Jack Patterson was a prominent member of the Theosophical Society in New Zealand h
10 stories of people having supernatural experiences after dying and then coming back to life.
The name “Tibet” probably comes from the Mongolian “Tibot” meaning “central region” which suggests that Mongolian Buddhists in the 16th century considered Tibet the center of Buddhism. Prior to that, the country was known as Khabachen (“Land of Snows”). The Tibetan form of Buddhism is sometimes referred to as “lamaism,” but that is not, strictly speaking, correct, since the word lama (Tibetan bla-ma) means “religious teacher” and is the Tibetan equivalent of the Sanskrit guru. In other words, all Tibetan religious teachers are lamas, but not all Tibetan Buddhist monks are religious teachers, although they are often referred to as lamas.
History. Buddhist texts were brought to Tibet from India some time in the 5th century, but Buddhism did not become a significant religion there until the reign of King Songsten (also written “Srongtsan”) Gampo in the mid-7th century. He had six wives, but it was his two Buddhist wives, Bhrikuti from Nepal and Wong Shen Konjo from China, who converted him to Buddhism. Thereafter, he moved his capital from Yarlung to Lhasa, commissioned the building of the Jokhang (lit. “Lord’s House”) Temple there, had 108 Buddhist shrines and monuments built around his new city, had a fort constructed on Marpori (“Red Hill”), which later became the site of the Potala, decreed Buddhism to be the state religion, and sent delegations to India to study Buddhism and bring back scriptures. His minister, Thonmi Sambhota, was the only member of that delegation to survive, perhaps because he went to the cooler climate of Kashmir. Thonmi devised a script, based on the Kashmiri sharada alphabet (a version of Sanskrit devanagari), altered to fit the thirty sounds of the (then unwritten) Tibetan language, and gathered students and scholars around him to produce dictionaries and translations of Buddhist texts, mainly Mahayana. The King then started schools to teach literacy and began a program of land reform. He also based his legal and civil codes on Buddhist precepts.
Initially, there was considerable opposition to this new religion by the adherents of the indigenous shamanistic Bön religion. When Lang Dar-ma, a follower of Bön, seized the throne around 838, he had Buddhist temples destroyed and forbade the teaching of Buddhism. Buddhism then went into a decline although it was never extinguished. When Lang Dar-ma was assassinated in 907, Tibet began to disintegrate into separate kingdoms until 1253 when a lama named Chogyal-Phag-Pa reunited the country and became the first of its priest-rulers. After that, the Buddhists elevated several of their monks to a position of leadership, termed in Tibetan “Gyalwa Rimpoche” (“Great Precious One”), the first being Gyalwa Gendun Druppa (1391-1474). He is now identified as the first Dalai Lama, although the latter term (from Mongolian Talé, “Great Teacher” or “Ocean of Wisdom”), was not used until 1578 when the Mongol ruler Altan Khan applied it to Sonam (or Srontsan) Gyatso (1543-1588), now identified as the 3rd Dalai Lama, who converted the Mongols to Buddhism. Sonam Gyatso’s successor, Me Agtson (known as the 4th Dalai Lama, Yönten Gyatso; 1589-1617), also married a Chinese Buddhist princess and when he died, his son, Trisong Detsan (known as the 5th Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobzang Gyatso; 1617-1682), a devout Buddhist, sent a scholar named Salnang to be governor of a province bordering Nepal. Salnang traveled to India to visit the great Buddhist university at Nalanda and there met the philosopher Santarakita whom he invited to visit Lhasa. Santaraksita’s teachings emphasized morality, probably a combination of the Theravada Noble Eightfold Path and the six (or ten) steps of the Mahayana “Perfection of Wisdom” (Prajñaparamita).
Before then, in 747, an Indian monk named Padmasambhava (lit. “Lotus-born”) had visited Lhasa and had established a Buddhist monastery there. Known in Tibet as Guru Rimpoche (“Precious Teacher”), he emphasized the tantric teachings and is said to have demonstrated paranormal powers en route to Lhasa, which greatly helped in opening the way for a general acceptance of Buddhism by ordinary Tibetans. He established the Nyingmapa (Tibetan rNying-ma, lit. “Old School”) sect. But because Tibetan Buddhism had been influenced by both Chinese and Indian forms of the religion, and because they differed somewhat in their theologies, a debate was held in Lhasa in 792 to determine which of the two versions was correct. India was represented by the Mahayana monk Kamalasia and China by a monk named Hoshang Mahayana. The latter lost the debate and thereafter Chinese Buddhism was banned in Tibet, the Madhyamika form of Mahayana Buddhism became “the only lawful form of Buddhism in Tibet” according to Thubten Jigme Norbu and Colin M. Turnbull (Tibet, p. 178) — at least in the Gelugpa sect — and monks traveled to India to learn Sanskrit and Buddhist philosophy, while a number of Indian Buddhists were invited to Tibet.
Two centuries later, another Indian Mahayana monk, Dipankara Srijnana (982-1054), known in Tibet as Atisha (“Master,” from Sk. Atiha, “govern,” “stand at the head”), came and unified the priesthood. He taught a purified version of the tantras “removing from them any but symbolic connection with physical action” (Norbu and Turnbull, op. cit., p. 181). He also attempted to eliminate influences of Bön ritual which had begun to creep into Tibetan Buddhism. Atisha, born in Bengal to a wealthy family, had traveled widely, including to Indonesia to study with Serlingpa, before going to Tibet in 1042 at the age of 60, so he was well acquainted with both Therav€da and Mahayana forms of Buddhism. He introduced lojong (“mind-training”) in his Seven Points (dondunma), which he had learned in twelve years of study with Serlingpa, a method which is still learned by all sects of Tibetan Buddhism to this day.
It was also during this time that Tibetan monks began to write their own commentaries on Buddhist scriptures. This enormous corpus of literature is contained in two collections: the Kanjur(“Translated Word,” i.e., sacred scriptures) consisting of 108 volumes and Tanjur (“Translated Treatises”) which consists of 225 volumes. In fact, these Tibetan translations of Sanskrit texts are extremely valuable since many of the originals were destroyed during the Arab invasions of India starting in the 11th century and have had to be reconstructed into Sanskrit from the Tibetan translations, which, at the time they were done, were authenticated as accurate by both Tibetan and Indian scholars (cf. Lama Sherab Gyaltsen Amipa, The Opening of the Lotus: developing clarity and kindness, p. 12. Lama Amipa also says that “the entire body of the Buddha’s Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana discourses and the treatises of later Indian Buddhist panditas were translated into Tibetan.”).
Atisha founded the Kadampa sect, named after three Kadampa brothers to whom his major disciple, Lama Drom Tonpa, taught the doctrine. His teaching was based on Nagarjuna’s “emptiness doctrine” (Sk. sunyavada) and other scriptures, such as the Jataka Tales, which stress the bodhisattva ideal. His sect, reformed by Tsong-ka-pa (1357-1419) became the Gelugpa (“Way of Virtue”) sect also known as the “Yellow Hat” sect from their distinctive dress — to set them apart from the “Red Hat” Dugpa, the “Black Hat” Karmapa (or Nyingmapa), and the “White Hat” Sakyapa sects. Before he died in Tibet, Atisha and his followers founded monasteries at Ganden, Drepung, Sera, and Tashilhunpo, the latter later being the residence of the Panchen (or Tashi) Lama, an office started by the Manchus in 1728 as a rival to the Dalai Lama, although his status was not recognized in Lhasa until recent times. (The term panchen is an abbreviation of pandita chen-po, “great scholar.”)
Tsong-ka-pa imposed strict celibacy on his sect (interpreting sexual union, sometimes graphically depicted in iconography, as a symbol of the union of knowledge and activity), forbade the use of liquor and narcotics, imposed vegetarianism (later abandoned for lack of adequate vegetarian food in Tibet), and introduced a series of graded vows (totaling 253) which were imposed sequentially on aspirants as they passed from novice to monk to advanced monk. The aim of this discipline was to become a bodhisattva and thereby help suffering humanity. To accomplish this, it was assumed that advanced monks would reincarnate quickly. The Gelugpa sect formalized the process of identifying such a reincarnation, called Tulku (also written Trülku; Tibetan sprul-sku or “manifestation body”). Their polite title is Rinpoche (or Rimpoche, “precious one”). The elaborate method for this is described by Thubten Jigme Norbu and Colin M. Turnbull in chapter 11 of their book Tibet. An interesting verification is also to be found in The Boy Lama by Vicki Mackenzie, who was initially a skeptic.
Prior to that, the Indian monk Marpa (1012-1097) and his famous disciple Milarepa (1038-1143) had traveled to Tibet and founded the Kargyupa sect. Marpa had studied at Nalanda under the 10th century Bengali tantric master Naropa, and Milarepa initially used the powers he had acquired by that system to practice black magic. However, he later repented and spent the rest of his life meditating in mountain caves and teaching disciples. His classic, translated by Garma C. C. Chang as Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, is still an inspiration to both Tibetan and Western Buddhists today.
In 1642, the Mongol prince, Gusri Khan, invaded Tibet and set up the 5th Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobzang Gyatso (d. 1682), as religious head of the country in place of the Karmapa Lamas. When Gusri Khan died in 1655, his successors showed no interest in ruling Tibet, so the 5th Dalai Lama assumed for the first time the positions of both temporal and spiritual ruler such that thereafter Buddhist doctrines and state affairs were, as Hugh M. Richardson puts it, “almost interchangeable terms and all political matters were looked on as subordinate to the needs and interests of religion” (Tibet and Its History, p. 11). The 5th Dalai Lama also began the building of the Potala, the center of both his political administration and religious establishment, on the site where King Songsten had built his fort. The Manchus invaded China in 1618, assumed the title of Emperor of China in 1636, and began the Ch’ing Dynasty in 1644. They attempted to have the Dalai Lama chosen by lot, but this was ignored by the Tibetans. When the Ch’ing Dynasty collapsed in 1912, Tibet expelled the Chinese and asserted its independence, closing its borders to foreign influence, partly as a result of Christian missionary attacks on Tibetan Buddhism and partly as a result of British imperialism in India extending its rule to Tibet’s southern borders.
China, however, whether Nationalist (Kuomintang), or Communist, never renounced its claim to suzerainty over Tibet and in October 1950 the Communists invaded Tibet and proclaimed it a “national autonomous region,” although they retained complete control. A period of uneasiness followed which led to a revolt in 1958-59. The Chinese brutally suppressed the revolt and the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, then fled to India, disguised as a soldier, in March 1959 along with thousands of other monks. He established a Tibetan Buddhist colony in Daramsala in the extreme northwest of India with the blessings of the Indian government. The Chinese initially set up the Panchen Lama as both temporal and spiritual leader of Tibet, but deposed him in 1964 when he made statements supportive of the Dalai Lama; they identified the country as the Tibetan Autonomous Region in 1965, although it clearly was not autonomous in any meaningful sense. A United Nations Commission investigating the Tibetans’ stories concluded that the Chinese were guilty of genocide with “the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical or religious group as such” (quoted in My Land and My People, p. 200). Since then, Tibetans have founded monasteries in many Western countries and Tibetans are on the faculty of universities in France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States, perhaps other countries as well. For further details of the Mongol, Manchu, Chinese, British, and American involvement in Tibet from 630 to the present, see Hugh M. Richardson, Tibet and Its History; an overview of Tibetan history is also in Norbu and Turnbull, Tibet.
As the present, the 14th, Dalai Lama says, “Certainly Tibet will never be the same again; but we do not want it to be. It can never be isolated from the world, and it cannot return to its ancient semi-feudal system” (My Land and My People, p. 209). He proposes a parliamentary system for a liberated Tibet with elections based on universal suffrage. But he also admonishes, “We should not seek revenge on those who have committed crimes against us, or reply to their crimes with other crimes. We should reflect that by the law of Karma, they are in danger of lowly and miserable lives to come, and that our duty to them, as to every being, is to help them to rise toward Nirvana, rather than to sink to lower levels of rebirth” (idem, p. 210).
Sects. As indicated above, before the advent of Buddhism, Tibet’s religion was Bön. After an initial opposition to Buddhism, perhaps at least partly because Buddhists objected to the Bön practice of animal sacrifice, Bön adopted many of the Buddhist ideas and rites so that today most of them consider themselves closer to the Nyingmapa sect of Buddhism than to any of the other Buddhist sects. The Bönpas (i.e., “men of the Bön religion”) are sometimes confused with Dugpas and vice versa, but the two are separate sects even though some Bönpas are also Dugpas. The Dugpas, descendants of the tantric philosophy of Milarepa, have a rather bad reputation in theosophical literature. For example, in one of the Mahatma K. H.’s letters to Sinnett, he writes, “In our mountains here, the Dugpas lay at dangerous points, in paths frequented by our Chelas, bits of old rag, and other articles best calculated to attract the attention of the unwary, which have been impregnated with their evil magnetism. If one be stepped upon a tremendous psychic shock may be communicated to the wayfarer, so that he may lose his footing and fall down the precipice before he can recover himself. Friend, beware of Pride and Egoism, two of the worst snares for the feet of him who aspires to climb the high paths of Knowledge and Spirituality. You have opened a joint of your armour for the Dugpas — do not complain if they have found it out and wounded you there” (ML, pp. 436-7). But the interesting thing about this passage (and several others in The Mahatma Letters,) is that it seems to treat the Dugpas as an evil sect of Tibetan Buddhism. This is not the way they are considered in writings by members of other sects of Tibetan Buddhism, so the reader should be forewarned of this.
The Nyingma sect of Tibetan Buddhism traces its beginning to Padmasambhava. It and the Kargyüpas and Kadampas were well established when the Gelugpa sect was founded by Tsong-ka-pa. The Kargyüpas, founded in the 11th century, subdivided into the Karmapa, Dikungpa, and Dugpa sects, the latter having been started in Upper Tibet in the 12th century. Another sect that emerged in the 11th century is the Sakya (Tibetan “white earth”), whose name is derived from the color of the ground where it began. The monks in this sect are not celibate and the post of abbot generally passed from father to son or uncle to nephew. These various sects differ from the majority Gelugpas mainly in the difference in their methods of practicing Buddhism rather than in differences of doctrine. All have strong doctrinal affinities with Mahayana.
Religion. Until the Communist Chinese invasion, religion pervaded every aspect of Tibetan life. Not only were there temples, monasteries, and shrines or chörten (Tibetan mChod-rten; Pali stupa) throughout the country, but most people — traders as well as pilgrims — carried little silver-encrusted prayer wheels with them. Monastery walls were surrounded with larger prayer wheels which devotees would spin as they circumambulated the buildings. Practically every house had a prayer flag (tarjog) on its rooftop. In villages, women would go up on the flat roof of their house early in the morning and light a fire of cedar or juniper wood upon which they would make offerings of tsampa (barley flour), dried fruits, and butter while chanting prayers. Every dwelling — even the tents of nomads — had an altar (chösham) with an image of Buddha on it before which a butter lamp burned. Even during work, common people would chant prayers instead of engaging in small talk, the latter ordinarily being done over the evening meal. Many people used to engage in a practice called “measuring their length” in which they would travel often considerable distances to a temple or monastery, by prostrating the entire distance, each prostration starting where the head or outstretched hands touched the ground in the previous prostration. Monks not only participated — and in exile still participate — in religious services, but also served as government officials and teachers, some traveling to villages, towns, or individual homes as well as to nomad tribes to teach the children, read scriptures, and offer prayers. Monasteries also served as centers of education to which everyone, no matter how poor, could go for instruction. As Thurbten Norbu, the older brother of the 14th Dalai Lama and himself once a monk and abbot of Kumbum monastery, puts it, “For us religion is nothing strange or fanciful: it gives us very real pleasure, as well as helping us to live in peace with each other” (Tibet, p. 36).
Although both Theravada (called in Tibet Hinayana) and Mahayana forms of Buddhism — as well as Vajrayana, sometimes referred to as Tantrayana — came into Tibet, it would seem that Mahayana came first and has dominated Tibetan Buddhist theology. For instance, the Mahayana Bodhisattva Avalokitevara (known in Tibet as Chenrezi or Chenresig) is considered to be the protective deity of Tibet and the Dalai Lama is considered to incarnate his spirit. He is said to have a fierce form, Gonpo, pictured as a black giant carrying a skull in one hand, wearing a necklace of skulls, and trampling on a corpse; he symbolizes the destruction of evil. Amitabha (known in Tibet as Öpame) is considered to incarnate his spirit in the Panchen (or Tashi) Lama. These, and other, bodhisattvas, are referred to in Tibetan as Changchub Sempa or “Enlightened Ones.” All are said to emanate from a primordial Buddha, called Adi Buddha, who projects them into the material sphere. Nagarjuna’s philosophy of emptiness (Sk. sunyavada) and the “Middle Way” (Madhyamika) is the basic philosophy of the Gelugpa sect, as is the stress on trying to attain enlightenment (Tibetan mying di) in order to become a bodhisattva.
But ethical training based on “Southern Buddhism” (Tibetan Theg Man) and the “perfection of wisdom” (prajñaparamita) must precede the deeper philosophical study of “Northern Buddhism” (Tibetan Theg Chen), especially the direct realization of emptiness through reading the relevant scriptures, reasoning, and meditation. And both must precede training in the tantras. Theosophical literature is generally very negative about tantrism (sometimes written “tantracism”), but as Norbu says, “Far from being magical or even mystical, tantracism is essentially pragmatic, and it seeks a pragmatic explanation for all phenomena. As for the assertions that it is a perverted doctrine that is contrived to permit unlicensed indulgence in sexual and other forms of debauchery, this can only be said by those who have no knowledge of trantricism. There are many of us in Tibet who disapprove of tantra, and my own Gelukpa, or Yellow Hat, sect forbids its public practice. But that is not because we do not believe the tantras are a holy and truly spiritual path — it is because we believe that this path is too dangerous . . .” (Tibet, p. 165). Tantra, which seems to be derived more from Hindu esotericism than from Buddhism, identified all deities as having a “male” (Sk. sakta) and “female” (Sk. sakti) aspect, indicating that all creative power is dual in manifestation, often depicted iconographically in explicitly sexual poses, but having a purely symbolic significance. According to the Dalai Lama (introduction to The Wheel of Time: the Kalachakra in Context, ed. Beth Simon, p. xv), there are four classes of tantras: kriya, carya, yoga, and anuttara yoga. According to Chögyam Trungpa (Journey Without a Goal: the Tantric Wisdom of the Buddha, pp. 117, 121), there are six, called yanas (“paths”): kriyayoga, upayoga, yoga, mahayoga, anuyoga, and maha ati with anuttara yoga as a transition, not a separate yoga. These books and Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism by Anagarika Govinda should be consulted for further details.
The present (i.e., 14th) Dalai Lama identifies the Madhyamika philosophy with its concept of “emptiness” as “the most accurate description of the ultimate truth” (intro. to The Wheel of Time, p. xiv). He also points out that “when we speak of a phenomenon as being empty, we are referring to its being empty of its own inherent existence” i.e., of an unchanging essence, which would contradict the basic Buddhist doctrine of impermanence (The Buddhism of Tibet and the Key to the Middle Way, p. 57). Tibetan monks studied not only Nagarjuna, but also other Indian Buddhist philosophers as well, such as Dignaga, Dharmakirti, Santideva, Candrakirti, and Vasubandhu, managing to harmonize the Madhyamika “emptiness” and Yogacara “idealist” systems in the process.
Tibetans, unlike theosophists, generally accept the concept of transmigration, i.e., that it is possible for a human being to reincarnate in an animal form if his or her karma (Tibetan lei) merits such, but, as Norbu points out, “ultimately it is our belief that everyone, that all living things, shall achieve liberation” (Tibet, p. 116). Since Tibetan Buddhists also accept the idea that we have free will, it is up to us to either hasten or retard that eventual destiny. Norbu also sums up the basic philosophy of Tibetan Buddhism thus: “Compassion is everything to us in our religion . . . if we do not actively feel compassion for all living creatures and work toward their relief, our lives are empty. . . . You can lead a blameless life full of good deeds, but if you have lived without compassion your life will bear no fruit, your deeds are empty” (op. cit., p. 207).
One of the most difficult ideas for Westerners to understand is the Tibetan practice of “sky burial,” i.e., dissecting a corpse, grinding up the bones and mixing them with tsampa, and putting both out on a high hill or mountain as food for animals and birds. But this must be understood in the context of the Buddhist ideas that the body is not the real person (who will, after all, be reborn) and the Tibetan feeling that disposing of bodies in this manner helps sustain other lives. In fact, “sky burial” is only one of three ways Tibetans have of disposing of dead bodies. Important monks are cremated and the remains are preserved in urns. Children’s corpses, however, as well as those of poor people, are disposed in rivers where they become food for fish. Again, one must understand the latter in terms of compassion for other living creatures and the former in terms of the belief that the ashes of a spiritual person retain a beneficial power for anyone who comes near them.
Theosophy and Tibetan Buddhism. Theosophists have three connections with Tibetan Buddhism. First, Helena P. BLAVATSKY studied for several years in Tibet with two adepts, Koot Hoomi Lal Singh and Morya (known by their initials as K. H. and M.), both of whom identified themselves as followers of the Buddha. Their teachings, which Blavatsky sometimes calls “Esoteric Buddhism” and other times “esoteric Budhism,” are said to be contained in a scripture called the Book of Kiu-te, which forms the basis of The Secret Doctrine as well as the teachings in The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett. Of the latter book, Christmas Humphreys, a Buddhist theosophist, says that “only those who have carefully compared the teachings contained in this great body of literature with that of the scriptures of Mahayana Buddhism can testify to the brilliant light which the former throws on the latter, and to the volume of the former which the latter contains. Difficult parables, traditional phrases and obvious hints are suddenly seen as basic principles, which in turn explain much else that escapes the eye of the Western scholar” (Buddhism, p. 196). Blavatsky also gave us The Voice of the Silence, a lovely little MahAyAna Buddhist work which many theosophists have studied and used in their daily meditations.
Second, the present Dalai Lama, went to the International Headquarters of The Theosophical Society (TS), Adyar, and made a donation to its library of the volumes of the Kanjur and Tanjur, as well as having visited the headquarters of the American Section in Wheaton, Illinois. And third, many members of the TS have heard the Dalai Lama speak (he has been the guest speaker at the international convention of the TS) or read his books; some have even become “Tibetan” Buddhists, although they obviously are not ethnically Tibetan.
It is apparent from reports of Col. Henry S. OLCOTT and others that Blavatsky had developed remarkable paranormal powers or siddhis (Sk. for “successes” or “acquisitions”) which she displayed on occasion. However, she also warned against craving such powers before we are ethically and spiritually ready to use them. The same advice is given by Norbu (Tibet, pp. 43-44):
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