XIzang Autonomous Region = China’s Tibet Province, in case you don’t know.
Tibet’s isolation and unique religious practices have made it the focus of many Western myths.
by Foster Stockwell
by Foster Stockwell
Western concepts of Tibet embrace more myth than reality. The idea that Tibet is an oppressed nation composed of peaceful Buddhists who never did anyone any harm distorts history. In fact the belief that the Dalai Lama is the leader of world Buddhism rather than being just the leader of one sect among more than 1,700 "Living Buddhas" of this unique Tibetan form of the faith displays a parochial view of world religions.
The myth, of course, is an outgrowth of Tibet’s former inaccessibility, which has fostered illusions about this mysterious land in the midst of the Himalayan Mountains — illusions that have been skillfully promoted for political purposes by the Dalai Lama’s advocates. The myth will inevitably die, as all myths do, but until this happens, it would be wise to learn a few useful facts about this area of China.
First, Tibet has been a part of China ever since it was merged into that country in 1239, when the Mongols began creating the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). This was before Marco Polo reached China from Europe and more than two centuries before Columbus sailed to the New World. True, China’s hold on this area sometimes appeared somewhat loose, but neither the Chinese nor many Tibetans have ever denied that Tibet has been a part of China from the Yuan Dynasty to this very day.
The early Tibetans evolved into a number of competing nomadic tribes and developed a religion known as Bon that was led by shamans who conducted rituals that involved the sacrifice of many animals and some humans. These tribes fought battles with each other for better grazing lands, battles in which they killed or made slaves of those they conquered. They roamed far beyond the borders of Tibet into areas of China’s Sichuan and Yunnan provinces, Xinjiang, Gansu, and Qinghai. Eventually one of these tribes, the Tubo, became the most powerful and took control of all Tibet. (The name Tibet comes from Tubo.) During China’s Tang Dynasty (618-907), Emperor Taizong improved relations with the Tubo king, Songtsen Gampo, by giving him one of his daughters, Princess Wenzheng, in marriage. The Tubos, in response to this cementing of relations, developed close fraternal ties with the Tang court, and the two ruling powers regularly exchanged gifts.
The princess arrived in Tibet with an entourage of hundreds of servants, skilled craftspeople, and scribes. She was a Buddhist, as were all of the Tang emperors, and so Buddhism entered Tibet mainly through her influence, only to be suppressed later by resentful Bon shamans. Some years later another Tang princess was married to another Tubo king, again to cement relations between the two rulers.
The fact that the Tibetans and the Chinese had united royal families and engaged actively in trade (Tibetan horses for tea of the Central Plain) didn’t mean an absence of conflict between them. Battles occasionally occurred between Tang and Tubo troops, mostly over territorial issues. At one point in the 750s, the Tubos, taking advantage of a rebellion against the Tangs by other armed groups in China, raced on horseback across China to enter the Tang capital of Chang’an. But, they couldn’t hold the city.
In 838, the Tubo king was assassinated by two pro-Bon ministers, and the Bon religion was re-established as the only acceptable religion in Tibet. Buddhists were widely persecuted and forced into hiding.
Trade between Tibet and the interior areas continued during the Five Dynasties (907-960) and the Song Dynasty (960-1279) that followed the collapse of the Tang, although relations between the two ruling powers were limited. During this time Buddhism revived in Tibet as a result of the Buddhists’ willingness to accommodate some Bon practices. The form of Buddhism that resulted from this merging of the two religions was quite different from that of China and other countries in Southeast Asia, as well as from the form that had been practiced previously in Tibet.
Tibetan Buddhism, often called Lamaism, appealed to the Mongols, who conquered most of Russia, parts of Europe, and all of China under the leadership of Genghis Khan. The Mongols, like the Tibetans, were tribal herders who had a religion of animism similar to Bon.
When Kublai Khan, the first Yuan emperor, appointed administrators to Tibet, he elevated the head of the Tibetan Buddhist Sakya sect to the post of leader of all Buddhists in China, thus giving this monk greater power than any Buddhist had ever held before – and probably since. Needless to say, the appointment irritated the leaders of the other Buddhist sects in Tibet and the much larger group of non-Tibetan Buddhists in China. But, they couldn’t do anything to counter the wishes of the emperor.
The Yuan Dynasty divided Tibet into a series of administrative areas and put these areas under the charge of an imperial preceptor. Furthermore, the Yuan court encouraged the growth of feudal estates in Tibet as a way to maintain control there.
When the Yuan Dynasty collapsed, it was replaced by the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), which wasn’t composed of persons of Mongolian heritage. Tibet then became splintered because the Ming court adopted a policy of granting hereditary titles to many nobles and a policy of divide and rule.
Although the Ming court conferred the honorific title of Desi (ruling lama) to the head of one of Tibet’s most powerful families, the Rinpung family, they also bestowed enough official titles to his subordinates to encourage separatist trends within the local Tibetan society. One of these titles was given to the head of the newly founded Gelugpa sect, better known as the Yellow sect. He later took on the title "Dalai Lama."
Tibet During the Qing Dynasty
The next and last dynasty, the Qing, came to power in 1644 and lasted until 1911. At the time of its founding, the most prominent Tibetan religious and secular leaders were the fifth Dalai Lama, the fourth Panchen Lama, and Gushri Khan. They formed a delegation that arrived at the Chinese capital, Beijing, in 1652.
Before they returned to Tibet the following year, the emperor officially conferred upon Lozang Gyatso (the then Dalai Lama), the honorific title "The Dalai Lama, Buddha of Great Compassion in the West, Leader of the Buddhist Faith Beneath the Sky, Holder of the Vajra." (Dalai is Mongolian for "ocean"; lama is a Tibetan word that means "guru.")
The fifth Dalai Lama pledged his allegiance to the Qing government and in return, received enough gold and silver to build 13 new monasteries of the Yellow sect in Tibet. All successive reincarnations of the Dalai Lama have been confirmed by the central government in China, and this has become a historical convention practiced to this very day.
A later Qing emperor suspected the intentions of the seventh Dalai Lama, so he increased the power of the Panchen Lama (also of the Yellow sect). In 1713 the Qing court granted the title "Panchen Erdeni" to the fifth Panchen Lama, thus elevating him to a status similar to that given to the Dalai Lama (Panchen means "great scholar" in Sanskrit, and Erdeni means "treasure" in Manchu.)