Tibetan Literary History
Tibetan literature contains over two millenium of profound and inspired writing. From the words of the Buddha, through centuries of authorship, up to the very present, Tibetan writing is vast and complex. Buddhism came to Tibet from India through a series of transmissions beginning as early as the seventh century. The texts in which Buddhist teachings were enshrined were enthusiastically recieved in Tibet. However, Tibet’s high altitude was difficult for lowland visitors from the plains of India, and the hot Gangetic Plain exacted heavy tolls on highland visitors from Tibet. Yet, miraculously, the transmissions occurred and Buddhism flourished in Tibet. Due to the depredations of time and war, many of the original Indian texts were destroyed, rendering even more valuable the texts that were preserved in Tibet.
Western Scholarship & Interest in Tibet
Western interest in Tibet has curious origins. Long at the confluence of trade and culture and never as isolated as the West has imagined, Tibet was officially closed to Western foreigners around 1750 to keep outside influences at bay. Yet, beginning in the 1830s, Tibet saw forays from notable Hungarians, Russians, and Germans, and then from the Japanese, French, Dutch, Italians, Swedes, Americans, and British. Some of these foreigners had covert geopolitical aims, others overt missionary zeal.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, these conflicting interests erupted into what became known as “The Great Game,” between Russia, Great Britain, and China. Each nation was vying for spheres of influence and varying degrees of control over Inner Asia, including Tibet. Travelers and adventurers leapt at the chance to visit the forbidden land, as did scholars. Among them R.A. Stein, Giuseppe Tucci, Hugh E. Richardson, and Prince Peter of Greece and Denmark. During this period, numerous manuscripts and texts were brought to Russia, Europe, and North America.
The turmoil of 1959 resulted in the flight of tens of thousands of Tibetans to India. In response, the Rockafeller Foundation offered grants to support people who were living exponents of the Tibetan tradition at eight academic centers worldwide. The Tibetan diaspora itself brought many accomplished masters of the wisdom traditions into direct contact with the West for the first time. From these beginnings, Tibetan scholarship and the practice of Tibetan Buddhism in the West have continued to the present day.
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