Tibetans - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Tibetans are devoutly religious. Tibetan Buddhism, the religion of the entire population except for a tiny Muslim minority, is a syncretic mix of Indian Buddhism, Tantrism, and the local pantheistic religion. The organization of the religion, its public practice, and the observance of religious holidays are coordinated primarily by monasteries associated with temples. The priests, called lamas, were estimated to constitute from one-sixth to one-fourth of the population prior to 1950. Although the goal of Tibetan Buddhism is individual enlightenment, the social organization of the religion rests on a laity that is expected to support the religious practices of the monastic population. Thus, Tibetans contributed sons, produce, savings, and labor to the monasteries to acquire religious merit.

Religious Practitioners. Monasteries of various sects of Tibetan Buddhism were the centers of educational training in all the basic arts, crafts, and professions, including medicine. Monk initiates were divided into groups according to social status and ability and given training for a variety of tasks. The degree of religious teacher, dge bshe, required more than ten years of diligent study, memorization of texts, practice in debate, and examinations. Monks conducted most public religious ceremonies (including operatic performances), which constituted the bulk of Tibetan ceremonial life and followed the traditional Buddhist calendrical cycle. Oracles, mediums, and exorcists were also commonly monks but could be local peasants in rural areas. In western Tibet and pastoral areas of Qinghai, an earlier form of Buddhism mixed with the pre-Buddhist native religion (Bon) is practiced.

Arts. Tibetan traditional arts focused on religious worship and included scroll paintings of deities, sculpture, carved altars, religious texts, altar implements, statues of precious metal inlaid with gems, appliquéd temple hangings, operatic costumes for religious performances, religious music, and religious singing. Most of these crafts were carried out by monks in monasteries. In addition to collections of older Buddhist scriptures, Tibetan writing and literature includes works on history, philosophy, medicine, mathematics, and astronomy as well as works of fiction and poetry. Local peasants produced utilitarian household objects for their own use or purchased them at a local market. Women wore multibanded front aprons, regionally specific headdresses, and jewelry.

Medicine. Tibetan medicine evolved over a thousand years into a series of nonintrusive techniques including listening to blood flow through the wrist, analysis of urine and anatomical parts, listening to the heart and lungs, questioning the patient, and administering carefully prepared herbal pills. The body is considered to be composed of various elements balanced by nutrition, religious practices, mental states, and relations with deities. The training process for physicians was long and often limited to monks.

Death and Afterlife. Tibetans practice sky-burial, a process of returning the corporal body to the environment by pulverizing the parts and leaving them exposed to the elements and the vultures. An individual's karmic seeds are thought to remain in bar do, a liminal zone, for forty-nine days after death, during which time they enter a new body (that of a human, a hell being, a god, or an animal) to start a new life cycle. This recurrent process of life, death, and rebirth continues until an individual achieves enlightenment.

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