Taoist mythology, Lanna history, mythology, the nature of time and other considered ramblings

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Location: Chiangrai, Chiangrai, Thailand

Author of many self-published books, including several about Thailand and Chiang Rai, Joel Barlow lived in Bangkok 1964-65, attending 6th grade with the International School of Bangkok's only Thai teacher. He first visited ChiangRai in 1988, and moved there in 1998.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Tibet, Mongolia, empire, religion and tribes

Parallels between the “mysterious (or historically neglected) East and the known West can be fascinating – for instance the “Manifest Destiny” westward expansion in what became the USA, and eastern expansion, past the Ural Mountains, of Russian people.
A case might be made for similarity between Roman Emperor Constantine, and Genghis Khan. Both seem to have found religion useful for purposes of empire.

It’s said, around 100CE a Fourth Buddhist Council was held in Sri Lanka, and there, then, details about Buddhist religion were first written down (on palm leaves). This seems to have been at least 500 years after Siddharta Gautama became Buddha, or died, even.
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “No single version of the life of the Buddha would be accepted by all Buddhist traditions.” It may be debatable whether early Buddhism prohibited depiction of the Buddha in bodily form but allowed representation by certain symbols, but I can remember places of Buddhist worship that did not use effigies.
It’s debatable whether examination of core concepts of most religions share many basic ideas: about floods, war amongst the Gods, religious names, laws, prophets, etc., and whether they all arose in navigable river basins, and when (some say: around the same time that there was a global rise in sea levels, at the end of the last ice age, about 10,000 BCE). Maybe remnants of a global culture survived inland along the banks of the world's great rivers, but lost contact with each other and evolved in their own divergent ways, while retaining many core beliefs. Maybe a lot of things, but there’s good reason to question much of the teaching that goes on – and much of what’s accepted as true.
Voltaire, Tom Paine and other people of long ago questioned the “received wisdom” of those born to power, and it’s good to see others still doing so now – though their numbers seem to me distressingly small. I find it hilarious that 100 years ago there were Englishmen claiming 90% of all that can be known already was (and wonder if those making that claim were members of the preposterous “Church of England” – the absurdity of nationalism taken to perhaps its greatest height; I mean really… when I saw signs in northern Myanmar for “Southern Baptist” churches, I thought that quite ridiculous enough, not yet realizing how preposterous that other church title – normal, unquestioned, and long of great power - is).
I just discovered it convincingly claimed that “Buddhism came of age in India but was born and reared in the chrysalis of Persia. Although persecuted by kings, it once flourished in Iran. That the cultural history of Nepal offers nothing that can be seen as a prelude to Buddhism is not surprising in view of the numerous forgeries that underlie Nepalese archaeology.” That’s from “Indian researcher” Dr. Ranajit Pal (see & for details – I haven’t yet… the government of the country where I live busily censors sites – another I’d like to read, but can’t, is on how capitalism has ruined democracy). Pal claims Buddhism arose, not in North India, but in what was once Persia, and is now Iran, in an area formerly part of India (so called India within Iran). That comes from - “Thai School Daze, The Historical Buddha, an Earth-moving Discovery?”, Sept. 17, 2007.

Discussing the new generation of academic books meant to find popularity among general audiences I thought to say I’d like to see one on Tibet-Mongolia relations. Afterwards I did a google search and checked some entries in Britannica, and then produced the following:
7th century monk Hsüan-tsang traveled from China to India for Buddhist texts, and found “millions of monasteries” reduced to ruins by the Huns (Hsiang-nu), nomadic Central (or perhaps Altaic) people. Many remaining Buddhists had become involved in developing a form of Tantrism, an esoteric psychic-physical system of belief Indian Buddhism revived, especially in the northeast, and flourished for a time under Pāla kings (8th to 12th century CE), and the university of Nālandā became a centre for study of Tantric Buddhism and the practice of Tantric magic and rituals. Under the Pāla kings, contacts with China decreased as attention turned to Tibet and Southeast Asia. Then, with the collapse of the Pāla dynasty in the 12th century CE, Buddhism in India suffered another defeat, from which it hasn’t recovered except with “Untouchable” caste people looking for a way out of an oppressive cultural system (mostly fairly recently). Though some pockets of Buddhism and Buddhist influence remained, after Islamic invaders sacked Indian monasteries in the 12th century, Buddhism found little basis for recovery, especially as the Buddhist laity retained little interest.
Early Chinese (Han) grew millet in the Yellow River valley, while Tibeto-Burmans remained nomads. Tibet split from Burma about 500 CE, and while Tibetan language is a member of the Tibeto-Burman branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family (a linguistic construct of somewhat dubious viability), it’s been claimed that Tibetans share genetic background with Mongols. Other mutual influences are clearer. There seems to be an Indo-Scythian component to both (but that construct has problems too – the Scythian component may well have traveled to, more than through, India). A romantic claim that the Hopi of the US Southwest and Tibetans are cousins has found support in depictions of strong cultural similarities between the two groups: a Zuni-Japan connection has also been explored, but that kind of conjecture is hypothetical indeed.
In Tibet, a distinctive form of Buddhism evolved from the 600s CE. In the 600s, Tibet was a powerful kingdom with cultural contacts to China, India and Western Turkic groups in Central Asia. Buddhism was transmitted into Tibet mainly during the 7th to 10th centuries. Notable early teachers were the illustrious 8th century Tantric master Padmasambhava and the more orthodox Mahāyāna teacher Śāntirakṣita. In 1042 a teacher from India initiated a reform movement; within a century the major sects of Tibetan Buddhism had emerged. By the 12th century CE Tibet had become almost exclusively focused in importing and developing Indian forms of Buddhism and art.
The first major historical incursion into Tibet, by the Mongols, left a lasting legacy which still influences Tibet today. From another remote, land-locked country, the Mongols built a huge empire which included most of Asia, all of Russia and, briefly, parts of Eastern Europe.
Genghis Khan attacked northern China in 1210 CE, but according to the Mongol’s Secret History , it was only after the war against the Muslim empire of Khwarezm, while he was in the Oxus region, probably in late 1222, that Genghis Khan learned from Islamic advisers the “meaning and importance of towns.” Another adviser, formerly in the service to the Chin emperor, explained to him the uses of peasants and craftsmen as producers of taxable goods. He had intended to turn the cultivated fields of north China into grazing land for his horses, but began to develop bigger ideas. It’s said Genghis was stopped from advancing into India by a fall from his horse and a dream interpreted by one of his advisors as death for the Mongols should they invade India. True or not, Mongol dependence on their small horses kept them from achieving domination over swampy lower Burma, where horse hoofs sank into tricky root systems. Genghis died in 1227; in 1235; the Mongols launched an attack on Tibet (finished in 1239). It’s not clear that Genghis wanted to convert his people, but like Constantine I (“the Great”; 280 – 337 CE), he may well have perceived the benefits. Britannica reports very differently from my understanding of Constantine, whom I understand to have converted only on his death-bed, after greatly assisting in the development of the Church for what seem to me quite clearly political reasons.

It’s possible that Genghis Khan had some interest in Buddhism, but Buddhism made its major entry into Mongolia in 1244, when an important Lama went to the Mongolian court and fully submitted to Mongolian authority. The Lama's nephew became an intimate of Kublai Khan, and Kublai a patron of Buddhist religion. A Patron and Priest relationship, by which the ruler of Tibet (the predominant grand lama) was regarded as the religious adviser and priest of the Emperor, existed until the Ming drove the Mongols out, and Tibet proceeded to remove traces of Mongol influence. But influence from Tibet on Mongolia was much more considerable, especially in that Tibet provided a script for the writing of Mongolian language.
In China, the descendants of Kublai became Sinicized (Sinified? My spell-check doesn’t like either one); in Central and Western Asia, Mongols adopted Islam and Islamic culture, while in southern Russia and at home, they retained nomadic ways. Many intermingled with Turkic peoples, especially the Kipchak. Arabic and Tatar replaced Mongol as the official language of the Golden Horde.
The Tibetan nation can be divided into several groups, including the Ando, Nachan, and Hor, who further divide into 39 to 51 sub-tribes, each maintaining a distinct identity. The Hor, who are further sub-divided into thirty-nine sub-tribes, are of Mongolian and Turkic descent. Central Tibetans display a strong Mongolian genetic component, while the Kham (also known as the Khampa) are taller and longer-limbed, with sharper features and more aquiline noses, and perhaps somewhat of Scythian descent. The Eastern Tibetans are not as mixed as the Central Tibetans in the sedentary areas. At any rate, with Han Chinese expansion, animistic tribal peoples loath to succumb to hegemony found refuge in mountainous areas of southern and western China. It seems – linguistically – that some also left Tibet for less feudal, controlled and culturally stultifying, areas.
The Yi (Lolo or Wu-man), an ethnic group of Austroasiatic origin living largely in the mountains of southwest China, speak a Tibeto-Burman language; the term is used by the Chinese to designate what they formerly called the Lolo or Wu-man. They numbered about 5.9 million in the late 20th century. Their principal concentrations are in Yunnan and Szechwan provinces, with smaller numbers in northwestern Kweichow and the northern part of Kwangsi Chuang autonomous region. Almost two-thirds of the Yi live in Yunnan. The Yi language is spoken in six relatively distinct dialects. Among lesser minorities within the Yi language group are the Lisu, Na-hsi (Naxi or Moso, a branch of the Hsi-fan subgroup), Hani, Lahu, Pai and the Ching-p'o, who speak the same language as the Kachin of upper Burma. Many Na-hsi embrace Tibetan Buddhism; they also believe in various spirits and demons and, along with their shamans, have priest-exorcists of the Bon cult of Tibet.
In Yunnan, the Yi are the largest minority group in the province. Once rulers of large parts of Yunnan, the Yi are a hill people with subsistence agriculture and proud warrior traditions. Linguistically, they belong to the Tibeto-Burman group. Second largest in population are the Pai in northwestern Yunnan. Long Sinicized, the Pai are rice cultivators who are among the original inhabitants of the region.
Non-Chinese Sino-Tibetan languages of China include some Lolo-type languages (Burmish)—Yi, with nearly 7 million speakers in Yunnan, Szechwan, Kweichow, and Kwangsi; Hani (Akha) with about 500,000 speakers in Yunnan; Lisu, with 610,000 speakers in Yunnan; Lahu, with about 440,000 speakers in Yunnan; and Na-hsi, with approximately 300,000 speakers mostly in Yunnan and Szechwan. Other Sino-Tibetan languages in Yunnan and Szechwan are Kachin and the closely related Atsi (Tsaiwa); Achang, Nu, Pumi (Primi), Ch'iang, Gyarung, Hsifan; and Pai (Minchia, probably a separate branch within Sinitic).

Seems to me these escapees from the feudalism inherent in empire and organized religion are important vestibules of ancient wisdom (to me, at least, demonstrably there whether one prefers to believe in it or not) but becoming increasingly “assimilated” and absorbed. Money, drugs, well-patrolled national borders and increasingly accessible communication technologies have worked, and will continue to work, to decrease diversity, and limit our options, alternatives and ability to successfully evaluate much about life. Sorry to slip into preaching…



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