Connect with us


Tibetan Buddhism From Mongolia to the Dalai Lama's Legacy

In an enlightening lecture, Tibetan scholar Yumiko Ishihama explores the historical spread of Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai Lama's enduring influence.



His Holiness the Dalai Lama watches as the candidates for ordination at his residence in Dharamsala, India on March 26, 2023. (© The Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama by Tenzin Jamphel)

On March 30, Waseda Professor Yumiko Ishihama delved into the historical dynamics of Tibetan Buddhism. Over the course of an 80-minute lecture, the Tibetan scholar highlighted its role as a cross-cultural religion of peace. 

Through meticulous research, Ishihama unveiled how the Mongol Empire, under leaders like Kublai Khan, facilitated Tibetan Buddhism's expansion. She highlighted figures like Chogyal Pakpa, who bridged Mongolian and Tibetan cultures, fostering peace and understanding. Furthermore, she explained the nuanced interactions between religion and politics, showcasing Buddhism's ability to transcend cultural boundaries.

Throughout, Professor Ishihama illuminated historical narratives, emphasizing Buddhism's impact and the global influence of the Dalai Lama.

Professor Yumiko Ishihama (©JAPAN Forward by Daniel Manning)

Pakpa: The Tibetan Luminary at Kublai Khan's Court

"The spread of Tibetan Buddhism into Mongolia was facilitated by the expansive influence of the Mongol Empire," the Waseda professor explained. "Under the leadership of figures like Kublai Khan, the Mongols established control over vast territories, including China during the Yuan dynasty."

Amid the rise of the Mongol Empire, Tibetan monk Chogyal Pakpa emerged. Renowned for his mastery of logic, Pakpa's presence intrigued Kublai Khan, whose military might contrasted with a deep reverence for religious figures. Protected by Mongol edicts, Pakpa and his uncle, Sakya Pandita, thrived in debates at the Mongol court, shaping the empire's intellectual landscape.

"Pakpa's bond with Kublai Khan deepened as he introduced Esoteric Buddhism," Ishihama explains. "Concerns, however, arose over monk involvement in politics. Kublai Khan's wife proposed that monks advise on religious matters, leaving officials to manage political affairs. Despite challenges, this division fostered a time of Mongol restraint and spiritual reverence."

Pakpa's Special Role

Pakpa also filled a crucial void by crafting a script for the Mongols, who lacked their own written language. Drawing from Tibetan characters, he devised a vertical script, allowing for easier inscription on wood or stone. This innovative script served practical purposes and also symbolized Kublai Khan's ambition to present himself as an enlightened ruler. 

Influenced by Buddhist ideals, the script further symbolized the virtuous rule of a monarch whose power radiated peace and enlightenment. This was meant to reflect the Buddhist "Wheel of the Law," symbolizing Buddha's purity. 

Chogyal Pakpa (Via Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Under Pakpa, Kublai Khan developed into the archetype of the Chakravartin, a Buddhist king whose influence spanned vast territories. Tibetan and Mongolian reverence during this epoch led to new Buddhist iconography, such as the revered three-bodied Buddha. Notably, Kublai Khan's reign also witnessed the composition of the Avalokiteshvara Sutra, marking a zenith of spiritual enlightenment.

Buddhist Revival in Post-Mongol Asia

After the Mongol Empire's demise, Buddhism endured in China, albeit amidst a new ruling dynasty. Meanwhile, in Mongolia, Buddhism saw a temporary decline until the era of the Third Dalai Lama. 

Qinghai Lake, nestled between Tibet and Mongolia, became a crucial meeting ground. It was there that Altan Khan unified Eastern Mongolia and extended an invitation to the Third Dalai Lama. This historic encounter heralded a revival of Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia. It also introduced the concept of Tülku, which emphasized the spiritual continuity of revered monks. 

As Ishihama explained, "It is crucial to note that while commonly misunderstood, Tülku does not equate to a 'corporeal Buddha.' Rather, it symbolizes the reincarnation of enlightened beings, ensuring the preservation of Buddhist teachings and traditions. 

"Despite scrutiny for perceived materialism, it ensures, with diligent administration, the perpetuation of religious heritage. Tülku has proved instrumental in Buddhism's dissemination, particularly in Mongolia."

After the collapse of the Mongol Empire, Tibetan Buddhism underwent a renaissance in Mongolia. The 17th century witnessed the rise of the Manchus, who conquered both Mongolia and China, solidifying their supremacy in East Asia. Initially embracing Tibetan Buddhism, the Manchus assimilated its practices into their governance, further strengthening its influence.

Tibetan Buddhism During the Qing Dynasty 

Under the Manchu or Qing Dynasty, Tibetan Buddhism received support in China. Emperors presented themselves as patrons and defenders of the faith. They were also depicted as Tibetan Buddhist deities in art, highlighting their role in safeguarding and promoting the religion. Such integration bolstered the Qing emperors' authority and legitimacy throughout their vast empire.

The integration of Tibetan Buddhist symbolism further solidified rulers' authority. It was considered divinely ordained, in alignment with cosmic principles. While fostering unity, this fusion of political and religious spheres also catalyzed intricate dynamics with neighboring regions like Tibet. 

Amid the Qing Dynasty's decline, Tibet emerged as a pivotal concern on both imperial and nationalist Chinese agendas. With foreign interventions escalating, including British military expeditions, Tibet's sovereignty became a contested terrain. "As the Qing Dynasty crumbled, Ishihama says, "the newly formed Republic of China aimed to assert control. This sparked prolonged disputes over autonomy, religious expression, and cultural heritage, resonating into contemporary times." 


The Dalai Lama's Enduring Legacy

Throughout history, Dalai Lamas have been fundamental to Tibet's unity. Moreover, they have often assumed leadership roles in times of turmoil. Regarded as reincarnations, their enduring presence is deemed vital for Tibet's welfare, inspiring fervent prayers for their longevity. 

His Holiness the Dalai Lama at the Main Tibetan Temple in Dharamsala, India on September 5, 2023. (©The Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama by Tenzin Choejor)

Despite facing invasion at a tender age, the 14th Dalai Lama's early assumption of leadership underscores Tibet's unique spiritual-political nexus. 

Amid escalating tensions in Eastern Tibet, the Dalai Lama made a poignant decision in 1959. "Fleeing his homeland, he left behind treasures and symbols of power, carrying only the sacred Phurba amulets," Ishihama reveals. "Disguised as a soldier, he escaped the Potala Palace, navigating a dire landscape exacerbated by China's internal upheavals."

The quest for Tibetan autonomy, championed by the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, clashed with China's imposition of reforms. Ishihama explains that "China's invasion, ostensibly to liberate Tibet, paradoxically subjected it to imperial rule. However, the narrative shifted once the Dalai Lama fled, exposing China's true agenda."

A Beacon of Hope

Living as a 'nomadic leader,' the Dalai Lama's resilience shines, Ishihama says. Despite adversity, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. This recognition honored his dedication to nonviolence in the face of exile, serving as a poignant condemnation of oppressive regimes.

His journey and Tibet's quest for independence have rallied immense global backing. "His dialogues with scientists and scholars have enriched the world's appreciation of Tibetan Buddhism," Ishihama concludes. "They have also helped deepen the global understanding of Tibetan Buddhism's role in fostering global harmony and human contentment. The steadfast determination of the Tibetan people, symbolized by the Dalai Lama, offers hope to global supporters advocating liberty."

Ishihama's words chimed with a message to attendees at the lecture from the World Federal Buddhist Council of Japan. "In recent times," it stated, "communist regimes have imposed restrictions and oppression on religious institutions. This is particularly evident in China, where strict control and patriotic education are enforced. China's interference extends to Tibet's unique Tülku system, prompting international resolutions opposing such intervention." 

It noted that, even in Japan, where religious freedom is upheld, challenges persist. The message emphasized the Dalai Lama's advocation of nonviolence and dialogue to resolve conflicts. "Beijing should heed his calls for peace in Asia, and understanding the significance of the Dalai Lama's role is essential."


Author: Daniel Manning