Friday, January 30, 2015

Tibet I

Since my son-in-law is one hundred per cent Tibetan and my grandson is fifty per cent Tibetan, I decided to investigate Tibetan history and am currently reading Tibet: A History, by Sam van Schaik in an effort to acquire a basic knowledge of Tibet's historical background. I'll comment a little on that in this post. I am also interested in the Dalai Lama and the current situation in Tibet, which both seem distorted by the American media. I will make a post on that later, when I've finished the book.

The Tibet of the seventh century reminds me of Britain at the time. Tibet was filled with various tribes, clans and local deities, and so was Britain. However, Tibet was already becoming a recognizable political unit under the tsenpo, or divine ruler, Songtsen Gampo, who ruled from 629 to 649, while Britain consisted of several kingdoms made up of various indigenous Celtic tribes and Germanic tribes which had arrived since the departure of the Romans in 410. Christianity was growing in popularity in Britain, especially after Augustine became the first Archbishop of Canterbury in 597, whereas Tibet had yet to embrace a modern religion. The practice of intermarriage between the ruling families of clans was popular in both Europe and Asia as a method of reducing conflict. In both Tibet and Britain, progress was impeded by the lack of a standardized written language. Written English evolved over many centuries to its present form, whereas Songsten Gampo created the characters of the Tibetan alphabet with the help of Tonmi, a Tibetan selected to travel to India for that purpose.

When Trisong Detsen became tsenpo in 755, he played a defining role in making Buddhism the state religion of Tibet. The reasons why he chose to support Buddhism aren't entirely clear. Though Tibetans also had exposure to Christianity, Islam and Manichaeism, by this time Buddhism had gained a following. Trisong Detsen recruited Buddhists from Nepal and Pakistan and began building a network of Buddhist monasteries. During this period, Buddhism was unpopular in the Tibetan court, and there were doctrinal disputes. After a debate arranged between Chinese and Indian scholars, Trisong Detsen declared that the Indian form of Buddhism would henceforth be the model followed in Tibet. Subsequently, Buddhist scriptures comprising the equivalent of three hundred volumes were translated into Tibetan. Incongruously, during his reign Trisong Detsen also waged major military campaigns that extended the Tibetan empire to its largest geographical range ever, lasting through the eighth and ninth centuries.

Whatever one's religious perspective, it is easy to see that the modern religions have evolved in conjunction with modern political systems. When large nations come into existence, there must be some ideological basis that keeps people "on the same page." Without this cohesion, countries that encompass extensive geographical areas are more likely to collapse. Thus theocracies have played a significant role in the transition from the predominance of clans and warlords to the modern state. From my point of view, the specific religion in each case may not be all that important. Christianity worked in Britain and Buddhism worked in Tibet. In both cases regional gods and spirits gave way to a unifying religious theme. Their centers of religion became their centers of literacy and education, affecting cultural values for centuries.

Seen in this light, I think it is a mistake to make a point of looking for better religions, since the real purpose of religion has more to do with social unity than with any meaningful truths. Politically speaking, we are on the road to a secular state that will render all theocracies obsolete. In this regard the Islamic states and Israel are on the wrong side of history, though religious conservatives in the U.S. don't seem that far behind. Whether you want to consider secular humanism a religion or not, in historical terms that seems to be a more promising belief system than any of its predecessors.

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