Tibet

Tibet lies in the highest mountainous region of the world between the Indian subcontinent and the deserts of central Asia. Although the dominant cultural relationships have been with India, there have been frequent Chinese intrusions.

Christopher Beckwith (1987/1993) is the first "western" scholar to treat central Asian politics during the time of the great Turkish and Mongol empires from a Tibetan viewpoint. Tibetan historical sources have been little known to western scholars and frequently denigrated, especially when they seemed to contradict Chinese documents. Beckwith's analyses make such positions untenable in principle and frequently in detail. Tibet's central role as an intermediary between China, India, and the Turko-Mongol cultures is now much clearer. There is a statement in the 10th-century Chinese Tang Annals that Tibetans descended from the Qiang people, who are mentioned as early as 200 b.c. (Chan 1994, pp. 26-35). Over much of its history, Tibet has had a theocratic government, drawn from one of its many monas teries, and often it acted at least quasi-independently under the formal control of Mongolian or Chinese emperors. Buddhism is said to have been introduced from above by scriptures falling from the sky during the reign of the (legendary) 28th king, Lhatori. Although occasionally suppressed, Buddhism has been the principal religion of the country throughout its history, and even today, as the "Xizang Autonomous Region" of the People's Republic of China. Tibetan Buddhism derived mainly from two sources: the Mahayana system, itself having developed from a 1st-century form of Buddhism known as Theravada, and Tantrism. Mahayana Buddhism emphasizes enlightenment not for the benefit of the individual pursuing it but for the salvation of all beings; the true spiritual ideal is the bod-hisattva, who defers the achievment of nirvana to prevent the sufferings of others. The 24 bodhisattvas of some forms of Tibetan Buddhism (Bryant 1992, p. 202) show parallels in their cosmic role with the 24 Tirthakaras of the Jains and, like the Tirthakaras, are sometimes called "conquerers." Tantrism was known in both Hindu and Jain communities. Tantrism is less doctrinal and emphasizes meditation with yoga practices; the achievement of enlightenment requires experience as well as pure meditation (Gombrich 1984, p. 14). There have been five main sects of Buddhism in Tibet: the Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu, the Kadam, and the sect of the Dalai Lamas, the Gelug, who ruled secularly as well as spiritually, up to the annexation by China in the mid-20th century. The first two of these are the oldest and are based on Tantric teachings; the Kagyu emphasize individual ascetism and yoga; the Kadam emphasized the Mahayana sutras; the Kadam monasteries were absorbed by the Gelug in the 15th century. The Gelug represents a reformation against moral and doctrinal departures in the 14th century. Its founder, Tsong Khapa (1357-1419), studied the teachings of the Sakya, Kadam, and Kagyu and reinvigorated Tibetan Buddhism with, basically, Kadam teaching, enforced with rigorous discipline. They are now the predominant sects in Tibet.

Tibetans share a belief in reincarnation with other groups on the subcontintent, and one of the motivations for pilgrimages is the expiation of sins in preparation for a better rebirth. Sacred sites for pilgrimages include mountains, bodies of water, and caves, especially those used by saints and other personages. Mountains were considered the points of entry into the world for the early, legendary kings of Tibet, and so are especially important sites. In Buddhism, to attain nirvana is to become liberated from the cycle of death and rebirth; in pursuit of this, a Tibetan Buddhist may totally renounce the world and maintain a permanent pilgrimage. Paradise, the quest of many pilgrimages, is said to exist already, in multiple, hidden valleys (beyuls), such as Shambala, the northernmost of five sacred sites associated with the cardinal directions. The others are Wutai Shan (East), Potala (South), Uddiyana (West), and Bodh Gaya (center). These have symbolic counterparts: the four continents at the cardinal points around the cosmographic center, the navel of the universe, Mt. Meru. Tantric meditation can achieve the objects of pilgrimage too: The spine is conceived as Mt. Meru, whereas the limbs are the continents. Aside from the paradises, the three most sacred pilgrimage sites are Mt. Kailash, Lapchi Kang above the Ronghar Valley, and Mt. Takpa Shelri in the Tsari Valley. Mt. Kailash (6714 m) is venerated by both Hindus (as the abode of Shiva) and Buddhists as Kang Ripoche, the "Precious Snow Mountain," also known as the Swastika Mountain, for its markings and symmetrical crown (Chan 1994, pp. 46, 273-279). The most important festival in the Mt. Kailash region is Saga Dawa; it is held in the 4th lunar month at full moon.

The oldest temples in Tibet date from the 7th century, during the reign of Songsten Gampo; he placed 12 temples arranged at the corners of three nested squares centered on Lhasa, and extending beyond the borders of the kingdom. The intention was allegedly to pin down a great demoness, whose presence was divined by his Chinese bride, the Buddhist princess, Wencheng. Each temple is said to be associated with a color, and an animal, in the Chinese tradition, which links these items with the cardinal directions (Chan 1994, pp. 43-45). At the center of this complex is the great temple of Jokhang.

A passage from the Mahanirvana Tantra (Avalon 1963, cited in Rawson 1973/1978, p. 154) explains roles played by the planetary deities and their relationships to directions, colors, and iconography through instructions attributed to Siva:

Now I shall speak of the yantra of the Planets, which promotes all kinds of peace. If the guardians of all the directions and all the planets, Indra and the others, are worshipped in it they grant all desires. Three triangles should be drawn with a circle round them, and eight petals touching the circle. Then around it should be drawn a beautiful city-plan with four gates. Between the east and northeast corners a circle should be drawn .. . and another between the west and south-west corners. Then the nine triangles [created by intersections of the three triangles] should be filled in with the colours of the nine planets, and the left and right sides of the middle triangle should be made white and yellow, the base black. The eight petals should be filled in with the colours of the eight governors of the quarters [of the world]*. The walls of the city-plan should be decorated with white, red, and black powder, and O Goddess, the two circles .. . should be coloured, the upper red and lower white. ... In the inmost triangle the Sun should be worshipped, and in the angles on the two sides of his charioteer [Arun. a]* and his Radiance [Sikha]*. Behind the Sun with his halo of rays the standards of those two fierce ones should be worshipped.

Then worship [the Moon]* the maker of night in the triangle above the Sun on the east; in the south-east Mars [Mangala]*, in the south Mercury [Budha]*, in the south-west Jupiter [Brhaspati]*, in the west Venus [Sukra]*, in the north-west Saturn [Sani]*, in the north Rahu [the ascending node where the moon cuts the ecliptic in passing northward]*, in the north-east Ketu [the moon's descending node]*, and last, encircling the Moon, the crowd of Stars. The Sun is red, the Moon white: [sic] Mars is tawny, Mercury pale yellow-white, Jupiter yellow, Venus white, Saturn black, Rahu and Ketu variegated. .. . One should meditate on the Sun as having four hands, one pair holding lotuses, the other pair making the gestures of dispelling fear and of blessing; the Moon should be visualized as holding nectar in one hand, giving with the other. Mars should be slightly bent, holding a staff in his hands. Mercury, the Moon's son, should be meditated on as a boy with locks of hair loose on his forehead. Jupiter [who is the Guru of the Gods]* should be seen to have a sacred thread [like a Brahmin], holding a book in one hand and a rosary of Rudraksa berries in the other. Venus, who is the Guru of the Demonic beings, should be blind in one eye, and Saturn should be lame; Rahu should be visu

Figure 9.15. The planetary gods housed in a structure at Konarak: (a) From left to right, Surya (Sun), Chandra (Moon), Mangala (Mars), Budha (Mercury), Vrihaspati (Jupiter), Sukra (Venus), Sani (Saturn), Rahu (ascending node of the Moon's orbit), and Ketu (descending node). (b) Detail of the last four. Note that Rahu hold symbols of the Sun and Moon and is mainly head; Ketu holds a sword and the head of a serpent, but is hardly "headless." Photo by Dr. A.R.F. Williams.

Figure 9.15. The planetary gods housed in a structure at Konarak: (a) From left to right, Surya (Sun), Chandra (Moon), Mangala (Mars), Budha (Mercury), Vrihaspati (Jupiter), Sukra (Venus), Sani (Saturn), Rahu (ascending node of the Moon's orbit), and Ketu (descending node). (b) Detail of the last four. Note that Rahu hold symbols of the Sun and Moon and is mainly head; Ketu holds a sword and the head of a serpent, but is hardly "headless." Photo by Dr. A.R.F. Williams.

alized as a severed head, Ketu as a headless trunk, both deformed and evil.

Brackets contain comments by the authors, and starred brackets are by the cited sources (Avalon/Rawson). The passage continues to discuss the governors of the directions. The description of the planetary gods is similar (if not identical) to those depicted on a 20-ft (6-m) long slab of chlorite (Figure 9.15), once used as an architrave of the Hindu Sun god shrine at Konarak, discussed above in §9.1. Chatterjee (1959/1985) comments that "their attributes are not correctly attended to."

The order on the former architrave of the Konarak temple is identical to the order in which the colors are assigned in the Mahanirvana Tantra, with the Sun at the far end, and Ketu at the near. Venus, Saturn, Rahu, and Ketu are shown in detail in Figure 9.15b. Note that the order is essentially that of the Mediterranean week, with the addition of Rahu (the ascending node) and Ketu (the descending node), at the opposite end from the Sun and the Moon. At Konarak, Rahu is depicted without a lower body and is holding symbols for the Sun and Moon. Ketu's lower body is that of a serpent.

In 1027, a system of Buddhist teaching known as the Kalacakra (Wheel of Time) was introduced into Tibet from northwestern India (Petri 1967). The text is in Sanskrit and Tibetan, and it describes the world in human scale. The stars revolve about the center of the universe, Mt. Meru.32 The Earth is flat. There are abbreviated instructions for the calculation of planetary positions along with tables of the corrections to mean motions due to relative motion (epicycle) and eccentricity. Petri notes that other, much smaller works similarly emphasize the Indian source of the astronomy. These sources contain a list of the Indian lunar mansions (rgyuskar), various asterisms (the Big Dipper, the zodiac, and the Pole Star), sexagesimal numbers (suggesting an ultimate Mesopotamian origin), comments about eclipses and a comet (Petri suggests a possible reference to Encke's comet, currently not naked-eye visible, but provides no supporting detail), but no Greek words (as there are, for example, in the Siddhantas) or geometry. In the Kalacakra, eclipses are caused by Rahu (Head of the Dragon) and Ketu (Tail of the Dragon), the invisible planets that cause eclipses, and are identified with the ascending and descending nodes of the Moon's orbit, respectively. Rahu is further connected to Time (kala), itself considered to be a manifestation of Adibuddha, the supreme and transcendant being. Petri (1967) mentions a possible rate of precession of "11/2 days" per century33 as the "famous counting of Kalacakra." This quantity is a somewhat greater value than the 21,600-year cycle cited in connection with the variant 5400-year lengths of each of four yugas in §9.2.

Related to the system and text that bear this name, the "Kalacakra" as the wheel of time is also known in sacred art. Although there is a three-dimensional version of a Kalacakra mandala in one of the Tibetan temples, the usual version is a "sand painting" prepared on the ground by a group of monks. Such a sand painting is normally destroyed immediately after its ritual purpose has been fulfilled, but Barry Bryant (1992) gives a full description of such a sand painting that was created expressly for interested non-Buddhists with the authorization of the Dalai Lama, who also wrote an introduction to Bryant's book. The diameter of the circle of the outside perimeter of the Kalacakra mandala is defined as 13 units of measurement. A piece of paper of the length of the diameter is folded by trial and error until there are 13 equal length divisions. These are then used as the primary units for all other features of the mandala. A high precision is achieved in the formal relationships of the different levels of the mandala. Both the geometry and the iconography are reproduced from memory by the monks, and no plans or texts are used. The mandala represents a 5-story "palace" that resembles a stepped pyramid. The top of the pyramid is shown as the center of the mandala, and each level is described as a distinct mandala. The mandala of "Enlightened Great Bliss" at the top contains 14 deities and the mandala of "Enlightened Wisdom" (just below) contains

32 Petri calls attention to a parallel with an early 18th-century Mongolian astronomy treatise as recorded by Baranovskaya (1955), in which the Sun and the Moon are said to move about Mt. Meru on the "mantle of a truncated cone."

33 Assuming that this is equivalent to 1.5°/century, 360/1.5 = 240 centuries or 24,000 years.

16 deities. The deities of these two distinct mandalas seem to be omitted from the calculation of the total number usually stipulated for the Kalacakra mandala. The mandala of the "Enlightened Mind" contains 70 deities; the mandala of "Enlightened Speech" contains 116 deities, and the mandala of "Enlightened Body" contains 536 deities. The sum of the last three numbers is 722, the number of deities said to be represented in the entire sand painting (Bryant 1992). It is clear from his statements that one would find difficulty in recognizing any such number of deities. At the very center of the mandala in a lotus flower are said to be six gods. However, representations of four of these were covered through multiple layering. On the surface are a representation of a vajra, the lightning weapon of the god Kalacakra, honored in the mandala. Here, the vajra, in fact, represents the god, and a dot of colored "sand" material represents his wife, Vishvamata. We are told that the animals of the 12 months carried the individually named gods of 360 days. Each of the animals carries a cluster of 30 deities indicated by dots, but only 29 are visually apparent in most cases. The centers of the clusters contain different colored dots for the full moon and new moon deities. But, although some dots represent gods, other dots represent offerings and still others seem to be "decorative" background. Offering goddesses appear as anthropomorphic figures, as dots, and in still other cases, are represented by letters of the Tibetan alphabet. "Possible humans" (a defined category of figures) appear in totally human form when female and may have an animal head when male. The "possible humans" are supernatural but are unnamed and are not gods. Similarly, the Snow Lion and King of the Birds (fully depicted) are major named supernaturals but are not counted among the gods. There are also subordinate snow lions represented by dots.

The four elements are represented by different colors in the four directions in the inner squares, but there are five concentric circles surrounding the squares defined ultimately by the same colors but including also a 5th ring of many colors representing the sther. The 116 deities of the mandala of the "Enlightened Speech" may refer to Mercury. The Kalacakra is particularly associated with the 60-year Jupiter cycle (Bryant 1992, pp. 234-235) created by a combination of the five elements and the cycle of 12 animals (see §10.1.3, Figures 10.3, 10.6, 10.7; Tables 10.3, 10.4). The 12 animal cycle alone was used to define the 12-year Jupiter sidereal period. The 12th part of the latter cycle is a 361-day year. The 722 deities of the Kalacakra mandala apparently represent two such years. Vrihaspati, teacher of the gods, and Lord of the lunar mansion Pusya, "flower," is identified with Jupiter, and "flower" may be a reference to the lotus at the heart of this mandala. A Hindu prototype of the Kalacakra is mentioned by Hopkins (1969, p. 168). It describes the Asvini, "horsemen," as follows:

Primeval gods, eternal, two fair-nosed beings, birds divine, weavers of light, creating the wheel of time (which has seven hundred and twenty spokes; or nave of six seasons with twelve spokes; also the year as calf of three hundred and sixty cows), supreme Brahman, powers creating space (the ten directions) and sky, who set sun and moon in the sky.

Figure 9.16. Silk coffin shrouds from Astana on the ancient Silk Road to China and now in the National Museum, New Delhi: Note the interwined lower torsos of the Sun and Moon deities, not an inapt portrayal of their bodies' circling and spiraling motions in the sky. Photos by E.F. Milone.

The Tibetan version seems to involve a shift from the Asvins and the 720 gods to 722 gods, perhaps indicating a switch from a solar to a Jupiter cycle.

Astronomical knowledge and associated ideas traveled back and forth to China along the Silk Road and by sea.

Astronomical cycles were certainly among these ideas. A series of silk coffin shrouds from Astana on the Silk Road show Sun and Moon deities with intertwined serpentine lower bodies (Figure 9.16) that give a sense of those cycles.

Via the Silk Road, we travel to Eastern Asia.

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