Tibet: An Introduction

Located primarily on a vast plateau in the Himalayan mountain range overlooking most of South Asia, the Tibetan ethnic and cultural region stretches from areas near the Volga River in Europe, through much of Inner and Outer Mongolia to parts of several republics of the former Soviet Union, and encompasses Ladakh, Bhutan, Sikkim, much of Nepal, and portions of the present-day Chinese state, including all of Tibetan Autonomous Region and Ch'ing-hai Province as well as parts of Gansu, Yunnan, and Sichuan Provinces. This extensive Tibetan ethnic area stands as a reminder of Tibet's once powerful dominion over much of Central Asia, including several parts of China. For centuries, Tibet had also served as the spiritual and artistic center for these regions. Tragically, since 1951 this powerful and influential culture has been systematically destroyed by the Chinese Communists, who have forcibly dominated the country and violently imposed their own cultural ideologies upon the Tibetan people.

The invasion and subsequent occupation of Tibet by China forced the flight into exile of approximately one hundred thousand Tibetans. Ironically, due in large part to the diaspora of the Tibetan people, the country's vibrant cultural and religious traditions have extended far beyond their geographical boundaries, contributing to an ever-increasing global appreciation of Tibet's sophisticated heritage. Largely as a result of contact with the exile Tibetan communities, a growing number of people in Europe and North America are turning to the principles of Tibetan religion for their own personal growth, and adopting Tibetan perspectives on the nature of the world and our place within it. This living Tibetan legacy has sustained the continuity and vitality of more than one thousand years of intellectual and spiritual exploration. 


The General Features of Tibetan Buddhism
  Tibetan Perspectives on Death and Dying
  The Tibetan Book and the Art of Block Printing
  Tibetan Religious Art
 
 

The General Features of Tibetan Buddhism

Twelve centuries after the death and final enlightenment of the historical Buddha (c. 500 BC), the religious tradition bearing his name crossed over the Himalayan mountains and entered Tibet. From the early seventh century onward, Buddhism became firmly entrenched in all aspects of Tibetan society. This wholesale transformation of Tibet, however, was not entirely without its conflicts. When Buddhism first reached Tibet, it encountered what appeared to be an older indigenous religion commonly referred to as Bon. The Bon religion is believed to have originated in the ancient land of Tazig (referring generally to the direction of Persia). From there the religion took root in the Zhangzhung Valley, located in western Tibet near Mount Kailash, and ultimately spread eastward. 

The nature of this ancient Bon, founded by Tönpa Shenrab (sTon pa gshen rab, "The holy teacher Shenrab"), is difficult to assess since no written records from the period have survived. The oldest extant Bon scripture dates from the late ninth century, long after Buddhism had already pervaded nearly every aspect of Tibetan culture. The early confrontation of the two traditions fundamentally altered much of the Bon religion, especially its monastic institutions and metaphysical doctrines, making it almost unrecognizable as a separate entity apart from Buddhism. Nevertheless, the claim of Bon-po ("followers of Bon") and of Tibetan Buddhists alike--that the Bon religion possesses its own distinctive identity--must be respected and taken seriously. The tradition has survived and indeed to some extent continues to flourish not only in Tibet itself, but also in Nepal, India, Europe, and the United States. Several significant examples of Bon literature and art are included in our exhibit, together with works of the better known tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. The foundational doctrines of Tibetan Buddhism are derived from the words taught by the Buddha almost two thousand five hundred years ago. The basic teachings of the Buddha (the so-called Four Noble Truths) begin with a recognition of the discomforts and frustrations of normal human existence. It is taught that the source of this frustration and distress does not rest in the nature of the world or in the mysterious intentions of a divine being, but rather in the intellectual and emotional confusions of human individuals themselves. Buddhism maintains that the suffering experienced in life can be completely uprooted and eliminated by clearing away these confusions, and prescribes specific methods for the successful accomplishment of this goal. Basic Buddhist practice, therefore, consists of following a disciplined path of intellectual and spiritual development requiring the radical examination of one's existential situation and profound and persistent changes in one's attitudes, behavior, and psychological orientation. The ideal Buddhist practitioner adheres to a strict moral code, trains rigorously in meditation, and endeavors tirelessly to develop compassion and insight. 

Philosophically speaking, the confusions that function as the source of worldly suffering operate more precisely as innate misapprehensions with respect to the status of the individual self and of the surrounding world. This innate sense of self and other, including inanimate objects, involves the seemingly natural tendency to view things as solidly concrete, as more or less substantial and permanent. This means that ordinary people have a subtle sense of things as being constant through time, changeless and secure. Buddhism maintains that this perspective is profoundly mistaken. In reality, everything is changing, nothing is as it was even a moment before. Existence is forever in flux. As a consequence of the misperception of the truth of change and impermanence, human beings become mired in a cycle of pain and disappointment. Moreover, the false view of permanence engenders strong attachments and aversions, which in turn generate a host of destructive emotions such as jealousy, pride, and selfishness, all born of the fear of losing what is valued and of gaining what is scorned. This enduring round of pain and disruptive emotion is called samsara, and the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice is to liberate oneself from its negative bonds. Liberation from the cycle of samsara is achieved in part by readjusting one's fundamental perspectives, by developing the correct view of impermanence. 
 

Tibetan Perspectives on Death and Dying

Tibetan Buddhism recognizes the natural fact that human beings tend to avoid admitting death as an immediate threat in their own lives. Indeed, this refusal to acknowledge the imminence of death and impermanence is regarded in Buddhism as a fundamental cause of the confusion and ignorance that prevents spiritual progress. Spiritual growth is achieved not by cowering from death, but by confronting it head on. Therefore, to facilitate confrontation with such raw reality, Buddhism offers several detailed meditative strategies. These death meditations enable Buddhist practitioners to engage seriously the truth of impermanence and, in turn, to comprehend the true nature of human existence. Mindfulness of death engenders both control and freedom; it brings about control in the sense of curbing the desire for permanence and security, and it promotes freedom by offering the meditator an enduring glimpse of the Buddha's liberating wisdom. The clear advantages of regularly contemplating impermanence and death make such meditations supreme among all the various types of Tibetan Buddhist mindfulness training. Taking the practice seriously helps to inspire further spiritual endeavor, overcome the delusions of permanence and immortality, and increase the probability of a virtuous life?and death?experience. 

In the religious traditions of Tibet it is taught that the first moment of death is marked by a gradual process of disintegration, in which both the mental and physical components of the dying individual begin to collapse. Lacking a physical support, the person's consciousness withdraws inward and gathers at the center of the heart before finally departing the body. Corresponding to the gradual deterioration of consciousness during death, the dying patient experiences a variety of distinctive visions, each marking a stage in the dying process. Meditators study these stages in order to gain intimate knowledge of them, since it is believed that a person familiar with the death experience is less likely to be frightened when death finally arrives. But more importantly, a detailed knowledge of the dying process enables advanced practitioners to simulate the experience during meditation, thereby gaining control over the actual process. Cultivation and control of these subtle visionary states of consciousness function to transform the meditator's mind and body into the divine form of a fully liberated awakened being, a Buddha. 

Before the ordinary dying process is complete, relatives and friends are advised to quietly bid the dying person farewell, without creating an overly dramatic situation. Tibetans believe that it is crucial for both the dying person and those around him or her to avoid causing excessive regret or longing in the patient, but instead to foster virtuous states of mind. The state of mind at the time of death is believed to influence directly the momentum of the departing consciousness. Any thoughts that occur during this time are extremely potent; it is therefore significant for the individual to generate and sustain a positive mental state thoughout all the stages of dying. In other words, the quality of mind at the time of death is a critical component in determining the dying person's future destiny. If disruptive thoughts can be avoided while simultaneously directing the mind toward pure and virtuous thoughts, the ordinary person may be capable of positively controlling the outcome of the dying event. To help the patient achieve this goal, a spiritual master, or lama (bla ma), may whisper guiding instructions into the person's ear. Traditionally, these instructions are read from a variety of ritual texts designed to help guide the deceased's consciousness through the intermediate realm between lives, known in Tibetan as bardo. 

Tibetan Buddhism recognizes four stages in the life cycle of a sentient being: birth, the period between birth and death, death, and the period between death and the next birth, or bardo. The postmortem bardo journey is said to last no longer than seven weeks (49 days). By the end of the forty-ninth day the deceased is reborn into a worldly state influenced by his or her past actions, collectively referred to in Buddhism as karma. The principle of karma is essentially the simple law of cause and effect, whereby it is held that the moral quality of an individual's actions performed previously determines the quality of experience in the future?in this case, the person's next life. The bardo state is recognized as an opportunity for change, a starting point of transformation. It is understood as a gap between familiar boundaries through which is gained a glimpse of the true nature of Reality. By fully recognizing this ultimate nature, the deceased is capable of breaking the afflictive cycle of rebirth (samsara) and achieving final liberation, Buddhahood. Much of an advanced practitioner's meditative training is designed to meet this transformative moment, but in most ordinary cases, the deceased is dependent upon the assistance of the lama, who recites the guiding instructions from the bardo literature in order to bring Reality into clear focus. The words of the lama communicate the essential truth underlying the postmortem experience, giving the deceased an ultimate point of reference to make sense of the often confusing and terrifying visions that are confronted during the bardo period. Moreover, recitation of the texts within a ceremonial setting offers practical wisdom to the participants in the ritual drama. The benefits of the texts can thus be understood at two levels: through recitation and explication of the texts' meaning, the deceased is reminded of knowledge previously learned and experienced in life, while at the same time, family members and friends receive spiritual teachings that will improve and enrich their present lives. In this way, the bardo literature offers not only a method of guidance, but also a varied program for an array of performance styles, involving liturgy, ritual offering, prayer, and scripture recitation, all operating as an integrated whole to insure a positive destiny for the living and the dead. 

The Tibetan Book and the Art of Blockprinting

Tibetan writing reads from left to right in horizontal lines. It does not employ ideograms like the Chinese, but uses an alphabet derived from a variant of the Devanagri script in which Sanskrit is written, consisting of thirty consonants and four vowels. The script, which is certainly one of the most exquisite forms of writing in Asia, is believed to have been created by Tönmi Sambhota (Thon mi Sambhota) in the mid-seventh century A.D. According to Tibetan tradition, Tönmi Sambhota was a minister of King Songtsen Gampo (Srong brtsan sgam po, c. 609-650 A.D.), the first Tibetan ruler to be converted to Buddhism. This King had two wives, Wen-ch'eng, the daughter of the Chinese Emperor T'ai-tsung, and Bhrikuti, a princess from Nepal. Both women were devout followers of Buddhism, and at their insistence Songtsen Gampo agreed to invite a number of Buddhist teachers from different parts of Asia. At the same time, he sent his minister Tönmi to India with instructions to enroll in one of the famed Buddhist universities so that he might learn the scribal arts and devise an alphabet suitable for the Tibetan language. After a long and harrowing journey, Tönmi finally arrived in India and for more than a decade sat at the feet of several Indian Buddhist masters, two of whom gave him the name Sambhota, "Good Tibetan." While studying in India, Tönmi Sambhota designed the letters of the Tibetan alphabet and compiled the first grammars of the Tibetan language, thereby providing the Tibetan people with a means for translating Indian Buddhist scriptures and for recording their own oral traditions. Here it should be stressed that even after the introduction of writing, these oral traditions continued to be a significant element in the transmission of Tibetan culture, in part due to the Buddhist assumption that authentic religious truths are most profoundly conveyed not through writing, but in direct communications between master and disciple. 

The Tibetan script is considered sacred, since it was created especially for the translation of Buddhist scripture. Over the centuries several forms of lettering have developed, but the two principal types are the block letters, known as u-chen (dbu can, "headed letters"), and the cursive, called u-mé (dbu med, "headless letters"). The block letters are commonly employed in books and printed documents, while the cursive is used in more popular or personal formats. It is not unusual, however, to find printed material in Tibetan cursive. For titles and ornamental purposes other scripts are also employed, such as the high elegance of the seventeenth century Lantsa lettering. 

The Tibetans designed their alphabet on Indian models, but the art of papermaking they borrowed from the Chinese. Tibetan paper is manufactured directly from root and vegetable fibers, which are in turn derived primarily from willow bark. In brief, the bark is soaked, beaten for several days, pulverized, and then spread out on a piece of cloth stretched across a wooden frame. After being dried in the sun for a few days, the mixture is ready to be cut as paper. Tibetan paper is strong and generally poisonous, for it is often treated with an arsenic-like substance to prevent it from being damaged by mold, fungi, or insects. People who spend a great deal of time around Tibetan books frequently complain of severe headaches, due in part to the heavy chemical odor. 

In Tibet, the most popular form of printing is woodblock. The art of woodblock printing arose in China at least as early as the ninth century, when it was employed for reproducing sacred texts and images. Standard Tibetan blockprinted books consist of separate, and often rather long, sheets of paper printed on both sides. Each sheet bears the abbreviated title of the work, the chapter and volume (if relevant), and the page number in the margin. The sheets are placed one on top of the other, wrapped in a cloth and then tied tightly between two covers (glegs shing) made from either wood or heavy cardstock. In the case of a special work, or one in several volumes, a strip of material with a protective flap of decorative brocade, indicating the volume and title, is generally slipped between the cloth wrapping so that it hangs loosely from the narrow edge of the text. With this unique method of identification, the book is made ready for accessible cataloguing and easy storage on library shelves. For reading, the text is placed across the knees or on a low table and each sheet is lifted, read from front to back, and then stacked facing page down in reverse order. Each page of a Tibetan book has to be printed using a separate woodblock. Soft woods, usually of hazel, birch, or walnut, are cut roughly to the shape of the book page, and the surface made smooth. A sheet of transparent paper bearing the letters of the desired text is placed face downward on the prepared block. The thin paper is then rubbed with a wet brush until a clear impression of the inverted letters is made on the smooth surface. The area of the block around the characters is subsequently cut away with a sharp knife, leaving the letters standing out in high relief. The printers work in groups of two. One selects the paper, while the other smears the woodblock with ink. The first lays the paper on the block and the second smooths it over with a brush. The printed page is then removed and left to dry. A clear and legible final print depends entirely upon the skill of the original woodcarving, the age and wear of the block, and the quality of paper used. Indeed, it is quite common to see a page from a Tibetan text that is barely decipherable due to smudges of bleeding ink or omissions of words or even parts of entire sentences. 

Tibetans handle books with great reverence. Even if a text does not contain holy scripture, it is still approached as the verbal body of the Buddha, the provisional foundation of eternal truth or sung-den (gsung rten, "support of the exalted Word"). This explains why in Tibet books are never to be placed on the floor, at the level of one's feet, or in a low-lying impure space. Tibetan books are respected as powerful protections against evil and as paths to spiritual liberation. The tens of thousands of books that make up the vast corpus of Tibetan literature contain within their pages the abiding wisdom of over thirteen hundred years of spiritual pursuits. Tibet possesses one of the largest and most enduring literary traditions in all of Asia. Its influence has spread not only throughout the broader cultural regions that had once been dominated by the ancient Tibetan dynasty, including Mongolia, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, parts of northern Pakistan and Afghanistan, northern India, western China, and southern Russia, but also to Europe and Great Britain, Australia, Argentina, Canada, the United States, and Japan. 

Tibetan Religious Art

Most Tibetan art is religious art. The term "Tibetan art" encompasses art made not only in Tibet, but also that produced throughout the Tibetan cultural region, including Nepal, Kashmir, China, Mongolia, and Bhutan. Indeed, some of the finest examples of so-called "Tibetan art" come from these countries so deeply influenced by Tibetan religion and culture. The subjects of Tibetan religious art are typically Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, lamas, historical figures, and deities; mandalas, representing the abodes of the deities; stupas or reliquaries; and ritual implements for use in shrines and temples. 

The vivid world portrayed in Tibetan religious art is filled with elaborate and esoteric symbolism and transcends our ordinary mundane perceptions. In Buddhist thought, all externals are said to be the display of the Buddha's body, speech, and mind. Religious art exemplifies the qualities and physical form of the Buddhas and deities (ishta-devata, yi dam). Art objects, therefore, must conform to the strict rules of iconography specified in Buddhist scripture regarding the proportions, shape, color, posture, gestures (mudra, phyag rgya), and other attributes in order to correctly depict a Buddha or other religious figure. 

Such religious art can serve several functions. A particular art object can serve, for example, as a point upon which to focus in one's meditation practice; it can be a graphic representation of a deity or religious vision that appeared to a spiritual practitioner in a dream or during a session of meditation; it can serve as an icon, an object of reverence, or a medium through which a person may request a boon or the removal of obstacles such as sickness, poverty, or death; finally, an art object may serve as a teaching device used by a lama or monk to illustrate certain Buddhist doctrines, or as a central focus for public ceremonies. 

The qualities of the Buddha are thought to be inherent to all sentient beings, but, unfortunately, they do not usually realize or understand this. In the attempt to internalize or actualize their innate Buddha-Nature (tathagata-garbha, de bzhin snying po), Buddhist practitioners try to visualize the deity actually appearing before them, or try to visualize themselves as being identical with the deity through meditation and focus on appropriate painted or sculpted images. Creating an image of the deity, whether in reality or meditatively, requires concentration on every detail. Hence, the act of producing a religious image, and even the act of gazing upon such an image, themselves become forms of meditation. 

The outward appearance of the deities may vary, but their function of aiding the practitioner achieve enlightenment is constant. Different beings have different predominant afflictive emotions (klesha, nyon mongs) preventing them from realizing their true natures, and thus it is said that the Buddha manifested both peaceful and wrathful emanations in order to subdue the neuroses of various types of beings. Wrath itself, however, has no place in Buddhist teachings; the wrathful and furious divinities depicted in Buddhist art trample and burn away all vestiges of the "three poisons" (tri-visha, dug gsum), ignorance, anger, and lust. Their purpose is not to evoke responses of fear, but to free our perception from the constraints of ego-based emotions. Deities are sometimes shown with multiple arms, legs, and heads, portraying their enhanced ability to reach out and accomplish the aims of all sorts of beings. Overtly sexual images of union between male and female deities, very common in Tibetan art, are not, strictly speaking, meant to be regarded as sensual. Rather, they are symbolic of the union of wisdom (female) and compassion (male), the two indispensable qualities of enlightenment. 

Inasmuch as the entire Buddhist world view revolves around the steadfast belief in karma and cyclic existence (samsara, 'khor ba), the processes by which one is helplessly and continually reborn in a succession of unsatisfactory lives, all Tibetan religious art may be said to address to the issues of death and human finitude. Specifically, paintings and statues depicting the perfected states of various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas who have transcended the sorrows of cyclic existence serve as ideal types to which the spiritually inclined may aspire; paintings evoking the "pure lands" or paradises of various Buddhas point to the possibility of a happier, more fulfilling existence for the religious practitioner after death; didactic paintings, such as the "Wheel of Life" (bhava-cakra, srid pa'i 'khor lo) on display here, graphically portray the diverse conditions in which sentient beings find themselves, explain the mechanics of cyclic existence, and suggest the possibility of becoming liberated from such circumstances; certain paintings expressly depict the variously pacific and violent visions said to occur in the intermediate period (antarabhava, bar do) between one's death and rebirth, the viewing of which prepares one to recognize such visions when they actually occur; images of furious "Protectors of the Doctrine" (dharma-pala, chos skyong) adorned with bone ornaments and freshly flayed animal skins serve both as a reminder of the imminence of death, and as an inspiration to make the best use of the opportunities afforded by transitory human existence; and ritual implements and musical instruments are used in ceremonies designed to ward off obstacles and insure fortuitous circumstances for the recently deceased. Moreover, any form of an enlightened being may serve as a basis for offering (mchod rten), thereby enabling the faithful to accumulate merit and achieve a rebirth favorable to spiritual pursuits after death. 

The works of art displayed here have been selected on the basis of their outstanding quality and their ability to illustrate the general and specific themes of the Book of the Dead exhibition. Thanks to the generosity and cooperation of the Bayly Museum of the University of Virginia, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and a number of private collectors, we are fortunate to be able to present some of the finest Tibetan art objects in the region. It is our hope that these outstanding examples of Tibetan religious art will evoke in visitors to this exhibition the rich and vivid symbolic world of the Tibetan Books of the Dead.

 

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