The gods of northern Buddhism

their history, iconography and progressive evolution through the northern Buddhist countries

by Alice Getty | 1914 | 98,662 words

Indispensable reference for art historians, scholars of Eastern philosophy and religion. Wealth of detailed scholarly information on names, attributes, symbolism, pictorial representations of virtually every major and minor divinity in Mahayana pantheon, as worshipped in Nepal, Tibet, China, Korea, Mongolia, and Japan. 185 black-and-white illustrat...

Part IV - The Religious Community (sangha)

(a) Clergy. The first Buddhist community was founded by Sakya-muni himself, and the rules of its organization served as a base for the compilation of the Vinaya, that part of the canon (Tripitaka) which is devoted to 'the discipline'. These rules, however, which resembled those of many other religious communities of ancient India, did not acknowledge the existence of a chief, and up to the present the southern Buddhists, like those of Ceylon, have never had one, or, at most, have had leaders appointed by the temporal power, as in Siam. As we shall shortly see, the case is different in the north. The primitive Buddhist community admitted to itself every man without distinction of caste, and was thereby differentiated from the other contemporary communities of India. It is even maintained by some authors that to this principle of equality and democracy Buddhism owes its success. On the other hand, it must be pointed out that Sakya-muni himself established, as a set-off to the privileges enjoyed at his time by every religious community in India (exemption from taxes, right of asylum, &c), certain prohibitions: thus slaves, criminals, soldiers, persons afflicted with infirmities or contagious diseases, were all inadmissible. In the same way persons of less than twenty years and above eight were admitted only as pupils or novices (Sramanera in S., [1] Bandi in M.), and that with the consent of their parents. As to women, though all, even those living in concubinage, could become Buddhists, their constitution in communities was permitted by Sakya-muni only very reluctantly, at the instance of his aunt who reared him. He maintained, even, that the time of his apostolate on earth as ManusM-buddha, and therefore the total benefit which he could confer upon humanity, had been reduced one-half by this concession.

In the primitive community the admission to two grades (Pravrajya 'departure', and the great admission Upasampada) were accompanied by several ceremonies, the cutting of hair, the clothing in monastic habit, and the taking of an oath to observe the four fundamental commandments โ€” not to kill, not to thieve, to abstain from sexual connexion, and not to boast the possession of supernatural qualities. Monks were bound to live by alms, to sleep under trees, to be clad in rags, &c. Usually their life was passed in walking from one town to another, with no more baggage than an earthen bowl {Patra S., Batir M.) holding food, a razor, and a sieve to strain from their drinking-water the living creatures which might be therein and run the risk of being swallowed. A pilgrim's staff was allowed. [2] They slept in the open air, and only in the rainy season assembled in houses ( Vihara) built for them by the faithful. These ViMra later became monasteries. The day of the primitive monk began with household toil and was afterwards divided between meditation, collection of alms, and worship paid to the relics of Buddha or to the Bodhi tree. It ended with reading or copying the sacred books. Strictly speaking there were no prayers, for to whom could they be addressed?

The primitive faith did not allow a personal deity, and Buddha is in Nirvana, outside the universe in whose midst living beings are compelled to exist until their deliverance (Samara). Meetings for any common rite were rare: there were a public confession every eight days and a great mutual confession at the end of the rainy season. Such a cult might satisfy a few ecstatic monks, but made no appeal to the common people; and it is no matter for surprise if the new religion immediately after Sakya-muni's death made concessions to the latter. They began with the public adoration of the relics of Gautama himself and then of other Buddhas. Afterwards came pilgrimages to spots which recalled his life and his works, and where commemorative monuments (Stupa S., Thupa in Pali, mC'od-rten T., Suburga M.) had been erected.[3]

The simple organization of the primitive Sangha has undergone, like any other institution, its processes of evolution. Among the southern Buddhists it has resulted in the foundation of convents, each containing but a few monks (bhikshu), while among those of the north it has been transformed into a regular church, which, in some countries, as for instance in Tibet, has ended by absorbing the entire life of the people.

With the northern Buddhists the clergy is composed of monks of various grades, some of whom follow a special course of teaching, and, after examination, receive an ordination which endows them with power to perform the sacred rites. The number of these monks is considerable. More than half the population in Mongolia, more than a third in Tibet, consists of 'Lamas'. [4]

But it must not be supposed that all Lamas are true monks living in convents. Those who have attained to the first two grades of the hierarchy live, for the most part, outside such institutions and attend to their businesses like ordinary Mongols and Tibetans. Moreover, to mention only the most important class, there are laymen of all ages who, desirous of proving their devotion, undergo a sort of affiliation to the monastic life, and acquire the title of Ubasi (M.) or Upcisaka (S.). In their case ordination takes place in the tent of the postulant or his parents at the hands of a priest (Gelung, see later), who demands of the candidate obedience to the first five commandments (see p. xxv). The Ubasi afterwards follows the life of the other nomads, and is not, strictly speaking, a monk.

The real hierarchy begins with the grade of Genyen (dge bsnen T., Sramanera S., Bandi M.). The usual age for candidates for this grade is from infancy up to seven or eight years, and the rank is attained after two or three years of study under the direction of a teacher appointed by the superior of the convent. Ordination is accompanied by a certain amount of ceremonial. The head of the new Genyen is shaven; flowers are thrown over him, after he has been made to submit to a kind of confession in order that his freedom from infectious disease may be assured, as also his sex, and the fact of his not having taken life, and so on. The Bandi is compelled to observe the ten commandments (see p. xxv). He is given the monastic habit of red and yellow, the patra, and a bundle of dry herbs for driving away insects (see p. xxxiii, n.). The next rank, that of novice or Getsul (dge-ts'ul T., Gejul M., Sramana S.), can be tried for only after fifteen years of age. The ordination resembles that of the Bandi, but with more ceremonial and a harder examination. To become a perfect monk or Gelung (M.) ('a virtuous mendicant' โ€” dge-slon T.) the candidate must be between twenty and twentyfive years old, must pass an examination which lasts for three days, and must maintain in debate various theses in theology. Those who are successful in this examination, remain at the convent, those who fail are obliged to leave it and to become sorcererLamas (in Tibet), or (in Mongolia) to adopt nomadic life, always preserving their religious character and title of getsul.

The Gelung are qualified to officiate in all the ceremonies of the religion, and can even become the superiors of smaller convents.

At this rank the monastic hierarchy (strictly speaking) reaches its term. All other distinctions depend upon the functions fulfilled by the various Gelung or upon academic degrees. As a matter of fact, the more ambitious and intelligent among the Gelung continue their studies in the universities of the great convents where is taught the tsanit (bjanit M.) or Mts'an-nid (T.), i. e. the distinctive signs of รข€¢ the things of the quintessence', or (to put it more accurately) the commentaries to the Kanjur and the Tanjur (see p. xxx), accompanied by special studies in astrology, medicine, and the occult sciences. After studies, more or less long, and severe examinations, the students obtain successively the degrees of Bachelor (Dkah-bcu T., Arkan bergedei M.), of Licentiate (Babs-hbyams-pa T., Masi-Kedureksen M.), of Master (Snas-rams-pa T.), and of Doctor (Hla-rams-pa T.).

As to the offices of the monks in the convents, they are more than twenty in number. The highest is that of Qambo-Lama (M.), Upadhyaya (S.), Mkhan-po (T.), or Superior of one of the greater convents. The Qambo are nominated by the incarnated Lamas (see below) and confirmed in their office by the civil power (up to lately by the Emperor of China). A Qambo has supreme direction of the entire life of the convent, while the management of convent affairs lies in the hands of a functionary of the rank immediately below, who is called Corgi-Lama (M.) or Tsos-rje (T.). Then follow in order the siretu (M.), who presides at all ceremonies of the religion; the Dge-bskos (T.) or Gebgui (M.), a kind of overseer or beadle with extensive authority, always armed with his staff, which he plies on the columns of the temple to stop the noise of talking, and also, after a summary cross-examination, on the backs of such monks as may disturb the order of the services. Finally comes the Umcat (M.) or Dbu-mtsat (T.) who organizes all the religious sei-vices and has the special function of leading the intoning of the hymns and chants. Besides the assistants of the three officers just named, we have to reckon a crowd of underlings; the Takilci (M.) or Mtsod-pa (T.) who arranges the offerings; the Ja-ma (T.) who prepares them and looks after everything concerning the feeding of the monks; the musicians, the monks who, by ringing a gong or blowing into a shell, give the signal to the rest to assemble in the temple or elsewhere.

There are also monks especially employed in instruction, who, like the higher officers, are chosen from among those possessed of academic degrees. Such are the C'os-skyon (T.) or professors of the occult sciences, who interpret difficult passages of the sacred books and are also busied in averting or attracting rain, in indicating the places where are reborn the souls of the departed, and so forth. These must be distinguished from the magicians (Coijin-Sanghasak M.) who do not live in monasteries, and who, although they receive investiture from the Dalai-Lama himself, do not follow the monastic rules. Usually they are married and devote themselves to rites akin to Shamanism. Some are renowned as oracles. Along with the Cos-skyon must be classed the doctor-Lamas (EmciM.., Sman-paT.) and the astrologers (Jiruqaici M., Ganaka S., Btsis-nan T.).

In spite of the number of grades and functions all monks, at least in Mongolia (Pozdnieev), believe in their mutual equality, and act upon this principle. In this respect the traditions of the ancient brotherhood of the Sangha have been preserved up to our day.

Beside the 'regular' clergy (so to speak) exists a special class of ecclesiastical dignitaries โ€” the 'incarnations' (Qubilghan M., Sprul-ba T.) or living Buddhas who are at the summit of the lamaist hierarchy and who, in right of their very origin, differ from the rest. A Qubilghan is, in fact, the representative, in flesh and blood, of some Buddha, Bodhisattva, god or saint, whose spirit is incarnated in him at the moment of his birth, and will pass, at his death, into the body of the child destined to become his successor in the functions fulfilled by him. The incarnation is thus less a matter of person than of function. The system is a useful one; for by exploiting the belief in transmigration or rebirth and the veneration for famous ancestors it creates positions which are to some extent hereditary and precludes the competition and party-strife which an election might occasion. Besides the Dalai-Lama (supreme head of the Lamaist church of the 'yellow caps', and at the same time incarnation of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara) who lives at Lhassa, and the Pan-c'en Rimpoce (supreme head of the 'church' of the 'red caps', and also incarnation of Buddha Amitabha) who lives at Tashi-Lumpo, there are in Tibet, as in Mongolia and China, a certain number of 'saints' (Qutuqtu M.) and 'Qubilghan', incarnations of numerous saints and deities. Every greater convent has its own Qubilghan whose authority is purely local. As to the Qutuqtu there are only very few of them. Such for example is the Qutuqtu of the convent of Urga in Mongolia, called Bogdo-Gegen (see p. xxxii), incarnation of one of the pupils of Sakyamuni. There are also the Grand-Lama of Pekin, head of the Lamaist clergy in China, and the Depa-raja, spiritual and temporal sovereign of Bhutan.

When one of the incarnate Lamas dies, his 'spiritual being' or, as we should say, his soul, goes first to a celestial abode, then, at the end of a period varying from forty-six days to four years, is reborn in the body of a child, who from his birth gives signs of his supernatural character. When public report or the inquiries of the Lamas have pointed out the locality where the child in question is to be found, the chapter of the monastery, or (if it is a matter of the Dalai-Lama) the sacred college of the Qambo (counsellors) holds an inquiry into the authenticity of the facts alleged, and goes to the spot to subject the child to a series of tests, the chief of which consists in making him recognize among several similar objects (cups, books, rosaries, &c.) those which the dead Qubilghan or Dalai-Lama habitually used. After due trial, the child is proclaimed a rebirth and is brought to the convent or the palace of Po-ta-la, if it is a question of succession to the Dalai-Lama. There up to the age of eighteen he receives the necessary education. Afterwards he may exercise his authority.

The day of a Tibetan monk is passed very much in the following manner. Rising about five, he makes his ablutions, recites the prayers in honour of his tutelar divinity or patron (Yi-dam), then, summoned by the trumpet or the shell, joins the procession of other monks who are going to the temple. There, after prayer, is made the first distribution of tea to the monks. This rite over, he retires to his cell and does not return to worship till nine o'clock; then at midday come service and tea. After this he is free and takes a rest, only returning to the temple towards three to take part in theological controversies and receive tea again. About seven he goes back to his cell, after having revised the tasks to be done by his pupils, if there is occasion. Apart from the hours devoted to worship, the Lamas are occupied with various matters according to their particular capacities. Some give instruction; others copy the saced books; others, again, design and carve images of the deities or perform some manual labour. Some travel about among the encampments to aid the laity with their counsel; others, to complete their education, travel from one convent to another.

The costume of the Mongolian monks consists of a skirt of blue linen or red cloth (Pancali S., Sham-t'abs T., Banjal M.), a sort of shirt of white linen (jamja M.), and a long full robe of cloth or of silk (Debel M.) ornamented with fur for the winter, and of a colour varying in accordance with the wearer's grade: brown for the Bandi, red for the Getsul, and yellow for the Gelling. In Tibet trousers also are worn, and a long red shawl (Bla-gos T.) thrown over the left shoulder and leaving free the right arm as among the primitive Buddhists. In Mongolia the same shawl (Kimji M.) is donned only for the religious service. The headgear varies with the circumstances and rank of the monks and Lamas. The conical hat, red or yellow according to sect, with large turned-up brim, is common to all. Another, shaped like a biretta and trimmed with a yellow or red fringe, is worn only by monks resident at the convent. For the services is worn a sort of helmet with a crest (Saser M., Rtse-swa T.), while the Lamas of high rank wear different kinds of tiaras (Obbotai M.). For some of the divine services is assumed the titim (M.) (or chodpan, see Glossary) or another head-dress, shaped like an inverted barber's dish and topped by a vajra. The conical cap, with long appendages in the form of ribbons falling on the shoulders and the temples, is only adopted by the 'reincarnations'.

An indispensable accessory of the costume of the Gelling is the water-bottle wallet (Cab-lug T.yjabori or javrun M.), a little flagon sewn up in a bag and containing holy water with which the monk washes his mouth after meals. There are also rosaries (Akshamdla S., P'ren-ba T., Erike M.) of 108 beads of the same size, made of bone, wood, coral, metal, seeds, and the like. These are divided into nine series by larger beads. In addition, the Lamas carry with them a drinking-cup, reliquaries, a little book wrapped in cloth with which they give the blessing, and sometimes a bag containing small necessaries, tobacco, pipe, tinder-box, writing-materials, and the like.

Besides the monks there are Lamaist-Buddhist nuns (Bhikshunl S.). Formerly numerous, they are met with to-day only in the south and east of Tibet. They wear the same costume as the monks and shave the head completely. Their principal order has its seat at the monastery of Samding (Bsam-lding T.), on Lake Palte or Yamdok, the abbess of which is an incarnation of Vajravarahl (Rdo-rje p'ag-mo) (see p. 117). In Dzungaria and western Mongolia are found also some female 'Qubilghan'.

(b) Religious Ceremonies. Presence at the daily offices in the temple of the convent is obligatory only on the Bandi, the Getsul, and some Gelung specially charged with the performance of the services. The remaining Gelung and the Lamas of the higher grades assist only at the high services (jke qural M.). These take place usually on the 15th of each lunar month, with an extra service (Qanghal M.) towards the end of the month; but there are others which last several days, usually from the 1st to the 15th of the month or from the 8th to the 15th.

Besides the daily services there are solemn religious ceremonies at certain appointed seasons: first on the 15th of each lunar month, then on the days of certain feasts. Among these feasts the most important are the new year or 'white moon' (Zal-ba Ban-po T., Caghan-sara M.), which lasts from the 1st to the 16th of the first 'moon' of the year (according to the Chinese cycle, i.e. between the middle of January and the beginning of February). It corresponds to the sixteen days during which Sakya-muni sustained his struggle with the adversaries of his doctrine (see p. xx), and coincides with the civil feasts of a sort of carnival which lasts, at Lhassa for instance, for more than six weeks. Another feast commemorating the first preaching of the tour ruths by Sakya-muni (see pp. xx-xxi), is kept by a high service from the 8th to the 15th of the third 'moon' of the summer (towards the end of July), and is followed by a special ceremony on the 1 6th of the same month, the day of Sakya-muni's conception. Afterwards begins the 'Lent', imposing hard and painful service and repentance, and called Jam (M.) or Bpyar-gnas (T.), i.e. 'the solitary summer fasting ' of the monks. This lasts for forty-five days, during which the monks may not leave the convent and must remain all day seated in the temple. The 25th day of the first month of the winter, 'the feast of Lanterns', gives opportunity for one of the most impressive ceremonies, accompanied by a sudden illumination of all the buildings of the convent with thousands of lanterns, and by other features. This has been rendered popular in Europe by the picturesque narrative of the Abbe Hue.

Lastly, in the third 'moon' of the winter (end of January or beginning of February) occur the three high services. On the 15th is the secret congress (Nighuja qurianghui M.); from the 27th to the 28th the feast called Sor, when offerings of butter are burnt, and on the 29th the service of sacrifices (balin M.). Besides these festal days there are high services from the 8th to the 1 5th of the first month of summer in commemoration of the entry of Buddha into Nirvana, and on the 15th day of the third month of autumn in honour of Man-la (see p. 23), and a few others.

We must add that the laity assist at the daily services in Tibet only on rare occasions, and never in Mongolia. It is only on feast days that they throng as if on pilgrimage to the vicinity of the convents. In Tibet they enter the temples, but in Mongolia they are content to make genuflexions and salutations, prostrating themselves upon the earth outside the temple. Moreover in Tibet, as also in Mongolia, they make 'the circumambulation ' of the temple, either walking or prostrating themselves continually so as to measure with the length of their bodies the circuit of the shrine. The more fervent act in the same manner all the way from their encampment to the convent; it is even said that the most ecstatic use the same fashion of progression during the whole journey from the frontier of Tibet up to Lhassa.

The usual daily service (Jis T.) includes the same cycle of prayers and repetitions which are intoned by the Uncat (see p. xxxv), and taken up in chorus by the rest of the monks. According to the 'Sumbrum' or 'breviaries' in vogue in Mongolia the offices are composed of three parts: (1) the 'rapsal' (rab-gsal T.), 'the most luminous collection of hymns in honour of Buddha, which include the 'credo', the 'praises', the 'prayers', and the 'wishes and benedictions'; (2) the litanies addressed to the dokshit or defenders of the Faith (see p. 130), which vary according to the divinity to whom they are addressed; (3) undusun (M.) or Tantra (S.), esoteric invocations to the Yi-dam (see p. 123) grouped under four heads. In the larger convents these magic Tantra are read in special chapels called Jud (T.).

The three kinds of 'sung prelections' of the liturgy are the same for the low and the high services, which only differ in the number of chapters read. Thus at the low service are read only four or five 'rapsal' and a single 'dokshit' in honour of the deity who protects the convent, while at the high service the entire series of 'rapsals' is exhausted, and six or eight litanies are sung to the 'dokshits'. To these daily services, at which the monks are present in their ordinary dress, seated, and without making any gestures or imitative actions, others are from time to time added. First there is a 'dokshit' service, specially composed for invoking.the protective deities and the 'defenders of the faith'. This service is invested with more splendour than usual. The presiding Gelling assumes a special dress; the banjal (see p. xxxvii) is worn above the robe and not below; his shoulders are draped with a sort of tippet (do-dik T.); lastly, the head is crowned by the chodpan (see the Glossary). The principal celebrant stands upright and makes a certain number of gestures. The office is accompanied by music and includes offerings and sacrifices to the divinities.

The objects indispensable for this service are

  1. the gong and vajra (see Glossary), which the celebrant generally holds;
  2. the hapala (see Glossary) on a tripod, filled, according to the deity to whom sacrifice is made, with tea, wine, or blood;
  3. the bum-pa, vessel of holy water with a peacock's feather for sprinkling it;
  4. a little plate with grains of corn or rice to be thrown in the air as a sacrifice to the spirits.

Moreover special offerings are prepared (balin M.), a kind of pyramid made of paste mixed with sugar and currants and covered with ornaments made of coloured butter which represent the sun and moon, the jewel (cintamani S.), flowers, and so forth. The preparation of these balin demands the greatest care. Since the breath of the maker must not touch them, he puts over his mouth a hair-net (galgabci M.). The priest's gestures have relation to the seven special offerings, the flower, lamp, scented wands, and the rest (see p. xlviii). The assistants mark these gestures by clapping their hands in a special 'tempo' or cadence. The prayers recited are taken from the Sadhana (see Glossary).

Another service, known by the Mongolian name of Tuiurgukji, has for object the preparation of the lustral water (rasayana S.). It includes prayer, the absolution of sins, a recital of all the ablutions made by Sakya-muni, and finally the thanksgiving. Between the first and second part of the rite is performed the preparation of the holy water. One of the priest's assistants raises a mirror so that it reflects one of the statues of the divinities; another takes the vessel (Kuje M.) filled with water and pours it upon the mirror. The water which flows off and is believed to have caught the image of the divinity, is collected in a special dish {Krisgc'os T.) held by a third acolyte, while a fourth wipes the mirror with a silken napkin (qadaq M.). Fifteen libations are made in this way, and at the end of the ceremony the lustral water is poured off into a bum-pa and set on the sacrificial altar. Thereafter it is used for the aspersion of offerings, and for washing the mouths of the Lamas, while among the -laity it serves the same purposes as does holy water among Catholics.

The service called so-jin (gso-sbyon T.) is worthy of special treatment. It is held on the fifteenth and thirtieth of each month, and is really the ancient uposadha or collective confession of the monks; being of a very intimate character, it involves the wearing of special habits. The monks are called to it not by the sound of bells or trumpets, but by that of a great block of wood (gandi S.) struck by a small staff. In reality it is no longer the primitive confession, but a sort of renewal of vows; for to all the questions (253 at least) put by the presiding official, the monks make invariably the same replies. For the sake of record we may mention the special annual ceremonies. These are the tour made by Maitreya, when the statue of this divinity is drawn about on an enormous wooden horse; and the tsam, a kind of mystery with masked figures representing the Citipati, the god Vajrapani, the Jamsaran or earth-spirit under the form of an old man, several monsters with heads of oxen, stags, and the like.

Footnotes and references:


The words Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Mongolian are here represented by the letters S., T., and M.


Some of these rules are in practice to-day. Thus the monks of Ceylon go bareheaded and barefooted, and the monk of Tibet always has his patra. Others have disappeared (e. g. the fourth commandment), or at least have changed. For instance, in Ceylon the umbrella has replaced the staff, and among the Mongolian Buddhists the future monk, during the ceremony of admission, is given, instead of a sieve, a sort of fan made of dry herbs, with which he must drive away the insects which might fall into his drinking-water.


Till quite lately 'the real tooth' of Buddha was shown at Kandi in Ceylon, and 'the real Bodhi tree' existed as late as 1876 near the ancient town of Urubilva in India.


This is the European term for Buddhist monks, but the word in Tibetan signifies 'superior' or 'revered master', and is applied only to high dignitaries, who gain a right to it only after the completion of higher studies.

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