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THE FIRST TIBETANS
It was a sunny day in February when we sat down to talk about Tibetan myths of origin, and the Indian sky was cloudless blue: like spring in Europe or North America. The bougainvillea that hangs off the bungalow, where the Dalai Lama meets visitors, was in riotous pink bloom. He was dressed in the same wine-red robes he always wears, with one shoulder bare to the air, as the Buddhist regulations, or Vinaya, which govern the behavior of a monk, require, even though it was chilly enough inside the bungalow for me to wear a sweater. Three Buddhist statues, each clothed in glittering gold brocade, sit on a small altar above a shuttered fireplace. There is a relief map of Tibet on one wall, and a Tibetan religious painting on another. Otherwise, the white walls and cement floor are unadorned.
The Dalai Lama's understanding of the earliest myths opens the door to Tibetan history, so I was excited to discuss them with him. Like any Tibetan child, he learned the myths first, then the history. Yet unlike any other child, he quickly comprehended that the nation's earliest myths are in part also about his own life, his past lives, and the heart of Tibet. He has never stopped examining these myths. His grasp of them has changed as his vision of the world has evolved.
Buddhists, like Christians, Hindus, and Muslims, cherish ancient religious myths, which explain human origins for the faithful. Jews, Christians, and Muslims share a myth in which God blows spirit into clay to create Adam. In one of several Hindu creation myths, the primeval creature Purusha was dismembered and people emerged from its parts. A Chinese myth tells of warring mythical emperors who hammer a primeval creature with bolts of lightning. Tibetans learn about a monkey who mated with a rock-dwelling demoness.
Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, first heard this myth when he was four and a half years old, shortly after he was recognized as the next Dalai Lama and enthroned in Lhasa in 1940. Despite his unusual circumstances, he discovered the creation myth just as many Tibetans have during the past five hundred years. He saw a painting of the monkey in a temple, and a monk used it to illustrate the story. "There were some paintings there, and I saw that monkey for the first time," the Dalai Lama recalled. "I thought 'nice monkey.' And a monkey who has a sense of responsibility. That's beautiful.
"The myth shows a sense of responsibility and compassion and service, rather than fighting or killing," the Dalai Lama continued. "It's a beautiful story. Very positive and creative. The story is teaching us Buddhist values."
The Great Fifth Dalai Lama summarized Tibet's creation myth when he wrote his history of the nation in 1643.
It is said that the flesh eating red-faced race of Tibetans were the descendants of the union between a monkey and a rock-dwelling demoness. Through the compassion of the Holy One, who had changed his form to that of a monkey, who united with a rock-dwelling demoness — six children came into being. Growing from these in course of time, Tibet became a kingdom of human beings.
The Holy One mentioned here is the Bodhisattva Chenrizi. Tibetans believe that the Great Fifth Dalai Lama was a manifestation of Chenrizi, just as they believe that the Fourteenth Dalai Lama is. After helping the Tibetan people evolve from animal life, Chenrizi has manifested himself in a human form repeatedly to guide them. Tibetans do not believe that the Dalai Lama is the fourteenth incarnation of the human being who was the First Dalai Lama; rather, he is considered to be the fourteenth manifestation of Chenrizi, or the Holy One. But what is a Bodhisattva, and who is the Bodhisattva Chenrizi?
Bodhisattva is a Sanskrit word: bodhi means "enlightenment" and sattva means "being." Bodhisattvas are "beings aspiring for enlightenment"; they are on the path to enlightenment, though they have not yet reached it. Bodhisattvas vow to devote their life's work to the enlightenment of others, rather than to work for their personal enlightenment. Bodhisattvas are Buddhist saviors who work during the course of thousands of lifetimes for the benefit of others trapped in the prison of cyclic existence. They will not pass over into final enlightenment, and escape from the wheel of birth, death, and rebirth, until all other beings do so.
Chenrizi is the Tibetan name for the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (pronounced Ah-va-low-key-tesh-va-ra) in Sanskrit; Chenrizi works specifically for the salvation of Tibetans. The Dalai Lama says that Chenrizi is also "the embodiment of the Buddha's compassion." Tibetans believe that this Bodhisattva intervened in Tibet out of compassion, and because he was told to do so by the Buddha. A scripture records the moment when the Buddha told Avalokiteshvara to devote himself to the guidance of the Tibetans.
As the Buddha lay on his deathbed in northern India in the year 483 B.C., Avalokiteshvara bent down beside him and urged him not to die, because he had not visited Tibet. The Fifth Dalai Lama recorded the scene in his history of Tibet. Tibetans are "unprotected by your words. Remain for the sake of these," the Bodhisattva said.
"The kingdom of snows in the north is, at present, a kingdom of animals only," the Buddha replied. "There is not even the name of human beings there ... in the future O Bodhisattva, it will be converted by you. At first, having been reincarnated as a Bodhisattva, protect the human world of your disciples ... then gather them together by religion."
The Dalai Lama looked out a window toward some distant trees as he referred to this text and said, "This explains how the Buddha foretold that Avalokiteshvara, whom we call Chenrizi, will have some special connection with Tibet. So these are the words. These are the basis of our people."
Tibetans have repeated their creation myth about Chenrizi and the monkey for more than a thousand years. In different parts of Tibet, communities tell different versions of the myth. Villagers in one part of the country swear that Tibetan infants sport a vestigial tail at the tip of their spine that withers as the children grow. Some say that Chenrizi merely gave the monkey the vows of a Buddhist layman before he sent him to mate with the demoness; others, like the Great Fifth, say that Chenrizi "took the form of a monkey" and mated with the demoness. There is no single standardized version. The Great Fifth Dalai Lama said in his history, "As far as the appearance of human beings in this land of Tibet, the assertions of learned men are endless." Worn by a millennium of retelling, each variation of the myth still reveals the essential themes.
In one of the myth's persistent threads, the monkey-demoness children refused to eat either monkey food or demon food. It was Chenrizi who caused self-sprouting barley to grow in a sacred field. Only after they ate this sacred food did the children evolve into the first Tibetans.
The Dalai Lama chuckled benignly about this. "That monkey looked after all his children even though it was frustrating when they would not eat what monkeys eat. So he approached Chenrizi and asked him how he should look after them. Nice. Very responsible."
As the monkey-demons with a Bodhisattva's spirit in their heart ate the sacred barley over seven generations, they slowly lost their fur and their tails. These monkey-demons evolved into the first Tibetans.
The Dalai Lama and I examined a photograph of a mural in Tibet that illustrates the myth. He pointed to a rainbow flowing from the heart of the Bodhisattva to the heart of the monkey, just before he mates with the demoness.
"This rainbow is a symbol of the energy from Chenrizi. A blessing," the Dalai Lama said. The rainbow is a metaphor for the unbreakable bond between every Tibetan and Chenrizi. The Dalai Lama said the rainbow in the mural is a symbol for the "positive karmic connection" that exists between Tibetans and their patron savior. Whether Chenrizi took the form of the monkey, or whether he sent his energy into the monkey, the myth symbolizes the most fundamental of Tibetan beliefs. Chenrizi is the spiritual father of all Tibetans, and he continues to be manifest in human form to guide his people.
When Tibetans approach the Dalai Lama after waiting in long lines for an audience of only a few seconds to receive his blessing, their faces are radiant with a reverence that non-Tibetans find both amazing and mysterious. The root of their faith is a link between the heart of the Bodhisattva and the heart of the monkey, represented by the rainbow in the mural. Tibetans believe that this connection is alive today and that it flows from each incarnation of the Dalai Lama, who they see as a living manifestation of Chenrizi, to each one of them.
* * *
Devout Tibetans accept as fact the Great Fifth's belief, recorded in venerated Buddhist texts even before his time, that there were no people in Tibet before the time of the creation myth, or sometime after the death of the Buddha, in 483 B.C. According to the Dalai Lama, the first Buddhist teachers in Tibet grafted existing myths onto Buddhist beliefs arriving from India to create the monkey myth.
The Dalai Lama does not concur with every belief held by the most traditional and devout Tibetan Buddhists. For example, he accepts Darwin's theory about the origin of species through natural selection as the most logical explanation regarding the origins of humanity.
"When science clearly contradicts Buddhist beliefs, and it is proven, then we must reject the earlier beliefs," the Dalai Lama said. "We will accept the evidence of science, not early beliefs. The Buddha himself made it clear that the final decision for every person must come through investigation and experiment, not by relying solely on religious texts. The Buddha gave us each that freedom. I am following this line."
Thus it was no surprise, after I asked the Dalai Lama about the first Tibetans, that, the next day, he pulled a clipping out of the folds of his red robe. He follows news from recent archaeological digs in Tibet with great interest.
"The Tibetan population has been living in Tibet for more than ten thousand years," he said as he pointed at the clipping. "We were there." The Indian archaeologist V. N. Misra has shown that early humans inhabited the Tibetan Plateau from at least twenty thousand years ago and that there is reason to believe that early humans passed through Tibet at the time India was first inhabited, half a million years ago.
"During the prehistoric period we can deduce a few things about these first Tibetans from archaeological evidence," the Dalai Lama said. "It seems that the first Tibetans were in Western Tibet and then slowly they moved eastward. According to archaeological findings, Tibetan civilization started much earlier than the time of the Buddha: perhaps six thousand to ten thousand years ago. So the story of the demon and the monkey, which is said to have happened after the death of the Buddha, seems to be a myth. This myth is connected with Buddhism. When Buddhism arrived in Tibet (in about A.D. 600) there were older traditions, and Buddhist scholars tried to make some connection with those traditions. They did not rewrite, but they sought to link Buddhism to the old stories that already existed."
Exactly when Tibetans developed a culture, a language, and a shared set of beliefs that are identifiably "Tibetan" is debated among the few scholars who study Tibetan history seriously. The first Chinese references to proto-Tibetans, four thousand years ago, describe a non-Chinese people who herded sheep. Scientific findings about the emergence of Tibetan culture remain sketchy, but the earliest Tibetan documents depict a society with a culture very different from that of China. Two ancient poems, one Chinese and one Tibetan, reveal a marked contrast between the two cultures.
Water and a wet fertile valley are the metaphors Lao Tsu used in the Tao Te Ching to describe a spiritual path, in one of the world's earliest religious books, but his metaphors also define China's earliest self-image. Lao Tsu saw China as a fertile low-lying valley.
A great country is like low land.
Compare these Chinese images of a low-lying "great country" with the following stanzas from two ninth-century Tibetan poems.
Land so high, made so pure,
Tibetans are a mountain people, and the Chinese are a valley people. A glance at a map, where the Tibetan Plateau soars two, three, even four miles above the plains of China, makes this obvious. The first Tibetans herded flocks in high treeless meadows, while the first Chinese farmed in low-lying valleys. The first Tibetans had more similarities with the people of Mongolia and other nomads of Inner Asia than with Chinese farmers. Though agriculture later made its advent in Tibet, the society's deep bond with nomadic cultures has never been broken, while Chinese farmers' adversarial relations with the nomads of Inner Asia is just as deeply rooted.
"The first Tibetans were not farmers," the Dalai Lama said. "They lived as nomads, following herds of animals. Then slowly in some valleys in Western Tibet, they began to farm crops. According to some modern scholars, as early as two or three thousand years ago they were in contact with the Indus River Valley civilization and they developed an early script in the Shang Shung kingdom, the mar yig script. They could not have developed that script themselves. It must have been influenced from somewhere else, perhaps the Indus or even farther west. Perhaps they borrowed farming techniques as well."
The Dalai Lama grew excited talking about scholarship regarding the Shang Shung kingdom and its achievements.
"Recently I saw one short report in a Chinese newspaper," he said. "Chinese archaeologists found (and carbon-dated) inscriptions in mar yig script (proving that it was at least) three thousand years old. So there was a civilization ... several thousand years ago in the western part (of Tibet with) a large population, and then because of changes, (declining rainfall, desertification), the population moved toward the east, toward the lower valleys."
Speculating about this era, the Dalai Lama noted that these first Tibetans received more than farming and script from the West. "Even now in Ladakh there are some Tibetan people with features very similar to those of the Europeans," he said. "They may have come from Greece in ancient times. And one small community there has facial features like modern Arabs."
The first tiny bands of humans to arrive in Tibet fought a harsh battle to survive on a high plateau so vast it still inspires anyone who sees it. The entire Tibetan Plateau, 14 percent larger than Alaska and Texas combined and 62 percent the size of the European Union, was the Tibetan homeland in ancient times. During the course of history, and particularly after the Chinese invasion of 1950, boundaries were redrawn while Chinese and others migrated slowly to the edge of the plateau. The Tibetan Autonomous Region (the TAR, or Xizang) on modern Chinese maps is less than half of the Tibetan Plateau and the territory that was historically Tibet. Nor does the TAR include all ethnic Tibetan areas. Tibetans still live across the plateau, not just in the TAR, so that the province of Qinghai (Ambo) and the Chinese provinces of Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan have substantial Tibetan populations. Only about one third of the Tibetan population lives inside the TAR. The geographic area we call the Tibetan Plateau and the region of historic Tibet are virtually the same (except for Ladakh and Sikkim); therefore, when the Dalai Lama speaks about Tibet, he is referring to those parts of the plateau that were historically Tibetan, and are primarily populated by Tibetans. On the other hand, to the Chinese, Tibet is simply the TAR. These issues remain matters of substantial debate.
The Tibetan Plateau (2.5 million square kilometers, or 965,000 square miles) ranges over the highest mountains on earth, sandy deserts, immense gorges, two-mile-high fertile plains, densely forested valleys, and vast treeless plateau. Tibet juts up like a high-altitude island rising from the lowlands around it. It is the highest, largest plateau in the world. The Himalayas line the southern edge of the plateau, the Pamirs and the Hindu Kush guard the western edge, while the Kunlun parade along the northern ramparts. Five of the planet's greatest rivers drain off the plateau to the east: the Mekong, Salween, Tsangpo/Bhramaputra, the Yellow, and the Yangtze. It has historically been sparsely populated, and remains so today. Chinese sources say the Tibetan Plateau's entire population was only six million in 1990: four and a half million Tibetans; the rest Chinese and others. The Dalai Lama's exile government disagrees, saying that there are six million Tibetans and a much larger number of Chinese in Tibet. In comparison, the European Union — which is only about 40 percent larger than the Tibetan Plateau — has a population of 455 million. Tibet remains the sparsely inhabited heart of Asia, while to the south a billion people live on the Indian plains and to the east a billion people live on the Chinese plains.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Story Of Tibet"
Copyright © 2006 Thomas Laird.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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Table of Contents
List of Maps,
List of Illustrations,
Chapter 1 The First Tibetans,
Chapter 2 The First Tibetan Emperor, 600–650,
Chapter 3 The Tibetan Empire and the Spread of Buddhism in Tibet, 650–820,
Chapter 4 Lang Darma: Decline, Revolt, and a Period of Chaos, 797–977,
Chapter 5 The Dharma Returns, and Buddhist Orders Are Born, 978–1204,
Chapter 6 Mongol Overlords and the Seeds of a Problem, 1207–1368,
Chapter 7 A Master Plan: The First to the Fourth Dalai Lamas, 1357–1617,
Chapter 8 The Fifth Dalai Lama and the Rise of the Manchu, 1617–1720,
Chapter 9 The Sixth to the Twelfth Dalai Lamas, 1705–1900,
Chapter 10 The Thirteenth Dalai Lama, 1876–1933,
Chapter 11 The Early Life of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, 1935–1950,
Chapter 12 Life Under Chinese Occupation, 1951–1959,
Chapter 13 Since 1959,
Chapter 14 Epilogue,