The Religions of Tibet: An Overview
The Need for Religion in Our Present Lives
One reason for the pursuit of religion is that material progress alone will not give lasting pleasure or satisfaction. It seems, indeed that the more we progress materially, the more we have to live under constant fear.
Scientific technology has made marvelous advances, and no doubt will continue to develop. Man may reach the moon and try to exploit its resources for the advantage of human beings-the moon which some ancient believers regarded as the home of their god; and planets may also be conquered. Perhaps in the end, this progress will reveal potential enemies outside our world.
But in any case, it cannot possibly bring ultimate and permanent pleasure to human beings, for material progress always stimulates desire for even further progress, so that such pleasure as it brings is only ephemeral.
On the other hand, when the mind enjoys pleasure and satisfaction, mere material hardships are easy to bear; and if a pleasure is derived purely from the mind itself, it will be a real and lasting pleasure.
No other pleasure can be compared with that derived from spiritual practice. This is the greatest pleasure, and it is ultimate in nature. Different religions have each shown their own way to attain it.
A second reason for the pursuit of religion is that we depend on religion even for the enjoyment of an appreciable amount of material pleasure. Pleasure and pain, in a general sense, do not arise only from external factors, but from internal factors as well.
In the absence of the internal response, no amount of external stimulation can affect pleasure or pain. These internal factors are the after-effects or impressions left on our minds by past actions; as soon as they come into contact with the external factors, we experience pleasure or pain again.
An undisciplined mind expresses evil thoughts by evil actions, and those actions leave evil aftereffects on the mind; and as soon as external stimulation occurs, the mind suffers the consequences of its past actions. Thus, if we suffer miseries, they have their remote causes in the past.
All pleasures and pains have their mental origins; and religions are required because without them, the mind cannot be controlled.
The Need of Religion for our Future Lives
How do we know that there is an afterlife? According to Buddhism, although the nature of cause and effect may be different, they must have the same essential properties, they must have a definite connection; otherwise the same cause cannot result in the same effect. For example, the human body can be perceived-it has form and color-and therefore, its immediate source or cause must also have these qualities.
But mind is formless, and hence its immediate source or cause must also be formless. In analogy, the properties of the seeds of medicinal plants produce medicines, and the seeds of poisonous plants produce poison.
Most beings have physical bodies (though in some regions of existence beings have only minds). Both mind and body must have immediate sources.
Both mind and body begin in this life as soon as conception occurs. The immediate source of a body is that of its parents. But physical matter cannot produce mind, nor mind matter. The immediate source of mind must, therefore, be a mind which existed before the conception took place; the mind must have a continuity from a previous mind. This we hold to prove the existence of a past life.
It has been demonstrated by the accounts of adults and children who remember their past lives-a phenomenon not only found in historical records but also observed today.
On this basis, we can conclude that past life existed, and thence that future life will exist also. If belief in afterlife is accepted, religious practice becomes a necessity, which nothing else can supplant, in the preparation for one’s future life.
One of the Many Religions of the World: Buddhism and its Founder
Just as a particular disease in the world is treated by various medical methods, so there are many religions to bring happiness to human beings and others.
Different doctrines have been introduced by different exponents at different periods and in different ways. But I believe they all fundamentally aim at the same noble goal, in teaching moral precepts to mould the functions of mind, body, and speech. They all teach us not to tell lies, or bear false witness, or steal, or take others’ lives, and so on.
Therefore, it would be better if disunity among the followers of different religions could come to an end. Unity among religions is not an impossible idea. It is possible, and in the present state of the world, it is especially important.
Mutual respect would be helpful to all believers; and unity between them would also bring benefit to unbelievers; for the unanimous flood of light would show them the way out of their ignorance. I strongly emphasize the urgent need of flawless unity among all religions.
To this end, the followers of each religion should know something of other religions, and that is why I want to try to explain a little of the Buddhism of Tibet.
I must begin, however, by saying that it is very difficult to find exact English words to translate the philosophical terms of Buddhism which we use in Tibetan.
It is hardly possible at present to find a scholar who has both a perfect knowledge of English and a perfect knowledge of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy and religion.
Nor are there many authentic translations to consult. Books written or translated in the past have certainly done a great service to Buddhism, but some of them are rather rough translations, giving only superficial meanings.
I hope that in the future this problem will be gradually solved, so that the more profound aspects of our religion can be understood in English. In the meantime, a very free translation is being used [here], in order to make the English as simple as possible.
I myself can only write of these matters with confidence in Tibetan, and have to rely on others, so far, for the precise choice of English words.
I have already explained in the course of my story that we Buddhists believe all beings are reborn, and strive, through a series of lives, toward the perfection of Buddhahood. We do not take it for granted that this perfection will be attained in a single lifetime, although it can be.
Of the mind and body of a man, we consider the mind superior; both speech and body are subject to it. Sins do not affect the intrinsic nature of mind.
The essential mind is naturally pure. Sins are defects of peripheral or secondary minds. In the quest for enlightenment, these defects are removed one by one from the peripheral minds, and when no more defects remain in them, true perfection, or Buddhahood, is attained.
We believe that during the present Kalpa (aeon) a thousand incarnations of supreme Buddhas will come into this world.
These Buddhas were living beings like ourselves before they attained perfection.
They have the power to project reincarnations of their mind, body, and speech into millions of forms within a moment of time, in order to benefit all living beings in millions of worlds like ours.
Each of these supreme incarnations will preach his own doctrine, and will work eternally for the salvation of all living beings.
We regard Lord Buddha, or Gautama Buddha, as he is also called, as one of these thousand Buddhas. He was born in a royal family in India over 2500 years ago.
In the early part of his life, he lived as a prince; but he became aware of cases of suffering which awakened him to the precariousness of human existence, so that he renounced his kingdom and turned to an ascetic life.From the limited point of view of ordinary beings, his life was marked by twelve main events: his descent from the heaven called Tushita, his conception, birth, schooling, marriage, renunciation, penance, meditation under the Bodhi tree (the tree of knowledge), defeat of Mara (the tempter), attainment of Buddhahood, preaching, and departure from Samsara (the round of existence).
His teachings differs from that of other Buddhas, for most of them preached only on Sutras (doctrinal treatises), but he also preached on Tantras (instructions in spiritual method).
After he attained Enlightenment, the perfection of Buddhahood, at Bodh Gaya, he preached three sermons, each at a different place in the part of India called Bihar.
The first, at VAranasi (the modern Benares), was on the Four Noble Truths, about which I shall have more to say.
It was mainly addressed to the Sravakas, meaning “hearers,” who were people spiritually gifted but of limited outlook.
The second sermon, at Girdhakuta, was about Shunyata (Voidness), the nonexistence of an ultimate self-nature, which I shall mention again. This was addressed to Mahayanists, or followers of the Great Way, who were men of the highest intellect.
The third sermon, at Vesali, was mainly meant for Mahayanists of somewhat less acute intellect.
Thus he not only preached on Sutras for Mahayanists and Hinayanists (followers of the Great and Lesser Ways, the two main schools of Buddhism), but also, after attaining the status of Vajra, that is to say on his initiation into the most profound methods, he preached many Tantras for Mahayanists. The great scriptures translated in Tibet under the title of Kangyur are all Lord Buddha’s teachings.
Kangyur is divided is divided into Sutra and Tantra. Sutra again is subdivided into three groups: Vinaya, which deals with teachings on moral codes; Sutantra on meditation; and Abhidharma on philosophical work concerning transcendental wisdom.
These three subdivisions are called Tripitakas, and their fundamental principles are known in Sanskrit as Shila, Samadhi, and Prajnya. The Tantric part of Kangyur has four subdivisions. In Tibet these subdivisions of Tantra are sometimes included in the Sutantra division of the Sutra or Tripitaka.
The Spread of Buddhism in Tibet
Before Buddhism was brought from India to Tibet, the bon religion was widespread in our country. It had originated in the neighboring country of Shang-Shung, and until recently there were still centers in Tibet where the followers of bon pursued deep study and meditation.
In its beginning, I believe, it was not such a fruitful religion, but when Buddhism began to flourish in Tibet, bon also had an opportunity to enrich its own religious philosophy and meditational resources.
It was King Lho-Tho-Ri-Nyen-Tsen of Tibet who first introduced Buddhism to the country, well over a thousand years ago. It spread steadily, and in the course of time, many renowned Pandits of India came to Tibet and translated texts of Sutras and Tantras with their commentaries.
This activity suffered a setback for some years during the reign of the irreligious King Lang-Dhar-Mar in the tenth Christian century; but that temporary eclipse was soon dispelled, and Buddism revived and spread again, starting from the eastern and western parts of Tibet. Soon scholars, both Indian and Tibetan, were busy once more in translating religious works, and distinguished Pandits were visiting our country again for that purpose.
But as Tibet began again to give birth to eminent native scholars, so, from that period, the numbers of scholars who came to Tibet from India and Nepal began gradually to diminish.
Thus, in what may be distinguished as the later period of Buddhism in Tibet, our religion developed separately from the late school of Indian Buddhism. But it remained exactly based on the teachings of Lord Buddha.
In its essentials, it never suffered alterations or additions at the hands of Tibetan Lamas. Their commentaries are clearly distinguishable as commentaries, and they authenticated their work by constant references to the main teachings of Lord Buddha or the Indian Pandits.
For this reason, I cannot think it correct to regard Tibetan Buddhism as separate from the original Buddhism preached in India, or to call it Lamaism, as some people have.
Certainly in minor matters there have been differences due to local conditions-as for example, the effect of climate on the habit worn by the religious.
But I believe that a thorough study of the Tibetan language and Tibetan texts is essential now for any one who would understand the entire teachings of Lord Buddha or the Indian Pandits.
Buddhism, as we have seen, was not brought to Tibet all at once; scriptures were introduced by different scholars at different times.
In India during that period there were great Buddhist institutions, like Nalanda and Vikramsila Universities, which showed slight differences in their style of teaching, although they offered the same fundamental religion and philosophy.
Consequently, separate groups grew into separate organizations or sects, all having the same basic tenets.
The most prominent of these Tibetan schools are the Nyingma, Kagyud, Sakya, and Geluk. Each of them adheres to all the teachings of Hinayana and Mahayana, including Tantrayana, for Tibetan Buddhists do not separate these teachings, but pay equal respect to them all. For moral guidance, they conform to the Vinaya rules which are principally followed by Hinayanists, while for more esoteric practices, of every degree of profundity, they use the methods of the Mahayana and Tantrayana schools.
The Meaning of Chos or Dharma
The Tibetan word Cho is known as Dharma in Sanskrit, and it means “to hold.” All the objects of this world which have definable identities of their own are known as Dharmas.
Another meaning of Dharma “to hold back from impending disaster,” and it is in this sense that Dharma can mean “religion”; religion, that is to say, as opposed to secularism.
Roughly speaking, any noble activities of the mind, body, and speech are Dharma, or religion-which can save or hold one back from disaster. One is said to be practicing religion if one implements these activities.
The Four Noble Truths
Lord Buddha said: “This is true suffering; this is true cause; this is true cessation; this is the true path.” He also said: “Know the sufferings although there is nothing to know; relinquish the causes of misery although there is nothing to relinquish; be earnest in cessation although there is nothing to cease; practice the means of cessation although there is nothing to practice.”
These are three views of the intrinsic nature, action, and ultimate result of the Four Noble Truths.
According to the Madhyamaka theory (originally taught by Nagarjuna, a scholar of the third century of the Christian era), a theory which remains supreme among all the theories of different Buddhist schools, the explanation of these Truths is this:
True suffering means Samsara (the entire round of existence, of birth and rebirth), arising from Karma (that is, action and reaction) and from delusion.
True cause means Karma and delusion, which are the causes of true suffering.
True cessation means the complete disappearance of the preceding two truths.
The true path is the method by which cessation is achieved. Thus the true cause of suffering leads to true suffering, but in following the true path, true cessation is achieved.
Although this is the natural sequence, Lord Buddha preached the Four Truths by putting the effects first and the causes after.
The reason for this was that if the suffering is known, the cause of it may be deduced; and when a strong desire to forsake the cause of suffering exists, means will be found to forsake it.
Samsara and Beings
Samsara is the whole round of existence, and it with its miseries is the true suffering.
To Samsara belongs everything which does not contain its own sufficient cause, every thing which proceeds from a chain of other causes, everything which proceeds from a chain of other causes and thus is involved in Karma and delusion.
Its essential nature is misery, and its function is to give a basis for the production of misery and to attract miseries for the future.
Spatially, Samsara is divided into three worlds-the Sensual World, the World of Form, and the Formless World. The beings in the first of these two enjoy external sensual pleasures.
The second of them, the World of Form, has two parts, in the lower of which the beings cannot enjoy external sensual pleasures but can enjoy undisturbed pleasure of internal contemplation.
In the Formless World, the five sensual objects do not exist, nor do the five sensual organs to enjoy them; only a bare mind, void of distraction, exists and dwells entirely in a state of equanimity.
Samsara may also be divided according to the nature of the beings it contains, and by this means there are six divisions:
GODS: These include beings in the world of celestial forms and of formless spirits, and the six kinds of gods found in the sensual world.
DEMIGODS OR TITANS: These are like gods in every respect except that they are mischievous.
YI-DAG, OR PRETAS: Living spirits who are afflicted constantly with the miseries of hunger and thirst
HELLS: There are different grades of hells, and the living beings in each of them are also of various natures, according to their past karma.
The Causes of the Miseries of Samsara
The true causes of sufferings are Karma and delusion.
Karma has been defined as “concordant action and reaction.” According to the higher schools of Buddhism, it has two divisions, known in Tibetan as Sempa Le and Sampai Le.
Sempai Le is the initial stage of Karma in which physical action is yet to follow: the stage in which there is a subconscious impulse to act. Sampai Le is the subsequent stage in which physical and oral action occurs.
From the point of view of its results, there are three kinds of karma.
Meritorious Karma causes beings to take rebirth in the realms of gods, demigods, and men. Demeritorious Karma causes rebirth in the lower realms of animals, pretas and hells.
Thirdly, Achala Karma, Invariable Karma, causes beings to take rebirth in the upper worlds, Rupa and Arupa Dhatu, a world of form and a formless world. The results of Karma may be experienced in this present life, or in the next life, or in subsequent lives.
Delusion is not a part of the essential or central mind which, as I have said, is intrinsically pure: it is a defect of one of the peripheral or secondary minds.
When this secondary mind is stimulated, delusion becomes influential, dominating the central mind and causing sin.
There are very many kinds of delusion: passion, anger, pride, hatred, hostility and so on.
Passion and hostility are the main delusions: by passion we mean a passionate attachment to men or things.
Passion may become self-attachment or egois, and from it one may develop pride through a sense of superiority; or, on encountering hostility toward oneself, one may develop a counter-hatred.
Again, through ignorance and lack of understanding, one may be led to oppose the truth. This strong “I-consciousness” has been fostered in all beings in Samsara since time immemorial, and they are so habituated to it that they experience it even in their dreams.
In fact, all cognizable things are empty from their nature, but through delusion they appear as self-originating and self-sufficing entities. Conversely, this distorted conception is at the root of all delusions.
The Essence of Nirvana
Samsara, in another sense, implies bondage. Nirvana implies liberation from this bondage: the true cessation, the third of the Noble Truths. I have explained that the causes of Samsara and Karma and delusion.
If the roots of delusion are thoroughly extracted, if creation of new Karma to cause rebirth in the Samsara is brought to and end, if there are no more delusions to fertilize the residual Karmas of the past., then the continual rebirth of the suffering being will cease.
But such a being will not cease to exist. It has always existed in a body with a mortal residue, a body given birth by previous karma and delusion.
But after the cessation of rebirth, after the liberation from Samsara and the achievement of Nirvana, it will continue to have consciousness and a spiritual body free of delusion. This is the meaning of the true cessation of suffering.
Nirvana can indicate a lower stage, in which there simply no suffering, and also it can mean the highest stage, called Mahaparinirvana.
This is the stage of supreme Enlightenment, total and unqualified, free from all moral and mental defilement, and from the defilement caused by the power of discriminative thought: the stage of Buddhahood.
A prescribed path must be followed to attain either of the states of Nirvana described above: the true path, the fourth of the Noble Truths.
Hinayana and Mahayana represent two schools of thought concerning this path. Hinayanists, the followers of the Lesser Way, basically seek to attain Nirvana for the individual’s own sake.
According to this school, the mind should have a strong will to renounce Samsara; it should pursue religious ethics (Sila), and simultaneously practice concentration (Samadhi) and meditation (Vipessana, Tibetan: Lhag-thong), so that delusion and the seeds of delusion may be purged, and may not grow again.
Thus Nirvana is attained. The paths to be followed include the Paths of Preparation, of Application, of Seeing, of Practice, and of Fulfillment.
Mahayanists aim at attaining the highest stage of Nirvana, Buddhahood, for the sake not only of the individual but of all other sentient beings.
Motivated by the thought of Enlightenment (Bodhichitta) and by compassion, they follow almost the same paths as those of Hinayana. But in addition to those paths, they practice other methods (Upayas) such as the six Paramitas (transcendent virtues).
By this practice, Mahayanists seek not only to rid themselves of delusion but also of the defilement of sin, and thus to attain Buddhahood.
The five Mahayanic paths are likewise known as the Paths of Preparation, Application, Seeing, Practice and Fulfillment.
But although the names of the paths are the same as those of Hinayana, there is a qualitative difference between them.
And since Mayanists have a different fundamental motive and in general follow different paths and practice different methods, the final goal which they achieve is different.
The question is sometimes asked whether Hinayanists, having achieved Nirvana, will be confined to the stage they have attained, or whether they will subsequently follow the Mahayana.
The answer must be that they will not regard their own stage of Nirvana as the final goal, but will certainly then adopt ways to attain Buddhahood.
The paths I have mentioned are doctrinal paths, and they must be followed to provide a sound foundation before Tantrayana (the way of Yogic Method) is practiced.
In Tibet, the greatest care was taken before any Tantric doctrine was introduced.
Spiritual teachers always investigated whether the doctrine was among those preached by Lord Buddha, and submitted it to logical analysis by competent Pandits, and also tested its effects in the light of experience, before confirming its authenticity and adopting it.
This was necessary because there are many non-Buddhist Tantric doctrines which were apt to be confused with those of Buddhism because of superficial resemblances.
The Tantryana falls into four classes, and it has a vast number of treatises which cannot be enumerated here.
In the simplest terms, this is its system: as already explained, bad Karmas are held responsible for the various kinds of miseries we suffer.
These bad Karmas are created through delusion. Delusion is essentially due to an undisciplined mind. The mind should therefore be disciplined and trained by stopping the flow of evil thought.
This flow may be stopped, and the wandering or projecting mind brought to rest, by concentration on the physical make up of one’s body and the psychological make up of one’s mind.
The mind may also be focused on external objects of contemplation.
For this, strong contemplative powers are needed, and the figures of deities are found to provide the most suitable objects. For this reason, there are many images of deities in Tantrayana.
These are not arbitrary creations. Images, as objects of contemplation to purify the body, mind, and senses have to be created in wrathful as well as peaceful aspects, and sometimes with multiple heads and hands, to suit the physical, mental, and sensual aptitudes of different individuals in striving for the final goal.
Progress towards this goal is achieved in some cases mainly through a strong power of faith and devotion, but in general it is achieved by the power of reason.
And if the transcendental path is systematically followed, reason will provide in the course of it many causes for heartfelt belief.
Every religious path has a Wisdom (Prajna) and a Method (Upaya).
Wisdom is concerned with Absolute Truth (Paramarthasatya), and Method with Relative Truth (Sambrithsatya).
Nagarjuna has said: “Dharmas revealed by the Buddhas are always fully in accordance with the Dual Truths, both Absolute and Relative Truth.”
When the final end, Buddhahood, is achieved, an individual acquires two forms of Buddha Kayas or Bodies.
These two Kayas are effects of his practice of Wisdom and Method in following the doctrinal paths; and his Wisdom and Method are the results of the two truths which provide the universal basis.
An understanding of the Dual Truths is therefore very important, but it involves some difficulties. Different schools of Buddhist thought hold different views concerning these truths.
According to Uma Thal Gyurpa (the theory of Madhyamaka held by the Prasangika School of Buddhism), things we perceive with our senses have two aspects-perceptible and imperceptible.
Roughly speaking, Relative Truth is concerned with the knowledge of things and of mental concepts in their perceptible aspects, and Absolute Truth with knowledge of their imperceptible aspects.
Universal Voidness and True Cessation are Absolute Truths; all else is relative.
Outline of the Method of Following Buddhism
The perfect practice of Buddhism is not achieved merely through superficial changes, for example through leading a monastic life or reciting from holy books.
It is even open to question whether these activities in themselves should be called religious or not; for religion should be practiced in the mind.
If one has the right mental attitude, all actions of body and speech can become religious. But if one lacks the right attitude, if one does not know how to think properly, one will achieve nothing even by spending the whole of one’s life in monasteries and in reading from the scriptures.
So that proper mental attitude is the first essential. One should take the Three Jewels-Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha-as one’s final refuge; one should observe the laws of Karma and its fruits; and one should cultivate thoughts of benefit to other beings.
If religion is earnestly followed by renouncing the world, it brings great joy to its follower. There are many people in Tibet who have renounced the world in this way, and they gain an indescribable mental and physical satisfaction.
The sum total of worldly pleasure, gained though the motive of self-love and the struggle to fulfill that love, is not comparable to a fraction of it.
Such people are also of the greatest benefits to others, by virtue of their own inward state, which enables them to diagnose not only the true causes but also the true remedies of the ills of mankind. And yet this renouncing of the world is not possible for everybody, because the sacrifices it demands are very great.
What sort of Dharma, what sort of religion, can then be prescribed for people in ordinary walks of life?
Immoral worldly activities, of course, are to be ruled out; these activities are never compatible with any religion.
But morally justifiable activities, such as helping to administer the government of a country, or indeed anything useful and productive, any steps towards promoting the pleasure and happiness of others, can certainly go together with the practice of Dharma.
Kings and ministers of India and Tibet have promoted Dharma. Salvation can be achieved, if one truly seeks for it, merely in leading a household life.
But there is a saying: “People who make no mental effort, even if they remain in retreats in the mountains, like animals hibernating in their holes, only accumulate causes for descending into hell.”
Perhaps I may conclude with an old Tibetan story:
Once long ago there was a famous lama whose name was Drom. One day he saw a man walking around a stupa. “Look,” he said, “it is quite a good thing hat you walk around a stupa. But it would be better to practice religion.”
“Well, I had better read a holy book then,” the man said to himself. And so he started laboriously reading from a book till one day Drom happened to see him again.
“Reading from a holy book is not doubt very good,” Drom said, but it would be better still if you would practice religion.”
And the man thought: “Even recitation is no good. How about meditation?”
Before long, Drom saw him in meditation and said: “It is no doubt never good to meditate. But it would really be better if you would practice religion.” The bewildered man replied.
“Turn your mind away from the forms of this worldly life,” Drom told him. “Turn your mind towards religion.”
The above text is excerpted from His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s autobiography, My Land and My People.