Allied Committee: Common Voice Vol. 2(1992) Tibetan culture: nature and process

Common Voice

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Common Voice: Volume 2 (1992) Tibetan culture: nature and process

Prof. Samdhong Rinpoche

The word "Culture" comprehends a settled meaning in the west which in close parlance with the law of western life-style and way of thinking could not familiarise itself with the eastern people inspite of its massive use in modern times in oriental languages.

The difference has been one of approach: The easterners have at no time viewed human life and its attributes from the angle of vision with which people in the west have looked at its meaning.

In the course ofinteraction with western civilization, the expression culture borrowed from western languages and used as a medium of communication commuted with equivalent terms as coined in various eastern languages, such for instance as "Sanskriti" in the lndian languages and "Rig-gsung" in Tibetan but, again with the enigmatic only made purposeful. And, yet the eastern expressions for culture are intelligible in their own conceptual meaning. That is why we find so much gap of communication among the various civilised groups in interacting on basic ideas conveyed by this normative expression.

As being securely entrenched by virtue and predilection of Tibetan Scholarship I am tuned to the expression of culture as "Sanskriti" which is not analogous with culture of the western science.

As we view the world we find that every phenomenon passes through three distinct phases or states, one which is the amorphous state of basic nature (Prakriti) which has potentiality of development or acquisition of more qualitative additions; second the developed form or refined state in which primitive nature is well grown with the help of congenial causes and conditions which is conveyed by "Sanskriti". Being always a process it is never static or an end in itself.

In the third state the thing either disintegrates or does transcend. In case it disingtegrates it takes the distorted or fragmented form (Vikriti); but wherein it transcends it breaks forth unto suchness, "Paramita", i.e. perfect, nothing more expectorant state.

A maximal rational view of culture as connoted by the word Sanskriti transcends all barriers of geographical connurbation and is not limited within national boundaries. Thus, it has become a universal phenomenon directly interlinked with the process of development and changes in the conditions of the sentient beings. The concepts of national, racial or any such dichotomical cultures are simply artificial, although Sanskriti implies in general both the sentient and non-sentient entities. However, in the context of human cultures it relates to a development of the "psych" only.

The development of"Psych" or Mind inevitably depends on its orientation through socio-economic conditions and process of education which includes dharam, philosophy and ethical teachings. In response to this empirical experience human culture is definitely shaped by the imperative nature of dharam. The inquisitive mind is like a creeper which always hangs on the solid tree of traditions without whose support is certainly cannot grow. Therefore, culture is inconceivable without occurrences of immediate interaction with tradition and perceptual education that gives vent to rise of disinctive cultures, the inevitable consequence of multi ethnic and social environment. Seen in this light each one of the sentient beings has the potentiality of "transcendence" termed as "gotra". This potential is matured by cognitive causes and conditions that accentuate it in the right direction of the process of human endeavour resulting in the noetic of culture in real sense of Samskara, sublimation. If however the potential so commonly ingrained in all of us is obstructed by uncongenial causes and conditions it degenerates into distorredness (Vikriti).

Due to potential nature of the transcendence basic human urge keeps pace with the process of betterment, an upward trend and freedom. The psych of the developing individual makes him starve for gathering means and conditions for achieving something which is higher and "far beyond" of the present state of the individual.

The process of development of human cultures is, thus, revealed through the vincer of history with successive changes and shifts in human values (purusartha).

Under this cognitive principle whole of the "Aryavarta", crux of the eastern hemisphere, has been observant of the great ideals of human endeavour, as to begin with "Karma" and encompassing with the spiral of economic (artha) and religious (dhara) growth finding freedom (Moksa) as the ultimate form of bliss. This, indeed, has been the supreme ideal of men in the orient.

Tathagata Samyak Sambuddha after being enlightened showed the world the truth of moksa or Nirvana and the truth of the Path to achieve it in a vivid manner. The path of salvation has been a matter of direct experience and not something of make believe in this absolute darkness.

As Buddha spelled out his thoughts, belief without the base of reason or perception in the name of faith completely disappeared. This tremendous revolution, naturally, brought about a complete change in human culture so clearly visible and plain in aspiring to truth. This has been termed as "Buddhist Culture", of undiluted awareness and complete integration with unitive life.

The Buddhist culture should be comprehended in a way that it must denote the state of mind and not the simple expression or manifestateion of it. The state of mind differentiates the person from uncluttered or cluttered and the highly or highest cultured. All creativity of human mind reflected in art, architecture, literature of various kinds, music, dance and drama and the like is just the symbolic expression of state of mind and its skill. It may be understood that "Beautiful" and "crude" do not exist perse as independent entities without being related to mind and its capability of appreciation and reflection.

Similarily, the non-skilled cannot be perfected without perfecting the mind which manifests into the above classes of creation. We may without hitch say that human culture is as individual as the mind itself though not without a commonness in its expression or appreciation in the form of categorical signs and shapes.

The conception of commonness of "Collectivity" in the sense of action (Karma) and mind (Cit) is accepted by every School of Buddhist thought with certain subtle variations; thereby the acceptance of national or ethnic culture is not to be wholly ruled out.

What does the Tibetan culture represent is our fundamental inquiry. Tibet was anciently known as "Himavat", the land of snow of "Bhota" which had been a very tiny nation in-so-far as any demographical computation could assess its manpower. It does also have a very short span of recorded history which is replete with tremendous struggle and rapid changes in its socio-economic and political ambience.

Tibet has played a leading and hectic part in the history of Asia during the last about two thousand years. Very late, in acquiring traits of civilisation as compared with its neighbouring States, it has stood their equal in many spheres and has not infrequently, as well, pioneered in many respects, particularly in the category of philosophical and educational systems, wherein it has surpassed many larger and much more resourceful neighbouring nations. Even today, despite its unprecendented political problems the distinctive cultural identity of Tibet is well secured and made strongly felt by the world at large as being able to offer "something" to mankind.

This has been possible only because of the singular cultural tie at its deepest level of the condition of mind of the people of Tibet who based their ethics on the teachings of the Buddha. People of Tibet, until the seventh century A.D. remained aloof and undecided. In spite of a strong political hegemony and build-up of military power, its cultural and religious future remained still uncertain. Tibet at that time was socially and uneducationally a backward country, almost in a semi-savage state without the written law and literature or script. In such deplorable state the wisdom of the kings of Tibet was extraordinarily remarkable to have envisioned the future cultural phenomenology and the strength of components of Buddhism to pave the future of Tibet. The modern mind will not find it difficult to understand as to how the country's future shaped by the innovative thrusts of the wise men of old. Here are some specific points that led to the orientation of Tibet:

(1) They chose Sanskrit for their canonical language and the Brahmi Script devised to develop their own writing system and forms of literature which in course of time became almost equally rich as Sanskrit itself.

(2) They chose Buddhism for their national "dharma" which provided them with the guideline of the nation's social and economic structure and the juridical methods.

(3) They drew inspiration from India in matters of language, script and dharma.

(4) In disregard of their indigenous tradition s of fetishistic rites and magical performance they took to Buddhist practices although in this act they had to face very strong organised oppositions and violence which they bore with courage and determination.

The choice of India was not a freak but a well considered thought behind which was a pragmatic consideration for shaping the future destiny of the people of Tibet. It is known to all that Tibet lies so close to Nepal, China and Persia, the three very much advanced countries at that time to which Tibetans had much more access as compared with India, but they chose the difficult task to receive things from India notably its thoughts and ingredients of culture. There is undisputable evidence that the quest for development of human values and the vision with which those wise people were endowed made it possible for the country to not only adopt the language of India and translate into their own language voluminous Sanskrit texts of canonical and non-canonical subjects ignoring the already available translations in Chinese and other languages. Tibetans showed their intense preference for the Buddhist metaphysical systems which were relied upon and included in their social milieu.

Buddhism which was introduced into Tibet was in its undiluted and complete form which was organised in a planned manner to reach every homestead unmindful of the difficulties that obstructed its development.

Unlike any other nation, the people of Tibet did not have any notable cultural or ethical order before the arrival of Buddhist culture in their land. This factor benefitted them to exercise their unprejudiced mind in selecting and adopting Buddhism which did not have to face undue obsession from a pre-existent indigenous system or culture. It was Buddhism that in the form of its pristine purity manifested in various forms of art and literature in Tibet.

Process of Culture

The second broad area of our inquiry relates with the process of cultural development which began during the middle of the seventh century and took shape of a movement after the invention of our own language by Sambhota and the introduction of Buddhism by Santaraksita and Padmasambhava. The first interactions in many ways were with the pre-Buddhist Bon religion which staged a firm opposition to the spread of Buddhism among the people and the royal court. The squabbles were enormous and took a rancourous turn, but the rationality of Buddhism easily overtook the much mystified pre-Buddhistic cults. In this matter the wise, straight-forward and rational nature of the mind of the people of Tibet helped to a great extent in changing the nations' culture without much bitterness and blood-struggle. The local opposition disappeared within few decades in two distinctive ways.

(1)The majority got themselves converted into the Buddhist fold leaving no trace behind of the fetishistic culture.

(2)The minority or "orthodox lot" which did not accept conversion adopted the Buddhist philosophical and metaphysical systems into their own faith and made themselves convenient sharers in the mainstream.

The second phase of interaction was within the Buddhist stream, namely its direct tradition coming to Tibet from China. lnteractions with India and the Chinese lineages went on with support of royal munificences and political exercises of power. This interaction had its climax in the bSams-Yas debate between Acarya Kamalsila and Hoshang which was eventually settled with an air of tempo to the Indian lineage.

Henceforward, till Glang Dar-Ma's aggressive rule destroying the process of cultural growth was almost at its completion stage.

The third and crucial blow to this process of Buddhist culture growth was confirmed by the assassination of Rai-pa-Can and enthronement of Glang Dar-ma who resorted to violence and suppression of Buddhism for such spell of time which Ied to the disintegration and devolution of the unity of Tibet.

This episode, surprisingly, could not wipe off the Buddhist culture in the land and reassert the old pre-Buddhist culture; but instead it certainly harmed the political power of Tibet to a considerable extent which could never be brought to the same level as it existed formerly.

A significant reaction undoubtedly occurred to this unbecoming conduct of the rulers which was felt in the quest for restoration of the neo-Buddhist upsurge in peoples' minds which had a stronger resilence than for the inclination for gathering of political strength. People lost no chance to restore Buddhism toward the east with the help of Lachen Gompa Rabsal and toward the west with the active support of Pandit Shakya SriBhadra, etc.

With the reawakened faith, a critical notion also arose to avoid any pitfalls and stains in the practice of the Buddhist sacraments due to local interference or interpolations in the interpretative techniques.

It was in this context that the invitation to Dipankara Srijnana was sent by the king of Tibet in response of which the great Acharya gave to Tibet a rich legacy in the form of the Bodhipatha-Pradipa.

In the second phase of the revival of Buddhism in Tibet, the Sakyapa, the Kargyudpa and finally the Gelukpa traditions were gradually developed in a cordial co-existent manner, supplementing each other in enriching the Tibetan Buddhist culture as a whole.

Since the visit of Dipankara Sri Jnana to Tibet the stability of Tibetan Buddhism seems to have been well established and no subsequent overall change did take place in the country. In general essence, awareness for preservation of cultural unity on the lines of its traditional norms as adopted in this period remained intact not allowing any interference from the outside. The people of Tibet had known the consequences of the psychopathic torture and the feeling of insecurity experienced during the days of Glang Dar-ma's violent atrocities and cruel suppressions.

This awareness for preservation of tradition in an unchanged metaphor might be viewed as stagnation to the growth of Tibetan culture is about the past thousand years and it may also be currently considered that the sense of exclusion to the living nature of its status quo did great harm to modernising the nation resulting in the political feebleness that went with it in recent times of momentous change in Asia which ultimately led to the loss of its national identity in ihe mid-twentieth century. In my view these notions are not very plausible and are extremely polemical. However, after taking stock of the position of Buddhist Studies in the present world we have no regrets at all for what cost the people of Tibet have had to pay for devoting themselves in preservation of their culture.

If Tibet had been modernised in the sense of today's lexical meaning of the term 'modernity' or 'modernisation' the greatly priced holy Buddhist Studies would have been irretrievably lost to the world today. We are proud of having assailed on time to have preserved this great tradition without the least distortion and feel fully recompensed to have carried out our duty to hand this legacy over to the new generations of the world and for which we are sworn not to spare anything to sacrifice.

Tradition and Modernity

The continuity of tradition of Tibetan culture which did not evince any notable change or modernising itself for the last thousand years met shock treatment in the sixth decade of the present century. People of Tibet were taken completely unaware by a sudden political change which with a handful of refugees living as if in the tenth century civilisation brought them face to face with the modalities of the twentieth century civilisation. This jolet from tradition to modernity has not been the outcome of smooth process in which the larger world has found itself.

This bears two broad issues before the people of Tibet, on whether the tradition of Tibetan culture can survive under the present circumstances of definite limitations, anguish and torture, and second whether such survival of tradition is necessary for the good of man.

For a decade or so the Tibetans were disgusted and confused; gradually the maize of modern civilisation to mature Tibetan mind become a matter of commonplace delusion. The youngsters, too, who in the first contacts with the glare of modern culture were utterly attracted to it and thought the Tibetan culture to be out of date were also de-delusioned after a decade and half. Now, most men of the Tibetan extraction have begun to feel that tradition and modernity can go hand in hand without disturbing each other but casually even being complementary of each other. The dichotomy of tradition and modernity the two supposed extremes has been finally absolved in the development of human culture in the present time. It has been proven that this culture could well survive in the modern environment and advancement of technology and at the same time it is not only beneficial to beings but rather indispensable for the present day humanity. There is every possiblity that the qualitative composition of society will find new incentives ofgrowth with dire purposiveness. The final process of Tibetan culture through the severe test of modernity seems to be the ultimate glory of the Tibetan Buddhist culture.

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