Tibetan Buddhism

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Samye monastery, Tibet.

Tibetan Buddhism is a form of Buddhism that is practiced in Tibet, Mongolia, Bhutan and the Himalayan regions of Nepal and India. This form of Buddhism is based on the Tibetan Buddhist Canon. Its outlook is broadly that of the Mahayana, but its more specific orientation is that of the Vajrayana (Tantric Buddhism). The Tibetan form of Buddhism is unique in that it incorporates the tantric practices that developed in Northern India.

Buddhism was transmitted to Tibet from North India in the 7th to 13th centuries CE. The Tibetan form of Buddhism later spread to Mongolia and the Himalayan regions.



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

Alexander Berzin writes:

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...[1]

Three vehicles

Within Tibetan Buddhism, the teachings of the Buddha are categorized into three distinct vehicles, referred to as the three vehicles (yanas). These are:

These three vehicles, or paths, can be summarized essentially as follows:

In this context, the basic vehicle (Hinayana) emphasizes alleviating one's own suffering, and attaining the state of "enlightenment" for oneself only. In contrast, the great vehicle (Mahayana) emphasizes following the path with the ultimate goal to eliminate suffering for all sentient beings, and to help all beings reach the state of enlightenment. This great motivation is said to lead one to the highest state of enlightenment, called Buddhahood.[2] Finally, the diamond vehicle (Vajrayana) provides a wealth of "skillful means" (upaya) -- special practices that enable the practitioner to progress quickly on the path.[3]

In this system of categorization, the Mahayana includes the teachings of the Hinayana, and the Vajrayana is inclusive of both the Mahayana and Hinayana. Ringu Tulku writes:

All three vehicles form an integral system of instruction, and their categorization is just for the sake of easier understanding. The Shravakayana (Basic Vehicle)[note 1] contains the most fundamental teachings. Without this basis it is not possible to understand the Mahayana or Vajrayana. The relationship of the three yanas can be illustrated in terms of three concentric circles. The outer circle is the Vajrayana. It embraces and encompasses the other two. The next is Mahayana, which embraces the Shravakaya at the center... Whatever is taught in the Shravakayana system is not rejected by the Mahayana or Vajrayana teachings. It is just further clarified and revealed to open the way for our understanding to develop into ever deepening levels, until true depth is attained.[4]

Four tenet systems

Monks debating in Drepung Monastery

In order to develop an experiential understanding of the true nature of reality, students at Tibetan monastic universities study a graduated system of four tenets (assertions), that lead to a more and more subtle understanding of ultimate reality.

The four tenents...are arranged in a hierarchy of views according to the way in which they define the ultimate nature of phenomena, an ascending scale that culminates in Madyamaka, which shows that the ulitmate status of phenomena is beyond the reach of conceptual and verbal formulation.[5]

These four tenents are:

  1. Vaibhashika (the Great Exposition school)
  2. Sautrantika (the Sutra school)
  3. Chittamatra (the Mind-Only school)
  4. Madhyamaka (the Middle Way school)

The four tenets 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, culminating in the Madhyamaka view of the "Middle Way".[6][7]

The tantric view

Being a form of Vajrayana (Daimond Vehicle) or Buddhist Tantra, Tibetan Buddhist doctrine affirms the views espoused in the texts known as the Buddhist Tantras (dating from around the 7th century CE onwards).[8] Tantra generally refers to forms of religious practice which emphasize the use of unique visualizations, ideas, symbols and rituals for inner transformation.[8] The Vajrayana is seen by its adherents as the fastest and most powerful vehicle for enlightenment because it contains many special techniques and because it takes the effect (Buddhahood itself, or Buddha nature) as the path (and hence is sometimes known as the "effect vehicle").[8]


Four main schools

In Tibet, distinct schools (or orders) arose due to differences in the time of translation of texts from India and the development of lineages formed by particular teachers.[9] Traditional texts identify eight schools, but some of these traditional schools are no longer practiced.

Today, four schools of Tibetan Buddhism are widely known: Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu, and Gelugpa.[note 2]

All of these schools agree on the framework of the three vehicles as the path of practice, and the approach of the four tenet systems in developing the correct view of ultimate reality. The key differences among the schools are mainly in the area of tantra: each school traces back to different tantra teachers and relies on different tantric practices.[9] There are also relatively minor differences over the terminology used to express the highest views or states of meditation.

The four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism are:

  1. Nyingma (literally "old one") - the oldest school; traces is origin to the India yogi Padmasambhava who came to Tibet in the 8th century; emphasizes the practice of Dzogchen
  2. Sakya - traces its lineage to Virupa; the unique teachings of Virupa are known as Lamdre
  3. Kagyu - traces its lineage to Indian yogi Naropa; emphasizes the practice of Mahamudra
  4. Gelug - founded in the 14th to 15th century by Je Tsongkhapa, renowned for both his scholarship and virtue.

Contemporary scholar John Powers states:

All four [schools]...agree on the basic outline of the path to be followed to escape from cyclic existence and the sorts of practices that one should adopt. All share a Mahayana orientation, and so they agree that the path begins with the generation of the mind of awakening and progresses through the bodhisattva levels, during which one cultivates the six (or ten) perfections. It is assumed by members of the four orders that Vajrayana is the supreme of all Buddhist paths, although there are differences between them regarding which tantras they favor and which lineages they follow...[9]

Bon tradition

The Bon tradition is also sometimes grouped with the above four or five schools.


Ritual musical instruments from Tibet; MIM Brussels.

Rites and rituals for the community

Traditionally, lamas have tended to the lay populace by helping them with issues such as protection and prosperity. Common traditions have been the various rites and rituals for mundane ends, such as purifying one's karma, avoiding harm from demonic forces and enemies, and promoting a successful harvest.[10] For example, it is common for lamas to perform divinations for lay practioners.[11] The divinations are used to help determine the best possible course of action--for example, in planning a journey or treating an illness.

Rituals for the dying and recently deceased are also important. These rituals are intended to assure that one has a positive rebirth and a good spiritual path in the future.[12] Tibetan Buddhism posits the idea of an intermediate state between life and death, commonly referred to as the Bardo state.[12] Rituals and the readings of texts such as the Bardo Thodol are done to ensure that the dying person can navigate this intermediate state skillfully.[13]

Intitiation rituals

A special kind of ritual called an initiation or empowerment (Sanskrit: Abhiseka, Tibetan: Wangkur) is central to Tantric practice. These rituals consecrate a practitioner into a particular Tantric practice associated with individual mandalas of deities and mantras. Without having gone through initiation, one is generally not allowed to practice the higher Tantras.[14]

Preliminary practices

Buddhists performing prostrations in front of Jokhang Monastery.

To engage in the Tantric practices of the Vajrayana path one must receive an appropriate initiation (also known as an "empowerment") from a fully qualified lama. After receiving an initiation, a practitioner typically begins the path by focusing on the preliminary practices (ngondro) for their specific tradition.

The preliminary practices present a graduated path, beginning with more basic practices, and leading up to the highest tantric practices. It is said that just as Sutrayāna preceded Vajrayāna historically in India, in the same way, the sutra practices are preliminary to tantric ones. Thus, the preliminary practices include all Sutrayāna activities that yield merit, such as: hearing teachings, prostrations, offerings, prayers and acts of kindness and compassion. The chief among the preliminary practices are realizations through meditation on the three principle stages of the path: renunciation, the altruistic wish to attain enlightenment and the wisdom realizing emptiness. It is said that for a person without the basis of these three practices, trying to practice Vajrayāna can be like a small child trying to ride an unbroken horse.[15]

Samatha and vipaśyanā

Young monk in meditation retreat, Yerpa, Tibet in 1993

Traditionally, Tibetan Buddhism follows the two main approaches to meditation as taught in all forms of Buddhism, samatha (Tib. Shine) and vipaśyanā (Tib. lhaktong).

The practice of samatha (calm abiding) is one of focusing one's mind on a single object such as a Buddha figure or the breath. Through repeated practice one's mind gradually becomes more stable, calm and happy. The nine stages of training the mind is the main progressive framework used for śamatha in Tibetan Buddhism.

The other form of Buddhist meditation is vipaśyanā (clear seeing, insight). This is generally seen as having two aspects, one of which is analytic meditation, thinking rationally about ideas and concepts in a scholarly or philosophical manner. As part of this process, entertaining doubts and engaging in internal debate over them is encouraged in some traditions.[16] The other type of vipaśyanā is a non-analytical, "simple" yogic style called trömeh in Tibetan, which means "without complication".[17]

A meditation routine may involve alternating sessions of vipaśyanā to achieve deeper levels of realization, and samatha to consolidate them.[18]


An elderly Tibetan woman with a prayer wheel inscribed with mantras

The use of prayer formulas, incantations or phrases called mantras (Tibetan: sngags) is another widespread feature of Tibetan Buddhist practice.[19] So common is the use of mantras that Vajrayana is also sometimes called "Mantrayana" (the mantra vehicle). Mantras are widely recited, chanted, written or inscribed, and visualized as part of different forms of meditation. Each mantra has symbolic meaning and will often have a connection to a particular Buddha or Bodhisattva.[20] Tibetan Buddhist practitioners repeat mantras in order to train the mind, and transform their thoughts in line with the divine qualities of the mantra's deity and special power.[21]

Mantras are seen as a way to guard the mind against negativity; they sometimes referred to as "mind protectors."[22] According to Lama Zopa Rinpoche:

Mantras are effective because they help keep your mind quiet and peaceful, automatically integrating it into one-pointedness. They make your mind receptive to very subtle vibrations and thereby heighten your perception. Their recitation eradicates gross negativities and the true nature of things can then be reflected in your mind’s resulting clarity. By practising a transcendental mantra, you can in fact purify all the defiled energy of your body, speech, and mind.[23]

Mantras also serve to focus the mind as a samatha (calming) practice as well as a way to transform the mind through the symbolic meaning of the mantra. In Buddhism, it is important to have the proper intention, focus and faith when practicing mantras, if one does not, they will not work. Unlike in Hinduism, mantras are not believed to have inherent power of their own, and thus without the proper faith, intention and mental focus, they are just mere sounds.[24] Thus according to the Tibetan philosopher Jamgon Ju Mipham:

if a mantra is thought to be something ordinary and not seen for what it is, it will not be able to perform its intended function. Mantras are like non-conceptual wish-fulfilling jewels. Infusing one's being with the blessings of mantra, like the form of a moon reflected on a body of water, necessitates the presence of faith and other conditions that set the stage for the spiritual attainments of mantra. Just as the moon's reflection cannot appear without water, mantras cannot function without the presence of faith and other such factors in one's being.[25]

Tsongkhapa says that mantra "protects the mind from ordinary appearances and conceptions".[26]

Most tantric practices have specific mantras associated with them; these mantras are normally not recited unless one as the initation for the specific practice and the associated mantra. Other mantras are recited by ordinary lay people, typically as part of their daily prayers.

Diety Yoga

Chöd ritual, note the use of Damaru drum and hand-bell, as well as the Kangling (thighbone trumpet).

Deity Yoga is the fundamental, defining practice of Vajrayana Buddhism involving identification with a chosen deity through visualisations and rituals, and the realisation of emptiness. According to the Tibetan scholar Tsongkhapa, deity yoga is what separates Buddhist Tantra practice from the practice of other Buddhist schools.[27]

Deity yoga involves two stages, the generation stage and the completion stage. In the generation stage, one dissolves the mundane world and visualizes one's chosen deity (yidam), its mandala and companion deities, resulting in identification with this divine reality.[28] In the completion stage, one dissolves the visualization of and identification with the yidam in the realization of emptiness. Completion stage practices can also include subtle body energy practices,[29] as well as other practices such as the Six Yogas of Naropa.


Tibetan Buddhism derives from the latest stage of north Indian Buddhism.[30]

The 14th Dalai Lama emphasizes that Tibetan Buddhism has its roots in the tradition of Nalanda monastic university of Northern India. He stated:

To understand Buddhism in Tibet, we must trace its roots back to the Buddha through the Nalanda masters. When Mahayana became increasingly widespread in India, the great monastic universities such as Nalanda were constructed. These monastic universities attracted brilliant scholars from all philosophical systems and esteemed practitioners as well. Although Nagarjuna and his student Aryadeva may have proceeded the establishment of Nalanda monastery, their teachings were studied and debated there. From them sprang the profound lineage that widely explained the teachings on the ultimate nature. These included the works of Buddhapalita, Bhavaviveka, Candrakirti, Shantideva, Shantarakshita, and Kamalaśīla. The vast lineage, which emphasized the bodhisattva practices, also flourished there, including the teachings of Maitreya, Asanga, Vimuktisena, and Haribhadra. Dignaga and Dharmakirti, whose teachings on logic and reasoning enabled Buddhists to refute the wrong views of non-Buddhists, also flourished at Nalanda, as did the study of the Vinaya – the monastic code of discipline - as expounded by Gunaprabha and Sakyaprabha. Vasubandhu and Sthiramati elaborated on Abhidharma.[31]

Buddhism was first introduced to Tibet during the reign of Songtsen Gampo (d. 649), and then became more firmly established during the rein of Trisong Detsen. Trisong Detsen invited the great Indian masters Padmasambhava, Śāntarakṣita, Vimalamitra, and others to come to Tibet and teach the Dharma. These masters assisted in building the first monastery in Tibet (Samye Monastery) and ordaining the first group of Tibetan monks. Trisong Detsen's grandson, King Ralpacan was also a great supporter of Buddhism who oversaw the construction of many temples, and invited many scholars from India to Tibet. Ralpacan's reign was followed by a period of persecution under King Langdarma (r. 838-842). Langdarma destoyed many of the monasteries that existed in Tibet at that time. Langdarma's death was followed by civil war and the dissolution of the Tibetan Empire.

At the end of the 10th century, an organized kingdom arose once more in western Tibet, and there was interest in clarifying the teachings. This was the beginning of a second wave of teachings and texts that were transmitted from India to Tibet. In 1042, the Indian teacher Atisha arrived in Tibet at the invitation of King Yeshe Ö, the ruler of the western Tibetan kingdom. Atisha taught widely and oversaw the translations of many new texts from India into the Tibetan language. At this time also, many other scholars and translators traveled from Tibet to India, and brought back new teachings to Tibet.

The Buddhist teachings that were established in Tibet before this second transmission period become known as the Old Translation (Nyingma) school. The teachings that arrived in Tibet during the second transmission period were called the New Translation (Sarma) school. The New Translation schools evolved into the modern day Gelug, Sakya, and Kagyu schools.

The 14th Dalai Lama states that all four of these schools are based on the Nalanda tradition.[31] He states:

I have two purposes for calling Tibetan Buddhism the Nalanda tradition. First, this shows that it is not Lamaism, a term early Western visitors to Tibet called our form of Buddhism. Lamaism implies that the teachings were created by lama's who pretended to be the Buddha and that people worshiped their lamas. This created much misunderstanding. Second, many Tibetans don't know the origins of their own teachings and practices and simply follow their own lamas or the text written by teachers of their own monastery. They lack further knowledge and a wider perspective. In Nalanda, in addition to studying various Buddhist tenet systems, they also studied non-Buddhist thought. And this way, they developed their critical thinking and gained real knowledge; reading just one text or learning one system doesn't bring that. Having studied many texts and engaged in serious meditation, the most excellent teachers are able to give extensive explanations.
Due to the social context in India at the time Nalanda and other great monastic universities flourished, their scholar-practitioners focused on refuting non-Buddhist misconceptions. However, once the great majority of Tibetans became Buddhist, Tibetan scholar-practitioners took it for granted that their audience was Buddhist. For these reasons, although Indian sages wrote texts employing reasoning to refute wrong views, Atiśa emphasized integrating the knowledge of Buddhist practices into daily life. Nowadays the audience is more diverse than ever, and both reasoning to refute wrong views and practice techniques for subduing the mind need to be emphasized.[31]


  1. Ringu Tulku uses the term "Shravakyayana" to refer to the Hinayana (Basic Vehicle)".
  2. There is also a lesser-known Jonang school that was thought to have faded out, but is currently active.


  1. Alexander Berzin. Types of Buddhism
  2. Thurman 1997, pp. 291.
  3. Thurman 1997, pp. 2-3.
  4. Ringu Tulku 2005, pp. 16-17.
  5. Padmakara Translation Group 2010, p. 26.
  6. Sopa & Hopkins 1977, pp. 67-69.
  7. Hopkins 1996.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Powers 2007, p. 250.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Powers 2007, p. 355.
  10. Kapstein 2014, p. 2.
  11. Kapstein 2014, p. 5.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Kapstein 2014, p. 94.
  13. Kapstein 2014, p. 100.
  14. Kapstein 2014, p. 81.
  15. Pabongka Rinpoche 2006, p. 649.
  16. khri byang blo bzang ye shes bstan ʼdzin rgya mtsho 2006, p. 66, 212f.
  17. Thrangu Rinpoche 1994, pp. 91-93.
  18. Hopkins (1996)
  19. Kapstein 2014, p. 80.
  20. Powers 2007, pp. 23-24.
  21. Powers 2007, p. 265.
  22. Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. mantra.
  23. Powers 2007, pp. 266-267.
  24. Powers 2007, p. 267.
  25. Jamgon Mipham, Luminous Essence: A Guide to the Guhyagarbha Tantra, page 147.
  26. Tsoṅ-kha-pa Blo-bzaṅ-grags-pa. Tantra in Tibet: The Great Exposition of Secret Mantra, Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1987, page 47.
  27. Powers 2007, p. 271.
  28. Garson 2004, p. 52.
  29. Garson 2004, p. 45.
  30. Conze, 1993
  31. 31.0 31.1 31.2 Dalai Lama & Thubten Chodron 2017, s.v. Buddhism in Tibet.


  • Princeton Dict icon 166px.png Buswell, Robert E.; Lopez, Donald S. (2014), The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, Princeton University 
  • Conze, Edward (1993), A Short History of Buddhism (2nd ed.), Oneworld, ISBN 1-85168-066-7 
  • Book icoline.svg Dalai Lama; Thubten Chodron (2017), Approaching the Buddhist Path, The Library of Wisdom and Compassion, Volume 1, Wisdom Publications 
  • Garson, Nathaniel DeWitt (2004), Penetrating the Secret Essence Tantra: Context and Philosophy in the Mahayoga System of rNying-ma Tantra, University of Virginia 
  • Hopkins, Jeffrey (1996), Meditation on Emptiness, Boston: Wisdom, ISBN 0-86171-110-6 
  • Kapstein, Matthew T. (2014), Tibetan Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press 
  • Pabongka Rinpoche (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 
  • Powers, John (2007), Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, Snow Lion 
  • 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 (2005), Daring Steps Toward Fearlessness: The Three Vehicles of Tibetan Buddhism, Snow Lion 
  • 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 
  • Sopa, Geshe Lhundup; Hopkins, Jeffrey (1977), Practice and Theory of Tibetan Buddhism, New Delhi: B.I. Publications, ISBN 0-09-125621-6 
  • Thrangu Rinpoche (1994), The Practice of Tranquillity & Insight: A Guide to Tibetan Buddhist Meditation, Shambhala Publications, ISBN 0-87773-943-9 
  • Thurman, Robert (1997), Essential Tibetan Buddhism, Castle Books 
  • 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