manjusri, Guanyin and Vajrapani, it was called "Colorful Sect" in the history. In the 11th century, another Buddhist sect half in innovative form arose, and has been called "Bhah-brgyd-pa"; because its believers were in white robes, it is known as "White Sect". The most influential innovative sect of Tibetan Buddhism, however, is the "Dge-Lugs-pa" established by Tsongkhapa in the early 15th century, and it was a development of Bhav-gdams-pa arising in the middle of the 11th century. The name of "Dge-Lugs-pa" means "being good at disciplining", so it is also known as a "new Dge-gdams-pa"; because its monks wore yellow hats, it is habitually called "Yellow Sect". Later on, this sect developed into the most influential one of Tibetan Buddhism. The Dge-Lugs-pa evolved into two important systems of reincarnated living Buddha: one is "Dalai" (Ta-lavi, a Mongolian term, which means "vast seas"), which began in 1578, the successor of this lineage today is the 14th Dalai Lama; and the other is "Pan-chen" (a Tibetan term, which means "a great scholar"), which started in 1645, and its successor today is the 11th Panchen Erdeni (Master Panchen). These sects have come down to this day; they co-exist harmoniously, forming the basic situation of religions in Tibet. Tibetan Buddhism is the major religion of the Tibetan people; at present, there are more than 1,700 Buddhist monasteries and other Buddhist activity sites and about 46,000 monastic monks and nuns in Tibet Autonomous Region, among which the most famous monasteries include the three important temples in Lhasa, namely the Gaden Monastery, the Drepung Monastery and the Sera Monastery, the Jokhang Monastery, the Tashilhunpo Monastery, the Samye Monastery and so on; the pilgrims to Lhasa amount as many as more than one million every year. In today's Tibet, Buddhist activities can be seen everywhere, and believers set up Buddhist chapels or niches to shrine Buddha images at home. The Chinese government respects the freedom of religious beliefs of the Tibetan minority. After the reform and opening to the outside world in 1978, it has allocated more than 200 million yuan of special funds to maintain and restore famous Buddhist monasteries and palaces, and allocated special funds to support people of the Tibetan Buddhist circle and scholars to collate and publish the "Bkab-stan-gyur" (Tripitaka) in Tibetan, and meanwhile help establish the China Advanced Institute of Tibetan Buddhism and the Institute of  Tibetan Buddhism, cultivating a new generation of talents in Buddhism.

Tibetan Buddhism has played an important role in the economic and cultural development of Tibet. The monasteries of Tibetan Buddhism are the symbol both of "market trade" and "plateau towns". Cities and towns centered around monasteries have become prosperous commercial and trade centers, for example, today's Jokhang in Lhasa received more than 1.5 million person-time pilgrims and tourists every year, and the Pargor Street formed around the Jokhang Monastery is the largest and the most prosperous market trade center in Tibetan areas at present. Most Tibetan people lived a half-farming and half-pasturing life in the history, especially, herdsmen moved pursuing water and grasses, and had no fixed residences, therefore, the construction of monasteries of Tibetan Buddhism in Tibet had boosted the development of construction industry and architectural arts in Tibet, and served as the hearts and source sites of many cities and towns of Tibet, and they are still very influential even today. For example, the Drepung Monastery, the Jokhang Monastery, the Ramoche Temple, the Gaden Monastery and the Sera Monastery in Lhasa, the Tashilhunpo Monastery and the Sakya Monastery in Xigaze and so forth, all can enable people to fully experience the religious culture and ancient towns of Tibet. In addition, the sculpture images and thang-ga (scrolls of Buddha images) of Tibetan Buddhism are also valuable heritage that the religions in Tibet have left to the world culture. At present, these religious arts have deeply penetrated into the cultural life of the Tibetan minority, and also have become artistic treasures and spiritual enjoyment that Tibetan Buddhism has contributed to the people in the world.

Tibetan Buddhism is the major religion in Tibet; in addition, there are also Islam and Catholics in Tibet. Islam was introduced into Tibet about in the 11th century, and in 1716, the first mosque was built up in Lhasa. At present, there are more than 4,000 Muslims in Tibet, most of who live in Lhasa; their life habits have become very close to those of people of Tibetan minority, and mostly speak Tibetan. Catholics was introduced successively into Ngari and other places in Tibet in the 17th century, but what really keeps its feet is the Catholic Church introduced into Yanjing, Qamdo, Tibet in the 19th century, for there are still chapels of its kind existing in this area, and there are about 560 Catholics of Tibetan minority. Both Muslims and Catholics have enjoyed full freedom of religious beliefs in Tibet, too; they mix harmoniously with the believers of Tibetan Buddhism, and develop together.

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