By: Karun Lama
Whenever I introduce myself to new people, I am often amazed to observe their curiosity of wanting to learn more about my surname (which is ‘Lama’). Some people ask me very eagerly if I am in any way related to (His Holiness) the Dalai Lama or how I belong to the lineages of the Lamas with no saffron clothes and shaved head, while some other goes further to express their views on Buddhism. They opine how the religion has been a symbol of peace and compassion. I find nearly all of them genuinely seeking to learn more about my surname except a few friends whose curiosity don’t go away any day!
During my school days, I was often teased or made fun of for my surname by my mates and even some teachers, which I now find okay because their intention had never been to offend me any day. It happened with others too in one or the other way, and hence I was no exception. But as I grew up, there have arisen many such situations when I have felt the need to introspect about my faith and tribe, which I will briefly share with you as I proceed to write this piece.
In the beginning, I used to find myself in ambiguity telling what religion I belong to, whether it is Hinduism or Buddhism (although some say that the latter has roots in the former). Because born and brought up in a society having a majority of Hindus within the composite Gorkha & Assamese community, I am accustomed to celebrating the Dasai, Tihar, the Devi Pujas and the other Hindu gods, the Bihu festivals with equal zeal and fervour besides following the practices from Buddhism.
But as per the old lineage, ancient history records that my ancestors had followed a tribal way of life amid the Himalayas who worshipped Nature. Subsequently later, after the advent of Gautam Buddha, some of them embraced Buddhism, however, some retained the animistic practices and customs. As generations passed by, like in many other communities, the cultural assimilations, which happened for different reasons in several phases of history, are seen to have affected the Tamangs as well. For some centuries now, in almost all places, the Tamangs have been following a syncretic way of life.
Many among the tribe now are seen celebrating and following the rituals of both the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. And perhaps this syncretic way of life of the Tamangs distinguishes it from the other Gorkha sub-communities in the region. In a way, such a distinction within the Tamangs goes in line with the broader concept of Unity in Diversity. However, as I said earlier, there have been a section of Tamangs, too, who solely follow absolute Buddhism.
Well, over time, I see a looming threat in the unique syncretism of the Tamangs. I view the sense of inclusiveness in the Tamang way of life as being challenged across the sub-continent. At present, I find some Tamangs having tried to exchange conflicting views upon one another. For that, here let me classify/ categorize the Tamang community into two sects – (1) Orthodox Tamangs (who retain the ancient ancestral Bon practices) and (2) Neo-Tamangs (who have renunciated the ancient practices and adopted Buddhism). So, clearly as the terms suggest, a section of Orthodox Tamangs stresses the view of keeping the ancient traditions alive and they are wary of the reforms that are occurring in the socio-religious and cultural practices within the community, such as the renunciation of sacrificial practices and also following Hindu rituals such as the Dasai, Tihar celebrations and the marriage rituals. Because, they strongly believe in keeping the originally-held ancestral practices intact. While, on the other hand, a section of Neo-Tamangs goes on to missionize their narrative that a renaissance in the Tamang sect of Buddhism (Mahayana) is much-needed. This sect hold the view that in order to revive or get a stronghold of Buddhism towards imparting the universal faith of peace, compassion and humanity, all Tamangs need a relook at their socio-religious and cultural practices.
Now if one asks me about which sect I subscribe to, that would leave me in a state of despair and ambiguity yet again! Because since the time I was born, I have grown up learning and following the inclusive and syncretic Tamang way of life.
In schools & universities, we were taught the civilizational principles of tolerance and acceptance. I have found these principles very inclusive to the Tamangness I possess in me. But seeing the enmity in both sections of Tamangs in the form of imposing their views, each claiming to be the ideal one, I am compelled to relook at my own Tamangness. Hence, for some time now, I have been struggling to introspect it – pondering over which approach is ideal, and should be followed. I strongly feel this needs some deliberations, and constructive debates to make things more clear between both sects. Being an ardent follower of Indian civilizational values, I find both Tamangs – (1) the Tamangs who have retained the elements of pre-Buddhist Bon traditions as well as (2) the Tamangs who have adopted absolute Buddhism – have their own reasons to prevail in society like all others. However, the case has not been that way for some years now.
Well, as I end this write-up here, if some may like to know about my ancestry, I belong to the Ghising clan of the Tamang tribe of the composite Gorkha community of Assam and we follow a blend of Bonism and a form of Mahayana Buddhism. My surname ‘Lama’ was adopted by my revered father, which is no exception, because people generally alternate their surnames with one or the other based on their clan, faith, or in reverence to their lineage.
So, the way Buddhism talks about ‘the middle path’, certainly, there must be a way in which the conflicting views of Tamangs can be reconciled. As such, Tamangs, once a horse warrior tribe of the Himalayas would continue to worship nature, preach humanity, and thereby, preserve its identity, hopefully. (The author is a teacher & writer who can be reached at email@example.com)