Ladakh came firmly under the Buddhist influence via Tibet. Guru Padmasambhava was the pioneer of Buddhism in Tibet, travelling up from India in the eighth century AD. He was also one of the pioneers of Tantric of Mystic Buddhism, which evolved from Mahayana Buddhism, and encompasses the Vajrayana teachings. Tantric Buddhism is more esoteric and complex in nature and is found in Ladakh and Sikkim, having originated in Tibet. The Supreme Tantra combines male and female tantras, one of which is the deity Kalchakra. Meditation and rituals conducted towards the deity, and his consort Viswamata, for attaining Nirvana are known as the Kalchakra Puja. The Dalai Lama is the ultimate authority in teaching this puja, which His Holiness performs to initiate disciples through an elaborate ceremony every three to four years. Once initiated, the disciples are to practice the tantras diligently to attain Nirvana. Legend has it that Padmasambhava was invited to assist a local prince who was thwarted by demons from building a gompa at Samye, in Tibet. Armed with his dorje (thunderbolt) he overcame the demons, completed the construction of the gompa and installed in it the first community of lamas.
The native religion of Tibet was Bon and Padmasambhava was responsible for fusing this animistic set of beliefs and rituals with Buddhism, which resulted in the establishment of the Red Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism. This later split into three main strands, the original known as the Nyingma, the Kargyu inspired by Gurus Naropa and Marpa and the Sakya by the Indian yogi Virupa. Reforms in the Red Hat sect led to the Gelugpa (Yellow Hat) sect becoming the dominant force from the sixteenth century onwards. Clashes between the two sects led to the Red Hats crossing into Sikkim and establishing the Buddhist monarchy in that region.
The form of Buddhism followed in Ladakh is known as lamaistic Buddhism. This form is heavily influenced by the pre-Buddhist Bon religion of Tibet and is distinguishable by the banners and stone inscriptions carrying pictures of Bon demons and gods.
At the pinnacle of the lamaistic pantheon, is the trinity of Avalokiteswara, Manjusri and Vajrapani. The religion has been in existence in Tibet since the sixth century and represents the more monastic tradition. The discipline requires long hours of meditation and years of study by the monks who live in various gompas.
The original religion was modified by Guru Padmasambhava and entered Ladakh by the tenth century. The sage Naropa is reputedly the founder of one of the earliest gompas, Lamayuru, where as per legend, he drained a lake-filled valley so the gompa could be built. The Sani Gompa at Padum, in Zanskar, is also attributed to Naropa’s miraculous deeds. In the eleventh century, monks seeking patronage in the region, established the gompa at Alchi which is the best surviving example of the beautiful and intricate Buddhist art of the period. Around this time, the renowned Buddhist scholar and teacher, Ringchen Zangpo, ‘the great translator’, set up 108 gompas in Western Tibet and Ladakh.
The greatest influence however, came in the fourteenth century, with the saint Tsong Khapa introducing the Gelugpa order which became the dominant force in Tibet and, by proxy, in Ladakh. The gompas at Thikse, Likir and Stakna were founded by this order in the fifteenth century and the Dalai Lama is regarded as their head.
In ancient times Chortens, (Tibetan for stupas), were built as relic holders, but are now mainly built in honor of the living Buddhas or Bodhisattvas.
Bodhisattvas are beings who have attained enlightenment, but refusing to accept Nirvana choose to reincarnate so they can help release sentient beings caught in the cycle of suffering and rebirth. The Bodhisattva will not accept the reward of Nirvana till all beings have been led to enlightenment. Some of the most revered Bodhisattvas are Maitreya, Avalokiteswara, Padmasambhava, Vajrapani, etc.
The Wheel of Life
The Wheel (Mandala) is a description of life, with all its circumstances that is called samsara or sangsara – the unsatisfactory cycle of life, end of it and resurrection that can persist never endingly except if we work to change the situation.
Prayer Flags and Prayer Wheels
Chortens are usually surrounded by prayer flags and prayer wheels. The flags are often white in color, representing purity of thought and are supposed to carry the prayers of the faithful on the wings of wind.
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