Recently in Ladakh, the Dalai Lama appeared at an inter-faith seminar organized by the International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF), and spoke on the Preservation of Religious Harmony, Coexistence and Universal Peace. He said “Today, a lot of people from different religious backgrounds are present here…. It is taught in every religion, including Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam, that the ultimate truth is driven by faith….Usually, I say that it is very important to distinguish between ‘belief in one religion’ and ‘belief in many religions’…. In the context of one person, a single truth is closely associated with a single source of refuge. This is of extreme necessity. However, in the context of society or more than one person, it is necessary to have different sources of refuge, religions and truths.”
These wise words could be said to form the basis of the modern Tibetan approach to religion. While today Buddhism is most prevalent, before its introduction in the 7th century, the animist belief system Bön and other similar indigenous shamanistic folk religions were practiced throughout Tibet. Today there remain followers of Bön, as well as numerous other faiths in the country, each of which has its own distinct place in Tibet.
Tibet cannot truly claim to allow complete religious freedom, since it is regulated by the laws of the People’s Republic of China. However, those regulations generally simply prohibit the use of religions for disrupting social harmony. They do not ban any belief systems, allowing for a fairly peaceable environment in which to practice a number of faiths. As of 2012, the makeup of religions in Tibet was 78.5% Buddhism, 12.5% Bön, 8.58% Chinese folk religions, 0.4% Islam and 0.02% Christianity; let’s explore how they sit side by side in Tibet.
Little is known about the development of Tibet’s original and indigenous religion, Bön. Though its founding dates and adherents are unknown, it is clear that it was animistic, and the original Bönpo (practitioners) believed that entities in nature had spiritual forces – good and evil. Like many animist belief systems, it also featured shamanistic practices including divination and exorcism. Around the time of the development of Tibetan Buddhism, a second stage evolved, known as Yungdrung – or “eternal” Bön. Some say it was influenced by Buddhism, others claim it is a derivative of Taoism or a Hindu sect dedicated to Shiva. Whatever its provenance, as it is practiced today, Bön demonstrates many of the same features as Tibetan Buddhism, including similar worship and meditation rituals focused on peaceful and wrathful deities. It is largely practiced in the more isolated parts of northern and western Tibet, where most of the 264 active Bön monasteries, nunneries and hermitages can be found.
The religion for which Tibet is best known, thanks in part to the country’s spiritual leader – the Nobel Peace Prize-winning and aforementioned 14th Dalai Lama – is Tibetan Buddhism. Sometimes known as Lamaism, it is a form of Mahayana Buddhism that developed from Indian Buddhism in the 7th century. Prevalent throughout Tibet and much of Central Asia, it now has between 10 and 20 million followers worldwide. Though Buddhist scriptures from India were circulating in Tibet as far back as 173 CE, it wasn’t until 641 CE that it became the state religion, when King Songtsen Gampo took two Buddhist wives from China and Nepal. More crucial though, was the arrival in 774 CE of Padmasambhava (also known as Guru Rinpoche), a famous tantric mystic. It was he who merged Buddhism with Bön, incorporating some of the indigenous religion’s shamanistic features to create what we now recognize as Tibetan Buddhism. Today there are countless sacred sites significant to Tibetan Buddhists all over Tibet. In Lhasa stands Potala Palace, an architectural wonder that served for centuries as the winter residence of the Dalai Lamas, and just outside the city is the Drepung monastery, another of their principal seats. Also in Lhasa is Tibet’s holiest temple, Jokhang, home to a giant golden Buddha statue. Meanwhile in the Guge region, the red brick Tholing monastery still stands amid ruins, housing sacred sutras written in silver. Visitors making their way to Everest Base Camp often make a stop at Rongbuk Monastery; the highest religious building in the world, it stands at an elevation of 16,700 feet.
Sharing many of the characteristics of original Bön, Chinese folk religions also made their way into Tibet. Though they came from sources across China, with variations between forms, founders and philosophies, they were unified by shared core concepts. In their fundamental forms, they included veneration of the power of nature and ancestors, and the belief that everything in nature is filled with a life force. As with Tibet’s indigenous folk religions, these later became mixed with ideologies from Buddhism as well as influences of Taoism and Confucianism. In fact the Dongba, who are the Bon priests of the Nakhi people of Southwest China, use a combination of Taoist offerings and Tibetan prayer flags in their rituals.
Accounting for just 0.4% of the population, the Kachee – Tibetan followers of Islam – are almost the smallest minority. Thanks to relations between Tibet and the rulers of the Middle East, the Tibetan governor of Kabul became a Muslim in the early 9th century. Towards the 11th and 12th centuries traders from Ladakh and Kashmir began to settle in Tibet, many marrying Tibetan women, and between the 14th and 17th century, many of those merchants included Muslims. They lived side by side and traded harmoniously with the Tibetan Buddhists, especially thanks to special privileges granted by the 5th Dalai Lama. Meanwhile, at around the same time, Chinese Hui Muslims merchants began to settle in northeastern Tibet and later in Lhasa. Today there are six places of worship for Tibetan Muslims, and most notable among them is Lhasa Great Mosque. Built in 1716, it was enlarged in 1793, and today its jade green domes and spires still stand out against the mountainous backdrop.
The smallest of Tibet’s religious groups, Catholicism is almost exclusively centered around one church in Yanjing village. Though there is evidence that Christianity appeared in Tibet as early as the 6th century, thanks to the Church of the East of the Nestorian Christians, it was the French missionaries of the 19th century that truly made an impression. Yanjing is located in Mangkang County, which borders Yunnan province, once a French territory of influence. In 1865, a French Catholic missionary named Felix Biet established Yerkalo – Tibet’s only Catholic church. Standing on a hill, its design is a mix of Han, Tibetan and Western architecture, and 600 of the village’s 900 inhabitants flock to celebrate Christmas, Easter and other Catholic holy days within its Gothic interior. Despite the long history of Catholicism in Yanjing, there are a number of Buddhists living peacefully in the village alongside the Christians, some in the same family.
While the history of religion in Tibet has not always been smooth, the country is now a place where everyone is welcome to follow their own path, and a visit to this beautiful land offers numerous paths, both spiritual and physical.