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Things You May Know about Tibetan Buddhism

  • by Zoe
  • Last Updated: 2021-09-03

Due to the unique culture and beautiful scenery, Tibet has become an unrepeatable tourist destination in this world. This place is sacred and mysterious, closest to the sky, and full of faith. In this land, there are countless large and small temples, among which the well-known Tibetan Buddhist temples such as Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple, Sera Temple, Drepung Monastery, etc., have already been the highlights of Tibet tourism. Before traveling to Tibet, if you know more about Buddhist symbols, rituals, artifacts, etc., you can have a better understanding of Tibetan Buddhism.

Golden Deer and Dharma Wheel

It's a very prominent symbol of Tibetan Buddhism as it belongs to one of the Eight Auspicious Symbols. It symbolizes that the Dharma is endless, and everything has Buddha-nature. It also commemorates Buddha's first teaching in a deer park, during which a pair of meek deer kneeled down to listen to his sermon. This auspicious ornament is generally placed in the center of the temple's main hall.

Golden Deer and Dharma Wheel
Golden Deer alongside a Dharma Wheel

Kalacharka

The symbol is created by Padma Sambhava. It means “Wheel of Time” and "Gathering Ten Powerful Elements". The pattern is composed of seven Sanskrit letters and three graphics vertically combined. In Tibet, people place the Kalacharka on the stupa, gate, wall, etc., to increase the auspicious effect; it is also often seen that the Kalacharka is made into pendants and used as amulets. It is said that believers wearing Kalacharka are protected from disasters caused by earth, wind, water or fire.

Kalacharka
Kalachakra-the design of Gathering Ten Powerful Elements

Grand Golden Tiled Hall

The Grand Golden Tiled Hall is the birthplace of Je Tsongkhapa. It is located in the center and is the main hall of Kumbum Monastery. The main hall is dedicated to commemorating the golden stupa of Je Tsongkhapa. Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelugpa Sect, is considered by Gelugpa as the "second Buddha". He is often enshrined with Lord Buddha at the same time.

Grand Golden Tiled Hall
The Grand Golden Tiled Hall is where Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Yellow Sect, was born.

Prayer Wheels

A prayer wheel is a cylindrical wheel on a spindle made from metal, wood, stone, leather or coarse cotton. In Tibet, you can see prayer wheels at every monastery. It's also one of the ritual items of Tibetan Buddhism. The tube contains Tibetan scriptures or mantras. The pilgrims should walk from right to left, turn the prayer wheels one by one, and rotate it to the right, which is equivalent to chanting for accumulating merits and purifying negative karma.

prayer wheels
The use of prayer wheels is equivalent to the recitation of a mantra.

Chorten

Chorten, aka. Lamaist pagodas, the symbol of merit, is a unique architectural form of Tibetan Buddhism, similar to Indian stupa. This kind of stupa is popular in Tibet, Qinghai, Gansu, and Inner Mongolia and other Tibetan regions. The platform base and the tower top are exquisite in shape. A huge circular tower is placed on the tall base, and a long tower top is erected on it. There are many round wheels engraved on the top of the tower, and then a canopy and a moon orb are placed.

Lama stupa
Chorten symbolizes merit.

Mani Stone Piles

Mani stone piles are also called "scared piles". Most of them are engraved with Six-Character Great Bright Mantra, wisdom eyes, Buddha statues, and various auspicious patterns. You can find mani stones almost everywhere in the mountains, intersections, lakes, and rivers of Tibetan areas. It's said when the wind blowing through the mani stones engraved with scriptures, it's equivalent to reading the scriptures.

mani stone piles

In Tibetan areas, people regard stones as living and spiritual things.

Prayer Flags

Tibetans string up the colorful flags(Blue, white, red, green, yellow in turn) printed with scriptures and hang them to the places where the wind is strongest (mountains, passes, bridges). When a strong wind blows over the colorful flags, it is equivalent to reading the scriptures. The prayer flag colors are fixed and cannot be innovated casually, as well as the order of each color. The significance of prayer flags is to pray for good luck and prosperity and eliminate disasters.

prayer flags
Prayer flags are also called wind horse flags in Tibetan.

Prostration

Prostration is also called kowtow, which is one of the most sincere ways of worshipping the Buddha in Tibetan Buddhism. Pilgrims prostrate their whole bodies to the ground, which means worshipping Buddha with "body"; at the same time, they keep chanting mantras in their mouths, which means worshipping Buddha with words; and they keep thinking about the Buddha in their hearts, which means worshipping with "intention".

prostration
You can see many pilgrims prostrating to Lhasa from their distant hometowns.

Jowo Buddha

Jowo Buddha is a 12-year-old statue of Sakyamuni, the most auspicious Buddha statue in Tibet, also called Jowo Rinpoche. "Jowo" means supreme, "Rinpoche" means precious one, which means precious master. This Buddha statue was bought to Lhasa by Princess Wencheng more than 2500 years ago. When Sakyamuni was alive and he consecrated this statue by himself. According to Buddhism, seeing the Buddha Buddha is equivalent to seeing the Lord Buddha.

Jowo Rinpoche
Jowo Shakyamuni statue, enshrined in Jokhang Temple, Lhasa, Tibet

Simmering Smoke

It is the customs of Tibetan sacrifice that Tibetans burn grains, pine and cypress branches to produce smoke to sacrifice gods. In all parts of Tibetan areas, there's simmering smoke in places where people live, and there are simmering furnaces in monasteries and people's homes. The furnace is generally placed in the center of the courtyard and on the roof, which is the cleanest place carefully selected. In Tibetan, "simmering smoke" has become synonymous with offering sacrifices to gods.

Simmering smoke is a popular religious ritual in Tibetans.
Simmering smoke is the most popular religious ritual in Tibetans.

Six-syllable Mantra

Six-syllable Mantra is pronounced as “Om mani padme hum”. The mantra is seen as a condensed form of all the Buddhist teachings and is the most revered mantra in Vajrayana Buddhism. In Tibetan Buddhism, this is the most ubiquitous mantra and the most popular form of religious practice. Tibetan Buddhism regards it as the source of everything. It is said that reciting it over and over again can eliminate calamities and accumulate virtues. You can find the six-syllable Sanskrit mantra everywhere in Tibetan areas such as mani stones, prayer flags, prayer wheels, etc.

Six-syllable Mantra
Six-syllable Mantra on a  hand-operated prayer wheel.

The Swastika Symbol

It can be said to be one of the most distinctive and common patterns in the Tibetan Plateau culture. For Tibetans, it is ancient and mysterious.
Visiting the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, no matter where you are, you can always see many " 卐 " or " 卍 " symbols, in the herdsmen’s tents, in the peasants’ houses, in the temples, in nature... This symbol, whether left-handed or right-handed, is commonly called "Yongzhong" in Tibetan.

The Swastika Symbol
Swastika icon is set on the ground with colored stones at Tashilhunpo Monastery.

Tibetan Buddhist Debate

Buddhist scriptures are profound and full of philosophical doctrine. The first reading is very difficult to understand. And just reading and chanting the scriptures may not be able to understand thoroughly. Therefore, it's particularly important to defeat misconceptions, establish a defensible view, and clear away objections to that view. It's not only a routine but also accompanied by more exaggerated body movements. There are special venues for debating in many large temples, such as the famous Sera Monastery.

Buddhist debate
Buddhist debate at Sera Monastery.

White Conch

The white Conch shell is also one of the top 8 ritual items of Tibetan Buddhism. Legend has it that when Shakyamuni first turned the Wheel of Dharma in Sarnath, Śakra (the ruler of Heaven) presented the Buddha with a right-turning white conch shell representing the deep and pervasive sound of the dharma. Since then, the right-turning white conch shell became a symbol of auspiciousness and perfection.

White Conch
White Conch at Tibet Museum.

Mandala

Mandala is an imaginary palace. The Lord Buddha first used sand to set a mandala to illustrate the Buddhist view of the universe. The Buddha believed that both the large universe (the outer world, the universe) and the small universe (the human being, the inner world) had the same structure, which is a mandala. A grain of sand is also a world, a dojo, a temple, a city, all are a mandala. The most you can see is the mandala thangka in the dojo. A mandala is an indispensable tool for Tibetan Buddhism practitioners. It contains all principles of the world.

sand mandala
Sand Mandala is a mysterious and superb art in the practice of Tantrism in Tibetan Buddhism

Rock Paintings

Tibetan Buddhists not only painted Buddha images on the walls of temples but also on stones or cliffs. These portraits can be regarded as an incarnation of the Buddha after consecration, which is convenient for believers to pay homage to the Buddha at any time.

rock painting
Rock painting in Tibet

Six Realms of Existence

It is a manifestation of the theory of reincarnation taught by Buddha Shakyamuni. Tibetan Buddhism attaches great importance to figurative thinking. Many Tibetan Buddhist temples use thangka paintings, murals, and butter flowers to explain Buddhism. The Six Realms of Existence are often painted on the outer walls of the sutra chanting halls, as one of the indispensable images. The image brings you not only a form of religious culture but also a sense of the complexity and difficulty of the existence of sentient beings. The essence of existence is originally a kind of suffering.

six great divisions in the wheel of karma
Six great divisions in the wheel of karma

Buddhist Stupa

Buddhist Stupa is to enshrine and collects living Buddhas, guru bodies or ashes, evolved from the stupa of Buddha Shakyamuni. As the stupa enshrines who have made great achievements in Tibetan Buddhism, it is named the spirit stupa. Buddhist stupa embodies a special Tibetan funeral method. Most temples enshrine stupas of different sizes and properties. Eg. The Potala Palace in Lhasa houses the stupas of the Fifth Dalai Lama to the 13th Dalai Lama. The Tashilhunpo Monastery in Shigatse houses the stupas of the Fifth Panchen Lama to the Tenth Panchen Lama.

Stupa of the 10th Panchen Lama
Stupa of the 10th Panchen Lama

Displaying Buddha Image

Displaying Buddha images refers to display Buddha Thangkha. Those Buddha Thangkas are the treasures of the monasteries and are usually rolled up and protected. Every year during the Buddha image displaying season, there will be a few or even dozens of brawny lamas who will lift out huge Buddha statues ranging in length from a few meters to tens of meters, and hang them on the rock walls of the hillside under the blue sky and white clouds for the worship of the vast number of benevolent men and women.

Displaying buddha image
Displaying Buddha image is a traditional ritual activity held in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries.

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