Saturday, July 9, 2011

Tibetan Buddhism-Bon, Mahayana Buddhism and Tantrism Introduced

To understand how Tibetan Buddhism differs from other Buddhist schools we need to consider its development from two different perspectives, the first ideological and the second historical. Although these are here considered separately, they of course developed with reference to each other.
Ideological Development 
Ideologically Tibetan Buddhism is a derivation of Mahayana Buddhism heavily influenced by Tantrism. To unravel this jargon-cloaked statement, we should take a look at the essential constituents and development of Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism and Tantrism.
The term Buddha, meaning "enlightened one", refers to the spiritual awakening of an Indian prince, named Siddhartha Gautama, who lived in the 6th century BCE. Renouncing the privileges of his royal life, he sought to investigate spiritual truth. On so doing, he passed into the state of enlightenment, known as nirvana , which literally means "without desire". Soon he inspired many disciples and came to be known as the "Sage of the Sakya tribe" or Sakyamuni. During his first sermon he established the four core principles of his teaching or dharma:
1) All beings inevitably endure suffering (duhka)
2) The cause of suffering is desire (samudaya)
3) The cause of desire can be contained (nirodha)
4) To contain the cause of desire one must follow the Buddha's path (marga)

Sakyamuni taught that enlightenment was predicated on nonattachment to the material world. He found that language could not be used to convey the sense of enlightenment, which was described as consisting of neither fullness nor emptiness, being nor nonbeing, substance nor nonsubstance. However, the process of seeking enlightenment could be identified and defined, as suggested by his ascetic life as well as by his fourth law, written above. The seeker needs a lifestyle and environment conducive to purity of thought, word and action. This is the motivation for Buddhist monasticism.
Mahayana Buddhism 
Buddha's teachings motivated many followers in India to follow his example. In his lifetime and after, a minority attained enlightenment. These individuals were named Arhats , or "worthy ones'. However, little moved by the suffering of others, these Buddhist practitioners felt no responsibility to pass on their learning other than by affirming that the Buddha's path provided the way to nirvana. Though this approach maintained the purity of Buddha's original teachings, other thinkers considered it lacking in compassion.
As a result a major schism arose in the 6th century between Mahayana Buddhism and the more conservative Theravada Buddhism on the subject of compassion. The Mahayana school emphasised that spiritual life should not merely aim for ultimate wisdom, but consist of wisdom tempered by compassion. In order to reinforce this tenet of compassion, the Mahayana Buddhists developed the concept of Bodhisattvas , who were placed above Arhats in their hierarchy. Bodhisattvas are individuals, who stand on the verge of enlightenment but delay their attainment of nirvana out of compassion for other beings, in order that they may assist them to enlightenment.
Tantrism & Re-incarnation 
Tantrism was a later innovation. The first Tantric texts arrived in Tibet in the eleventh century and fuelled the second diffusion of Buddhism there.
According to orthodox Mahayana Buddhism, any individual has the potential to become a Bodhisattva , but this can only be achieved through diligent cultivation over many lifetimes. By contrast the Tantric or Vajrayana school, ("Vehicle of the Diamantine Thunderbolt"), innovated a "rapid path" to nirvana , by which it could be attained within one's lifetime. This was made possible with the application of a variety of powerful techniques, passed down under the auspices of a guru. Known as tantra , these techniques include the making and contemplation of mandala diagrams, fasting and other penance, the use of prayers and mantras in meditation and the performance of rituals. Execution of this range of intense yogic and meditative disciplines, combined with an understanding of its system of speculative thought, is thought to give access to nirvana .
Earlier in this article, Tibetan Buddhism was introduced as a derivation of Mahayana Buddhism, influenced by Tantrism. The above explanation should have clarified this statement. It should also have shed light on the principle reason behind the monastic movement in Tibet and alluded to the intensity of worship and teacher/student relationships inside those monasteries.
Historical Development 
In terms of our modern experience of Tibetan Buddhism, the history of its introduction to Tibet is as important as its ideological underpinnings. Buddhism was introduced twice to Tibet. Both in the 7th and 11th centuries, it met with formidable resistance from the indigenous Tibetan religion. Over time each religion, Pre-Bön and Tibetan Buddhist, for its own reasons synthesised and incorporated the main elements of the other.
Pre-Bön Religion 
Although some people call this pre-7th century religion the Bön Religion, we identify it as the Pre-Bön Religion to differentiate it from its later innovations.
Pre-Bön Religion itself was a combination of two movements. On the one hand, at the grass roots level, it was a popular belief-system dating to pre-historic times. Combining ancient prophecies, rites and shamanistic interpretations of the human spirit and its position in the universe, it offered answers for important issues of pre-historic existence. For example, a shaman might mediate with the spirit world - often using animal sacrifice to do so - to cure an invalid, to prey for rain, or to furnish strategic advice for the village chief.
It was animistic, upholding that spirits are to be found within natural phenomena like trees, mountains, springs and lakes, all of which demanded to be propitiated.
With the rise of the first Tibetan Kings at the beginning of the first millennium, this widespread Pre-Bön Religion was co-opted to legitimise kingly rule. A religious institution, comprised of deities, mythologies, and rituals arose around the court. Priests and priestesses, believed to have superhuman skills, were incorporated within a political framework that involved ceremonies and royal burials.
By the time that King Songtsen Gampo tried to introduce Buddhism in the 7th century, the Pre-Bön Religion was popular throughout Tibet and held significant political sway at court.
Tibetan Buddhism and The Rise of the Bön Religion 
The introduction of Buddhism in the 7th and 11th centuries heralded changes for both Pre-Bön Religion and Tibetan Buddhism. After the 11th century the Pre-Bön Religion adopted many aspects of Tibetan Buddhist doctrine, such as Tantric meditation techniques and monasticism to become the Bön Religion. To many spectators this now appears to have developed into its own school of Buddhism. Contemporaneously though, Buddhism in Tibet adopted many aspects of the Pre-Bön, indigenous religion in order to achieve greater popularity.
An important example of this process is seen in the incorporation of local deities within the Tibetan Buddhist cosmology. This was done by their "conversion" at the hands of the 8th century saint Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava). The local Pre-Bön gods thereby became protectors rather than combatants of Tibetan Buddhism. Known as Dharma Palas or "Defenders of the Dharma", these are the fierce-looking deities, often depicted with skull headdresses, surrounded by fire. One such, Yamantaka, is the "Destroyer of Death".
Another innovation borrowed from Pre-Bön Religion was in aggrandising the abilities of the guru or lama. The supernatural powers, previously ascribed to the shamans of the Pre-Bön tradcition, were now credited to the Tibetan Buddhist lamas. Some lamas, it is claimed, can leap from peak to peak across mountain ranges. Alternatively, rainmaking ceremonies, the traditional preserve of shamans, were now incorporated within Buddhist monastic ceremonies. Similarly, the gift of prophecy, with which the shaman was privileged, now is ascribed to some lamas. Indeed, the Dalai Lama's government used prophecy as a guide for determining national policy in the mid-twentieth century.
The form and practice of Tibetan Buddhist worship were equally affected. For example, the animistic aspect of the Pre-Bön religion has been blended into local Buddhist practice. Nowadays, you will see Buddhist prayer flags and cairns topping many mountains. As according to the Pre-Bön Religion, Tibetan Buddhists will still say a prayer before crossing a mountain pass. Similarly, the Tibetan Buddhist practice of making a blessing, dipping one's finger into water or milk and flicking the liquid skyward, derives from the Pre-Bön era.
Although in many cases Tibetan Buddhism incorporated features of Pre-Bön Religion for its own purposes, in others cases it seems that Buddhist thought was co-opted by the instinctive beliefs of the Tibetan nation. On a high, ideological level this is evidenced by Tantric sects oftentimes having recourse to mystical visualisations seemingly derived from the Pre-Bön Religion.
Buddhism, a comparatively late import to Tibet, was ideologically attractive to the intellectual elite with the innovation of Tantric techniques by which individuals could attain enlightenment within their lifetime. This esoteric doctrine, in large part confined to monastic activities, was made palatable to the general populace in combination with the appropriation of many trappings of the indigenous Pre-Buddhist Tibetan belief system. As a result Tibetan Buddhism amalgamates both elitist and populist traditions to satisfy the different requirements of its two audiences as well as to respond to both religious and mythological dimensions of the Tibetan psyche.

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