A Beginner’s Research on Tibetan Buddhism and History

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In one of those synchroncities that sometimes occur in life, shortly before I began to hear about the current unrest in Tibet, I had begun to read a book called The Essential Dalai Lama: His Important Teachings, edited by Rajiv Mehrotra and published by Penguin Books. The book is a compilation of essays and lectures on Buddhism by the Dalai Lama. It is a relatively thin book, under 300 pages, but I have yet to finish it a couple of weeks later, because each of the essays in the book is so full of meaning and deserving of further thought that I cannot read too much of it at once without stopping to absorb and ponder it.

I am not a Buddhist. I am someone who has a great deal of interest in spiritual questions about the actual nature of reality, but because of a questioning mind I have been unable thus far to accept any religion. As such, I am by no means an expert on this subject, but I want to convey some sense of what I believe is the deep importance of preserving the Tibetan culture. I have the impression that many Americans are unfamiliar with that culture and think of Tibet as far away and unimportant to them. I want to express why I think it is imperative that we support Tibet.

Buddhism seems to be a mental discipline at least as much as it is a religion. A person following the Buddhist path seeks to achieve victory over the enemy within, which is ignorance that distorts the perception of reality and leads to harmful behavior and suffering for oneself and others. An early step on this path is to learn to control one’s passions, emotions, thoughts, and desires so that one causes no harm. The ultimate goal is the liberation from suffering of all sentient beings in the universe through attainment of Buddhahood.

To quote the Dalai Lama:

Buddhism teaches that the mind is the main cause of our being reborn in the cycle of existence. But the mind is also the main factor that allows us to gain freedom from the cycle of birth and death. This liberation is achieved by controlling negative thoughts and emotions and by promoting and developing those that are positive.

The Essential Dalai Lama p. 68

What if the United States could be transformed from a militaristic culture continually attacking other nations and causing much harm into a peaceful nation that only seeks a better future for all?

It seems like such a very distant goal sometimes, yet that is exactly what happened in Tibet within two or three centuries after the introduction of Buddhism there. Buddhism taught an ethic of caring for others and wanting to bring about their happiness. It was widely adopted, and Tibet went from a warrior culture to a peaceful, spiritual culture in a relatively short period of time. I learned this incredible fact from the second in a series of video lectures On Tibet by Robert Thurman, President of Tibet House U.S. I rented it from Netflix.

Through training our minds we can become more peaceful. This will give us greater opportunities for creating the peaceful families and human communities that are the foundation of world peace. With inner strength, we can face problems in the familial, societal and even global levels in a more realistic way. Nonviolence does not mean passivity . We need to solve problems through dialogue in a spirit of reconciliation. This is the real meaning of nonviolence and the source of world peace.

This approach can also be very useful in ecology. We always hear about a better environment, world peace, nonviolence and so forth, but such goals are not achieved through the application of regulations or United Nations resolutions; it takes individual transformation. Once we have developed a peaceful society in which problems are negotiated through dialogue, we can seriously think about demilitarization — first on the national level; then on the regional level; and finally on the global level. However, it will be very difficult to achieve these things unless individuals themselves undergo a change within their own minds.

The Essential Dalai Lama p. 35

Surely a culture that has made this much progress on creating a really civilized nonviolent society is worth preserving. I would even venture to argue that if world peace would be the ultimate worldly outcome of widespread adoption of Buddhist philosophy, then from a purely material world perspective, it almost doesn’t matter if the more subtle metaphysical aspects of Buddhism are true. (Of course, from a spiritual perspective it probably matters greatly.)

Who is the Dalai Lama?

His Holiness the Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people and the head of the Tibetan Buddhist religion. He is also their political leader, and, as I found out from an A&E Biography of him, he is actually the King of Tibet, a country which from a real-world political perspective at this time exists only in exile. (The land that was once the country of Tibet and is still home to most of the Tibetan people is now politically a part of China, since their invasion and occupation starting in 1950.)

“Dalai Lama” is a title, not a name. His name is Tenzin Gyatso, and he is the 14th Dalai Lama. He is believed to be the reincarnation of every other Dalai Lama there has ever been.

Buddhahood is not the exclusive preserve of the historical Buddha, but a state of insight and being accessible to all humans. Though the Dalai Lama himself is at pains to stake no such claim, describing himself as merely a “simple Buddhist monk,” millions of his followers, both Tibetans and others, regard him as a “Living Buddha,” a reincarnation of the compassionate –Avalokteshvara, the 14th incarnation in the line of Dalai Lamas , Bodhisattvas who chose to reincarnate to provide temporal leadership to Tibetans and to serve and teach all humanity.

-Rajiv Mehrotra

In the A&E Biography there was a fascinating story about how the 13th Dalai Lama somehow knew that there were going to be problems with China and told the Tibetan people that he would die at an earlier age than would otherwise be necessary, so that he could come back in time to be of an age to be helpful to them in the next life. He then died.

After the 13th Dalai Lama’s death, the monks looked for signs of where to find his reincarnation. The young boy who would become the 14th Dalai Lama lived in a rural area and often would play a game of packing a bag and saying he was going to Lhasa, the Tibetan capital where the Dalai Lama normally lived. When the monks eventually found him, he was able to correctly identify a series of objects that had belonged to the 13th Dalai Lama and which he had never seen before in his current incarnation. This is also shown in the very fine Martin Scorsese film Kundun, which tells the story of the current Dalai Lama’s early life.

The young Dalai Lama was rigorously trained in Buddhism and was crowned King of Tibet as a teenager. After the Chinese invaded his country in 1950, he at first sought to coexist peacefully with them, even making visits to China to meet with Chairman Mao. The Chinese apparently made sweet promises to him about modernizing Tibet, which he liked because he had an interest in technology.

Whatever misgivings he may have had, he was also obligated to approach them in the spirit of nonviolence. Eventually, it became clear to him that the Chinese government was bent on the destruction of Tibetan religion and culture, and he was forced to flee his homeland in 1959. Since then he has lived in Dharamsala, India, which is the seat of the Tibetan government in exile.

To Americans, it may seem strange to think of a government headed not only by a king, but one who is a religious leader as well. The current Dalai Lama is, however, a very modern man. Although he remains the leader of the Tibetan people, he’s apparently a great admirer of democracy and Thomas Jefferson, and after he was exiled, he wrote a democratic constitution for Tibet that even allows for his impeachment. The concept of impeaching him apparently caused great consternation among the Tibetan people when it was first published, because they believed this would be sacrilegious.

Clearly a very intelligent person, he is not dogmatic, nor does he insist that Buddhism is the only path. In fact, he regularly meets with prominent religious leaders and scientists from all over the world. In response to a question, he once told Carl Sagan that if science was ever able to prove that reincarnation does not exist, then they would have to stop believing in it. He believes that religion must accommodate itself to whatever science has proven.

Since his exile, the Dalai Lama has traveled all over the world giving lectures and teachings and exchanging knowledge with all sorts of people. He has introduced the Tibetan religion to the world and has therefore become a teacher not only to the Tibetan people, but the entire planet.

I once attended a lecture and meditation given by him in Mountain View, California, and I think that it would be very difficult for anyone who has been in the presence of this great man to deny that at the very least he is a person full of compassion and wisdom.

The Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, for his continued dedication to nonviolence.

The Situation in Tibet

The area traditionally known as Tibet is located high in the Himalayas. It is as large as the portion of the United States west of the Mississippi, and home to 6 million Tibetans. Since the Chinese invasion, it has also been settled by Han Chinese. Tibet is so high in altitude, however, that its population has evolved greater lung capacity to cope with the scarcity of oxygen. The newly arrived Han Chinese settlers do not have this greater lung capacity and therefore face health problems, including the necessity for pregnant women to go back to China to give birth. (Much of this is information I got from Robert Thurman’s lecture series, which I mentioned earlier.)

Tibet has long been known as a sacred place throughout Asia, and is more recently gaining that reputation in the United States and Europe. It is thought by some to be the inspiration for the legends about a place called Shangri-La or Shamballa, a Himalayan valley surrounded by high mountains and populated by spiritually enlightened beings. I have also seen Tibet described as the crown chakra of the planet.

Given this holy reputation, I can’t help but wonder whether part of the Chinese motivation for invasion and occupation was to either control the spiritual energy there, in sort of the same way that the Nazis sought power from esoteric symbolism, or to suppress belief in that spiritual energy, given the Chinese government’s history of being antireligious.

Since the Chinese occupation, the Chinese government has sought to destroy Tibetan culture, buildings, and artifacts, including some Buddhist monasteries. They have modernized, but also commercialized the Tibetan landscape. They have also reportedly turned the Tibetan people into an economically deprived lower-class.

There have been various uprisings and protests over the years. The current unrest is the most significant in years. It began on March 10, the anniversary of the 1959 uprising of the Tibetan people against the Chinese government, during which the Dalai Lama fled to India. It also comes on the eve of this year’s Summer Olympics, which will be hosted by China. The Olympics will shine a spotlight on China, so it is an important time to raise awareness of human rights violations by the Chinese government.

Many people have already been killed by the Chinese government in the current Tibetan uprising. The Tibetans who are joining the protests are doing so even though they realize that they risk losing their lives. It is important for America, which proclaims the ideal of freedom, to walk our talk and support Tibetan freedom.

Since the current uprisings began, I have been doing background research more than I have been following the day-to-day events. For more on what is currently happening, please see grannyhelen’s excellent series of diaries.

On March 31, there is a Global Day of Action for Tibet planned in many cities throughout the world. I will be joining the march from the White House to the Chinese Embassy in Washington, DC.

If you haven’t already, please sign the petition in support of Tibet and the Dalai Lama at avaaz.org.

Crossposted from EENR blog. My apologies in advance for any errors I may have made.


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  1. This is a good starting point for understanding the past 50 years in Tibet and HHDL’s government in exile in Dharamsala.

    One of the things I think might be helpful is for us to make contributions to International Campaign For Tibet.  I understand that a monk in Tibet can live fairly well for $1/day, so if you can afford it, I encourage a donation of $365, a year’s support for a monk, though obviously any amount is helpful.  ICT doesn’t seem to spend much money on administration.


  2. of Tibet, Buddhism and the present. Thanks.

    The Dalai Lama has a number of books out under his name, and you might find some of them interesting reading. I’d also recommend any of Thurman’s books. Another good read, although not specifically on Tibetan Buddhism, is Dharma Gaia http://www.alibris.com/booksea… a collection of essays exploring the connections between Buddhism and environmental awareness.  

    • RUKind on March 30, 2008 at 06:01

    First off, try not to confuse religion and spirituality. That’s a big trap. Religion is spirituality wrapped in dogma. Dogma is fine if you need it; I try not to step in it myself (raised Catholic). That’s why I prefer Buddhism for spiritual practice. I take it straight up, no trappings.

    Second, Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, was raised in the Hindu religion. The spiritual text of Hinduism is the Bhagavad Gita (The Song of God). It’s a fairly short work embedded in the Mahabarata, an epic poem. The Bhagavad Gita is the bedrock text. There are dozens of translations. The one I find most helpful is the translation by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood. It contains a forward by Aldous Huxley in which he expounds on his Perennial Philosophy.

    This philosophy is a rigorous look at the common underpinnings of the world’s major religions. It basically strips off the cultural and historical overlays (dogma) and lays bare the essence that informs each of them. You can find it on Amazon, etc. It was out of print for a while but is back now. Huxley has a book by the name Perennial Philosophy. I haven’t read it yet.

    If you keep searching, you’ll find similar resources in the Tao Te Ching (The Way of Life) by Lao Tsu. Translations here can be difficult to read and comprehend. English speaking people who own several translations seem to prefer the one by Witter Bynner.  I thought this one was lost forever but it just recently came back in print. My original copy was pre-ISBN and pre-barcodes.

    Another interesting place to look is Sufi texts. Sufi is the mystical branch of Islam. Idries Shah has some good translations. Caravan of Dreams is the one I’m most familiar with.

    You’re in for an interesting personal growth experience if you continue on the path you’re on. Best of luck.


  3. Like I said over at the EENR Blog, I wonder about the intentions of the Chinese when they decided to occupy Tibet. I think it has less to do with controlling Tibet, and more about controlling the Chinese. I think they felt intimidated by the Dalai Lama and all that the Tibetan people stand for. Maybe they didn’t want the Dalai Lama to be able to influence the Chinese?

  4. I think the Tibetan culture has much to offer the rest of the world.

    And what I find most compelling about Tibetan Buddhism is the continuity of the teachings historically … there has been an unbroken line of teachers for over 2,500 years.

    The Tibetan written language itself was, I believe, “invented” in order to have a written form of the teachings, as many spiritual seekers in Tibet traveled to India to bring back those teachings and spread them throughout the country.  The translators did an incredible job of this.

    Now, of course, we have many brilliant Tibetan teachers all throughout the West and they are gaining students all the time.

    These teachers and their teachings were supported by the Tibetan culture.  Families may have lived in poor circumstances, but they fed the monks and nuns in the monasteries and in return their children were educated and they all shared in the spiritual merit of the practitioners they supported.  It was not always perfect, nothing in this life is, but many aspects of this culture are still worth noting and learning from today in our modern world.

    Now the very folks who helped the teachers and their teachings to spread throughout the world are often denied those teachings for themselves and their children.  To me, this is not a political issue in the sense of whether or not Tibet should be free from China’s rule, but a human tragedy that China should address through dialogue with the Dalai Lama.

  5. One bit of information that jumped out at me was the idea of Tibet being the Crown Chakra for the planet. A chakra is an eneregy nexus or center.The crown chakra is the seventh and last of the chakras of a spiritual body, representing the spiritual accomplishment and expression of the individual. A very interesting book that I read back in the late 60’s or early 70’s, “Secrets of the Andes” (not the book by the same name which is on Ebay, which seems to be a murder mystery), attributes Lhasa as being the crown chakra for the planet, during the period of time known as a master age. This book posits that there are 12 minor ages, which are slightly over 2000 years (2015 or 2020 or so), think of the age of Aquarius. These 12 cycle to form a major age of 26,000 + years. There are 5 major ages, which when they cycle make up a master age. There are only 2 different master ages, of somewhere around 130,000 years. What makes the connection to Lhasa, and the Crown Chakra of the World is that, according to the book, the planet is turning all of the ages at one time, and the important change is the master cycle change. We are moving from the masculine, yang energies to the feminine, yin energies. And with this basic change comes a change in the location of the Crown Chakra of the planet. The book has it that the new location is going to be in South America, near Lake Titicaca. Thinking in terms of astrology, there are cusps, of course, between the different ages, and for longer ages, there are longer cusps, think of the song, We are in the dawning of the age of Aquarius, way back in the 60’s. According to the book “Mystery of the Andes” we have been in the cusp of the master cycle change for some time now, and that the sacred texts, and much of the infrastructure of Lhasa’s spiritual basis has been on the move for some time now to an undisclosed location near Lake Titicaca, in preparation for the Crown Chakra cycling there. The actual date of the change?….the same as the last day of the Mayan calender, 12-28-2012. And speaking scientifically, the Earth’s magnetic field is starting to shift. There is large area of the south Atlantic where the polarity is shifting to positive instead of negative, where compasses point the wrong way.

    Seemingly all trivial and tin foil hat stuff compared to the work and life of the Dalai Lama I know, but I would think that the switch from the masculine, war like nature of our species, to the more nurturing feminine aspect of humanity would be a pleasant subject to contemplate this morning.

    • kj on March 30, 2008 at 20:42

    essay, be inspired.  🙂  thank you so much.  much to sink into here.  

  6. No apologies for errors needed.  

    This is a very accurate account of Tibet, Tibetan Buddhism, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who is a great, kind and gentle man.

    My neighbor, an anarchist, gave me a quarterly anarchist journal with an article on Tibetan Buddhism.  The author stated that if he were to choose a “religion,” it would be Buddhism because it has no dogma and no arbitary rules to follow, only possibilities to try and to explore.

    This is why the Dalai Lama can say that if science disproves reincarnation then they will need to stop believing in reincarnation.

    Thanks for this wonderful essay.  The information is needed.

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