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Topic: Religion
Number of pages / Number of words: 8 / 2163
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Religion has always been a key concept and an inevitable part of everyday life for the Tibetans and had a considerable influence on all spheres of the state. The most ancient Tibetan religion was Bon, but Buddhism became prevalent. Tibetan Buddhism is the exact Tibet version of late Indian Mahayana Buddhism. During the Chinese Cultural Revolution, almost all preserved by the time the Tibetan monasteries have been looted and destroyed by so-called "red guards". Some of the monasteries began to recover since the 1980s (with limited support from the Chinese government) and they were given great religious freedom, although still with restrictions. The monks returned to the monasteries, where training was restored, however, the number of monks is strictly limited. Melvyn Goldstein has been researching Tibet and in one of his works “A history of Modern Tibet,” he wrote about Tibetan society in 1913-1951. The purpose of the essay is to review Goldstein’s work and to analyze the role of religious traditions in society, the specialties of government, state structure, the role of monks and societal life in Tibet.

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Buddhism Traditions

Melvyn Goldstein described the society of Tibet within studying the history of Tibet in 1913-1951. It was the period in Tibetan history since the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1912 to the approval of the authorities in Tibet of the People's Republic in 1951 it was the state in the territory of the Tibetan Plateau. The de jure international legal status of Tibet during this period was the subject of dispute but Tibet operated as de facto independent theocratic state and Dalai Lama was governing it. Same as in the XIX century, during the period of de facto independence, Tibet remained a theocratic state, the head of which was the Dalai Lama. Being a theocratic state means that religion plays a crucial role in all spheres of the country’s life. The state religion was Tibetan Buddhism Gelug school, the basis of the state ideology was the idea of “ch?si nyitrel”, which translates as "religious and political affairs are united" (Goldstein and Rimpoche, 2). The Gelugpa tradition emphasizes morals, monastic discipline is seen as the ideal basis for religious education and practice. As a result, the vast majority of Gelugpa lamas were monks. In addition, the tradition presupposes that serious philosophical training is a prerequisite for an effective meditation, and hence Tantra and Sutra are subjected to a comprehensive analysis during philosophical disputes (Mills, 45).

The author describes the important role of sects such as Gelugpa or Karmapa. Karmapa belongs to the Buddhist line called Kagyu (Oral Line). It contains basic and small subsections. First, Dhagpo Kagyu school includes Kagyu that is its roots from Gampopa (Mills, 64). Dhagpo Kagyu itself consists of four main parts: Karma Kagyu led by Karmapa, Tsalpa Kagyu, Bar Kagyu and Pagdru Kagyu (Mills, 65). A small section of Kagyu is Shangpa Kagyu, which in the XX century was represented by well-known teacher Kalu Rinpoche, and it was a line from an Indian teacher Niguma, sister of Naropa (Mills, 67). This oral tradition pays much attention to the empirical aspects of meditation.

Gelugpa presupposes specific monastic education. As a rule, the curriculum in monastic education program covers five main disciplines: the body of sutras about the perfection of wisdom (Prajnaparamita), the philosophy of the Middle Way (Madhyamika), the theory of knowledge (Pramana), phenomenology (Abhidharma) and the monastic discipline (Vinaya) (Mills, 75). These items are subject to scrutiny by a dialectical method using Indian texts as well as Indian and Tibetan commentaries to them. In each of monasteries, their own tutorials are most often used. The whole monastic education takes from 15 to 20 years. Upon completion of this course is a monk is assigned Geshe Degree (Doctor of Buddhist philosophy) of one of three levels: dorama, tsogrampa or Lharampa, the last of which is considered to be the highest (Mills, 85). Subsequently, at its request, Geshe can enroll in one of the tantric colleges and so complete his formal education, or to return to his monastery as a teacher, or to live in solitude for intense meditation sessions. A monk who has completed training and was awarded the degree of Geshe is considered to be a fully qualified and authoritative spiritual master worthy of devotion and respect for the followers.

The Government

Tibet Government consisted of secular and religious officials. Secular officials usually were recruited from aristocratic families, each of which was to provide a single man. Aristocratic families could be deprived of their property for disloyalty or refusal to grant a man for an officer. Thus, the status of the aristocracy had a dual nature: they were not independent of the landowners but were not only government officials. In fact, the aristocracy had a monopoly on secular positions in the government. Goldstein mentions that officials were called shungshabs. To become officials, young people had to be specially trained. The training included education in the Tsigang Office and nomination either by Tsigang or Kashtag (Goldstein and Rimpoche, 7).

Top government positions were usually occupied by relatives of the Dalai Lama and representatives of ancient families, especially those who trace their ancestry to the kings and their ministers. There were only 197 such families and out of them only 25 possessed the greatest influence(Sharma and Sharma, 49). Aristocrats had benefits for the positions, privileges, honors, etc. The hereditary aristocracy was servile aristocracy and out of each family, only one son replaced one position of those that have been reserved for lay officials. However, it was not an insurmountable obstacle for commoners to make a career in government. Actually, Tibet had class mobility. First, almost every peasant family gave the child to the monks, making it representative of a different class. Most of the clergy came from the peasants. This system gave greater social mobility. Then, a man from the "bottom" could succeed in the way of the monk and even reach the highest state positions. This was, for example, Pishipa in the middle of the XIX century (Sharma and Sharma, 29). He reached the post of the first minister of the Tibetan government. The soldier could receive a hereditary title and the land for bravery. But the official could easily lose the position, falling into disfavor with the Dalai Lama or the Prime Minister. In cases of serious misconduct, officials were punished (such as spanking). There could be penalties for their families.

Goldstein researched the tradition of appointing monk officials. The tradition of making monks be officials dates back to the Dalai Lama V (Sharma and Sharma, 16). In the XX century, the influence of monks on the state system greatly expanded. Monks officials were formally assigned to one of the monasteries but actually lived there only a few weeks a year. Several influential aristocratic families had to provide the monks to serve in government. Most often children of aristocratic families or adopted children of monks-officials became monks who were officials. There were several ways of appointing monk officials: from Lhasa middle class, finding them in monasteries, from few aristocratic families or from existing monk officials’ families (Goldstein and Rimpoche, 8).

The work by Goldstein includes the description of hierarchy and bureaucracy in the Tibetan government. The Dalai Lama was not limited by anything or anyone as he was an absolute ruler of Tibet. During the search for the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama or during his childhood Tsogdu appointed regent, who ruled the country. The supreme executive body was the Kashag composed of four Kalons (Goldstein and Rimpoche, 11). Kashag reported directly to the Dalai Lama, and Kalona was appointed for life by the Dalai Lama and brought him the oath of allegiance. Since 1894 one of the Kalons necessarily had to be Lama. Yigtszan and Tszikan obeyed Kashag that were in charge, respectively, of religious and secular spheres of national life. Yigtszan was headed by 4 lama secretaries and Tszikan was led by 4 things (Goldstein and Rimpoche, 11). If necessary, the Kashag or the Dalai Lama could convene Tsogdu or Big Tsogdu. Tsogdu consisted of 4 lama secretaries, 4 tszipёn and representatives of the three great monasteries (Goldstein and Rimpoche, 14). The Big Tsogdu, in addition to members Tsogdu, included representatives of all the monasteries and all the officials who were in Lhasa (Goldstein and Rimpoche, 15).

The legal system of Tibet was based on principles developed during the reign of Songs?n Gampo and supplemented by the Dalai Lama V, and the Dalai Lama XIII (Sharma and Sharma, 48). Judicial power was exercised by the judges, who were appointed by the government. Some of the judicial functions performed by dzopёns (village headmen). Tibet was divided into 53 tszons (counties) and each of them was managed jointly and by secular and Buddhist tszonpёns (Sharma and Sharma, 55). Especially important cities and regions were ruled by governors, who, as well as tszonpёns, were appointed by Kashag for three years (Sharma and Sharma, 57). On the territory of Tibet, there were semi-independent principalities that reported directly to the Kashag. Due to the lack of modern communication methods, Tibet had a strong decentralization of power: some areas of Tibet and the principality enjoyed considerable autonomy.

Society in Tibet and the Monastic System

Goldstein focuses on the monastic system, the role of monks and specifics of land division and usage in Tibet. All suitable for agriculture land in Tibet was divided between the aristocracy (25%), monasteries (37%) and the Government of Tibet (Sharma and Sharma, 22). The lands were either manorial estates or lands that belonged to the government (Goldstein and Rimpoche, 22). The lands of aristocratic social stratum were hereditary and were their main source of income and wealth. Peasants were required to work on the arable land belonging to them. Arable land was divided into two parts: the lands, from which the owner was getting all the profits, and the lands, for farmers to basically exist. The peasants did not receive any salary or food from their aristocrats. In addition to working in the fields, the serfs were engaged in repairing the estate of owner, harvesting and transporting firewood. Some farmers in childhood opted for life as soldiers, monks or servants. In social theory, Tibetan peasants had to work for free, because they were provided with free land, which they could fully control (except for sale). Labor and tax obligations of each family were proportional to the size of the land site. Among the Tibetan peasants were well-off people, who themselves handed over their land to other farmers. In Tibet, there were landless peasants who worked away from their masters but still paid him each year.

In addition to employment, the transport was the service there. On the territory of Tibet, there were located networks of stations, which were separated by a distance of half-day long way so that the farmer could get to a nearby station and back in one day. At the station the traveler, with the appropriate authorization from the government, could get shelter and food free of charge or at a minimal cost. In Tibet, there were no police and courts, because these powers were delegated to the owners of the land that was advantageous to the Government since that freed it from the maintenance of the judicial system and the police.

Goldstein widely describes the monastic system in Tibet. Monasteries performed religious functions for the state, and even more: they were the schools, universities, centers of art, craft, medicine, and culture. Monasteries as a highly organized educational center have been the foundation of traditional Tibetan culture. Studying in monasteries completely contained at their expense: all of them were given food and shelter (Goldstein and Rimpoche, 22). Some monasteries had considerable property, some got more talent, using them for their own development. Others had neither the first nor the second. They received only gifts and donations from their fans and patrons. And individual monasteries often lacked the funds to provide all the necessary to a large number of monks. To supplement their income, such monasteries engaged in trade and usury.


In sum, Goldstein in his work fully described the social life in Tibet and the role of religion in it. He pointed out that the Dalai Lama was the governmental spiritual and temporal leader. The specifics were that the position of Dalai Lama was interconnected with the notion of reincarnation and that meant that the rule in Tibet was hereditary. Most of the Dalai Lamas, including the Thirteenth and Fourteenth, came from simple peasant families from distant parts of Tibet. The special role was played by the Three Seats and monks, so the political and social system of Tibet was based on their interests (Goldstein and Rimpoche, 24). Tibet had a specialty in a variety of religions on its territory. Religion played a crucial role in forming the hierarchy and order among Tibetan citizens. Unlike Europe and the Qing government in Tibet, there were no significant class antagonisms. Therefore, the feudal theocratic regime was suitable for people. Tibetan officials tried to carry out reforms, but it was opposed by the conservative society. In terms of the religious-philosophical aspect, Tibetan Buddhism has reached unsurpassed heights of development.

General points of the essay

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