The Sacred Life of Tibet
by Keith Dowman
Thorsons, London, 1997
ISBN 0 7225 :3 375 6
In Tibet, the concept of luck far pre-dates the theory of karma that was imported from India by Buddhist missionaries.
This vibrant compilation by a writer who has spent 30 years in the study of Tibetan religion gives a well-structured overview of much of what makes Tibet and its culture so fascinating. The numinous peculiarities of Tibetan culture pertaining to religion, spirituality and magic are catalogued and examined in detail, and methodically explained. It is to Keith Dowman´s advantage that he has been able to employ an objectivity that not many Tibetans would have been able to command. Being so subjectively involved in their own culture and traditions, Tibetans would have found it difficult to present with such clarity to the non-Tibetan lay reader this aspect of their life.
Dowman knows the Tibetan religion well enough to be able to clearly illustrate to what great extent the pre-Buddhist, shamanistic culture of Tibet still supersedes the Buddhist culture that has been the ruling influence over most of Tibet for the last thousand years. On the average lay Tibetan Buddhist pilgrim´s motivation, for example, he writes “while he recites Buddhist mantras and lives in awe and fear of the great Buddha-deities and protectors, his faith is focussed rather more on the local mountain gods, the elemental spirits with whom he feels more at home and to whom his father prayed.”
Tibetans, Dowman notes, believe that these gods and spirits only require recognition to make them grant good luck. In fact, for the average Tibetan, all that happens in one´s life is due to tashi, one´s luck, the concept of which, in Tibet, far pre-dates the theory of karma that was imported from India by Buddhist missionaries. Unlike karma, “luck is the gift of the gods and spirits, who are not influenced by virtuous conduct or social morality.”
The motivation of the majority of Tibetan pilgrims is mundane. It is difficult for them to see how the acts of the gods are determined by personal moral behaviour, and impossible to know how conduct in past lives influences the present, so rather than accumulate merit for a better rebirth (an abstract concept), Dowman asserts, a Tibetan will undertake a long and arduous pilgrimage hoping to curry favour with the gods and spirits of ´power places´ so that his luck might change, so his yak herd will increase, so he can make a fast buck, get a new radio, or gain the attention of the girl he fancies on the pilgrim truck…
The writer develops his overall theme by taking “the sacred life of Tibet”, that is, the living spiritual culture of the people and their country, and dividing it into four categories: Visionary Tibet, Religion, Art, and Pilgrimage.
Visionary Tibet, the constructions of the Tibetan mind which have developed and been projected onto the daily activities of the people, and their environment, include the vision of the Bon shaman; Buddha-vision; the pegging of the earth and mountains and the binding of gods, demons and spirits; and mandala-vision. These visions range from minor visionary rock formations, through the collective visualisation of the whole country of Tibet itself as a supine demoness or primeval earth-mother, pegged down and subjugated by Buddhist worship at temples constructed at various power places, to visions of the pure-lands of the Buddhas and paradises such as Dewachan, Shambala and Guru Rinpoche´s Glorious Copper-Coloured Mountain Paradise. All these sacred visions, plus other elements, are fitted neatly into the entire great three-dimensional mandala of Buddhist cosmology.
The review of Tibet´s religious history traces the origins of the indigenous shamanistic Bon tradition and its development alongside the various Buddhist schools as they arose one by one. This is further complemented by Dowman´s instructive appraisal of the sacred art of Tibet, explanation of what parts the various iconographic forms play in worship, and how they have developed. Also included is a revealing portrayal of the iconography and major figures in the Tibetan pantheon, the commonest figures and groupings with their forms and functions, and a brief history of style that lists the various influences on Tibetan art from India, Khotan, Kashmir, Nepal and China, over the centuries.
The rest of the book, well over half the volume, deals with the tradition of pilgrimage and power places. Detailed descriptions of the principles behind pilgrimages in Tibet, analyses of the motivations of pilgrims, their devotional practices, the sources of blessings and how they are conferred, are followed by equally detailed accounts of dozens of the most important pilgrimages to be made in Tibet – to lakes and mountains, caves, hidden valleys, gompas and temples, chortens (stupas), cairns, and sky-burial sites.
It is obvious that Dowman did his research on the spot, or at least obtained and translated the traditional Tibetan texts and guide-books for each place. Reading Dowman´s text, resplendent with vivid description of every feature of the trail and topography, each complete with the mythic history behind the place as recorded from earliest times, is the next best thing to going there yourself. In many instances, this reviewer believes, Dowman´s book will provide the kind of inspiration that caused so many readers of Alexandra David-Neel, Lama Govinda and Heinrich Harrer to aspire to go and see for themselves, while there is still a chance.
At the same time, it is clear from this book that the sacred life of Tibet is something that cannot be erased, despite the influx of millions of Chinese and the introduction of all that is inimical to what the Tibetans hold sacred. Throughout his book Dowman illustrates how this sanctity is more or less inherent in the hills, valleys, plains, peaks, rivers, rocks and caves of Tibet, even in the dust and the air as trodden and breathed by its people, and how, furthermore, it exists just as much in their language, their minds and in the very blood flowing in their veins. It can to some extent be suppressed, no doubt, but even so it remains latent, potent, gathering strength, re-emerging whenever and wherever circumstances permit.
The extensive section on pilgrimage includes a gazetteer of scores of major power places throughout Tibet, giving a brief summary of the lamas, lineages, history and features in each case. It all amounts to a staggering testimony to the accumulation of sacred power in Tibet over the millennia. Summing up with notes on the Tibetan diaspora following the Chinese occupation, and the growth of Tibetan Buddhism in the West, Dowman poses the question: “How has this tiny number from a nation of four million achieved such international renown? What is the secret of Tibetan success?”
For non-Tibetans who have developed a consuming interest in Tibet, what can often become a bewildering and sometimes conflicting, multi-dimensional profusion of spiritual, cultural and religious scenarios and compelling influences is here neatly labelled, classified and put into a well-ordered perspective. Moreover, the book, compared to some of the general guide books and other more academic works on the history and culture of Tibet, is a relatively easier and more enjoyable read, even in the wealth of nitty-gritty details provided. The Sacred Life of Tibet is fully accessible to anyone with a basic knowledge of and interest in Tibet and its culture.