There are few regions that have been more misunderstood by the West than Tibet. It is still often portrayed in the West as the “Shangri-la” that was described in the 1933 novel Lost Horizon, one of the earliest references to Tibet in English-speaking culture. In Tibet: History, Culture, and Religion, Professor Constance Kassor will show you the real, multi-dimensional Tibet and its people who live on the “Roof of the World.” In 24 fascinating lectures, you will learn about the issues that form the existential threat few other regions face: This is the real Tibet.
Tibet: History, Culture, and Religion
Constance Kassor is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Lawrence University, where she teaches courses on Buddhist thought and Asian religious traditions. She earned her PhD in Religious Studies with a concentration in West and South Asian Religions from Emory University. She has spent several years living with Tibetan Buddhist communities in India and Nepal. Her research has been supported by grants from the Fulbright Program, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Khyentse Foundation.
01: Life at the Roof of the World
Dive into the many facets of Tibet and learn why this ancient land is not the “Shangri-la” so often portrayed in the West. Neither is it a mystical place full of happy, meditating monks and carefree nomads, nor an odd jumble of spiritualism mixed with pseudo-psychology. This is your introduction to the real Tibet—a complex intersection of multifaceted geopolitical concerns.
02: When the Dalai Lama Broke with China
China annexed Tibet in 1951, and has designated it the Tibet Autonomous Region since 1965. From the Chinese government’s perspective, the region is semi-autonomous but by no means independent. Look deeper into the many negotiations between the Dalai Lama, as the Tibetan leader, and China, and why the Dalai Lama finally felt he had no choice but to lead his government in exile.
03: The Birth of Buddhism’s Powerful Gelug Sect
Learn about the history of the Gelug tradition, which started in 1359 with a drop of blood from the umbilical cord of a monk named Tsongkhapa Lobsang Drakpa. Discover how Tsongkhapa went on to become the first of about 100 leaders of the Gelug sect, and why the New Kadampa Tradition opposes the traditions of the current Dalai Lama.
04: The Zhang Zhung and Yarlung Dynasties
Discover the creation story of the Tibetan people—probably one of the earliest creation stories to include a pre-Darwinian idea of evolution. Learn about the ancient texts in the Magao Caves, or Cave 17 known as the Library Cave, at Dunhuang. These texts remain untranslated and undeciphered, sealed off for unknown reasons since the 11th century. What could these texts reveal about the early Tibetan dynasties?
05: Tibetan Prehistory in Folktales and Song
Learn about the Tibetan Epic of Gesar, considered to be the longest piece of literature in the world, at an estimated one million lines. In 2009, the Epic of Gesar was added to UNESCO’S Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. You’ll also discover the trickster Aku Tonpa, another popular folklore character, many of whose lessons can be compared to Buddhist ethics.
06: How the Tibetan Language Invented an Empire
The Tibetan language did not exist in standard written form until the seventh century when King Songtsen Gampo directed its creation so he could better give orders. Learn how his admiration of Indian scholasticism paved the way for the translation of Indian Buddhist texts into Tibetan, allowing for the spread of Buddhism throughout the land and the role that Chinese Buddhists played.
07: The Buddha and the Four Noble Truths
Discover how the Buddhist religion and philosophy first began with a prince named Siddhartha who wanted to see the world outside his palace. Abandoning various extreme ways of living and following a middle path instead, Siddhartha achieved enlightenment. He became the Buddha, the Awakened One, teaching four noble truths related to the elimination of suffering in the world.
08: Christians, Muslims, and Bonpos of Tibet
Learn about the most widespread religion among non-Buddhist Tibetans, Bön, and discover the complex relationship between the two religions. Even today, it’s not difficult to see the ways in which Tibetan Buddhism retains influences from Bön, compared to other forms of Buddhism around the world. Learn how Christians and Muslims also manage to exercise their religious beliefs, even under Chinese control.
09: Tibetan Tantra and Taboo
Examine the differences between the sutras and tantras of Tibetan Buddhism. Learn why the tantric practices—although performed with the ultimate goal of attaining liberation from the cycle of suffering and rebirth, just like sutras—were often considered dangerous if they fell into the wrong hands and so were rarely written down.
10: The Good Eating and Fun of Tibetan Cuisine
You might assume that because so many Tibetan people are Buddhist, they would tend toward vegetarianism. But because of the difficulty of growing vegetables at such high altitude, meat and animal products are important staples of a Tibetan diet. Discover the many different foods made from female yak milk, as well as the bite-sized momos, pak, and thukpa soup.
11: What Makes Tibetan Buddhism Different?
Learn how the establishment and spread of Tibetan Buddhism was influenced by the men known as the “Three Dharma Kings”—Songtsen Gampo, Trisong Detsen, and Ralpachen. Discover how they brought their earthly loves, scholastic interests, and particular teachings to Tibet from India and how that affected the development of current-day Tibetan Buddhism.
12: Tibetan Buddhism’s Oldest Sect: Nyingma
Discover the teachings and practices of the Nyingma tradition, Tibetan Buddhism’s oldest sect, and the one most closely associated with Padmasambhava. Padmasambhava is more than a historical figure for Tibetan Buddhists; he is an ever-present force in the world, almost on par with the Buddha himself. Learn why scholars say that without Padmasambhava’s influence, Buddhism might never have taken hold in Tibet.
13: Tibetan Buddhism’s Revival
Discover why the story of the three monks who fled to Amdo after the assassination of the last Tibetan emperor in the ninth century of the Common Era was crucial to Tibetan Buddhism. Learn how the period known as “the later Dissemination” allowed for a comeback of the religion even 200 years later.
14: Tibet’s Reincarnation Tradition: Tulkus
The head of the Karma Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism is a figure known as the Karmapa. All Karmapas are considered to be reincarnated masters whose lineage stretches back to the original Karmapa. Learn about these tulkus, who are believed to be highly realized beings continually and purposefully reborn for the benefit of others.
15: Sakya Buddhism: 1,000 Years of Family Rule
Unlike the other major sects of Tibetan Buddhism, the Sakya school has been grounded in family lineage for the past many centuries; all leaders are part of the Khön family. Learn about the many political and religious changes Tibet has seen during this family’s rule. Although the family is no longer directly involved in Tibet’s political leadership, religious leadership is still passed down along family lines.
16: Tibetan Nomads under Chinese Centralization
A large percentage of Tibetans have lived as nomads for thousands of years, playing an important role in the early development of Asia’s Silk Road a century or two before the Common Era. Discover how decisions by the Chinese authorities are affecting this lifestyle in part by limiting traditional patterns of migration, and why Tibetans are not in favor of the Chinese-sponsored resettlement programs.
17: The Festivals of Tibet’s 354-Day Calendar
In addition to the many lesser festivals celebrated throughout Tibet, nearly everyone celebrates the Tibetan New Year, Losar, with dancing, visiting family, a home altar, special foods, and honoring personal religious traditions. Learn how Tibetans are now using not Losar to protest Chinese rule by quietly not celebrating the holiday, even as more traditional forms of protest have been outlawed.
18: The Dalai Lamas’ Mysterious Lives and Deaths
Tenzin Gyatso—the fourteenth and current Dalai Lama—describes himself as a “simple monk” even though he has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for trying to broker peace between his homeland and the Chinese. Discover the religious and political contexts surrounding the Dalai Lama tradition, and why the tulku tradition is so important to him and all the Dalai Lamas who came before him.
19: Tibet’s Old Traditions Enter a New Century
The monk Gendun Drub, a disciple of the founder of the Gelug tradition, became known as the first Dalai Lama. Tibetan Buddhists have viewed every Dalai Lama since as reincarnations of this first master. Learn about the significant geo-political developments faced by the thirteenth Dalai Lama and how the current Dalai Lama was identified as the reincarnation of Gendun Drub.
20: World War II, China, and the 14th Dalai Lama
In October 1950, the newly formed communist People’s Republic of China sent troops into Tibet, and the Dalai Lama formally assumed office a little more than a month later, at age 15. Discover the young Dalai Lama’s numerous attempts at peace making, including meeting with Mao Zedong in Beijing, and why he eventually fled Tibet to lead his government while in exile in Dharamsala, India, where he lives still.
21: Tibetan Diaspora: Hardship and New Realities
Today, more than 100,000 Tibetans have fled Chinese rule and live in at least 40 countries around the world. Learn about the issues faced by Tibet and its government in exile—the Central Tibetan Administration—as Tibetans in the diaspora feel their connection to their homeland weaken as time passes.
22: How Tibetan Art Keeps Heart and Soul Alive
Learn how Tibetan artists have kept their religious art alive under Chinese rule. Explore the thangka paintings often depicting mandalas, bodhisattvas, or lineages of teachers. You’ll also learn about iconography on altars and some of the most common Tibetan Buddhist symbolism in art, including the four harmonious friends, wheel of existence, eight auspicious symbols—and the swastika.
23: A Future Tibet without the Dalai Lama?
Since 2008, foreign journalists have not been allowed into central Tibet unless accompanied by government-approved guides. Pictures of the Dalai Lama and singing of the national anthem are officially banned. And yet, it is the Dalai Lama who has kept the world’s attention on the plight of Tibet. Consider some of the existential issues that could arise after the passing of the fourteenth Dalai Lama.
24: The History of Tibet in 24 Questions
Learn about The Tibetan Book of the Dead and its influence on the U.S. counterculture in the 1960s, as well as other cultures around the world. You’ll discover why some academic authorities say the book is not really Tibetan, a book, or about death. Instead, it is an odd jumble of spiritualism mixed with pseudo-psychology that would seem almost bizarre to most Tibetan Buddhists. The course then concludes with a summary question and answer.