Enter the Lamas

On 12/13 Oct 2019 President Xi Jinping made a State visit to Kathmandu and this historic event has raised certain concern in international arena. It is therefore the opportune moment to let my readers know how His Holiness the Dalai Lama is connected to Nepal and China through history. Read on:

Srong Tsen Gampo had become the powerful monarch of Tibet during the seventh century A.D., and that he had exercised strong influence on either direction of his kingdom. It can be established from the fact that he was married to Princess Weng Chen of China as well as Bhrikuti Debi, the Kirati Princess of Nepal. It was fortuitous for King Gampo and even more so for the Tibetan people in general that both these Queens were followers of the Enlightened One and that they were able to convert their heathen husband into the Path of Four Noble Truths, in or around 642 A.D.

Princess Bhrikuti was accompanied by artisans and craftsmen with a royal mandate to build a temple to house the icon of the Buddha she had brought along as part of her dower. This temple at Jorkhang, which is still extant, has been acknowledged by His Holiness the Dalai Lama to be the holiest of all shrines of Tibet. The two Queens had lived in apparent harmony is proved by the events that followed; Queen Weng Chen impressed by the novel style of architecture of Jorkhang Temple, persuaded her father to invite the Nepalese artisans and craftsmen to build temples in China.

Thus, in due course of time, along with Buddhism, the Nepalese form of architecture, which became known as Pagoda Style, has spread worldwide from China. As an expression of gratitude, the Tibetans have deified their beloved Queen Bhrikuti Debi and as goddess Tara she is venerated and worshipped throughout Lamaist world.

Certain garments belonging to Queen Bhrikuti Debi have found their way to Cleveland Museum where her tunic (cholo) and undergarment (suruwal) are on display identified as a Tibetan Prince’s garment. The Queen would have her fariya wrapped around over her suruwal which the museum has indicated but not positively identified. Nepalese women are familiar with a tunic and the suruwal (undergarment) such as those displayed in the Museum.

Although Buddhism was introduced into Tibet by King Srong Tsen Gampo around mid-seventh century A.D., for nearly a century only the royal household and a few loyal retainers had remained true believers.

Another illustrious King Ti-son Detsen ascended the Tibetan throne in 745 A.D. who actually ushered in Tibet’s redemption. He was a true reformist and had made conversion of the entire kingdom his life’s mission. Fortunately, there was such a man in the horizon; a young Kirati monk named Padmasambhawa whose reputation was spreading as fast as he was able to establish monasteries that are still extant in Thyangboche in Eastern Nepal, Ghoom in Darjeeling, Rumtek in Sikkim and Tiger Nest in Bhutan. Frescoes painted on the inner walls of these monasteries show Hindu gods and goddesses relegated to positions of secondary importance in accordance with the Buddha-Margi traditions of Nepal.

Without wasting any time, King Detsen invited the Guru and credit goes to this irrepressible monk to have introduced in or around 756 A.D. and established that form of Buddhism into Tibet, now known as Lamaism.

Padmasambhawa did not believe in celibacy to be essential pre-requisite to monkhood and was not a celibate monk himself. The Guru is hence, often seen in icons portrayed in eternal conjugal embrace which unfortunately has created a wide range of misunderstanding and given room for deliberate and indiscriminate mischief. The Guru is known to have been married to the Princess Yeshe of Tibet.

The Great Khan of China noticed the effective function of the monastic order and decided to formalise the eternal office of the Lama. In 1563, The Celestial emperor brought a Mongol Prince named Sonam Gyatso to sit in the Papal Seat at Lhasa. Interestingly enough, Sonam Gyatso came to be known as Dalai Lama the Third as although he was the first Pontiff to be so installed, credibility was built around him by declaring he was the incarnation of two of his predecessors. Installation of Sonam Gyatso thus set the precedence of the practice of re-incarnation of the Lamas. Abbots of monasteries were required to declare before their death the approximate direction where he might be reborn, which gave authority to his subordinate monks to find a suitable baby boy born approximately at the time when the old Lama died. Additionally, the system opened the door of opportunity to parents of one and all baby boys to aspire to have the reincarnation of the old Lama born under their roof.

The Celestial Emperor then saw it expedient to separate the temporal from spiritual ruler of Tibet and in 1665 recognized Lobsang Yeshe as the Panchen Lama. From then on, the Dalai Lama’s function was limited as the head of the Tibetan Government while the Panchen Lama took the mantle of spiritual needs of the nation. Thus the Panchen Lama became ex-officio spiritual mentor not only of the Tibetans including the Dalai Lama but also that of the Emperor of China as well.

In addition, two Ambans (Chinese Foreign Service Officers) were stationed in Lhasa as advisors to the Dalai Lama in all matters of governance, domestic or international and they held their office in Lhasa till the Chinese Army finally took control of Tibet in 1950.

The Chinese Emperor however, left their inter-se hierarchical positions unspecified which concerned none as long as they both lived within Tibet. The Emperor gave them their distinctive identification though, Yellow Hats to the Dalai and Red Hats to the Panchen and ever since their votaries are identified by the colour of the hats they wear.

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