Buddhism has two sects : MAHAYANA BUDDHISM and HINAYANA BUDDHISM. Mahayana Buddhism was introduced into regions inhabited by the Han people, about the first century. It emphasizes the existence of many Buddhas. It focuses attention on Buddhas in heaven and on people who will become Buddhas in the future. It believes that these present and future Buddhas can save people through compassion and grace.

Hinayan Buddhism was introduced from Burma, about the 9th century. Into regions inhabited by the ethnic minorities in Yunnan Province. It emphasizes the importance of Buddha as a historical figure, the virtues of monastic life, and the authority of the Tripitaka. Lamaism is a form of Buddhism intermingled with indigenous Tibetan religion known as Bon. Tibetan Buddhism slowly adopted some of the Bon rites, while Bon eventually took on Buddhist teachings and disappeared. Lamaism mainly gained its Buddhist knowledge from Han Mahayana Buddhist sources.

Of the various sects that eventually developed within Lamaist Buddhism, the main ones are Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu, and Gelug. A basic understanding of Buddhism is essential to getting beneath the skin of things in Tibet. Buddhism's values and goals permeate almost everything Tibetan. To explore the monasteries and temples of Tibet, to mix with its people and know nothing of Buddhism is like visiting Rome and knowing nothing of Christianity. Buddhism is perhaps the most tolerant of the worlds' religions, and wherever it went it adapted to local conditions, like a dividing cell, creating countless new schools of thought. Its basic tenets have remained very much the same and all schools are bound together in their faith in the value of the original teaching of the historical Buddha, Sakyamuni.

The following is a brief guide to some of the vast Tibetan Buddhist pantheon as well as important historical figures. Sanskrit names are given first ( with Tibetan names provided in parentheses ).

Sakyamuni (Sakya Thukpa)

The "Historical Buddha". Born in Lumbini in southern Nepal in the 5th century BC with the name Gautama, he attained enlightenment under a pipal tree and his teachings set in motion the Buddhist faith. In Tibetan-style representations he is always pictured sitting cross-legged on a lotus flower throne. His hair is dark blue with a halo of enlightenment around his head. Buddha is recognized by 32 marks on his body, including a dot between his eyes, a bump on the top of his head and the Dharma wheel on the soles of his feet. In his left hand he holds a begging bowl, his right hand touches the earth in the ""witness" mudra. He is often flanked by two disciples of bodhisattvas.

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Maitreya (Jampa)

The "Future Buddha". He is passing the life of a bodhisattva until it is time to return to earth in human form 4000 years after disappearance of Buddha ( Sakyamuni ). He is normally seated, with a scarf around his waist, his legs hanging down and his hands by his chest in the mudra of "turning the Wheel of Law".

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Amitabha (Opagme)

The Buddha of Infinite Light who resides in the Pure Land of the West. The Panchen Lama is considered a reincarnation of this Buddha. He is red, his hands are held together in his lap in a "meditation" mudra and he holds a begging blow.

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Avalokiteshvara (Chenresig)

"Glorious gentle one" - he is the Bodhisattva of Compassion and his name means " he who gazes upon the world with suffering in his eyes". The Dalai Lama is considered a reincarnation of Avalokiteshvara and pictures of the two are interchangeable. The current Dalai Lama is the 74th manifestation of Avalokiteshvara.

His body is white and he sits on a lotus blossom. He holds rosary beads and a flower of compassion and clutches a gem to his heart. A deer skin is draped over his left shoulder. There is also a powerful 11 headed, 1000 armed version. His head is said to have explored when confronted with a myriad of problems to solve. Each of his 1000 arms has an eye in the palm. His eight main arms hold a bow and arrow, lotus, rosary, vase, wheel and staff.

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Tara (Drolma)

"The Saviouress" - a female bodhisattva with 21 different manifestations or aspects. She was born from a tear of compassion that fell from Avalokiteshvara's eyes and is thus considered the female version of Avalokiteshvara and a protectress of the Tibetan people. She also symbolizes purity and fertility and is believed to be able to fulfill wishes. Images usually represent Green Tara, who is associated with night, or White Tara, who is associated with day.

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Guru Rinpoche

The "lotus-born" 8th century master from modern-day Swat in Pakistan who subdued Tibet's evil spirits and helped to establish Buddhism in Tibet. Known in Sanskrit as Padmasambhava, he is regarded by followers of Nyingmapa Buddhism as the second Buddha and wears a red Nyingmapa-style hat. He has a curly moustache, holds a thunderbolt in his right hand, a skull cup in his left hand and a Khatvanga staff topped with three heads - one shrunken, one severed and one skull - in the crook of his left arm.

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Tsongkhapa (1357-1419)

Founder of the Gelugpa order and a manifestation of Jampelyang. He wears the yellow hat of the Gelugpas and is normally portrayed in a triad with his two main disciples Kedrub Je and Gyatsab Je. His hands are in the teaching mudra and he holds two lotuses. He was the founder and first abbot of Ganden Monastery and many images of him are found there.

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Fifth Dalai Lama (Gyawa Gnawa, 1617-82)

The greatest of all the Dalai Lamas, who unified Tibet. Wears the Gelugpa yellow hat and holds a thunderbolt in his right hand and bell in his left. He may also be depicted holding the wheel of Law (symbolizing the beginning of political control of the Dalai Lamas ) and a lotus flower or other sacred objects.

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King Songtsen Gampo (618-49)

Early king who unified Tibet and introduced Buddhism to the country. He has a moustache and wears a white turban with a tiny red Amitabha Buddha poking out of the top. He is flanked by his Chinese wife Wencheng on the left and his Nepalese wife Bhrikuti on his right.

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Information provided by Tibet Tourism Bureau Shanghai Office.

 

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