Reincarnations in Tibet
Theosophist, March, 1882
So little is known by Europeans of what is going on in Tibet, and even in the more accessible Bhootan, that an Anglo-Indian paper—one of those which pretend to know, and certainly discuss every blessed subject, whether they really know anything of it or not—actually came out with the following bit of valuable information:
It may not be generally known that the Deb Raja of Bhootan, who died in June last, but whose decease has been kept dark till the present moment, probably to prevent disturbances, is our old and successful opponent of 1864-65 . . . .
The Bhootan Government consists of a spiritual chief, called the Dhurm Raja, an incarnation of Buddha (?!!) who never dies—and a civil ruler called the Deb Raja in whom is supposed to centre all authority.
A more ignorant assertion could hardly have been made. It may be argued that “Christian” writers believe even less in Buddha’s reincarnations than the Buddhists of Ceylon, and, therefore, trouble themselves very little, whether or not they are accurate in their statements. But, in such a case, why touch a subject at all? Large sums are annually spent by Governments to secure old Asiatic manuscripts and learn the truth about old religions and peoples, and it is not showing respect for either science or truth to mislead people interested in them by a flippant and contemptuous treatment of facts.
On the authority of direct information received at our Headquarters, we will try to give a more correct view of the situation than has hitherto been had from books. Our informants are firstly—some very learned lamas; secondly—a European gentleman and traveller, who prefers not to give his name; and thirdly—a highly educated young Chinaman, brought up in America, who has since preferred to the luxuries of worldly life and the pleasures of Western civilization, the comparative privations of a religious and contemplative life in Tibet. Both of the two last-named gentlemen are Fellows of our Society, and the latter—our “Celestial” Brother—losing, moreover, no opportunity of corresponding with us. A message from him has been just received via Darjeeling.
In the present article, it is not much that we will have to say. Beyond contradicting the queer notion of the Bhootanese Dharma Raja being “an incarnation of Buddha,” we will only point out a few absurdities, in which some prejudiced writers have indulged.
It certainly was never known—least of all in Tibet—that the spiritual chief of the Bhootanese was “an incarnation of Buddha, who never dies.” The ”Dug-pa 1 or Red Caps” belong to the old Nyang-na-pa sect, who resisted the religious reform introduced by Tsong-kha-pa between the latter part of the fourteenth and the beginning of the fifteenth centuries. It was only after a lama coming to them from Tibet in the tenth century had converted them from the old Buddhist faith so strongly mixed up with the Bhon practices of the aborigines—into the Shammar sect, that, in opposition to the reformed “Gyelukpas,” the Bhootanese set up a regular system of reincarnations. It is not Buddha though, or “Sang-gyas”—as he is called by the Tibetans. who incarnates himself in the Dharma Raja, but quite another personage; one of whom we will speak about later on.
Now what do the Orientalists know of Tibet, its civil administration, and especially its religion and its rites? That, which they have learned from the contradictory, and in every case imperfect statements of a few Roman Catholic monks, and of two or three daring lay travellers, who, ignorant of the language, could scarcely be expected to give us even a bird’s-eye view of the country. The missionaries, who introduced themselves in 1719, stealthily into Lhassa, 2 were suffered to remain there but a short time and were finally forcibly expelled from Tibet. The letters of the Jesuits—Desideri, and Johann Grueber, and especially that of Fra della Penna, teem with the greatest absurdities. 3 Certainly as superstitious, and apparently far more so than the ignorant Tibetans themselves, on whom they father every iniquity, one has but to read these letters to recognize in them that spirit of odium theologicum felt by every Christian, and especially Catholic missionary for the “heathen” and their creeds; a spirit which blinds one entirely to the sense of justice. And when could have been found any better opportunity to ventilate their monkish ill-humour and vindictiveness than in the matter of Tibet, the very land of mystery, mysticism and seclusion? Beside these few prejudiced “historians,” but five more men of Europe ever stepped into Tibet. Of these, three—Bogle, Hamilton and Turner—penetrated no farther than its borderlands; Manning—the only European who is known to have set his foot into Lha-ssa 4 —died without revealing its secrets, for reasons suspected, though never admitted, by his only surviving nephew—a clergyman; and Csömo de Korös, who never went beyond Zanskar, and the lamasery of Phag-dal. 5
The regular system of the Lamaïc incarnations of “Sang-gyas” (or Buddha) began with Tsong-kha-pa. This reformer is not the incarnation of one of the five celestial Dhyans, or heavenly Buddhas, as is generally supposed, said to have been created by Sakya Muni after he had risen to Nirvana, but that of “Amita,” one of the Chinese names for Buddha. The records preserved in the Gön-pa (lamasery) of “Tda-shi Hlum-po” (spelt by the English Teshu Lumbo) show that Sang-gyas incarnated himself in Tsongkha-pa in consequence of the great degradation his doctrines had fallen into. Until then, there had been no other incarnations than those of the five celestial Buddhas and of their Boddhisatwas, each of the former having created (read, overshadowed with his spiritual wisdom) five of the last-named—there were, and now are in all but thirty incarnations—five Dhyans and twenty-five Boddhisatwas. It was because, among many other reforms, Tsong- kha-pa forbade necromancy (which is practiced to this day with the most disgusting rites, by the Bhöns—the aborigines of Tibet—with whom the Red Caps, or Shammars, had always fraternized), that the latter resisted his authority. This act was followed by a split between the two sects. Separating entirely from the Gyelukpas, the Dugpas (Red Caps)—from the first in a great minority—settled in various parts of Tibet, chiefly its borderlands, and principally in Nepaul and Bhootan. But, while they retained a sort of independence at the monastery of Sakia-Djong, the Tibetan residence of their spiritual (?) chief Gong-sso Rimbo-chay, the Bhootanese have been from their beginning the tributaries and vassals of the Dalaï-Lamas. In his letter to Warren Hastings in 1774, the Tda-shi Lama, who calls the Bhootans “a rude and ignorant race,” whose “Deb Rajah is dependent upon the Dalaï-Lama,” omits to say that they are also the tributaries of his own State and have been now for over three centuries and a half. The Tda-shi Lamas were always more powerful and more highly considered than the Dalaï-Lamas. The latter are the creation of the Tda-shi Lama, Nabang-Lob-Sang, the sixth incarnation of Tsong-kha-pa—himself an incarnation of Amitabha, or Buddha. This hierarchy was regularly installed at Lha-ssa, but it originated only in the latter half of the seventeenth century. 6
In Mr. C. R. Markham’s highly interesting work above noticed, the author has gathered every scrap of information that was ever brought to Europe about that terra incognita. It contains one passage, which, to our mind, sums up in a few words the erroneous views taken by the Orientalists of Lamaism in general, and of its system of perpetual reincarnation especially. “It was, indeed,” it reads, “at about the period of Hiuen-Thsang’s journey, that Buddhism first began to find its way into Tibet, both from the direction of China and that of India; but it came in a very different form from that in which it reached Ceylon several centuries earlier. Traditions, metaphysical speculations, and new dogmas, had overlaid the original Scriptures with an enormous collection of more recent revelation. Thus Tibet received a vast body of truth, and could only assimilate a portion for the establishment of popular belief. Since the original Scriptures had been conveyed into Ceylon by the son of Asoka, it had been revealed to the devout Buddhists of India that their Lord had created the five Dhyani or celestial Buddhas, and that each of these had created five Boddhisatwas, or beings in the course of attaining Buddha-hood. The Tibetans took firm hold of this phase of the Buddhistic creed, and their distinctive belief is that the Boddhisatwas continue to remain in existence for the good of mankind by passing through a succession of human beings from the cradle to the grave. This characteristic of their faith was gradually developed, and it was long before it received its present form; 7 but the succession of incarnate Boddhisatwas was the idea towards which the Tibetan mind tended from the first.” At the same time, as Max Müller says: “The most important element of the Buddhist reform has always been its social and moral code, not its metaphysical theories. That moral code, taken by itself, is one of the most perfect which the world has ever known; and it was this blessing that the introduction of Buddhism brought into Tibet.” (p. XIV, Introduction.)
The “blessing” has remained and spread all over the country, there being no kinder, purer-minded, more simple or sin-fearing nation than the Tibetans, missionary slanders notwithstanding. 8 But yet, for all that, the popular Lamaism, when compared with the real esoteric, or Arahat Buddhism of Tibet, offers a contrast as great as the snow trodden along a road in the valley, to the pure and undefiled mass which glitters on the top of a high mountain peak. 9 A few of such mistaken notions about the latter, we will now endeavour to correct as far as it is compatible to do so.
Before it can be clearly shown how the Bhootanese were forcibly brought into subjection, and their Dharma Raja made to accept the “incarnations” only after these had been examined into, and recognized at Lha-ssa, we have to throw a retrospective glance at the state of the Tibetan religion during the seven centuries which preceded the reform. As said before, a Lama had come to Bhootan from Kam—that province which had always been the stronghold and the hot-bed of the “Shammar” or Bhön rites 10 —between the ninth and tenth centuries, and had converted them into what he called Buddhism. But in those days, the pure religion of Sakya Muni had already commenced degenerating into that Lamaism, or rather fetichism, against which four centuries later, Tsong-kha-pa arose with all his might. Though three centuries had only passed since Tibet had been converted (with the exception of a handful of Shammars and Bhöns), yet esoteric Buddhism had crept far earlier into the country. It had begun superseding the ancient popular rites ever since the time when the Brahmins of India, getting again the upper hand over Asoka’s Buddhism, were silently preparing to oppose it, an opposition which culminated in their finally and entirely driving the new faith out of the country. The brotherhood or community of the ascetics known as the Byangtsiub—the “Accomplished” and the “Perfect”—existed before Buddhism spread in Tibet, and was known, and so mentioned in the pre-Buddhistic books of China as the fraternity of the “great teachers of the snowy mountains.”
Buddhism was introduced into Bod-yul in the beginning of the seventh century by a pious Chinese Princess, who had married a Tibetan King, 11 who was converted by her from the Bhön religion into Buddhism, and had become since then a pillar of the faith in Tibet, as Asoka had been nine centuries earlier in India. It was he who sent his minister—according to European Orientalists: his own brother, the first Lama in the country—according to Tibetan historical records—to India. This brother minister returned “with the great body of truth contained in the Buddhist canonical Scriptures; framed the Tibetan alphabet from the Devanagri of India, and commenced the translation of the canon from Sanskrit—which had previously been translated from Pali, the old language of Magadha—into the language of the country.” (See Markham’s Tibet.) 12
Under the old rule and before the reformation, the high Lamas, were often permitted to marry, so as to incarnate themselves in their own direct descendants—a custom which Tsong-kha-pa abolished, strictly enjoining celibacy on the Lamas. The Lama Enlightener of Bhootan had a son whom he had brought with him. In this son’s first male child born after his death the Lama had promised the people to reincarnate himself. About a year after the event—so goes the religious legend—the son was blessed by his Bhootanese wife with triplets, all the three boys! Under this embarrassing circumstance, which would have floored any other casuists, the Asiatic metaphysical acuteness was fully exhibited. The spirit of the deceased Lama—the people were told—incarnated himself in all the three boys. One had his Om, the other his Han, the third—his Hoong. Or, (Sanskrit): Buddha—divine mind, Dharma—matter or animal soul, and Sangha—the union of the former two in our phenomenal world. It is this pure Buddhist tenet which was degraded by the cunning Bhootanese clergy to serve the better their ends. Thus their first Lama became a triple incarnation, three Lamas, one of whom—they say—got his “body,” the other, his “heart” and the third, his “word” or wisdom. This hierarchy lasted with power undivided until the fifteenth century, when a Lama named Duk-pa Shab-tung, who had been defeated by the Gyelukpas of Gay-don Toob-pa, 13 invaded Bhootan at the head of his army of monks. Conquering the whole country, he proclaimed himself their first Dharma Raja, or Lama Rimbochay—thus starting a third “Gem” in opposition to the two Gyelukpa “Gems.” But this “Gem” never rose to the eminence of a Majesty, least of all was he ever considered a “Gem of Learning” or wisdom. He was defeated very soon after his proclamation by Tibetan soldiers, aided by Chinese troops of the Yellow Sect, and forced to come to terms. One of the clauses was the permission to reign spiritually over the Red Caps in Bhootan, provided he consented to reincarnate himself in Lha-ssa after his death, and make the law hold good forever. No Dharma Raja since then was ever proclaimed or recognized, unless he was born either at Lha-ssa or on the Tda-shi Hlum-po territory. Another clause was to the effect that the Dharma Rajas should never permit public exhibitions of their rites of sorcery and necromancy, and the third that a sum of money should be paid yearly for the maintenance of a lamasery, with a school attached where the orphans of Red-caps, and the converted Shammars should be instructed in the “Good Doctrine” of the Gyelukpas. That the latter must have had some secret power over the Bhootanese, who are among the most inimical and irreconcilable of their Red-capped enemies, is proved by the fact that Lama Duk-pa Shab-tung was reborn at Lha-ssa, and that to this day, the reincarnated Dharma Rajahs are sent and installed at Bhootan by the Lha-ssa and Tzi-gadze authorities. The latter have no concern in the administration save their spiritual authority, and leave the temporal government entirely in the hands of the Deb-Rajah and the four Pën-lobs, called in Indian official papers Penlows, who in their turn are under the immediate authority of the Lha-ssa officials.
From the above it will be easily understood that no “Dharma Raja” was ever considered as an incarnation of Buddha. The expression that the latter “never dies” applies but to the two great incarnations of equal rank—the Dalai and the Tda-shi Lamas. Both are incarnations of Buddha, though the former is generally designated as that of Avalokiteswara, the highest celestial Dhyan. For him who understands the puzzling mystery by having obtained a key to it, the Gordian knot of these successive reincarnations is easy to untie. He knows that Avalokiteswara and Buddha are one as Amita-pho 14 (pronounced Fo) or Amita-Buddha is identical with the former. What the mystic doctrine of the initiated “Phag-pa” or “saintly men” (adepts) teaches upon this subject, is not to be revealed to the world at large. The little that can be given out will be found in a paper on the “Holy Law” which we hope to publish in our next.
1. The term “Dug-pa” in Tibet is deprecatory. They themselves pronounce it “Dög-pa” from the root to “bind” (religious binders to the old faith): while the paramount sect—the Gyeluk-pa (yellow caps)—and the people, use the word in the sense of “Dug-pa” mischief-makers, sorcerers. The Bhootanese are generally called Dug-pa throughout Tibet and even in some parts of Northern India.—ED.
2. Out of twelve Capuchin friars who, under the leadership of Father della Penna, established a mission at Lhassa, nine died shortly after, and only three returned home to tell the tale. (See Tibet, by Mr. Clements R. Markham.)
3. See Appendix to Narratives of the Mission of George Bogle to Tibet. By Clements R. Markham, C. B., F. R. S., Trübner & Co., I London.—ED.
4. We speak of the present century. It is very dubious whether the two missionaries Huc and Gabet ever entered Lha-ssa. The Lamas deny it.—ED.
5. We are well aware that the name is generally written Pugdal, but it is erroneous to do so. “Pugdal” means nothing, and the Tibetans do not give meaningless names to their sacred buildings. We do not know how Csömo de Korös spells it, but, as in the case of Pho-ta-la of Lha-ssa loosely spelt “Potala”—the lamasery of Phäg-dal derives its name from Phäg-pa (Phag—eminent in holiness, Buddha-like, spiritual; and pha-man, father) the title of “Awalokiteswara,” the Boddhisatwa who incarnates himself in the Dalaï Lama of Lha-ssa. The valley of the Ganges where Buddha preached and lived, is also called “Phäg-yul,” the holy, spiritual land; the word phag coming from the one root—Phä or Phö being the corruption of Fo—(or Buddha) as the Tibetan alphabet contains no letter F.—ED.
6. Says Mr. Markham in Tibet Ap. XVII Preface): “Gedun-tubpa, another great reformer, was contemporary with Tsong-kha-pa, having been born in 1339, and dying in 1474” (having thus lived 135 years). He built the monastery at Teshu Lumbo (Tda-shi Hlum-po) in 1445, and it was in the person of this perfect Lama, as he was called, that the system of perpetual incarnation commenced. He was himself the incarnation of Boddhisatwa Padma Pani and on his death he relinquished the attainment of Buddhahood that he might be born again and again for the benefit of mankind. . . . When he died, his successor was found as an infant by the possession of certain divine marks.
7. Its “present” is its earliest form, as we will try to show further on. A correct analysis of any religion viewed but from its popular aspect, becomes impossible—least of all Lamaism, or esoteric Buddhism as disfigured by the untutored imaginative fervour of the populace. There is a vaster difference between the “Lamaism” of the learned classes of the clergy and the ignorant masses of their parishioners, than there is between the Christianity of a Bishop Berkeley and that of a modern Irish peasant. Hitherto Orientalists have made themselves superficially acquainted but with the beliefs and rites of popular Buddhism in Tibet, chiefly through the distorting glasses of missionaries which throw out of focus every religion but their own. The same course has been followed in respect to Sinhalese Buddhism, the missionaries having, as Col. Olcott observes in the too brief Preface to his Buddhist Catechism, for many years been taunting the Sinhalese with the “puerility and absurdity of their religion” when, in point of fact, what they speak of is not orthodox Buddhism at all. Buddhist folklore and fairy stories are the accretions of twenty-six centuries.—ED.
8. The reader has but to compare in Mr. Markham’s Tibet the warm, impartial and frank praises bestowed by Bogle and Turner on the Tibetan character and moral standing and the enthusiastic eulogies of Thomas Manning to the address of the Dalaï-Lama and his people, with the three letters of the three Jesuits in the Appendix, to enable himself to form a decisive opinion. While the former three gentlemen, impartial narrators, having no object to distort truth, hardly find sufficient adjectives to express their satisfaction with the Tibetans, the three “men of God” pick no better terms for the Dalaï-Lamas and the Tibetans than “their devilish God the Father” . . . “vindictive devils” . . . “fiends who know how to dissemble,” who are “cowardly, arrogant, and proud” . . . “dirty and immoral,” &c., &c., &c., all in the same strain for the sake of truth and Christian charity!—ED.
9. As Father Desideri has it in one of his very few correct remarks about the lamas of Tibet, “though many may know how to read their mysterious books, not one can explain them”—an observation by-the-bye, which might be applied with as much justice to the Christian as to the Tibetan clergy. (See App. Tibet p. 306).—ED.
10. The Shammar sect is not, as wrongly supposed, a kind of corrupted Buddhism, but an offshoot of the Bhön religion—itself a degenerated remnant of the Chaldean mysteries of old, now a religion entirely based upon necromancy, sorcery and sooth-saying. The introduction of Buddha’s name in it means nothing.—ED.
11. A widely spread tradition tells us that after ten years of married life, with her husband’s consent she renounced it, and in the garb of a nun—a Ghelung-ma, or “Ani,” she preached Buddhism all over the country, as, several centuries earlier, the Princess Sanghamitta, Asoka’s daughter, had preached it in India and Ceylon.—ED.
12. But, what he does not say (for none of the writers, he derives his information from, knew it) is that this Princess is the one, who is believed to have reincarnated herself since then in a succession of female Lamas or Rim-ani—precious nuns. Durjiay Pan-mo of whom Bogle speaks—his Tda-shi Lama’s half-sister—and the superior of the nunnery on the Lake Yam-dog-ccho or Piate-Lake, was one of such reincarnations. —ED.
13. The builder and founder of Tda-shi Hlum-po (Teshu-lumbo) in 1445: called the “Perfect Lama,” or Panchhen—the precious jewel from the words—Pan-chhen great teacher, and “Rim-bochay” priceless jewel. While the Dalaï–Lama is only Gyalba Rim bochay, or “gem of kingly majesty,” the Tda-shi Lama of Tzi-gadze is Panchhen Rimbochay or the Gem of Wisdom and Learning.—ED.
14. In Tibetan pho and pha—pronounced with a soft labial breath-like sound—means at the same time “man, father.” So pha-yul is native land: pho-nya, angel, messenger of good news: pha-me, ancestors, &c., &c.