Sacred Texts of Tibetan Buddhism

The Dalailama

A Brief Note on Tibetan Buddhism

Tibetan Buddhism is a Mahayana Buddhist tradition, meaning that the goal of all practice is to achieve enlightenment (or Buddhahood) in order to help all other sentient beings attain this state, as opposed to mere personal liberation. The motivation for Mahayana practice is Bodhicitta (a Sanskrit word meaning 'mind of enlightenment') --the altruistic intention to become enlightened for the sake of all sentient beings.

Buddhahood is sometimes partially defined as a state of omniscience (sarvajñä). It requires both complete freedom from the obstructions to liberation (the negative states of mind such as ignorance, hatred and desirous attachment) and complete freedom from the obstructions to omniscience (which are the imprints or 'stains' of delusions which imagine inherent existence).

When one is freed from mental obscurations, one is said to attain a state of continuous bliss, mixed with a simultaneous cognition of the true nature of reality. In this state, all limitations on one's ability to help all other living beings are removed. This includes the attainment of omniscience - that is the removal of all obstructions to knowing all phenomena (or seeing the empty nature of each phenomenon as well as each of their relative characteristics). From the perspective of Tibetan Buddhism, when one conceives of a particular object, the mind gives rise to the appearance of that object. In perceiving the empty nature of all phenomena as well as each of their relative characteristics, one becomes both omniscient and omnipresent.

There are said to be countless beings that have attained Buddhahood, or countless Buddhas. Buddhas spontaneously, naturally and continuously perform activities to benefit all sentient beings. However it is believed that sentient beings' karma (or 'actions') 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.

History of Tibetan Buddhism

According to a Tibetan legendary tradition, Buddhist scriptures (among them the Karandavyuha Sutra) and relics (among them the Cintamani) arrived in southern Tibet during the reign of Lha Thothori Nyantsen, the 28th "king of Tibet" (fifth century), who was probably just a local chief in the Yarlung valley. The tale is miraculous (the objects fell from the sky on the roof of the king's palace), but it may have an historical background (arrival of Buddhist missionaries).

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 Buddhist princess, Wencheng. According to a Tibetan legendary tradition, he 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, emperor Trisong Detsen (755-797) established Buddhism as the official religion of the state.[6] He invited Indian Buddhist scholars to his court. In his age the famous tantric mystic Padmasambhava arrived in Tibet according to the Tibetan tradition. 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 AD 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 Mahayana Buddhism encompasses Vajrayana (a Sanskrit word that is a conjunction of vajra which may be translated as diamond, thunder or indestructible and yana or vehicle). It is said that Vajrayana practice is the fastest method for attaining Buddhahood, however this is only the case for advanced practitioners who have a solid and reliable grounding in the preliminary practices (which may be categorized as renunciation, Bodhicitta and Wisdom, specifically, the wisdom realizing emptiness). For practitioners who are not qualified, Vajrayana practice can be very dangerous, and will only lead to increased ego problems and more suffering if it is not practiced with the pure motivation of Bodhicitta.

Even for the qualified advanced practitioner, a specific Vajrayana practice should only ever be followed on the basis of receiving the appropriate initiation (also known as an empowerment) from a lama who is fully qualified to give that initiation.

Schools of Tibetan Buddhism

Tibetan Buddhism has four main traditions (the suffix pa is comparable to "er" in English):

Nyingma(pa), The Ancient Ones. This is the oldest, the original order founded by Padmasambhava, a Tibetan master, and relies on very early esoteric scriptures known as tantras. In this school there is a good deal of emphasis placed on meditation.

Kagyu(pa), Oral Lineage. This contains one major subsect and one minor subsect. The first, the Dagpo Kagyu, encompasses those Kagyu schools that trace back to Gampopa. In turn, the Dagpo Kagyu consists of four major sub-sects: the Karma Kagyu, headed by a Karmapa, the Tsalpa Kagyu, the Barom Kagyu, and Pagtru Kagyu; as well as eight minor sub-sects, all of which trace their root to Pagtru Kagyu. Among the eight sub-sects the most notable of are the Drikung Kagyu and the Drukpa Kagyu. The once-obscure Shangpa Kagyu, which was famously represented by the 20th century teacher Kalu Rinpoche, traces its history back to the Indian master Niguma, sister of Kagyu lineage holder Naropa. This is an oral tradition which is very much concerned with the experiential dimension of meditation. Its most famous exponent was Milarepa, an eleventh century Tibetan mystic who meditated for many years in mountain caves before eventually reaching enlightenment.

Sakya(pa), Grey Earth, headed by the Sakya Trizin, founded by Khon Konchog Gyalpo, a disciple of the great translator Drokmi Lotsawa. Sakya Pandita 1182–1251CE was the great grandson of Khon Konchog Gyalpo. This school very much represents the scholarly tradition.

Gelug(pa), Way of Virtue, also known casually as the 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. It was founded in the 14th to 15th century by Je Tsongkhapa, based on the foundations of the Kadampa tradition. Tsongkhapa was renowned for both his scholasticism and his virtue. The Dalai Lama belongs to the Gelukpa school, and is regarded as the embodiment of Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion (the equivalent of Avalokitesvara).

Sacred Texts of Tibetan Buddhism

Suggestions for Further Reading

1. This article on Tibenta Buddhism has been reproduced from Wikipedia's Tibetan_Buddhism under the TGNU Free Documentation License with suitable modifications.

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