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Tibetan Religious Flags (Tibet)

Last modified: 2014-05-29 by zoltán horváth
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Tibet, appeared in history in the VIIth century. Its old religious history is unclear as it has largely been rewritten by generations of Buddhist monks. Before the arrival of Buddhism on the Tibetan plateau, Tibet used to have several rituals and practices that may or may not have constituted a coherent religion (there is much debate between historians about this topic). Either way, the first religious texts were Buddhist, and they call those beliefs bön. The Tibetan emperors (or Tsenpo) quickly adopted Buddhism as this religion was vivid in almost every country in the neighbourhood (India and China, of course, but also city-states in central Asia) and invited the Indian master Padmasamhava.
That was the Ngadar or first introduction of Buddhism. The first monastery was founded in Samye in the VIIIth century. Over time, the monasteries became very rich, due to large donations of lands and worker from the emperors. The influence of buddhism grew quickly until the emperor Langdarma was killed by a monk in 842, arguably because he was an anti-Buddhist and pro-bön (several historians believe he only wanted to put a halt to excessive donations). The empire collapsed as two heirs disputed the throne, and Buddhism was said to degenerate or only survive in the far borderlands.
One century later, Buddhism gradually came back from the south-west kingdoms. By that time, the teachers came from northern India or from Bengal), mostly fleeing the destruction from Muslim invasion and the long decline of Buddhism in India. The new Indian masters founded several new traditions, which became schools, several of them splitting in sub-schools. That was the Chidar or second introduction of Buddhism.
- The heirs of the Ngadar were collectively considered by the new schools as the Nyingmapa ("the ancients"). This school is very close to modern bön. It has monasteries and nunneries, but for a long time it had (and still has) lay masters.
- The masters Marpa and Milarepa founded the Kagyü school ("the oral lineage") in the XIth century. This school split into a number of sub-schools. The four main schools are : the Karmapa, the Barompa, the Tselpa and the Phagmodrupa. This last sub-school itself split into eight minor schools : the Drigungpa, the Lingrepa, the Drukpa, the Martsangpa, the Shugsebpa, the Taklungpa, the Trophupa, the Yabzangpa. Most of these schools have been absorbed into the Drigungpa, Drukpa or Karmapa. Each of these three rose to political power either directly or by allying with lay rulers.
- The Tibetan translator Drogmi, student of the Indian master Naropa, founded the Sakya school ("the grey earth"). This school was used by the Mongol empire to govern central Tibet from 1264 to 1354. The Sakyapa throne was hereditary and went from uncle to nephew.
- The Gelug school ("the vertuous") was founded by Tsongkhapa, a master from North-East Tibet in the XIVth century. This school heavily relies on hierarchy, monasticism and litteral studies. Two of its main incarnations became temporal rulers : the Dalai lama andthe Panchen lama (but none of them was the school's leader).
In addition to these Buddhist schools, there is the modern bön school. It was reformed in the XIth century by old bön practionners, and picked up several traits and teaching from its buddhist rivals. It is today considered as quasi-buddhist school itself. Tibetan Buddhism is itself part of the Vajrayana ("diamond / thunderbolt way"), a very esoteric branch of Buddhism. Apart from Tibet, Mongolia and culturally close neighbours, Vajrayana still exists in Japan.
Corentin Chamboredon, 09 February 2014