In Search of the Tomb of Tsongsang Gompa, Founder of Tibetan Buddhism, Tsetang, Tibet..........................................by Ramdas Iyer
02.02.2011 - 12.05.2011 28 °F
The spread of Buddhism in Asia, first through the Silk Route to China and Japan and by Buddhist Emperors of India to SE Asia, who sent missionaries by trading ships, are fascinating subjects that lay the foundation of early religious and political history of Asia. Having visited almost all the great centers of Buddhism in Asia I wish to discuss two areas, Tibet and Mongolia, that came into the fold of Buddhism only after the 7th century, almost 800 years after its initial impact in Central Asia.
There were two reasons for this. Firstly, Tibet and Mongolia lay off the main caravan routes along which merchants and pilgrims travelled between India and China. Secondly, the Tibetan and Mongolian people who were nomads and warlike, were generally indifferent to the Teaching of the Buddha and the higher level of culture that came with it.
In Tibet, however, all this changed in the seventh century. The Tibetans, who had long been divided among many warring clans, were united under the rule of a great king, Srong-tsangam-po( also known as Songtsang Gampo). His success in uniting the Tibetans brought him and Tibet newfound prestige in Asia. As a result, he was able to wed both a Chinese (daughter of Tang Emperor Zhang-Zung) and a Nepalese princess(daughter of King Bikrut). His Chinese and Nepalese queens were both Buddhists and before long he, too, became interested in Buddhism.
Srong-tsan-gam-po sent representatives to India and China to study the Teaching of the Buddha and to bring back Buddhist texts. The result of these missions strengthened the king's faith in the Buddhist religion. He had many Buddhist texts translated into Tibetan and encouraged the people to practice the Buddhist teachings. He also constructed many temples throughout Tibet. Thus Srong-tsan-gam-po was the first patron of Buddhism in Tibet.
The thirteenth century saw the rise of Mongolian power in Central Asia. Under Genghis Khan, an ambitious and brilliant chieftain, the Mongols soon made their influence felt throughout the region. By the middle of the century, links had been established between the Mongol court and Tibetan Buddhist masters.
During the reign of Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, China was conquered and as a result the Mongol court came increasingly under the influence of Buddhist and Tibetan cultures. Thereafter, a succession of Mongol Khans continued to look to Tibet for religious inspiration.
In 1578 the Mongol ruler Altan Khan gave the title Dalai Lama to Sonyam Gyatso, third in a line of reborn lamas of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. The title means "ocean of wisdom" .In the eighteenth century, the Manchus intervened to end a long period of political strife in Tibet. They appointed the then Dalai Lama as the ruler of Tibet. In this way, the Dalai Lamas became political as well as religious leaders. This situation lasted until the People's Republic of China assumed control of Tibet in the middle of this century.
Like the Tibetans before them, Buddhism transformed the Mongols from a primitive people to a nation respected for its learning and wisdom. From the thirteenth to the twentieth century, Mongolia remained a stronghold of Buddhism. There, the Teaching of the Buddha was preserved in many monasteries as well as in the homes of the people. Although Mongolia today came under Communist rule, Buddhism survives in the hearts and minds of the Mongolians.( I will write about it in a future article)
Upon arriving in Lhasa I was eager to visit the great Jhokahang Temple ( my very first article in the blogosphere can be read in Travellerspoint). This temple was built by King Songtsang Gampo in 642. For most Tibetans it is the most sacred and important temple in Tibet. It is in some regards pan-sectarian(Black and yellow hat sects have conflicting philosophies), but is controlled by the Gelug school(yellow hats). The temple's architectural style is a mixture of Indian vihara design, Chinese Tang Dynasty design, and Nepalese design.
According to tradition, the temple was built for the two brides of the king, Princess Wencheng of the Chinese Tang dynasty and Princess Bhrikuti of Nepal. Both wives are said to have brought important Buddhist statues and images from China and Nepal to Tibet as part of their dowries, and they were housed here.
The more one travelled in Tibet one begins to see the importance of this person who transformed a medieval warlike nomadic people who practiced a pagan religion called Bon. When I planned our trip to Tibet (2011) ,I made sure that I visited the valley of Kings where the tomb of Songtsang Gampo and his successors are buried in mounds, as was the practice in Tibet and China then. The Valley of the Kings or Chongye Valley branches off the Yarlung Valley to the southwest and contains a series of graveyard tumuli, approximately 27 kilometers south of Tsetang, Tibet, near the town of Qonggyai ,Shannan Prefecture.
The site possesses eight large mounds of earth resembling natural hills that are believed to contain at least eight to ten buried Tibetan kings.
One gets a classic flavor for Tibetan village culture as one travels through this interesting valley of the Tsang Po river ( Brahmaputra in India), one of the largest river systems in the world.
Traveling in Tibet requires police registration in each province who may change itineraries depending on the unrest in the region. During our travel, my wife Pushpa and I, only missed one obscure monastery in which a monk had immolated himself in protest the previous day. However, we decided to take an excursion off the main road to visit a small village guarded by huge decrepit walls of a monastery destroyed by the communists in the 1950s. We visited several homes, played with young kids and met several pilgrims who were making their round to many monasteries by foot, often covering hundreds of miles. We met a young nun who proudly displayed her pendent image of the Dalai lama. A punishable offence that could land her in prison. My photographs are self explanatory and show life in a typical village in the countryside.
Similar to the great mound in Xian, China where the Tomb of the First Emperor Qin Shi Huang Do is still unearthed, the tombs of the Tibetan kings are undisturbed in the mounds. However due to the great reverence the Tibetans had for Songtsang Gampo they built a temple on top of the mound credited with his burial. When the Tang emperor Gaozong(650-683)came to the throne, that made Songtsang Gampo the emperor's brother-in-law, he was awarded the title Prince of the Western Sea and was promoted to the position of Prince of Bin. Upon his death, emperor Gaozong held a mourning ceremony and sent an envoy to express his condolences. We visited this small temple and was enamored by its simplicity. A great man who transformed a nation is still worshiped daily after 1600 years.
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China Tibetology Magazine. tanjia-Hong
BDEA/Buddhanet-2008/ Buddhisn across the Himalayas