The Tibetan History Reader

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As can also be observed in other places to the present day, this led to clericalization, and ultimately sacralization, of the culture.

History of Tibet Part 1

The authority of the clergy, as the highest guarantor of the sanctified cultural heritage, was not restricted to the route by which salvation could be achieved but also provided guidance in secular matters. In doing so, they did not write history as such, but the history for and about the institution to which they were bound in each case.

Historiographers were not only dependent on the institution for which they were writing the history but also themselves generally involved in the narrative. As a result, their historical interest was far from dissociated from references to the present and future. There were but few points of connection with India for this interest, which led to the creation of a wealth of historiographical writings: in addition to the annals known as Vamshaval,26 these points primarily constituted the legend of the life of the Buddha, which supplied Tibetan hagiographers with a range of topoi.

It could presumably be linked to early Tibetan family chronicles or similar materials, such as those that had probably been continued throughout the era of the downfall of the Tibetan monarchy and beyond. Depending on the proximity of spiritual institutions to individual aristocratic houses, as encountered in Tibetan history, this need could in some cases be intimately connected with the ambition to legitimize a clans claim to power. This is most obvious in the case of the Sakya and Taklung schools.

The Tibetan historiographers who wrote royal chronicles gyelrap under the patronage of a king in this epoch basically derived the royal claim to power from the same cultural roots as, say, those of monastic institutions.

Conversely, one of the range of services offered by religion was naturally to place its power of legitimation, and of its associated historiography, at the disposal of secular social relationships if this appeared expedient for the goals prescribed by religion and its institutions. The form of Tibetan historiography largely follows the pattern of genealogical structure. As a formal structure, genealogy divides history into a series of biographies linked by the principle of hereditary succession, which regulates both the progression of time and the transfer of property and honor.

Viewed from the standpoint of the genre, genealogical chronicles represent a blend of a theoretically different biography with chronography. The unbroken continuity of such series guaranteed the authenticity of the tradition while passing on to later generations the power of blessing that it drew from its origins.


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In this sense it possessed a function similar to that accorded to genealogy in myth, understood as a history of the gods: to transfer the power of the sacred origins to what originated from, was derived from them. This concern was strongest in the orthodox Buddhist school of Nyingmapa with respect to spiritual lines of succession, since this school, unlike the other Buddhist schools in Tibet, traced its entire tradition, adopted from India, back to the First Propagation of Buddhist teachings in Tibet.

The Indian tradition itself was not questioned further. The Nyingma school developed sophisticated concepts enabling the tradition to be abbreviated by means of visions and apocryphal literature, to remove any misgivings over its power of blessing and its authenticity from its teachings passed down in this way. Time is, so to speak, a transparent and porous sheet through which historic events become visible, always against the founding background of their cultural origins. Events remain bound to these origins not only through the unbroken nature of their sequence, perceived as a causal relationship, but also through visions, prophecies, promises that continue to take effect after the death of the salvation figures, wish-granting prayers, and so on.

In this context, history symbolizes the close, continuous connection to cultural origins. History, in both its orally recounted form and its form that is personally experienced and shaped, provided a means of orientation in the present and future, since it was perceived as a method of organizing the collectively shared fund of cultural knowledge. Tibetan historiographers moved within a common and relatively narrow horizon, their stories part of a greater web of meaning, literally a context.

This context is what we call a culture. The deep semantic structure of Tibetan culture, which directs the entirety of its surface structure, determines global structure, creates continuity between disparate phenomena, and defines what is meant by these phenomenawhich, in other words, creates meaninghad been developed from the core concepts of Indian Mahayana Buddhism.

When Buddhism absorbed the Hindu cosmology it also absorbed the concept of cyclical time.

The Tibetan History Reader

These cosmic cycles of the creation and decline of worlds, however, operate on a different plane from that of historical time. In historical time, history most certainly has a beginning, in the direction of which it is reconstructed as a linear process. This beginning is the life of the Buddha Shakyamuni,37 which serves as a fixed point of reference for Tibetan historiography. In the search for contexts of meaning and development, events in the shapeless flow of history38 are tested for their ability to be incorporated and are isolated, selected, reconstructed, and reshaped retrospectively in the direction of this beginning as part of a more or less unconscious process of perception, thereafter to be presented in a plot, a chain of development that is linked not merely in a temporal sense but also in a meaningful and causal sense and has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

In addition, by means of the process of smoothing, the narrative works in a similar way to the principle of closure, in which incomplete figures are perceived as whole.


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But perception also works by assigning significance, a process based on the principles identified in Gestalt psychology under the terms consistency, Prgnanz pithiness , good Gestalt, Common Fate, and so on. The narrative representation of history thus tended to be schematic literature with a minimal range of variation. Each presentation of history rewritten throughout the centuriesdespite the temporal and spatial narrowness of its focuswas linked in form and content to what is rooted in the collective consciousness as the right image of Tibetan history, and reiterated it repeatedly.

Tibetan History as Myth, from The Tibetan History Reader

For this reason, the many depictions of Tibetan history appear to us today to be more or less part of a single family history. In Tibetan depictions of history the actions and protagonists take center stage,46 while social, economic, and political structures take a back seat. In the presentation of interrelationships between the protagonists, complex ideas are reduced to simple binarism.

These basic dichotomies were allocation rules, part of the central code of Tibetan culture, and thus were themselves able to control social behavior. These dichotomies also dispensed the narrow categorical framework of a simple social model of reality, into which more complex social relationships such as those between landowners and dependent peasants and animal herders were sometimes forced in roughly abbreviated form, but generally completely blanked out.

The social persona in its entiretyin other words, the complete catalog of rolesis almost invisible, and the individual is completely hidden, although isolated genuinely individual character traits can be made out in exceptional cases. The individual or the individual-in-general is a concept arising rather late in most complex human cultures, writes Victor Turner. Where it appears at an early stage, for example in societies without the written form, it is often in veiled or restricted form. Tibetan historians were primarily clerics whose scholarship had been honed on the classical literature of Indian Buddhism and its rhetorical tools of style.

The literary formsthe toolbox, so to speakavailable to them were thus limited in a different way from those of nineteenth-century European historiographers. The literary models familiar to us, such as romance, tragedy, comedy, and satire, were not in literary use. Given the similarities and overlaps in the intended effect, topics, complexes of ideas and symbols, patterns of events, and arguments from other types of religious text were incorporated into historiography almost of their own accord.

Yet unlike these, narrated history did not have a place in rituals and cults, lacking the performative aspect, and instead embodied the fundamental claim to truth of the content laid down in canonical writings. Historiography, which largely followed the pattern of genealogy, primarily drew its orientation for presenting individual biographies from Indian Buddhist descriptions of an ideal and typical life, with that of the Buddha at the fore, but also including the life of Buddhist ascetics, known as siddhas, and the ideal of the bodhisattva expressed in the Mahayana writings.

The ideal, and thus exemplary, type of life primarily consists of a gradual progression toward the highest goal of enlightenment and the outward demonstration of the implementation of the bodhisattvas virtues. This resulted in a clear-cut repertoire of unvarying presentations of events that served as a framework for the various biographies. An example of a topos featured in the biographies of outstanding figures who were placed at the head of a line of incarnation would be a life crisis through which the subject of the biography turns to religion or seeks a spiritual teacher.

Further commonplaces were primarily the receipt and granting of initiations and religious instructions that produce spiritual progress. All actions corresponded to the expected pattern of virtuous deeds of body, speech, and mind. The specific virtues of a bodhisattva. Both were documented either by appropriate deeds, which ultimately followed the patterns of their Indian templates, or by descriptions of these qualities as exemplified by the protagonists and their deeds. The Indian templates also specified the topoi attesting to spiritual progress in the lives of the saints: accounts of miracles, visions, and prophecies.

Once the life of a protagonist had been classified as holy, miracles were deemed to furnish insight, and visions and prophecies were permitted as meaningful. At the same time, outstanding deeds in the life of the protagonist were regarded as directed by compassion or wisdom. A life not classified as holy was generally52 deemed not worthy of narration, and was thus mentioned in Tibetan historiography only peripherally or as a disruption that could not be ignored.

One might initially think that unlike, say, the ancient perception of history in the Near Eastwhich attributed striking events in history to the will of the gods or according to which Gods will was revealed in historythe Tibetan idea of history had primarily been shaped by the Indian concept of karma and thus saw history as containing an automatic causal connection. This concept was also doubtless reflected in the perception of past time, flanked by the idea of an increasingly degenerate world.

As a consequence, a consciousness of imperfection in the present developed and was countered by the depiction of the distant past as an age of glory. In Tibetan historiography, this golden age was not so much the age of the Buddha Shakyamuni as the Tibetan Age of Kings, in which cultural heroes such as the first Tibetan kings and the Buddhist missionary Padmasambhava established the foundations of Tibetan culture.

This epoch appeared as the wellspring or beginning of Tibetan culture, and thus was already accorded the achievement of creating identity, linked with the glorification of the events it portrayed. Throughout the centuries, this image of a glorified past exerted a powerful normative and formative influence on Tibetan culture. All these and further aspects that make up the traditional image of the Tibetan Age of Kings reveal Tibetan culture and its fundamental achievements.

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Oddly, the guiding function of the concept of karma was now displaced in the Tibetan idea of history by a different guiding principle, or rather collection of principles, that echoed the Christian concept of Heilsgeschichte salvation history particularly in its most striking form of the Avalokiteqvara cult. This group of ideas, which took shape as early as the twelfth to early fourteenth centuries,53 moved into the foreground as a result of changes in power politics from both internal andprimarilyexternal causes. The particular effectiveness of the Avalokiteqvara concept is based on the idea of the bodhisattva Avalokiteqvara as the embodiment of infinite compassion, thus offering points of association for a devotional cult to the broad mass of the people.

In the Mani Kabum text, the oldest parts of which date from the twelfth century,55 King Songtsen Gampo is mentioned for the first time as an incarnation of Avalokiteqvara. Avalokiteqvara is here presented as Tibets tutelary deity and a direct forefather of the Tibetan people in one of his formsthe monkey bodhisattva who coupled with a mountain demon symbolizing Tara and begat the six ancestors from whom the six tribes of Tibet descended.

Avalokiteqvara is therefore directly responsible for the existence of the Tibetan people.

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The Fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lozang Gyatso , was the most successful in claiming the Avalokiteqvara concept for himself by embedding it, in word and deed, in a general concept of Tibetan history that presented the dominance of the Gelukpa school under his leadership as the pinnacle and logical conclusion of a continuous process of development.

The chronicle gyelrap of the Dalai Lama57 from the year was aimed primarily at demonstrating one thingthat Tibets entire history to date had been directed at a single goal: Gosi Qan Gushri Khan s conquest of Tibet. As stated in the Fifth Dalai Lamas biography, this conquest was crowned with the offering of Tibet as a sacrifice to the Fifth Dalai Lama, the incarnation of Avalokiteqvara, in And by establishing the Potala at precisely the spot where the ruined palace of King Songtsen Gampo was said to have stood in the past, he claimed the position of the ancient Tibetan kings, making clear to all the claim to preeminence raised by the Gelukpa and their leader.

The here and now is thus no longer a mere link in the chain of earthly events, but part of a history planned as if by divine foresight. Events that have absolutely no direct connection are thus linked to form a meaningful narrative. From the Potala as a base, the physically present Avalokiteqvara, who had accompanied the Tibetans from their mythical beginnings, continued his activities for the good of Tibet. The plan of salvation on which the narrative was based promised no release from earthly calamity at the end of days. Instead, it offered the assurance of constant ministration by the messianic figures, the assurance of their recurring presence and unfailing efforts to save living beings from the cycle of rebirth, the ocean of suffering.

The message was not only that the possibility of salvation is ever-present in Tibet but also that the support and guidance of powerful assistants can always be counted on in realizing salvation. The bundle of concepts associated with the Avalokiteqvara cult enabled the legitimation not only of secular power but also of its spiritual counterpart.

In these terms it was more comprehensive than, for example, the concept of dynastic continuity such as that in place in Ladakh for the legitimation of political power. Other forms of rule were tried out after the period of Zunghar rule in Central Tibet , but they all failed, and in the country finally reverted to a form where the Dalai Lama was the head of state and legitimation was derived from the Avalokiteqvara idea. The Gelukpa, ruled over by the Dalai Lama, successfully utilized the Avalokiteqvara idea and increasingly shaped the communication process as a whole into a pyramidal structure.

In this their elite functioned to an ever-greater extent as a controlling factor, aiming to centralize the hierocratic Tibetan ruling organization58 as an institution of salvation to reflect their own ideas. The complex of central Buddhist concepts bundled in the Avalokiteqvara cult shaped Tibets remembered history into the ultimate identity-creating myth of the Tibetan people.

The Tibetan History Reader - Fresno First & CPR Trai Lib

Its normative and formative power was so extensive that today it has become the focal point of an emerging nationalism. Here the founding myth shifts into its counterpoise, in which the past is represented as a social utopia. In general we tend to associate the concept of myth closely with the power of imagination, which establishes images of memories and ideas largely unconnected with reality.