Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States
LAMAISM. The religion of the Thibetans, which is also that of the Mongols, and, under a slightly different form, that of Bhotan, is called Lamaism by Europeans, from the word Lama, the title of the high dignitaries of the priesthood among these nations. It is Buddhism corrupted by a mass of heterogeneous elements. Brought to Thibet, in the middle of the seventh century, both from China and Nepaul, the doctrine of Buddha was propagated there with the alterations which it had undergone in the latter country, where it had been mingled with the impure worship of the personification of the female principle, as it appears in Sivaism. This Buddhism of the Tantras, books in which, according to Eugene Burnouf, purely Buddhistic elements scarcely appear, received new alterations in Thibet, where it could only be propagated by making concessions to the superstitious beliefs already in existence there. The previous religion of the Thibetans consisted merely in magic practices by which the priests conjured away the malignant action of the spirits of the air and the mountains. This rude Shamanism which still exists in certain remote valleys of lower Thibet. left prominent traces in Thibetan Buddhism. The holy personages of the legends of that country are connected with sorcery on some side, and the inhabitants of Thibet, Mongolia and Bhotan have never ceased to dread the malign influence of spirits. Nevertheless at an early period and at various times attempts were made to introduce reforms into the Thibetan religion. The object was to change the Buddhism of the Tantras for that of the Sutras. The principle of this movement originated, without doubt, in the Buddhist monasteries of China, in which the doctrine of Mahâyâna (the great vehicle) was professed. For a long time these attempts were fruitless; but at the end of the fourteenth century the reform was carried out decisively by Tsong-Kha-Pa, a religious personage, born toward 1330 in the country of Amdo, to the south of Koukou-Noor, and placed almost on the same level as Buddha in Mongolia as well as Thibet.
—The object of the reformer was, without the least doubt, the re-establishment of primitive Buddhism, but he lacked the necessary knowledge to discover the work of Buddha under the numerous layers of interpretations with which it had been successively covered. He stopped at the doctrine of the Mahâyâna which he mistook for primitive Buddhism, and he endeavored to abolish the magic practices derived from the Tantras and the ancient superstitions of Thibet, and restore the asceticism which is in reality one of the marked and genuine traits of pure Buddhism. On the first point he only obtained incomplete results. The practice of magic was restricted, but not abolished. In the largest monasteries of Thibet there is an official diviner who, on certain grave occasions, is formally intrusted with predicting the future, conjuring the elements, etc. On the second point the success left nothing to be desired. Ascetic practices form the chief employments in the monasteries, the members of which are subjected to celibacy, confession, frequent fasts, and numerous spiritual retreats.
—Lamaism, conformable in this point to ancient Buddhism, has no secular clergy; its priests of all ranks are monks, living in monasteries (in Thibetan, gonpa, solitude, monasterium). Their generic name is Ge-sslong (practicing virtue), a name conferred on them by Tsong-Kha-Pa, when he gave them the yellow bonnet, the distinguishing color of primitive Buddhism. In places where the reformation has not penetrated and where the ancient red Lamaism is still maintained, the monks still enjoy the right of marrying and living with their families.
—According to the precepts of Buddha, the Lamaist clergy is supposed to live on the aims of the laity: in reality they posses immense wealth. The devout Thibetans have found in their indigence the means of enriching the monasteries. The number of the religious class of both sexes in Thibet must form about one-fifth of the whole population, each family devoting at least one of its children to monastic life. But it must be added that this clergy has never abused either its power or its wealth, though the veneration which it inspires is carried to absurdity.
—In principle the monasteries were independent of each other. In the eleventh century, the superior of Sa-Khya, one of the richest monasteries, laid claim to the supremacy. He found a powerful antagonist in the Grand Lama of the monastery of Bri-Goung. He first sought the arbitration of the emperor of China, who did not fail to decide the case in his favor, and in spite of the protest of the Lamas of Bri-Goung, those of Sa-Khya, thanks to the protection of the Chinese government, dexterous in taking advantage of this occasion to interfere as a protector in the affairs of Thibet, remained sovereign pontiffs in the Lamaist church till the period of the reformation.
—Tsoug-Kha-Pa deprived them of this supreme dignity. At his death he left the government of religious affairs to two of his disciples, of whom one, the Pan-Tschen-Lama, had charge of teaching, and the other, the Dalai-Lama (or, more correctly, Talé-Lama), of watching over discipline. In a church in which everything is finally reduced to observances, the chief of discipline must soon overshadow the master of instruction, and this is what has happened. The Dalai-Lama became the sovereign pontiff, as well as sovereign of Thibet. The Pan-Tschen-Lama is merely his adjunct in a certain way. The first lives in one of the monasteries of Mount Potala, a quarter of a league from Lhassa, and the second in the monastery of Lhoun-Po, in lower Thibet. The Dalai-Lama has, as vicar in Mongolia, the Grand Lama of Khouren.
—Without being the equal of these eminent personages, the superiors of monasteries are, like them, Choubilghans (those who are reborn), that is to say, incarnations of the Bôdhisattvas, divine beings who, in order to preserve always among weak men the good doctrine of salvation, never cease to appear under a human form. It follows from this belief that, when a Lama dies, or, to speak the language of the Lamaist religion, is deprived of his earthly wrappings, it is necessary, in order to give him a successor, to find under what new earthly wrapping the Bôdhisattva of which he was the incarnation has deigned to appear.
—Affairs have been managed as follows since the end of the last century, that is to say, since the emperor of China, under the pretense of protecting and honoring the Dalai-Lama, freed him from the care of governing Thibet. Whenever it is a question of replacing any high dignitary of Lamaism, the names of male infants born since the death of the Lama to whom a successor is sought, are collected and sent to the monastery of La-Brang, at Lhassa. Among the children registered, three are designated who bear the mark of Choubilghan, which the Lamas and the chief diviner are called on to prove, under the inspiration. of course, of the Chinese delegates, who are careful to choose those whose families offer some guarantees to their government. The three names are placed in a golden urn sent for that purpose to Lhassa in 1792 by the emperor of China, and after the high dignitaries of the Lamaist clergy, united in conclave, have prepared for this ceremony by six days of retreat, of fasting and prayer, one of the tickets is drawn from the urn by the most aged; the child designated by lot is proclaimed successor of the deceased Lama, and the two others receive presents to console them. When it is a question of replacing the Dalai-Lama, the drawing of lots takes place at Pekin, in presence of high Chinese functionaries and under the presidency of the Tschan Tscha, the delegate and representative of the Lamaist church near the emperor of China. To prove that there was no mistake in the lot in declaring the newly elected as the same person whom he is called to replace, or, more correctly, to continue, the child at the age of four or five must show that he has some reminiscences of his previous existence. It never happens that he makes a mistake in this examination.
—This method of appointment to high ecclesiastical functions does not appear suited to put eminent men at the head of the church; but in reality nothing is less needed. The whole office of a Lama consists in allowing himself to be venerated with proper dignity, in knowing how to vary his blessings according to the ritual, and in practicing with the greatest accuracy the formalities of worship. It is easy to train a child to these different exercises. If a difficult case appears, there are always at hand some adroit monks trained to their profession; the threads which move the automaton are held by them, whenever it is necessary that it should issue from its repose. Besides, the real directors are, since 1792, the two Chinese delegates resident at Lhassa.
—It would be a mistake, however, to suppose that all the Dalai Lamas were empty shadows. There were among them, especially in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. men who knew how to conduct the affairs of their church with rare ability, and to extend their influence over neighboring peoples with an astonishing adroitness. Their wisdom perhaps was a little too often equal to that of the serpent, and the readiness with which they employed pious frauds to further their ambition casts a certain shadow on their moral character; but they had not always a choice of other means: it is probable, moreover, that in their eyes the end sanctified the means, and it must be added that habit left them no scruples in the employment of duplicity and apocryphal miracles. Not all, however, gave themselves up to the crookedness of a tortuous policy. There were noble characters among the high dignitaries of the Lamaist church; among others must be cited Pan-Tschen-Erteni, who died at Pekin in 1780, a victim, perhaps, of Chinese policy, and who is so often mentioned in the account of Turner's "Embassy in Thibet."
—Lamaism, as is sufficiently shown by the preceding, is a religion with very few spiritual elements, not raised above the simple opus operatum. It is almost entirely made up of pilgrimages, processions, continual offices in the temples, the endless repetition of formulas of prayer, principally of the prayer of six syllables. This last is composed of the following words: om mani padme hoûm, and is almost always on the lips of the Thibetans, lay and clerical. Religious merit is measured by the number of times this prayer is recited, the rosary being used in counting the repetitions of the prayer; and the general prosperity is in proportion to the care used in reproducing it in speaking, writing and engraving. It is written on flags floating in the wind from the tops of lofty poles, on public edifices, on housetops. It is written in gigantic characters on the sides of the mountains, fastened to trees, painted on the walls, and engraved on household utensils.
—In order that this prayer should be in movement incessantly, and doubtless also to obey the precept given by Buddha, to turn the wheel of the law continually, a figurative precept literally understood, the celebrated praying machine was invented. This is a cylinder made of wood, copper or leather, filled with little strips of paper, on which the six precious syllables are printed. and is put in movement by a crank. Stirring these pieces of paper is a pious work profitable to him who moves the machine. Large machines of this kind are placed in the vestibules of temples. on the public squares, and in the principal streets, to enable passers-by to fulfill their religious duties. In pious families there are small machines, and they are put in motion as often as possible. Wealthy persons have a servant especially appointed to this labor. Finally, we see in Thibet and in Mongolia praying machines moved by water power and by windmills. Among the Thibetans and the Mongols the clergy do not doubt, any more than the laity, that this celebrated prayer which they pompously call the way of deliverance. the gate of salvation. the bark which bears the soul to the haven, the light which dissipates the darkness, and which constitutes all religion for the majority of them. is simply an invocation of the universal generative power, expressed here under an obscene symbol, but very much used in Sivaism which reproduces it in all its temples by sculpture and painting. But the less the theologians of Lamaism under stand its real meaning the more they are able to give mystic explanations of it. They give assurances that it contains a sublime doctrine, the extent and profundity of which could not be measured during the longest life. In general, they see in it a symbol of the transmigration of souls through the six realms of successive births, realms represented each by one of the six precious syllables, or, further, the elevation of the soul toward perfection, by passing through the six transcendent virtues, each of which is also expressed by one of the six syllables. (The prayer of six syllables is in Sanscrit. a language entirely unknown to the Lamas.)
—It can not be said, however, that there is not a certain show of science in Lamaism. There is no monastery in which a monk is not intrusted with the instruction of novices. In the most considerable there is a superior instruction. But the studies pursued in them bring merely the memory into play: numerous prayers of the Lamaist church are committed to memory; the best scholar is the one who can recite the greatest number of these. The novices are instructed in the performance of ceremonies. The rules of contemplative life are explained and supported by the edifying examples of the saints of Buddhism. Metaphysical subtleties do not appear to be wanting in Lamaist science, subtleties which recall those of the theologians of the middle ages. and which have no other object than to give an appearance of reason to the things most unreasonable. In substance, this science has not for its object the search after truth; like scholasticism, it seeks simply to demonstrate a fixed, immutable doctrine, which is laid down, without discussion, as the truth, but which is the truth only for those who believe in it. Magic also forms a part of Lamaistic science. It is only taught at Lhassa, in the two convents of Ra-mo-tshe and Mo-rou. At these places those come to study who wish to become masters in the art of conjuring spirits, commanding the elements and practicing sympathetic and magic medicine. Lamaist science rests entirely on two collections of sacred books, namely: the Kah-gyour (a translation of Sanscrit texts) which is composed of 1,083 different writings, and the Tah-gyour (an explanation of the doctrine) which is still more voluminous than the preceding. By the side of these two enormous collections, which Alexander Csoma first brought to the knowledge of Europeans, there exist thousands of works, the greater number of which are edifying books, collections of prayers, or legendary accounts of the lives of saints of the Lamaist church.
—Thibet has as good a title as China to be called a country of books. And still in this country where for centuries the printing press has been in active operation, where the reproduction of a writing is considered to be a holy work which will have its reward in heaven, where men bow down before a few pages covered with characters with as much respect as before the living Buddha, not a single clear idea on religion has been acquired; men are in the most profound ignorance of history and the laws of nature; reflection has not been aroused to any of the great problems, the solution of which, or at least meditation on which, seems to be one of the wants of the human mind; the social condition is not raised above the level of the infancy of peoples. Would not the history of the country of snow prove the vanity of all that has been spoken and written among us on the eminently civilizing rôle of the printing press? After seeing what has taken place in Thibet, it is difficult not to admit that the press is an instrument as much suited to the enslavement of the mind as to its emancipation and development. Europe would probably be still at the point where the Thibetans stopped more than ten centuries ago, if printing had only served, in the hands of Dominicans and Franciscans, to reproduce the legends of saints and scholastic Summœ theologiœ. Printing became an auxiliary of liberty and intellectual and moral progress, only through the great movement which, in the sixteenth century, transferred science from the hands of priests to those of laymen, and to the new spirit which the study of the great writers of Greek and Roman antiquity raised up in the west. (See
Return to top