The spread of dharma

The spread of dharma

Acclaimed art historian Benoy Behl screened his latest documentary Indian Roots of Tibetan Buddhism to a full-house at the Gulmohar Hall, India Habitat Centre, recently.

The film is a beautiful, and probably the first, audio-visual documentary of the transfer of Buddhist teachings from India to Tibet. Amongst many others, the film also has an interview of the Dalai Lama where the spiritual leader states that Tibet owns its Buddhist heritage to India. He also quotes his favourite and often-repeated line: “India is the guru of Tibet. We are your reliable chelas. It is a unique relationship: guru and chela.”
The 25-minute film covers great distances and time spans, ranging from the ancient universities of India like Nalanda and Taxila to the monasteries of Tibet’s mountainous lands. Walking through the well-maintained ruins of Nalanda, the filmmaker informs us, “From here, through several masters and monks, the Nalanda tradition of Buddhism travelled to Tibet. In the 8th century, Trisong Detsen, the great Tibetan King invited Shantarakshita, the abbot of Nalanda to introduce dharma to the land of snows. Subsequently, treatises by all great Nalanda masters like Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, Arya Asanga and Chandrakirti travelled to Tibet and spread the word.”

It is said that Tibet followed Bon - an animistic and shamanistic religion - till about 640 CE. In that year, King Songtsen Gampo unified Tibet through military conquest and took two Buddhist wives - princess Bhrikuti of Nepal and princess Wen Cheng of China. The prince-sses are credited with introducing their husband to Buddhism. Songtsen Gampo built the first Buddhist temples in Tibet - Jokhang in Lhasa and Changzhug in Nedong. He also put Tibetan translators to work on the Sanskrit scriptures from India.

Geshe Samten, Vice Chancellor of the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, says in the film, “Tibetan scholars made special efforts to translate the Sanskrit works into Tibetan language by developing the latter in such a manner that it could retain the thematic meaning, as well as the literal meaning with the great precision. The translations were done word by word and sentences by sentences. The precision that is maintained in Tibetan is unparalleled.”

All the four schools of Buddhism in Tibet were also either established by Indian monks or Tibetan disciples of Indian Buddhist masters. These are, namely, the Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug schools. Even the practice of Buddhism in Tibet – a unique confluence of all three branches: Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana, is considered a result of various Buddhist influences coming from all over India and neighbouring countries.

As another interviewee in the film, director of Tibet House in Delhi, Geshe Dorji, says, “This knowledge is pure knowledge. It has nothing to do with dogma. It has nothing to do with religion as such. So therefore, I call it a legacy of India, the legacy of the world. It must not disappear, it must remain for long.”

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