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Special> China's Tibet: Facts & Figures> Beijing Review Archives> 2004
UPDATED: April 25, 2008 NO. 34 AUG.26, 2004
The Roof of the World
There is so much to appreciate about Tibet-the land, the culture and its people. A quarter century after China opened to the outside world, the Tibetan landscape is still a sight that inspires contemplation about life, awe at the sheer majesty of nature and wonder at the indomitable human spirit

Our staff reporter Feng Jing recently made a three-week journey to Tibet, as well as the Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Gansu Province and the Haibei Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai Province. The following is her special report on Tibetan Buddhism, which will be followed by a series of articles on her journey in the coming issues. -- Ed.

You can feel the influence of Buddhism everywhere in Tibet: colorful prayer flags fluttering in the wind; mounds of white Mani stone lying quietly by the roadside; incense smoke curling up from the monasteries and temples; monks attired in maroon robes patiently twirling prayer wheels.

Tibet has a population of 2.7 million, of which 92 percent are Tibetans, the majority of whom follow Tibetan Buddhism. Currently there are over 1,700 monasteries, temples and sites for religious activities in Tibet and like elsewhere in China, freedom of religion enjoys legal protection in Tibet.

To preserve the religious and cultural heritage sites and provide more suitable venues for lay practitioners, the Central Government has input more than 400 million yuan ($48.3 million) in maintaining and building monasteries and religious sites throughout Tibet.

Butter Lamps

"It's so enlightening," sighed a middle-aged Tibetan woman when listening to a tourist guide in the Jokhang Monastery recounting the history and stories about the monastery and Tibetan Buddhism.

"I just love these teachings. I have grown up with them," said the woman. She and her husband usually make a special trip from their home in the suburban area of Lhasa, capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region, to pay homage to the Buddha in the Jokhang Monastery twice every year.

To local Tibetan Buddhists, a monastery is sacrosanct. Monasteries around Tibet receive lay practitioners daily, and the Jokhang Monastery in Lhasa and Tashilhunpo Monastery in Xigaze City are even crowded with Buddhists.

Lamas in Tashilhunpo said the number of pilgrims have increased in recent years thanks to an improved life and more convenient transportation. Monasteries all over Tibet, though many charge fees for tourists, are open for religious practice free of charge.

What lay practitioners do in a monastery or temple is to worship before the Buddha and ask for his blessing. They also add butter to the lamps, which burn day and night in front of the Buddha statue. Pilgrims from outlying areas usually buy a bag of solid butter and put block in each of the lamps, while those from close by carry a butter bottle and pour the liquefied butter into the lamps.

Making donations to monasteries and temples is an important part of each visit. Lamas have said it doesn't matter how much lay practitioners donate as long as they are pious. If a large denomination note is donated, lamas would give back change, which is in no way considered offensive.


Outside, lay practitioners twirling prayer wheels and chanting mantras walk clockwise around the temple or monastery, which is called Ritual Walk or circumambulation. There are also those who do full prostrations-a ritual to show their respect to Buddha. While chanting mantra, they put both palms together, raise them above the head, then move to the chest, bend over with palms down to kneel, then prostrate the full body with forehead touching the ground, and stand up and repeat the entire process again.

A full prostration can be carried out in one place or on the road. Lay prostration practitioners can be seen on many of the roads leading to Lhasa. They usually start from their hometown, making a full prostration every three steps. It can take many people dozens of days to reach their destinations following this method.

The fourth day of the sixth Tibetan month is especially important, as it is believed to be the day Sakyamuni (565-486 B.C.), founder of Buddhism, gave his first teaching after he became the Buddha (The Enlightened One). On this day, monasteries and temples are thronged to capacity.

When taking photos outside the Jokhang Monastery, two Tibetan boys, about 10 years old, stop to say hello. The brothers tell me they performed prostrations all the way from the distant pastoral area to the Jokhang Monastery with their parents. It took them over 20 days to get to Lhasa. They grow especially interested in my digital camera and get excited when looking into the screen. One of the boys shows me his Tibetan knife and the other his talisman. "It can't be touched by a woman," shouts the boy when I try to get my hand on it. "But it doesn't matter if you don't know," he says politely.

Prayer Flags

After about eight hours on the bus traveling across a 5,000-meter snow mountain from Lhasa to Shannan Prefecture, sleepy passengers were suddenly brought back to reality by the endless streams of red, yellow, blue, green and white prayer flags forming a web across the mountain. It was an amazing sight against a backdrop of crystal clear blue sky and white clouds.

The small flags are made of silk cloth and each color represents one of the elements-blue, the sky; green, the earth; red, fire; yellow, earth; and white, water. On each flag is printed a prayer and blessing, which are said to be blown in the wind to benefit the welfare of all beings and promote virtue in the world.

Experts say prayer flags, which have a long history, were produced by the remote Tibetan Bon religion and later incorporated into Tibetan Buddhism. The colorful flags adorn almost all parts of the Tibetan landscape: mountains, lakes, monasteries, houses or tents, even huge stones and ancient trees. Driving through a small village in Shannan Prefecture, we even see prayer flags fluttering alongside national flags on the roofs of houses, adding much vitality to the quiet village.

Mani Stone Mounds

The Yumbolhakang, believed to be the oldest palace in Tibet, was built in the second century B.C. on the top of a hill in Shannan. During the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama, it was renovated into a temple.

On the road to the Yumbolhakang, we passed a 10-year-old boy clutching a fist-size stone close to his forehead while chanting a mantra. When he had finished chanting he slowly placed the stone on a pile of other stones by the roadside, before walking away with his father.

Tibetans call the stone piles Mani stone mounds. The mounds, some in the shape of pyramid and others round, are a common sight in Tibet. 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 (religious) texts are also common themes.

Travelers may find Mani stone mounds almost everywhere, in monasteries, beside villages, along paths and on mountains. 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.

Religious Belief: A Personal Choice

The house of Lhachug, a 63-year-old Tibetan man, comprises a two-story Tibetan-style building with over 10 rooms. One of the rooms on the second floor is reserved as a family shrine, where a lamp burns day and night in front of a statue of Buddha.

Lhachug is a rich farmer in Nedong County of Shannan Prefecture. Families like his usually have a special room for their religious practice. Those with a relatively poor lifestyle hang a thangka, a kind of Tibetan scroll-banner painting depicting Buddha, and use it for their rituals. Tibetan Buddhists, especially the elderly, chant sutra and follow their practice every day. To them their faith is a way of life. Some Tibetan families also invite monks to provide Buddhist services at home on important festivals or on occasions of weddings and funerals.

Though most Tibetans believe in Tibetan Buddhism, some don't. Benba Toinzhub, a staff member with a government organ in Xigaze, said he grew up with no belief, though his family members are all Tibetan Buddhists.

"Even now, I argue with my father over this issue," said Benba. But he added he has never persuaded his father to abandon his belief. His father has given up trying to show his son the virtues of Buddhism, and just asked his son to be the best person he can be and have a good heart.

Tibetan Buddhism

Buddhism was brought to Tibet in the eighth century by Padmasambhava, a teacher from India. It was rapidly established, and Tibet soon became a refuge for Buddhist teachings that were lost or destroyed elsewhere. There are four main lineages of Tibetan Buddhism: Nyingma, Gagyu, Gelug and Sagya. Tibetan Buddhism is sometimes called Vajrayana (the "Diamond Vehicle") to distinguish it from the Mahayana ("Greater Vehicle") and Thereavada ("Way of the Elders"), but Tibetan Buddhism also embraces many of the Mahayana teachings, especially the motivation to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings.

Tibetan Buddhism can be distinguished from other forms of Buddhism through the belief in reincarnation lineages of certain lamas (known as tulkus) such as the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama is recognized as the spiritual leader of all lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, and is seen as the emanation of the Buddha of Compassion.

Tibetan Buddhism is a path of practice and spiritual development leading to one's insight into the true nature of life. Buddhist ideology does not advocate the practice of worshipping a creator God. Hence, quite often it is not really seen as a religion in the conventional sense. The basic tenets of Buddhist teaching are straightforward and practical: nothing is fixed or permanent; actions have consequences; change is possible. It teaches practical methods (such as meditation) which enable people to realize and utilize its teachings in order to transform their experience, to be fully responsible for their lives and to develop the qualities of wisdom and compassion. Ultimately it is not about teaching or learning but about experiencing.

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