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Buddhism in Spiti

In the 9th century AD Padmasambhava introduced Buddhism to the people of Spiti. In 11th century AD, Lotsawa Rin-chen Zang- po became a pioneer in establishing Buddhist religion in Western Tibet. He is credited with the establishment of various monasteries in Spiti (Tabo, Kye, and Sarkhang). Spiti is now home to a purely homogenous Buddhist society that belongs to the Vajrayana sect of Tibetan Buddhism.

Lotsawa Rin-chen Zang-po (958-1055) was one of the greatest translators and builders of temples that Tibet has known. His name is associated with the resurgence of Buddhism which was inspired in the kingdom of Gu-ge around 1000AD. His patron was king Ye-she-o (light of wisdom) who had sent 21 young Tibetans for Buddhist studies to India. Only 2 of these 21 scholars survived their stay in India. One was Rin-chen Zang-po.

The other great contemporary figure in Gu-ge who was engaged in that providential transfer of Buddhist texts from India was Dipankara Srijnana (Atisa 982-1054), who was persuaded by a Tibetan delegation from Gu-ge to leave his home in Vikramasila, in eastern India, to give further guidance to the second spreading of Buddhism.

The second spreading was accompanied by an expansion in the political power of Gu-ge and the religious establishments that were founded by Rin-chen Zang-po and his successors. Rin-chen Zang-po belonged to the Ka-dam-pa sect, which was founded by Dromton, based on the teachings of Dipankara Srijnana.

Vajrayana Buddhism
Vajrayana (the vehicle of the thunderbolt)

It is perhaps clearer for the uninitiated to think of the five Buddhas as the five aspects of Buddha-hood. Known as the Dhyani Buddhas, or Buddhas of meditation, whose cosmic nature is demonstrated by the fact that while one was associated with the centre of things, the others radiated out to the four points of the compass.

Later, with the development of the Vajrayana school, Tantric elements were adopted from Hinduism. These implied the introduction of a feminine principle, in a state of simultaneous polarity and fusion with the masculine one. Accordingly, a system of female deities came to be associated with the five Buddhas. The circular design of the mandala was an attempt to express in graphic terms the essentially abstract relationships between all these symbolic concepts.

This brief description of a few salient points does no more than hint at the enormous complexities of the Vajrayana school, which established itself in Tibet from about the 11th century as a mystical and esoteric religion relying largely on practices and initiations derived from the secret texts of the Tantra.

Historically too, Buddhism in Tibet had to contend with the pantheistic and shamanistic Bon religion, which was characterized by a highly-developed cosmic system and a multiplicity of gods and demons. Buddhism, as it spread made no attempt to suppress this ancient cult altogether, but rather absorbed many of its beliefs and practices.

Thus many of the Bon deities appear in the Buddhist pantheon, where they have the position of Dharmapalas - Guardians of the Law. It is they with their fearful aspect that play such a large part in the annual dance dramas held by each monastery on the days of its own particular festival.

Bhuchens- The Bhuchens are a unique and rare sect of Tibetan Buddhist wandering minstrel lamas. These theatrical artists preach religious, social and ecological morals to the locals through a set of diverse performances. Followers of Tholdan Gyalpo, who invented this art in the early 11th century A.D, they are now only found in the Spiti valley after disappearing from Tibet and Ladakh.
Mandala- is an exquisitely detailed painting created out of coloured sand and stones, flowers and some jewels. There are 722 deities on the Mandala each symbolizing various manifestations of consciousness and reality. It is believed to be a purveyor of good fortune, peace and realization.
Buddhist Monasteries

In considering the western Himalayan region it would be useful to make a clear distinction between the monastic complexes that were formed in the earlier period, under the patronage of the kings of Gu-ge, and the later period when these complexes were established, with the coming of the reformist Ge-lug-pa sect between the 14th and 15th centuries.

The important monasteries in the Spiti region are:

Tabo - Founded in 996 AD by Lotsawa Rinchen Zangpo. It is the stronghold of the Ge lugs pa sect of Vajrayana Buddhism in Spiti Valley.

Lhalung - The Sarkhang (Golden Temple), second Spitian monastery attributed to Lotsawa Rinchen Zangpo.

Kye - Dromton, a disciple of Atisa, is attributed with the construction of the Ki Monastery in the early 11th century. It belongs to the Ge lugs pa (Yellow hats) sect.

Komik - The Thangyud Gompa is one of the highest Vajrayana Buddhist monasteries in the world. After Dhankar ceased to be the capital of Spiti and the Nono relocated to Quiling, royal patronage was extended to this monastery.

Dhankar - Is easily the most spectacular in Spiti and belongs to the Ge lugs pa sect.

Kungri - The original monastery was built around 1330 AD and provides unmistakable evidence of the Tantric cults as practiced in the Pin valley.

Buddhist Architecture - The close link between the political and religious advancement of Buddhism in Tibet is clearly reflected in Tibetan Buddhist architecture. The development and style of Tibetan monastic architecture must be seen in this context.

The fortress monasteries of the later period grew directly out of a need to defend and administer territory through an administrative structure which centered on the monastery as a politico-religious institution.

The architecture of the monastery, in its developed form in Tibet, had emerged out of earlier Indian prototypes that had been directly imported in the 8th & 9th centuries. It is of interest to see how the Indian prototypes themselves had emerged out of much simpler origins that had at one time reflected the need to provide shelter to the wandering Buddhist almsman.

Buddhist Art- Vajrayana (Tibetan) Buddhism is the most complex form of Buddhism not only in its philosophic foundations, but also in its visual expression. The monasteries use distinctive styles of architecture, painting and sculpture to support, explain and illustrate the elaborate systems of Vajrayana cosmography. All these symbols and icons represent the vast pantheon of Buddhas, bodhisattvas, Gods, Goddesses, minor Gods, saints, demons, ghouls and spirits. Since the primary function of Vajrayana art is to help Buddhist practitioners in their quest for enlightenment, the art communicates complex metaphysical and practical ideas.
 
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