THE INTRODUCTION TO TIBETAN BUDDHISM
— submitted by Geshe Jampa
The first official appearance of Buddhism into Tibet is said to have occurred during the reign of twenty-third King of the Yarlung dynasty, Lha Thothori Nyentsen (23th king of Tibet – around 500 CE). According to Tibetan legends, one day a Buddhist text and relics consecrated to Avalokitesvara fell from the sky to the roof of the king’s palace. The scriptures were written in Sanskrit, and no one at the court understood the significance of the relics thus it remained an isolated event.
The 33rd King of Tibet, Songtsen Gampo (born 617) had the Buddhist texts translated and married two Buddhist princesses. With this, one can say that Buddhism was first really introduced to Tibet as a practice.
The 37th King of Tibet, Trisong Detsen invited Indian Pandit Shantarakshita and Kamalasila, who suggested to invite Padmasambhava (or Guru-Rinpoche) to Tibet, who arrived in 817.
An ordained spiritual community was established in the first Buddhist monastery; Samye, which was built by Padmasambhava. In this period, translation of scriptures genuinely began. As of this time, one can say that Buddhism was firmly established in Tibet, as the presence of Sangha is considered essential.
In 792, after a great philosophical debate, King Trisong Detsen officially declared Indian Buddhism and not Chinese Buddhism to be the religion of Tibet.
DECLINE AND REVIVAL
Buddhism almost disappeared after 842 when King Lang Dharma violently persecuted Buddhism. After this, for a long time there were no ordinations and no central religious authority in Tibet. Instead, the original Bon religion prevailed.
In 978, with the introduction of several Indian Pandits and Tibetan monks studying in India, Buddhism revived, with the help of king Yeshe O. A real revival occurred after 1042, when Atisha Dipankhara (or Lama Atisha) put Tibetans “back on the right track”.
He presented the Buddhist philosophy in a very clear and condensed manner, which became the basis for philosophical teachings in most Tibetan traditions. After Atisha, the influence from Indian teachers was limited. Atisha’s main disciple was the layman Dromtönpa, who founded the Kadam-tradition. This tradition does not exist in that form anymore, but strongly influenced the later schools of Kagyu, Sakya and especially Gelug.
Note that Tibetan teachers like His Holiness the Dalai Lama insist that Tibetan Buddhism these days still carefully reflects the
Buddhism as was present in India around the 11th century. He also rejects the term Lamaism, as it suggests as if the Tibetan teachers have developed their own form of Buddhism.
Tibetan Buddhism comprises the teachings of the three vehicles of Buddhism: the Theravada Vehicle, Mahāyāna, and Vajrayāna. The Mahāyāna goal of spiritual development is to achieve the enlightenment of buddhahood in order to most efficiently help all other sentient beings attain this state. The motivation in it is the bodhicitta mind of enlightenment — an altruistic intention to become enlightened for the sake of all sentient beings.
Bodhisattvas are revered beings who have conceived the will and vow to dedicate their lives with bodhicitta for the sake of all beings. Tibetan Buddhism teaches methods for achieving buddhahood more quickly by including the Vajrayāna path in Mahāyāna.
Tibetan Buddhism spread to the West in the second half of the 20th century as many Tibetan leaders were exiled from their homeland. Today, Tibetan religious communities in the West consist both of refugees from Tibet and westerners drawn to the
Tibetan religious tradition.
Tibetan Buddhism is most well-known to the world through His Holiness 14th Dalai Lama, the spiritual and political leader of Tibet and the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.
Tibetan Buddhist Sacred Texts
Between the 11th and 14th centuries, the Tibetans translated every available Buddhist text into Tibetan. Today, many Buddhist works that have been lost in their original Sanskrit survive only in
The Tibetan Buddhist canon is a loosely defined list of sacred texts recognized by various sects of Tibetan Buddhism, consisting of more than 300 volumes and many thousands of individual texts. In addition to Theravada Buddhist texts from early Buddhist schools, mostly the Sarvastivada, and mahayana texts, the Tibetan canon includes Tantric texts.
Schools of Tibetan Buddhism
There are four principal schools within Tibetan Buddhism.
The Nyingma school is more or less a continuation of the initially introduced Buddhism by the Indian Pandit Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche – see image on the right). Historic information of Padmasambhava is generally shrouded in myths, (he is said to have lived for 3,600 in India prior to coming to Tibet), but he came to Tibet in 817 at the invitation of King Trisong Detsen.
Initially, the study of logic and philosophy was limited, but much emphasis was put on tantric practice. It must be noted however, that also within the Nyingma school considerable reformation has taken place over the ages.
Some typical aspects for the Nyingma tradition: the practice of Dzogchen (seeking to examine the fundamental nature of mind directly, without relying on visualizations and images) and the presence of hidden scriptures or “terma” from Padmasambhava, which are discovered by later Masters.
Not existing as such anymore, but it was the main reformation school after revival of Buddhism in the 11th century by Atisha di Pankara from India (c. 982-1052, see the image on the left) and Dromtonpa as his Tibetan disciple. Atisha combined two lineages: from Manjushri via Nagarjuna (emphasising emptiness) and from Maitreya via Asangha (emphasising compassion). Atisha’s brief text ‘A lamp for the path to full awakening’ formed the basis of the later Gelug presentation of Lamrim.
This tradition started with the Tibetan Marpa Chökyi Lodroe, in the 11th. century, who had Tilopa (988-1069) and his disciple Naropa (1016 – 1100) as Indian masters.
Probably the most famous practitioner and master in the lineage is Milarepa (1040-1123), who attained Buddhahood in one life time by an incredible display of perseverance (image on the right). Milarepa was a disciple of Marpa (image on the left) who in turn was a pupil of Naropa.
The Kagyu tradition is both a meditation lineage and philosophy training lineage.
Typical aspects of the Kagyu tradition are the practice of Mahamudra and the Six Yogas of Naropa.
It should be noted that currently several suborders of the Kagyu lineage exist, like the Karma Kagyu (with as leader His Holiness the Karmapa), the Drikung Kagyu and the Drukpa Kagyu schools.
The Sakya tradition has its origins with the translator Drogmi, who transferred the lineage of the Indian master Virupa to Khon Konchog Gyalpo. On this occasion, Khon Konchog Gyalpo built the Sakya monastery (meaning grey earth) and founded the Sakya tradition. In 1247, the Mongolian prince Godan Khan conquered Tibet and gave temporal authority over Tibet to Lama Kunga Gyaltsen (better known as Sakya Pandita – see image on the right), who was one of the earliest major figures in this lineage. In 1254 Mongol emperor Kublai Khan invited Chögyal Phagpa for teachings. Also Kublai Khan made Buddhism state religion in Mongolia and made Chogyal Phagpa the first religious and secular leader over Tibet. Sakya masters ruled Tibet more than 100 yrs, before the Gelug took over secular power with the Dalai Lamas.
A typical aspect of the Sakya tradition is called Lamdrey (leading to state of Hevajra), a concise presentation of the Buddhist philosophy. The Sakyas were much influenced by the Kadam lineage.
In 1354, the rule over Tibet was given to the monk Changchub Gyaltsen, who was not a Sakya. After this, the tradition declined in importance.
The Gelug (yellow hat) tradition was founded by Tibetan teacher Je Tsongkhapa (1357-1419 – see image on the left). The basis is formed by the old Kadam lineage, but it in fact includes all other Tibetan traditions. For example; Tsongkhapa’s main teacher was the Sakya teacher Rendawa.
Sonam Gyatso (1543-1588), received the title ‘Dalai Lama’ (Ocean of Wisdom) from the Mongol ruler Althan Khan in 1578. In 1642, the 5th. Dalai Lama became temporal and spiritual leader of Tibet by order of the Mongol ruler Gushri Khan. Although trained in all four schools, basically all Dalai Lamas were Gelug. Note that the posthumously declared “First Dalai Lama” named Gedun Truppa (born 1391) was a disciple of Je Tsongkhapa.
Some typical aspects of the Gelug tradition: emphasis on ethics and sound scholarship. Main Buddhist teachings are collected in the Lamrim presentation. The Gelug introduced a scholarly title, Geshe, for a fully qualified and authoritative spiritual master.