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Tibetan Buddhism
It received a boost when it was actively promoted in the 7th century during the reign of King Songtsen Gampo (?- 649 or 650 AD), who married a Nepalese Princess as well as a Chinese Princess, both of whom were Buddhists. As part of their dowries, they brought many Buddhist scriptures and statues to Tibet. As a consequence, Buddhism began to infiltrate Tibetan culture and to displace the indigenous Bon religion. However, during Landama's (or Lang Darma) reign, Buddhism was banned and went into decline. The distinct form of Tibetan Buddhism also called Lamaism developed during the 10th century and it became firmly established from this time onwards. Tibetan Buddhism has its particular form as it absorbed aspects of the Bon religion as it gradually established its dominance. Tibetan Buddhism also spread into neighboring provinces and countries. As the years passed a number of different sects evolved and which were to develop political as well as religious influence.
Tibetan Buddhism is based on Madhyamika and Yogacara and belongs to the Mahayana school. It also utilizes the symbolic ritual practices of Tantric Buddhism (Vajrayana) while incorporating features of the indigenous Tibetan Bon religion that had continued its opposition to the new faith. The influence of Tantric doctrines and Bon make much more mystical than other forms of Buddhism. There is a strong reliance on mudras (ritual postures), mantras (sacred speech), yantras (sacred art) and secret initiation rites.
Tibetan Buddhism has many sects and sub sects of which the following five are the most influential.
Tibetan Buddhist Sects and Characteristics
Numerous Buddhist Acts emerged after the mid-11th century, including the Nyingma, Gatang, Sagya, Gagyu, Zhigyed, Gyoyul, Gyonang, Kodrag and Xalhu sects. The latter five were rather weak owing to the lack of political support. They were thus forced to join force or were otherwise annexed by other sects, and as individual entities fell into the oblivion of the long flow of history. The following five sects enjoyed impressive popularity:
Nyingma Sect : The sect, founded in the 11th century, is also known as the Red Sect and is the oldest sect of Tibetan Buddhism. The sect paid great attention to absorbing the fine points of the Bon religion and, at the same time, did its best to locate Buddhist sutras secreted away when Darma moved to suppress Buddhism. Based on its practice of Buddhism deeply rooted in the Tubo Kingdom of the 8th century, the sect called itself Nyingma, a word meaning ancient and old in the Tibetan language. Monks of the Nyingma Sect wore red hats, hence the name the Red Sect. The Red Sect mainly advocates the study of Tantrism. Its theory was strongly influenced by Han Chine language Buddhism, and is quite similar with the theory of Ch'an School of Buddhism in China's hinterland. Today, the Red Sect is not only active in Tibetans inhabited areas in China, but also in India, Bhuttan, Nepal, Belgium, Greece and France, as well as in the Unite States.
Gatang Sect : The Gatang Sect, founded in 1056, primarily advocated the study of Exoteric teachings, with later emphasis on Tantrism. In the Tibetan language, Ga refers to the teachings of Buddha, with tang meaning instruction. The combination Gatang thus refers to advising people to accept Buddhism based on the teachings of Buddha. Its doctrines were promoted far and wide and thus exerted great influence on various Tibetan Buddhist sects. However, along with the rise of the Gelug Sect in the 15th century, the Gatang Sect dissolved with its monks and monasteries merging with the former.
Sagya Sect : Sagya means "white land'' in the Tibetan language. The Sagya Sect, founded in 1703, derived its name from the fact that the Sagya Monastery, the sect's most important monastery, is grayish white in color. Enclosures in the sect's monasteries are painted with red, white and black stripes, which respectively symbolize the Wisdom Buddha, the Goddess of Mercy and the Diamond Hand Buddha. Hence, the sect is also known as the Stripe Sect. The ever increasing influence of the sect and the expansion of feudal forces throughout its formation led to the increasing fame of the "five Sagya Sect Forefathers''. The Fourth Forefather Sapan Gonggar Gyaincain was summoned to Liangzhou in 1247 by the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) ruler to dialup matters concerning Tibet pledging allegiance to the Yuan Dynasty. This was followed by Sapan bringing various feudal forces in Tibet under control of the Mongols. Following the death of Sapan, Pagan, the Fifth Forefather of the Sagya Sect, emerged as a high-ranking official in the Yuan court. Pagba Was granted honorary titles such as "State Tutor", ''Imperial Tutor'' and ''Great Treasure Prince of Dharma.'' Thereafter, the Sagya Sect emerged as the Yuan Dynasty representative in Tibet. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) , Gonggar Zhaxi, an eminent monk with the Sagya Sect, journeyed to Nanjing, capital of the Ming Dynasty, to pay homage to Emperor Yongle. Gongar was granted an honorary title as the "Mahayana Prince of Dharma'', one of the three Princes of Dharma.
Gagyu Sect : The Gagyu Sect, founded in the 11th century, stresses the study of Tantrism and advocates that Tantrist tenets be passed down orally from one generation to another. Hence the name Gagyu, which in the Tibetan language means "passing down orally.'' Marba and Milha Riba, the founders of the Gagyu Sect, wore white monk robes when practicing Buddhism, leading to the name White Sect. In the early years, the White Sect was divided into the Xangba Gagyu which declined in the 14th and to 15th centuries, and the Tabo Gagyu. The Tabo Gagyu was powerful and its branch sects were either in power in their respective localities or otherwise dominant amongst feudal forces.
Gelug Sect : The Gelug Sect, founded in 1409, was the most famous Buddhist sect in Tibetan history dating to the 15th century. The sect was founded during the reform of Tibetan Buddhism initiated by Zongkapa. Zongkapa himself was born at a time when the Pagmo Zhuba replaced the Sagya Regime in power. At that time, upper-class monks involved in political and economic power struggle led a decadent life, and rapidly lost popularity with society. Faced with this situation, Zongkapa called for efforts to follow Buddhist tenets. He proceeded to undertake lecture tours in many areas and wrote books accusing decadent monks of failing to abide by Buddhist tenets. Zongkapa spared no effort to press ahead with Buddhist reform. For example, in the first month of 1409 according to Tibetan calendar, Zongkapa initiated the Grand Summons Ceremony in Lhasa's Jokhang Monastery. The ceremony remains in practice even today. This effort was closely followed by the construction of the famous Gandain Monastery and the founding of the Gelug Sect which was famous for its strict adherence to commandments. The Tibetan language meaning of Gelug is "commandments''. Zongkapa and his followers wore yellow hats, and thus the Gelug Sect is also known as the Yellow Sect. Since its founding, the Yellow Sect has built the Zhaibung, Sera, Tashilhungpo, Tar and Labrang monasteries, which join the Gandain Monastery as the six major monasteries of the Gelug Sect. The Yellow Sect is also known for formation of the two largest Living Buddha reincarnation systems - the Dalai and Panchen systems.
Dalai Lama & Panchen Lama
The Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, both of the Gelugpa lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, are at the top of the lama hierarchy in old Tibet. They used to be the religious and administrative leaders of the Tibetans. The Dalai Lama ruled Utsang (front Tibet) while the Panchen Lama ruled Tsang (rear Tibet).
The title "Dalai Lama", meaning Ocean Of Wisdom, was first conferred on Sonam Gyatso by the Mongol King Altan Khan who was converted to Tibetan Buddhism in 1578. Sonam Gyatso is the third Dalai Lama since his two predecessors were posthumously conferred as the first and the second Dalai Lamas. The practice of conferring the title "Dalai Lama" became established when Emperor Shunzhi of the Qing Dynasty bestowed the same title on the Great Fifth (the fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Losang Gyatso) in 1653. The Dalai Lama is considered the incarnation of Chenrezi (Avalokiteshvarra), Bodhisattva of Compassion and the patron deity of Tibet by Tibetan people. There have been fourteen Dalai Lamas, each one considered a reincarnation of the former. The fourth is of Mongol descent and the sixth is Menpa while the rest are all Tibetans. The present Dalai Lama lives in India.
The title of Panchen, Great Scholar, was conferred on Lobsang Choekyi Gyaltsen by Qosot Mongol Gushri Khan in 1645. Lobsang Choekyi Gyaltsen was the fourth Panchen Lama and the three abbots before him were conferred the title posthumously. In 1713, Emperor Kangxi conferred the title of Panchen Erdeni (Erdeni, in Manchurian, means treasure) to the fifth Panchen Lama. The Panchen Lama is esteemed as the incarnation of Amitayus, Buddha of Infinite Light. Tashilungpo Monastery is the traditional seat of the Panchen Lamas. Till now there have been eleven Panchen Lamas. The eleventh Panchen, identified in 1995, now lives in China.
The Reincarnation of the Living Buddhas
The reincarnation system for the Living Buddhas is the main point distinguishing tibetan Buddhism from other forms of Buddhism. What led to the introduction of the system?
The term Living Buddha emerged in the early Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) when Emperor Kublai Khan honored Pagba, head of the Sagya Sect, by granting him the title "Buddha of the Western Paradise.'' Thereafter, eminent Tibetan monks we distinguished themselves in the practice of Buddhism were referred to as ''Living Buddhas.'' However, the term Living Buddha was not recognized as a special title for a monk who became the successor of the deceaed leader of a monastery until the eventual introduction of the Living Buddha reincarnation system.
In 1252 , Kublai Khan granted an audience to Pagba and Garma Pakshi, an eminent monk with the Garma Gagyu Sect. Garma Pakshi, however, sought the patronage of Monge Khan who proceeded to bestow him a gold-rimmed black hat and a golden seal of authority. Prior to his death in 1283, Garma Paksli penned a will to ensure the established interests of his sect. The will advised his disciples to locate a boy to inherit the black hat, with the instruction based on the premise that Buddhist idelogy is eternal, and a Buddha would be reincarnated to complete the missions he had initiated. Garma Pakshi's disciples acted in accordance with the will and located the reincarnated soul boy of their master. The event marked the introduction of the Living Buddha reincarnation system for the Black-Hat Line of Tibetan Buddhism. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Emperor Yongle honored Black-Hat Living Buddha Garmaba as the ''Great Treasure Prince of Dharma,'' the first of the three "Princes of Dharma.'' The Living Buddha reincarnation system remains in operation today. On September 27, 1992, the Curpu Monastery in Doilungdeqen County, Lhasa, was the site of a grand ceremony marking the enthronement of the 16th Living Buddha Garmaba. The event marked a new page in th history of the Garma Gagye Sect.
Various sects of Tibetan Buddhism reacted to the introduction of the Living Buddha reincarnation system by creating numerous similar systems. During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) reign of Emperor Qianlong alone, 148 Grand Living Buddhas registered for reincarnation with the Board for Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs, with the number of registrants rising to 160 by the end of the dynasty. The most influential reincarnation systems have since been the Dalai and Bainqen Lama systems.
The reincarnation system for the Dalai Lama was introduced in the 16th century. In the early years of the Qing Dynasty, the 5th Dalai Lama journeyed to Beiing to pay homage to Emperor Shunzhi. The Qing emperor granted him the honorific title of "the Dalai Lama, Overseer of the Buddhist Faith on Earth Under the Great Benevolent Self-subsisting Buddha of the Western Paradise.'' The title Dalai Lama was thus established and is still in up today. The current Dalai Lama was enthroned in the Potala Palace on February 22, 1940, during a ceremony presided over by Wu Zhongxin, minister of the Commission for Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs of the nationalist government of the Republic of China (1911-49). The nationalist government ordered that he be confirmed as the reincarnated soul boy of the 13th Dalai Lama without the requirement to carrying the established method of drawing lot from the golden urn and that he instead directly succeed as the 14th Dalai Lama.
The reincarnatin system for the Bainqen Lama was introduced in 1713 when the 5th Bainqen was granted the honorific title as "Bainqen Erdeni," with Erdeni meaning "great treasure" in Manchu. The 9th Bainqen Erdeni and the 13th Dalai Lama were at odds during the period of the Republic of China, with the 9th Bainqen Erdeni departing for China's hinterland. He later passed away in Qinghai Province. The Tashilhungpo Monastery, the resident monastery for the Bainqen Erdeni, located a boy by the name of Gongbo Cidain. All signs pointed to the fact that he was indeed the reincarnated soul boy of the 9th Bainqen Erdeni. Li Zongren, the acting president of the Republic of China, issued a special order instructing that the boy "be excuses from the lot-drawing method and given the special permission to succeed as the 10th Bainqen Erdeni." The grand enthronment ceremony held in the Tar Monastery on August 10, 1949, was presided over by Guan Jieyu, minister of the Commission for Mongolian and Tibean Affairs of the nationalist government of the Republic of China.
The Gelug Sect of Tibetan Buddhism came to power in Tibet in the 17th century and the Living Buddha reincarnation system became a bone of contention with the upper class in Tibet. In 1793, as part of an effort to turn the tide by overcoming drawbacks characteristic of soul boys nominated from the same tribes, the Qing government promulgated the 29-Article Ordinance for the More Efficient Governing of Tibet. Article one of the Ordinances stipulates: In order to ensure the Yellow Sect continues to flourish, the Grand Emperor bestows it with a golden urn and ivory slips for use in confirming the reincarnated soul boy of a deceased Living Buddha. For this purpose, four major Buddhist Guardians will be summoned; the name's of candidates, as well as their birth years, will be written on the ivory slips in the three languages - Manchu, Han chinese and Tibetan; the ivory slips will be placed into the golden urn and learned Living Buddhas will pray for seven days before various Hotogtu Living Buddhas and High Commisioners stationed in Tibet by the Central Government officially confirm the reincarnated soul boy by drawing a lot from the golden urn in front of the statue of Sakyamuni in the Jokhang Monastery.
The system of drawing lot from the golden urn thus perfected the Living Buddha reincarnation system of Tibetan Buddhism. Following the lot-drawing ceremony, the High Commissioners and leaders of the soul boy search group were required to report the result to the Central Government. The enthronement ceremony was held following the approval of the Central Government.
The Qing court commissioned artisans to create two golden urns. One go1den urn, used to confirm reincarnations of the Dalai Lama and the Bainqen Erdeni, is currently housed in the Potala Palace in Lhasa. The other, used to confirm the reincarnations of Mongolian and Tibetan Grand Living Buddhas and hotogtu Living Buddhas, is housed in the Yonghegong Lamasery in Beijing.
"Tibetan Buddhism: Tantra" Glossary
Tantras are writings that appeared in India in about the seventh century and form the scriptural basis for Tibetan Buddhism (and the Vajrayana tradition). They were passed on from master to disciple and display an emphasis on ritual, mantras and visualizations.
Tibetan Tantra (also known as the Vajrayana) incorporates the major aspects of both the Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhist teachings. It is basically an esoteric extension on these themes. Hinayana and Mahayana are two schools of Buddhist practice that have basically similar goals and techniques but somewhat differing philosophies. For instance, Theravadin Buddhism (known for its Vipassana meditation) is a Hinayana teaching and Zen Buddhism is a Mahayana teaching. Tantra itself has various schools which can be grouped by the relative emphasis they place on working with exoteric and esoteric practices.
Tantra
The tantric path includes the following steps:
Lamrim (literally, stages of the path). These are indispensable topics for reflection and contemplation and also the meditations and activities that should naturally follow on from them. The Lamrim embodies the necessary prerequisites for tantra. It is set out as a progressive set of steps.
Relying upon a Spiritual Guide (learning from someone already on the path)
The Preciousness of Human Life (the importance of using life for something valuable )
Death and Impermanence (uncertainty of death and the unsatisfactory nature of this world)
The Danger of being Reborn in a Lower Realm
Taking Refuge from Samsara (the cycle of endless grasping and eventual disappointment)
Karma ( the law of cause and effect which works in this world as well as at esoteric levels )
Developing Renunciation for Samsara (integrating spiritual understanding and values)
Developing Equanimity (accepting, and seeing past, both good and bad experience)
Recognizing that all Beings are as Precious as our Mothers (the beginnings of bodhichitta )
Remembering the Kindness of Others
Equalizing Self and Others (realizing that we all want, and deserve, to be happy)
The Disadvantage of Self-Cherishing
The Advantage of Cherishing Others (loosening the hold of ego through caring)
Exchanging Self with others (this is the core practice for developing bodhichitta--it involves developing the wish to voluntarily take on others' problems and freely give them one's own happiness in exchange. A sketch of the technique is as follows: breathe in others' woes as black smoke--let it settle into the heart, then breathe out all one's own happiness as white light--let it expand to fill all the cosmos. A practitioner should imagine and rejoice at the effect of both the in- and out-breath. For, on the in-breath, the reality and weight of all the problems in this world sink into the heart and help to dissolve the ego. Likewise, the out-breath brings relief and joy to all others. )
Developing Great Compassion
Taking Responsibility to Relieve Others' Burdens ("exchanging self with others" in action )
Sharing One's Own Good Fortune with Others
Bodhichitta (the desire to attain full enlightenment for the sake of all beings)
Tranquil Abiding (developing advanced stages of concentration)
Superior seeing (developing emptiness--that is, non-identification with the personal ego)
Common Preliminary Tantric Practices These are the beginning activities that are unique to the Vajrayana path.
Prostrations (physical prostration, visualization and prayer for taking refuge)
Vajrasattva Meditation (visualization and mantra recitation for purification)
Mandala Offering (visualization and prayer for developing surrender and gaining merit)
Guru Yoga (visualization, mantra recitation and prayer for developing devotion and receiving blessings)
Generation Stage of Tantra These are preparatory practices that utilise imagination and much visualization. They prepare the psychological and psychic groundwork for the spiritual energy that will be developed and harnessed in the following completion stage practices.
Beginning Meditation (visualization of oneself as a deity in the centre of a mandala full of other deities)
Subtle Meditation (visualization of a body mandala which corresponds to points on the subtle nervous system)
Completion Stage of Tantra These are very advanced meditations that primarily utilise subtle energies known as winds prana and chi are some other names for this energy). These winds normally circulate throughout the psychic nervous system. When they are collected into a central place they provide great stability and clarity for the meditator. The normal collection point is commonly known as a chakra. It corresponds to a node or plexus in the psychic nervous system and acts as a link between the psychic, or astral, level of existence and our normal level of experience.
Tibetan yoga employs a simplified version of the metaphysical structure that is used in Hindu yoga. According to the Tibetan scheme there are three realms to consider in spiritual practice. These correspond to the Emanation Body (this world ), the Enjoyment Body ( the astral dimension ), and the Truth Body ( a dimension that is much deeper--that is, much more subtle--than the astral ).
Isolated Body, Speech, and Mind (progressive isolation of consciousness from this level of reality)
Illusory Body (development of an astral body) Consciousness now is based in the astral not the physical)
Clear Light (development of a very subtle consciousness at the Truth Body level)
Union or Full Enlightenment (linking the Truth Body consciousness to the Enjoyment, or astral, Body )
Meditation on emptiness is integral throughout this practice. A simple way to understand emptiness is as follows. In the physical world, the personal ego has a relative span and will cease when the body does. So relative to it, the soul, or Enjoyment Body, is much more important since it will continue on after death. Thus saying the ego or self is empty means it is better to ground awareness in the soul and experience the ego as a garment, rather than only experiencing the ego and having no real connection with the soul. Thus emptiness is a statement about priority--we should consider the bigger context of our experience in order to live more wisely and wholesomely.
The same principle of emptiness applies as progressively higher levels of reality are experienced. Hence, when the Enjoyment Body, or soul, becomes a living reality for the meditator, she or he continues to take it as relatively real and keeps grounding awareness in the encircling context. The context, or deeper level, for the soul is the Truth Body (which is just a more subtle version of the soul). So as a meditator realises the Truth Body, the Enjoyment Body becomes the new object for meditation on emptiness.
To recapitulate the entire process: at the beginning we have a body and mind (the personal ego or self ). Next an astral body (Enjoyment Body) is developed and it is as if the physical body and personal ego have become the "body" and the astral body has become the "mind". Next a very subtle body (Truth Body) is developed and the final result is that the astral body becomes the "body" and the Truth Body becomes the "mind". At each stage of this sequence, the "body" is subjectively experienced as being empty by the "mind".
What is the experience of emptiness like? At the beginning level of physical body and mind, emptiness means that one does not identify with any experience whatsoever. Any sight, sound, or other sense is recognised and honoured for what it is, but it is not clung to. Similarly, all thoughts and feelings are also taken in this way--as being real and valuable, but not as being in one's possession so that one does not cling to the experience of them. It is as if all experiences, whether external ( in the world "out there" ) or internal ( inner thoughts, hopes, feelings, and desires ), are viewed as clouds passing by. The reality is the sky which the clouds float by in. And if the sky is noticed, it too is taken as just another cloud wafting by. The result of this amazing relation to one's experience is an enormous sense of relief, peace, and clarity. At first it seems that one will die if one doesn't cling to experience, but after awhile it becomes apparent that one continues to live on anyway. We are more than just the experiences that we engage in.
The same process applies at progressively more subtle levels of experience. The contents of experience become more and more amazing and wonderful ( to our normal way of thinking ) but the most skilful way of relating to them still remains the practice of mindfulness ( emptiness meditation ). So once a yogi creates an astral body and can experience reality at that level, he or she works at non-identification with the astral body. And similarly, once a Truth Body exists, meditation on its emptiness continues as well.
Six Syllable Mantra - Om Mani Padme Hum
The mantra OM MANI PADME HUM (or HUNG) sometimes gives rise to fanciful or mysterious translations. However, it is simply one name of Chenrezig placed between two sacred and traditional syllables, OM and HUM.
OM represents the body of all Buddhas; it also begins nearly all mantras;
MANI means "jewel" in Sanskrit;
PAD ME, the Sanskrit pronunciation, or PEME in Tibetan means "lotus";
HUM represents the mind of all Buddhas and often ends mantras.
MANI refers to the jewel that Chenrezig holds in his two central hands and PADME to the lotus he holds in his second left hand. Saying OM MANI PADME HUM names Chenrezig through his attributes: "the one who holds the jewel and the lotus." "Chenrezig" or "Jewel Lotus" are two names for the same deity.
Each syllable allows us to close the door of painful rebirths in one of the six realms composing cyclic existence:
OM closes the door of rebirths in the world of the gods (devas)
MA the door of the world of demigods (asuras)
NI the door of the human realm
PAD the door of the animal world
ME the door of the world of hungry ghosts (pretas)
HUM the door of the hell worlds.
Each syllable has a purifying effect:
OM purifies the veils of body
MA purifies the veils of speech
NI purifies the veils of mind
PAD purifies the veils of conflicting emotions
ME purifies the veils of latent conditioning
HUM purifies the veil that covers knowledge.
Each syllable is a prayer in itself:
OM is the prayer addressed to the body of the Buddhas
MA the prayer addressed to the speech of the Buddhas
NI the prayer addressed to the mind of the Buddhas
PAD the prayer addressed to the qualities of the Buddhas
ME the prayer addressed to the activity of the Buddhas
HUM gathers the grace of the body, speech, mind, qualities, and activity of the Buddhas.
The six syllables correspond to the six paramitas, or transcendental perfections:
OM corresponds to generosity
MA to ethics
NI to patience
PAD to diligence
ME to concentration
HUM to wisdom.
The six syllables correspond to the six buddhas reigning over the six buddha families:
OM to Ratnasambhava
MA to Amoghasiddhi
NI to Vajradhara
PAD to Vairocana
ME to Amitabha
HUM to Akshobya.
The colors that correspond to each syllable are:
OM : white
MA : green
NI : yellow
PAD : blue
ME : red
HUM : black.
Lastly, one links each syllable to the six wisdoms:
OM = wisdom of equanimity
MA = wisdom of activity
NI = the wisdom born of itself
PAD = the wisdom of dharmadhatu
ME = discriminating wisdom
HUM = mirror-like wisdom.
Benefits of reciting the Six Syllable Mantra
Extracted from the Daily Enlightenment
By reciting the mantra, the gates leading to rebirth in the six realms of samsara is closed. This powerful mantra's sound and vibration invoke the blessings of all Buddhas to liberate the sufferings of all sentient beings. It removes negative karmas and defilements like greed, anger and ignorance that cause rebirth in the six realms of samsara namely the hell realms, hungry ghosts’ realms, animal realms, human realms, demi-god realms and god realms. This mantra is so precious and holy that it embodies the Buddha's holy speech. By listening to it with faith and understanding, one is sure to obtain good rebirths after death. If any animal or insect should hear this mantra before dying, it would be reborn to Amitabha's Pure land. While reciting the mantra with mindfulness and a proper understanding, one is ensured of its effectiveness to increase positive merits and the spiritual power of compassion. By dedicating the merits of recitation to all beings and especially our loved ones in times of pain and sickness, all sufferings will dissolve.
Buddhist Statues in Tibetan Buddhism
Visitors to Tibet will inevitably feel drawn to one or more of the numerous monasteries in order to discover something of the mystery and traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. These buildings house many statues and illustrated thangkas [scrolls] and exotic murals, which at first sight may be somewhat confusing. The Buddha has many manifestations and there are helpful clues in the iconography to enable the viewer recognize the more important of these.
Sakyamuni, the Indian prince who in the 5th century BC founded Buddhism, is featured in almost every monastery. He is usually depicted in a cross legged seated position upon a lotus throne. The legs will be crossed with the right leg over the left. His hands are placed in a symbolic position or mudra. Typically, the position will be with the left hand open palm upwards, resting in his lap with the right hand palm downwards across the right leg. This mudra is the sign for calling the earth to witness. The figure will be draped in a robe, often blue in color and which leaves the right arm and right breast bare. The hair will be in a top knot. When this image is in the form of a mural or in a thangkra, the head will be surrounded by a halo.
Avolokiteshvara, called Chenrezi or Chenrezig in Tibetan, is the Bodhisattva of Compassion. This figure is of great importance as the deity is the patron saint of Tibet. The image, which can be found virtually everywhere, is in a standing position and has many arms and eleven heads, which are arranged in the form of a pyramid. The hands are placed in a variety of mudras. Greatly revered by all Buddhists, as he is said to postpone his own fulfillment until he has helped everyone on earth to achieve emancipation, his head was said to have spilt due to his concern for the wickedness in the world. Each segment reformed into a complete head, enabling him to look in all directions.
Tsong Khapa, is the founder of Gelugpa (the Yellow Hat sect) and a great reformer. Depicted in a cross legged position, his hands are raised before his chest in a mudra that symbolizes his teaching of the law. Flanked on either side by a lotus flower, he may also appear with his two disciples. He wears a yellow cap with long flaps on each side.
The Four Heavenly Kings are commonly depicted as statues or murals guarding the entrance to the monastery. They each guard one of the cardinal points of the compass. They have fiery haloes and are shown against a background of clouds. The East has a white face and holds a musical instrument, the South has a blue face and carries a sword, and the West has a red face and carries either a stupa or a snake while the North has an orange colored face and carries an umbrella. In some locations the items carried by these deities may vary.
Stupa in Tibetan Buddhist Temples
Stupa(Chorten in Tibetan) is an important religious monument in Tibet. This unique religious architectural form expresses significant religious symbolism and presents Buddha's physical presence. It generally consists of three parts; a whitewashed base, a whitewashed cylinder and a crowning steeple or shaft. The square base foundation, representing the Buddha's lotus throne, symbolizes earth, the state of solidity and five forces (faith, concentration, mindfulness, perseverance and wisdom. The four stepped base may or may not have openings. Above the base is a square or hexagon four stepped pedestal which represents The Buddha's crossed legs. Seated on the base is the cylinder, representing his torso. This symbolizes water, the state of fluidity and seven essential conditions of enlightenment: concentration, effort, equanimity, flexibility, mindfulness, joy and wisdom. Sometimes a stupa has a shield like grillwork in one face. This allows relics of high lamas, statues and other items to be put inside. Between the cylinder and the crowning steeple, there is a square box, called Harmika, which represents the Buddha's eyes. It is considered to be the residence of the gods, symbolizing the eightfold noble path. The crowning steeple, the Buddha's crown, is usually hand-made of brass and/or covered with gold leaf. It is segmented into 13 tapering rings, a parasol and a twin symbol of the sun and the moon. Those rings, representing fire and the thirteen steps of enlightenment, successively symbolize ten powers of the Buddha and three close contemplations. The stylized parasol, representing wind, wards off all evil. At the top of the steeple is the twin symbol of the sun and the moon, which represent wisdom and method respectively. A flaming jewel may be found atop the twin symbol, symbolizing the highest enlightenment.
Stupas always house items that Buddhists hold sacred. Sutra scripts, Buddha statues, Tsa-Tsas, hair clippings, fingernails, relics and cremation ashes of saints are usually enshrined in stupas along with jewels, herbs and other objects. They are sometimes used as tombs in which mummified bodies of high lamas are buried.
Stupas may also be built in commemoration of high Lamas as a sign of merit accumulation, or for their funerals. Building a stupa and any other work done on it are considered of work of the highest purity and merit. Buddhists always show their devotion by circling the stupa clockwise. Doing this can also accumulate merit. The size and style of stupa may vary, from the large stupas commonly seen in monasteries and on road passes, to portable ones many Tibetan people carry with them as sacred objects and amulets.
Prayer Flag
The fluttering prayer flags can often be found along with piles of mani stones on rooftops, mountain passes, river crossings, and other sacred places. Prayer flags are actually colorful cotton cloth squares in white, blue, yellow, green, and red. Woodblocks are used to decorate the prayer flags with images, mantras, and prayers. Usually at the center of a prayer flag, there is an image of the Wind Horse which bears the Three Jewels of Buddhism. On the four corners of the flag, are images of Garuda, Dragon, Tiger, and Snow Lion which are the four sacred animals representing the four virtues of wisdom, power, confidence, and fearless joy respectively. Sometimes auspicious Buddhist symbols can be found on the edges. In the blank spaces between the images, prayers and mantras are printed. There are two kinds of prayer flags, the horizontal ones called Lungta in Tibetan and the vertical ones called Darchor. Horizontal prayer flags are squares connected at the top edges with a long thread. The less used vertical prayer flags are usually single squares or groups of squares sewn on poles which are planted in the ground or on rooftops. Tibetans believe the prayers and mantras will be blown heavenward as offerings to their deities and will bring benefits to the one who hangs them, his neighborhood, and all sentient beings, even flying birds. However, if the flags are hung on the wrong astrological dates, they will bring only negative results. And the longer it hangs, the greater the obstacles which will arise. Old prayer flags are replaced with new ones annually on Tibetan New Year.
Prayer Wheel
Prayer wheels, called Chokhor in Tibetan, are very common religious objects in Tibet. A hand held prayer wheel is a hollow wooden or metal cylinder attached to a handle. Om Mani Padme Hung mantras are printed or etched in relief on the cylinder. Attached to the cylinder is a lead weight with a chain, which facilitates the rotation. Tibetans use prayer wheels to spread spiritual blessings to all sentient beings and invoke good karma in their next life. They believe that every rotation of a prayer wheel equals one utterance of the mantra, thus the religious practice will in return help them accumulate merits, replace negative effects with positive ones, and hence bring them good karma. The religious exercise is part of Tibetan life. People turn the wheel day and night while walking or resting, whenever their right hands are free while murmuring the same mantra. Buddhists turn the wheel clockwise. Bon followers turn the wheel counter clockwise.
Prayer wheels vary in size and type. Not all prayer wheels are hand held. It is common for bucket-sized prayer wheels to be lined up on wooden racks along walking paths circling monasteries and other sacred sites, for the benefit of visiting pilgrims. Larger water, fire, and wind prayer wheels are built so that they are empowered by the flowing water, the flaming light, and the blowing wind which drive them, and can later pass their positive karma to all who touch them.
Mani Stone
Travelers to Tibet may find mani stones and mani stone mounds almost everywhere, in monasteries, beside villages, along paths and on mountains. Sometimes they are decorated with sheep and yak horns. Usually the universal mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum, is inscribed on these smooth stone plates, pebbles and rocks. Images of deities and great adepts and sutra texts are also common themes. Tibetan people build these unique works of art to show their piety to their deities and the Buddha's teachings. Upon encountering a mani stone mound, Tibetan people circumambulate it clockwise as a prayer offering for health, peace, and protection.
Tsa-Tsa
Tsatsa, with its origin in Sanskrit, is a typical Tibetan Buddhist art form. Actually tsatsas are votive tablets in Tibetan Buddhism, usually clay impressions made with a metal mould containing hollowed, reversed image of a deity, a stupa or other sacred symbols. Tibetan people believe that making tsatsas is a merit accumulating action. As holy objects, tsatsas can be found inside stupas, prayer wheel niches, holy caves and monastery altars or beside holy mountains, holy lakes and other holy sites. Small tsatsas can be put inside a portable amulet shrine (called Gau in Tibetan) and taken as amulets by those traveling. Making tsatsa is a compulsory skill of monks in Tibetan monasteries.
Tsatsas fall into different categories in accordance with ingredients added, including plain clay tsatsa, which has no special ingredient; ash tsatsa, which has ashes of late lamas added; medicine tsatsa, which has Tibetan herbs added; humoral tsatsa, which contains liquid produced in the mummifying procedure of late high lamas; and tsatsa made by high lamas themselves or other celebrities. In addition, however, there are some virtual tsatsas made. Lucky travelers may find in some region that Tibetans are using their tsatsa moulds stamping in wind, water and fire! Tibetan people believe everything can be used to make the holy object, even wind, water and fire.
After tsatsas being molded, they are dried or fired to be hard. Only after ritually empowered can they be used as holy objects!
Butter Sculpture
Butter sculpture is another Tibetan Buddhist artistic visual impact. The sacred offering is made from mainly butter and other mineral pigments. The size of butter sculpture varies from several centimeters torma to several meters tableaux, covering a variety of subject including deities, butter mandalas, flowers, animals and Buddhist motifs. Traditionally, butter sculptures are displayed on monastery altars and family shrines as offerings. In the session of the Great Prayer Festival, there will be a butter sculpture display and competition before the Jokhang Temple.
Butter sculptures are modeled by hands. Since butter melts easily, monk artists making butter sculptures need to work in cold conditions, they have to dip their hands into cold water to make their fingers cold enough then can they start to model. Monks take great pride to do the religious work. A few tools, such as hollow bones for making long threads and moulds for making leaves and alike, are applied.
The butter sculptures in Ta'er Monastery enjoy the highest reputation in the Tibetan world. The monastery has a butter sculpture museum housing a collection of fine butter sculptures.
Frescos Mural
Frescos are a universal feature of temples and monasteries in Tibet. There are over 200 in Jokhang Monastery alone, covering an area of 300 square meters. The painters followed strict rules. For instance, the Buddha must be solemn, and his body must be depicted in certain specific proportions. Historical and folklore themes abound in murals, and the paints used are similar to those used for Thanka painting.
Thangka
Tangka is a kind of scroll painting mounted on silk. It has distinctive ethnic features and a strong religious flavor. Its unique artistic style is highly prized by the Tibetan people.
The origin of tangka can be traced back to the early Tubo Kingdom. During the 7th century, King Songtsan Gambo united Tibet. To strengthen political, economic and cultural exchanges with Tibet's neighbors, he married Princess Chizun of Nepal and Princess Wencheng of the Tang Dynasty. Around this period he ordered the construction of Potala Palace and some other grand edifices. To decorate them, he drafted a large number of people to paint murals. This greatly promoted Tibet's art of painting. According to the Catalogue of Jokhang Monastery written by the Fifth Dalai Lama, "The King (Songtsan Gambo) used the blood from his nose to paint a portrait of the White Lhamo. Later, while a statue of the White Lhamo was being sculpted, the portrait was hidden in the abdomen of the statue." This is the earliest record of a tangka painting. This tangka has been lost, but we can conclude that tangka was a new Tibetan art form which flourished during the reign of Songtsan Gambo.
Following the spread of Buddhism, Buddhist art also flourished. Since tangkas are easy to make, not limited by the variety of buildings, and easy to hang and store, they were used as a means to spread Buddhism. From then on, tangkas and murals developed side by side, becoming two bright pearls in the history of Tibetan painting.
Tangkas depict a wide range of themes. A considerable number of ancient tangkas have been preserved. However, few tangkas dating from the Tang and Song dynasties remain. The Sakya Monastery houses a tangka entitled Sanggyai Dongsha, which contains 35 Buddhist images. Its style is similar to the murals found in the Dunhuang Grottoes. It is said to have been completed during the Tubo Kingdom, and is a rare treasure. The Potala Palace houses three Song Dynasty tangkas, two of which are kesi (a type of weaving done in fine silks and gold thread by the tapestry method). A portrait of Palma Toinyoi Chuba has a caption written in Tibetan at the bottom of the tangka saying that it was made at the order of Gyaincain Zhading as a gift for his teacher Chagba Gyaincain. A tangka with a portrait of Kungtang Lama (1123-1194) was made in the late Song Dynasty. Another tangka, depicting the life of Mila Rigba, describes Mila Rigba's self-cultivation. Experts have concluded that it was made in the Tang Dynasty.
In the Ming and Qing dynasties, to strengthen its rule over Tibet, the central government conferred honorific titles on religious leaders in Tibet. In the Ming Dynasty eight religious leaders received the title of prince, and in the Qing Dynasty the titles of Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama were conferred. These measures were favorable to Tibet's social order, and social and cultural development. In this period, the art of tangka also scaled a new height. The number of tangkas saw a remarkable increase, and different schools emerged. In general, the tangkas of Eestern Tibet are noted for fine brushwork, expertly depicting the inner world of man; the tangkas of Western Tibet are similar to gongbi (traditional Chinese realistic painting characterized by fine brushwork and close attention to detail) paintings with their bright colors.
Very few tangkas bear the names of their painters, but some of the most famous painters of tangka, such as Lozhag Dainzin Norbu of Eastern Tibet, and Qoiying Gyaco and Jamyang Wangbu of Western Tibet, were master painters of the 17th century. Some tangkas were painted by talented lamas. In the past, monasteries were places of learning. Many senior monks were not only masters of Buddhist theory, but also excellent painters. Atisa, who entered Tibet to spread Buddhism during the 11th century, was a master painter of Buddhist portraits. It is said that he painted two tangkas. One is kept in the Razheng Monastery, and the other, a portrait of Vajra-Buddha, is kept in the Nietang Temple, which also houses a self-portrait of Atisa. Gunga Gyaincain of the Sakya Monastery painted a portrait of Manjusri Bodhisattva for the North Sakya Monastery. Tsongkapa, founder of the Yellow Sect of Tibetan Buddhism, was also good at painting. It is said that he once painted a self-portrait for his mother living in what is now Qinghai Province. Religious leaders of later generations, such as Ngaming Losang Gyaco, also painted tangkas for monasteries.
Most tangkas are painted on cloth, silk or paper, but there are also tangkas of embroidery, brocade and applique. Embroidery tangka is done with silk thread of different colors, depicting landscapes, figures, flowers, feathers, pavilions and towers. Brocade tangkas are woven on jacquard looms, with warp-and-weft patterns. Applique tangkas are made by pasting figures and patterns of colored silk on a background material; and kesi tangkas are like relief sculpture, with a three-dimensional effect, something like a special handicraft combining the art of painting with silk weaving. These fabric tangkas have compact compositions, fine patterns and bright colors. They are of close texture and very decorative. Some tangkas are inlaid with pearls and precious stones. At first, most fabrics used for making tangkas were made in the interior. Later, Tibet developed embroidery and applique tangkas. There are also tangkas made from woodblock prints, the working procedures including painting the original design, engraving the block, printing, color application and mounting.
Tangkas depict a wide range of themes taken from Tibetan history, social life, folk customs, astronomy, the calendar and traditional Tibetan medicine. Using paintings to reflect history is a remarkable characteristic of tangkas. Tangkas depicting the general history of Tibet are composed of scenes of important events at various stages of Tibetan history, together with captions. Tangkas depicting dynastic history portray scenes of historical periods, reflecting relevant historical events. There is another kind of tangkas portraying the life stories of certain personages (including religious figures). Potala Palace houses a tangka of an atlas of celestial bodies. Each planet is in the form of an animal, symbolizing one of the 12 heavenly bodies moving in its own orbit. It is an important cultural relic for the study of ancient astronomy and the Tibetan calendar. Norbu Lingka houses a complete set of medical tangkas, totaling 62 paintings and showing medical principles, the structure of the human body, acupoints on the channels and collaterals of the body, medical apparatus and pharmaceuticals. In the 17th century, during the reign of Sanggyai Gyaco, famous painters from various parts of Tibet were summoned to make a complete set of tangkas illustrating the corpus of Tibetan medicine.
The main theme of tangka is religion, such as portraits of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, scenes of saints expounding the sutras, temples, religious personages, and religious stories. Such pictures make up more than 80 percent. Even tangkas depicting Tibetan history and science have a strong religious flavor. In general, a tangka depicting a religious theme is divided into three parts: upper, middle and lower, representing heaven, earth and the underworld, respectively. The middle part shows Buddhas, such as Sakyamuni; the upper part shows Bodhisattvas; and the lower part has pictures of monks and guardian deities.
All big monasteries in Tibet house a considerable number of tangkas. At Potala Palace a two-story building was built as a warehouse for storing tangkas. On the 30th day of the second month by the Tibetan calendar a prayer ceremony is held. Several thousand lamas from Zhebung Monastery and other temples gather at Potala to hold religious rites and various other ceremonies. Two huge tangkas with portraits of Buddha are hung on the terrace. This is called "sunning the Buddha."
Tibet's murals while preserving the fine traditions of Tibetan painting, have also absorbed techniques from the interior of China as well as neighboring countries such as India and Nepal, to form a style of their own. Over a long period of time, different schools have appeared, the most famous being the "Maintang" and "Qingzi." The former features compact composition and elegance, represented by the murals in Jokhang Monastery and Potala Palace; the latter features boldness and liveliness, represented by murals and tangkas in Xialu, Baiqoi and Toding monasteries.
Mandala
Mandala, called Dultson Kyilkhor in Tibetan, means container of essence. The Mandala is a tri-dimensional graphical and geometrical representation of the universe. It represents a combination of the enlightened mind and body of Buddha and is considered to have great power. These unique and exquisite works are usually made of colored sand. However, powdered flowers, herbs and even precious gems are also popularly used materials. Although Mandalas were originally created as religious objects used to aid in meditation and decorate and sanctify monasteries and homes, they have become appreciated as artwork for their elegance and beauty.
Mandalas are usually symmetric with series of concentric circles and squares. The center point is the residence of the deity, from whom the Mandala is identified. Lines are drawn from the centre until they intersect and form circles and squares. The finished Mandalas have four gates, which symbolize a culmination of the four virtues: compassion, kindness, sympathy and equanimity. Other Buddhist auspicious symbols can also be included in the design. Form and color application techniques are strictly followed in the process of creating a Mandala to show religious meanings.
Tibetan Buddhism Symbols
It is common to see various religious symbols when traveling in Tibetan monasteries, villages. They are used as sacred adornments.
The Eight Auspicious Signs, or eight motifs, generally symbolize how to progress along the Buddhist path.
White Umbrella: a symbol of loyalty and faith and Dharma protection from all evil.
Golden Fish: a symbol of happiness, soul emancipation, and salvation from the sea of suffering
Vase: stores the nectar of immortality and symbolizes hidden treasure
Lotus: symbolizes purity and spiritual enfoldment
Conch Shell: proclaims the teachings of the enlightened ones and symbolizes the spoken word.
Knot of Eternity: symbolizes the unity of all things and the illusory character of time.
Victory Standard: the cylinder symbolizes the victory of Buddhism over ignorance and death.
Dharma Wheel: symbolizes the unity of all things, spiritual law and Sakyamuni himself. The wheel is usually flanked by two deer, the first to listen to Sakyamuni's teachings. The male deer symbolizes the realization of great bliss while the female deer symbolizes the realization of emptiness.
Other common symbols:
Swastika: commonly seen on home walls or on monastery floors. Meaning good fortune, it symbolizes infinity, universe and sometimes sun and moon. Buddhists draw it clockwise while bon followers draw it anticlockwise.
Kalacakra Seal: an adorning motif in murals or on monastery walls. It symbolizes the highest initiations into occult knowledge which can only be possessed by a few high lamas.
Wheel of Life: in murals or on monastery walls. The demon of impermanence holds a wheel, segmented into six sections, which mean all realms of existence respectively. These are: Heaven, demigods, humankind, hell, hungry ghosts and animals. The hub in the center symbolizes ignorance, hatred and greed, the three poisons.
Sun and Moon: usually seen on village houses and top of stupas. The adorning motif symbolizes the source of light and union of opposites.

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