Tibetan Buddhism: A Perspective
By William S. Weedon

Philosophy East & West
V. 17 (1967)
pp. 167-172

Copyright 1967 by University of Hawaii Press

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    I USE THE TERM "Tibetan Buddhism," rather than "Lamaistic Buddhism," since the latter has application well beyond the geographical boundaries of the country formerly known as Tibet. Further, Lamaistic Buddhism in its foreign habitat has come to include many variations not found in the parent nation. Alice Getty's term "Northern Buddhism," though preferable in many respects, suffers from the same type of difficulty.[1] On the other hand, it would be absurd to suggest that a geographical or ethnic boundary, especially over the long history of Buddhism in Tibet, would be sufficient to insure homogeneity.[2] Variation, furthermore, can be discerned not merely spatially and temporally, but in terms of differences between certain popular aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, and those associated with the higher levels of the lamaistic hierarchy where, as I shall try to indicate shortly, a singularly pure and refined form of Buddhism persisted.

    Tibetan Buddhism, probably because of the prevalence of Bon, tantric, and `saktist elements,[3] has frequently been treated from a socio-anthropological point of view; while the close association, in the hagiocracy, between civic and religious activity has led to an examination in historico-political terms.[4] There have been, of course, a number of writers who have chosen to emphasize the more esoteric doctrines,[5] relating them to the theoretic but

1.    Cf. The Gods of Northern Buddhism (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1928).

2.    Sir Charles Bell distinguishes between "political" and "ethnographic" Tibet (see particularly The People of Tibet [Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1928]). This distinction is utilized by H. E. Richardson in his A Short History of Tibet (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1962).

3.    Sir Charles Bell's The Religion of Tibet (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1931) is, of course, a classic in this field. More recent, easily accessible works, relating particularly to the Bon Chos, are Helmut Hoffman's The Religions of Tibet (New York: Macmillan Co., 1961) and Robert B. Ekvall's Religious Observances in Tibet (New York and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1964). As regards the tantric and `saktist elements, mention should be made of Agehananda Bharati's The Tantric Tradition (London: Rider and Company, 1965). Incidentally, though several authorities prefer the umlaut over the "o" of Bon (e.g., H. E. Richardson), I have sided with what seems to be the majority in omitting it.

4.     See in particular Tsepon in D. Shakabpa, Tibet: A Political History (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1967).

5.      See, for example, the psychological commentary by C. G. Jung to The Tibetan Book of the Dead by W. Y. Evans-Wentz (3rd ed.; London: Oxford University Press,




more often to the practical side of psychology, as constitutive of the distinctively Tibetan aspect of its Buddhism. Much of this has been done in the name of comparative religion, though sometimes the aim has been frankly that of dabbling in mystical powers.

    It is not my purpose to disparage these approaches (which are often mingled in the literature), but rather to suggest that there is room for another viewpoint, one which endeavors to see in the Buddhism of Tibet a distinctive but plausible reinterpretation of some of the basic conceptions of Buddhism. In examining this matter, I arbitrarily restrict myself to the political area known as "Tibet" from the time of the founding of the dGe Lugs Pa sect[6] up to the flight of the XIV Dalai Lama to India. I must emphasize that this brief paper pretends to do no more than propose a way of looking at the Buddhism of Tibet; it cannot, in the nature of the case, present a "proof." Thus the amassing of textual evidence and the verification of my thesis by way of authoritative pronouncement are excluded. My aim is simply to suggest a way in which the lurid and horrendous aspects of Tibetan Buddhism may not merely be reconciled with the basic tenets of "The Religion of Infinite Compassion" but may, in fact, be seen as fructifying and enriching them.

    The fearsome climatic and geographical features of Tibet, have been emphasized by virtually all European explorers from the time of the French Lazarists, Hue and Gabet, onward; [7] and the wild severity of the country's physical aspect has frequently been felt to be matched by the fierce and gruesome practices of the inhabitants [8] Allowing for a fair amount of exaggeration, it still seems that many of these scarce accord with the gentle doctrines of the Gautama. Monks, seeking to excel in acts of "piety," had themselves walled up in shallow caves where they remained without seeing the light of day for years on end, and were fed through narrow slits which were kept tightly covered by the awe-struck peasants, except on the one occasion a day when food was passed in. Human bones were made into ceremonial necklaces, trumpets, and drinking cups. The practice of animal sacrifice was apparently common where the Bon influence was strong, and

1960) ; also, The Secret Oral Teachings in Tibetan Buddhist Sects, by Alexandra David-Neel and Lama Yongden (Calcutta: Maha Bodhi Society, n.d.).

6.    Throughout this paper, I have in general followed the practice of internal capitalization in the rendering of Tibetan terms. See Ekvall, op. cit., p. viii.

7.    Travels in Tartary, Thibet and China: 1844-1846, by Huc and Gabet, translated by William Hazlitt, 2 Vols. (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1928).

8.    For example, In the Forbidden Land, by A. Henry Savage Landon, 2 Vols. (London : William Heinemann, 1898); Lhasa and its Mysteries, by L. Austine Waddell (London: Meuthen and Co., 1905), and Lhasa, by Perceval Landon, 2 Vols. (London: Hurst and Blackett, 1905).




it seems that human sacrifice was not unknown. Shamans (gSHen) roamed the countryside, and belief in magic and spells was very nearly universal. The assistance of malevolent deities was invoked by magicians, not merely against personal enemies, but against those hostile to Buddhism.[9] Demons (bDub) and goblins (aDre) were felt to be everywhere. In fact, the seemingly limitless hierarchy of deities, protective and destructive, along with the very complex demonology, gives rise to a singularly intricate inconography[10] whose details include some of the most nightmarish figures ever conceived by sculptors or painters, along with some of the most serenely beautiful. The origin of many of the terrifying representations can be traced to other cultures, and there is thus much room for comparative anthropological work; but the Tibetan artists (whose technical accomplishments were frequently of an extremely high order of excellence[11]) seem always to have been able to infuse their production with a thoroughly distinctive flavor. Some idea of the range of the representations involved may be gained from an examination of the catalogues of various Tibetan collections, and from sets of photographs made before the establishment of the Chinese Communist regime.[12]

    It is all too easy to view the strange, fierce manifestations of Tibetan Buddhism simply as dilutions of the basic doctrine, as impure elements contributed by the ancient native religion,[13] or by the tantrism of Bengal, or by various doctrines from Nepal, Ladakh, and other border regions. The ingression and, in some cases, the repudiation of certain beliefs and practices can indeed be quite precisely dated. The persistence of many Bon rituals and tenets can be explained in and through the fact that even so great a reformer as TSong KHa Pa apparently felt that too drastic a purification of Buddhism in the XIV Century might alienate the people.[14]

9.    See Chap. XXV of Rene de Nebesky-Wojkowitz's Oracles and Demons of Tibet ('S-Gravenhage: Mouton & Co., 1956).

10.    Along with the work just mentioned in footnote 8, the two works of Antoinette Gordon: The Iconography of Tibetan Lamaism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1939) and Tibetan Religious Art (New York: Columbia University Press, 1952) should be consulted on matters of iconography.

11.    See, for example, W. J. G. van Meurs' Tibetan Temple Paintings (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1953) and Edna Bryner's Thirteen Tibetan Tankas (Indian Hills, Colorado: Falcon's Wing Press, 1956). The Tibetan skill in metal casting is legendary.

12.    Dr. P. H. Pott has published an admirable introduction to the Tibetan Collection of the National Museum of Ethnology (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1951), and Prof. W. E. Clark has made available Two Lamaistic Pantheons (now reprinted as a single volume by Paragon Book Reprint Corp., New York, 1965) from materials collected by the late Baron A. von Stael-Holstein.

13.    The name of the religion, Bon, has sometimes been connected with the name of the country, Bod ("Tibet"). See Shakabpa, op. cit., p. 1.

14.    See Sir Charles Eliot's Hinduism and Buddhism (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1921), Vol. III, pp. 358-359.




    To say, with the first of the Fourfold Noble Truths, that "Life is Suffering" is surely to understate the case as far as Tibet is concerned. Life is, in fact, full of terror; it is fraught, not merely with hardships and risks, but with unseen and essentially unknowable forces, malign in their operation, whose propitiation requires all manner of unreasonable sacrifices and incantations.[15] Somewhat similar situations can be found in other countries at other times, but it is, I think, important to note that in Tibet this condition is exaggerated beyond anything found elsewhere, because of the enormous pantheon augmented by the incredibly dense series of lesser demons, spirits, goblins, and so forth, which are associable with all manner of entities, operations, and conditions.[16] The distinction between the "Black Bon" and the "White" is relevant here, the latter including those deities and spirits which are acceptable to Buddhism. In terms of this distinction, entry into the Buddhist sa^ngha provides a shelter from the vicious Bon spirits which infest ordinary life, but it does not mean that all elements of fear and dread are absent, since the skandhas are, of course, still present. It suffices for my purpose to say that, as suffering (du.hkha) characterizes life in the gentler climates of Buddhist existence, terror and frightfulness represent the aspect of life most eminently associable with human existence in Tibet.

    Now assuming that fear and terror can, in some sense, be said to be of the very texture of life itself, the balancing elements in Tibetan Buddhism must be considered, viz., pity, and compassion. Traditionally, these qualities are focused in the transcendent being, the bodhisattva Avalokite`svara, whose incarnation the Dalai Lama is asserted to be.[17] This "Great Compassionate One" (mahaakaru.na) is, in fact, understood in Tibet as belonging to the Fourth Kalpa, and as constituting the Dhyaanibodhisattva-that is, the second Kaaya, of which the final emanation is the Maanu.sibuddha, `Saakyamuni.[18] The details are, however, unimportant. What appears to me to be important is that there is a combination here of the emotions which Aristotle most

15.     Buddhism has, of course, been called a "Religion of Reason." (See p. 254 of The Life of the Buddha, by A. Foucher, abridged translation by S. B. Boas (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1963). From this norm, modern Zen departs in one direction, Tibetan Buddhism (and to a lesser degree, some other "northern" forms) in another.

16.    See F. Sierksma, Tibet's Terrifying Deities: Sex and Aggression in Religious Acculturation, Mrs. G. E. van Baaren-Pape, trans. (Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1966).

17.    See Ekvall, op. cit., p. 91. Avalokite`svara is known as sPyan Ras gZigs in Tibetan. Oddly enough from our point of view, he (or she, or it) may have, at one and the same time, several incarnations-and in this he is not alone. The idea of personal identity in Tibetan Buddhism could, I think, profitably be examined from a philosophic viewpoint Cf. also The Dalai Lamas of Lhasa (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1910).

18.    See Getty, op. cit., p. 28.




closely associated with the dramatic experience which he termed "tragic," viz., øóßoç ("fear," "terror," or "dread") and ελεοç ("pity" or "compassion").[19] This suggests to me that religious experience in Tibet (in the sense already defined) may be understood as intrinsically dramatic, in a way which other types of Buddhism cannot precisely match.

    If these ideas can be regarded as provisionally acceptable, we may follow them a bit further. The true tragic experience is, for Aristotle, regarded as possible only in the case of a mature human individual. An animal, for example, that has been mangled by a passing car may evoke in us a sort of "pity," and a fear that we, too, might likewise be a traffic victim; but these emotions are very far from those deep, soul-shaking feelings aroused by the sight of the undeserved suffering of a man, noble and just, who is a leader of men. A child (or, in ordinary circumstances, a woman) cannot serve as the tragic protagonist.[20] To evoke genuine pity and terror, the principal figure in the play must assume full moral responsibility for his acts. Thus it is not simply by accident, but by virtue of his innate capabilities, that Oedipus finds himself head of the Theban state. He is a "kingly man," a natural leader possessed of the requisite qualities, one to whom the people instinctively turn in an emergency. But we must note that the emergency, the crisis, is a necessary element in Greek tragedy. This is the point at which, if anywhere, κáθaρσιç takes place. [21] And, assuming the marginal correctness of the thesis we have been advancing, Tibetan religious experience would not depend upon any such climactic occasion. There might indeed be, for some certain individual, experiences the character of which was recognizably tragic in the classical sense, such as, perhaps, the flight of the Dalai Lama in 1959.[22] But what is suggested by the analysis up to this point is something resembling a perduring subjective form, to borrow a technical term from the Whiteheadian context.[23] In any case, the Aristotelian pattern cannot be applied in any simple fashion to the Tibetan case since, thus far, there is no way of defining a focus of action, and further, in view of the doctrine of reincarna-

19.    Aristotle, de Poetica, Chap. VI, especially 49b 27.

20.    It is interesting that Aristotle himself never speaks of the tragic "hero," ηρωç . The term was introduced in the commentative literature.

21.    As Gerald F. Else has pointed out in his Aristotle's Poetics: The Argument (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957: p. 225), the term is used exactly once in the de Poetica. Considering the wide currency of the word "catharsis" in writings which deal with dramatic poetry, this is ironic.

22.    See My Land and My People, by his Holiness, the Dalai Lama (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1962), and Tibet is my Country, by Thubten Norbu and Heinrich Harrer (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1961).

23.    The term takes on its technical aspect in Process and Reality, Pt. II, Chap. VII, and is further extended in its signification in Adventures of Ideas, Pt. III, Chap. XI.




tion, the stipulation which excludes animals and children becomes very dubious. Further, as Ekvall remarks,[24] the clear-cut relations between cause and effect which are so much a part of our own thinking (and which are vital for the structure of a good tragic plot) seem replaced, in Tibetan thought, by a rather shadowy relationship.

    Nevertheless, I am strongly of the opinion that the problem raised by Ekvall regarding the "subjective response" [25] of the Tibetans to the Buddhist religion is most properly answerable in terms which involve the emotions Aristotle has declared to be associated with tragic poetry. I would suggest that this response is essentially dramatic in form. The dramas of the popular theatre in Tibet are mysteries[26] and danceplays[27] which abound in hyperboles of a very curious sort. Fundamentally, it seems to me, these hyperboles revolve around the fundamental Buddhist ideal of selfless action. "Tchrimekundan" gives away his children, his wife, and finally his own eyes. Why? Not for any hope of material gain, not because he has been directed to do so, not for any hope of spiritual gain or divine reward. This ideal of selflessness is, of course, epitomized, for Theravada Buddhism, in the figure of the Arhat; for Mahaayaana, in that of the Bodhisattva. But in Tibet, there is a further specialization. There is both pity and terror in the act of blinding one's self in order to give sight to a blind beggar; this is something at once similar to, and also quite different from, Oedipus' self-blinding in Sophocles' tragedy.

    My suggestion is that, in Tibetan Buddhism, we have a pervasive dramatic tone which is manifest in its graphic art, its literature, and its ritual. This quality is opposite to the comic spirit in Zen; but neither is it "tragic" in the sense laid down by Aristotle. In essence, it is "melodramatic" in the strict signification of that term. Unfortunately, we in the West are accustomed to understand this word in its pejorative sense. Since we are now in the midst of an intensive study-several years too late, as it happens-of the wealth of Buddhist materials available through Tibetan sources, it would appear of no small importance accurately to define and delimit the perspective to be utilized in this continuing effort. The present paper is the attempt to suggest a way of beginning.

24.     Ekvall, op. cit., p. 69.

25.     Ibid., Chap. III.

26.    For examples of Tibetan plays in English translation, see Three Tibetan Mysteries: Tchrimekundan, Nansal, Djroazanmo, translated from the French of Jacques Bacot by H. I. Woolf (London: George Routledge and Sons, Ltd., n.d.).

27.    Fosco Maraini, in his Secret Tibet (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1960) has described the dances at Kirimtse, and other descriptions and photographs abound.