Tibet was a land where an esoteric and fantastically complex religious belief was part and parcel of a Tibetan's everyday existence. Lamaism governed, directed and shaped every individual life from the arms of the mother to the choppers of the funeral-butchers after death. One cannot imagine a country more devoted to religion and all its trappings.
It is essential to describe something of the main aspects of Lamaism in order that an appreciation of Tibetan art can have depth and richness. Without this, one is left with the aesthetic, which is not sufficient. Lamaism is an extension of Buddhism which was - and is - practised in China, Mongolia, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, Ladakh and of course Tibet. Buddhism as practised by the peoples of Japan, Korea, South East Asia and Sri Lanka, is significantly different in observances, although at the heart of both religious philosophies stands the historical Buddha preaching his compassionate ideology.
The sixth century BC was a time of great intellectual energy in Asia. Vast movements were shaping men's minds in areas far apart from each other. In China, it was the teachings of Laotse and Confucious, in Persia, the teachings of Zoroaster and in India Mahavira and Buddha. In India two main religious systems were founded, both based on the concept that all life was sacred and that the doctrines of faith, right knowledge and right action were the keys to holiness and salvation.
In the year 563 BC an Indian prince was born in the tiny state of Kapilavastu at the foot of the Himalayan mountains in the town of Lumbini Although the following story of the Buddha's life is overlaid with myth and legend, and that details and dates are open to question and debate, the substance of the Buddha's life remains intact. Even though embellishment and fancy are interwoven in all the various tellings by the faithful, the life of Buddha and his impact on the countless millions of souls since, has proved his teachings profound and relevant to the present day. His mother was of astonishing beauty and she was the queen of Prince Suddhodana. Her name was Mayadevi.
Prince Suddhodana was a noble chieftain of the Sakya clan. One night as Queen Mayadevi was sleeping, she dreamt that a magnificent white elephant entered her womb. This was interpreted by the court astrologers as an auspicious event and indicated that soon she would give birth to a very special child.
In due course a child was born and as legend tells, the child was born with thirty two sacred mystical signs that indicated a great universal warrior. However, destiny had something far more different in store for the child. He did not become the fierce and unchallenged victor of many battles, but the enlightened and spiritual teacher of supreme knowledge and compassion.
There were signs in the sky, storms and floods, earthquakes and celestial music and miraculous healings of the sick. Under a tree, in a park as the Buddha emerged from his mother's side, he stood erect and announced to all that he was the Chief of World and that this was his last birth.
As the royal court's leading astrologer had informed Prince Suddhodana that four omens would manifest themselves, and four omens of serious consequence at that, the Prince decided the newly born Siddharta (the Buddha's personal name, although he is often called Gotauma which was his family name) should be protected from the world. The four omens that had been foretold were: an old man, a sick man, a corpse and finally a monk.
The Buddha's early years were spent in luxurious splendour, a splendour befitting an Indian prince. Entirely without knowledge of worldly squalor and pain, he was protected from all outside influences and knowledge of the human condition by the obsessive care of his father. He received an education necessary to a prince and excelled as an athlete and showed signs of becoming a great soldier-leader. He fell in love with his cousin Yasodhara and married her. Yasodhara soon bore him a child, a son called Rahula.
In the Buddha's twenty-ninth year he decided to look outside the walls of the palace. He had for sometime been aware that something in his life was amiss, and that in order to discover why he was feeling this way he found himself needing to seek some kind of spiritual salvation. So it seemed a visit to the mysterious outside world was to be the beginnings of his search.
The first thing that he saw outside the palace, was a wretched pain-wracked old man, staggering with the aid of a cane. The old man was white-haired and toothless and bent over. Buddha asked his chariot driver to tell him what this was, that he was looking at, and was told that this was the lot of all men. Later on his journey he saw a seriously ill man, in the throes of death who was crying, deep cries of distress. Once again he asked the chariot driver to explain what he was seeing. The driver told him that this was the fate of all mankind and of all the earth's creatures.
The Buddha, or Siddharta as he was then known, deeply shocked and angry that all this had been kept from him by his father, realised that man on earth was heir to inevitable suffering and death by decay. For some time Siddharta was wracked by grief and depression. The life in his palace brought him no joy, he lost interest in his surroundings and became disenchanted with his life. His son Rahula brought him no happiness especially when he realised what would one day overwhelm and destroy him. He found his existence insufferable. He shaved his head, renounced all worldly possessions and pleasures, put on a plain yellow robe (the garb of the wandering monk) and set out in search of peace and the end to all mortal sufferings.
After six years of mortification and association with the most prominent thinkers of his time, he came to the conclusion that neither self inflicted deprivation nor self indulgence offered any solution to the enormous sufferings of mankind. After a further period of profound contemplation, he decided that the 'Middle Way', a path between all extremes, was the way to enlightenment. (See Nirvana in the glossary.)
Soon after this, while meditating, this wise young man now only thirty-five - was able to purify his mind and eradicate all the human evil within his soul. At this moment he considered that he had attained enlightenment and, consequently, determined to teach his new-found philosophy of life.
The Buddha's philosophy
The Buddha's new philosophy was based on what he called the 'Four Nobel Truths' and the 'Noble Eightfold Way'. The 'Four Noble Truths' were:
1. All life is suffering.
2. Suffering is caused by craving or desire.
3. Suffering can be cured by stopping craving.
4. The Eightfold Way, a mental and moral discipline to overcome craving.
In other words, when our lives do not seem to go the way we want them to go, when our dreams are shattered, or when tragedy strikes, we suffer! We also suffer when life does go our way, because we live in fear of losing our health, wealth, loved ones and pleasure. This is the truth of suffering. Desire is the cause of suffering, we produce our own unique suffering by the way we think and behave. It is within our ability not to produce this suffering. This is the truth regarding the end of suffering.
Whatever way of life does not cause suffering is the right way, the path. It is the way of selflessness. The 'Noble Eightfold Way' is best described by the Buddha's own words from his very first sermon. "The Middle Way of the Teacher avoids both extremes. It is enlightened, it brings clear vision, it makes for wisdom, and leads to peace, insight, enlightenment and nirvana. What is the middle way? It is the Noble Eightfold Path - Right Views, Right Resolve, Right Speech, Right Conduct, Right Livelihood, Right Efforts, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration."
The Buddha also taught about Karma (cause and effect). If a person commits a crime, that person will suffer the consequences of that act. If a person does something good, that person will reap the benefits of that action. All Karma is impermanent and will eventually run out in due course.
The Buddha's teaching, although seeming to be a lot of moral code was also a very clear and profoundly simple message. Anyone who makes the effort to become aware will experience their Buddha-nature and be completely freed from suffering. Buddha devoted the next forty-five years of his life dispensing wisdom and loving kindness to all those who wished to receive it.
In his eightieth year he died, exhorting his disciples to spread the analects of his philosophy to the minds and hearts of man. Thus "Buddha" which means 'to wake' or more meaningful, a teacher of supreme truth, became one of the greatest religious influences of all time. Buddha never arrogated to himself the mantle of divine origin, throughout his life he laid stress that as a mortal man he was born and would die. However Siddharta Gotauma, the Buddha was deified early - the invariable fate, it seems, of all religious leaders. Buddha offered a clear and concise solution to man's spiritual and material problems, clear and concise only to those able to think and, especially, to those who were allowed the luxury of an education.
It is then not surprising to learn that as the great mass of would-be worshippers could not understand the complex and highly disciplined doctrines even though they were basically very simple, or found that their religiosity was not satisfied, an entirely new form of Buddhism was conceived and became known as "Mahayana" or "The Great Vehicle". This took place approximately around the first century AD. This new conception gave birth to the Bodhissatva or Buddha of the future, who, renouncing the reward of Nirvana, devoted himself to easing the burden of mankind's suffering and giving salvation. This philosophy was inspired and designed so that all men and women could participate, not just the aloof monks and their more remote teachers.
Lamaism, or more correctly Tibetan Buddhism, interweaves its tantric cults and bizarre practises into a caricature of the Buddhism that emanated almost directly from the disciples of Buddha. Nevertheless, Tibetan Buddhism regardless of its idiosyncrasies remains at its heart the philosophy of the interweaving of all thought and action.
It is interesting to note that the Sanskrit word Tantra means an unbroken stream flowing from ignorance to enlightenment, and that "Tantra" includes complex and sophisticated techniques which enable the adherent to achieve blissful states of ecstatic realisations without renunciation or rejection. The end product of this devotion is to achieve the enlightened mind of a Buddha; the achievement is liberation, and as such is the universal goal of all true Buddhists.
What is Buddhism?
Is it a religion or a philosophy and can anybody be a Buddhist without giving up their own beliefs and traditions?
Briefly, it is the name given by the world to the teachings and thoughts of the historical Buddha, Gotauma who was born, we believe, in or about 563 BC in Lumbini, Nepal. The Buddha's words and teachings were originally passed on orally by his disciples, but eventually the written word replaced the early oral dissertations and allowed the Buddha's lifework to spread over most of Asia. Unfortunately, almost no texts exist of those early teachings and the first real identifiable writings are the Sanskrit engravings on the stone pillars erected by the Buddhist Emperor Asoka in 250 BC.
However there is one surviving Sutra (Buddha's discourse) called 'The Way of Virtue' written sometime during the second century AD in Sanskrit on bark from the Birch tree. All other writings after that period are open to question as the Buddha's words were interpreted and reinterpreted, copied and recopied by scribes who put their own thoughts, and improvements onto the Buddha's original teachings.
As Buddhism evolved, it divided into two main parts, we call them the Northern and Southern schools. The Northern school is the Buddhism that is practised in Tibet, China, Mongolia, Korea, Japan and Vietnam. The Southern school of Buddhism is followed in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.
Wherever the teachers of the Buddha's words travelled, the new communities that received the teachings, reinterpreted his words into their own languages and cultural traditions, and so the diffusion of Buddhism was not only absorbed and assimilated, but it changed to meet the challenges of the various local political powers. These decisive leaders used Buddhism to further their interests, by installing their own representations as being spiritually and morally superior to the incumbent and disorganised Asian countries.
Buddhism by its very nature proved to be extremely flexible, and was and still is remarkable, in its ability to adapt to different cultures and their peoples. Buddhism taught about holy people rather than gods, and it taught also that there was no existence of a permanent soul-entity. Everything existed in motion, Karma linked each birth, bringing with it a higher or lower state of being.
The ultimate state was, and is Nirvana. Nirvana is like the candle flame that ends in the dark. So after the Buddha's final victory over suffering, he, like the candle, simply "went out" and would never have to return. Did the Buddha no longer exist? Yes, he did, but his existence could not be described!
Nirvana eventually came to be worshipped as a state of paradise, a place of peaceful bliss. The Northern school of Buddhism propagated this adoration of the historical Buddha, and all the other newly acquired Buddhas, and added new scriptures tailored to fit the expansion of the Buddhist philosophy's journey. The Buddha himself and all the other heavenly deities are full of compassion to all people.
Northern Buddhism introduced into the pantheon of gods and goddesses, beings such as China's Kuanyin (The Goddess of Mercy) and Japan's Amida (The Lord of the Western Paradise) and the people regularly call upon these gods and goddesses in their daily prayers. The true Buddhist does not just strive for his own salvation and end to suffering but can also take holy vows in which there is a commitment to put off their own Nirvana in order to save other beings in the world from misery and suffering. This allows the true Buddhist access to Paradise.
Anyone can be a Buddhist, the Jew, the Catholic, the Hindu, the Marxist and even the Atheist. The reason why, perhaps, that Buddhism has travelled so successfully to the West, and so established itself into the psyche of the Western mind, is that it demands nothing from its adherents. Buddhism is a destiny of being, a personal lofty moral code of behaviour that is much needed in our questioning needful times, it is also an antidote for the greedy world of humankind, a celebration of the mind's cultivation and ultimaately a release from suffering.
Recently I discovered a small pamphlet published by the Buddhist Publishing Group in Leicester, England. This pamphlet contained the following paraphrased words of Buddha that, I believe explains why Buddhism has travelled so far over the past two and one half thousand years and why this unique individual philosophy has embedded itself so successfully into cultures as diverse as the cultures of the western world.
"Those who tread the Buddhist path are straightforward and conscientious; they are gentle, softly spoken and free from pride; they are contented, ask for little, have few cares, are calm, wise, free from arrogance and greed; they never deceive or despise others and never cause harm to any living being.
Those who tread the Buddhist path wish for all beings to be happy and free from pain; and they cultivate great friendliness and great compassion towards all that lives. As long as they are awake, they devote themselves to this great mind of friendliness. When there is no attachment to views and opinions, or to the senses; and where there is virtue and wisdom, suffering will no longer be experienced." (Living Meditations by N. Elliott. York, England. Manjusri Institute 1983.)
When His Holiness the current Dalai-Lama was recently asked "Do you believe that Buddhism can become fully transplanted in the West?" He answered, "If one looks at Buddhism's history, one must distinguish between the Buddha's essential teachings and culture. The basic teachings, spreading throughout the world, have taken root in diverse cultures. That is why one speaks in terms of Tibetan Buddhism, Chinese Buddhism, Thai Buddhism, etc. In view of this history, one can say that it is altogether possible that the basic teachings will anchor themselves in Western culture and that one day a Western Buddhism will exist." ( Interview by E Saint Martin in L'Actualite religieuse dans le monde, November 1993. )