The earliest Tibetan religion was a type of animistic tribal belief system. The elements (such as water, earth, wind, and fire) and certain mountain deities were worshipped and appeased with incense offerings. Special rock cairns strung with prayer flags would be conspicuously placed at high mountain peaks and passes to assure good fortune. The prayer flags would often be decorated with the “longta” or wind horse which was a symbol of good fortune. The wind horse was also printed on squares of colored paper that would be released into the wind from mountaintops and high passes, while uttering a loud cry of “Lhagyalo!” meaning “Victory to the Gods.” In addition, talismans were thought to have life supporting powers. Ceremonies of binding or exorcism were performed with talismans to defeat a hostile force. Talismans were also created to serve as objects of protection. Many of these rituals have been absorbed into the Buddhist tradition and continue to be practiced today.
Bon, another ancient religion of Tibet, was introduced into far-western Tibet from Persia during the time of the early Tibetan kings (approximately 247-100 B.C.). Bon may have originated in Zoroastrianism or Kashmir Buddhism. It has been dramatically transformed with the introduction of Buddhism, but originally it was noted for its elaborate funerary rites, its strong veneration of open space, and certain meditative practices. The religion was banned by Tibetan King Trisong Detsen in the 7th century because he felt Bon’s numerous animal sacrifices caused economic hardship to the Tibetan people. The Bon religion still exists, and has divided largely into two camps: the traditionalists, who reject all contact with other Buddhist schools, and the modernists, who have accepted more of the influences of the influx of Buddhism to the region.
The main religion practiced today in Tibetan culture is Buddhism, which first came to Tibet from India in the 7th century. Tibetan Buddhism is divided into four main sects: Nyinmapa, Kagyulpa, Sakyapa, and Gelukpa. Each sect values a similar set of basic beliefs, but involves differing practices. Common to all four sects are beliefs in reincarnation, karma (a system of retribution and reward for one’s negative and positive actions), and compassion for all living beings. The tenet of the Three Precious Jewels – the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha – is also central to Buddhism. The Buddha represents faith in the possibility of enlightenment. The Dharma is the body of Buddhist teachings. The Sangha is the community of monastic practitioners. One must take refuge in the Three Precious Jewels if one is to become a Buddhist.
Monks and nuns reside permanently in monasteries and nunneries throughout the Tibetan Plateau, and spend the majority of their time in prayer and study. Lay Buddhists tend to visit temples and monasteries occasionally and on special religious or festival dates. Offerings (in the form of prostrations, butter lamps, incense, ritual white scarves, and prayers) are made by believers towards specific deities. Daily or frequent prayer with a rosary or a prayer wheel is very common.
Two of the most important Tibetan Buddhist festivals are “The Great Prayer” (Monlam) and Saka Dawa. The Great Prayer is a monastic festival involving pilgrimage to holy sites, public teachings by lamas, and masked dancing. Each year during this festival, a 90-foot thangka, or religious painting, of a Buddhist deity is unveiled across the face of a mountain. A rare Maitreya, or future Buddha, idol is also taken on procession around major monasteries as the final ceremony of this ten-day festival.
The 15th day of Saka Dawa, the fourth month of the Tibetan calendar, is a very important date in Tibetan Buddhism. Three very important events are traditionally held to have occurred on this date: Buddha’s birth, his enlightenment, and his death. In honor of this special date individuals often spend the entire month in fasting and prayer. Many choose to eat no meat so as to avoid killing sentient beings.
While Tibetans primarily believe in Buddhism and the Bon religion, a large Muslim community also resides in parts of the Tibetan plateau. Muslim mosques and Muslim quarters are found throughout the provinces of Qinghai and Gansu.
For further information on Tibetan Buddhism, Bon, or the practice of Islam in this region, please consult more detailed texts or contact us for advice on where to find more information.