Tibetan Buddhism is the body of Buddhist religious doctrine and institutions characteristic of Tibet and certain regions of the Himalayas, including northern Nepal, Bhutan, and India (Arunachal Pradesh, Ladakh and Sikkim). It is also practiced in Mongolia and parts of Russia (Kalmykia, Buryatia, and Tuva) and Northeast China. Tibetan Buddhism comprises many distinct schools, but is primarily divided into four main traditions: Nyingma, Kagyu, Gelug, and Sakya. All schools are said to include the teachings of the three vehicles of Buddhism: the Foundational Vehicle, Mahayana, and Vajrayana, although some schools, the Gelug for example, consider Vajrayana a part of Mahayana.
The land reform of the Tibetan region by the People's Republic of China beginning in mid-1950s led to armed conflicts later in the decade. The failed rebellion resulted in the exile of about eighty thousand Tibetans, many of them Buddhist clergy members, to India. Some of them went further to the west, which in turn eventually led to the spread of Tibetan Buddhism to many Western countries, where the tradition has gained some popularity.
Buddhahood is sometimes partially defined as a state of omniscience. "Omniscience" relates to the Buddhist principle that all things derive from mind.
When, in Buddhahood, one is freed from all mental obscurations, one is said to attain a state of continuous bliss, mixed with a simultaneous cognition of emptiness, the true nature of reality. In this state, all limitations on one's ability to help other living beings are removed.
It is said that there are countless beings who have attained Buddhahood. Buddhas spontaneously, naturally and continuously perform activities to benefit all sentient beings. However it is believed that sentient beings' karmas limit the ability of the Buddhas to help them. Thus, although Buddhas possess no limitation from their side on their ability to help others, sentient beings continue to experience suffering as a result of the limitations of their own former negative actions.
More precisely, Tibetans specify two alternative criteria for being Buddhist: a) formal: having taken refuge and b) in belief: acceptance of the Three marks of existence.
An emphasis on oral transmission as more important than the printed word derives from the earliest period of Indian Buddhism, when it allowed teachings to be kept from those who should not hear them. Hearing a teaching (transmission) readies the hearer for realisation based on it. The person from whom one hears the teaching should have heard it as one link in a succession of listeners going back to the original speaker: the Buddha in the case of a sutra or the author in the case of a book. Then the hearing constitutes an authentic lineage of transmission. Authenticity of the oral lineage is a prerequisite for realisation, hence the importance of lineages.
Merely reading about a teaching is helpful but no substitute for receiving a transmission on it. Having a text recited aloud by someone who holds the lineage for transmission of that text makes oneself also a holder of that lineage and the more ready for realisation of the teaching in it. Oral transmissions by lineage holders traditionally can take place in small groups or mass gatherings of listeners and may last for seconds (in the case of a mantra, for example) or months (in the case of a section of the canon, etc). A transmission can even occur without actually hearing, as in Asanga's visions of Maitreya.
Spontaneous realisation on the basis of transmission is possible but rare. Normally an intermediate step is needed in the form of analytic meditation, i.e., thinking about what one has heard. As part of this process, entertaining doubts and engaging in internal debate over them is encouraged in some traditions particularly. When analytic meditation achieves the quality of realisation, one is encouraged to switch to "focussed" or "fixation" meditation. In this the mind is stabilised on that realisation for periods long enough to gradually habituate it to it. A person's capacity for analytic meditation can be trained with logic and that for successful focussed meditation through mental quiescenece. A meditation routine may involve alternating sessions of analytic meditation to achieve deeper levels of realisation and focussed meditation to consolidate them. The deepest level of realisation is Buddhahood.
Of all aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, none receive more skepticism than the guru devotion have led it into conflict with Chinese socialism and so invited the genocide of the Tibetan intelligentsia under Mao. An attitude of critical skepticism is encouraged to promote abilities in analytic meditation. However, as in other Buddhist traditions, an attitude of reverence for the teacher is also highly prized.
In favour of skepticism towards Buddhist doctrines in general, Tibetans are fond of quoting sutra to the effect that one should test the Buddha's words as one would the quality of a coin. On the other hand, at the beginning of a public teaching, a lama will do prostrations to the throne on which he will teach due to its symbolism, or to an image of the Buddha behind that throne, then students will do prostrations to the lama after he is seated. Merit accrues when ones interactions with the teacher are imbued with such reverence in the form of guru devotion, a code of practices governing it that derives from Indian sources. By such things as avoiding disturbance to the peace of mind of one's teacher and wholeheartedly following his prescriptions, much merit accrues and promotes ones practice.
There is a general sense in which any Tibetan Buddhist teacher is called a lama. A student may have taken teachings from many authorities and revere them all as lamas in this general sense. However, they will typically have one held in special esteem as their own root guru and is encouraged to view the other teachers who are less dear to them, however more exalted their status, as embodied in and subsumed by the root guru. Often the teacher the student sees as root guru is simply the one who first introduced them to Buddhism.
The opposing principles of skepticism and guru devotion are reconciled with the Tibetan injunction to scrutinise a prospective guru thoroughly before finally adopting them as such without reservation. A Buddhist may study with a lama for decades before finally accepting them as their own teacher.
Vajrayana is said to be the fastest method for attaining Buddhahood but it carries the caution that for unqualified practitioners it can be dangerous. Even for a qualified advanced practitioner, to engage in Vajrayana without having received the appropriate initiation (also known as an "empowerment") from a lama who is fully qualified to give it is to court controversy. From the time one has resolved to accept a Vajrayana initiation, skepticism towards the person giving that initiation as guru is suspended and the utmost sustained effort in guru devotion towards them is essential.
Just as Sutrayana preceded Vajrayana historically in India, so sutra practices constitute those that are preliminary to tantric ones. Preliminary practices include all Sutrayana activities that yield merit like hearing teachings, prostrations, offerings, prayers and acts of kindness and compassion, but chief among the preliminary practices are realisations through meditation on the three principle stages of the path: renunciation, the altruistic bodhicitta will for enlightenment and the wisdom realising emptiness. For a person without the basis of these three in particular to practise Vajrayana can be like a small child trying to ride an unbroken horse.
While the hathayoga-like practices of Vajrayana are not known in Sutrayana, all Sutrayana practices are common to Vajrayana. Without training in the preliminary practices, the ubiquity of allusions to them in Vajrayana is meaningless and even successful Vajrayana initiation becomes impossible.
The merit acquired in the preliminary practices facilitates progress in Vajrayana. While many Buddhists may spend a lifetime exclusively on sutra practices, however, an amalgam of the two to some degree is common. For, example, in order to train in mental quiescence, one might use a tantric visualisation as the meditation object.
In Vajrayana particularly, Tibetan Buddhists subscribe to a voluntary code of self-censorship, whereby the uninitiated do not seek and are not provided with information about it. This self-censorship may be applied more or less strictly depending on circumstances such as the material involved. A depiction of a mandala may be less public than that of a deity. That of a higher tantric deity may be less public than that of a lower. The degree to which information on Vajrayana is now public in western languages is controversial among Tibetan Buddhists.
Buddhism has always had a taste for esotericism since its earliest period in India. Tibetans today maintain greater or lesser degrees of confidentiality also with information on the Vinaya and emptiness specifically. In Buddhist teachings generally, too, there is caution about revealing information to people who may be unready for it. Esoteric values in Buddhism have made it at odds with the values of Christian missionary activity, for example in contemporary Mongolia.
Some commentators have emphasised minor Tibetan innovations such as the system of incarnate lamas, but such genuine innovations have been few. True to its roots in the Pala system of North India, however, Tibetan Buddhism carried on a tradition of eclectic accumulation and systematisation of diverse Buddhist elements, and pursued their synthesis. Prominent among these achievements are the Stages of the Path (lamrim, lam-rim) and motivational training (lojong, blo-sbyong).
Texts recognized as scripture and commentary are fixed by the Tibetan Buddhist canon.
These major schools are sometimes classified into Nyingma ("Old Translation") and Sarma ("New Translation") traditions according to translations and lineages of various Tantric texts. Another common way of classification is the differentiation into "Red Hat" and "Yellow Hat" schools:
|Old Translation||New Translation||New Translation||New Translation|
|Red Hat||Red Hat||Red Hat||Yellow Hat|
Besides these major schools, there are a number of minor ones like Jonang. The Jonangpa were suppressed by the rival Gelugpa in the 1600s and were once thought extinct, but are now known to survive in Eastern Tibet.
Two belong to the older Hinayana path (Skt. for Lesser Vehicle, Tib. theg dman). (Hinayana is sometimes referred to as Śravakayāna (Skt. Vehicle of Hearers) because "lesser" may be considered derogatory):
The primary source for the former is the Abhidharmakosha by Vasubandhu and commentaries. The Abhidharmakosha is also an important source for the Sautrantikas. Dignaga and Dharmakirti are the most prominent exponents.
The other two are Mahayana (Skt. Greater Vehicle) (Tib. theg-chen):
Yogacarin base their views on texts from Maitreya, Asanga and Vasubandhu, Madhyamikas on Nagarjuna and Aryadeva. There is a further classification of Madhyamaka into Svatantrika-Madhyamaka and Prasangika-Madhyamaka. The former stems from Bhavaviveka, Santaraksita and Kamalashila, and the latter from Buddhapalita and Chandrakirti.
The tenet system is used in the monasteries and colleges to teach Buddhist philosophy in a systematic and progressive fashion, each philosophical view being more subtle than its predecessor. Therefore the four schools can be seen as a gradual path from a rather easy-to-grasp, "realistic" philosophical point of view, to more and more complex and subtle views on the ultimate nature of reality, that is on emptiness and dependent arising, culminating in the philosophy of the Madhyamikas, which is widely believed to present the most sophisticated point of view.
Although there were many householder-yogis in Tibet, monasticism was the foundation of Buddhism in Tibet. There were thousands of monasteries in Tibet, and nearly all were ransacked and destroyed by the Chinese communists (many of them young ethnic Tibetan Red Guards), mainly during the Cultural Revolution. Most of the major ones have been at least partially re-established.
In Mongolia during the 1920s, approximately one third of the male population were monks, though many lived outside monasteries. These monasteries were largely dismantled during Communist rule, but many have been reestablished during the Buddhist revival in Mongolia which followed the fall of Communism.
Monasteries generally adhere to one particular school. Some of the major centers in each tradition are as follows:
Also of note is
Many Kagyu monasteries are in Kham, eastern Tibet. Tsurphu, one of the most important, is in central Tibet, as is Ralung.
Three other monasteries have particularly important regional influence:
Great spiritual and historical importance is also placed on:
The earliest well-documented influence of Buddhism in Tibet dates from the reign of king Songtsän Gampo, who died in 650. He married a Chinese Tang Dynasty Buddhist princess, Wencheng, who came to Tibet with a statue of Shakyamuni Buddha. According to a Tibetan legendary tradition, Songtsän Gampo also married a Nepalese Buddhist princess, Bhrikuti; but Bhrikuti, who bears the name of a goddess, is not mentioned in reliable sources. Songtsän Gampo founded the first Buddhist temples. By the second half of the 8th century he was already regarded as an embodiment of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara.
The successors of Songtsän Gampo seem to have been less enthusiastic about the propagation of Buddhism. But in the 8th century, King Trisong Detsen (755-797) established Buddhism as the official religion of the state. He invited Indian Buddhist scholars to his court. In his age the famous tantric mystic Padmasambhava arrived in Tibet according to the Tibetan tradition. In addition to writing a number of important scriptures (some of which he hid for future tertons to find), Padmasambhava established the Nyingma school ("the old school")from which all schools of Tibetan Buddhism are said to have derived.
Tibetan Buddhism exerted a strong influence from the 11th century CE among the peoples of Central Asia, especially in Mongolia and Manchuria. It was adopted as an official state religion by the Mongol Yuan dynasty and the Manchu Qing dynasty that ruled China.
Tibetan king Khri srong lde btsan (742–797) invited the Ch’an master Mo-ho-yen (whose name consists of the same Chinese characters used to transliterate “Mahayana”) to transmit the Dharma at Samye Monastery. Mo-ho-yen had been disseminating Dharma in the Tun-huang locale, but, according to Tibetan sources, lost an important philosophical debate on the nature of emptiness from the Indian master Kamalashila, and the king declared Kamalashila's philosophy should form the basis for Tibetan Buddhism. However, a Chinese source says their side won, and some scholars conclude that the entire episode is fictitious.
Today, Tibetan Buddhism is adhered to widely in the Tibetan Plateau, Nepal, Bhutan, Mongolia, Kalmykia (on the north-west shore of the Caspian), Siberia (central Russia, specifically Buryatia and Chita Oblast), and the Russian Far East (concentrated in Tyva). The Indian regions of Sikkim and Ladakh, both formerly independent kingdoms, are also home to significant Tibetan Buddhist populations. In the wake of the Tibetan diaspora, Tibetan Buddhism has gained adherents in the West and throughout the world; there are estimated to be tens of thousands of practitioners in Europe and the Americas. Celebrity Tibetan Buddhism practitioners include Richard Gere, Paris Hilton, Adam Yauch, Jet Li, Sharon Stone, Allen Ginsberg, Angelina Jolie, Philip Glass, and Steven Seagal (who has been proclaimed the reincarnation of the tulku Chungdrag Dorje).