The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Tibetan Buddhism

Tibetan Buddhism, (formerly also called Lamaism after their religious gurus known as lamas), is the body of religious Buddhist doctrine and institutions characteristic of Tibet and the Himalayan region. It is a school within Tantric Buddhism (also called Vajrayana Buddhism), which in turn is part of the greater Mahayana school.


Distinguishing characteristics

Tibetan Buddhism may be distinguished from other schools of Tantric Buddhism by a number of unique traits including:

  • belief in reincarnation lineages of certain lamas (known as tulkus) such as the Dalai Lama
  • a practice wherein lost or hidden ancient scriptures (termas) are recovered by spiritual masters (cf. tertons)
  • belief that a Buddha can be manifest in human form, such as in the person of Padmasambhava, the saint who brought Tibetan Buddhism to the Himalayas

In common with other Tantric schools (primarily Shingon Buddhism in Japan), Tibetan Buddhism is esoteric and tantric. It is esoteric because it believes the religious texts or sutras can only be interpreted by a religious master. It is tantric because it believes the path to enlightenment is greatly accelerated by the use of certain external rituals and ritual objects (see below). Special utterances known as mantras aid in achieving a higher state of awareness.

In common with Mahayana schools, Tibetan Buddhism believes in a pantheon of Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and Dharmapala, also known as Dharma protectors. Bodhisattvas are enlightened beings who themselves are able to escape the cycle of death and rebirth but compassionately choose to remain here in this world to assist others in reaching nirvana or Buddhahood. Dharma protectors are mythic and often fearsome figures incorporated into Tibetan Buddhism from various sources including Hinduism and the Bön religion. They are pledged to protecting and upholding the Dharma. A town or district may have its own Dharma protector with its own local mythology.

Rituals and ritual objects

 A dorje, or thunderbolt device

Tantric practitioners make use of special rituals and objects. Meditation is an important function which may be aided by the use of certain hand gestures (mudras) and chanted mantras (such as the famous mantra of Chenrezig: "om mani padme hum"). A number of esoteric meditation techniques are employed by different traditions, including mahamudra, dzogchen, and the Six yogas of Naropa. Qualified practitioners may also study or construct special cosmic diagrams known as mandalas which assist in inner spiritual development. A lama may make use of a dorje, a small eight-pronged dumbell-like object representing a diamond-strong sceptre which represents method or compassion, along with a handbell known as a drilbu which represents wisdom. A ritual dagger or phurpa is symbolically used to kill demons, thus releasing them to a better rebirth.

Non-initiates in Tibetan Buddhism may gain merit by performing rituals such as food and flower offerings, water offerings (performed with a set of bowls), religious pilgrimages, or chanting prayers (see also prayer wheel and prayer flag). They may also light butter lamps at the local temple or fund monks to do so on their behalf.

Villagers may also gain blessings by observing or participating in cham dances . Energetic dancers wearing masks and richly ornamented costumes perform each sacred dance while accompanied by monks playing traditional Tibetan musical instruments . The dances offer moral instruction such as non-harm to sentient beings and are said to bring merit to all who observe them. In Bhutan the dances are performed during an annual religious festival known as tsechu which is held in each district. At certain festivals a large painting known as a thongdrol is also briefly unfurled — the mere glimpsing of the thongdrol is believed to carry such merit as to free the observer from all present sin (see Culture of Bhutan).. Cham dances are prohibited in Tibet by the PRC government.

Schools of Tibetan Buddhism

Tibetan Buddhism has four main schools (the suffix pa means sect):

  • Nyingma(pa), The Ancient Ones, the oldest and original school founded by Padmasambhava himself
  • Kagyu(pa), Oral Lineage, headed by the Karmapa and having four major sub-sects: the Karma Kagyu , the Tsalpa Kagyu , the Baram Kagyu , and Pagtru Kagyu ; as well as eight minor sub-sects, the most notable of which are the Drikung Kagyu and the Drukpa Kagyu; and the once-obscure Shangpa Kagyu, which was famously represented by the 20th century teacher Kalu Rinpoche.
  • Sakya(pa), Grey Earth, headed by the Sakya Trizin, founded by Sakya Pandita 1182-1251CE
  • Geluk(pa), Way of Virtue, also known as Yellow Hats, whose spiritual head is the Ganden Tripa and whose temporal head is the Dalai Lama, who was ruler of Tibet from the mid-17th to mid-20th centuries.

And one minor one:

  • Jonang(pa), suppressed by the rival Gelukpas in the 1600s and once thought extinct, but now known to survive in Eastern Tibet.

There is also an ecumenical movement known as Rime (alternative spelling:Rimed).

See Tibetan Buddhist canon for a list of important tantric texts recognized by different sects.

History of Tibetan Buddhism

Certain Buddhist scriptures arrived in southern Tibet from India as early as 173 CE during the reign of Thothori Nyantsen , the 28th king of Tibet. During the third century the scriptures were disseminated to northern Tibet (which was not part of the same kingdom at the time). The influence of Buddhism was not great, however, and the form was certainly not tantric as the earliest tantric sutras had just begun to be written in India.

In 641 King Songtsen Gampo unified Tibet and married Chinese Princess Wenzheng of the Tang Dynasty who brought with her images of the Buddha. King Gampo established a network of 108 Buddhist temples across the region, including the fabulous Potala Palace in Lhasa and the historic Kyichu and Jampa temples in Bhutan.

The most important event in Tibetan Buddhist history, however, was the arrival of the great tantric mystic Padmasambhava in Tibet in 774 at the invitation of King Trisong Detsen . It was Padmasambhava (more commonly known in the region as Guru Rinpoche) who merged tantric Buddhism with the local Bön religion to form what we now recognize as Tibetan Buddhism. In addition to writing a number of important scriptures (some of which he hid for future tertons to find), Padmasambhava established the Nyingma school from which all schools of Tibetan Buddhism are 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 of China.


Coleman, Graham, ed. (1993). A Handbook of Tibetan Culture. Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc.. ISBN 1-57062-002-4.

External links

The contents of this article are licensed from under the GNU Free Documentation License. How to see transparent copy