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New Research: Tantric Buddhism, the Dark Age, and Their Relevance to Contemporary Tibet and the West

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 By Ögyen Dorje, January 16th, 2012

 I earlier wrote for this site about the 9th-10th century Tibetan ‘Dark Age’ ( I find this period fascinating both because it is still rather obscure and mysterious, and because whatever that time was like it clearly was not—perhaps not at all—like the popular Tibetan mythical history of the country’s distant past.

Historical evidence shows that there certainly was a general suppression and persecution of monastic Buddhism, whether it was an organized campaign or merely a general upheaval, verging on civil war. Evidence shows that social, political and economic conditions at the time allowed Tantric Lamas and their students and practices to flourish in the vacuum left by the absence of monastic/Sutric Buddhist hegemony.

We now know this to be the era when Buddhism adapted itself to and became part of the Tibetan culture, a popular religion embraced by the common people and not just the nobility. The Tantric dynamic—its interface with magical power; the various Tantric pragmatic interventions in terms of divination, weather control, healing, protection from malicious spirits and other influences (even rival Tantrikas)—appealed directly and demonstrably to Tibetans. This was so comprehensively true that the later Sarma schools, in spite of an early royal edict to re-import from India only the Sutras, were compelled to embrace the Tantras too, and in a style already established as Tibetan during the Dark Age.

You may or may not find all this as fascinating as I do, but either way it begs the question: Does medieval Tibet matter in any but the most rarefied academic sense? If so, why? Is it relevant either for contemporary Tibetans, or for practitioners of Tibetan-style Buddhism in the West?

There are interesting parallels between the Tibetan Dark Age—a time of political and social upheaval when the monasteries there, as centers of power, wealth and political influence, came under philosophical and physical attack—and today’s Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and today’s multiplistic Western democracies.

During the brief Empire and subsequent ‘Dark Age,’ Tibetan culture had a number of characteristics not seen (much—Tibet’s far east of Kham and Golok is a recurring exception) in its history over the next 1000 years, and some of these characteristics are highly relevant to a discussion of Tibetan-style Buddhism today both in parts of Tibet and the west:

-Cultural heterodoxy; multiple new cultural influences in a ‘crossroads’ state (i.e. today’s electronic media).

-Absence of a single state religion. Even when Buddhism was declared the state religion during the Empire many different strains and lineages were present. The earlier, indigenous Tibetan religion, whether officially organized as Bön or not, was not eradicated (i.e. today’s religious freedoms).

-Religious groups during the early Empire and then during the Dark Age were not seen as political threats.

-Different religions or lineages were in competition in a sort of marketplace—if not for public opinion in general then for the favorable opinion of patrons. Patronage became linked with perceived benefit to diverse patrons, rather than the singular state.

-More of the population was exposed to reading, writing, and logical analysis. In Tibet this was true at first, during the Empire, only for the nobility, but with the popular spread of Buddhism during the Dark Age more and more of the common people began to read, practice and study, and access to learning continued for the common people into the Sarma or re-establishment of Buddhism.

-Access to the highest levels of teaching, practice, and ordination, and thus religious status, became possible for common people, rather than only a cultural elite. (In today’s west, we have westerners engaging in dedicated practice and receiving ordination where these had initially been the province of an Eastern, ordained elite.)

-During the Dark Age, Tantra came to the fore not because of its moral or intellectual/scholastic emphasis (as with Sutra), but because of its perceived practical effectiveness. This is much closer to the current religious culture of those in the west who seek out Buddhism as a religious alternative to the culture of their birth or home country. Western religions offer their own moral support and framework, but Westerners seek out Eastern religions for some results—psychological or spiritual—that Western religions have not been able to offer some lay practitioners, for whatever reason.

While the parallels above might link conditions in the chaotic Dark Age and today’s West, this general scenario also describes the communist takeover of China, subsequent violent expansion into Tibet, and the further upheavals and repressions of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

During both 9th century and 20th century periods of Tibetan upheaval/civil war/invasion/instability, the monastic institutions were natural targets for the eventually victorious parties in the conflict. The monastic hierarchy (connected to the powerful noble clans in medieval times), large defensible centers of power, land, money, political influence, and hundreds or in some cases many thousands of disciplined, loyal, well-fed monks all attracted the violent attentions of rivals for control. In the Dark Age and in later internal upheavals, some monasteries even opened their substantial armories and sent waves of armed monks and peasants out onto the field of battle. In both the 9th and 20th century scenarios, however, the non-monastic, largely itinerant Tantric communities were left more or less alone, as they did not appear to be interested in political power or gain, or pose a threat.

Dr Antonio Terrone, now of Northwestern University, recently published his doctoral thesis at the University of Leiden about the resurgence of Tantric-style Buddhism and teachers, especially tertons, in eastern Tibetan areas of Kham and Golok. It describes the style of Buddhism and Buddhist culture and practice which flourished during the Dark Age and has continued to the present day, though overshadowed by resurgent monastic institutions after the 14th century or so.

"The gos kar chang lo’i de…tended to pursue a path characterized by independent thinking, an often-unconventional non-celibate lifestyle, and a commitment to meditation retreats and Tantric practices as opposed to the scholastic study and philosophical debate typical of the monastic path." (p 155)

"In present day Tibet the class of non-celibate Tantric specialists (sngags pa) and Treasure Revealers (gter ton) still by and large operates according to the same values and patterns it did in pre-modern Tibet." (Terrone p 224)

"Non-monastic religious gatherings existed in concert with monasteries and nunneries in the past." (p 96)

These Tantrikas today form large temporary ‘gars’ or encampments around a Lama and his or her announced program of teachings and empowerments, as they have done for a thousand years or more. Devotees bring their own tents and arrange their own provisions, and when these programs are done the gars disperse and everyone goes home. There is no fortress or armory, no stable center of political or economic power to pose a threat to the secular authorities. People come for all or part of the program as they can; the population fluctuates as people shift in and out. No central authority controls or directs the attendants, and many day-to-day necessities are handled communally. Namkha’i Norbu Rinpoche described similar events from his youth in his wonderful book, The Crystal and the Way of Light.

Even though attendance may number in the thousands, because the gars are temporary and lack central organization and control—and because the teachings apparently avoid political subjects—they are allowed to function by the PRC authorities, while monasteries are still severely restricted and controlled by the state. The gars are allowed to flourish, whereas the monastic economy has been fiercely attacked and religious estate properties confiscated. (p 72) The participation of monastic orders and organizations is “severely limited by authorities at gars.” (p 101) It is fascinating that for reasons similar to those in play a thousand years ago, these kinds of teachers and their teachings are able to thrive once again. The gars reportedly attract significant numbers of Han Chinese students.

Dr Terrone’s work is worth exploring in more detail as it directly addresses the social, political, and cultural context of the Tantric resurgence in the eastern TAR and ethnically Tibetan areas of Sichuan and its links to the Dark Age. Dated February 2010 and released publicly in October 2011, his thesis is titled ‘Bya Rog Prog Zhu, The Raven Crest: The Life and Teachings of bDe Chen ‘Od gSal rDo rJe, Treasure Revealer of Contemporary Tibet.’

Graduate student Antonio Terrone happened upon a pair of Ngakpa (Tantric) Lamas in Lhasa in 1997. They had recently completed a pilgrimage from Kham, traveling via full prostrations the entire route, as recommended by their teacher bDe Chen ‘Od gSal rDo rJe, a Ngakpa Lama himself and gTertön. Terrone would eventually meet and delve deeply in to bDe Chen ‘Od gSal rDo rJe ‘s world and teachings and his activity as a Lama, Ngakpa and particularly as a gTertön (treasure revealer) in the Buddhist resurgence in Chinese-controlled eastern Tibet and western China.

Though bDe Chen ‘Od gSal rDo rJe and many other teachers—both monks and Ngakpas: the go kar chang lo’i de or ‘ series of those with white clothes and long braided hair’—were imprisoned and tortured (and in other cases killed) during the communist conquest of Tibet and the Cultural Revolution that followed in the 60’s and early 70’s, their gars and even longer-term retreat centers and communities looked to the Chinese more like communes than the feudal fiefdoms they saw in the monasteries.

"Although the socio-political situation in Tibet does not encourage a completely free traditional practice of religion, small mountain hermitages, monasteries and nunneries have largely fallen under the radar and are still active and populated." (Terrone p 6)

Though there has been some rebuilding and loosening of total state control, many monasteries are more tourist destinations than working centers of learning and practice. Especially the formerly ruling Gelug school has been curtailed and this has left the politically marginalized Nyingmas, who with the Kagyu predominate in the go kar chang lo’i de, more free to teach and practice.

"The decline of the monastic hegemony, which in pre-1959 Tibet was mainly held by dGe-lugs leaders, and the reduction of the social and political influence of monasteries resulted in a decline of the spiritual authority of institutional Buddhism and of organized religion in general. This was precisely one of the major aims of Chinese-Communist-powered policies." (p 79)

"...[T]wo factors have contributed to the flowering of religion outside the monastery in contemporary Tibet. One is the leveling of the general cultural predominance that was once undisputedly held by large monasteries and monastic institutions. Decades of harmful policies applied to Tibet by the Chinese government have undermined the politico-economic and cultural supremacy once held by the monasteries. As the same time, some charismatic Nying ma movements have gained in strength by employing multiple elements of Tibetan mythological narratives local cults and customs, a pervasive and undisputable association with sacred geography and an opening to diverse and often ecumenical pedagogical approaches." (p 3)

Terrone’s thesis goes on into details about bDe Chen ‘Od gSal rDo rJe’s teaching and in particular a text that describes the traditional costume and symbolic ornaments of the go kar chang lo’i de. Terrone’s detailed description of the go kar chang lo’i de’s uncut hair, robes, various symbolic ornaments and individuality is rarely seen in Tibetan Buddhist literature, and Terrone sees bDe Chen ‘Od gSal rDo rJe’s emphasis as a kind of evangelism for and maintenance of the traditional vows, forms, emblems and cultural role of the resurgent go kar chang lo’i de. (p 228)

"The ... initiand’s newly acquired status as a non-celibate Tantrika is portrayed as a path to enlightenment where not only does the adept vow to practice and accomplish specific doctrines, namely Dzogchen, but also to display a series of emblems or regalia that represent each skill and achievement (fulfilled or to be fulfilled) of the practitioner." (p 249)

Why (you may still be asking) is this relevant to Western Buddhist practitioners? While there may or may not be state support of a specific religion or sect, there is generally no state suppression of Buddhism or other religions in Western democratic societies, even in countries where there is an official state religion. All religious formations, traditional or otherwise, are free to rise or fall according to the vagaries of the religious ‘marketplace’ in Western countries. This means that for any religion or philosophy to survive or expand, it needs to attract followers as practitioners and patrons, great and small. The suppression of a dominant group or mode and the consequent vacuum has the same net effect on the religious spectrum as lack of suppression of any group. The people are free to seek their own level; in mobile Western societies people can sample teachings online or in books, travel to teachers or centers or those teachers can travel to them, proselytize, seek donations, sell books, etc. Religions are judged by their results, their effectiveness at meeting the needs of those who didn’t find what they were looking for in the religion of their parents’ culture.

While Westerners are not typically looking for a rainmaker, they are looking for teachings that seem relevant and useful in a complex world—not merely moral teachings or ways to express a culturally accepted and encouraged faith, but useful transformative methods that offer insight into the mind and emotions especially; tangible results: things they may not have found in the religion they were born into, if any. We Westerners seek out and therefore have a more direct relationship with the content of the religions available here, not just the culturally evolved norm. Interestingly, this is also the case in areas of Tibet:

"…[T]he central government’s tight surveillance of, and political and administrative influence on religious activities (both popular and institutional) and monastic establishments in Tibet has inevitably caused changes in the ways local Tibetans manifest their religiosity and in the consistency and significance of traditional religious education for monastics. As a result [of the secularization and modernization processes sweeping through Tibet), a competitive environment has been created for alternative forms of religious gathering to appropriate religious power and authority that once was the monopoly of the monasteries. This is true especially for a number of charismatic Tibetan figures and for the spectacular development of a specific type of quasi-monastic religious center." (p 69)

It is a fascinating turn of events and in parallel to the Western spiritual marketplace that the gars have also been attracting a growing number of Han Chinese students, especially young people.

In the West, the monastic option is unlikely to become the mainstream choice it was in classical Tibet as there is unlikely to be any state support for such institutions. Monkhood or nunhood doesn’t hold the social position it once did in Tibet as a source of learning, status, and stability otherwise virtually unavailable to many families. Still,

"[n]on-celibate Tantric movements are a vital dimension of Tibetan Buddhist culture especially in the contemporary setting. The role of non-monastic Buddhist intellectuals and the lay religious contemplative rituals they disseminate are as much part of the Tibetan cultural identity as institutional monasticism." (p 225)

As such, non-monastic Buddhism with its practical relevance and non-renunciate/non-celibate nature offers appropriateness for working men and women, parents, and business people. A tradition of (relatively) small, fluid communities that come together and disperse according to the needs of business, the harvest, children’s’ school calendars, etc. makes as much functional sense in modern industrial China and developing Tibet as it does in the digital, mercantile West.

"According to my personal experience, for the common uneducated person the distinction between a monastery abbot, a village bla ma, a Tantric sngags pa, or a treasure revealer is hardly an important matter. A common perception is that these are all religious professionals, in their eyes highly educated, learned and wise religious figures whom they can ask for advice, teachings, blessings, the performance of household and divination rites…..and spiritual protection." (p 119)

I recently saw an article in the San Jose Mercury News about the growth of meditation and yoga among the hyper-busy, perpetually connected tech community in Silicon Valley. The need for peace, silence, and refuge is acutely felt in a world where there is only activity, noise, and the constant bombardment of new information to act upon.

If Tibet, with all of the horrors of war, persecution, occupation, political intrigue, and economic strife can produce, preserve, and adapt to new cultures as fantastically sophisticated religious methods as the Vajrayana then any culture can do so, with time and a dedicated cohort.


Jacob Dalton has a new book out that discusses the Dark Age, and the wrathful Tantric practice particularly associated with it: ‘The Taming of the Demons: Violence and Liberation in Tibetan Buddhism.’ I have not had a chance to read it yet but I look forward to the fruits of his research, especially texts from the period from Dunhuang to which he has had access.

Recent news also indicates that there is a crackdown on Buddhism in eastern Tibet and Sichuan. I hope and pray this is not the result of nor a response to the popularity of gars and other peaceful religious expression in the area.