We call it Tibetan Buddhism, but it’s really much more. Robin Kornman sees Tibet as the last of the Silk Route cultures, where the great religions of Asia unite in a magical world of Gods, Demons, Sages, and Enlightened Kings.
What could be more different from modern North American culture than the magical cosmology of the Central Asian Silk Route? Yet in the United States and Canada the sacred world view of ancient Tibet has established its most promising foothold.
Buddhism is famous for its rationality and profound, somewhat abstract contemplative practices. But the modern-day practitioner of Tibetan religion finds there are also chants to protective deities-fabulous many-armed beings who inhabit the world of Central Asian mythology.
There are seasonal religious practices which connect the disciple in a peculiarly Asian fashion with the principles of earth and sky.
There are shamanistic divination practices to lead the faithful and help them make difficult decisions, using mirrors or dice, or an arrow hung with pennants, or a rosary made of polished bone.
These are not just rationalized Buddhism such as one reads about in school. These are the spiritual practices of the exotic civilizations that rose up along the Silk Route, civilizations that combined the religious and magical practices of Central Asia with the philosophical profundities of India and China.
Tibet began its history as one such civilization, a Silk Route empire that extended from Central Asia deep into T’ang China. The Tibetan empire fell but what remained as the country of Tibet, because of its size and tremendous prestige as a Buddhist kingdom, succeeded ultimately in conveying the medieval culture of the Silk Route into the modern period.
The Silk Route started in the Roman Empire, crossed the Middle East, and entered the plains of Central Asia. The journey ended in Cathay (as Marco Polo called China) and all along the way, kingdoms and republics were enriched by the flow of trade goods East and West—the wealth of Europe exchanged for the silk and spices of China.
But the Silk Route withered away as Europeans learned to trade by sea, and the empires that depended on it vanished in the sands. All but Tibet. It remained, the only large-scale example of Central Asian Silk Route civilization to survive into the 20th century.
Tibet’s survival into modern times is remarkable. But even more remarkable is the sudden transplantation of key elements of Tibetan culture into North America in the last thirty years. Its religions have taken root here and strangely flourish. Now there are communities of westerners infused with the Tibetan world view—North Americans and Europeans living on a daily basis with the cosmologies and pantheons of invisible creatures which constitute Tibetan mythology.
The western disciple of Tibetan religion studies the lives of the Buddhist saints. These lives are called namthar, “examples of liberation.” But the examples are not at all like the lives of Catholic saints. They are written in a Central Asian mode, and as the western disciple reads on, he or she is alternately amazed, horrified, moved, disturbed, and even disgusted.
For it turns out that the Buddhist lineage holders of the past, the Tibetan saints, were not simply examples of meditative discipline and self-control. They were also sorcerers accomplishing supernatural feats worthy of a Merlin. They were shamans who traveled in spirit realms, hobnobbing with demons and mountain deities and a strange pantheon of silk-clad immortals riding on purple clouds. And they were bards extemporizing picturesque songs and religious sermons in verse, for Tibetan mythology is communicated principally through popular songs.
The mosaic of Tibetan mythology combines gods and legends from cultures across Asia. The principle ones, however, are Indian, Chinese, and Himalayan. Let’s look at a few pieces of the puzzle.
The Indian Sources
The central element in Tibetan mythology is the Buddha himself. In principle the Buddha was a man who, through meditation practice and following a holy life, gained the ultimate wisdom of enlightenment.
So, for example, westerners who study Buddhism in universities think of the Buddha as a wise and peaceful man—a great teacher, living a life in human perspective. This, however, is not the way he was seen on the Silk Route.
In Central Asia and the Far East, the Buddha is a figure of cosmic proportions. He has not only wisdom, but power, and not just power, but greatness of substance. He pervades the universe and operates on a cosmic scale. His body can appear in a glorified form, radiating blinding splendor, filling the universe with his rays, and exhibiting countless qualities and virtues “numerous as the grains of sand in the Ganges.”
This is the Buddha of the Mahayana, the “Greater Vehicle.” He exists on a vast scale. The span of his life is measureless. His teaching sessions last hundreds of years and occur in fabulous locations in spiritual realms. The historical Buddha supposedly died. But this is not true in the Mahayana. As is said in the Lotus Sutra, his death was more or less staged to give a teaching on impermanence and to make his human disciples more appreciative of his gifts. Actually, he lives on in an inconceivable way and continues to benefit his disciples throughout the ages.
Indian Buddhist mythology is vaster in its vision than western mythological systems. For example, there are cosmic Buddhas inhabiting inconceivable world- systems. Shakyamuni, the sage who gained enlightenment in the 6th century BC, is just a recent and local Buddha. He has colleagues across the universe.
Indian scriptures name many of them, and around some of these other Buddhas, special traditions of worship and meditation practice have developed. There is, for example, Mahavairochana, who is like the sun and encompasses the entire phenomenal world. The huge Flower Garland Sutra is particularly devoted to him.
But the most famous and revered cosmic Buddha is Amitabha, the red colored Buddha of Compassion. Amitabha has created a special world or “pure land” for his disciples. It is called Sukhavati, the Happy Place. People who pray to Amitabha can be reborn there and live in happiness until they are ready to reincarnate. In this way, even people without education or discipline can avoid the agonies of continual
rebirth in the lower realms. They live there in Amitabha’s heaven for aeons, peacefully studying dharma under his protection.
Actually, Amitabha has numerous emanations in Tibet, some wrathful, some peaceful, some martial in style. One of these is the cosmic yogin named Padmasambhava. He is associated with Amitabha in much of the iconography, and the two together combined to produce the famous epic warrior of Tibet, Gesar of Ling.
In the Mahayana, the Buddha is then accompanied by a retinue of divine beings dressed in royal clothes—the bodhisattvas, the “heroes of enlightenment.” These are people who have vowed to lengthen their path beyond human proportions of time.
They pledge to continue their journey for thousands of years longer than would be necessary for the accomplishment of their own benefit.
Even though they could enter nirvana, they remain in the world so that they can aide sentient beings and become themselves, after aeons of work, full-fledged Buddhas. Then they will possess the signs and powers of a Buddha and his vast, glorified body.
But even now, at the mid-point of their long path, they are divine beings. In India and Central Asia, certain of the bodhisattvas were particularly popular and had their own special sects. In Tibet and China three of these stood out: Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom; Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, and Vajrapani, the embodiment of enlightened wrathful power.
Manjushri is represented as a peaceful king. His skin is milky white. He holds the sword of wisdom in his right hand, raised to strike, always prepared to cut through self-deception. He rides a white lion with a lovely turquoise mane. Although Manjushri operates throughout the cosmos, he has a special abode on earth on the Chinese mountain of Wutai, the Five Peaked Mountain, which is a pilgrimage place for Tibetans and Chinese alike.
Avalokiteshvara also has his abode in China, on Omei Shan. Like Wutai, Omei is a magical place. There are temples, ancient and modern, all over the mountain, and on the lovely terraces even non-believing Chinese tourists still see magical visions of the bodhisattva.
This bodhisattva of compassion is worshipped everywhere but especially in Tibet, where he is regarded as the patron of the country, almost its creator. In Tibetan his name is Chenrezig and his mantra Om Mani Padme Hum is repeated on all occasions—as a prayer, as a pious ejaculation, and again and again as an object of meditative concentration. Chenrezig is an emanation of Amitabha and the two are associated in the Pure Land Sects. Padmasambhava, Gesar and Chenrezig are all in a sense emanations of Amitabha and they share in common his tantric insignia, the symbol of the Lotus Family.
Some people compare the bodhisattvas to Catholic saints, because the Tibetans pray to them as if to ask for their mediation and intercession. But the Tibetan cosmic bodhisattvas are grander than Christian saints. They are kingly, magical beings, who themselves can produce emanations to go about the globe doing their work. For example, Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom, is said to have created the land of Nepal by magically parting mountains and opening a passage for people into the paradisiacal valley of Kathmandu.
Below the bodhisattvas is a third order of Buddhist deities who come to Tibet from the Indian Buddhist pantheon. These are actually the Hindu gods: Indra, the Vedic god of war; Brahma, the creator god; Agni, the god of fire; Ganesha, the elephant-headed lord of hosts. These deities were originally part of the brahmanical pantheon of Hinduism, but according to the Buddhists, they were converted by the Buddha into servants of his teachings and now piously attend the gatherings where he preaches, taking a seat just below the bodhisattvas.
The Hindu deities converted in different ways. Some, like Brahma and Indra, were adherents of the Buddha even before he gained enlightenment, for he conducted a sort of primordial seminary in the Tushita Heaven and lectured there to the gods and bodhisattvas. They became part of a divine conspiracy to make sure that one being actually achieved the highest knowledge.
Other Hindu gods, for example Shiva, were actually defeated and transformed by the Buddha or one of his disciples.
by the Buddha or one of his disciples. In the Hindu religion that western academics call Shaivism, Shiva is the symbol for the ultimate self, the atman. Since the Hindus believe that this is the highest principle of truth, they worship Shiva above all other gods.
But to the Tibetan Buddhists, who strive to eliminate one’s belief in a self, Shiva is a symbol for egohood and must be killed. So they evoke him under the name of one of his wrathful manifestations, as Rudra, the “red one.” Rudra is a mighty god and ultimate being in Hinduism, but in Tibetan Buddhism he is an egomaniac who must be destroyed.
On the other hand, there are also stories of Shiva’s conversion to the Buddhadharma. In this case, it is Vajrasattva, the quintessential tantric Buddha, who tames and converts Shiva. The saga of the transformation of the Hindu god of self into a Buddhist deity continues for many episodes—a series of lapses by Shiva and enforced reconversions—until finally he becomes a permanent member of the Buddhist tantric pantheon.
The most interesting conversion of a Hindu god is that of Brahma, the creator. In Hinduism, Brahma is not worshipped very much at all. At the beginning of this world cycle he created the universe; after that his work was done. Eventually Shiva will destroy the universe again, a new cosmic cycle will begin, and there will again be work for Brahma to do. This is the attitude of many Hindus and, whether it is true or not, they often say that there is only one temple dedicated to Brahma in all of India.
But in Tibet he is a popular and beloved secondary deity. He is white, has many arms, and heads facing in the four directions—the perfect maker-god. In the local religions of Tibet, white is usually the color of the good gods, while black is the color of evil devils or maras. The cult of Brahma has in some cases united with the cult of local deities, and there are, for example, mountain gods who wear the headdress and hold the attributes of Brahma.
Buddhists do not believe that Brahma is literally responsible for fashioning the world. Rather, according to Buddhist pandits, when the physical world is reestablished after the end of a cosmic cycle, gods at the level of Brahma are the first to be reborn.
Seeing an empty universe into which other creatures are beginning to be reborn, such a deity says to himself, “I made all this.”
It is a logical mistake, the kind that beings with less than perfect omniscience might make. From it develops the very reasonable Understanding that Brahma, who makes many things, made the world. This explanation of how the Hindus came to believe in Brahma is part of the Buddhist science of cosmology. It can be found in the world of analytical texts called abhidharma and in the amazing Brahmalajala Sutra.
Although Buddhist scholasticism denies Brahma the dignity of being creator of the universe, they do acknowledge him as a daily creative principle. Creation is going on constantly; things are constantly arising and constantly passing out of existence. In that sense the principle of Brahma is constantly at work, and Brahma, who was a great friend to the Buddha, deserves Buddhists’ respect.
Agni is another Hindu deity important to the Tibetans, who worship him in almost exactly the same fashion as the Indians do. Agni is a remarkable example of continuity in the cosmological systems and religions of Asia.
The story of Agni begins with the most ancient of Asian religions, the Indian Vedas. In our earliest records of Vedic religion, fire is regarded as a messenger who conveys gifts of burnt offerings to the gods in heaven. He pervades space as the potential for flame and becomes suddenly manifest when a spark touches fuel. Diffuse fire is then gathered in one spot and bound there as a flame. When the flame is blown out, the fire is “unbound” and rediffuses throughout space, returning to its original unmanifest condition. This is actually one meaning of the word “nirvana”—to unbind.
One of the central ceremonies of Vedic religion is the Agni Puja, the fire sacrifice. In that ceremony fire is addressed as a god, and vast offerings are burnt in the flame which is a manifest part of his vast body. The offerings made to Agni are delivered then by the messenger to all the other gods. They are satisfied and in return bless the patron who ordered the ceremony. As a result of performing the fire puja, the patron receives vast gifts of power and good fortune.
This fire ceremony is performed by nearly every sect of Mahayana Buddhism, from Japanese Zen to Tibetan tantra, and Buddhists do not attempt to hide its Hindu origins. Rather, they are proud that it reflects the vastness and inclusiveness of their cosmology. It asserts the fundamental continuity beyond sectarianism—the continuity which is seen by the eye of the Buddha.
Native Tibetan Mythology
The deities we have just described form the highest levels of the divine world of Tibetan mythology. Below them is another order of deities who are native Tibetan artifacts—the gods and creatures who inhabited the Land of Snow before the coming of Buddhism.
They too form a vast hierarchy.
At the top are the actual proprietors of the land, the bdag po, the “lords.” These are mainly mountain gods such as Magyal Pomra, the nyen or mountain god of the Amnye Machen Range. Nyenchen Thanglha, who rules over another vast range of mountains, is his equal.
These beings were converted to Buddhism by Padmasambhava, the great tantric Buddhist magician from Central Asia. Since their conversion somewhere around the eighth century AD, they have practiced meditation and accumulated merit. Many of them are now advanced bodhisattvas dwelling in a state near enlightenment, but even though they are now like great bodhisattvas at the tenth stage, they still maintain their native wrathful forms when appearing in the human realm. They are accompanied by retinues of spectral, armed horsemen and their courts in their vast palaces are still filled with native Tibetan demons and divine peers.
At one time the nyen ruled Tibet on their own. But when Padmasambhava brought Buddhism to that land they fell under his sway, and now they serve his vast and inscrutable political agenda. Magyal Pomra, for example, served Padmasambhava in his project to create the human superhero Gesar. In the 19th century another nyen, Nyenchen Thanglha, gave up one of his consorts, the fabulous Flesh-Eating Dakini, so that she could incarnate as a human woman and give birth to one of the incarnations of Khyentse Rinpoche.
So who is this Padmasambhava that he can command earth lords and and spirits as ministers? His name means “the Lotus Born,” and he is regarded as a sort of second Buddha. He has no mother or father but was born from a gigantic lotus in the middle of a lovely lake. He is a spontaneous incarnation of enlightened energy, a sort of Buddhist Christ, but unlike Christ, he is extremely playful and destructive. Some deities he tames, others he simply destroys.
When Padmasambhava came to Tibet he joined with the founding king of the Tibetan empire, Trisong Detsen, to create a Buddhist state. Ever since then his plan has continued to unfold as the Tibetan king, his Buddhist teachers, and Padmasambhava’s disciples reincarnate again and again in Tibet to continue the education of the peoples of Asia.
In the vast Tibetan view of history, Padmasambhava’s plans take thousands of years to be achieved. Currently he lives in his “Palace of Limitless Light” on the glorious Copper-Colored Mountain, in another world called “the southern island continent of Camara.” There he rules over a race of cannibal demons and man-destroying monsters. The cannibal demons would wage war against humans in our own neighboring world, which is called Jambudvipa, the “Rose Apple Land,” but Padmasambhava keeps them in check by serving as their harsh and powerful king, Lotus Skullgarland Power (Padma Thotreng Tsai). Meanwhile, his original Tibetan disciples reincarnate repeatedly in Tibet to continue his teachings, and periodically he himself produces emanations to help sentient beings like us who live in the dark ages when there is no Buddha.
Padmasambhava is the essence of Tibetan Buddhism. He is as enlightened as a Buddha, but appears in forms that are not usually associated with the Buddha: as a sorcerer, as a Central Asian king, as a lovely child sitting in the middle of a crystal lake, as a wrathful shaman who destroys the demons of materialistic civilization. Above all he is a guru, but not a gentle, ascetic holy man, the sort of guru we expect from Indian Buddhism.
Rather he is the Tibetan tantric guru, carrying the visionary mirror and demon-fighting weapons of a North Asian shaman.
Now the cult of Padmasambhava has spread to North America and westerners invoke him with the same fervor as the Tibetans. This too was prophesied in the literature of Padmasambhava—that his religion would leave Tibet when “the iron bird flies to the West.” It may be that one of his emanations will appear in the West. But the most famous one is still the Tibetan warrior hero Gesar of Ling.
Gesar is the magical warrior who came to Tibet when it was under attack from the demonic kings of the North, South, East and West. In Gesar’s legend all the strands of Tibetan cosmology come together.
in the immense epic of Gesar of Ling, Amitabha joins with Padmasambhava and Chenrezig (Avalokiteshvara) to emanate Gesar. Gesar begins as a god who lives in the mystical Hindu “Heaven of the Thirty-three.” At a certain point Amitabha sends forth the bodhisattva Chenrezig. Chenrezig dissolves into the body of Padmasambhava who then sends out green rays of light into the Heaven of the Thirty-three. There dwell certain local Tibetan deities, epic characters who represent the warrior energies of the Snowy Land. Two of these receive the green rays and transform into male and female buddhas. They unite in divine union and the product of this offspring is a sage- deity named Joyful to Hear.
This strange being—the combination of local Tibetan deities, an Indie Buddha, and a Central Asian magician— descends to the earthly plane and incarnates as Gesar of Ling. This process of emanation is rather complex, but perfectly typical of Tibetan thought, which constantly sees human heroes as projections of the energy of enlightened gods. When an apparently ordinary human being has divine achievements, it is usually a sign that a person has become attuned to a certain energy and is now an extension of that divine principle. As a result, the Tibetan spiritual practitioner sees the theater of human activity as full of divine resonances and echoes of transworldly spirituality.
Gesar’s mother is not a human, but a nagini, a lady dragon or lu, as the Tibetans call them. This is a race of magical beings typical of Himalayan mythology. The lu are the gods of all bodies of water and every form of moisture. In the winter they hide beneath the earth; in the spring they rise invisibly as mist and collect in the heavens as clouds. Then they descend to the earth as rain and begin the cycle again.
The lu are shape-shifters and can take any form. They can appear as human beings or giant serpents or tiny worms the size of hairs. They exist in Indian mythology as the nagas of Hindu epic, but in the Himalayas they have a special meaning, which comes in part from the Chinese notion of the imperial dragon, and they are tied up with a type of cosmic ecology. If a person pollutes a stream or disturbs the flow of energies in a spot of natural power, the lu will become angry and inflict the person with a lu disease such as leprosy or leukemia.
The lu are powerful, alien, and have their own realm beneath the seas, but they conduct constant relations with the human realm and are frequently receiving offerings of appeasement and pacification.
Once I lived in a village at the outskirts of Kathmandu. A friend of mine had a lovely cottage in a green glade, and next to her cottage was an ancient circular well made of large, lichen-covered, carefully wrought stones.
The well had a naga, a lu, living in it. At one point my friend began to have bad dreams and feel uncomfortable in her home. A musty smell and a clammy feeling seemed to pervade the place. She consulted a Tibetan lama who promptly declared that the lu of the well had been disturbed.
On his advice she found another old lama who was an expert in the ceremonies of naga appeasement, and under his direction she began to collect the wonderfully colorful and complicated offerings of a native Tibetan serpent pacification ceremony.
A whole team of monks arrived from a local monastery and began a sort of treasure hunt for the rare substances that would be needed for the offering. For example, milk from goats with special colorings had to be collected—the nagas love sweet, pure milk and fine fragrances. Delicious herbs were gathered and the preparations for the ceremony became a kind of holiday party lasting several days.
Finally, the intricate ceremony was performed and the many substances were dedicated to the serpent in the well. To properly realign the place they also performed the famous Tibetan smoke offering called a lha bsang, or “divine cleansing.” Juniper was burned and the column of smoke united heaven and earth, bringing down blessings and conveying offerings.
After the ceremony everybody decided that the nagas had been reconciled to the human habitation near their well and the clammy, sickly feeling of the place went away.
This kind of practice is highlighted in the Gesar epic. Gesar is an enlightened Buddhist hero, but he is also a master of local Tibetan shamanistic practice. He can fly on his horse and journey to mystical realms. He can see the invisible worlds of the mountain gods, the nagas, and the wargods of Tibet, and he commands all these beings to aid him in his war against the anti-Buddhist demons of the great Asian empires.
Gesar fights, tames and converts all of Asia, and his warfare reflects indigenous Tibetan religion in a most colorful way. There is an emphasis on cleverness and a sly ability to manipulate the natural energies of the world through magic and trickery.
When Gesar wants to conquer a certain king, he spirit- journeys into the dreams of the king and appears there as the monarch’s tribal deity and totem. In this dream-disguise Gesar sings a song which gives bad advice to the king, telling him that the warriors of Ling are cowards, that they will never attack his country, and he need not prepare to repel them. In this way the leader’s faith in the gods of his own family is turned against him and he is deceived into a false sense of security.
The weakening of an enemy’s strength is an important feature of Tibetan legend. Every great man has an aura of power that surrounds his body, and he has power spots on his body—on his head and shoulders, and at his heart. If the warrior has great charisma, the wargods of Tibet are attracted to his body and take up residence on these power spots. When he is fully vested with wargods, he is invincible. On the field of battle arrows shot at him will miss. If you aim at him, his body suddenly becomes tiny in your sights. But if he comes down on you, sword drawn, he seems huge and overwhelming. All this is the result of his field of power, his charisma.
To win Gesar must strip the enemy warrior of this matrix of power. He must drive off his enemy’s wargods and drain his aura. This is done in gradual stages by stealing his dignity, polluting the sacred spots of his clan, and undermining in the tribal polity the foundations of his confidence. Finally, when the war energy of the fighter has been drained away, he is weakened and feels a sense of doom. His habitual upliftedness is gone and he cannot retrieve it, no matter how hard he tries. His defeat is inevitable; it has already occurred in the psychic realm. The physical realm will soon follow.
But there are also rituals designed to restore lost charisma and re-establish a proper matrix of power around the individual. Interestingly, the same sort of thing occurs in the Homeric epics. In the Iliad and the Odyssey, Homer describes the Greek gods suddenly blessing a particular hero so that his body seems to glow with health and power, his shoulders seem huge, and he appears tall, fair and imposing. The effect must be universal, for the Tibetans describe it in exactly the same way. One lama actually called this phenomenon of a blessed appearance “good head and shoulders.”
Dealing with Local Deities
The Gesar epic is sung by bards who travel Tibet reciting from heart vast portions of the epic. These bards are not simply poets and rhapsodists; they are also in a sense priests of the native religion. They function as mediums who connect the ordinary world with the supernatural, and they believe that the court of Gesar in some way still exists: his famous generals, his consorts, his ministers, his magical horse, his divine mother.
Invoking these beings, they bring down the energy of Gesar and draw into time his wisdom and power. These principles of energy can be used to deal with very practical problems involving the local forces of nature and the local gods.
The concept of “local deities” may be unfamiliar to the western reader. Buddhist cosmology talks about a class of supernatural being called lokapala (local protector) or lokadeva (local deity or protector of the place). These are gods who are not in the general pantheon of Indian Buddhism except as a category. Their specifics change from country to country, perhaps even from village to village.
In the Buddhist ceremonies translated from Sanskrit, certain specific gods are mentioned in this class. For example, Ganeshvara, the elephant-headed baby who is a central figure in the Hindu pantheon, is regarded by Buddhists as a local deity. Perhaps in this case, the word “local” is misleading and it might be better to translate loka not as “place,” but as “worldly.” This would distinguish, for example, Ganeshvara, a worldly deity, from Amitabha or Vajrayogini, who are enlightened principles—almost (but not quite) abstractions—and therefore “beyond the world” (lokottara).
Ganeshvara literally means “lord of hosts.” He appears in native Tibetan ceremonies along with Brahma and numerous other Hindu deities and is associated with the various Central Asian gods, demons, and monsters mentioned in the many ceremonies common to both Buddhists and non-Buddhists in Tibet. Sometimes he is called “Ganapati,” which also means “lord of hosts.” Then he is depicted leading armies of Tibetan wargods.
Most of the deities in the local pantheon do not look very Indian. They wear Tibetan clothes, often armor and Mongolian boots. They carry the artifacts of the native religion: mirrors, lassos, spears, snares, magic knots and cross-thread demon-catchers, arrows for long life, dice for divination. Their forms are grotesque and horrific in a Central Asian style. Some are the embodiment of imposing sites: rivers, mountains, and plains. Others are diseases harmful to man and have poisonous breath, or a deadly stare, or a fatal touch. Others again are in the form of animals native to Tibet such as the yak.
The Taoist Element
Some of the lore that I have described did not originate either in India or Tibet, but probably in China. For example, the concept of a warrior’s charisma has a very Chinese sound to it and is associated with another doctrine which undoubtedly existed much earlier in the south of China: the notion of the windhorse.
Throughout Tibet people fly so-called prayer flags: square banners inscribed with mantras and magical emblems. The most popular form of prayer flag has a picture of a horse with a burning jewel in its saddle. Around the horse are mantras invoking in order all the Buddhist and non-Buddhist deities of Tibet, who are asked to bring down their energy and enliven the people.
This figure of a magical horse originated in China where it was called the lung ma, the “dragon horse,” or perhaps you could say, “imperial horse.” The lung ma is a figure from ancient Taoist alchemy. It is found in a 2nd or 4th century collection of magical lore called the Pao P’u Tsu (The Master Who Embraces Virtue). The wind- horse may have existed even earlier than Taoism, actually, and some western scholars speculate that it could have come from the same tradition which gave birth to Siberian shamanism, for the Chinese windhorse has antlers and looks very much like the Siberian emblems.
Chinese Taoism believes that human beings are compounded of several souls.
One is of the nature of air, which separates and rises at a person’s death. Another is related to the earth and sinks at the time of death.
Native Tibetan lore also believes in many souls, if I may use that misleading western term. One is called the bla (pronounced “la”). It is a principle of life and dwells in the body. I heard once, for example, of a Tibetan grandmother who was steeped in traditional lore. One day when she was very old she said that it must be her time to die, for her bla had left her. A few days later, she died peaceably of, as they say, “natural causes.”
Bla is sometimes pronounced “lha.” Bla originally meant “above” and is now used interchangedly with lha to refer to the higher gods. Lha is used in the term dralha, the armored Central Asian energy principles we translate as “wargods.” There is a dralha said to live on the body which is connected with a person’s courage. There is also a pattern of energies called the srog, or life force. When it is harmed, a person becomes weak and depressed; Tibetan doctors often treat depression as a blockage in one’s heart srog.
In some systems of native Tibetan teachings, these patterns of energy are ordered on the body in a sort of hierarchy. This hierarchy matches the cosmic order of precedence in which Buddhist and Bon (a Tibetan non-Buddhist religion) lamas organize all the local gods of Tibet. It places the lha on top, the nyen, or mountain gods, in the middle, and the la, or serpent gods, on the bottom.
This ordering is observed in thousands of Tibetan chants done on national holidays and at seasonal celebrations, and it also matches the Chinese ordering of the universe into heaven, earth and man. With smoke offerings and the waving of colorful banners, these special ceremonies and chants invoke and command local deities, astrological deities, calendar deities, gods of the elements, the windhorse, and all the other energy principles.
The Chinese and Tibetan ceremonies of this kind are so similar that 1 cannot help but think that they come from a common tradition. The Chinese Emperor K’ang Hsi actually sought to formalize this relationship. He once ordered the publishing of a Mongolian edition of the Gesar epic and identified the edition with the classic Chinese war novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
One of the heroes of this novel is a Chinese sage general named Sleeping Dragon. Sleeping Dragon performs a Chinese version of the Tibetan smoke offering ceremonies. His rituals are based on the Chinese concept of windhorse and the four heraldic figures: Tiger, Warrior, Great Red Bird, Dragon. These emblems are connected with the four directions, the elements, and every aspect of Taoist alchemical lore. They are also a dominant image in Tibetan mythology, where they are called Tiger, Lion, Garuda and Dragon.
The Snow Lion is a native Tibetan image, and the word in Tibetan which is translated as “Garuda,” the Indie king of the birds, is actually khyung, a Tibetan mythical bird like the phoenix. The traditions of China, Tibet and India become utterly tangled in this imagery and it becomes impossible to say what is native Tibetan and what is of foreign origins.
Perhaps the most accurate view is that Central Asian mythical lore is internationalist. It arises from the culture of the Silk Route and combines into one civilization everything the merchants encountered as they journeyed in their caravans from West to East.
Now—In the West
Westerners who enter the world of Tibetan Buddhist meditation practice enter a world of subtle psychological and metaphysical teachings. They also enter a world of complicated ceremonies and liturgies directed towards the colorful and incredibly diverse pantheon of Central Asian gods. In fact, the pantheon of Tibetan tantra surpasses tantra itself, going far beyond the deities of Indian Buddhism.
At first the student sees no order or reason. Each chant is to another many armed god. Some are from China, some are native Tibetan personages, some are from the mythical Kingdom of Shambhala, some are from India, and some are from vanished countries that once existed along the Silk Route.
Gradually, however, the underlying logic is made known. The student sees that the gods fit together in a grand synthesis that transcends the accidents of culture and history and describes the world beyond appearance. It turns out that the deities are more than a system of literary references and more than just a collection of multi-cultural beliefs. When brought together with the proper explanations from the Tibetan science of cosmology, the myths of Tibet form a tantric map of reality.
This is the true meaning of iconography in this ancient system, and the philosophical theory is actually very simple: There are two kinds of beings in the world, ordinary people and beings with genuine vision.
Ordinary people, blinded by their passions and habitual patterns of thought, see a world of objects and political situations. They see the so-called material world and fail to perceive the subtler world of patterns and resonances, which is the true reality.
Meditators, on the other hand, cleanse their vision of the material patterns of seeing, which are based on grasping and fixation, and begin to see the real world of living continuities. They see the subtle energies which run through the body’s channels—the ch’i, the world of charisma, windhorse, life power. They see the continuity which runs through the earth, represented as gods of mountain, sea and plain. They see the underlying reality of cultural vision as national and tribal gods, and the deities of the domestic world—the gods of hearth and home and hunt who show the continuity between nature and civilization. They see the continuity of man’s inner nature and politics as the gods of king- ship, of national sovereignty, of pacification and war.
All of these energies can be understood and dealt with by a tantrika who has given up grasping and fixation. The texts which describe this world use the language of iconography. Each god is a symbolic representation of a pattern of energy, and they form societies of gods, or mandalas, which are tantric maps of regions of activity in the phenomenal world. Seeing these patterns of energies directly is the secret of the tantric yogin’s skillful means. It is what Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in his famous seminar on “The Feminine Principle” called “the symbolic aspect of life.”
Apparently the experience of seeing the invisible world changes from one adept to another. For some, the energies are perceived with naked intuition as a subtle sense of the order of things in any given situation. For others, the language of traditional iconography has so structured their perceptual systems that they actually see the energies clothed in the forms of gods. The uses of Tibetan iconography are as diverse as the propensities of the students, and all are manifestations of a great tradition planted three decades ago and now thriving—the western synthesis of Tibetan mythology.