Tibetan Buddhism

July 8, 2006 at 1:21 am (Religion)

(Warning: This post contains, along with facts about Buddhism, some ranting against Tibetan Buddhism. Yes, you read that right: a rant against Tibetan Buddhism. Please do not continue if you think you will be offended.)

When many Americans hear “Buddhism,” they think of the Dalai Lama, monks in red and saffron robes, many-armed exotic deities, the so-called Laughing Buddha (a fat, laughing man, who is actually Hotei), meditation, colored-sand mandalas, chanting, and Buddha meditating. (Some may even conjure up the image of an emaciated Buddha.)

In America, the most well-known manifestation (or, as one may say, denomination) of Buddhism, the type that has the most exposure and with which Americans are most familiar is Tibetan Buddhism. Categorically, this is also known as Vajrayana Buddhism and Tantrayana Buddhism. Some, who view Buddhism as including two major denominations (Mahayana Buddhism and Hinayana or Theravada Buddhism) would include Tibetan Buddhism in Mahayana Buddhism. Others (accurately) maintain it in its own category. This is because Tibetan Buddhism is a combination of Mahayana Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism, and Tantrayana Buddhism. Unique to Tibetan Buddhism is the dorje (also known as a vajra), a “scepter” that represents a diamond and a thunderbolt, and the drilbu (also known as “ghanta”, after the Sanskrit for “bell”), which is the bell with a type of dorje as the handle.

But what I would like to focus on is the composition of Tibetan Buddhism vis-a-vis other types of Buddhism. There is a very large variety of Buddhist schools or groups. Many of them, such as Mahayana and Theravada as practiced by locals, evolved as Buddhism was incorporated in local religious systems. This is most evident in Tibetan Buddhism. Rather than being the repository of “pure” Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism is in fact the result of the syncretization of two separate religions: Theravada Buddhism and the pre-Buddhist Bön religion. To state it in other words with certain modifications: Tibetan Buddhism is perhaps the most adulterated or corrupted form of the mainstream “vehicles” of Buddhism.

Most Buddhists in Asia have no regard or recognition for the Dalai Lama. Originally the head lama, or monk, of one of four major monastic schools of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama was installed as the ruler of Tibet by the Mongols. The Dalai Lama in Tibet can be very much likened to the Roman Catholic Pope in the Papal States. (And yet one does not see celebrities demanding Italy return the Papal States to the Holy See.) Now, I am sure many Asians respect the Dalai Lama, as they would respect any Buddhist monk, but he really has little relevance for them. His form of Buddhism is quite foreign to how most Buddhists practice Buddhism.

This is not very clear from how Americans perceive Tibetan Buddhism. Essential and crucial to Tibetan Buddhism are its myriads of rituals, rites, and ceremonies – some of which preserve the shamanistic Bön ceremonies. People may see this as exotic and colorful (literally, in some cases), but these are quite foreign to Buddhism in general. Ceremonies in which its participant(s) become possessed are not found in Buddhism at all, as a matter of fact; such ceremonies are a central element in Tibetan Buddhism.

Also foreign to Buddhism in general is the form of caesaro-papism that has evolved in Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lama is not just the figurehead of the Tibetan Buddhists but also their temporal autocrat. Remember: he is not elected, he rules for life, he is omnipotent, and he faces no opposition. Compared to this, the Roman Catholic Popes are elected (albeit by a small circle, by the College of Cardinals, and now only those Cardinals that are eligible to vote), and although they face no opposition, there is abundant opposition expressed by the Pope’s followers nevertheless. Whereas the Roman Catholic Church has veered away from caesaro-papism, this doctrine is quite intact and central in Tibetan Buddhism.

Caesaro-papism is the doctrine that the supreme religious head (in one case, the Bishop of Rome, the Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church, and so on and so forth; and in the other case, the Dalai Lama) is also the supreme temporal head. In Catholic Europe, this meant that the Pope was above all crowned heads, and kings could only rule by permission or allowance of the Pope. All power and authority, temporal and religious, rested in one person. The only equivalent of this in mainstream Buddhism is the chakravartin – a ruler (often called a “universal ruler”) who ruled according to Buddhist values, standards, morals, and doctrines. Although being a title assumed by or applied to Buddhist kings every now and then (the usual case being Ashoka Maurya of India, it is now mostly used as a title of the Buddha, reflecting the belief that he is the ruler and redeemer of the entire universe in a religious/theological sense rather than in a political sense.

One interesting yet random note: most Tibetan monks are shown wearing two robes: an outer red robe (over-robe?), and a saffron robe. Most non-Tibetan monks wear only the saffron robe.

One good thing for Buddhists about this public exposure of Tibetan Buddhism is that it keeps Buddhism in the public’s eye. People are attracted to it, if not for its dumbed down doctrines, then for its exoticness. But “purer” Buddhism is not Tibetan Buddhism. For purer Buddhism, one would have to study the Japanese and Chinese and Southeast Asian Buddhist groups. In Japan, the most prominent forms of Buddhism are Zen Buddhism (Chan Buddhism in China), Pure Land Buddhism (Jodo and Jodo Shinshu Buddhism), Nichiren Buddhism (Soka Gakkai).

The reason I wanted to blog about this is because I become a bit annoyed when people think Buddhism is Tibetan Buddhism. It isn’t. One might argue the opposite: Tibetan Buddhism is a polluted, adulterated, corrupted, and deformed form of Buddhism, unfit to be the public image or ambassador of Buddhism to the world. When one goes in a bookstore, books in the Buddhist section will include, undoubtedly, many, many books by the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan Buddhists. What about Shinran’s works? What about the actual sutras? Where the books on or by Pure Land Buddhism or Nichiren Buddhism?

I mean no disrespect for Tibetan Buddhism. I am not a Buddhist so it doesn’t affect me one way or another. But to see people so misled by the pretty pictures of Tibetan Buddhism without realizing the truth behind them is so…un-Buddhist. It’s a disservice to the many generations that have preserved purer forms of Buddhism. And when people behold Tibetan Buddhism as the perfect religion – a jewel in the lotus, an indestructible diamond, pure and flawless – it really makes me laugh as much as it annoys me. Tibetan Buddhism is far from pure or flawless or perfect. Like any other religion, it has its large black spots.

Additionally, the unquestioning sloganeering of Western people for Tibet really grates on me. Why not demand the Papal States be restored to the Holy See? Why not demand that the Holy Roman Empire be reestablished? Why aren’t we demanding the Caliphate be restored and the globe-spanning Islamic caliphate be reestablished? How is living under Chinese autocracy any different from living under Tibetan autocracy? Where are the proponents of democracy demanding the Dalai Lama abdicate the throne of Tibet and replace the theocracy with a democratic regime? Remember: the Dalai Lama is still Emperor of the Snows, albeit in exile. As much as he is a religious figure, he is also a political one. And how shrewd the Tibetans have been by exploiting Western goodwill for their flashy version of Buddhism to forward their political, territorial aims. And to imagine we have been duped by so-called Buddhists.



  1. Enas Yorl said,

    Very interesting and informative Muslihoon! Thank you. I know very little about Buddhism, like most Westerners. One thing I do remember about the Dalai Lama is that he is belived to be the reincarnation of the previous one. When the current Dalai Lama dies, the monks conduct a search for nearest male baby born the soonest after this event and declare him to be the next Dalai Lama. The kid is then raised in the monastary, yes? I’ve often wondered about how autonomous the Dalai Lama truly is. Would he ever say or do anything the senior management didn’t want him to say or do? If he ever did, how soon would they be beating the bushes for the next reincarnation?

  2. Muslihoon said,

    Thanks for stopping by and for commenting! Your comment on how the Dalai Lama is chosen and raised are spot on.

    This method of finding the next reincarnation is also unique to Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lama is not only a reincarnation of the previous Dalai Lama, the Dalai Lama is considered to be the reincarnation of Avalokiteshvara (Chenrezig in Tibetan), the Bodhisattva of compassion.

    Depending on how the regime is set up around him, the Dalai Lama’s autonomy can be quite restricted indeed, particularly when a regent rules in his name. (It takes a few years for the Dalai Lama to be “found,” but almost all are children when found.) I would say the current Dalai Lama is quite autonomous, but that’s because he doesn’t have any minders around him and because he’s stateless (so there’s less reason to keep him bound). Of course, the Chinese think he’s way too autonomous, so your point certainly holds in this regard.

    But your point is quite correct: the Dalai Lama would hardly, if ever, do anything that those around him with influence would not want him to do.

    This underscored with the issue of the Panchen Lama: the Tibetans claim one person is the reincarnation, and the Chinese say it is another. The Chinese-picked guy is kept in Chinese custody, and this is so precisely for the reasons you mention – to keep him under control, and to manipulate Tibetan politics to the Chinese’s advantage. The Tibetan-picked guy has been missing since 1995. While the Dalai Lama is considered to be the reincarnation of Avalokiteshvara (aka Chenrezig), the Panchen Lama is considered to be the reincarnation of Amitabha Buddha. The Panchen Lama is second in command, right after the Dalam Lama.

    It is not unconceivable that the Chinese might install the Panchen Lama as the titular ruler of the Tibetans in order to legitimize Chinese control over Tibet.

    If the Dalai Lama did do something the authorities did not like, then – not to belabor the parallels – perhaps he will be treated like errant popes have been. (Honestly, one should look at a list of popes with years of their reigns – during one period of time it seemed there was a new pope every year.)

  3. joe said,

    Not offended but man was that inaccurate.
    Its ok if you arent interested in Tibetan Buddhism but you probably should at least try to learn a little bit about Buddhism in general and Tibetan Buddhism in particular before you expose your ignorance on such a visible public platform.
    Your claim that Tibetan Buddhism is a deluded and corrupted combination of Theravada and Bon is the funniest yet. The reality is that the main ideals of Mahayana Buddhism can be traced all the way back as far as there are recorded works on Buddhism and these later developed into the tantric tradition in, yes, India, before going to Tibet through recorded and traditionally accepted sources. Also, the modern Bon tradition unlike your assertion has actually modified itself to adapt into being more like the Buddhist tradition, not the other way around.
    If you think Buddhism is something else, you are very mistaken.
    Your own personal bias has allowed you to make speculations and inaccurate statements.

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