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An Historical Sketch

Chapter LIII - Sects

Doctrines Of Lamaism

Lamaism is divided into various sects, which concern the clergy rather than the laity. The differences in doctrine are not very important. Each sect has special tutelary deities, scriptures and practices of its own but they all tend to borrow from one another whatever inspires respect or attracts worshippers. The baser sort try to maintain their dignity by imitating the institutions of the superior sects, but the superior cannot afford to neglect popular superstitions. So the general level is much the same. Nevertheless, these sectarian differences are not without practical importance for each sect has monasteries and a hierarchy of its own and is outwardly distinguished by peculiarities of costume, especially by the hat.

Further, though the subject has received little investigation, it is probable that different sects possess different editions of the Kanjur or at any rate respect different books[1]. Since the seventeenth century the Gelugpa has been recognized as the established church and the divinity of the Grand Lama is not disputed, but in earlier times there were many monastic quarrels and forced conversions. In the eighteenth century the Red clergy intrigued with the Gurkhas in the hope of supplanting their Yellow brethren and even now they are so powerful in eastern Tibet that this hope may not be unreasonable, should political troubles shake the hierarchy of Lhasa.

In spite of the tendency to borrow both what is good and what is bad, some sects are on a higher grade intellectually and morally than others. Thus the older sects do not insist on celibacy or abstinence from alcohol, and Tantrism and magic form the major part of religion, whereas the Gelugpa or established church maintains strict discipline, and tantric and magical rites, though by no means prohibited, are at least practised in moderation.

Setting aside the earliest period, the history of Buddhism in Tibet is briefly that it was established by Padma-Sambhava about 750, reformed by Atîśa about 1040 and again reformed by Tsong-kha-pa about 1400. The sects correspond to these epochs. The oldest claims to preserve the teaching of Padma-Sambhava, those of middle date are offshoots of the movement started by Atîśa, and the newest represents Atîśa's principal sect corrected by the second reformation.

The oldest sect is known as Nying-ma-pa or rNyiṇ-ma-pa, signifying the old ones, and also as the Red Church from the colour of the hats worn by the clergy. Among its subdivisions one called the sect of Udyâna[2], in reference to Padma-Sambhava's birthplace, appears to be the most ancient and still exists in the Himalayas and eastern Tibet

. The Nying-ma Lamas are said to have kept the necromancy of the old Tibetan religion more fully than any of the reformed sects. They pay special worship to Padma-Sambhava and accept the revelations ascribed to him. Celibacy and abstinence are rarely observed in their monasteries but these are by no means of low repute. Among the more celebrated are Dorje-dag and Mindolling: the great monastery of Pemiongchi[3] in Sikhim is a branch establishment of the latter.

Of the sects originating in Atîśa's reformation the principal was the Kadampa[4], but it has lost much of its importance because it was remodelled by Tsong-kha-pa and hence hardly exists to-day as an independent body. The Sakya sect is connected with the great monastery of the same name situated about fifty miles to the north of Mount Everest and founded in 1071 by Sakya, a royal prince. It acquired great political importance, for from 1270 to 1340 its abbots were the rulers of Tibet. The historian Târanâtha belonged to one of its sub-sects, and about 1600 settled in Mongolia where he founded the monastery of Urga and established the line of reincarnate Lamas which still rules there.

But shortly after his death this monastery was forcibly taken over by the Yellow Church and is still the centre of its influence in Mongolia. In theology the Sakya offers nothing specially distinctive but it mixes the Tantras of the old and new sects and according to Waddell[5] is practically indistinguishable from the Nying-ma-pa. The same is probably true of the Kar-gyu-pa[6] said to have been founded by Marpa and his follower Milaräpa, who set an example of solitary and wandering lives.

It is sometimes described as a Nying-ma sect[7] but appears to date from after Atîśa's reforms, although it has a strong tendency to revert to older practices. It has several important sub-sects, such as the Karmapa found in Sikhim and Darjiling, as well as in Tibet, the Dugpa which is predominant in Bhotan and perhaps in Ladak[8], and the Dikung-pa, which owns a large monastery one hundred miles north-east of Lhasa.

Milaräpa (or Mila), the cotton-clad saint who wandered over the Snow-land in the light garments of an Indian ascetic, is perhaps the post picturesque figure in Lamaism and in some ways reminds us of St. Francis of Assisi[9]. He was a worker of miracles and, what is rarer in Tibet, a poet. His compositions known as the Hundred Thousand Songs are still popular and show the same delicately sensitive love of nature as the Psalms of the Theragâthâ.

The main distinction is between the Gelugpa or Yellow Church and all the other sects. This is merely another way of saying that Atîśa reformed the corrupt superstitions which he found but that his reformed church in its turn became corrupt and required correction. This was given by Tsong-kha-pa who belonged originally to the Kadampa. He collected the scattered members of this sect, remodelled its discipline, and laid the foundations of the system which made the Grand Lamas rulers of Tibet. In externals the Gelugpa is characterized by the use of the yellow cap and the veneration paid to Tsong-kha-pa's image. Its Lamas are all celibate and hereditary succession is not recognized. Among the many great establishments which belong to it are the four royal monasteries or Ling in Lhasa; Gandan, Depung and Serra near Lhasa; and Tashilhunpo.

It has often been noticed that the services performed by the Gelugpa[10] and by the Roman Catholic Church are strangely similar in appearance. Is this an instance of borrowing or of convergence? On the one hand it is stated that there were Roman missions in Amdo in Tsong-kha-pa's youth, and the resemblances are such as would be natural if he had seen great celebrations of the mass and taken hints.

In essentials the similarity is small but in externals such as the vestments and head-dresses of the officiants, the arrangement of the choir, and the general mise-en-scène, it is striking. On the other hand many points of resemblance in ceremonial, though not all, are also found in the older Japanese sects, where there can hardly be any question of imitating Christianity, and it would seem that a ritual common to Tibet and Japan can be explained only as borrowed from India.

Further, although Tsong-kha-pa may have come in contact with missionaries, is it likely that he had an opportunity of seeing Roman rites performed with any pomp? It is in the great choral services of the two religions that the resemblance is visible, not in their simpler ritual. For these reasons, I think that the debt of Lamaism to the Catholic Church must be regarded as not proven, while admitting the resemblance to be so striking that we should be justified in concluding that Tsong-kha-pa copied Roman ceremonial, could it be shown that he was acquainted with it.

The life and ritual of the Lamas have often been described, and I need not do more than refer the reader to the detailed account given by Waddell in his Buddhism of Tibet [11], but it is noticeable that the monastic system is organized on a larger scale and inspired by more energy than in any other country. The monasteries of Tibet, if inferior to those of Japan in the middle ages, are the greatest Buddhist establishments now existing. For instance Depung has 7000 monks, Serra 5500 and Tashilhunpo 3800: at Urga in Mongolia there are said to be 14,000.

One is not surprised to hear that these institutions are veritable towns with their own police and doubtless the spirit of discipline learned in managing such large bodies of monks has helped the Lamaist Church in the government of the country. Also these monasteries are universities. Candidates for ordination study a course of theology and are not received as novices or full monks unless they pass successive examinations. In every monastery there is a central temple in which the monks assemble several times a day to chant lengthy choral offices. Of these there are at least five, the first before dawn and the last at 7 p.m.

Though the value of Lamas' learning and ritual may be questioned, it is clear that many of them lead strenuous lives in the service of a religion which, if fantastic, still expresses with peculiar intensity the beliefs and emotions of the Tibetans and Mongols and has forced men of violence to believe that a power higher than their own is wielded by intellect and asceticism.

There seems to be no difference between Tibetan and Mongolian Lamaism in deities, doctrines or observances[12]. Mongolian Lamas imitate the usages of Tibet, study there when they can and recite their services in Tibetan, although they have translations of the scriptures in their own language. Well read priests in Peking have told me that it is better to study the canon in Tibetan than in Mongol, because complete copies in Mongol, if extant, are practically unobtainable.

The political and military decadence of the Mongols has been ascribed by some authors to Lamaism and to the substitution of priestly for warlike ideals. But such a substitution is not likely to have taken place except in minds prepared for it by other causes and it does not appear that the Moslims of Central Asia are more virile and vigorous than the Buddhists. The collapse of the Mongols can be easily illustrated if not explained by the fate of Turks and Tartars in the Balkan Peninsula and Russia. Wherever the Turks are the ruling race they endeavour to assert their superiority over all Christians, often by violent methods. But when the positions are reversed and the Christians become rulers as in Bulgaria, the Turks make no resistance but either retire or acquiesce meekly in the new regime.

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- Footnotes:


See for instance the particulars given as to various branches of the Nying-ma pa sect in J.A.S.B. 1882, pp. 6-14.


Urgyen-pa or Dzok-chen-pa.


Or Pemayangtse.




Buddhism, p. 70.




Sandberg, Handbook of Tibetan, p. 207.


Authorities differ as to the name of the sect which owns Himis and other monasteries in Ladak.


See for some account of him and specimens of his poems, Sandberg, Tibet and the Tibetans, chap. XIII.


I do not know whether the ceremonies of the other sects offer the same resemblance. Probably they have all imitated the Gelugpa. Some authors attribute the resemblance to contact with Nestorian Christianity in early times but the resemblance is definitely to Roman costumes and ceremonies not to those of the Eastern church. Is there any reason to believe that the Nestorian ritual resembled that of western catholics?


See also Filchner, Das Kloster Kumbum, 1906.


Almost the only difference that I have noticed is that whereas Tibetans habitually translate Indian proper names, Mongols frequently use Sanskrit words, such as Manjuśrî, or slightly modified forms such as Dara, Maidari ( = Târâ, Maitreya). The same practice is found in the old Uigur translations. See Bibl. Buddh. XII. Tisastvustik. For an interesting account of contemporary Lamaism in Mongolia see Binstead, "Life in a Khalkha Steppe Monastery," J.R.A.S. 1914, 847-900.

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