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Himalayan home

by BENOY K. BEHL, Frontline, Vol 25, Issue 25

Monks who fled from Nalanda and Vikramashila nurtured Vajrayana Buddhism in the trans-Himalayan region

The Himalayas, India -- THE second millennium brought repeated invasions of the plains of northern India from across the borders to the north-west. Gradually, the whole of North India came under Muslim rule.

<<  Bodhisattva, mural, Sumtsek, Alchi, Ladakh. Early Indic art does not strive to present photographic reality. Its purpose is to present the grace that underlies all of creation. This graceful bodhisattva moves us and elevates us through the marvellous lines of his form.

With the destruction of the great monasteries, Buddhist monks fled to the Himalayas, taking as many texts as they could with them. Thereafter, the Buddhist faith in India was nurtured in the Himalayas and beyond. Hindu worship, on the other hand, was carried out within homes and in small temples: the practice continued and a few isolated temples survived in the northern plains.

The trans-Himalayan region is a vast and cold desert. This area is surrounded by the tallest mountains of the world and is sparsely populated. In this high and arid land, which consists of Ladakh, Lahaul-Spiti and Kinnaur (in present-day Himachal Pradesh) on the Indian side and Tibet, life is hard and survival itself is a constant challenge. The form of Buddhism that came to these high-altitude regions was the Vajrayana, which had evolved in the later period of the Nalanda university and flourished thereafter in the Vikramashila university.

FIRST DIFFUSION

In the 8th century, the Buddhist teacher Santaraksita from Nalanda set up the framework for a monastic order in Tibet. However, he found that the people of the Tibetan plateau continued to live in fear of evil spirits and would not easily take to the new faith. In A.D. 747, at his suggestion, Guru Padmasambhava, also of Nalanda, was invited to help spread the Buddhist faith in Tibet.

The story of Padmasambhava’s successful conversion of the people of the trans-Himalayan lands survives even today as the greatest legend of the region. The guru swept across the mountains, performing the Cham, or the masked spiritual dance of Vajrayana Buddhists. He purified the land, from Ladakh (in Jammu and Kashmir) in the west, through Lahaul-Spiti, Kinnaur, Tibet and Nepal up to Arunachal Pradesh in the east, and made it ready for Buddhism. This is known as the First Great Diffusion of Buddhism.

From A.D. 836 to 842 came a dark period in the history of Buddhism in the trans-Himalayas. King Langdarma of Guge, who was opposed to the new religion, persecuted Buddhists. Buddhist scriptures were burnt and temples were razed to the ground. When King Yeshe ’Od (A.D. 947-1024) came to the throne of Guge, his kingdom consisted of the present Indian territories of Ladakh, Spiti and Kinnaur, and Guge and Purang in western Tibet. By then, Buddhism had declined in the trans-Himalayas. What troubled the king most was that even the little practice of the religion, which continued in small pockets, was a decadent and corrupted form of the original faith.

Around A.D. 975, the king sent 21 young scholars to Kashmir, which was then one of the greatest centres of Buddhism, to learn the pure faith and to bring back that knowledge and the scriptures. These young men set out, full of zeal and ardent desire, but the journey was long and difficult. Nineteen of them died during the journey.

Of the two scholars who survived the journey to Kashmir and came back after many years, one was Rinchen Zangpo (A.D. 958-1055), who was to become famous for all time to come as Lohtsawa, “the Great Translator”. Rinchen Zangpo supervised the construction of many monasteries and temples set in the midst of the vast spaces of the trans-Himalayan desert. These were to become exquisite jewels of the faith.

SECOND DIFFUSION

Rinchen Zangpo, mural, Alchi, 12th century. He supervised the construction of many monasteries in the trans-Himalayan desert  >>

The Second Diffusion of Buddhism in the trans-Himalayas, which began on the orders of King Yeshe ’Od and Rinchen Zangpo, was a new dawn of the faith on the Roof of the World. The light of knowledge that they brought was to continue forever in these vast regions. The legendary 108 temples constructed in this period across the kingdom of Guge became the backbone of the revival of the faith and remain the most revered and, in fact, beloved monasteries of the people of these lands. There are many local legends, sometimes even magical stories, describing how these beautiful monastic temples were constructed in a short space of time.

Yeshe ’Od and Rinchen Zangpo wished not only to re-establish the Buddhist faith in the trans-Himalayas but also to ensure that it was the true knowledge of the scriptures that would form the basis of this renaissance.

Rinchen Zangpo spent several years in Kashmir, completing his own education and guiding his disciples. In the 4th century, in the Buddhist centres of Kashmir, the Yogacharya school of thought had developed. It was believed that the most effective method for the attainment of the highest truth was through meditation, or “Yoga”, which means to become “one with the eternal”. The different aspects of the wisdom of the Buddha were personified as the five Buddhas: Akshobhya, Ratnasambhava, Amitabha, Amoghasiddhi and Vairocana. Vairocana, who symbolises the mirror-like wisdom of the Buddha’s enlightenment, is the Supreme Buddha in the Yoga Tantras.

Vairocana is a mere name for the interdependent nature
of everything in the universe.
Clearly know that all dharmas
Are without any existence in their own being.
To understand the nature of dharma in this way
Is to see Vairocana.

(Avatamsaka Sutra)

From the 8th-9th century until around the 12th century, the system of Yoga Tantra was predominant in Buddhism in eastern India and Kashmir. From here it spread to Nepal, Tibet, Korea, Japan and Indonesia. The texts of the Yoga Tantras were expounded and translated by Rinchen Zangpo. Particular emphasis was given to the Sarva Tathagata Tattva Samgraha (the symposium of the truth of all Buddhas), which is the root text of the Yoga Tantra and the Durgatiparisodhana Tantra (purifier of evil rebirths). These formed the basis of the sculptural programme and paintings in the many monasteries of the Second Diffusion.

Yeshe ’Od and the subsequent kings who patronised the making of these monasteries invited artists from Kashmir to build them and make the marvellous paintings and sculptures inside them. The painters and sculptors from Kashmir brought with them a highly sophisticated form of art, which was deeply rooted in the classical Sanskrit texts of India. The masters from Kashmir would have also trained local artists and there was a blending of the local idioms with the developed styles coming from Kashmir.

Since time immemorial, Kashmir was known as Sharada Peeth, the “seat of the Goddess of Learning”. In the 7th century, when the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang visited India, Kashmir was a flourishing centre of Buddhism, which rivalled in importance Magadha, the area in which the Buddha had lived and preached. Xuanzang found many stupas and thousands of monks in the valley of Kashmir. He stayed here and studied under a renowned Kashmiri teacher. In the 8th century, King Lalitaditya’s capital, Parihaspura, was one of the great centres of Buddhism in the world. Magnificent stupas were built here by the king and by Chankuna, his Tokharian minister.

A mural of the 12th-13th century in a temple of the Alchi monastery displays what may have been the architectural style of the stupas of Kashmir at that time.

PAINTED SPLENDOUR

In the midst of the barren stretches and vast, bleak mountains, the monasteries of Rinchen Zangpo were made on small and fertile patches of land in the valleys of the rivers that flow through the trans-Himalayas. Entering these structures, one comes into a world of painted splendour. The sculptures and paintings made in these monasteries are among the most sophisticated and finest pieces of art.

In the Indian philosophy of aesthetics, it is believed that the ecstasy we experience on seeing something truly beautiful, whether it be in nature or in art, is akin to Brahmananda, which is the final bliss of salvation. The moment of the experience of beauty is one of the highest states, in which man senses his kinship with the whole of creation: a state in which the soul shakes off its material attachments and feels the bliss of unity with the divine. Thus, the ecstatic response to beauty was seen as a glimpse of the realisation of truth itself.

This philosophy was most fully developed in Kashmir. In the 10th century, around the time of Rinchen Zangpo’s visit to the valley, Abhinavgupta, one of the greatest aesthetician- philosophers of India, lived in Kashmir.In that period, Saivism and Vajrayana Buddhism there were permeated deeply by the philosophy of aesthetics. The surviving art of the monasteries of the Second Diffusion brings us some of the most sublime manifestations of this philosophic outlook in art.

Since the period of the Guptas and the Vakatakas, the hallmark of the finest Indian art was the deep and inward look on the faces of the figures. The art of these monasteries continues this sublime tradition. What makes the paintings and sculptures here unique is a sense of lilting grace, which awakens a sense of joy within us. The art of these early trans-Himalayan monasteries takes us far from the noise and clamour of the material world to a deep fount of peace and beauty, which lies within each of us.

The faith in Tibet

<< The Tawang Monastery in Arunachal Pradesh.

The Second Diffusion was consolidated in the trans-Himalayas by the coming to western Tibet of Dipankara Srijnana, or Atisa, who was one of the luminaries of the Vikramashila university. He was persuaded to come to western Tibet in A.D. 1042 by Byang-Chub ’Od, the grandnephew of Yeshe ’Od. One of Atisa’s lasting contributions was that he emphasised the necessity of a solid tradition of teaching in the monastic system and created a firm foundation for the transmission of knowledge from master to student. Atisa’s closest disciple, Bromston, founded the Kadampa order of Tibetan Buddhism. In later years, other orders were established, as prominent teachers attempted to reform and keep pure the traditions of the faith in Tibet, according to the texts and precepts of Buddhism that had identifiable sources in the great mahaviharas of India. The lineage of teachers became pre-eminently important in this context.

After three years in western Tibet, Atisa moved to central Tibet, where he lived until his death in A.D. 1054. In the meantime, with the dwindling fortunes of the rulers of western Tibet, the political centre of power shifted to central Tibet. In times to come, central Tibet became the hub of Buddhism in the trans-Himalayas. With the destruction of Buddhist monasteries and universities in India, by the 13th-14th centuries, Lhasa became one of the prominent centres of Buddhism in Asia.

In the meanwhile, as far east as the distant mountains of Arunachal Pradesh, the philosophy of Vajrayana Buddhism was nurtured and kept alive. Arunachal Pradesh is among the few places where the original Nyingmapa sect of Buddhism, which was established under Guru Padmasambhava, continues even to this day.

The Tawang monastery, one of the largest in the world, was established in the 17th century. It belongs to the Gelugkpa sect, which was founded at the end of the 14th century. Its mural paintings were recently remade by Buddhist painters from Bhutan. Along with the monastery at Tawang, Ani Gompa, a nunnery, was set up on a nearby hill. In its seclusion, this nunnery preserves its gentle atmosphere and deeply religious traditions.

GOMPAS OF SIKKIM

Sikkim, or “Sukhim”, means the land of peace. There are around 200 monasteries, or gompas, spread across Sikkim. These are central to the lives and the culture of the deeply religious people. These belong to the early sects of Himalayan Buddhism: Nyingmapa and Kagyupa.

The most prominent among these is the Dharma Chakra Centre, or Rumtek monastery, near Gangtok, which is the present seat of the Kagyupa sect. This sect evolved from the teachings of Atisa, of the Vikramashila university, who taught Buddhism in Tibet in the 11th century. In the high-altitude Yumthang region of Sikkim, the monasteries of Lachen, Lachung and others preserve the sacred tenets of the Nyingmapa sect. Buddhists in these mountain regions write their prayers upon flags. They believe that the offerings of their prayers are taken by the wind and spread throughout the world.

The land of Orissa was a great centre of Vajrayana Buddhism in medieval times. Scores of stupas and remains of vast mahaviharas speak of a glorious Buddhist history. It is in the villages of Naupatna and Maniabandha that we see the continuance of Buddhist traditions. The weavers of this region are famous for their tie-and-dye fabrics. This community has continued to worship the Buddha. As in medieval times, the adoration of the Buddha is carried out with songs of devotion. The purpose is to lose all fretful concerns in the ecstasy of the search for the Truth.

Ladakh, the land of high mountain passes, is nestled between the Himalayas and the Karakoram range. Here, eternity is never beyond the vision of man. The Buddhist faith arrived here in ancient times. It brought with it belief in the harmony of the whole of creation; the belief that the transitory world around is an illusion, maya or mithya. We must lift the veils of this illusion to see the truth beyond: the truth of our oneness with all that there is.

In a life which is constantly imbued with a consciousness of the eternal, the gompas play an essential part in the life of the people. These are, in fact, the centres of all village activity. The lamas are deeply respected and loved. Prayers are a constant refrain in everyday life.

The gentle traditions of Buddhism are continued by the people of Ladakh. Their prayer wheels are meant to unite the body, the mind and words in harmonious prayer. Mantras, or sacred chants, are written on scrolls of paper and these are kept inside the prayer wheels. These prayers are recited while turning the wheel.

Thus, the faithful remain fully absorbed in thoughts and deeds related to that which is beyond. Chortens, or stupas, guard the entrances to the villages. They remind us that the land is truly blessed by the prayers and deeds of  the faithful over the years.

The valley of Zanskar is an enchanted land. It is snowbound and cut off from the rest of the world for most of the year. It preserves ancient Buddhist traditions. The Sani stupa here was originally made in the 1st century by Emperor Kanishka. The ceaseless noise and clamour of the modern world has not yet intruded life here. In the peace of the mountains, it is the deeper meanings of life that are constantly before us.

The Spiti valley presents a vast and majestic landscape. It has azure blue skies, mountains of unimaginable hues, and bushes of wild roses that fill the air with fragrance. Here too, the high mountain passes, which connect this valley to the rest of the world, remain snowbound for half the year. As one can imagine, life is extremely hard. The culture of this region is steeped in the compassion of the Buddhist faith.

The chos-khor, or temple complex, of Tabo in Spiti was founded in A.D. 996. This is the earliest functioning monastery and is believed to have been founded by Rinchen Zangpo.

Buddhism is a science of the mind: it addresses the deepest causes of sorrow and pain in the world. All sorrow comes from within us and is based upon the negative emotions of greed and attachments. This faith helps us to understand ourselves, to rise in enlightenment to the Buddha nature within us: to be free from the emotions that constantly disturb us and liberate the inner joy in each of us.

SPIRITUAL DANCE

The Cham, the spiritual dance of the lamas, signifies the victory of knowledge over ignorance. In Buddhist thought, the greatest evil is the ego.

It is that sense of the self which is the greatest illusion that we must lose in order to gain true knowledge. The lamas spend many days in preparation for the Cham: the goal of their deep meditation is to realise the essential oneness of the deities with their own nature.

On the day of the Cham, they are to lose their own identity, to be transformed into the deity upon whom they focus. For on the sacred ground it will not be the lamas but the deities who will dance.

Bodhisattva, range-rig-rste monastery, Charang, Kinnaur. Such Kashmiri wooden sculptures of the end of the first millennium are rare today >>

The Cham masks cover the ordinary, day-to-day nature of the men and present instead the qualities of the deities within them. There are peaceful masks and those with wrathful expressions. Finally, both symbolise the emptiness of the ultimate nature of all appearances.

All aspects of the Cham carry deep spiritual meaning and significance. The Lords of the Cemeteries are seen as raucous skeletons. They remind us of the intrinsic impermanence of all earthly matter. They beat a linga, or effigy, upon the ground. This represents the ego. Understandably, as the linga thrashes about, the crowd of onlookers cower in fear of its touch.

Finally, the linga is dismembered and cut into pieces with the dagger of transcendent wisdom. Once the ego is destroyed, consciousness is liberated eternally.

The Cham is believed to cleanse the land of all negative thoughts and forces. The onlookers are brought to a heightened awareness of their true inner nature. For the eternal moment of the Cham, earthly reality is suspended: desires and suffering are forgotten as the deities dance, blessing every being.



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