Tibetan Buddhism

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Tibetan Buddhism is a form of Mahayana Buddhism that is practiced in Tibet, Mongolia, Bhutan and the Himalayan regions of Nepal and India. This form of Buddhism derives from that of North India in the 7th to 13th centuries CE, and it is unique in that it incorporates the tantric practices that developed in Northern India. Alexander Berzin explains:[1]

The Tibetan form of Mahayana Buddhism found throughout Central Asia preserves the full historical development of Indian Buddhism, particularly the traditions of the great monastic universities such as Nalanda. Thus, it emphasizes study, particularly about the nature of the mind, the emotions and reality, through the medium of logic and debate, carried out in conjunction with intense meditation on these topics.
This approach is combined, in Tibet, with the Indian Buddhist tradition of tantra practice, in which one uses the powers of the imagination and works with the subtle energies of the body to transform oneself into a Buddha. This is done by concentrating on voidness (emptiness) and compassion, and within that context, imagining oneself to have become a specific Buddha-form. Although such forms are sometimes called "meditation deities," they are not the equivalent of God in meaning or function, and Buddhism is not in any way a polytheistic religion. Each Buddha-form is a symbolic representation of one aspect of a Buddha's enlightenment, such as wisdom or compassion. Visualizing oneself in such a form and reciting the sacred syllables (mantras) associated with it helps one to overcome one's deluded, negative self-image and to develop the qualities embodied by that figure. Such practices are very advanced and require close supervision by a fully qualified teacher.


Three vehicles

Boudhanath; a stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal. Stupas symbolize the mind of a Buddha.

Tibetan Buddhism comprises the teachings of the three vehicles of Buddhism: the Foundational 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.[2] The motivation in it is the bodhicitta mind of enlightenment — an altruistic intention to become enlightened for the sake of all sentient beings.[3] 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.[4]


Buddhahood is defined as a state free of the obstructions to liberation as well as those to omniscience.[5] When one is freed from all mental obscurations,[6] one is said to attain a state of continuous bliss mixed with a simultaneous cognition of emptiness,[7] the true nature of reality.[8] In this state, all limitations on one's ability to help other living beings are removed.[9]

It is said that there are countless beings who have attained buddhahood.[10] Buddhas spontaneously, naturally and continuously perform activities to benefit all sentient beings.[11] However it is believed that one's karma could 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.[12]

General methods of practice

Buddhist monk Geshe Konchog Wangdu reads Mahayana sutras from an old woodblock copy of the Tibetan Kangyur

Transmission and realization

There is a long history of oral transmission of teachings in Tibetan Buddhism. 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 (as in the case of a section of the Tibetan Buddhist canon). A transmission can even occur without actually hearing, as in Asanga's visions of Maitreya.

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.[13] Hearing a teaching (transmission) readies the hearer for realization 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 realization, hence the importance of lineages.

Analytic meditation and fixation meditation

Spontaneous realization 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.[14]

Analytic meditation is just one of two general methods of meditation. When it achieves the quality of realization, one is encouraged to switch to "focused" or "fixation" meditation. In this the mind is stabilized on that realization for periods long enough to gradually habituate it to it.

A person's capacity for analytic meditation can be trained with logic. The capacity for successful focused meditation can be trained through calm abiding. A meditation routine may involve alternating sessions of analytic meditation to achieve deeper levels of realization, and focused meditation to consolidate them.[8] The deepest level of realization is Buddhahood itself.

Preliminary practices and approach to Vajrayāna

The Vajrayāna deity, Vajrasattva

Vajrayāna is believed by Tibetan Buddhists to be the fastest method for attaining Buddhahood but for unqualified practitioners it can be dangerous.[15] To engage in it one must receive an appropriate initiation (also known as an "empowerment") from a lama who is fully qualified to give it. From the time one has resolved to accept such an initiation, the utmost sustained effort in guru devotion is essential.

The aim of preliminary practices (ngöndro) is to start the student on the correct path for such higher teachings.[16] Just as Sutrayāna preceded Vajrayāna historically in India, so sutra practices constitute those that are preliminary to tantric ones. Preliminary practices include all Sutrayāna activities that yield merit like hearing teachings, prostrations, offerings, prayers and acts of kindness and compassion, but chief among the preliminary practices are realizations through meditation on the three principle stages of the path: renunciation, the altruistic bodhicitta wish to attain enlightenment and the wisdom realizing emptiness. For a person without the basis of these three in particular to practice Vajrayāna can be like a small child trying to ride an unbroken horse.[17]

While the practices of Vajrayāna are not known in Sutrayāna, all Sutrayāna practices are common to Vajrayāna. Without training in the preliminary practices, the ubiquity of allusions to them in Vajrayāna is meaningless and even successful Vajrayāna initiation becomes impossible.

The merit acquired in the preliminary practices facilitates progress in Vajrayāna. 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 calm abiding, one might use a tantric visualisation as the meditation object.


Tibetan Buddhism derives from the latest stage of north Indian Buddhism.[18]

Study of tenet systems

Monks debating in Drepung Monastery

Tibetan Buddhists practice one or more understandings of the true nature of reality, śūnyatā, or the emptiness of inherent existence of all things. Emptiness is propounded according to four classical Indian schools of philosophical tenets.

Two belong to the older path referred to as the Hinayana:

The primary source for the former is the Abhidharma-kośa of Vasubandhu and its commentaries. The Abhidharmakośa was also an important source for the Sautrāntikas. Dignāga and Dharmakīrti are the most prominent exponents.

The other two are Mahayana:

Yogacārins base their views on texts from Maitreya, Asaṅga and Vasubandhu, Madhyamakas on Nāgārjuna and Āryadeva. There is a further classification of Madhyamaka into Svatantrika and Prasaṅgika. The former stems from Bhāviveka, Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla and the latter from Buddhapālita and Candrakīrti.

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 Mādhyamikas, which is widely believed to present the most sophisticated point of view.[19]


(Adapted, with modifications, from yogi Milarepa, by W. Y. Evans-Wentz (1928), p. 14)

The diagram to the right shows the growth of Tibetan Buddhist traditions. The four main ones overlap markedly, such that "about eighty percent or more of the features of the Tibetan schools are the same".[20] Differences include the use of apparently, but not actually, contradictory terminology, opening dedications of texts to different deities and whether phenomena are described from the viewpoint of an unenlightened practitioner or of a Buddha.[20] On questions of philosophy they have no fundamental differences, according to the Fourteenth Dalai Lama [21] The Tibetan adjectival suffix -pa is translatable as "-ist" in English.


"The Ancient Ones" is the oldest school of Tibetan Buddhism and the original order founded by Padmasambhava and Śāntarakṣita.[22] Whereas other schools categorize their teachings into the three yānas or "vehicles", Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana, the Nyingma tradition classifies its teachings into Nine Yānas, among the highest of which is Dzogchen.[23] Terma "treasures" (revealed texts) are of particular significance to the Nyingma school.


Kalu Rinpoche (right) and Lama Denys at Karma Ling Institute, Savoy

“Lineage of the (Buddha's) Word”. This is an oral tradition which is very much concerned with the experiential dimension of meditation. Its most famous exponent was Milarepa, an 11th-century mystic. It contains one major and one minor subsect. The first, the Dagpo Kagyu, encompasses those Kagyu schools that trace back to the Indian master Naropa via Marpa Lotsawa, Milarepa and Gampopa[22] and consists of four major sub-sects: the Karma Kagyu, headed by a Karmapa, the Tsalpa Kagyu, the Barom Kagyu, and Pagtru Kagyu. There are a further eight minor sub-sects, all of which trace their root to Pagtru Kagyu and the most notable of which are the Drikung and Drukpa Lineages. The once-obscure Shangpa Kagyu, which was famously represented by the 20th century teacher Kalu Rinpoche, traces its history back to the Indian master Naropa via Niguma, Sukhasiddhi and Kyungpo Naljor.[22]


The "Grey Earth" school represents the scholarly tradition. Headed by the Sakya Trizin, this tradition was founded by Khön Könchok Gyelpo (Wylie: 'khon dkon mchog rgyal po, 1034–1102), a disciple of the great lotsāwa Drogmi Shākya (Wylie: brog mi lo tsā wa ye shes) and traces its lineage to the mahasiddha Virūpa.[22] A renowned exponent, Sakya Pandita (1182–1251CE), was the great-grandson of Khön Könchok Gyelpo.


The "Way of Virtue" school was originally a reformist movement and is known for its emphasis on logic and debate. The order was founded in the 14th to 15th century by Je Tsongkhapa, renowned for both his scholarship and virtue. Its spiritual head is the Ganden Tripa and its temporal one the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama is regarded as the embodiment of Avalokiteśvara. Successive Dalai Lamas ruled Tibet from the mid-17th to mid-20th centuries.

These first four major schools are sometimes said to constitute the Nyingma "Old Translation" and Sarma "New Translation" traditions, the latter following from the historical Kadam lineage of translations and tantric lineages.


The Jonang is a minor school that branched off from Sakya traditions; it was suppressed in 1650 in Gelug-controlled regions and subsequently banned and its monks and nuns converted to the Gelug school in 1658.

The Jonang re-established their religio-political center in Golok, Nakhi and Mongol areas in Kham and Amdo centered at Dzamthang Monastery and have continued practicing uninterrupted to this day. An estimated 5,000 monks and nuns of the Jonang tradition practice today in these areas and at the edges of historic Gelug influence.

However, their teachings were limited to these regions until the Rimé movement of the 19th century encouraged the study of non-Gelug schools of thought and practice.[24] In modern times it has been encouraged to grow by the 14th Dalai Lama, who installed the 9th Jebtsundamba Khutughtu as its head.

See also


  1. Alexander Berzin. Types of Buddhism
  2. Cf. Dhargyey (1978), 111; Pabongkhapa Déchen Nyingpo, 533f; Tsong-kha-pa II: 48-9
  3. Thurman, Robert (1997). Essential Tibetan Buddhism. Castle Books: 291
  4. Thurman, Robert (1997): 2-3
  5. Cf. Dhargyey (1978), 64f; Dhargyey (1982), 257f, etc; Pabongkhapa Déchen Nyingpo, 364f; Tsong-kha-pa II: 183f. The former are the afflictions, negative states of mind, and the three poisons – desire, anger, and ignorance. The latter are subtle imprints, traces or "stains" of delusion that involves the imagination of inherent existence.
  6. Pabongkhapa Déchen Nyingpo, 152f
  7. Pabongkhapa Déchen Nyingpo, 243, 258
  8. 8.0 8.1 Hopkins (1996)
  9. Dhargyey (1978), 61f; Dhargyey (1982), 242-266; Pabongkhapa Déchen Nyingpo, 365
  10. Pabongkhapa Déchen Nyingpo, 252f
  11. Pabongkhapa Déchen Nyingpo, 367
  12. Dhargyey (1978), 74; Dhargyey (1982), 3, 303f; Pabongkhapa Déchen Nyingpo, 13f, 280f; Berzin, Alexander (2002). Introductory Comparison of Hinayana and Mahayana
  13. Conze (1993): 26
  14. Cf.Pabongkhapa Déchen Nyingpo, 66, 212f
  15. Pabonka, p.649
  16. Kalu Rinpoche (1986), The Gem Ornament of Manifold Instructions. Snow Lion, p. 21.
  17. Pabongkhapa Déchen Nyingpo, 649
  18. Conze, 1993
  19. Sopa & Hopkins (1977), 67-69; Hopkins (1996). Non-Tibetan scholars have suggested that historically, Madhyamaka predates Cittamātra, however. Cf. Conze (1993).
  20. 20.0 20.1 Introductory Comparison of the Five Tibetan Traditions of Buddhism and Bon, http://www.berzinarchives.com/web/en/archives/study/comparison_buddhist_traditions/tibetan_traditions/intro_compar_5_traditions_buddhism_bon.html, Retrieved 31.07.2013
  21. http://www.rigpawiki.org/index.php?title=The_four_main_schools_of_Tibetan_Buddhism, retrieved 31.07.2013
  22. 22.0 22.1 22.2 22.3 Berzin. Alexander (2000). Introductory History of the Five Tibetan Traditions of Buddhism and Bon: Berzinarchives.com
  23. Kagyuoffice.org See section: The Nine Yana Journey
  24. Gruschke 2001, p.72; and A. Gruschke, "Der Jonang-Orden: Gründe für seinen Niedergang, Voraussetzungen für das Überdauern und aktuelle Lage", in: Henk Blezer (ed.), Tibet, Past and Present. Tibetan Studies I (Proceedings of the Ninth Seminar of The IATS, 2000), Brill Academic Publishers, Leiden 2002, pp. 183-214


  • Ancient Tibet: Research Materials from The Yeshe De Project. Dharma Publishing, Berkeley, California. ISBN 0-89800-146-3.
  • Coleman, Graham, ed. (1993). A Handbook of Tibetan Culture. Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc.. ISBN 1-57062-002-4.
  • Conze, Edward (1993). A Short History of Buddhism (2nd ed.). Oneworld. ISBN 1-85168-066-7. 
  • Dhargyey, Geshe Ngawang (1978). Alexander Berzin, ed. Tibetan Tradition of Mental Development. Dharmsala: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives.  [A pithy lam-rim by a geshe appointed in 1973 by the Dalai Lama as head of the translation team at the Tibetan Library.]
  • Dhargyey, Geshe Ngawang (1982). Alexander Berzin, ed. An Anthology of Well-Spoken Advice on the Graded Paths of the Mind, Vol. I. Dharmsala: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. ISBN 81-86470-29-8.  [The first part of a more extensive lam-rim by a geshe appointed in 1973 by the Dalai Lama as head of the translation team at the Tibetan Library. The language of this publication is very different from that of the 1978 work by the same lama due to widespread changes in choice of English terminology by the translators.]
  • Hill, John E. "Notes on the Dating of Khotanese History." Indo-Iranian Journal, Vol. 13, No. 3 July 1988. To purchase this article see: [1]. An updated version of this article is available for free download (with registration) at: [2]
  • Hopkins, Jeffrey (1996). Meditation on Emptiness. Boston: Wisdom. ISBN 0-86171-110-6.  [Definitive treatment of emptiness according to the Prasaṅgika-Madhyamaka school.]
  • Lati Rinpoche (1980). Elizabeth Napper, ed. Mind in Tibetan Buddhism: Oral Commentary on Ge-shay Jam-bel-sam-pel’s "Presentation of Awareness and Knowledge Composite of All the Important Points Opener of the Eye of New Intelligence. Valois, NY: Snow Lion. ISBN 0-937938-02-5. 
  • Mullin, Glenn H. (1998). Living in the Face of Death: The Tibetan Tradition. 2008 reprint: Snow Lion Publications, Ithica, New York. ISBN 978-1-55939-310-2.
  • Nyanaponika Thera (1965). The Heart of Buddhist Meditation. Boston: Weiser. ISBN 0-87728-073-8. 
  • Pabongka Rinpoche (3rd edn. 2006). Trijang Rinpoche, ed. Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, A Concise Discourse on the Path to Enlightenment. Michael Richards (transl.). Somerville, MA: Wisdom. ISBN 0-86171-500-4.  Check date values in: |date= (help) [This famous lam-rim text was written from notes on an extended discourse by the Gelugpa geshe, Pabongka Rinpoche in 1921 and translated through extensive consultation with Achok Rinpoche (Library of Tibetan Works and Archives).]
  • Powers, John. History as Propaganda: Tibetan Exiles versus the People's Republic of China (2004) Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-517426-7
  • Ringu Tulku. The Ri-Me Philosophy of Jamgon Kongtrul the Great: A Study of the Buddhist Lineages of Tibet. Shambhala. ISBN 1-59030-286-9. 
  • Smith, E. Gene (2001). Among Tibetan Texts: History and Literature of the Himalayan Plateau. Boston: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-179-3
  • Sopa, Geshe Lhundup; Jeffrey Hopkins (1977). Practice and Theory of Tibetan Buddhism. New Delhi: B.I. Publications. ISBN 0-09-125621-6.  [Part Two of this book, ‘’Theory: Systems of Tenets’’ is an annotated translation of ‘’Precious Garland of Tenets (Grub-mtha’ rin-chhen phreng-ba)’’ by Kön-chok-jik-may-wang-po (1728-1791).]
  • The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment
    • Tsong-kha-pa (2000). Joshua Cutler, ed. The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, Volume I. Guy Newland. Canada: Snow Lion. ISBN 1-55939-152-9. 
    • Tsong-kha-pa (2002). Joshua Cutler, ed. The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, Volume II. Guy Newland. Canada: Snow Lion. ISBN 1-55939-168-5. 
    • Tsong-kha-pa (2004). Joshua Cutler, ed. The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, Volume III. Guy Newland. Canada: Snow Lion. ISBN 1-55939-166-9. 
  • Wallace, B. Alan (1999), "The Buddhist Tradition of Samatha: Methods for Refining and Examining Consciousness", Journal of Consciousness Studies 6 (2-3): 175-187 .

Further reading

Introductory books
  • Wallace, B. Alan (October 25, 1993). Tibetan Buddhism From the Ground Up: A Practical Approach for Modern Life. Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-075-4, ISBN 978-0-86171-075-1
  • Yeshe, Lama Thubten (2001). "The Essence of Tibetan Buddhism". Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive. ISBN 1-891868-08-X
Other books
  • Coleman, Graham, ed. (1993). A Handbook of Tibetan Culture. Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc.. ISBN 1-57062-002-4.
  • Lati Rinpoche (1980). Elizabeth Napper, ed. Mind in Tibetan Buddhism: Oral Commentary on Ge-shay Jam-bel-sam-pel’s "Presentation of Awareness and Knowledge Composite of All the Important Points Opener of the Eye of New Intelligence. Valois, NY: Snow Lion. ISBN 0-937938-02-5. 
  • Ringu Tulku. The Ri-Me Philosophy of Jamgon Kongtrul the Great: A Study of the Buddhist Lineages of Tibet. Shambhala. ISBN 1-59030-286-9. 
  • Smith, E. Gene (2001). Among Tibetan Texts: History and Literature of the Himalayan Plateau. Boston: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-179-3

External links

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