Tibet is a giant plateau region in Central Asia, just north of the Himalayan Mountain range. Explorers have called Tibet “The Roof of the World” because it’s highest region on earth. Its average altitude is fifteen thousand feet. By contrast, the average altitude of Kokomo, Indiana is 33 feet. This has made Tibet a very difficult region to visit for a very long time. Since 1950, Tibet has been officially a part of China called the Tibetan Autonomous Region, and airports, roads, and a massive train line now make getting there a little easier. Even so, it takes visitors some time to adjust to the height. The air is pretty thin. Because of its long isolation, Tibet has a unique and wondrous culture and history, filled with intrigue, violence, tragedy, hope, and yes, lots of yaks. Follow the links on the side to explore!
The population of the Tibetan Autonomous Region is about 3 million people. Another 2 million Tibetans live in neighboring provinces of China, India, Nepal and Bhutan. Rougly 130,000 more Tibetans live in exile around the world. Most Tibetans are farmers or nomadic herders of yaks sheep, and other livestock, although more and more young Tibetans are moving to cities, changing centuries old patterns of life.
Culture is a reflection of the ideas, beliefs and values of a specific group of people in a specific time and place. It changes and it varies and it’s not easy to sum up for anyone. And Tibet holds a place in the imagination of non-Tibetans as a land of mystics and sages. Like any real place, its culture is much more complicated than that. There is a long tradition of written literature in Tibet, as well as dance, drama and art. In recent years, there has been a strong and deliberate effort on the part of the Chinese government to place their ideas, beliefs, and values onto to Tibet. They even went so far as to ban the teaching of Tibetan language in school, but students took to the streets in protest.
Tibet is very famous for its religious culture. A majority of Tibetans practice Tibetan Buddhism, a distinctive form of Buddhism, which reveres certain teachers and monks as lamas, reincarnations of famous spiritual masters. Like all Buddhists, Tibetan Buddhists base their practice on the teachings of the historical Buddha, a philosopher who lived in the fifth century B.C.E. His basic teachings stress morality, compassion, and respect for others, as well as self-discipline and wisdom. Professor Robert Thurman, a teacher far wiser than myself, explains, “Buddhists believe that everything in life is in a constant state of change. People do not realize they are part of the flow of the universe. They struggle to maintain a sense of permanence for their separate selves. However, nothing is separate or permanent. Everyone dies and is reborn an indefinite number of times. The effects of one's past actions (karma) determine the quality of life a person experiences each time…[but] only by eliminating ignorance…can humans end suffering and attain peace. This state of inner peace and enlightenment is called nirvana.
An even older religious practice in Tibet is called Bön. It is, in fact, the oldest spiritual tradition in Tibet. Its followers are called Bönpo, who strive to achieve peace and balance, much like Buddhists. Many of its practices influenced Tibetan Buddhism, such as the use of oracles, the exorcising of spirits, and the concept of the soul, but there is much for outsiders still to learn about the Bön religion, as it has been pushed to the sidelines in Tibetan culture for many, many years. Only recently have explorers found an ancient treasure-trove of Bon texts, some completely unknown, hidden in caves in the Mustang province of neighboring Bhutan. Our understanding of Bön history and tradition continues to grow.
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Bön entry on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/B%C3%B6n
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Secrets of Shangri-La: Quest for Sacred Caves
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