Tibetan mythology refers to the traditional as well as the religious stories that have been passed down by the Tibetan people. Tibetan mythology is comprised mainly of national mythology stemming from the Tibetan culture as well as religious mythology from both Tibetan Buddhism and Bön Religion. These myths are often passed down orally, through rituals or through traditional art like sculptures or cave paintings. They also feature a variety of different creatures ranging from gods to spirits to monsters play a significant role in Tibetan mythology with some of these myths have broken into mainstream Western media, with the most notable one being the Abominable Snowman – the Yeti.
National Tibetan mythology stems from the history of the country and is often passed down either through word of mouth or through forms of art like cave paintings. This includes images of sacred mythological creatures like the Five Clawed Great Eagle of the Sky. Cave paintings were also used to record information about how the Tibetan people lived as well as valued their religion as well as gods during the time the cave painting was created.
Some of the most known national myths in this include perhaps one of the most well-known myths, the Tibetan creation myth, Pha Trelgen Changchup Sempa who was believed to be the monkey ancestor of the Tibetan people. Many versions of this myth are presented however the widely accepted version being that the monkey ancestor, Pha Trelgen Changchup Sempa arrived in Tibet when the world was covered in water and eventually had children that were baby monkeys. These children eventually learned how to use tools, harvest crops, and become self-sufficient and created a civilization, the Tibetan people are said to be descendants of this civilization.
Many traditional Tibetan myths are based on its unique landscape being located atop a plateau and amongst many mountains. Some of these notable myths include ‘Wild Men of the Tibetan Steppes’, which tells the tale of groups of hairy wild men that were said to be living on the peaks of Tibet amongst the snow and mythical white lions. They were said to be hairy naked savages by some, and the Mongolians referred to them as wild men or bamburshe. Others have said that the footprints of these supposed wild men were actually from bears. The immured anchorite is another myth which concerns monks that are confined within a dark, stony walled space only enough fit for one person and would meditate in that small space for the whole of their lives, with a single hole present as to be able to pass food and drink through. These monks take a vow to live their lives in the darkness and these stone walls are not only the place they spend their entire life in but also their tomb. Despite having many national Tibetan myths that are based on the culture and environment in Tibet, there are many myths that share similarities to the mythology from other cultures as Tibet shares borders spanning across different countries. This includes the Epic of King Gesar a ballad follows the story of a brave and fearless lord, Gesar from the mythical kingdom of GLing, and the various heroic deeds he accomplished. Although this is a myth which is a well-known Tibetan myth in the form of an epic poem that is still being sung in the form of a ballad by many throughout Tibet, Mongolia, and much of Central Asia.
The religious mythology present in Tibetan mythology is mostly from Vajrayana Buddhism and Bön Religion. Although the two are separate religions, they are often blended together within Tibetan mythology. Buddhism originally spread from India to Tibet and many myths have been passed down through the form of artworks involving the Samsara, which is the Buddhist cycle of life and death that is at the bane of Buddhism. Bon religion, on the other hand, is a Tibetan religion that has many shared beliefs with Buddhism and has many myths that originate before Buddhism was introduced into the country.Bon religion primarily involves making peace between the human and celestial realms and is closely linked to Tibetan folklore. Religious concepts such as the Rainbow body level of realization are also present in this category.
Ideas of reincarnation as well as ghosts and spirits also appear often in these myths as the cycle of rebirth is a concept that entails souls as a temporary form, where some souls become ghosts and roam the world if this cycle is disrupted or unable to be completed. For example in Tibet there are a series of popular narratives regarding death and the afterlife in Buddhism, a story known as ‘A ghost in Monk’s Clothes’ is one of these narratives which depicts ghosts as the lingering souls of humans who are unable to move on and that in order to move on, understanding the samsara as well as reflecting on one’s life is required. These two qualities are rooted in Buddhism.Buddhist art is often used to record and display myths and is often art that requires active participation from the viewer in order to create meaning for the piece, this also means that it is not just trying to tell a story but also portray a mentality and way of thinking. This idea in Buddhism has been present in Tibetan mythology for a long time and is often seen in Buddhist sculptures throughout history. Although Bon religion and Buddhism are the main religions where most of the myths stem from, Tibet is located in South-West China and borders Burma, India, Nepal, and Bhutan there are also many myths shared within these cultures religions. For example, from India the Hindu demon Jvarasura the fever deity is also present within Tibetan mythology.
A variety of different deities are present within Tibetan mythology and some of the more well-known deities in Tibetan mythology are either from the national mythology of Tibet or from Buddhism, and so are present and shared amongst many cultures.
Mountain gods are one of the more notable creatures this is as Tibet is located West of the Central China plain and is covered in many mountains it is also home to some of the tallest mountains in the world. This led to many myths about mountain gods coming to be. It was believed that every mountain had a god guarding it and these gods differ from those who did good for the people and gods that did bad. There are four great Sacred Mountains and so each one of these Sacred mountains has a god along with another five famous Mountain Gods these together were named the Nine Creator-Gods, different areas of Tibet worship different gods. These Mountain Gods are not purely good but rather divided into good and bad. Gods that rose out of the rubble of old mountains were good and beneficial as they had to face challenges and hardships to emerge whilst those who rose out of lush green forests were viewed as evil since they were believed to have everything, to begin with.
Often known as the Avalokiteśvara or Guanyin, this Bodhisattva is portrayed as either male or female depending on the culture in Tibetan culture Chenrezig is regarded as a male Bodhisatta. Chenrezig is said to personify the compassion of all Buddhas, this Bodhisattva in Tibetan mythology is said to have created Tara (Buddhism), the female bodhisattva of success with a single tear. This tear had fallen and when it landed it created a lake where Tãrã emerged from a lotus.
Vajrapani has many forms in Tibetan mythology with the main ones being the Dharmapala or the Vajrapani-Acharya the deity is depicted in human form to possess a single head and a third eye and is wearing a necklace made out of snakes. Nilambara-Vajrapani is depicted as having either four or six hands and as having a head and a third eye wearing a crown of skulls. Mahachakra-Vajrapani is another form of the Vajrapani however unlike the previous forms this form has three heads, six arms, and two legs as well as a third eye and is holding a skull cup in his left hand. Many Buddhist statues as well as artworks depicting this deity is found in many countries including Nepal, Japan, India, and Cambodia.
The Jampelyang also often known as Manjushri is the Bodhisattva of wisdom and insight and within Tibetan mythology is also said to have connections with Vajrayana Buddhism, the traditions of Tantra. Depicted to have been holding a sword in flames in his right hand to cut down ignorance and a lotus in the left hand as a symbol of fully blossomed wisdom. The Jampelyang is often featured in many Buddhist artworks and is often depicted with Chenrezig and Vajrapani as the family protector deities.
Different mythical creatures are often featured within Tibetan mythology, ranging from creatures that resemble animals like the snow lion to spirits. These creatures are present in both religious mythology as well as national mythology and are often a result of the Tibetan environment or are shared amongst many countries as a result of the spread of religion.
The Yeti is one of the most well-known mythical creatures around the world, Tibetan mythology also has a version of the Yeti myth alongside China and Russian myths.The large creature was said to resemble an ape and in recent years this myth has been adapted into different forms, like a kids’ movies such as Abominable (2019 film) or Smallfoot (2018 film). It was said to have been sighted in the snowy mountains around Tibet with tufts of orange fur and large footsteps being spotted in the snow. The reports of the Yeti in Western media had peaked around the 1950s when pictures were taken of these large footprints in the snow.
The Snow Lion is a celestial animal and the emblem of Tibet, its appearance is symbolic of the snowy mountain ranges that make up most of Tibet. It is thought to live in the highest mountains and the snow lion often makes appearances in other stories, this makes the snow lion often regarded as the king of beasts. The snow lion was present on coins, banknotes, postage stamps, and even on the national flag of Tibet. The Senggeh Garcham or the snow lion dance is still practiced in areas of Tibet and is a traditional Buddhist dance that is performed by monks. The snow lion, although vastly popular in Tibet, the snow lion is also present in Buddhism and so statues and art of the snow lion can also be seen within temples in China, Japan, India, and parts of different Himalayan regions.
The Wind Horse stems from Tibetan Buddhism in Tibet. They were thought to be mighty creatures that are able to carry the wishes and prayers of the people to the Gods using the might of the wind. These mythical creatures are often present in prayer flags as a symbol of luck and believed to be able to change aspects of the world. Tibetan prayer flags stem from the Bon religion and are often strung around the mountains in Tibet and the greater Himalayan region in order to bless the regions. The flags are made of cloth and are often brightly colored and strung together with string. These flags for the wind horse are said to increase the positives in life and so are often strung in higher regions of the blessed areas such as treetops.
Other common Tibetan myths include Tibetan ghosts, this is often due to Buddhism and so there are many similarities to Indian ghost mythology. These include the hungry ghosts who are a symbol of greediness and unfulfillment of the tulpa which is a manifestation of high-ranking monks' wishes. These ghosts are deeply tied to the Tibetan culture with an annual religious ceremony being held near the end of the year for getting rid of all the negative energy, spirits, or bad luck in order to receive the new year.
Tibetan Buddhism is the form of Buddhism practiced in Tibet, where it is the dominant religion. It also has adherents in the regions surrounding the Himalayas, in much of Central Asia, in the Southern Siberian regions such as Tuva, and in Mongolia.
Vajrayāna, Mantrayāna, Ghuyamantra, Tantrayāna, Tantric Buddhism and Esoteric Buddhism are terms referring to the various Buddhist traditions associated with Tantra and "Secret Mantra", which developed in medieval India and spread to Tibet, East Asia, Mongolia and other Himalayan states.
Bon, also spelled Bön, is a Tibetan religion. Its relationship to Tibetan Buddhism has been a subject of debate. Followers of Bon, known as Bonpos, believe that the religion originated in a land called Tazig, identified as Persia by scholars. Bonpos identify Shenrab Miwo as Bon's founder, although there are no available sources to establish this figure's historicity. From Tazig, Bon was brought first to Zhang Zhung, a kingdom to the west of the Tibetan Plateau, and then to Tibet. Western scholars have posited several origins for Bon, and have used the term Bon in many ways. Tibetan Buddhist scholarship tends to cast Bon in a negative, adversarial light, with derogatory stories about Bon appearing in a number of Buddhist histories. The Rimé movement within Tibetan religion encouraged more ecumenical attitudes between Bonpos and Buddhists. Western scholars began to take Bon seriously as a religious tradition worthy of study in the 1960s, in large part inspired by English scholar David Snellgrove's work. Following the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959, Bonpo scholars began to arrive in Europe and North America, encouraging interest in Bon in the West. Today, Bon is practiced by Tibetans both in Tibet and in the Tibetan diaspora, and there are Bonpo centers in cities around the world.
Buddhist symbolism is the method of Buddhist art to represent certain aspects of dharma, which began in the fourth century BCE. Anthropomorphic symbolism appeared from around the first century CE with the arts of Mathura the Greco-Buddhist art of Gandhara, and were combined with the previous symbols. Various symbolic innovations were later introduced, especially through Tibetan Buddhism.that is the meaning.
Acala or Achala is a dharmapala, prominent in Vajrayana Buddhism and East Asian Buddhism. He is classed among the Wisdom Kings and is preeminent among the Five Wisdom Kings of the Womb Realm. Accordingly, his figure occupies an important hierarchical position in the Mandala of the Two Realms.
For more than a thousand years, Tibetan artists have played a key role in the cultural life of Tibet. From designs for painted furniture to elaborate murals in religious buildings, their efforts have permeated virtually every facet of life on the Tibetan plateau. The vast majority of surviving artworks created before the mid-20th century are dedicated to the depiction of religious subjects, with the main forms being thangka, distemper paintings on cloth, Tibetan Buddhist wall paintings, and small statues in bronze, or large ones in clay, stucco or wood. They were commissioned by religious establishments or by pious individuals for use within the practice of Tibetan Buddhism and were manufactured in large workshops by monks and lay artists, who are mostly unknown.
In Buddhism, fierce deities or wrathful deities are the fierce, wrathful or forceful forms of enlightened Buddhas, Bodhisattvas or Devas. Because of their power to destroy the obstacles to enlightenment, they are also termed krodha-vighnantaka, "fierce destroyers of obstacles". Fierce deities are a notable feature of the iconography of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism. These types of deities first appeared in India during the late 6th century with its main source being the Yaksha imagery and became a central feature of Indian Tantric Buddhism by the late 10th or early 11th century.
Vajrapāṇi is one of the earliest-appearing bodhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism. He is the protector and guide of Gautama Buddha and rose to symbolize the Buddha's power.
Buddhism includes a wide array of divine beings that are venerated in various ritual and popular contexts. Initially they included mainly Indian figures such as vedic devas and yakshas, but later came to include other Asian spirits and local gods. They range from enlightened Buddhas to regional spirits adopted by Buddhists or practiced on the margins of the religion. Notably, Buddhism lacks a supreme creator deity however.
Tara, Ārya Tārā, or Shayama Tara, also known as Jetsun Dölma in Tibetan Buddhism, is an important figure in Buddhism. She appears as a female bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism, and as a female Buddha in Vajrayana Buddhism. She is known as the "mother of liberation", and represents the virtues of success in work and achievements. She is known as Tara Bosatsu (多羅菩薩) in Japan, and occasionally as Duōluó Púsà (多羅菩薩) in Chinese Buddhism.
Yidam is a type of deity associated with tantric or Vajrayana Buddhism said to be manifestations of Buddhahood or enlightened mind. During personal meditation (sādhana) practice, the yogi identifies their own form, attributes and mind with those of a yidam for the purpose of transformation. Yidam is sometimes translated by the terms "meditational deity" or "tutelary deity". Examples of yidams include the meditation deities Chakrasamvara, Kalachakra, Hevajra, Yamantaka, and Vajrayogini, all of whom have a distinctive iconography, mandala, mantra, rites of invocation and practice.
The wind horse is a symbol of the human soul in the shamanistic tradition of East Asia and Central Asia. In Tibetan Buddhism, it was included as the pivotal element in the center of the four animals symbolizing the cardinal directions and a symbol of the idea of well-being or good fortune. It has also given the name to a type of prayer flag that has the five animals printed on it.
The Snow Lion, sometimes also Snowlion, is a celestial animal of Tibet. It is the emblem of Tibet, representing the snowy mountain ranges and glaciers of Tibet, and may also symbolize power and strength, and fearlessness and joy, east and the earth element. It is one of the Four Dignities. It ranges over the mountains, and is commonly pictured as being white with a turquoise mane. In Journey to the West published in 1592, Snow Lion is depicted as one of Yōkais .
Anne Carolyn Klein is professor of Religious Studies at Rice University in Houston, Texas and co-founding director and resident teacher at Dawn Mountain, a Tibetan temple, community center and research institute.
Shenlha Ökar or Shiwa Ökar is the most important deity in the Yungdrung Bon tradition of Tibet. He is counted among the "Four Transcendent Lords" along with Satrig Ersang, Sangpo Bumtri, and Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche.
Jigdal Dagchen Sakya Rinpoche was a Tibetan Buddhist teacher educated in the Sakya sect. He was educated to be the head of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism as well as the successor to the throne of Sakya, the third most important political position in Tibet in early times. Dagchen Rinpoche was in the twenty-sixth generation of the Sakya-Khön lineage descended from Khön Könchok Gyalpo and was regarded as an embodiment of Manjushri as well as the rebirth of a Sakya Lama from the Ngor sub-school, Ewam Luding Khenchen Gyase Chökyi Nyima.
Per Kværne is a prominent Norwegian tibetologist and historian of religion.
Gyalpo spirits are one of the eight classes of haughty gods and spirits in Tibetan mythology and religion. Gyalpo, a word which simply means "king" in the Tibetic languages, in Tibetan mythology is used to refer to the Four Heavenly Kings and especially to a class of spirits, both Buddhist and Bon, who may be either malevolent spirits or oath-bound as dharmapalas.
The Buddhist traditions have created and maintained a vast body of mythological literature. The central myth of Buddhism is the life of the Buddha. This is told in relatively realistic terms in the earliest texts, and was soon elaborated into a complex literary mythology. The chief motif of this story, and the most distinctive feature of Buddhist myth, is the Buddha's renunciation: leaving his home and family for a spiritual quest. Alongside this central myth, the traditions contain large numbers of smaller stories, which are usually supposed to convey an ethical or Buddhist teaching. These include the popular Jātakas, folk tales or legends believed to be past lives of Gautama Buddha. Since these are regarded as episodes in the life of the Buddha, they are treated here as “myth”, rather than distinguishing between myth, legend, and folk-tale.
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