History And Culture Of Tibet Cultural Studies Essay

Published: Last Edited:

This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.

Tibet is a plateau region in Asia, north of the Himalayas, and the home to the indigenous Tibetan people and some other ethnic groups. With an average elevation of 4,900 metres (16,000 ft), it is the highest region on Earth and has in recent decades increasingly been referred to as the "Roof of the World".

In the history of Tibet, it has been an independent country, divided into different countries, and a part of China each for a certain amount of time. Tibet was first unified under King Songs Gampo in the seventh century. A government nominally headed by the Dalai Lamas, a line of spiritual leaders, ruled Tibet beginning in the 1640s. The 13th Dalai Lama proclaimed Tibet independent from China in 1913, but this declaration was not accepted by China. Furthermore, Tibet was not recognized by any country as a de jure independent nation. As a measure of the power that regents must have wielded, it is important to note that only three of the fourteen Dalai Lamas have actually ruled Tibet; regents ruled during 77 percent of the period from 1751 until 1960. The Communist Party of China gained control of central and western Tibet (Tibet area controlled by the Dalai Lama) after a decisive military victory at Chamdo in 1950. The 14th Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959.

Today, Tibet is part of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in reality and claimed by the Republic of China (ROC) in its constitution[4] while a small part, according to the PRC and the ROC, is controlled by India. Both sides of Chinese government regard Tibet as part of China. Currently, Beijing and the Government of Tibet in Exile disagree over when Tibet became a part of China, and whether the incorporation into China of Tibet is legitimate according to international law. Since what constitutes Tibet is a matter of much debate neither its size nor population are simple matters of fact, due to various entities claiming differing parts of the area as a Tibetan region.

The Tibetan Plateau covers an area about half that of the lower 48 United States and is bounded by the deserts of the Tarim and Qaidam Basins to the north and the Himalayan, Karakoram, and Pamir mountain chains to its south and west. Its eastern margin is more diffuse and consists of a series of alternating deep forested valleys and high mountain ranges that run approximately north-south, bounded by the lowlands of the Sichuan Basin of China.

Tibetan Art

Tibetan art refers to the art of Tibet and other present and former Himalayan kingdoms (Bhutan, Ladakh, Nepal, and Sikkim). Tibetan art is first and foremost a form of sacred art, reflecting the over-riding influence of Tibetan Buddhism on these cultures.

As Mahayana Buddhism emerged as a separate school in the 4th century BC it emphasized the role of bodhisattvas, compassionate beings who forego their personal escape to Nirvana in order to assist others. From an early time various bodhisattvas were also subjects of statuary art. Tibetan Buddhism, as an offspring of Mahayana Buddhism, inherited this tradition. But the additional dominating presence of the Vajrayana (or Buddhist tantra) may have had an overriding importance in the artistic culture. A common bodhisattva depicted in Tibetan art is the deity Chenrezig (Avalokitesvara), often portrayed as a thousand-armed saint with an eye in the middle of each hand, representing the all-seeing compassionate one who hears our requests. This deity can also be understood as a Yidam, or 'meditation Buddha' for Vajrayana practice.

More specifically, Tibetan Buddhism contains Tantric Buddhism, also known as Vajrayana Buddhism for its common symbolism of the vajra, the diamond thunderbolt (known in Tibetan as the dorje). Most of the typical Tibetan Buddhist art can be seen as part of the practice of tantra. Vajrayana techniques incorporate many visualizations/imaginations during meditation, and most of the elaborate tantric art can be seen as aids to these visualizations; from representations of meditational deities (yidams) to mandalas and all kinds of ritual implements.

A surprising aspect of Tantric Buddhism is the common representation of wrathful deities, often depicted with angry faces, circles of flame, or with the skulls of the dead. These images represent the Protectors (Skt. dharmapala) and their fearsome bearing belies their true compassionate nature. Actually their wrath represents their dedication to the protection of the dharma teaching as well as to the protection of the specific tantric practices to prevent corruption or disruption of the practice. They are most importantly used as wrathful psychological aspects that can be used to conquer the negative attitudes of the practitioner.

The indigenous shamanistic religion of the Himalayas is known as Bon. Bon contributes a pantheon of local tutelary deities to Tibetan art. In Tibetan temples (known as lhakhang), statues of the Buddha or Padmasambhava are often paired with statues of the tutelary deity of the district who often appears angry or dark. These gods once inflicted harm and sickness on the local citizens but after the arrival of Padmasambhava these negative forces have been subdued and now must serve Buddha.

The art of Tibet may be studied in terms of influences which have contributed to it over the centuries.

Tibetan art can be grouped into three parts:

1. Flat - Paintings which include 'Thangka', Fresco, Wooden Tablet and Sand Painting

2. Solid - 3-dimension - objects which include Bronze, Clay Sculpture, Clay Modeling, Wooden Carving, Stone Carving, Ritual Objects, Butter Sculpture, Mask and Cazha, and

3. Costumes - The thangkas are painted or embroidered images rendered on cloth, silk or paper which is mounted on a cloth backing and may be rolled up like a scroll when not hung.

A thangka composed of strung pearls is kept in Dradrug Monastery in Shannan. Thangka is a special art of Tibet. The material used for thangka is linen cloth or coarse woolen fabric or silk or paper. The cloth needs to be prepared first and then the artist works out the sketches of the portraits with charcoal sticks. The drawing usually begins at the center. Colouring comes last. The pigments used come from non-transparent minerals and plants such as malachite and cinnabar. They are mixed with animal glue and ox bile to make the lustre stay.

There are many schools of painting which may be classified as the Eastern Tibetan, the Middle Tibetan, the Western Tibetan. The Eastern Tibetan was the oldest and heavily influenced by those of the Han nationality. This style is individualistic and probably too free for the taste of Buddhists. The Western school began after the Indian master Atisa came to Tibet in the 11th century (Song Dynasty). Atisa brought Nepalese painters to work according to the rigid rules. The Middle Tibetan School is an integration of the above two.

Tibetan fresco painting is an important part of Tibetan art. The painting of Buddha image must follow the rigid principles and the proportion diagrams set out in the `Pratibimbalaksana-sutra' (`The Textbook on Measurements for Image-Making') and the `Pratibimbamana-laksana (`Measurements for Painting') in the Silpakarmasthana-vidya. The finished product is well-proportioned, stately and serene-looking deity.

The pigments used are similar to the one used for thangka painting. Frescoes cover wider range of subjects than thangkas do. They include the images of Buddha in his many manifestations, portraits of saints, great masters, founders of various Buddhist sects and the stories of their lives, wars, scenes of manual labour, construction of monastories and everyday life of the people. They are especially effective in creating a mystic atmosphere in the monasteries which will lead the viewers to believe that `this is where the Buddha resides'.

Wooden Tablet Painting represents yet another branch of Tibetan art. Its subjects and pictorial composition are similar to those of thangka and the difference is that the pictures are drawn on wooden tablets of various shapes. Some of them have handles attached to them for holding and hanging.

The materials for Sand Painting are coloured sand and minerals. They are filled inside a cone with a tiny hole at the tip. Many disperses though the hole will form a single line in the picture. The subject is usually `mandala'.

As Buddhism believes in the worship of idols (as against a teaching of Buddha), the production of the images of Buddhas and other deities must follow the strict rules prescribed in the cannon for their faces, gestures, the ornaments they wear and the objects they hold. The Tibetan artists absorbed the influences of the art of Han, Nepalese and Indian sculpture and developed a style and craft of their own which was distinctively Tibetan. The shaping of a bronze is a complicated process. It is so difficult and time-consuming that sometimes many artists spent all their lives making them but did not live to see them completed.

There are numerous Clay sculptures preserved to the present day. Most of them are sculptures of Buddhas, saints and great figures. Some of them are with treasures preserved inside.

Clay modeling of miniature Buddhist image, called `phyag-tsha' or `tsha-tsha' in Tibetan, represents a form of artistic expression in Tibetan Buddhism. As the modelings are not difficult to make and the material is easily obtainable, such objects of art are turned out in large quantities by Tibetan. They can be found almost everywhere.

These beautiful engravings lavishly decorate the columns, beams, door, windows and cross-beam supports in Tibetan monasteries and temples. Shrines, platforms seating deities, altars, stupas and some ritual objects are often adorned with wood carving or stone carving.

Most Butter Sculptures produced in Lhasa and elsewhere are made for the Lamp Festival on the fifteenth day of the first month of the Tibetan year. The butter is first mixed with ice water, then mineral dyes mixed in. Working on a wooden support, a world of flowers and grass and towers and buildings, populated with men and animals and deities, is then created.

Masks depict the range of beings from deities to men and animals, qiangmu religious dances and folk tales. Those depicting humans are carved to display a certain characteristic such as honesty, harshness, greed or humor. Animals depicted are mainly deer, yaks, sheep and birds.

"Cazha" is an ancient traditional form of sculpture creating mainly the statues of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Engraved on the back of the wall are scriptures of prayers for good luck and prosperity. The wall is an object of various size, the wall, therefore, is called "Thousand-Buddha wall".

Tibetan Religion

Tibetan Buddhist practices often come from the ancient Tibetan religion of Bon. Likewise, Tibet also borrows a few elements of culture from its neighbors. Art, literature, and music all contain elements of Buddhist religion, and this can be seen in many different ways.

The Tibetan Buddhism is Great Vehicle (Mahayana) Buddhism. There are two parts of it: the Exoteric and the Esoteric Buddhisms. The Tibetan Exoteric Buddhism is based on Madhyamika (dBu-ma, `middle way') of Nagarjuna. The Tibetan Esoteric Buddhism, which is different from all other Esoteric Buddhisms, makes the Tibetan Buddhism unique. The Tibetan Buddhism requests the study of the Exoteric Buddhism as the foundation and puts the Tibetan Esoteric Buddhism as the most advanced form of Buddhism. We assume that our visitors have a basic knowledge of the Exoteric Buddhism.

The doctrine of the Tibetan Esoteric (i.e. Tantric) Buddhism is based on `Mahavairocana-sutra', and `Kalacakraindriya-sutra'. Its theory may be summarized as follows: "taking the six elements as essence", "five Buddhas and five wisdoms", "taking the four mandalas as appearance", "taking the three secrets as means", "cause, base, final means" and "anger and fear".

"Taking the six elements as essence" is the Esoteric interpretation of the origin of the cosmos. According to the Esoteric Buddhism, the six elements, the earth, water, fire, wind, air and ether ( consciousness), make up the dhamakaya (cosmic body) of the Mahavairocana. They provide the nature of all creation and are at once the source and the foundation of the existence of all phenomena. As they are possessed by all beings in the universe, they exist in the mind of the laity. This is the something Buddha shares with the layman. However, according to the Esoteric Buddhism, the laity are incapable of recognizing the nature of cosmic beings, "unless they are aided by the supreme benevolent power of the Tathagata", which means the practice of "the three secrets" is necessity if one wishes to purify one's mind and recognize the nature of all cosmic beings.

The three secrets are: body secret, speech secret and mind secret. The follower must conform his body, speech and mind to those of the Buddha. "Taking the three secrets as means" refers to a form of meditation during which the meditator, with specified gestures and in specified sitting posture, recites the true teaching of the Satyadevata or yidam (the most honoured of all Buddhas) while concentrating on evoking the deity's image before his inward eye. For the follower, it is not enough to do no evil, for he must impress the image of Satyadevata deeply in his mind. It is not enough to not use any coarse and foul language, for he must recite the deity's true teaching: it is not enough to entertain no wicked ideas, for he must never forget the vows and wishes of the Satyadevata. By doing so, he will eventually be "purified", achieve "the perfect body of the Buddha", and "reach the Buddhahood in the present body".

"The four mandalas" refers to the different types of mandala. The mandala in Sanskrit (Tibetan: dkyil-vkhor) means "rostrum" or "rostrum ground". In ancient India, the mandala was a round or square mud platform at a meditation site erected to ward off "demons" during meditation sessions of the Esoteric Buddhists. When a king ascended to the throne, or when a monk was ordained, the ceremony would take place on a mandala. To these ceremonies, all the deities representing the past, present and the future from all the cosmic compass points (east, west, south, north, northeast, northwest, southeast and southwest from high above and down below) would be invited as witnesses to these occasions, and on the platform their images would be drawn. Later on, different types of mandala were developed, of which the following four are the most common:

1. The Great Mandala, at which the presence of the deities from their respective areas are drawn in green, yellow, red, white and black to represent "the earth, water, fire, wind and air".

2. The Samadhi mandala, at which the presence of the deities is shown not by the drawings of their images, but by those of the pearls, swords or wheels they carry so that the mediators may associates these objects with the images of the deities and practise visionary meditation.

3. The Dhama Mandala, at which the deities are not represented by the drawings of their images, or those of the objects they carry, for it is believed that the sight of the initial syllables in Sanskrit of their titles will invoke their images in meditators.

4. The Karma Mandala, where carved, sculptured or cast figures of the deities are set up to impress the meditators with the vivid, life-like sight of these deities.

The mandala is the manifestation of the Mahavairocana and the occasion on which he spreads his teachings to earthy beings so that the worshippers of mandalas, with the aid of the Tathagata, will be able to "dispel the clouds of troubles and spiritual obstacles". As the spiritual communication with deities can be done only by means of the four mandalas and by reciting their true teachings, the practice is described as "taking the four mandalas as appearance".

"Five Buddhas and five wisdoms" is one of the major doctrines of the Tibetan Esoteric Buddhism. According to the doctrine, one will not "reach Buddhahood in the present body" just by reciting the true teachings and practising the mandala. He needs the five wisdoms of the Five Dhyani-Buddhas (Vairocana, Aksobhya, Ratnasambhava, Amitabha and Amoghavajra), namely the wisdom of the universal law, the wisdom of the mirror, the wisdom of equality, the wisdom of distinction and discernment, and the wisdom of accomplishing works. When a person has acquired the five wisdoms, he will be able to achieve Buddhahood without abstaining from meat,wine or sex. However, these wisdoms cannot be obtained unless they are passed on by the guru himself. The concept represented by "the five wisdoms" is a spiritual requirement, essential to anyone seeking Buddhahood. It is a concept which promised mystical transforming power.

The "cause, base and final means" is the condensed version of the three lines in the Mahavairocana-sutra:

The mind of bodhi is the cause.

The great compassion is the base.

The upaya (path,method) is the final means.

The first line means that followers of the Esoteric doctrine must first achieve the mind of bodhi. such mind will grow like a seed and eventually lead one to Buddhahood. Without this mind, no one can hope to be accepted by the Buddha, and therefore is not qualified for the practice of the Esoteric doctrine. The second line means that the follower must also be a person of great compassion. This compassion will enable him to liberate all beings by encouraging them to practise virtuous deeds in much the same way as root and trunk of a tree give the tree its leaves, blossoms and fruits; hence the term "the base".

The third line means the path the follower takes and the flexibility he is given. "The final means" may be interpreted as "thoroughness" and "the end", representing the objective, while "upaya" can be taken to mean "flexibility" and "ingenuity" in pursuing the final means. In other words, the follower in his pursuit of Buddhahood, may, when condition warrants it, be excused from the observance of some rules of Buddhist discipline. For example, Buddhism forbids sex, but followers of the Esoteric Buddhism may have female companions for meditation.

The practice of having female companions for meditation is called " the union of voidness and happiness" or the union of the two polarities (yab-yum). This practice, based on the theory of the Mahavairocana-sutra and the Vajrasekhara-sutra, is a distinctive feature of the Esoteric Buddhism. Sex is strictly forbidden by the Exoteric Buddhism, but it is part of meditation practice in the Esoteric Buddhism.

As Vajrasekhara-sutra says, "How pure is man's mind! It's only natural that lust should change him. Keeping away from lust will restore purity in him, and keeping away from lust means conquering it with another form of lust." Sex is thus shrouded in mysticism and given the role of "conquering lust". It becomes a mean by which the follower of the Esoteric Buddhism can achieve self-purification of his nature.

According to the Esoteric Buddhism, "the attraction of lust will draw one into the realm of the wisdom of the Buddha", that is, by means of carnal love the bodhisattva leads one to liberation. This accounts for the fact that the Esoteric Buddhism treats women as offerings. What "The Collected Works of Buddhism Literature" terms as "love for offerings": refers to the love for women. This theme is repeated in the Mahavairocana-sutra, which says,"Satisfy the desire for sex so that all beings will be happy."

According to the Esoteric Buddhism, Mahavairocana lives in Heaven like an earthy being- accompanied by the Marici (Queen of Heaven) and surrounded by female attendants. As a result, the rajas (devas and vajras), instructed by Mahavairocana to subdue demons, are in their "wrathful forms" accompanied by devis, their female counterparts.

The Esoteric Buddhism preaches the idea of "taking upaya (compassion) as father and prajra (wisdom) as mother" and takes the union of rajas and devis in each other's embrace as the symbol of "the union of compassion and wisdom". To a follower of the Esoteric Buddhism, his spiritual teacher is his father, and the teacher's female companion his mother (dakini), and the great union of happiness of man and woman is the path which will lead to the "acquisition of supernatural powers (siddhi)". This explains why yab-yum is also called "the path of women".

The yab-yum, together with its practice that the teaching of the disciple by his teacher is done only privately, has produced a symbolic and arcane language used during meditation. For example, the phallus is called "vajra", the vulva becomes "the lotus flower" (padma), and copulation is described as "entering into the realm of samaya". Yab-yum and the concept of great happiness originated in Saktism (Shaktism). According to this sect, all cosmic beings were created by the sexuality of goddesses. Copulation, therefore, was regarded as a form of worship of the goddesses and an expression of reverence for them. These notions were borrowed by the Esoteric Buddhism and, combined with Buddhism doctrines, produced the theory of "the union of voidness and happiness".

In addition to Queen of Heaven and the devis, among the deities revered by the Esoteric Buddhists are, the Rdo-rje gro-lod (the Wrathful Guardian Deity) and the Bhairava Vajra (the fearful Guardian Deity), who are the two deities representing the doctrine of "wrath" and "fear". Rdo-rje and Bhairava Vajra are names for all wrathful and fearful-looking vajras. According to tradition, the Buddha may appear in two forms: sometimes in his real form of Kindness and at other times in his wrathful manifestation.

The Mahabhairava Vajra, the principal deity of the Dge-lugs-pa Sect (gelug-pa, new yellow hat), for example, is the wrathful manifestation of Amitayus. The Mahabhairava Vajra, whose duty is to subdue flaming demons, has six faces, six arms, six feet and three eyes. He holds in his hands various kinds of sceptres.

He rides a green water-buffalo, wears a helmet studded with human skulls, and has a tiger's skin for a kilt. With flames emitting from his body, he looks extremely wrathful and fear-striking. This fearful look is intended to demonstrate to all beings that to themselves from avidya (ignorance) they must break down all spiritual barriers with the power of wisdom, and overwhelm demons with all the power they possess.

In Buddhist terms, all spiritual and material obstacles to Buddhahood are demons which must be tamed, resisted or brought under control with one's innate strength.

Tibetan Clothing

The Tibetan robes, which serve as blankets at night, are very long and are worn down to the knees with the extra length tucked and held up by a waistband or belt. The robe produces two large pockets, one in front and another at the back, for people to carry things, including baby. When it is hot in the daytime, Tibetans will undress the right arms to disperse heat. If it is even hotter, then one may undress both arms and tie the sleeves around the waist.

A Khata is a traditional ceremonious scarf given in Tibet. It symbolizes goodwill, auspiciousness and compassion. It is usually made of silk and white symbolising the pure heart of the giver. The khata is a highly versatile gift. It can be presented at any festive occasions to a host or at weddings, funerals, births, graduations, arrivals and departure of guests etc. The Tibetans commonly give a kind acknowledgment of "Tashi Delek" (meaning good luck) at the time of presenting.

Tibetan Music

The music of Tibet reflects the cultural heritage of the trans-Himalayan region, centered in Tibet but also known wherever ethnic Tibetan groups are found in India, Bhutan, Nepal and further abroad. First and foremost Tibetan music is religious music, reflecting the profound influence of Tibetan Buddhism on the culture.

Tibetan music often involves chanting in Tibetan or Sanskrit, as an integral part of the religion. These chants are complex, often recitations of sacred texts or in celebration of various festivals. Yang chanting, performed without metrical timing, is accompanied by resonant drums and low, sustained syllables. Other styles include those unique to the various schools of Tibetan Buddhism, such as the classical music of the popular Gelugpa school, and the romantic music of the Nyingmapa, Sakyapa and Kagyupa schools.

Nangma dance music is especially popular in the karaoke bars of the urban center of Tibet, Lhasa. Another form of popular music is the classical gar style, which is performed at rituals and ceremonies. Lu are a type of songs that feature glottal vibrations and high pitches. There are also epic bards who sing of Tibet's national hero Gesar.