Saturday, October 3, 2015

The Rituals and Religion of Ladakh

Politics and national interest have been inextricably and inevitably linked with religion in Ladakh. The success of Buddhism here was not simply a matter of vanquishing its adversaries outside Ladakh – Brahminism in India and the Bon Chos in Tibet. It was the unifying role it played in enlarging autonomous tribal clans intro centralized feudal kingdoms. When fleeing monks and the laity met with strong resistance from local principalities, they were forced to assume a martial character, which ironically added a warlike dimension to a pacifist religion.

Forts and monasteries grew a pace as expansionist kingdoms consolidated their temporal and spiritual powers by extending their frontiers, so establishing Buddhism in Ladakh, Song-sen-gam-po, a legendary figure, was one such tribal chief and in stories about him it is often difficult to sift fact from fiction. Yet it is true that he made deliberate use of religion by contracting marriages with Buddhist princesses from Nepal and China to secure his position, and so founded the first Buddhist kingdom in Tibet. In strategy, he was an inspiration for later Ladakhi kings.

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Ladakhi Buddhism teaching and its stories

Ladakhi Buddhism is usually identified with Tibet, although the original inspiration came from Kashmir, probably during the Kushan period. It was later that the Tibetan branch established itself under what is termed the Second Advancement. This was Buddhism in its more developed and institutionalized form, inspired by the teachings of the Indian Monks, Padmasambhaba and Atisa. They had sought asylum in Tibet when Buddhism lost its royal patronage in India, and wanted to reflect the teachings of Sakyamuni as sincerely as possible.

Central to the Buddha’s teaching was the belief that every soul has the capacity to reach a state of enlightenment without the assistance of priest or rituals. Nirvana could be achieved by following the reformist or middle path.

The complexity of Buddhism lies in this concept, where the Bodhisattva returns to the world in several incarnations, striving for the liberation of mankind. A thousand Buddhas, of whom Sakyamuni is the fourth, will have to seek birth for the liberation of human souls. With the development  of the Vajrayna school – the vehicle of the Thunderbolt – Tantric elements from Hinduism also merged into Buddhism. In particular, the feminine principle of power was introduced. As Buddhism spread, it did not suppress the well-developed cosmology of the earlier religion, Bon Chos, but absorbed its gods, demons and its rituals.  Perhaps these are the inspiration for the Dharmapalas, the fierce-looking guardians of the law, who feature in the gompa dance-drama.

Mahayana rituals and traditions

Thiksey Monastery
The theological shift from Hinayana’s ascetic mould to the more practical Mahayana ideal of Bodhisattva removed for Nirvana-seekers the necessity of giving up their worldly concerns. The Mahayana ideal explains the attitude of the lay Buddhist who olds back his own salvation to help others reach the right path.

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Buddhist Gompas & Healing Practices

As a consequence, Mahayana Buddhism helped intensity the contact between monk and the community. In this process, the representational aspect of the Buddha was deified, and a pantheon with personified forms was the logical consequence. Under the influence of the Bhakti movement, Buddhist practice underwent major changes. The oral tradition came to be systematized into written tests, and the laity to be socially organized into congregations.

Ideas and Icons

The deification of the Buddha developed a complex and fascinating iconography. The basic idea is that of the five Dhyani Buddhas and their related Bodhisattavas, which are elaborated in the mandalas. The Tantric additions of the female deities are not fully evolved in the older temples or gompas.

The gompa is the living vehicle of Ladakhi Buddhism and iconography, the entrance of the du-khang or the main temple is guarded by the lords of the Four Quarters. They can be identified by their colors and attributes: North: Kuvera – yellow banner and mongoose; South: Vimdhaka – green or blue, elephant head and sword; East: Dhritarashtra – white, playing the lute; West: Virupaksha – red, carrying a chorten.

The sidewall of a gallery also has the Wheel of Life represented by three concentric circles. The innermost signifies anger, desire and ignorance, represented by the cock, the serpent, and the pig, respectively. The middle circle represents the six states of existence – the worlds of the gods and demigods, death, hell, animals and men. The outer circle represents the chain of causation through 12 symbols.

Importance is also attached to the Dharmapalas: Mahakala (time), Yamantaka (death), Shugdan and Vajra Bhairava. These are usually to be found in the la-khang or the go-khang, both inner sanctuaries where women were forbidden access. The female deities are represented as Green and White Taras on either side of the Amitabha figure. They appear on the ceiling of the Kaikani Chorten. The Dolma Dolkar and The Dolma – Tara images –are often found the du-khand. Sometimes a special temple is dedicated exclusively to the Taras, like the shrine of Tara Doljan at Spituk, where on days ordained by the Tibetan calendar, glass bangles are offered as part of the fertility rate.

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