Buddhism and Politics in Tibet
Most people who know only a small amount about Tibet have heard of the Dalai Lama and his status as the exiled leader of the Tibetan people. Although the roots of the rise of the Dalai Lamas as leaders of Tibet began with Tsongkhapa’s disciples, they only came to dominate Tibetan politics and religion in the seventeenth century. ... When [Sonam Gyatso (1543-1588)] traveled to Mongolia to visit Altan Khan in 1578, the Khan and the Lama established a powerful reciprocal relationship through exchanging religious and political titles. Sonam Gyatso recognized Altan Khan as an imperial ruler, and in return Altan Khan recognized Sonam Gyatso as his spiritual teacher, in process translating the Tibetan word Gyatso of his name, which means “ocean,” into Mongolian as “Dalai.” Sonam Gyatso became the third Dalai Lama, the first two being his predecessors, even though they were not called by this title during their lifetimes. ... [He was soon] followed by “the great fifth” Ngawang Lozang Gyatso (1617-1682), who was a polymath scholar and shrewd statesman who unified greater Tibet under his rule for the first time since the Sakya-Mongol alliance. ... The fifth Dalai Lama’s government combined religion and politics into its administration, with both religious and secular branches of government sharing power. The capital building of the Tibetan government built by the fifth Dalai Lama, the Potala Palace ..., survives to this day in the center of Lhasa.
When the Ming Dynasty fell in 1644, the fifth Dalai Lama reached out to the new Manchu Emperor and established congenial relations with the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). ... Tibet became increasingly incorporated into the Qing Dynasty as its colony, and by the eighteenth century the Dalai Lama shared rule with two representatives of the Qing court stationed in Lhasa called Ambans. The Qing never set out to replace the Dalai Lama as head of the Tibetan state, but to incorporate Tibet into its empire following the centuries old patron-priest pattern, which they did at times with a strong arm and other times in name only. This would all change forever with the fall of [the] Qing Dynasty in 1911, signaling the end of imperial China. [BIBE, 202-3]
In response to these traumas, the Dalai Lama has formulated policies promoting peace through nonviolent means based on his understanding of Buddhist ethics, in particular his “Five Point Peace Plan” ... [which in 1987 was presented] before the U.S. Congressional Human Rights Caucus. Its five parts include:
Almost every Tibetan home has an altar in a separate shrine room or a shrine corner where they have representations of the Buddha’s body, speech, and mind. These are symbolized, respectively, by a statue or painting of the Buddha, a scripture or a set of scriptures, and a stupa or a reliquary of blessed objects. ... Upon waking up, the first thing the person does is care for his or her altar and the shrine room. He or she would clean the room, dust off the altar items, arrange an array of at least seven water bowls in a particular sequence, and gracefully fill them to the brim with pure, fresh water. Next, he or she may arrange offerings of flowers, incense, lamps, fragrant items, food, musical instruments, and the like, either separately or aligned with the water bowls in a particular arrangement. Those who are trained may perform these actions with the recitation of prayers that facilitate cultivating the proper perspectives and attitudes toward the offerings. ... After the offerings are all arranged, one would recite a mantra to bless the offerings and make them manifold. In the evening, a little before the sunset, the water bowls are emptied into a jar, wiped clean, and stacked aesthetically along the front side of the altar to be again filled the next morning. Likewise, the perishables are taken down before they become stale. All these actions are performed with a sense of admiration and gratitude for the excellent qualities possessed by the Three Jewels and an inspiration to develop these qualities oneself. [BIBE, 213]
Many people may have small handheld prayer wheels, also called “mani wheels,” which they spin clockwise while walking and at the same time chanting a mantra out loud or silently to oneself. These prayer wheels are filled with rolls of thin paper imprinted with many copies of the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum. They are printed in an ancient Indian script or in Tibetan script, wound around an axle in a protective container, and spun around and around as the wheel turns. Typically, larger decorative versions of the syllables of the mantra are also carved on the outside cover of the wheel. On a typical path of circumambulation, one would also come across much larger mani wheels, some even several meters high and one or two meters in diameter. They contain far more copies of the mantra and may also contain up to hundreds of sacred texts. There are also mani wheels mounted in rows on walls next to the pathways to be spun by people entering a shrine. ...
PilgrimageFor Tibetans, pilgrimage refers to the journey from ignorance to enlightenment, from self-centeredness and materialistic preoccupations to a deep sense of the relativity and interconnectedness of all life. The Tibetan word for pilgrimage, neykhor, means “to circle around a sacred place,” for the goal of pilgrimage is less to reach a particular destination than to transcend through inspired travel the attachments and habits of inattention that restrict awareness of a larger reality. ... By traveling to sacred sites, Tibetans are brought into living contact with the icons and energies of Tantric Buddhism. The neys, or sacred sites themselves, through their geological features and the narratives of transformation attached to them, continually remind pilgrims of the liberating power of the Tantric Buddhist tradition. ... Over time pilgrimage guidebooks were written, giving instructions to pilgrims visiting the holy sites and accounts of their history and significance. These guidebooks, neyigs, empowered Tibet and its people with a sacred geography, a narrated vision of the world ordered and transformed through Buddhist magic and metaphysics. [Tibet: Reflections from the Wheel of Life]
The Sand Mandala ... is a Tibetan Buddhist tradition which symbolizes the transitory nature of things. As part of Buddhist canon, all things material are seen as transitory. A sand mandala is an example of this, being that once it has been built and its accompanying ceremonies and viewing are finished, it is systematically destroyed. [Sand_mandala]