Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

Like a Waking Dream - Introduction

The Autobiography of Geshe Lhundub Sopa

Introduction: A Brief History of Tibet

Any discussion of the history of Tibet, especially its modern history, is potentially contentious. Tibetan accounts and those asserted by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) stand in stark opposition, and it can be difficult for the beginner to sort out the facts based on such radically differing accounts. Tibetans have understandably strong feelings about what happened to them and the sovereignty of their homeland. The People’s Republic of China has long striven to put the best spin on an undeniably disastrous policy toward Tibet from the time of the invasion in the 1950s, through the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 70s, and continuing on through subsequent years. Despite the potential pitfalls, a measure of historical background will nevertheless be helpful to frame the life story of Geshé Sopa.

The history of Tibet is inextricably connected to the history of Tibetan Buddhism, especially for Tibetans. In the seventh century, King Songtsen Gampo is said to have married a Chinese princess and a Nepalese princess. These women brought Buddhism with them to Tibet. In the late eighth century, King Trisong Detsen oversaw the first organized importation of Buddhism into Tibet and the establishment of the first monastery, Samyé. Traditional history has it that the great scholar monk Śāntarakṣita came to Tibet and ordained the first Tibetan monks, but before he could do this, the Tibetan gods had to be tamed. He convinced the Tibetans to invite the tantric master Padmasambhava to force the Tibetan gods to cease their disruptions and pledge their support to Buddhism. This is the origin of many of the Dharma protectors that play such an important part in traditional Tibetan Buddhism.

Whether or not we accept the literal truth of this tale, it cannot be denied that this is an ingenious strategy for integrating the old religion into the new, and is characteristic of the way that Buddhism interacted with the cultures it encountered in its spread across Asia. We also see in this story exemplars of the two basic threads of the Indian Buddhist tradition that took root and thrived in Tibetan soil: Śāntarakṣita epitomizes the monastic and scholastic elements of late Indian Buddhism, while Padmasambhava is the archetypal siddha, a tantric master and wonder worker. These two approaches—the scholar and the yogi—are each essential to Tibetan Buddhist identity, and the spectrum between a life devoted to scholarship and the time left for tantric practice is something that Geshé Sopa is keenly aware of and interested in, as made especially clear in his accounts of his most revered teachers.

By the late eighth century, Buddhism was solidly established in Tibet and was supported by the king and the royal court. The close relationship between the monastic institutions of Buddhism and the king and his court meant that Buddhism was connected with political power in Tibet from the very beginning. In the third generation after King Trisong Detsen, another Tibetan king instituted a tax on all Tibetan households to support the growing monastic base of Buddhism. This king, popularly known as Ralpachen, not only instituted public support of what had been primarily a court interest, but also raised the power and prestige of the monastics to an unprecedented level. Some in the court, including officials who supported the pre-Buddhist Tibetan religion now known as Bön, were not happy with this, and this unhappiness culminated in Ralpachen’s assassination by his brother, Langdarma, in 838. Only a few years later, Langdarma was himself assassinated, purportedly by the Buddhist monk Lhalung Palgyi Dorjé.

Following Ralpachen’s assassination, for over one hundred years Buddhism had no state support. Though the monastic institutions in central Tibet were decimated in this period, interest in Buddhism continued to live on among the fragments of the old royal dynasty, a few of the surviving dispersed monks, and ordinary Tibetans. The Nyingma sect that traces its origin back to Padmasambhava is the only one of the four major sects to originate in this early spread of Buddhism in Tibet.

Following Langdarma’s persecutions some monks had fled to far eastern Tibet and preserved the monastic lineage there. One important figure in the revitalization of the monastic tradition was Gongpa Rapsal, who took ordination with three monks living in eastern Tibet and three other local Chinese monks. In 978, two Tibetan monks who had been living in eastern Tibet returned to the central part of the country and reestablished the monastic lineage there.

A better-known revitalization happened in western Tibet. In 988, the monk Rinchen Sangpo returned to Tibet after studying Buddhism and Sanskrit for thirteen years in Kashmir. With the support of a king in the Ngari region named Yeshé Ö, Rinchen Sangpo translated numerous Buddhist texts into Tibetan and oversaw the establishment of many monasteries in western Tibet. Yeshé Ö’s nephew sent a request to one of the great monastic institutions in India for a teacher, and in 1042 Atiśa arrived in Tibet. These events signaled the beginning of the later spread of Buddhism in Tibet. Atiśa reintroduced the monastic component of late Indian Buddhism, and his Tibetan disciple Dromtön Gyalwai Jungné established a new sect on the basis of his master’s teachings called Kadam. This sect emphasized monastic discipline, and though it included tantric ideas and practices, these were practiced within a thoroughly monastic context.

During this same period, some Tibetans took it upon themselves to travel to India to seek teachings on their own. These Tibetans typically sought the teachings of the siddhas. Of these travelers, one of the most famous, Marpa Chökyi Lodrö, received initiation and instruction from the siddha Nāropa. Back in Tibet, Marpa led the life of a well-to-do farmer but attracted numerous disciples, for he was secretly a tantric guru. His most famous disciple, Milarepa, continues to be one of the most beloved figures in Tibetan culture. As we see in Geshé Sopa’s story, even uneducated people knew some of the songs of Milarepa. Neither Milarepa nor Marpa were monks, but Milarepa’s most famous and influential disciple was the Kadam monk Gampopa Sönam Rinchen. Gampopa skillfully combined the essentially tantric teachings and practices of Milarepa with the monastic teachings of the Kadam, and from him arose the various sects of the Kagyü school, including Tibet’s earliest incarnation lineage, that of the Karmapas.

One of the teachers Marpa is said to have studied under before going to India himself was the translator (lotsāwa) Drokmi Shākya Yeshé. Drokmi Lotsāwa, the transmitter of the teachings of the siddha Virūpa to Tibet, was also the guru of Khön Könchok Gyalpo, the first hierarch of the Sakya sect. Like the Kagyü lineage, the Sakya also evolved into a predominantly monastic sect. Both the Kagyü and Sakya sects established relations with the political and military powers outside the borders of Tibet, most importantly with the Mongol Khans and the Chinese emperors. In 1249, the famous Sakya polymath Sakya Paṇḍita Künga Gyaltsen was appointed Tibetan viceroy by the Mongol ruler Godan Khan. In the next generation, Chinese and Mongol bases of power became one and the same when Kublai Khan became emperor of the Yuan dynasty. Kublai then named Phakpa Lodrö Gyaltsen—the head of the Sakya sect and nephew of Sakya Paṇḍita—imperial preceptor and viceroy of Tibet. Phakpa’s ascendancy marked the beginning of religious rule in Tibet and the priest-patron relationship with the Mongol and Chinese powers to the east. This practice sometimes benefitted one or another group in Tibet, but it would also ultimately be a factor in the destruction of the nation, for in it the PRC sees proof of Tibet’s longstanding subordination to China. The Mongol Yuan dynasty ended in the middle of the fourteenth century, but in Tibet’s ensuing Phakmodrupa, Rinpungpa, and Tsangpa regimes, each lasting roughly a century, Tibetans continued to seek relations with, and be courted by, the chieftains of the now-fragmented Mongol tribes, as well as by the emperors of the Ming and the Manchu Qing dynasties. Particularly favored in this period were lamas of the Kagyü sect.

The end of the fourteenth century saw the emergence of a new sect, later called the Geluk, that also became engaged in these political maneuverings. Tsongkhapa Losang Drakpa, the founder of this new sect, trained and studied with teachers of all of the sects, as was the custom at that time. He became quite well known for his great scholarship and gained the support of some of the most powerful figures in central Tibet, perhaps because of his avowed Kadam-style emphasis on monastic discipline as well as his charismatic personality. Tsongkhapa founded Ganden Monastery, and three of his disciples founded the monasteries of Tashi Lhünpo, Drepung, and Sera. With this, the teachings of the Kadam sect, already in decline, were effectively dispersed into the remaining traditions, particularly the Geluk.

The members of the Geluk sect had to compete with the earlier established sects for patronage. Mongol chieftains and Chinese emperors remained interested in the great figures of Tibetan Buddhism during this time, due to their reputation for great scholarship and sanctity, and their supposed magical powers. In the late sixteenth century, Altan Khan of the Tumed Mongols invited Sönam Gyatso, one of the leading figures of the Geluk sect, to Kokonor. The Khan was so impressed by Sönam Gyatso that he converted to Buddhism, and he granted his teacher the title of Dalai Lama, which means “ocean lama” in the Mongol language, in honor of the extent and depth of his master’s sanctity and learning. This title was also retroactively given to two of Sönam Gyatso’s predecessors, effectively making him the Third Dalai Lama. This renewed the Mongol presence in Tibetan affairs both temporal and spiritual. In the middle of the seventeenth century, in the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama, the Geluk sect came to rule all of central Tibet with the help of another Mongol tribe, ousting the Tsangpa rulers and ending the dominance of the Karma Kagyüpas.1

The Fifth Dalai Lama was by all accounts a keenly intelligent man and an astute ruler. He began the construction of the Potala on a hill that was reputed to be site of the palace of the great early kings of Tibet. The choice of the name Potala was significant, for this is the name of the mountain in India where Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, was said to dwell. It is from this time that the Dalai Lama became regarded not only as the reincarnation of his predecessors but also as the human manifestation of the bodhisattva of compassion.

In addition to having the support of the Mongols, the Fifth Dalai Lama was invited to China by the emperor and was received as a head of state. After the death of the Fifth Dalai Lama, the Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Dalai Lamas lived in a period of intense competition for power between two different Mongol tribes and the Chinese emperors. None of them, however, can be said to have held significant temporal power. In the lifetime of the Eighth Dalai Lama, the Chinese emperor sent a garrison of Chinese soldiers with two representatives to oversee it to Lhasa. These men were called the ambans, and though this post continued up until the twentieth century, its power and influence varied. The Ninth through Twelfth Dalai Lamas did not reach an age at which they could rule, so regents ruled Tibet in their place.

The Thirteenth Dalai Lama came to power in the late nineteenth century, when the power of the Manchu Qing dynasty in China was beginning to weaken. This was also a time when the British sought to establish trade connections with Tibet, thereby also creating a buffer zone between their colony, India, and China. To accomplish this, the British in India first wrote to the Thirteenth Dalai Lama to try to begin talks, but the Dalai Lama returned the letters unopened. In 1904, the British sent an expedition into Tibet and engaged in numerous battles with Tibetan troops, emerging victorious each time. The Dalai Lama fled Lhasa and went into exile in Mongolia. He also went to Beijing and met with the emperor, who was still a child. In Tibet, the remaining officials reluctantly signed a treaty with Britain. The Dalai Lama returned to Tibet in 1909, only to learn that Chinese troops had invaded and conquered several eastern Tibetan cities and were on the way to Lhasa. The Dalai Lama fled again, this time to British India. Then, calamitous events in China provided a fortunate turn of events for the Tibetans. In 1911, there was an uprising against Manchu rule, and the last Manchu emperor abdicated the throne.

Taking advantage of the power vacuum caused by internal problems in China that persisted until the time of Mao, the Dalai Lama returned to Tibet and declared it an independent nation in 1912. The ambans were expelled from Lhasa, as were all Chinese troops. But although China had no presence or influence in Tibet in the years between 1912 and 1950, Tibet’s independence was never officially recognized by China, Britain, or the United States.

The Thirteenth Dalai Lama died in 1933, and power passed to the new regent, Radreng—usually spelled Reting—Rinpoché. Reting oversaw the discovery of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, who was enthroned in Lhasa in 1939. In 1941, Reting stepped down as regent, in his mind for a three-year period, and was succeeded by Takdrak Rinpoché. After the three years had passed, Reting attempted to regain his regency but was rebuffed. This led to a series of events that pitted Reting’s monastery, Sera Jé, against the central government and sowed dissent in many of the monks against the government. These events are described here in Geshé Sopa’s story.

In 1949, the Communist Party won the civil war in China, and the People’s Republic of China was formed. Almost immediately, the PRC turned its attention to Tibet. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) began their assault on eastern Tibet in 1950. The fifteen-year-old Dalai Lama and many of his advisors fled south to Dromo, near the Indian border. While the Dalai Lama was in Dromo, on May 23, 1951, the SeventeenPoint Agreement was signed in Beijing by one of the members of the Kashak, the highest ruling body in Tibet. This high government official, Ngapö Ngawang Jikmé, had been in eastern Tibet at the time of the invasion, and he was taken to Beijing and convinced—or coerced—to sign the agreement without input from the Dalai Lama or the rest of the government in Lhasa. Coerced or not, the government of the PRC now possessed a document signed by Ngapö, a member of the Kashak, stating that the Tibetan government recognized China’s sovereignty over Tibet and that “the Tibetan people shall return to the motherland—the People’s Republic of China.” This document effectively ended Tibet’s independence.

By the time the Dalai Lama returned to Lhasa, Chinese troops and officials were already there. For the next several years, Tibet underwent a gradual transformation, with more power passing from traditional Tibetan political bodies to various Communist Party committees, most importantly the Preparatory Committee for the Autonomous Region of Tibet, to which total power would pass in 1959.

Though the Lhasa area experienced a gradual transformation, the inhabitants of the eastern regions of Amdo and Kham were not so fortunate. In the mid-1950s, Khampas revolted against the much more aggressive changes being instituted there. In response, the PLA bombed several monasteries and killed many Tibetans, both monks and laypeople, who had taken refuge in the monasteries. Many Khampas fled to central Tibet, significantly swelling the population of the Lhasa area. By 1957, several Khampa military groups were in open revolt against the PRC, and they were dealt with severely. The Khampas, however, were surprisingly successful, and it is because of their control of the southern route out of Tibet that the Dalai Lama, Geshé Sopa, and thousands of other Tibetans were able to go into exile in 1959.

The uprising of March 10, 1959, was precipitated by a perceived threat to the Dalai Lama, who had been invited by the Chinese officials to a performance at the Chinese military headquarters. On the day that the performance was to take place, thousands of people surrounded the Norbu Lingkha, the Dalai Lama’s summer palace, in order to prevent him from going to the performance. The crowd’s anger was unleashed on two Tibetans who were officials in the new Chinese government. One was injured and the other was killed. On March 17th, two shells landed near the summer palace, and the Dalai Lama’s advisors decided that it was no longer safe to stay. The Dalai Lama, his two tutors, his family, and other members of the Tibetan government left the summer palace under the cover of night. On March 20th, the PLA was ordered to retake the city of Lhasa, which had been in uprising for over a week. This was the day that Geshé Sopa left Sera Monastery. After two days of fierce fighting, the flag of the People’s Republic of China was raised over the Potala.

From this time, a mass exodus of Tibetan people began. It signaled the beginning of a period of crisis for both the people who stayed in Tibet and the ones who left as they have attempted to carry on their traditional culture in Tibet and in exile. In 1966, the Cultural Revolution began in China as a reaction within the Communist Party against perceived counter-revolutionary ideas that threatened the correct ideology of Mao Zedong. Mao encouraged people to smash the Four Olds (old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits), and his call was heeded and enacted by the Red Guards. Between 1966 and 1969, families were made to destroy their religious objects, monks and other religious figures were subjected to public ridicule, and most of the monasteries in Tibet were sacked, if not completely destroyed.

After the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, the attitude of the PRC toward Tibet began to change. These new attitudes were reflected in the declarations of the Eleventh Party Plenum in 1978, and real change began to take place in the PRC’s handling of Tibet when Deng Xiaoping came to power. The new policies coming from Beijing were designed to redress the damage that had taken place in Tibet, and throughout China, during the Cultural Revolution. In Tibet, these reforms included a more tolerant approach to Tibetan religion, culture, and Tibetan language, as well as efforts to raise the standard of living of Tibetans and pour huge amounts of money into the economic infrastructure. Though Tibetans were understandably suspicious at first, it soon became clear that China was genuinely willing to allow Tibetans to again practice their religion openly and to reclaim long-suppressed aspects of their culture. Despite the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution, the commitment and strength of ordinary Tibetans to their religion did not waver. When there was no longer a fear of showing this commitment, people again circumambulated the Barkor with prayer wheels spinning. A resurgence of Buddhism began not only in the Tibetan Autonomous Region but also in the greater Tibetan regions of Kham and Amdo.

This new openness extended even to monasticism, and some monasteries that were destroyed, damaged, or emptied during the Cultural Revolution were rebuilt, repaired, and re-enrolled, including Ganden Chönkhor and Sera. Monks were again able to take up the monastic life, but Chinese officials kept the numbers of monks at the large monasteries much lower than pre-1959 levels. Prior to 1959, Drepung, the largest of the Three Seats of the Geluk sect, had as many as 10,000 monks living within its precincts. After the uprising of 1959, the number of monks plummeted, with only about 700 monks living there in 1965. As the Cultural Revolution was unleashed, the number dropped to about 300, and the residents now were forbidden to practice their religion at all, having to dress in lay clothes and work in various jobs, and some married. With the liberalizing that took place in the early 1980s, monks were allowed to return to traditional monastic roles. To use Drepung again as the example, 1982 saw the first permitted enrollment of new monks, and by the late 1980s there were several hundred.

In 1987 the Dalai Lama appealed to U.S. and world leaders to pressure China to recognize Tibetan independence. This was heard by Tibetans in Tibet and seen as a sign that the tables were about to turn. A series of protests followed that caused the PRC to again take a more heavyhanded approach in Tibet, declaring martial law in 1989. The next major wave of protest and crackdown was in the period leading up to and during the 2008 Olympic games in Beijing. As of this writing in 2012, a tragic wave of self-immolations of Tibetans in Tibet has captured the attention of the world and brought renewed interest and concern for the Tibetan cause.

Those who fled Tibet have been faced with economic hardship, loss of loved ones, and the difficult prospect of somehow maintaining their culture in exile. By the end of June 1959, nearly 20,000 Tibetans had followed the Dalai Lama out of Tibet, and current estimates approach 150,000. The Tibetans very quickly organized themselves and gained the generous support of the Indian government as well as international supporters. Tibetans who followed the Dalai Lama into exile were first temporarily housed in two large transit camps—Missamari in Assam and Buxaduar in West Bengal—and then many took jobs in roadwork crews in northern India. The scholar monks of the three seats were sent to Buxaduar to try to continue the tradition of monastic education. After just over a year in exile, the Dalai Lama, with the help of Prime Minister Nehru, established his exile government in the former British hill station of Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh. In order to secure a more stable base for the fledgling exile community, and to begin to create means of support for the exiles other than the backbreaking roadwork crews, the Dalai Lama approached Nehru to find the community a better home. Karnataka State stepped up and offered the exiles several thousand acres of arable land north of Mysore. Three thousand Tibetan exiles initially settled here and took up farming, and within a few years the camp became self-sufficient. By the beginning of the 1970s Sera, Drepung, and Ganden monasteries were restablished in southern India as well.

Many other Tibetans settled in cities in northern India that had been bases of trade with Tibet before 1959. Here, numerous handicraft enterprises were begun that had the dual function of providing exiles with a means of support and of helping preserve traditional Tibetan handicrafts. As the home of the Dalai Lama and the government in exile, Dharamsala also of course became a major population center of Tibetan exiles.

Since the time of the establishment of the Tibetan government in exile, the Dalai Lama has consistently moved toward democratic reform of the institution. The Kashak remained the highest ruling body beneath the Dalai Lama himself, but the Dalai Lama early on took steps to first reduce and eventually eliminate his own political power. The highest position within the Kashak—the Kalön Tripa, or prime minister—was originally appointed by the Dalai Lama, but the position was made a democratically elected one in 2001. In 2011, the Dalai Lama renounced political power altogether, leaving the prime minister, currently Dr. Lobsang Sangay, the highest official in the Tibetan government in exile. Dr. Sangay is the first prime minister to have been born in exile and has never been to Tibet.

As this is a Tibetan’s story, it should come as no surprise that it assumes a Tibetan perspective. The PRC comes out badly, and with good reason. Many people in Tibet suffered horribly, and it is undeniable that the Cultural Revolution devastated Tibet’s indigenous culture. Still, the reader will see that Geshé Sopa’s story is not simplistic or idealized. In it we see Tibetan individuals and institutions fail to live up to the very Buddhist principles so cherished by Tibetans. But it is also a story in which many exemplary individuals do live up to these principles, even in the worst situations.

Paul Donnelly


How to cite this document:
© Geshe Lhundup Sopa, Like a Waking Dream (Wisdom Publications, 2012)

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