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Symbols of Tibetan Buddhism

Symbols of Tibetan Buddhism

Buddhism is a religion and philosophy that developed in northern India between the mid-6th and the mid-4th centuries B.C.E. from the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama (known as "the Buddha," Sanskrit for "enlightened one"). Based on the concepts that suffering is inherent in life and that one can be liberated from it by mental and moral self-purification, Buddhism spread throughout central and eastern Asia and had a major impact on the spiritual and social life of those regions. By the time Buddhism was officially introduced into Tibet in the 7th century A.D., it had become a complex religion with many schools of teaching, a pantheon of gods, and elaborate rituals.

Tibet’s geographic and cultural isolation allowed a distinct form of Buddhism to develop there. Tibetan Buddhism is based on the Vajrayana school, but also incorporates elements of other Buddhist forms as well as indigenous beliefs and practices. A fundamental belief of Tibetan Buddhism is that enlightenment (the complete elimination of all negative aspects of the mind and the perfection of all positive qualities) is latent in every being, and therefore everyone is a potential Buddha. Spiritual pursuits are thus integral to the daily life of all Tibetans, and they are united by their common faith. Until the Chinese occupation of Tibet, Buddhism was the state religion and the Dalai Lama (the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism) was the supreme political head of the nation. Thousands of monasteries were established throughout the country, and spiritual items such as prayer flags and prayer wheels were owned and used by virtually all Tibetans. Objects such as furniture, weapons, and jewelry were typically adorned with at least one symbol of spirituality, so that even everyday items could serve as sources of spiritual energy and as aids in meditation and self-realization.

When China took control of Tibet in the 1950s, they attempted to eliminate the influence of religion in Tibetan life. The Dalai Lama was forced into exile, temples were closed, and religious artifacts were destroyed or banned. A moderation of policy in the 1980s has allowed a return to religious practices in Tibet, although the Chinese government still tightly controls these activities. Tibetan Buddhism also is sustained by the monastic communities and lay practitioners in exile in India, Nepal, and other areas of the world.

This online exhibit presents examples of Tibetan Buddhist ritual and spiritual items from the Museum’s ethnographic collections. Additional items were generously loaned by MU Professor Emeritus Larry Kantner.

Select items are on display in the Museum’s exhibit hall in Swallow Hall through December 2006. The Museum gift shop will also feature many items from the Tibet Collection of dZi, Inc., and from the Tibetan Nuns Project. These products are hand-crafted, fair-trade items made by Tibetan artists and craftspeople living in refugee communities in India and Nepal.

References and Related Links

Beer, R. 1999. The Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs. Boston: Shambhala.

Diemberger, M. 2000. Tibet: The Roof of the World Between Past and Present. Boston: Shambhala.

LaRocca, D. Warriors of the Himalayas: Rediscovering the Arms and Armor of Tibet. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Levenson, C. and L. Hamani. 2000. Symbols of Tibetan Buddhism. New York: Barnes & Noble.

Mullin, G. and A. Weber. 1996. The Mystical Arts of Tibet. Atlanta: Longstreet Press.

Pal, P. 1997. Tibet: Tradition and Change. Albuquerque: Albuquerque Museum.

Peissel, M. 2002. Tibet: The Secret Continent. New York: Thomas Dunne.

Rawson, P. 1991. Sacred Tibet. London: Thames and Hudson.

Buddhanet – Worldwide Buddhist Information and Education Network

Tibetan Book of the Dead (online exhibit at University of Virginia Library)

Tibetan Buddhist Wall Paintings (online exhibit at Brown University Library)

The Government of Tibet in Exile

Text prepared by Mary French, winter 2006.
Photos by Chelsea Bilyeu and Charmagne Thompson.

Prayer Wheel
Prayer Wheel
prayer beads
Prayer Beads
prayer flags
Prayer Flags
prayer cards
Prayer Cards
Ritual Dagger
bow and arrows
Bow, Arrows
bowcase and quiver
Bowcase, Quiver