Tibetan Culture: Its Contribution to the World


We are gathered here today in New Delhi at this 2009 conference to discuss the contribution of Tibetan culture to global understanding – progress and prospects. Tibetan culture is, of course, a broad topic, encompassing many facets: the Buddhist and Bon spiritual traditions, medicine, calendar-making, astrology, art, architecture, music, dance, language, and literature. None of these facets, however, arose in isolation; but, rather, each evolved in dialogue with many other civilizations. Tibet has been a crossroad where Zhang-zhung, Indian, Chinese, Greek, Persian, Khotanese, and Turkic ideas have met. The Tibetans did not adopt wholesale any of these traditions, either individually or in combination. Rather, the Tibetans critically treated all foreign material and developed their own unique systems by reworking and blending various ideas with their own indigenous ways.

Moreover, Tibetan culture, having arisen dependently on many other civilizations, did not remain a static entity, isolated from ongoing interaction with other peoples living nearby. Rather, Tibetan language and culture spread and interacted with many other civilizations, contributing significantly to global understanding throughout the years. Before we examine this intercultural phenomenon in our present times, let us first survey its history.

Historical Survey

Over the centuries, Tibetan culture spread northwards along the Silk Route to the city states of the Tarim Basin and the Gansu Corridor, and later to Mongolia, Dzungaria in East Turkistan, eastern present-day Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, northern China, Manchuria, and the Buryat, Kalmyk, and Tuvan regions of Russia. Southwards, it spread to all the Himalayan states and beyond, from northern present-day Pakistan to northern present-day Burma. As a result, the multifaceted Tibetan culture and language has played a unifying role in Central Asia and the Himalayan regions similar to that of Roman culture and Latin in medieval Europe.

For example, from the mid-7th century of the Common Era to the reign of King Langdarma in the mid-9th century, the Tibetan Empire ruled, to varying extents, the city states of the Silk Route in the Tarim Basin and the Gansu Corridor, as well as the adjoining border regions of China and the Himalayan regions from Ladakh, through Bhutan, and on to present-day Yunan and northern Burma. Although this vast area was the home of many diverse ethnic groups, cultures, and languages and was traversed by merchants of even more far distant lands, Tibetan language and culture served as media for facilitating international understanding.

Moreover, after the break up of the Tibetan Empire with the assassination of King Langdarma, when several small buffer states sprung up along the Silk Route, Tibetan language and Buddhist culture continued to play a large unifying role in these regions for several centuries. For example, until at least the early 10th-century, the Tibetan language was used for commercial and diplomatic purposes in the Gansu Corridor and along the Silk Route as far as Khotan, since it was the only common language of the various peoples there. Moreover, scholars in these areas translated Buddhist texts from Tibetan into various local languages, in particular Uighur beginning in the mid-10th century and Tangut from the mid-11th century. The Qocho Uighurs were located in East Turkistan and the Tanguts in southern Gansu and present-day Ningxia, to the east of Amdo. The Tanguts even used the Tibetan alphabetic script to transcribe their extremely complex ideographic writing system, as an aid for helping Tangut speakers learn to read their own language. Some Chinese Buddhist texts were also transcribed in Tibetan letters for ease of recitation.

Tibetan culture and Buddhism began spreading to the Mongol regions from the mid-13th century onwards. Subsequently, the various Mongol branches propagated them even further. For example, starting in the 16th century, the Dzungar branch of the Western Mongols founded tent monasteries and, later, stone monasteries in eastern Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, with all of them following Tibetan Buddhism. The Kalmyk branch of the Western Mongols brought Tibetan culture and Buddhism with them to the Volga region of Russia when they migrated there in the early 17th century. The central Mongols, in turn, spread their Tibetan heritage to the Buryat Mongols in southern Siberia, starting in the mid-18th century, and to the Turkic people of Tuva, also in southern Siberia, a few decades later.

Already in the early 14th-century, scholars began translating Buddhist texts from Tibetan into Mongolian. By the early 17th-century, Mongolian scholars had completed the translation of the entire Kangyur and, by the mid-18th century, the entire Tengyur. During the first half of the 17th-century, a considerable number of Buddhist texts were also translated from Tibetan into Oirat, the classical language of the Western Mongols, including the Dzungars and later the Kalmyks. Despite these canonical translations into Mongolian and Oirat, many Mongol scholars continued to write their texts and commentaries, however, in Tibetan. At one time, monastic debates were also undertaken in the Mongolian language, but the Mongols soon found that it was more convenient to continue holding them in Tibetan.

Starting with Kublai Khan in the mid-13th century, the Mongols brought Tibetan culture and Buddhism to northern China. From this time onwards, until the fall of the Manchu Qing Dynasty in the early 20th-century, the Tibetan form of Buddhism was the court religion of China for nearly all its emperors. Although the Manchu Kangyur was actually translated into Manchu from Chinese and not from Tibetan; nevertheless, the Manchus used for their canon not only the Tibetan title “Kangyur,” but also the Tibetan format style for the colophons of each of its texts. At their summer residence in Jehol, present-day Chengde in southern Manchuria, the Manchu emperors even built replicas of the Potala, Norbulingka, Tashilhunpo Monastery, and the main Samye temple, in an attempt to use Tibetan Buddhism and culture as a unifying force for the Tibetans, Mongols, Manchus, and Han Chinese in their empire. Moreover, the Manchus printed many Tibetan Buddhist texts with Manchu transcription for ease of recitation and, in the late 18th century, prepared a Sanskrit-Tibetan-Manchu-Mongolian-Chinese dictionary of Buddhist terms. This indicates that Manchu Buddhists also relied on Tibetan texts for much of their spiritual practice.

Thus, Tibetan remained the principal language of learning and Buddhist practice for many parts of the vast area to which Tibetan culture spread during the pre-modern era, particularly in the various Mongol and Himalayan regions. In short, these Central Asian and Himalayan peoples have traditionally looked to Tibet for spiritual and intellectual leadership. In this way, Tibetan language and culture have traditionally served as means for bringing about global understanding to this vast area.

The Modern Era: General Developments

Since the mid-20th century, many aspects of Tibetan culture have been spreading further abroad, so that now, in the early 21st century, we can safely say that Tibetan culture has a truly global reach. This has been a remarkably fast development, undoubtedly spurred by the arrival of the exile Tibetan community in India and Nepal. For example, when I first started studying Tibetan at Harvard University in 1967, hardly any material was available on Tibetan Buddhism. We had to rely primarily on the works of Evans-Wentz, Alexandra David-Neel, and Lama Govinda. The only Tibetan grammar book available, written by the Christian missionary Jaeschke in the mid-19th century, analyzed the language in terms of Latin grammar. My teacher, Professor Nagatomi, was Japanese and had no idea of how to pronounce the language. He taught it to us in terms of Japanese grammar. The approach to Tibetan studies at Western universities at that time was that it was a dead civilization, akin to ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia, subject to the research and theories of Western scholars concerning what its teachings might possibly have been.

When I first went to India on the Fulbright program in 1969, I had to analyze the sound structure of the Tibetan language myself, like a linguistic anthropologist, in order to learn how to pronounce it. I had no idea of the extent, let alone the contents, of the treasure house of Tibetan knowledge and experience. Everything was unknown. When I studied with Geshe Ngawang Dhargyay, point by point, the oral tradition of lam-rim, the graded stages of the path to enlightenment, for my PhD thesis, I did not even know what point followed next. When I attended discourses and tantric empowerments by great Tibetan lamas, there was no translation. I had almost no idea of what was going on. It was all a great adventure into the unknown.

Now, more than forty years later, the situation is completely different. A large number of Tibetan Buddhist texts and oral teachings and, to a lesser extent, the same from the Bon tradition, are now available translated into several Western and modern Asian languages. Tibetan spiritual masters have founded numerous Buddhist and Bon centers throughout the world, with an ever-growing number of students studying and practicing there. Despite the availability of translations, students at a large number of these centers recite their prayers and practice texts in Tibetan, which they read in transliterated versions in the phonetics of their own languages. As was the case in pre-modern Central Asia and the Himalayan regions, and as is continuing in many areas there today, this helps to build international communities of Buddhist and Bon practitioners, joined together by the fact that all of them do the same spiritual practices in the same language, Tibetan.

Those practitioners and scholars who wish to pursue their studies in more depth have been learning Tibetan through a wide array of textbooks and audio material. Once they have mastered the language, many of them are rendering even more Buddhist and Bon teachings into their own native tongues. Following the example of the various Mongol groups, Tuvans, and Himalayan peoples, a growing number of students from other countries throughout the world have been studying in Tibetan monasteries and nunneries, in Tibetan, and/or doing intensive three-year meditation retreats. Many of them have gone on to become spiritual teachers themselves, spreading Tibetan learning and culture even further afield.

Other aspects of Tibetan culture are also becoming increasingly well-known throughout the world. In pre-modern times, Tibetan medicine, art, monastic architecture, ritual music and dance, astrology, and calendar-making spread throughout all the regions to which Tibetan Buddhism and Bon had diffused. In some cases, such as in Mongolia, Buryatia, and Tuva, local variants developed, for example when certain medicinal ingredients were unavailable and local substitutes required. In other cases, local doctors supplemented the traditional Tibetan versions with elements from their own traditions, for instance Mongolian medical massage. Nowadays, Tibetan doctors in India and Nepal have been treating patients from all over the world and, likewise, several of them supplement the traditional Tibetan diagnostic methods with Western devices such as blood pressure monitors. Many Tibetan doctors trained in the People’s Republic of China, as well as many Mongolian and Buryat doctors of Tibetan medicine also supplement their treatments with traditional Chinese forms of acupuncture, moxibustion, and cupping. A number of Tibetan doctors regularly visit foreign lands and several Tibetan medical clinics have opened outside of Tibet and the Indian subcontinent. Further, Western doctors are conducting research in universities and hospitals on the effectiveness of various Tibetan medicines for the treatment of certain diseases.

Tibetan art and architecture have also become more well-known globally. Museums around the world display collections of Tibetan artwork and sculpture, and an increasing number of foreign Dharma centers and Tibetan refugee and immigrant communities have built Tibetan-style temples in their own areas. Tibetan monasteries in India have sent monks abroad to construct sand mandalas, and groups of monks and nuns to give concerts of ritual chants and dance. Audio and video recordings of these are amply available. Tibetan performing art troupes have made numerous international tours, and a network of Tibet Houses has sprung up around the planet to preserve and promote all the various aspects of Tibetan culture. Through these many ways, Tibetan culture has become renowned throughout much of the world today.

Tibetan culture is enriching the global community in numerous further ways. To promote understanding and to exchange spiritual methods, Tibetan masters have been engaging in dialogues with the spiritual leaders of most of the world religions. They have been participating prominently in interfaith services. Tibetan masters have also been sharing their vast stores of knowledge and experience with leading scientists, psychologists, philosophers, and business and political leaders. Of particular interest has been the relation between mental states, meditation, and health, and between ethics, ecology, and sustainable development. The most outstanding example of such participation is His Holiness the Dalai Lama in his tireless efforts to promote basic human values, secular ethics, and religious harmony.

The Preservation of the Tibetan Oral and Textual Heritage in Its Traditional Forms

Continuing contributions by Tibetan culture to global understanding depend on the preservation of its various elements in two aspects. First is preservation of them in their traditional forms; and second is the evolution of some of these aspects as they interact and adapt to other cultures. This second topic echoes the process whereby Tibet preserved the Buddhist culture of India and Nepal. I shall limit my remarks to Tibet’s oral and textual heritage.

Great progress has been made in the preservation of the Tibetan oral and textual traditions in their original tongue. Only a small fraction of the vast store of Tibetan knowledge and experience has been translated so far into modern European and Asian languages. It is important that this work be completed. What has been translated so far has revealed to the world invaluable insights into the workings of the mind and the universe. This has, in turn, stimulated scientists to investigate topics they had never considered before, such as the role of compassion, mindfulness, and concentration in improving physical and emotional health. The possibilities in the yet-to-be-translated portion for further contributions of methods for fostering inner peace and social harmony are enormous.

Despite the advances in technology available, completion of this translation task will, realistically, take several centuries more. Therefore, the Tibetan oral and textual heritage needs to be preserved in its original language in preparation for the work of future generations. Even when portions of it have already been rendered into other tongues, the translations can be further edited and refined. Moreover, original language material provides fertile ground for continuing research.

Much of the Sanskrit Buddhist tradition was lost with the 12th and 13th-century invasions of India. Tibet was able to preserve only a portion of this rich heritage. The 20th century has seen comparable losses in the Tibetan traditions due to the communist excesses in the Soviet Union, Mongolia, and the People’s Republic of China. Therefore, it is imperative that what remains of the Tibetan oral and textual traditions be located and preserved as soon and as efficiently as possible, for the benefit and enrichment of the world, both present and future.

It is beyond the scope of this talk to catalog all that has been done in the area of preservation of the Tibetan traditions, so let me mention just a few of the outstanding organizations and projects that have undertaken this work. The Library of Tibetan Works & Archives has pioneered the oral side of this field with its Oral History Project, started in 1976. It includes not only audio and video recordings of teachings given by great lamas and firsthand accounts of historical events, but more uniquely it contains recordings of stories, proverbs, and accounts of many facets of traditional Tibetan life. The project has also been preparing a series of transcripts of these interviews, with twenty-three volumes published to date, together with English translations of many of them.

Other major undertakings for recording and preserving, in audio, video, and DVD format, oral teachings given by the great lamas from all the Tibetan traditions include the work of the Orient Foundation and Meridian Trust. Both organizations operate under the umbrella of the Tibetan Knowledge Consortium. In addition, there is the recently founded Hopkins Tibetan Treasures Multimedia Research Archives. Further, most of the Dharma organizations of the lamas, geshes, and khenpos, who have been teaching students around the world, have extensive archives of audio, video, and DVD recordings of the lectures, seminars, and retreats that their teachers have given.

Several organizations have been undertaking the preservation of Tibetan texts. Starting in 1968, the United States Library of Congress New Delhi Office has been collecting, microfilming or scanning, and reprinting a large number of Tibetan texts from all traditions. Under its South Asia Cooperative Acquisitions Program, informally known as the PL-480 program, it has been distributing copies of these to many of the major university libraries in the United States. The former director, Gene Smith, has been continuing this work with the Tibetan Buddhist Research Center. The TBRC now has the largest collection of scanned Tibetan texts in the world, and is making them available for viewing or downloading from its website.

Starting in 1970, the Nepal-German Manuscript Preservation Project microfilmed the entire Sanskrit and Tibetan collections of the National Archives in Kathmandu and is presently cataloguing them. Similarly, member organizations of the Tibetan Knowledge Consortium are cataloguing the vast Tibetan manuscript collections in libraries located in St. Petersburg, Ulaan Baatar, and elsewhere. The Tibetan Buddhist Canonical Collections Catalog Project is compiling comparative data on all extant versions of the Kangyur and Tengyur. Moreover, the British Museum’s International Dunhuang Project is supervising the preservation, conservation, scanning, and cataloguing of the eighth to 10th century texts and artifacts uncovered in the Dunhuang caves in northwestern China, and making them available in digitized form.

To facilitate the use of search engines for studying texts, the Asian Classics Input Project has been digitizing Tibetan texts in Wylie transcription. The Nitartha International Document Input Center is undertaking a parallel project in Tibetan script, using the Sambhota digital font they have developed. To further facilitate the digitization, editing, and use of search engines, the Tibetan and Himalayan Library at the University of Virginia has developed Tibetan Unicode. As there are at present seventeen different methods for encoding Tibetan fonts, the Trace Foundation has developed a Universal Tibetan Font Converter to allow interchange of files.

The Tibetan and Himalayan Library has also produced further resources facilitating research on these Tibetan materials, including an online Tibetan Translation Tool and, in preparation, a Tibetan Literary Encyclopedia, a Tibetan Medicine Encyclopedia, a Tibetan Historical Dictionary, and a Place Dictionary of Tibet and the Himalayas. Similarly, Rangjung Yeshe Institute has an online Dharma Dictionary in a Wikipedia format and the Rigpa Shedra has an online Dharma encyclopedia, the Rigpa Shedra Wiki. Through the combined efforts of all these organizations and projects, and many more, the Tibetan oral and textual heritage is being preserved in the Tibetan language to serve as the basis for furthering global understanding.

The Preservation of the Tibetan Oral and Textual Heritage in Translation

The number of organizations and individuals involved with translating Tibetan texts and oral teachings into modern European and Asian languages is far too large to list. Outstanding among those that are translating from the textual tradition into English are the Library of Tibetan Works & Archives, the Padmakara Translation Group, the Nitartha Institute, the Rangjung Yeshe Institute, the Nalanda Translation Committee, the Dharmachakra Translation Group, the Marpa Institute for Translation, and the Institute of Tibetan Classics.

The various Buddhist and Bon organizations of Tibetan lamas, geshes, and khenpos have been translating and publishing the lectures of their teachers, both in printed and, in some cases, online versions. The same is the case with lectures delivered by these teachers in English or other European languages, often edited by their Western students. There are almost ten thousand titles in print. With such a proliferation of books on Tibetan Buddhism and Bon, global awareness and understanding of the Tibetan spiritual traditions are steadily growing.

A noteworthy development in the preservation of the Tibetan oral and textual heritage in translation has recently emerged. In September 2008, Light of Berotsana convened a Conference of Translators in Boulder Colorado, USA. Over a hundred senior and junior Tibetan translators met to discuss ways in which they could network together to further the dissemination of the teachings of the Tibetan traditions. It was an opportunity for the community of translators to get to know each other and to gain information about each others’ projects and work.

This initial meeting was followed, in March 2009, by Translating the Words of the Buddha: the Khyentse Foundation Translation Conference, held at the Deer Park Institute in Bir, India. This time, fifty senior Tibetan translators, together with senior lamas from each of the four Tibetan Buddhist traditions, met to establish The Buddhist Literary Heritage Project, with Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche as the interim director. The participants formulated a 100-Year Vision, namely “to translate and make universally accessible the Buddhist literary heritage.” The phrase “universally accessible” means translating these texts into the major modern languages of Europe and Asia. The 25-Year Goal is “to translate and make accessible all of the Kangyur and related volumes of the Tengyur and Tibetan commentaries.” The 5-Year Goal is “to translate and publish a representative sample of the Kangyur, Tengyur and Tibetan commentaries and to establish the infrastructure and resources necessary to accomplish the long-term vision.”

An audience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama followed the conference, at which His Holiness kindly offered his support for the project. His Holiness mentioned that many of the texts in the Pali and Chinese Buddhist canons are not available in Tibetan, and vice versa. He suggested that the entire corpus of this material be translated not only into modern languages, but also the Tibetan, Pali, and Chinese canons be expanded to include each other’s full contents. His Holiness also pointed out that although many of the Himalayan people follow Tibetan Buddhism and speak Tibetan dialects, many of them cannot read the classical Tibetan of the texts. It is not possible to translate the texts into these local colloquial dialects, since the Buddhist technical terms in Tibetan have been standardized for many centuries. If these materials were available in English translation, this would greatly help to preserve Tibetan Buddhism among these people.

In short, when the full corpus of Buddhist canonical literature is available in the major world languages, its addition to the world bank of knowledge and its contribution to global understanding will be ensured.

Concluding Remarks

As we have seen, the Tibetan oral and textual heritage has historically played a major role in fostering global understanding throughout Central Asia and the Himalayan regions. At present, many persons and organizations are involved in preserving that heritage and they have made great progress. Preservation, however, does not mean simply making this heritage available in its original form, as a museum exhibition or library collection, or universally available on the Internet. Just as the Tibetan traditions have evolved over the centuries, this process of evolution and growth must continue. This is essential not only for the survival of this rich heritage as a living tradition, but also for its ability to continue contributing to a truly global understanding.

In a world characterized by increasing globalization and information sharing, the Tibetan heritage has a great deal to offer. Every culture has unique, anthropologically interesting features that enrich the so-called “human bio-diversity” of this planet. The Tibetan heritage, however, goes well beyond that. Its Buddhist and Bon traditions transmit insights and methods that enrich the world’s knowledge bank and, through increasing interaction with the heritages of other civilizations, stimulate growth in areas spanning science, medicine, and psychology. Through the guidance, inspiration, and untiring efforts of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan heritage has already made significant contributions to global understanding. Through all our combined efforts, the prospects for further contributions look bright.