Exploring the Rich History of an Assimilating Culture
By: Tenzin Kunsang
After years under Chinese occupation, acknowledgement of Tibet as a country has become rare. Many might not even know about the place while those who do know about the country are blinded by the self immolation, imprisonment, and beatings that pervade the country. There is much more to appreciate than the dire conditions portrayed by the media, so I’m here to break down the facts:
The people of Tibet are grounded in their faith. They practice Tibetan Buddhism which is divided into four lineages, all rooted towards one goal.
- Nyingma (རྙིང་མ་): Brought into Tibet by Indian master Padmasambhava, the oldest division focuses on “the great perfection.” It requires viewing the nature of ourselves as well as our surroundings and maintaining this awareness through meditation.
- Kyagyu (བཀའ་བརྒྱུད་): This sector focuses much on meditation and enabling pure awareness through experiential learning rather than just intellect (reverse order of Nyingma).
- Sakya (ས་སྐྱ་): The third lineage heavily embodies Tantric practices and incorporates developmental and completion stages. The former works with the imagination while the latter deals with energy and nerves.
- Gelug (དགེ་ལུགས་): The last division emphasizes Buddhist philosophies: training the mind and practicing meditations to attain understanding of our essence.
The Tibetan language can be divided into many dialects with Ü-Tsang (Standard Tibetan), Kham, and Amdo being the most notable. It consists of 30 alphabets with their creations dating back to the 7th century. The 33rd king of Tibet sent one of his ministers, Thonmi Sambhota, to India to study the art of writing. During the minister’s residence, he curated a book of the 30 alphabets. When studying more about the language, features such as dots at the end of each syllable and lack of separation between words become more patent.
Vibrants colors are synonymous with Tibetan clothing. One well known garment is the chuba, an ankle length robe made from sheep’s wool suited for Tibet’s cold climate. If a woman is married, she’ll wear a pangden—a colorfully striped apron—as well. Accessories such as braid strips and turquoise rings/necklaces are also worn by women and girls. Men, on the other hand, wear Legui, a working dress. In the spring and summer, these dresses are made of cotton and silk while dresses for the fall and winter are made from sheep wool and cow leather. This traditional piece of clothing is worn by tying the sleeves and stuffing it near the waist area to create a drooping aspect that can be used as a pouch. Although these clothing pieces are universal, the specific clothing elements and style depend on the region.
Most dishes in Tibet can be described as plain and simple while others need more time to make.
- Tibetan butter tea is salty rather than sweet, unlike what most people would think. It requires water, black tea, salt, butter, milk, and a container to churn the drink. This drink is used to keep Tibetan nomads warm in the country’s cold climate and is regarded as a mind-body balance booster.
- Tsampa refers to a flour made from barley, a crop cultivated in the high altitudes of Tibet. Adding tea to the flour allows you to mold the once dusty substance into salty bite sized solids. This item is of special significance to Tibetans because it’s seen as an offering to gods and thought to bring good luck.
- Known as “rice beer” in western countries, chang is an alcoholic beverage that requires rice, water, yeast, and a little bit of patience. Just like wine, fermentation needs to occur so you won’t be able to drink this until a few days after making it.
- Dre si is a sweet rice dish that combines food items that you’re likely to find in your kitchen pantry: rice, butter, cashews, raisins, and sugar. What you probably won’t have in your household is droma, a small root grown in Tibet; however, the dish will taste just as good without the root.
- Seen as “Tibetan cookies,” khabsey is a deep fried dish with ingredients such as flour, butter, salt, sugar, water, and oil (for deep frying). These “cookies” can be made into any shape but require a certain level of intricacy to make traditional designs.
- Guthuk is a savory soup-like dish that integrates many items that can be bought from your local grocery store: beef, daikon, spinach, onion, garlic, ginger, salt, oil, water, and flour. The flour is turned into small beads of dough that resemble pasta.
- Red and yellow permeate the streets of Tibet. The color red is said to protect against evil spirits while the color yellow distinguishes aristocrats from commoners. Located in the capital of Tibet, the Potala Palace—on the left—was built during the time of the fifth Dalai Lama. It is recognized as the winter palace of spiritual leader His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and contains thousands of masterful works of art and other significant elements to the Tibetan culture. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. A few years later the Norbulingka and Tsuglagkhang were named World Heritage Sites as well. The Norbulingka, or “Jewelled Park,” is the summer palace of the 14th Dalai Lama. It was built about a century after the Potala Palace and consists of five different palaces, with each embodying a unique aspect of the place. Although not in Tibet, the Tsuglagkhang—in the suburbs of Dharamsala, India—holds just as much significance to Tibetans as other palaces because it’s the permanent residence of exiled spiritual leader the 14th Dalai Lama.
Just like in any other culture, Tibetans practice deep rooted traditions. The most notable are Losar (“Tibetan New Year”), Saga Dawa (“saga” meaning month and “dawa” referencing the star that is visible at the time), and Lhakar (“White Wednesday”). The first two events are based on the Lunar calendar so its dates vary from year to year.
- Losar usually takes place in February or March of the Gregorian calendar. It’s celebrated for 15 days with the peak of celebrations occurring in the first three days. On the first day, Tibetans wear their new clothes and gather with family members to celebrate with chang and khabsey. On the second day, people visit friends and relatives to partake in “chemar,” an auspicious offering in which people make gestures with grains of wheat and barley. On the third day, Tibetans congregate in a monastery and toss tsampa in the air for happiness in the new year.
- Saga Dawa honors three main events of Buddha’s life: the birth, enlightenment, and death. During this month, Tibetans try to practice more compassion and virtue because the fourth month of the Lunar calendar grants more merit in one’s actions. Tibetans gain merit by visiting monasteries and other holy sites, praying and reciting mantras, donating money, and/or refraining from meat.
- Lhakar is not a yearly event, rather a weekly one. Every Wednesday, Tibetans make an extra effort to embody Tibetan culture whether it be through clothing, food, speaking, etc. Regarded as a non violent cultural movement, Lhakar opens doors for many to preserve the Tibetan culture and their identity.
Many may know the Dalai Lama from the cover of Time magazine or as the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize; however, Tibetans value him on a much deeper level. Seen as the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama, he was appointed full political power of Tibet at the age of 15. In 2011, he gave up his title as a political leader and chose to lead the people of Tibet as a spiritual leader. He continues to advocate for compassion and urges the Tibetan people to preserve the Tibetan culture.
Tibetan culture is one of the many cultures that is slowly losing its dominance in the world. Even if you don’t speak the language, partake in the traditions, or practice the prayers, it’s important to recognize, appreciate, and advocate for those who are unable to do so.