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7th century Buddha
Before Buddhism was introduced to Tibet the people there practiced the Bon religion. Tibetan Buddhism absorbed elements of Bon when it developed in the A.D. 8th century. Early Tibetan tribes were warlike. It has been argued that Buddhism pacified them, making it easier for the Chinese and tribes from the north to conquer them.

The story of the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet is a mix of history and legends about religious heroes and their conquest of local gods and spirits and converting them to Buddhism. Most of the religious heroes are believed to have been real people put some of their achievements and characteristics are clearly legendary and supernatural.

Bon religion is an ancient shamanistic religion with esoteric rituals, exorcisms, talismans, spells, incantations, drumming, sacrifices, a pantheon gods and evil spirits, and a cult of the dead. Originating in Tibet, it predates Buddhism there, has greatly influenced Tibetan Buddhism and is still practiced by the Bonpo people. Prayer flags, prayers wheels, sky burials, festival devil dances, spirit traps, rubbing holy stones — things that are associated with Tibetan religion and Tibetan Buddhism — all evolved from the Bon religion. The Tibetan scholar David Snellgrove once said “Every Tibetan is a bonpo at heart.” See Bon Religion

Buddhism developed out of Hinduism. Most Tibetan Buddhist pay homage to gods found in both religions as well as animist and shamanist ones. Some Himalayan people say "the mountain gods are Buddhists." Tibetan Buddhist heroes are often regarded as manifestations or reincarnations of gods, spirits and bodhisattvas and their “historical” achievements often involve fighting and defeating evil gods and spirits and allying themselves with good gods and bodhisattvas and wrathful and vengeful ones.

Tibetan Buddhism

Tibetan Buddhism is a syncretic mix of Mahayana Buddhism, Tantrism and local pantheistic religions, particularly the Bon religion. Its organization, public practices and activities are coordinated mainly by monasteries associated with temples. Religious authority is in the hands of priests called lamas. "We in the West tend to project all our fantasies about mystical spiritualism onto Tibetan Buddhism," Erik Curren, author of Buddha's Not Smiling: Uncovering Corruption at the Heart of Tibetan Buddhism Today , told the Los Angeles Times. "It's really like a civil war. There's lots of acrimony."

Tibetan Buddhism is the main religion of Tibet. It is also practiced by Mongolians and tribal groups such as the Qiang and Yugur in Yunnan, Sichuan, Gansu, Qinghai and other provinces and by Tibetan- and Mongolian-related people in India, Nepal, Bhutan and Russia.

Religion is a daily, if not hourly practice. Tibetans spend much of their time in prayer or doing activities, such as spinning prayer wheels, that earn them merit (Buddhist brownie points that move them closer to nirvana). Like all Buddhists, Tibetans practice nonviolence, do good deeds, present gifts to monks and aspire to have gentle thoughts.

Arrival of Buddhism in Tibet

Buddhism was introduced into Tibet in the A.D. 3th century, about 700 years after Buddha's death, by Indian missionaries, but the religion didn't really take hold until the 7th and 8th century when monks from India and Nepal appeared in large numbers. Buddhist scriptures from China also played a part in the spread of Buddhism in Tibet. Trisong Detsan constructed the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet —Samye Monastery.

In the early days, Buddhism was practiced by the royal court of Tibet — particularly after King Songtsen Gampo took Nepali and Chinese wives in the 7th century — but was not practiced in the countryside where the Bon religion prevailed and Buddhism was greeted with hostility. The Buddhist priests of this period were probably Indians or Chinese.

The kind of Buddhism introduced to Tibet was Tantrism, a sect within Buddhism and Hinduism that incorporates esoteric religion, ritual magic and sophisticated philosophy (See Beliefs). Some of the mystical and magical aspects of Tantrism dovetailed with mystical and magical practices of the Bon religion. After a period of resistance Buddhism replaced the Bon religion and was firmly established in Tibet by the 11th century.

Guru Rinpoche and Milarepa

Guru Rinpoche Guru Rinpoche is an Indian sage who is said to have introduced Buddhism to Tibet in the Earth Ox Year of A.D. 749 and is regarded as one of the founders of the Nyingmapa order. According to legend he emerged from a lotus blossom when he was born in the Milk Ocean Land (present-day Swat, Pakistan) and began teaching in Tibet when he was 1,000 years old. Employing Tantric powers, he and his monks purportedly converted thousand of demons to Buddhism, which is supposedly why Tibetan Buddhists worship so many gods as well as follow the teachings of Buddha.

Known in Sanskrit as Padmasambhava, Guru Rinpoche is regarded as the second Buddha by members of the Nyingmapa sect and a manifestation of the Amitbha Buddha. He is said to have lived on a copper-colored mountain paradise called Zangdok with a group of cannibalistic trolls. In paintings he wears a red Nyingmapa-style hat, a ritual dagger in his belt and has a curly moustache. In his left hand is skull cup and a staff topped with three skulls and cross bolts of lightning known as vajas. In his right hand is a thunderbolt, symbolizing compassion. Guru Rinpoche has eight manifestations which are known collectively as the Guri Tsengye.

Admasambhava means “the Lotus-Born” in Tibetan. It was said that Guru Rinpoche appeared miraculously in the blossom of a lotus in Lake Danakosha, the "Ocean of Milk" in South West Oddiyana. When the king saw the child sitting on the lotus, he was filled with delight and invited him to the palace as his son and religious guide. The child was named Padmasambhava, the "lotus-born." He brought Buddhism to Tibet in the eighth century and is affectionately called Guru Rinpoche. He spent more than 55 years in Tibet, manifesting countless wonders and is highly revered by all the schools of Tibetan Buddhism, and especially by the Nyingma. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org, June 3, 2014]

Milarepa (“the Cotton Clad”) is one of Tibetan Buddhism's most well-known figures. Regarded as one of the founders of the Kagyupa (Red Hat) order, he was an 11th century monk, poet, alchemist and magician who is famous for walking around in the cold with nothing on but a thin cotton shirt (hence his name) and subsisting on a diet of nettles. He purportedly wrote "one hundred thousand songs," some of which are still known to Tibetans today, and taught Tantric sexual techniques to mountain goddesses.

Milarepa Milarepa was a follower of the Marpa school, a popular Buddhist sect that emphasized yoga and spiritual principals over philosophy. A sort of Buddhist version of St Francis of Assisi, he is said to have turned to Buddhism and spent six years mediating in cave to repent for trying to poison his uncle and attained the supreme enlightenment of Buddhahood in one lifetime. Most paintings depict him smiling, holding his hands over his ears and singing. He is sometimes green to indicate that he lived on a diet of nettles.

Buddhism Takes Hold in Tibet

In the late 8th century, under King Trisong Detsen, Tibetan Buddhism developed in an area that extended from Xigaze (Shigatse) to Zetang on the Yarlung Zangpo (Yangtze) River. Monasteries, temples and chapels were built; scriptures were translated into Tibetan; Buddhism became the religion of the Tibetan court; and the religion spread along the Central Asian trade routes that Tibet controlled.

King Trisong Detsen (755-97) is very important to the history of Tibetan Buddhism as one of the three 'Dharma Kings' who established Buddhism in Tibet. The Three Dharma Kings were Songtsän Gampo, Trisong Detsen, and Ralpacan. Under King Trisong Detsen (755-97), Tibet conquered Gansu and Sichuan and extended its influence into present-day India, Pakistan and Central Asia. The Tibetans were at the peak of their power in 763 when they sacked the Tang capital of Chang'an after responding to a Chinese advance into western China. King Trisong Detsen founded the Samye Monastery and is regarded as a manifestation of teh Bodhisattva Jamelyang (Majushri). In paintings, he wears white turban and holds the sword of wisdom in right hand and scripture on a lotus in his left arm. He is often depicted in a triad of kings with Songtsen Gampo and King Ralpachen (A.D. 817-36).

Tibetan Buddhism evolved through a continuous process of debate and interpretation over the meaning of Buddhism between factions and sects with different beliefs. At the same time traditional Tibetan customs, deities, incantations and ceremonial practices were absorbed. But the process was far from smooth, a number of competing sects were created and they vied for dominance and sometimes engaged in violent conflicts.

Buddhism in Tibet was dealt a severe blow when Tibet's control of the Central Asian trade routes faltered and the empire collapsed completely around A.D. 840. It experienced a revival in far western Tibet under the guidance of Ye-shes-'od, a regional ruler. In 985, Ye-shes-'od, renounced his throne and was ordained as a Buddhist monk and used his influence to spread the religion. During the 10th and 11th century many temples and monasteries were built. Western Tibet remained the center of Tibetan Buddhism for the next 500 years.

Tibet in the 10th century was in a state of anarchy. The Tibetan people were divided. Buddhism had been corrupted, ridden with misinterpretations and mixed with the shamanistic Bon religion. There were reports of "robber monks” who got drunk, engaged in sex and kidnaped and killed people and ate them.

The Sanskrit translator Rinchen Zangpo, and the legendary Indian master Atisha were also instrumental in reintroducing Buddhism to western Tibet.

Atisha and the Establishment of the Buddhist Bureaucracy

The 60-year-old Indian master Atisha was lured by small fortune in gold to trek to Guge in Tibet in 1042. He helped bring order to Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism by setting strict rules prohibiting sex, alcohol, travel and possessions. These rules set the tone for the anti-materialist aspects of Tibetan Buddhism. Atisha's campaign was supported by noble families, whose young men were recruited as lamas, teachers, administrators and teachers.

Under Atisha’s system, sons for the highest ranking families were made the head lamas of monasteries on their land. The offices were hereditary but because the lamas were celibate monks leadership positions were handed down from uncle to nephew.

Large numbers of Tibetans traveled to the great centers of Buddhist learning in the Pali Empire in India. They dominated entire colleges in Bengal and Bihar and copied libraries of texts which they brought back to Tibet.

By the 13th century, monks in the monasteries in Tibet were the equivalent of the Mandarins in Imperial China. They ran the bureaucracy and administered the country but were ultimately accountable to the kings and nobles. Over time the monasteries grew in power and maintained their hold on power until the invasion by China in 1950.

Guge Kingdom

Enduring from the middle of the 10th century to the early 17th century, the Guge Kingdom governed western Tibet, spreading Buddhism and resisting outer attacks. The history of the Guge Kingdom can be dated back to the 9th century, when the powerful Tibetan Kingdom was in decline. The last Zamprogna Langdama (Tibet King) tried to eradicate Buddhism and conflicts between monk group and Tibetan rulers broke out. Langdama died in a war in 823. His sons and grandsons fought for the throne. One of these sons, Jide Nimagun, was defeated in a battle and escaped to the remote Nagri area. Later, he created the Guge Kingdom in the Nagri area. In order to avoid a divisive fight between his sons, he divided the Guge Kingdom into three parts and gave them respectively to his three sons. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org, June 3, 2014]

In the beginning, the Guge Kingdom ruled under Buddhist principles. The governors were all Buddhists. They built the Tuolin Monastery and translated Buddhit scriptures to spread Buddhism. However, in the late Guge Kingdom period, monk groups got stronger and stronger and the Guge rulers viewed them as a threat. The last king of Guge Kingdom adopted Catholicism and built some Catholic churches. Monks group staged an uprising and persuaded the enemies of Guge Kingdom—Ladakh—to attack Guge. As a result, the Guge kingdom was destroyed.

Chinese Take on Tibetan History During the Imperial Chinese Era

Over the centuries the relationship between Tibet and China has been fluid and dynamic. At times they were bonded fairly close together; other times relations were strained. At times when Tibet was a powerful kingdom it fought wars with China over territory in present-day Yunnan, Sichuan and Qinghai Provinces. During the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) , the central Chinese government appointed a department specifically to manage affairs in Tibet. The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) set up a quasi government in Tibet with some influence. The Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) established a ministry to deal with affairs in Tibet and Mongolia. The central government officially approved the title of Dalai Lama in 1653 and the title of Panchen Lama in 1713. Some Chinese emperors were deeply influenced by Tibetan Buddhism. In 1728, a resident minister in charge of Tibetan affairs was appointed, followed by the creation of the "Gexia," or Tibetan local government, in 1751. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]

According to the Chinese government: “The Tibetans have very long history and flourishing culture. They have done great contribution to the construction and development of the border area of the motherland, and to the enrichment of Chinese national culture. [Source: China.org china.org |]

“From the 10th to 12th century, Tibet fell apart into several independent regimes and began to move towards serfdom. It was at this time that Buddhism was adapted to local circumstances by assimilating certain aspects of the indigenous religion, won increasing numbers of followers and gradually turned into Lamaism [Tibetan Buddhism]. Consisting of many different sects and spread across the land, Lamaism penetrated into all spheres of Tibetan life. The upper strata of the clergy often collaborated with the rich and powerful, giving rise to a feudal hierarchy combining religious and political power and controlled by the rising local forces. |

“The Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) founded by the Mongols in the 13th century brought the divided Tibet under the unified rule of the central government. It set up an institution called Xuanzhengyuan (or political council) and put it in charge of the nation's Buddhist affairs and Tibet's military, governmental and religious affairs. Phagsba, a Tibetan lama, was given the title of imperial tutor and appointed head of the council. The Yuan court also set up three government offices to govern the Tibetan areas in northwest and southwest China and Tibet itself. The central government set up 13 Wanhu offices (each governing 10,000 households) in Inner and Outer Tibet east of Ngari. It also sent officials to administer civil and military affairs, conduct census, set up courier stations and collect taxes and levies. Certificates for the ownership of manors were issued to the serf owners and documents given to local officials to define their authority. This marked the beginning of the central authorities' overall control of Tibet by appointing officials and instituting the administrative system there. |

“The ensuing Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) carried over the Tusi (headmen) system in the Tibetan areas in northwest and southwest China. In Tibet proper, three sect leaders and five secular princes were named. These measures ensured peace and stability in the Tibetan areas during the Yuan and Ming dynasties, and the feudal economy there developed and culture and art flourished. Tibet's contacts with other parts of the country became more frequent and extensive. |

“The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the last monarchy in China, set up a government department called Lifanyuan to administer affairs in Tibet and Mongolia. In Tibet, the Qing emperor conferred the titles of the "Dalai Lama" (1653) and "Bainqen Erdini" (1713) on two living Buddhas of the Gelugba sect of Lamaism. The Qing court began to appoint a high resident commissioner to help with local administration in 1728, and set up the Kasha as the local government in 1751. In 1793, the Qing army drove the Gurkhas invaders out of Tibet and formulated regulations concerning its administration. The regulations specified the civil and military official appointment systems and institutions governing justice, border defense, finance, census, corvee service and foreign affairs, establishing the high commissioners' terms of reference in supervising Tibetan affairs. In other areas inhabited by Tibetans in northwest and southwest China, the Qing court continued the Tusi (headmen) system established by the Yuan and Ming dynasties, and put them under the administration of the Xining Commissioner's office (established in 1725) and the Sichuan governor (later the Sichuan-Yunnan border affairs minister). |

History of Buddhist Sects

The Nyingmapa Order traces it origins to Guru Rinpoche, an Indian sage who arrived in Tibet in the 8th or 9th century, and King Songtsen Gampo (630-649), who helped to establish Buddhism in Tibet. See Above

In the 11th century Tibetan Buddhism became stronger and more politicized. The power of the ruling monks increased and the religion splintered into several sects. This period was marked by fierce rivalry between sects: first between the Kagyupa order established by Milarepa (1040-1123) and the Sakyapa order which emerged in 1073 from the Sakya monastery, a monastery funded by the Kon family, and later between Yellow, Red and Black Hat sects.

In the 13th century, with the help of Mongolian supporters, the Sakyapa sect took control of much of Tibet. The Mongols under Genghis Khan had raided Tibet but converted to Tibetan Buddhism after a meeting between Genghis Khan’s grandson, Kokonor, and the head of the Sakya monastery. Sakyapa rule lasted for about 100 years. Three secular dynasties — the Phgmogru, the Ripung and the Tsangpa — followed between the years 1354 and 1642, when the Yellow Hat (Gelugpa) sect emerged as the dominant order.


Tsongkhapa, whose ordained name was Losang Dragpa, was a famous teacher of Tibetan Buddhism and the founder of Gelugpa School of Tibetan Buddhism. His name means “The Man from Onion Valley” in Tibetan. Tsongkhapa was born into a nomadic family in Amdo Tibetan area in 1357. Today the location of Tsongkhapa's birth is marked by Kumbum Monastery. Tsongkhapa was a great 14th century Tibetan Buddhist Master who promoted and developed the Kadampa Buddhism that Atisha had introduced three centuries earlier. His appearance in Tibet had been predicted by Buddha himself.

As a great teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, Tsongkhapa patiently taught the Tibetans everything they needed for their spiritual development, from the initial step of entering into a spiritual practice through to the ultimate attainment of Buddhahood. His followers became known as the ‘New Kadampas’, and to this day Kadampa Buddhists worldwide study his teachings and strive to emulate his pure example.

Dalai Lamas

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First Dalai Lama

There have been 14 Dalai Lamas. The first, a nephew of Tsongkhapa, the founder of Tibetan Buddhism, was born in 1351 and was a shepherd. The title of Dalai was first bestowed on the 3rd Dalai Lama by a Mongol chief named Altan Khan when the Dalai Lama visited the court of the Mongol Khans in the 16th century. The 3rd Dalai Lama became the spiritual leader for Mongolia as he was in Tibet. He ordered that the image of Gonggor be worhsipped at home and issued laws forbidding the practice killing women, slaves and animals as sacrificial funeral offerings. The 5th Dalai Lama is credited with uniting the warlike medieval tribes of Tibet. In 1642, he became the political and spiritual leader of all Tibet.

As has been the case with kings and world leaders, there have been good Dalai Lamas and bad ones and ones whose lives have ended in tragedy. Many died young , including the 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th Dalai Lamas. Some were rumored to have been poisoned. Others were believed to have been murdered. Only half of the men who held the title have lived to see their thirties. At least four are believed to have been killed amid palace intrigue. In 1682, a government minister hid the death of the Dalai Lama for fifteen years, secretly ruling with the help of a look-alike.

One of the worst was the 6th Dalai Lama who was more interested in women and alcohol than he was in studying and leading. He used to sneak out of Potala in disguise to visit local brothels. A Jesuit monk who lived Lhasa as the time of his leadership wrote that “no good-looking person of either sex was safe from his unbridled licentiousness.” His ineptitude gave China an excuse to intercede in Tibetan affairs.

The 13th Dalai Lama barely escaped an assassination attempt allegedly orchestrated by his own regent. He recognized Tibet’s backwardness made it vulnerable to aggression by more advanced nations of the world. His plans to improve and reform the Tibetan bureaucracy and military were thwarted by the monastic elite.

Yellow Hat Sect and the Fifth Dalai Lama

Third Dalai Lama

The Yellow Hats (Gelupa) emerged in the 15th century. They were given a big boost in the 16th century when the Mongols decided to support them. The sect became preeminent in the middle of the 17th century, through the efforts of Mongolian supporters and Tibetan supporters inspired by the charismatic 5th Dalai Lama. The Yellow Hats took control of the central plateau and maintained control until British and Chinese incursions into Tibet in 19th century.

The 5th Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso (1617-82) is regarded as the greatest of the Dalai Lamas. Born in Chongye in the Yarlung Valley, he unified Tibet and set the precedent for future Dalai Lamas. He was the first Dalai Lama to exercise temporal power and ruled benevolently as both a spiritual and political leader and initiated construction of the Potala palace. In paintings he wears a yellow hat and holds a thunderbolt in his right hand and a bell in his left hand. He is sometimes shown holding a lotus flower, a Wheel of Law or another sacred object.

The fifth Dalai Lama is credited with unifying central Tibet after a protracted era of civil wars. As an independent head of state, he established diplomatic relations with China and also met with early European explorers. He was the first Dalai Lama to become spiritual and political leader of Tibet and the greatest of all the Dalai Lamas.

Feudalism in Tibet

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Fifth Dalai Lama

The kingdom of Tibet was closed to the outside world during most of its existence. Until the 20th century, it was essentially a theocratic state and feudal caste society ruled by a few rich aristocratic families, and lamas, many under umbrella of the Dalai Lama. The backbone of the system was the willingness of ordinary people to support monks, monasteries and the religious elite. Contributing sons to monasteries was seen as a way to earn religious merit.

Land was owned by the state, which was under the control of the Dalai Lama and other powerful lamas. Many peasant farmers were organized into estates under the control of monasteries, incarnate lamas and aristocratic forts. The large monasteries looked like fortresses and had their own armies of fighting monks. It was not uncommon for monasteries to battle one another over territorial claims and religious disputes.

Feudal Tibet was a land of shackled slaves, the thumbscrews and the scorpion pits that awaited serfs who defied their masters as much as it was one of Shangi-La beauty and Buddhist calm. Criminals had their hands and arms lopped off and were blinded as punishments. Some had their eyes gouged out while a bread-size stone was placed on their head. Others had yak knucklebones pressed on both temples until their eyeballs popped out. Such punishments were outlawed by the predecessor the current Dalai Lama in 1913.

The monastic elite lived off the labor and taxes of peasants. Aristocrats in silk robes, jewelry and brocade lived next to serfs in rags. The ruling class was not afraid to use violence to hold back reforms and maintain the status quo.

Court life in Potala Place was filled with intrigues and conspiracies that undermined the Dalai Lama’s and made Tibet vulnerable to the influence of outsiders, namely China.

Tibetan Feudal System in the Qing Dynasty

According to the Chinese government: Before Communist China took control of Tibet “the Tibetan areas were dominated by the serf system that integrated political and religious powers. The local government set up by the Qing Dynasty in Tibet, which was called Kasha, was run by four Kaloons (ministers), three laymen and one lama. The local government consisted of two offices. One was called Zikang (auditor's office), which was formed by four lay officials who administered all affairs about lay officials and audited local revenue, corvee and taxes. The other was called Yicang, a secretarial office formed by four lamas who administered all affairs about religious officials. The Tibetan local government accepted, in name, the leadership of the Dalai Lama or a regent. [Source: China.org china.org |]

“The Dalai Lama was served by several Kampos or lama officials who took care of the Dalai Lama's office and affairs of his residence — the Potala Palace. Owing to historical developments, there were some regional regimes beyond the control of the local government. In Outer Tibet, an internal affairs office called Nangmakang was formed by Bainqen's important Kampos, which was later called Bainqen Kampo Lija (changed into a committee after liberation). It accepted, in name, the leadership of Bainqen. Similarly, several other areas were governed by the local sect leaders or headmen. These were the legacies of the Tusi and Wanhu systems. |

“The basic administrative unit, equivalent to a county, was called Zong in Tibetan and the unit under it, equivalent to a district, was called Si, short for Sika or manor. Some large Sikas had the status of the Zong. Certain tribal organizations still existed on a few pastoral areas, which were subject to the leadership of the Tibet local government. In Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces, some Tibetan areas came under the administration of the provincial governments in the Qing Dynasty. But most of the areas were still under the jurisdiction of Tusi officials and big monasteries. |

“The local regimes established on the basis of feudal serfdom that integrated political and religious powers were in the hands of feudal manorial lords, who were either lamas or laymen. They expanded the Tibetan army or formed local retainer forces to protect their reactionary rule. They formulated laws and regulations, set up prisons and used instruments of torture. Even the manors and monasteries had their own private prisons. They seized serfs' property by hook or by crook, punished them at will and executed serfs trying to run away or accused of violating the law. They used such shocking tortures as gouging out the eyes, cutting off the nose or hands, hamstringing or breaking the kneecap.” |

Nobles in Tibetan Feudal System

According to the Chinese government: “Tibetan society was rigidly stratified. The people were divided into three strata in nine grades, according to the size of the land they possessed. The social ladder extended from senior officials, hereditary aristocracy and higher lamas all the way down to herdsmen, serfs and craftsmen. But, generally speaking, these people fell into two major opposing classes — the serf owners and the serfs. [Source: China.org china.org |]

“The Tibet local government was legally the owner of all the land and pasture. It in turn parceled out the land to the aristocrats and monasteries as their manors. The officialdom, the nobility and the clergy thus became the three major categories of feudal lords. The manors held by the officialdom, called Zhungchi, were directly managed by the local government and contracted out to serfs for rent. Part of the rent was used as remuneration for senior officials and the rest portioned out to government offices as their operating expenses. |

“Noble titles in Tibet were hereditary or granted for meritorious services. Ranking was commensurate with the amount of property possessed. There were about 200 to 300 noble families in Tibet. About 20 of them owned scores of manors each. The manors of monasteries were bestowed by the local government or donated by the nobles. Some of them were the property of the monasteries and the rest belonged to higher lamas. A number of manors owned by monasteries were totally controlled by the top living Buddhas or lamas there. |

“The three major categories of feudal lords and their henchmen accounted for about five per cent of the Tibetan population. The nobles and the monasteries each owned about 30 per cent of the land in Tibet and the remaining 40 per cent belonged to the local government. The land and pasture in the Tibetan areas other than Tibet were controlled by headmen, local officials and other members of the ruling groups and monasteries.” |

Serfs and Slaves in the Tibetan Feudal System

Peasants were required to pay taxes and were not allowed to move or get married without permission. Those that could afford it could hire people to fill their positions and then they could do what they wanted. Tibetan nomads owned their animals and paid taxes to the lamas and landlords — up to 75 percent of the wool raised. They were bound by hereditary claims to their land. They were not allowed to leave their area but they couldn't be evicted from it either.

Slavery and bonded labor existed in Tibet until the arrival of the Communists. Monks had the right to order peasants around. The lowest caste in Tibet was the Ragyaba — a group of outcasts in charge of getting rid of corpses — that still exist today. Lawlessness existed in the countryside. Brigands roamed around and attacked and robbed travelers and pilgrims. Lamas were sometimes horse thieves and outsiders were regarded with suspicion and hostility.

Melvyn Goldstein, a Tibetan expert at Ohio University wrote, “Tibet was characterized by a form of institutionalized inequality that can be called pervasive serfdom.” He told the Times of London, “The key characteristic of the system was that individuals did not have the right to opt out. They could not live as free peasants.” Some argue the system was not as harsh as the Chinese have made it out to be. Robert Barnett, director of modern Tibetan studies at Columbia University told the Times of London, “The Chinese trick is to say the words “serf” and “feudal” and make us think brutal.”

According to the Chinese government: “The serfs included Thralpas and Dudchhong, who accounted for over 90 per cent of the Tibetan population. With no land or personal freedom, they were chattels of their lords. Thralpas were persons doing unpaid labor. In Tibet, a thralpa tilled a small piece of land rented from the manorial lord, which was called thralkang land. To obtain such a piece of land, a thralpa had to perform all kinds of services for the local government and do unpaid labor on the manor. [Source: China.org china.org |]

“Dudchhong, meaning small household, is a lower rank among the serfs made up of bankrupt thralpas. Dudchhongs were not allowed to till thralkang land. Instead, they had to depend on manorial lords or richer thralpas, doing hard work for them while tilling a tiny piece of land to feed themselves. Five per cent of the Tibetans were house slaves, called Nangzan. With no means of production or personal freedom, they were the most heavily oppressed class in Tibet and had to do the hardest jobs all their lives. Besides, some remnants of clan society still lingered on in the nomadic tribes in remote areas. On the other hand, in villages close to the Han people's farming areas, a landlord economy had emerged. |

“Serfs in all Tibetan areas were overburdened with exorbitant rents in cash or in kind. More than 70 per cent of their annual proceeds were taken away by manorial lords, plunging them into dire poverty. Apart from paying exorbitant rents, serfs had to do all kinds of corvee labor, which was called Ulag. Taxes and levies in Tibetan areas were innumerable. Some levies had been temporary at first and were later made regular. In certain places, scores or even more than 100 different kinds of tax were recorded. |

“All the manorial lords, especially the monasteries, were usurers. They cruelly exploited the serfs by forcing them to accept loans at usurious rates of interest or exchange of unequal values. Usurious loans often ruined the serfs and their families or reduced them to beggary or slavery. The serfs and slaves, who accounted for over 95 per cent of the population, were bound for life to the land of the manorial lords, ordered about and enslaved from generation to generation. They were freely given away as gifts, donations or dowries, sold or exchanged for goods. Long shackled by feudal serfdom, the population of the Tibetan ethnic group showed little growth and production stagnated.” |

China, Mongolia and Tibet

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Sixth Dalai Lama

The Chinese showed little interest in Tibet until the beginning in the Tang dynasty in 7th century. During the Tang dynasty Tibet and China fought for two centuries before establishing a treaty in 821 that established “a great era when the Tibetans shall be happy in Tibet and Chinese shall be happy in China.” Since then an "uneasy relationship" between Tibet and China has been marked by "marriages of convenience and Chinese invasions."

Many Chinese emperors were believers in Tibetan Buddhism. In the Yuan (1280-1368) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties an intimate political-religious relationship was established between Tibet and the imperial Chinese court that helped Tibet Buddhism spread to Mongolia and the plains of China. In the imperial Chinese era, representatives of the Chinese Emperor traditionally kowtowed before the Dalai Lama as a sign of respect when the representatives came to Tibet.

The Yuan (Mongol) Dynasty had close ties with Tibet and were followers of Tibetan Buddhism. The Yongle emperor (1403-1424) — a Ming ruler — was a devout follower of Tibetan Buddhism. The Chinese government today uses ties between the Yuan Dynasty and the Tibetans as the basis for their its on Tibet but the relationship was established by the Mongols before they conquered China and ended when the Yuan dynasty was ousted.

In 1578, in the midst of a military campaign, Abtai Khan’the powerful Kalkha Mongol lord and unifer of Mongolia — became fascinated with Tibetan Buddhism and converted to the religion. He became a devout believer and bestowed the title of Dalai Lama for the first time on the spiritual leader of Tibet (the 3rd Dalai Lama) while the Dalai Lama visited the Khan's court in the 16th century. Dalai is the Mongolian word for “ocean.” More than a century before Kublai Khan himself had been seduced by a Tibetan Buddhist monk named Phagpa perhaps it is reasoned because off all the religions welcomed into the Mongol court, Tibetan Buddhism was most like like traditional Mongol shamanism.

Links between Mongolia and Tibet have remained strong. The 4th Dalai Lama was a Mongolian and many Jebtzun Damba (Mongolian rulers) were born in Tibet. Mongolians have traditionally provided the Dalai Lama with military support and gave him sanctuary in 1903 when Britain invaded Tibet. Even today many Mongolians aspire to make a pilgrimage to Lhasa as Muslims do to Mecca.

Qing Dynasty and Tibet

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17th century treaty of capitualtion to China

To strengthen the relations between China and Mongolia and Tibet, the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) established Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in Beijing, Shenyang and Jehol and had Tibetan shrines built in the Forbidden City.

In 1705, the Mongols ousted the Dalai Lama. In 1720, the seventh Dalai Lama asked the Qing (Manchu) emperor help and the imperial Chinese army arrived in Lhasa and expelled the Mongols. In 1792, China helped the Tibetans repel an invasion from Nepal. In return for Chinese help, the Qing emperor demanded a say in selecting Tibet's two highest lamas: the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama.

From the 18th century to the early 20th century, Tibet was a protectorate of China with Chinese regents in some cases having as much power ruling over Tibet as the Dalai Lamas. A new system was introduced in which the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama were selected by drawing lots from the Golden Urn in Lhasa. Many Tibetans supported the process because they saw it as a way to discourage the squabbling that often took place between rival factions.

For the Qing dynasty, Tibet was mainly useful as a buffer state. Qing imperial administrators were stationed in Lhasa, but overall China had very little control in Tibet and Tibetans maintained authority over their own affairs. Chinese armies were occasionally sent to Tibet but they were there to maintain peace not impose Chinese culture and political aims. When the Qing did take action in Tibet they tended to react too little, too late, allowing crises to develop and then used heavy handed methods to solve them.

China-Tibet Tea Horse Road

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Tea carriers in 1908
For many centuries the Tea Horse Road was a thoroughfare of commerce, the main link between China and Tibet. Mark Jenkins wrote in National Geographic, “The ancient passageway once stretched almost 1,400 miles across the chest of Cathay, from Yaan, in the tea-growing region of Sichuan Province, to Lhasa, the almost 12,000-foot-high capital of Tibet. One of the highest, harshest trails in Asia, it marched up out of China's verdant valleys, traversed the wind-stripped, snow-scoured Tibetan Plateau, forded the freezing Yangtze, Mekong, and Salween Rivers, sliced into the mysterious Nyainqentanglha Mountains, ascended four deadly 17,000-foot passes, and finally dropped into the holy Tibetan city.” [Source: Mark Jenkins, National Geographic, May 2010]

Today the trail lives on in the memories of men like Luo Yong Fu, a watery-eyed 92-year-old whom I met in the village of Changheba, a ten-day walk for a tea porter west of Yaan,” Mark Jenkins wrote in National Geographic. “When I first arrived in Sichuan, I was told no tea porters were still alive. But as I walked the last remnants of the Chamagudao, the Chinese name for the ancient trade route, I met not only Luo, but also five others, all eager to share their stories. Stooped but still surprisingly strong, Luo Yong Fu wore a black beret and a blue Mao jacket with a pipe in the pocket. He had worked on the Tea Horse Road as a porter, carrying tea to Tibet from 1935 to 1949. Luo's load of tea always weighed 135 pounds or more. At the time, he weighed less than 113 pounds.” [Source: Mark Jenkins, National Geographic, May 2010]

"Difficulties were so great and the hardship so enormous," Luo said. "It was a terrible job." Luo had crossed back and forth over Maan Shan, the point I had hoped to reach. In winter the snow was three feet deep and six-foot icicles hung from the rocks. He said the last time someone had crossed the pass was in 1966, so he doubted whether I would be able to do it.”

“But I did get a glimmer of what it must have been like to travel the road. In Xinkaitian, the first stop on the tea porters' 20-day trek from Yaan to Kangding, clean-shaven Gan Shao Yu, 87, and bristle-faced Li Wen Liang, 78, insisted on acting out their lives as porters. Backs bent beneath immense, imaginary loads of brick tea, veiny hands on T-shaped crutches, heads down and eyes on their splayed feet, the two old men showed me how they wobbled single file along a wet stretch of cobblestone. After seven steps Gan stopped and stamped his crutch three times, following tradition. Both men circled their crutches around to their backs to rest their wood-frame packs atop the crutch. Wiping sweat from their brows with phantom bamboo whisks, they croaked out the tea porter song: ‘seven steps up, you have to rest. / Eight steps down, you have to rest./ Eleven steps flat, you have to rest. / You are stupid, if you don't rest.”

“Tea porters, both men and women, regularly carried loads weighing 150 to 200 pounds; the strongest men could carry 300. The more you carried, the more you were paid: Every pound of tea was worth a pound of rice when you got back home. Wearing rags and straw sandals, porters used crude iron crampons for the snowy passes. Their only food was a satchel of corn bread and an occasional bowl of bean curd.” "Of course some of us died on the way," Gan said solemnly, his eyelids half shut. "If you got caught in a snowstorm, you died. If you fell off the trail, you died."

Tea portering ended soon after Mao took over the country in 1949 and a highway was built. Redistributing land from the wealthy to the poor, Mao released the tea porters from servitude. "It was the happiest day of my life," Luo said. After he received his parcel of land, he began to grow his own rice and "that sad period passed away."

History of the Tea and Horse Trade Between China and Tibet

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Sail assisted wheelbarrows
“Tea was first brought to Tibet, legend has it, when Tang dynasty Princess Wen Cheng married Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo in A.D. 641,” Mark Jenkins wrote in National Geographic. “Tibetan royalty and nomads alike took to tea for good reasons. It was a hot beverage in a cold climate where the only other options were snowmelt, yak or goat milk, barley milk, or chang (barley beer). A cup of yak butter tea — with its distinctive salty, slightly oily, sharp taste — provided a mini-meal for herders warming themselves over yak dung fires in a windswept hinterland.” [Source: Mark Jenkins, National Geographic, May 2010]

“The tea that traveled to Tibet along the Tea Horse Road was the crudest form of the beverage. Tea is made from Camellia sinensis, a subtropical evergreen shrub. But while green tea is made from unoxidized buds and leaves, brick tea bound for Tibet, to this day, is made from the plant's large tough leaves, twigs, and stems. It is the most bitter and least smooth of all teas. After several cycles of steaming and drying, the tea is mixed with gluey rice water, pressed into molds, and dried. Bricks of black tea weigh from one to six pounds and are still sold throughout modern Tibet.”

By the 11th century, brick tea had become the coin of the realm. The Song dynasty used it to buy sturdy steeds from Tibet to take into battle against fierce nomadic tribes from the north, antecedents of Genghis Khan's hordes. It became the prime trading commodity between China and Tibet. For 130 pounds of brick tea, the Chinese would get a single horse. That was the rate set by the Sichuan Tea and Horse Agency, established in 1074. Porters carried tea from factories and plantations around Yaan up to Kangding, elevation 8,400 feet. There tea was sewn into waterproof yak-skin cases and loaded onto mule and yak trains for a three-month journey to Lhasa.”

“By the 13th century China was trading millions of pounds of tea for some 25,000 horses a year. But even all the king's horses couldn't save the Song dynasty, which fell to Genghis's grandson, Kublai Khan, in 1279. Nonetheless, bartering tea for horses continued through the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and into the middle of the Qing dynasty (1645-1912). When China's need for horses began to wane in the 18th century, tea was traded for other goods: hides from the high plains, wool, gold, and silver, and, most important, traditional Chinese medicinals that thrived only in Tibet. These are the commodities that the last of the tea porters, like Luo, Gan, and Li, carried back from Kangding after dropping off their loads of brick tea.”

“Just as China's imperial government used to regulate the tea trade in Sichuan, so monasteries influenced the trade in theocratic Tibet. The Tea Horse Road, known to Tibetans as the Gyalam, connected the important monasteries. Over the centuries, power struggles in Tibet and China changed the Gyalam's route. There were three main trunk lines: one from the south in Yunnan, home of Puer tea; one from the north; and one from the east cutting through the middle of Tibet. Because it was the shortest, this center route handled most of the tea.”

Image Sources: Purdue University, University of Washington

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated July 2015

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