Tibet has come to realize great appeal to many around the world, for its long and complex history and deep eastern philosophy. Widely recognized as one of the premier Buddhist nations, the country is most known for Buddhism and the lineage of the Dalai Lamas, Tibet’s most prominent exports. The last decades of the 20th century saw the small nation fall prey to controversy, violence and war, which is often at the forefront of Tibetan life even to this day.
Many believe that the nation of Tibet was founded by a heavenly king, descended from the sky with webbed hands. Others believe that the culture stems from the union of a monkey (a manifestation of Avalokitesvara, another manifestation of whom is the Dalai Lama) and a tantric deity known as Tara.
The recorded history of Tibet, however, dates back several thousand years, almost parallel with the Chinese civilization. Sometime around 4,000 BCE, a division formed between Chinese and Tibetan/Bhurman cultures. The remains of early burial mounds suggests the Zhang Zhung culture settled the area, primarily in Western Tibet, and developed the earliest form of religion in the region, known then as Bon.
The Zhang Zhung established a capital known as Khyunglung, near the current town of Moincer. The remains of this city can still be seen in the hillside along the Sutlej River. The culture is believed to have survived into the beginning of the second millennium, around 1,000 AD.
Zhang Zhong was overcome by the culture growing in Central Tibet around the early 7th century, led by Songtsän Gampo. Gampo ascended the throne sometime around 629, though the actual dates of his birth and ascension are uncertain, and may have occurred almost 60 years earlier.
Gampo sent an emissary to India with the intention of developing a unique script for Tibet. Minister Sambhota became instrumental in forging the written form of the Tibetan language, giving birth to the first Tibetan records and translations.
Under Gampo, Tibet began importing from China, India, Nepal and Mongolia various crafts, from paper and ink to wine and astrology. It is believed that during his reign, the Dharma, the principles of Buddhist philosophy arrived in the capital from India.
The discovery of Buddhism changed Songtsän Gampo’s plans for the nation, and he began bringing teachers to the capital. Several monasteries were built, including the Jokhang of Lhasa, which still exists (though in highly modernized form). Gampo was so moved by the teachings that the image of a Buddha is said to have appeared on his forehead.
It is around this time that the earliest records mention the arrival of a Tibetan ambassador in the Chinese capital, also in the 7th century. The capital was moved to Lhasa.
By the mid 600s, Gampo had unified the regions of Tibet, and secured peace with China through a marriage to the niece of the Tang Dynasty Emperor Taizong. The marriage led to the adoption of several Chinese customs, and the importation of Chinese silks, adornments and education. Gampo was succeeded by his infant grandson around 650 AD. The new emperor was very young, so the governing of the nation was left to the ministers under Gar Songtsan.
A short lived Zhang Zhung rebellion broke out in the later 670s was quickly quashed. Tibet slowly expanded its empire, and by 670 had begun to encounter the first of long standing conflict with China. By the turn of the century, however, the Gar clan had been virtually wiped out.
Tibet reached a peace agreement with China in 702.
Political power changed hands several times in the coming years, and several new alliances were formed, notably with the Arab and Turkish nations. In spite of strong political ties and at least one marriage between Tibetan and Chinese royalty, rising tensions once again led to war between China and Tibet. The Tibetan army made progress as far as capturing the Chinese capital, but no victory was long lasting for either side. Hostilities would continue into the early decades of the 9th century. Under the reign of King Ralpacan, a peace treaty was signed in 821, but political maneuvering by the Chinese continued to cause trouble for Tibet. Several allies shifted their support to China’s Tang Dynasty.
King Ralpacan became a devout supporter of the teachings of Buddhism, earning his status as one of the Three Dharma Kings who promoted the tradition throughout the nation. Much effort was made to translate the ancient teachings into Tibetan, and several temples were built.
By the mid 9th century, succession disputes led to the nation falling into civil war. For the next several centuries, rule of Tibet was divided. Buddhism thrived, however, and in time became a prominent influence of daily life, regardless of political fluctuations.
In 1073, the now renowned Buddhist center Sakya Monastery was founded near Shigatse. The center attracted the attention of the Tsang in China, some of whom even came to study at the monastery. Sakya monks came to exert increasing influence on political leaders, and by the 1200s came to govern Tibet. The monastery now houses several thousand scrolls and some of the oldest (and best preserved) art in the country.
Tibet encountered Mongol warlord Genghis Khan in 1215. In 1240, seeking a new route to invade China, the Mongol army passed through Tibet, destroying several monasteries. By the mid 1240s, Khan began pushing Tibet to surrender to his rule. Historians consider Tibet to have joined China as part of the Mongol empire by 1246, though both nations retained their administrative structures.
When Kublai Khan gained control over the Mongol empire, he appointed Drogön Chögyal Phagpa of the Sakya tradition as his voice, effectively ruling Tibet in the Khan’s name.
In 1357, the great Buddhist philosopher Je Tsongkhapa was born in Amdo province. “The Man from Onion County” took his first ordination at the age of seven, earning the name Lobsang Drakpa. He became a fully ordaing monk in the Sakya tradition at the age of 24. After several years of travel, studying under more than 100 teachers, Je Tsongkhapa himself became a teacher. Many believe he was in direct contact with Manjusri, a direct disciple of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni, and that he himself was either a manifestation of or reincarnation of the great Buddhist teacher Atisha. Je Tsongkhapa is known for writing many of the major texts of Tibetan Buddhism, the encouraging the prominence of several traditions such as formal debating, and teaching the first Dalai Lama.
In 1391, the first Dalai Lama was born, though the title was not officially used until Sonam Gyatso was born in 1543. Curiously, Sonam Gyatso is considered thye third incarnation of the Dalai Lama, even though he was the first to receive the title (the first incarnation being Gendun Drup, born in 1391).
Under Sonam Gyatso, Tibetan Buddhism spread through Mongolia. Texts were translated into Mongolian, and the Gelug-pa tradition became Mongolia’s state religion. In fact, it was Altan Khan, descendant of Kublai Khan, who conferred upon Sonam Gyatso the title of Dalai Lama, which was a translation of his name (before becoming an official title).
Under the direction of Lobsang Gyatso (1617–1682), the fifth Dalai Lama, Tibet was once again unified. The capital of Lhasa gained its most prominent feature: the Potala Palace. The Dalai Lama became the most prominent and powerful spiritual and political leader in the nation. The position would lead to disputes over reincarnation and succession.
In the mid 17th century, Lhasa welcomed its first westerners. Belgian and German missionaries.
Towards the end of the century, Tibet invaded Ladakhi, but the conflict was short lived.
Throughout the early 18th century, several rival factions vied for control over the country, going so far as to murder potential Dalai Lamas. By the middle of the century, the Manchu army of China hade entered the fight, restoring order, once again establishing the Dalai Lama as the leader of the nation, ruling from Lhasa. Over the following two centuries, Tibet came more and more under the rule of Chinese emperors.
By the early years of the 1900s, Tibet had attracted the attention of British India, developing trade with the west. British forced occupied Lhasa in 1904, sparking ire in China. Tibet opened its doors to British trade, recognizing Chinese suzerainty over Tibet.
In 1910, China made efforts to exert direct control over the nation, deposing the Dalai Lama as ruler. Efforts were short lived, however, when the Quing Dynasty crumbled in 1911.
In 1913, Tibet attempted to establish independence from China. An agreement was signed which expelled Chinese authorities from the land. The Dalai Lama officially proclaimed their independence in 1913.
Over the coming decades, Lhasa extended control over Tibetan territories, establishing several peace accords with China. China, however, refused to relinquish control over the nation.
In 1935, the current Dalai Lama was born Tenzin Gyatso.
In 1950, the Chinese army began serious efforts to stop the Tibetan independence movement. By the end of the decade, the country was over run and the Dalai Lama fled to India. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama has since been living in exile in Dharamsala, India, and traveling the world teaching the Tibetan tradition. Several monasteries have been built in and around Dharamsala in the Tibetan tradition.
The modern Tibetan government in exile seeks autonomy, stating they are not seeking independence. The situation has the attention of world leaders, entertainers and activists around the world. Several charitable benefits are staged annually to support the cause, and the Tibetan people.
In 1989, the Dalai Lama won the Nobel Peace Prize for his continued activism and support of the Tibetan cause, and the preservation of Tibetan culture and customs. He has since been granted honorary Canadian citizenship.
Kushalanagara? (A city for Tibetan refugees in Southern India)
There are plenty more things to do in ancient and historic Tibet.
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