Sample text for The Dalai Lama : man, monk, and mystic / Mayank Chhaya.

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For tens of millions of years Nature has chiseled and sculpted Tibet unlike any other place in the world. It is as austere as it is awesome. Cataclysmic geological forces over the last seventy–five million years have pushed millions of square miles of Earth’s crust northward over the ocean. The continental drift has moved what is now known as the Indian plate over 6,000 miles in 50 million years. The final phase of this tectonic crunch began about 25 million years ago when the Indian plate started literally ramming into the Eurasian (Laurasian) plate and began dredging the Tethys Sea with a force whose extent is still not fully understood. This powerful phenomenon carried with it a future history that defined many modern nation–states of Asia, their civilizations, their religions, their cultures, and their conflicts. Tibet has been at the center of this bewildering tectonic spectacle.

From an ordinary human perspective the time span may seem enormous and the pace of the drift impossibly slow, but in geological terms this is normal, considering the gigantic blocks of Earth’s crust involved in this movement. A time–lapse cinematic perspective of the great crunch would reveal one of the most awe–inspiring occurrences in the planet’s history. According to geologists, Tibet emerged as a hot and wet plane from under the sea between fourteen and eighteen million years ago, the era they call the late middle Miocene. Some fifteen million years before the present, the phase began wherein this tectonic union would elevate the land and turn it into the highest mountain range on Earth. With the formation of the Himalayas, which continues to this day, began the rise of the Tibetan plateau, arguably the world’s largest, stretching over 1,550 miles (2,500 kilometers) from east to west with an average elevation of 13,000 feet. The Indian plate is still shifting northward at an incredible rate of 5 centimeters per year, which geologists describe with some levity as twice the rate at which human fingernails grow. Although there is clear evidence to suggest that the Tibetan plateau began rising before the rise of the Himalayas, it was during the last four million years that it acquired its fabled elevation.

Perhaps unlike any other region in the world, Tibet draws its fundamental character from its geography and geology; some say even more so than its history. Tibet without its rugged and stately mountains and vast plateau loses almost all its mystique, which has endured several centuries through medieval and modern times. If Tibet were a hot African nation with no mountains and monks as the predominant features of its landscape, chances are that it would not have inspired a million tales and captured the West’s imagination. Not only is Tibet’s geography at the center of its people’s existence but it also determines the climate of a region inhabited by over two billion people. The Himalaya–Tibet region has been called the “water tower” of Asia. It supplies water to more than a third of the world’s population and is the source of most great rivers in China and the Indian subcontinent. The Indus, the Ganges, the Sutlej, and the Brahmaputra—all rivers at the heart of the great Indian civilization—originate at the Kang Rimpoche in the northwestern corner of upper Tibet, more popularly known as Mount Kailash. This is also the putative home of Shiva, one of the great trinity of gods that Hindus worship along with Vishnu and Brahma. The east is formed by splendid gorges of the Salween, the Mekong, the Yangtze, and the Yellow rivers. These eight major rivers have shaped the two great civilizations of China and India.

As recently as a million years ago, or until the end of the Pliocene era, Tibet’s climate was tropic or subtropic. But with the Himalayan range rising to 20,000–plus feet by the tail end of the Pliocene (about five to six million years ago), its climate started changing dramatically. The mountains blocked the movement of the monsoon winds rising over the Indian Ocean. Consequently, the Tibetan climate became a frigid alpine zone rather than subtropic, which would have been more in line with its latitude.

Tibet’s reputation as an impregnable and aloof land, the roof of the world, owes everything to its geology and geography. Towering on its southwest are the greatest mountains on the planet—the Himalayas, the Karakoram, and the Pamir. Its northwest is the desert of Takla Makan, and the east has parallel gorges formed by the four rivers. The northeast is the only accessible area of Kokonor. Permafrost covers 2.15 million square kilometers of the Tibetan plateau throughout the year. Its 975,000 square miles (2.5 million square kilometers)—1,500 miles (2,500 kilometers) from the east to the west and 774 miles (1,200 kilometers) from the north to the south—form one–fourth of China, adding an enormous geopolitical weight to the country. The overriding appeal of Tibet to the outside world has been visual first and anything else later. The overwhelming yet majestic manifestations of nature have over the millennia created in the inhabitants of Tibet reverence for the elements. Mountains have traditionally enjoyed the exalted status of deities. Nature spirits have been invoked as a matter of routine. A whole set of prehistoric Tibetan belief systems that preceded the arrival of Buddhism was dominated by what to a novice and outsider seems completely outlandish. The prevailing belief system included nature and animistic worship, which incorporated rites and rituals that would seem rather bizarre to an outsider. For the Tibetans themselves it was just a way of surviving with humility in the midst of overarching Nature. These extremities of the Tibetan climate and geography are perceived as something of great value.

In my conversations with the Dalai Lama there was frequent reference to the fact that the climate in Tibet was free from “the heat, mosquitoes, snakes, insects, and dust of the Indian plains.” This has also been a recurring theme in scores of interviews with ordinary Tibetan refugees even after they have spent decades in India.

Tsetsen Dolkar, a refugee who runs a small Tibetan curio shop in the narrow lanes of McLeod Ganj, summed up the feeling, saying: “I have been in India for nearly thirty years. But I still fear a rat might come out of my woodwork followed by a snake. My house near Lhasa was at such an altitude such creatures could not survive.”


The known history of what is called Tibet today can be traced back to the seventh century, the era of the first hero–king, Songtsen Gampo. The time before that is buried in ancient myths including the one that says Tibetans were created by a monkey and a mountain ogress. Gampo’s stature in early Tibetan history owes considerably to his success in getting Buddhist scriptures translated into Tibetan. For that reason he is credited with opening the doors so that Buddhism could enter this seemingly impenetrable land of awesome mountains and breathtaking valleys.

One of Gampo’s queens was Bhrikuti Devi, a Nepalese princess who brought with her many Buddhist images, including one of Sakyamuni—the sage of the Sakya caste—namely, the Buddha. Before Buddhism came to Tibet the prevalent religion was Bon, a shamanistic worship of Nature spirits in which human and animal sacrifice, exorcism, magic, and sorcery were practiced. Bonism was soon merged into Buddhism, but many of its practices and beliefs were retained to varying degrees. In some ways Buddhism became a more refined face of the combination of the two. The fusion became known as Lamaism, from the word lama, meaning “master” or “teacher.” Bonism exists to this day and is recognized by the Dalai Lama even as it continues to draw a large following among Tibetans.

It was the Tibetan monk Tsong–khapa (1358-1419) who carried forward the reform initiated in 1042 AD by Atisha Dipankara, an eminent teacher from India. Tsong–khapa founded the Geluk–pa (Virtuous Way) sect, or Yellow Hat sect, in the fourteenth century. The sect required celibacy among monks. After 1587 the Grand Lama of this school was called the Dalai Lama. Interestingly, the title of Dalai Lama was first conferred by the Mongol warrior–king Altan Khan, who proclaimed the head of the Geluk–pa sect as Dalai Lama Vajradhara (the All-Embracing Lama, Holder of the Thunderbolt). Dalai is a Mongolian word meaning “vast” or “oceanlike.” Lama denotes “wisdom of a great teacher.” Together the title means “a teacher whose wisdom is as vast as an ocean.”

By 1641 the Dalai Lama had acquired temporal and spiritual authority over all of Tibet. Up until the current Dalai Lama, who is the fourteenth in the line of mystical succession, the Tibetans regarded the Fifth Dalai Lama, who reigned during the seventeenth century, as their greatest leader. This is because among other things it was during his time that the enormously large Potala Palace(*) was built as his residence.

The Chinese revolution of 1911 brought down the Quing Manchu dynasty and led to the loss of Chinese control over Tibet. In 1913 the Chinese authorities yielded to British pressure to hold a tripartite meeting (China, Tibet, and Britain) in Simla, India. A treaty was drafted by the British that divided Tibet into Inner and Outer regions, the latter being autonomous. The outbreak of World War I in 1914 pushed Tibet out of the international spotlight. During the 1930s, when China became more unified, new efforts were begun to gain power over Tibet. After nearly two decades of uncertainty and the emergence of Communist China, the Chinese army captured the frontier fortress of Qamdo, 370 miles from the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. The Tibetan forces capitulated, with the current Dalai Lama sending a peace mission to Beijing.

On May 31, 1950, an agreement was signed granting nominal autonomy to Tibet but for all practical purposes bringing the area under Beijing’s control. This, however, did not reduce tensions between the Chinese garrisons and the Khamba tribesmen of Tibet. In March 1959 the Dalai Lama rejected the Chinese request that he use his temporal power to rein in the tribesmen. The Dalai Lama was summoned to appear before the Chinese commander in Lhasa. The audacious summoning of someone whom the Tibetans regarded as the living Buddha sparked revulsion and large–scale antagonism toward the Chinese. On March 31, 1959, the Dalai Lama fled to India via Tezpur, the northeastern border town in the state of Assam, after a harrowing journey on foot and horseback. The Dalai Lama and his entourage were given political asylum in India.

Some 1,200 years after the Buddha lived his philosophy was introduced to Tibet, more out of royal matrimony than any conscious evangelical movement. Political expediency forced Songtsen Gampo to marry two foreign women, apart from the three Tibetan women he had already married. One of the two was Belsa, a Nepalese princess, and the other Gyasa, a Chinese princess. Both of them were devout Buddhists and brought with them strong Buddhist influences. Historians believe that it was under their influence that Tibet began to gradually replace the indigenous animistic Bon religion with Buddhism. Both wives had brought with them images of the Buddha which they had their king formally install in temples. While the door of Belsa’s temple, known as the Jokhang, faced west toward Nepal, that of Gyasa’s temple, known as Ramoche, faced east toward China. Although Buddhism was introduced with the blessings of the highest in the land, it did not spread much for at least another 150 years. With spirit worship as its core, Bon continued to influence Tibet’s religious landscape as well as political decision making. It would take the passage of three successors for Buddhism to begin capturing the popular imagination after Gampo in the reign of the thirty–seventh Chogyal, Trisong Detsen. Detsen, overriding opposition from pro–Bon ministers, invited Padmasambhava, or the lotus–born, the foremost Indian Buddhist master of the day, to Tibet.

“Padmasambhava recognized early that the most effective way of spreading Buddhism would be by interpreting its teachings in the context of Tibet’s prevailing mythology rather than dismissing Bon altogether,” the Dalai Lama explained. The Indian Buddhist master traveled throughout Tibet and established the country’s first monastery, Samye, in AD 779. He initiated seven Tibetan novice monks. These monks find a place of great reverence among Tibetans even today. In 792 Detsen declared Buddhism as Tibet’s official religion.

History took yet another turn against Buddhism when four decades after Detsen’s death a coup by pro–Bon ministers installed his grandson Lang Darma. His reign saw Buddhism come under attack and monasteries overrun. Although there is no accurate record, it is widely believed that Darma started the practice of wearing hair in knots braided with red ribbons. The legend of the day that holds true to the present time was that he did so to hide his horns, signifying the fact that he was a wizard. Legend also has it that he had a black tongue. There are Tibetans who still stick their tongues out and scratch their heads while paying respects to high–ranking officials, the significance of the gesture being that they have neither black tongues nor horns.

For nearly four centuries after Darma’s public slaying by the Buddhist monk Paljor Dorje using a bow and arrow, Tibet remained under virtual anarchy. From 842 when the Yarlung dynasty collapsed right up to 1247 when the Mongol warlords began overrunning Tibet, the country had practically no central governing structure. That made the area even more vulnerable to internal strife and external aggression. The Mongolian influence has been a crucial part of Tibet’s history, especially since the middle of the sixteenth century. Altan Khan, leader of the eastern Mongols, and his grandnephew Secen Khungtaiji gave the Tibetans a clear choice—if they submitted, their religion would be accepted; if not they would be conquered and destroyed. The Tibetans chose submission in order to retain their religion.

It was in 1570 that Altan Khan invited Sonam Gyatso, the third incarnation of the Geluk–pa or Yellow Hat sect and abbot of the Drepung monastery, to his capital Hohhot (Khoto Khotan). During this meeting Sonam Gyatso recognized Altan Khan as an incarnation of Kublai Khan. This recognition was meant to help Altan Khan establish his lineage to the great Mongol warrior Genghis Khan. Whether Altan Khan was indeed a descendant of Genghis Khan by virtue of reincarnation is a moot question and could never be answered; but what the recognition of Altan Khan did was something of great value for the Tibetans in general and the Dalai Lama in particular. It helped the Tibetan monk secure Altan Khan’s political patronage. More important, in return Sonam Gyatso was given the title of Dalai, which was the Mongolian translation of Gyatso. Thus was born the institution of the Dalai Lama. The two previous incarnations, Gedun Truppa (1391-1475) and Gedun Gyatso (1475-1542), were renamed as Dalai Lamas retroactively. After Sonam Gyatso’s death his incarnation was discovered to be the great–grandson of Altan Khan. This coming together of the Mongol rulers and the Geluk–pa sect strengthened and expanded the influence of the latter over the whole of Tibet. The Mongol–Dalai Lama alliance was a mutually beneficial one, bringing both sides strengths in their respective domains.

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Bstan-Ždzin-rgya-mtsho, -- Dalai Lama XIV, -- 1935-
Dalai lamas -- Biography.