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Mahāyāna Buddhism

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Korea • Vietnam
Taiwan • Mongolia
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Bodhisattva • Upāya
Samādhi • Prajñā
Śunyatā • Trikāya

Mahāyāna Sūtras

Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras
Lotus Sūtra
Nirvāṇa Sūtra
Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra
Avataṃsaka Sūtra
{{IAST|Śūraṅgama Sūtra

Mahāyāna Schools

Esoteric Buddhism
Pure Land • Zen
Tiantai • Nichiren


Silk Road • Nāgārjuna
Asaṅga • Vasubandhu

Tibetan Buddhism is one of three major forms of Buddhism, in terms of regional culture as well as canonical language (see Tibetan canon). The other two would be Theravada, based on the Pali canon; and East Asian Buddhism, based on the Chinese Buddhist canon. Together with East Asian Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism forms part of a broader Mahayana tradition.

Like other forms of Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhist tradition claims continuity with the teachings of Sakyamuni Buddha in India. These are said to have been transmitted to Tibet beginning in the 7th century, from which they spread to Mongolia and other Inner Asian lands from the 11th century.

Most distinctively, the Tibetan canon includes not only sutras but also tantras. The former consist of the public teachings of a Buddha or bodhisattva; the latter are orally-transmitted esoteric rituals or meditation practices. All of these are found in a scriptural collection called the Kangyur. An accompanying collection called the Tangyur consists of voluminous commentarial treatises, many of them unique to Tibet. One important principle is that such teachings cannot be understood, and ought not to be practiced, without the guidance of a lama ("spiritual teacher" or "guru").[1]

The number of adherents of Tibetan Buddhism is estimated to be between ten and twenty million.[2] Besides Tibet, Tibetan Buddhism is also a traditional religion of Mongolia, as well as certain regions of the Himalayas with cultural affinities to Tibet. One of several religions supported by the courts of the Mongol Empire, Qing Dynasty, and Czarist Russia, Tibetan Buddhism functioned as the official religion of Mongolia and Tibet prior to the arrival of Communism; and remains the state religion of Bhutan.[3]


Tibetan Buddhism is known by various names, including

  • "Lamaism," an archaic, discredited term apparently derived from the Chinese lama jiao ("lama religion"), and formerly used to distinguish Tibetan Buddhism from Han Chinese Buddhism (which however received no such qualifier). The term was taken up by Western scholars including Hegel, as early as 1822.[4]
  • Tantric Buddhism or Vajrayana Buddhism (on analogy with the other "vehicles" of Hinayana and Mahayana). This arguably obscures the degree of commonality between Tibetan Buddhism and other forms of Mahayana Buddhism (Tibetan Buddhism being a form of Mahayana in terms of bodhicitta motivation, if not always in terms of methods). Also, tantric practice is by no means universal among followers of Tibetan Buddhism, and is found in other forms of Buddhism as well (such Japan's Shingon Buddhism).
  • Alternative geographical descriptors such as "Indo-Tibetan Buddhism"; "Inner Asian Buddhism"; "Tibeto-Mongolian Buddhism"; "Himalayan Buddhism", etc. These vary according to the emphasis of the researcher, and underscore the reality that "Tibetan Buddhism" is not only a Tibetan affair.

In the Tibetan language, no special qualifier is used. Chos ("dharma") is assumed to apply to all versions of Buddhism, including Tibetan ones; while the word for an adherent of Buddhism would be nang pa ("insider").


Tibetan Buddhism is one of the traditional religions of

  • Tibet, including the old regions of U-Tsang, Amdo, and Kham. These are located in what is now the Tibetan Autonomous Region and Chinghai, plus parts of Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan—all of them provinces of the People's Republic of China. (Other traditional religions of these areas include Bön, Islam, Taoism, and the Dongba religion of the Nakhi people.)
  • Mongolia, including the independent state of ("Outer") Mongolia as well as ethnic Mongol populations in China (Inner Mongolia, plus several enclaves in Xinjiang) and Russia (Kalmykia, Buryatia, and Tuva). (Other traditional religions of these areas include Tengrism, Islam, and Orthodox Christianity.)
  • The Himalayas, including northern Nepal, Bhutan, and the following states of India: Jammu and Kashmir (specifically, the regions of Ladakh and Zanskar), Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh. (Other traditional religions of these areas include Hinduism, Islam, Bön, and the Donyi-Polo religion.)

During the 20th century, Tibetan Buddhism began to be adopted by some ethnic Chinese as well as Westerners, whose view of the religion often incorporated fantasy elements (see Theosophy, Shangri-La, Orientalism). In the wake of the 1959 Tibetan uprising, a Tibetan diaspora has made Tibetan Buddhism more widely accessible to the rest of the world, with the (fourteenth) Dalai Lama as a familiar representative.

Celebrity converts include Brandon Boyd, Richard Gere, Adam Yauch, Jet Li, Sharon Stone, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Glass, and Steven Seagal (who has been proclaimed the reincarnation of the tulku Chungdrag Dorje).[5]


In Tibet

Padmasambhava or Guru Rinpoche. Founder of the Nyingmapa, the earliest school of Tibetan Buddhism. Note the wide-open eyes, characteristic of a particular method of meditation.[6]

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 (5th century). The tale is miraculous (the objects fell from the sky on the roof of the king's palace), but it may have a historical background (the arrival of Buddhist missionaries).[7]

The earliest well-documented influence of Buddhism in Tibet dates from the reign of king Songtsän Gampo, who died in 650. He married Buddhist princesses from Nepal (Bhrikutidevi) as well as Tang Dynasty China (Wencheng), among other wives; and founded the first Buddhist temples (including the Jokhang). By the second half of the 8th century he was already regarded as an embodiment of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara.[8] One aspect of Buddhism's appeal (as opposed to that of state Bön) was its international character, as a religion of the major trade routes to India and Central Asia.

In the 8th century, King Trisong Detsen (755-797) established Buddhism as the official religion of the state.[9] He invited Indian Buddhist teachers to his court—most notably, the legendary tantric yogin Padmasambhava and the monk Shantarakshita—and ordered the construction of Samye, the first Tibetan monastery.

The end of the Tibetan empire (triggered by the assassination of its last emperor Lang Darma, an opponent of Buddhism) led to a loss of official support for Buddhist institutions. Within a few centuries, however, a "second diffusion" of Buddhism was occurring thanks to Indian Buddhist teachers such as Atisha. This wave of Buddhist activity was more populist in nature. Tibetan Buddhist monasteries became important centers of cultural and political influence, and entered into various alliances. The Sakya hierarchs won the support of the Mongol Empire, under whose authority they ruled over Tibet; while the Gelug order and its line of Dalai Lamas held a similar role with respect to the Oirat and Qing Dynasty courts.

Following the collapse of the Qing, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama declared independence for Tibet (as had Mongolia). Tibet remained de facto independent until 1950, when the Fourteenth Dalai Lama signed the Seventeen Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet agreeing to Chinese sovereignty. In 1959, the Dalai Lama fled to India, which agreed to host a Tibetan Government in Exile and a Tibetan refugee population (presently around 100,000). India—and to a lesser extent, Nepal—has now become a major center for Tibetan Buddhist religious activity. Meanwhile, in China, Tibetan Buddhists continue to suffer numerous human rights problem, including religious freedom issues.

In Mongolia

Although some of the emperors of the Mongol Empire had been Buddhist, the religion failed to take hold among the general population until the visit of Tibetan monk Sonam Gyatso—who would retrospectively be known as the Third Dalai Lama--to the court of Oirat leader Altan Khan. The result was new prestige for the Gelug sect, and later, the recognition of Altan Khan's son as the Fourth Dalai Lama. Nevertheless, Mongolian Shamanism remained a powerful competing force in Mongolian religious life.

The Mongolian nobility and Gelug hierarchy developed a symbiotic relationship which would not end until the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, and the civil war which followed. By this time Buddhist institutions enjoyed vast power over Mongolian society. The Jebtsundamba Khutuktu (or Bogdo Gegeen) joined a group declaring independence for Mongolia, with himself serving briefly as Bogd Khan.

The new Communist government steadily stripped Buddhist institutions of their power until the late 1930s, when Stalinist repressions in Mongolia resulted in the destruction of thousands of monasteries, and the massacre of tens of thousands of people, many of them Buddhist monks accused of pro-Japanese sympathies. For many years the sole working monastery in Mongolia was Gandan Monastery in Ulaanbataar. The line of Khukhuktus was declared to have ended in 1929, but nevertheless revived again in 1990, after the rise of democracy (see 9th Jebtsundamba Khutughtu).

Buddhism among the Kalmyk, Buryat, and Tuvan peoples is similar to that of Mongolia. See Buddhism in Russia.

In the Himalayas

Buddhism entered Bhutan in the seventh century A.D., when Tibetan king Srongtsen Gampo ordered the construction of temples, at Bumthang in central Bhutan and at Kyichu in the Paro Valley. Padmasambhava is said to have passed through Bumthang, which he reached while flying on a tiger (actually a transformed version of his consort Yeshe Tsogyal). As the country developed, Buddhist culture became a unifying element.[10] From about the thirteenth century, Bhutan received Kagyupa refugees from Tibet, where the sect had come into conflict with the Mongol-backed Gelugpas. One such figure was Ngawang Namgyal, Drukpa Kagyu founder of a theocratic dynasty based at Thimpu which persisted until the British period. The British established a hereditary monarchy which endures today, with Tibetan Buddhism as the state religion and much of the Bhutanese government under the control of monks. At this time, the young tulku of Ngawang Namgyal (called the Shabdrung) is said to be held under house arrest. See History of Bhutan.
Between 1642 and 1975, Sikkim was ruled by a line of Chogyals ("Dharma Kings") whose progenitor was apparently predicted by Padmasambhava. From the 18th century Sikkim came under pressure from Nepalese Gurkha forces, encouraging an alliance with Britain. The result was a series of wars in the early 19th century (see Gurkha War), and the appropriation of Sikkim's sovereignty by the British. Sikkim voted against joining India, and remained independent until its 1975 annexation by India. Despite its Buddhist history, Sikkim's population is now mostly Nepali Hindu (a demographic fate which the rulers of neighboring Bhutan have long sought to avoid). Sikkim is also of importance to Tibetan Buddhists because of Rumtek Monastery, associated with the (disputed) line of Karmapas.
After the ninth-century collapse of the Tibetan empire, a scion of the royal house called Nyima-Gon founded the first Ladakh dynasty. The region became culturally and demographically Tibetanized. Many of Ladakh's best-known monasteries and palaces were built by the Namgyal Dynasty during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Ladakh increasingly found itself on the defensive against Muslim states to the southwest, until 1846, when it was annexed to Dogra Kashmir. After Partition in 1947, Indian and Pakistani forces fought over Ladakh, resulting in its three-way division (including Aksai Chin). Ladakhi Buddhists often resent Muslim Kashmiri rule, and lobby for recognition of Ladakh as a Union Territory. See History of Ladakh.

Teachings and Practices


In traditional Buddhist cosmology, the earth is flat, with the cosmic mountain Sumeru at its center. Sumeru is inhabited by gods, and surrounded by a complex of seas and mountain ranges which effectively function as walls and moats. Four continents extend in each of the cardinal directions, each with a different geometrical shape. For example, "we" live on the southern continent of Jambudvipa (Tib. Jambuling), which bears the shape of a southward-pointing triangle (reminiscent, perhaps, of the Indian subcontinent). While few people today believe in the literal truth of this cosmology, it is often used symbolically, for example in the form of mandalas.

The visible, physical world, exists alongside a number of other realms (dhatu), which are conceived as stacked planes. Many of them correspond to states of meditative concentration. In general, realms are less physical locations than experiences shared by those with the karma to be reborn there. In addition to this "vertical" (chakravada) cosmology, there is a "horizontal" (sahasra, "thousand") one which describes groups of a thousand, million, or billion world-systems.

Similarly vast units of time are used for time, which is measured in various types of kalpa (see Hindu units of measurement). Time is cyclical, and alternates among four yugas (eons) in which goodness steadily degenerates. We are living in the worst of these, the kaliyuga; but like the alternation of the seasons, this will one day be replaced by the satyayuga or Golden Age. Time, and the world, are also beginningless and endless—there is no creation myth of the type found in other religions.

The six realms describe several types of possible rebirth (which however do not correspond exactly to the realms described above): Hell-beings, pretas (ghosts), animals, humans, asuras (warring gods), and devas (peaceful gods). The goal of Buddhist practice is to escape rebirth altogether. This does not entail abandoning the human world, however. The Pure Land in which an enlightened being dwells is closely related to his or her sambhogakaya ("enjoyment body"), and may appear even on earth.


Like most Indic religions, Tibetan Buddhism accepts the doctrines of reincarnation and karma—in which sentient beings are said to repeatedly die and be reborn into diverse states and circumstances (see six realms), depending on their good or bad actions—as well as the ultimate goal of escape from samsara.

The Bardo Thodol (the so-called "Tibetan Book of the Dead") describes the experience which a dead person can expect in the Bardo, the realm "in-between" incarnations. It is meant to be read aloud to the deceased for forty days after his or her death—the time period in which reincarnation (or liberation) is thought to occur.

Divine Beings

Tibetan Buddhism inherited from Hinduism a mythology surrounding Indian gods such as Brahma and Indra. From "local" religions (e.g., in Tibet) it acquired a variety of other divine beings, some of them originally or potentially malevolent. While Buddhist doctrine does not consider any of these beings to be matters of ultimate concern, as a practical matter their cults are often found integrated into local Buddhist practice (see Dharmapala, Naga).

Buddhas and bodhisattvas are distinct from these, in that their existence and activities are deemed matters of ultimate concern. Tibetan Buddhist lore describes (and its religious art depicts) numerous Buddhas and bodhisattvas. Besides Sakyamuni Buddha, other familiar ones include

Their number is said to be countless or infinite. As in Mahayana Buddhism generally, the goal of Tibetan Buddhist practice is to join their ranks—i.e., to achieve enlightenment (Buddhahood) not only for one's own sake, but in order to most efficiently help all other sentient beings attain this state (see bodhicitta).

Buddhahood is defined as a state of freedom from obstructions to liberation, as well as obscurations to omniscience.[11] The former are the afflictions, negative states of mind, and the three poisons (klesa, nyon-mongs) – desire, anger, and ignorance. The latter are subtle imprints, traces or "stains" of delusion that involve the imagination of inherent existence.

While Buddhas and bodhisattvas have a symbolic aspect, they are not solely abstract entities, but also manifest on earth in the form of tulkus (from a Tibetan word meaning nirmanakaya) and emanations. For example, the Dalai Lama is said to be an emanation of the bodhisattva Avalokitshvara, while the Nechung oracle is regularly possessed by the protector deity Nechung.

Path Literature

Tibetan Buddhist teachings are often found arranged in the form of a graduated path, in a genre known as Lamrim ("Stages of the Path") or in the Sakya tradition, Lamdre ("Path and Fruition").

Atisha, the originator of the genre, begins the sequence with bodhicitta, the aspiration to attain enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings. Gampopa begins with Buddha Nature, the innate potential within every sentient being to attain enlightenment (or alternatively, the primordially enlightened nature hidden within all sentient beings). Tsongkhapa begins with the necessity of relying on a spiritual teacher (lama or guru).

Other typical topics include

  • "precious human rebirth"--the teaching that since rebirth as a human being is rare and valuable, we ought to take advantage of our good fortune in order to engage in spiritual practice
  • Description of lower, middling, and higher motivation (depending on whether one's goal is rebirth in higher realms, escape from samsara altogether, or "full enlightenment" (i.e., with bodhicitta).
  • the necessity of moral conduct. (See Buddhist precepts)
  • the Six Perfections. As an organizing schema, this theme was imported from Shantideva's Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra into the first indigenous Tibetan lamrim text, Gampopa's Jewel Ornament of Liberation (or, Ornament of Precious Liberation).
  • tantric practice as a means of pursuing full enlightenment as quickly as possible, so that one may begin saving other sentient beings more quickly

Another introductory text popular among Nyingmas is Patrul Rinpoche's The Words of My Perfect Teacher.

Popular Religiosity

Spiritual practices common among laypeople include mantra recitation (most famously, Om Mani Padme Hum); circumambulation of stupas, mani walls, and other holy sites; making prostrations; the use of prayer wheels and prayer flags; offering khata scarves; donation to pilgrims, beggars, and sangha; and worship before home altars (see Offering (Buddhism)).

Pujas are held on auspicious days during a monthly cycle, typically during the new and full moons (see Uposatha). Monasteries are called gompa in Tibetan, or datsan in Mongolian. ("Gompa" also refers more specifically to the prayer-hall.)

Traditional pilgrimage sites include the eight Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India; and in Tibet, Lhasa, Namtso, and Mount Kailash, among numerous sites of a more local nature (often mountains, lakes, caves, and monasteries). Wutaishan in Shanxi, associated with the bodhisattva Manjushri, has long had a Tibetan Buddhist presence, though the region is not geographically Tibetan. In Nepal one may visit the stupa Boudhanath and the "monkey temple" Swayambhunath.


The English (and Latinate) word "meditation" has no precise equivalent in Sanskrit or Tibetan. Tibetan Buddhist practice often takes forms such as ritual, mantra recitation, or discursive philosophical reflection, which may or may not be considered "meditation" by English speakers. (See Buddhist meditation.)

Two major types of (seated) meditation, which are found throughout the Buddhist world, are shamatha ("calm abiding") and vipassana ("special insight") meditation. The former aims at stabilizing the mind—not as an end in itself, but as an aid to vipassana, which involves reflecting on the nature of the universe and oneself as empty, luminous, etc. The goal is stabilize this insight until it can be achieved nonconceptually.

Tantric meditation typically involves visualizing a deity (who may be a Buddha, bodhisattva, tutery deity, or protector) and/or his/her mandala, chanting his or her mantra, and making offerings (either real or imagined). Permission must be received from a guru who is part of an initiatory chain of teachers and their disciples. Tibetan tradition distinguishes among a number of types of tantras (nine for the Nyingma, four for the Sarma schools) depending on whether the deity is seen as a king or queen to whom one bows; a lover; or as one's own nature.

Atisha introduced a form of meditation called lojong ("mind training"), which aims at transforming problems into opportunities for spiritual practice, e.g. through the exercise of patience, compassion, and wisdom. In the related practice of Chöd, the practitioner symbolically and compassionately offers up his or her body to be devoured by demons, ghosts, and other fearsome creatures. Dzogchen and Mahamudra are often said to represent the highest type of practice; they involve seeing "directly" into the "true nature" of the mind and/or the world around us.

Several Tibetan schools prescribe a series of elaborate preliminary practices (see Ngöndro) which must be completed before tantric initiation is possible. Lengthy, sequestered retreats may also be undertaken afterwards, with "three years, three months, and three days" often being prescribed for future lamas.


Major annual Tibetan Festivals include Losar ("New Year"), the Tibetan New Year (known as Tsagaan Sar in Mongolian), of which the Monlam Prayer Festival is the most important religious component (in pre-revolutionary Urga the climax was a Maitreya festival); and Saga Dawa ("Buddha's Moon"), a celebration of Sakyamuni Buddha's birth and enlightenment.

Numerous local festivals are observed, often arranged by individual monasteries. Examples would be the Mani Rimdu festival associated with Tengboche (in Solu Khumbu), or the Hemis festival (Ladakh). Common activities include the display of giant thangkas (painted scrolls), and the performance of the so-called "Devil Dances" (masked religious dances).

Religious Specialists

Tibetan Buddhism involves various kinds of religious specialists. Besides the institutionalized sangha (monks and nuns), we may identify non-monastic yogins, non-celibate ngakpas, traditional wizards and fortune-tellers, and miscellaneous others.

Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns follow the Sarvastivadin Vinaya (code of rules). Traditionally, nuns could not receive full ordination. In the late 20th century, feminist pressure resulted in proposals to transplant female ordination from the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya lineage.

Within monasteries, several types of authoritative figure emerged. Tulkus are identified (usually as children) as the reincarnations of some saintly predecessor, enthroned, and receive training until they are ready to fill the role. Meanwhile, Tibetan Buddhist scholasticism awards different levels of the Geshe or Khenpo degrees after a monastic curriculum which typically begins in childhood, and might last several decades.


The Tibetan canon consists of two collections, the Kangyur (the Tibetan Tripitaka, including Mahayana sutras as well as tantra texts) and the Tangyur (commentarial treatises). These are published in block print form, as xylograph folios, and kept in temples, where they are venerated as physical embodiments of the dharma.

The Tibetan canon was compiled by Bu-ston in the 14th century, and first published at Narthang Monastery in the 18th. Derge later became Tibet's main publication center. Twelve distinct editions exist, each named for its place of publication, with the Beijing edition being especially influential.

The Nyingma school recognizes additional scriptures not included in these collections, including terma (revealed "treasures") as well as sutras with no extant Sanskrit counterpart.


Following the Sandhinirmocanasutra, which proposes that the Buddha gave "higher" or "lower" teachings in accordance with the needs and abilities of his audience, Tibetan Buddhism classifies sutras according to Three Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma:

1. Hinayana teachings emphasizing anatman ("no-self")
2. Prajnaparamita literature emphasizing sunyata ("emptiness")
3. Sutras teaching Buddha Nature

By consensus, Tibetan exegetes endorse the perspective of the Indian Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, whose Madhyamaka ("Middle Way") school identifies the Prajnaparamita sutras and the doctrine of sunyata as representing the "highest" truth. We, and the world, are "empty" in that everything is impermanent, composed of parts, and subject to causes and conditions. This tilts Tibetan Buddhism in the direction of negative theology, although positive formulations exist as well.

Positively, one finds references to the purity and luminosity of the Dharmakaya, Buddha Nature, or other abstractions. Tension between positive and negative approaches has taken a number of forms in Tibetan intellectual history, including debate over the Three Turnings as well as over the relationship between Madhyamaka and Yogacara, or between rival interpretations of Madhyamaka (such as zhentong vs. rangtong). Tantric practice is often thought to incline practitioners in the direction of "positive" language.

Besides Nagarjuna, most Tibetan scholars also endorse the views of Nagarjuna commentator Chandrakirti, whose interpretation is called Prasangika Madhyamaka, in contrast to the Svatantrika Madhyamaka views of his rival Bhavaviveka. (Note that the Prasangika / Svatatrika distinction is itself a Tibetan development, though the texts being commented upon are Indian.) Nearly all Tibetan Buddhist philosophers accept Prasangika Madhyamaka as the highest / truest / best description of Buddhism, and reality in general. However, considerable disagreement exists (e.g. between Tsongkhapa and Mipham) as to what "Prasanghika Madhyamaka" actually teaches.

Under the influence of Tsongkhapa, Tibetan philosophy recognized four Indian Buddhist "tenet systems" (and indeed, concluded that there must be exactly four), arranged from "lowest" to "highest" like so:

Hinayana schools
  • Vaibhashika ("Great Exposition" School, named for a treatise)
  • Sautrantika ("Sutra Followers"), also called Sarvastivada (for Sarvam asti, "Everything exists")
Mahayana schools
Svatantrika ("Autonomous," referring to a willingness to construct syllogistic arguments) Madhyamaka
Prasangika ("Consequentialist," referring to reliance on the reductio ad absurdum technique) Madhyamaka

Despite the primacy accorded to Prasangika Madhyamaka, much of the curriculum of Tibetan monasteries is devoted to "lower" schools. Logic and debate training make use of the writings of Dharmakirti and Vasubandhu, which are variously classified with Sautrantika or Yogacara, while the five texts of the Maitreya-Asanga corpus are classed with Yogacara or Svatantrika. Again, this arrangement is the contribution of Tsongkhapa, who sought to teach Buddhist philosophy in a systematic and progressive fashion, with each succeeding view thought to be more subtle than its predecessor.


Tibetan Buddhist monks at Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim

Tibetan Buddhism comprises a number of distinct monastic traditions, which are commonly reduced to four: Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, and Gelug. The list is sometimes expanded to eight, mainly by distinguishing among Kagyu subdivisions.

Such groupings have evolved over time. For example, Tsongkhapa's Gelug order combined Drontonpa's Kadam lineage with Kagyu and Sakya elements, while Gampopa's Kagyu tradition unified Kadam and Mahamudra lineages. Nyingma identity must have formed gradually, in distinction to other schools as they arose.

A "fifth" tradition, Jonang, was suppressed by the Gelug and long thought to have disappeared; it survives in Kham. Alternatively, Bon is sometimes listed as the "fifth" tradition, despite its lack of Buddhist identity.

The Rimé.[12] ("non-sectarian") movement originated as a Khampa anti-Gelug alliance among representatives of several other traditions, but later attracted Gelug supporters.

Note on orthography: The Tibetan adjectival suffix -pa (or -ba)is translatable as "-ist" in English. English renderings may either include or omit it.


rNying Ma
"Old" or "Ancient" (being the oldest of the four "schools")
Other exemplary figures
Yeshe Tsogyal, Longchen Rabjam, Jigme Lingpa, Mipham
Favorite tantras
Vajrakilaya, Heruka, Guhyagarbha, many terma texts
Major monasteries
Dorje Drak, Dzogchen Monastery, Kathok, Mindroling, Palyul, Shechen

The Nyingma tradition shares several important features with the (non-Buddhist) Bon religion, most notably the division of teachings into nine yanas ("vehicles") culminating in Dzogchen ("Great Perfection").

The Nyingma ("Old") school is often contrasted with the other three, which are collectively referred to as Sarma ("New"). The reference is to the period of key Buddhist translations into Tibetan.

Nyingma is most prevalent in Kham (Eastern Tibet), and also predominates among the Sherpa people of Solu Khumbu, Nepal.


bKa' brGyud
"Oral Transmission"
Gampopa (a twelth-century physician)
Other exemplary figures
A guru-disciple lineage including Tilopa, Naropa, Marpa, and Milarepa (teacher of Gampopa)
Favorite tantras
Chakrasamvara, Vajrayogini (Cf. Six Yogas of Naropa)
A. Dagpo sect—encompasses four major and eight minor Kagyu schools that trace back to Gampopa:
    1. Karma Kagyu (headed by a Karmapa)
    2. Tsalpa Kagyu
    3. Barom Kagyu
    4. Pagtru Kagyu. Eight minor sub-sects have arisen from Pagtru Kagyu. Of these, the most notable would be the Drikung Kagyu and the Drukpa Kagyu.
B. Shangpa Kagyu--a lineage which includes Niguma (sister of Naropa and consort of Tilopa), Milarepa, and in the 20th century, Kalu Rinpoche.
Major monasteries
  • Palpung Monastery (the seat of the Tai Situpa and Jamgon Kongtrul)
  • Ralung Monastery (the seat of the Gyalwang Drukpa)
  • Surmang Monastery (the seat of the Trungpa tülkus)
  • Tsurphu Monastery (the seat of H.H. the Gyalwa Karmapa)

The now-familiar Tibetan practice of discovering tulkus originated within the Karma Kagyu order, resulting in the line of Karmapas. The purpose was to adapt the principle of hereditary succession to a celibate monastic system.

Mahamudra, the Sarma counterpart to Dzogchen, originated within the Kagyu tradition.

The Drukpa Kagyu subsect is the major form of Buddhism in Ladakh and Bhutan.


Sa sKya
"Grey Earth" (after its original monastery)
Other exemplary figures
Sakya Pandita, Phagpa, Gorampa, Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo
Favorite tantras
Spiritual head
Sakya Trizin

Leadership of the order has traditionally succeeded from uncle to nephew, thereby combining a traditional inheritance system with the strictures of monastic celibacy.

Sakya hierarchs ruled Tibet on behalf of the Mongol Empire during the 13th and 14th centuries. The first such leader, Phagpa (appointed by Kublai Khan), is also known for his invention of a Mongolian script.

Outside of the Tibetan town of Sakya, the sect also dominates in Lo Manthang, Nepal.


dGe Lugs
"Way of Virtue"
Tsongkhapa (14th to 15th century monastic scholar)
Other exemplary figures
Tsongkhapa's disciples Gyaltsab Je and Khedrup Je, various Dalai Lamas
Favorite tantras
Guhyasamaja, Chakrasamvara, Yamantaka
Spiritual head
The Ganden Tripa
Major monasteries
(In Lhasa)
  • Ganden Monastery (the seat of the Ganden Tripa)
  • Drepung Monastery (the home monastery of the Dalai Lamas)
  • Sera Monastery
(Outside of Lhasa)

The Gelug order, through its lineage of Dalai Lamas, ruled central Tibet from the mid-17th to the mid-20th century. It is sometimes known as the "Yellow Hat Sect," in contrast to the other three schools which are the "Red Hat Sects."

Nearly all Mongolian Buddhist monks belong to the Gelug order.


Jo Nang
Named for Jomonang, the site of an early monastery
Yumo Mikyo Dorje
Other exemplary figures
Dolpopa, Taranatha
Favorite tantras
Kalachakra (Dro lineage)
Major monasteries
nearly 40, of which the major one is Tsangwa (in Dzamthang County, Sichuan)

The zhentong / rangtong debate was an important episode in Tibetan intellectual history. The Jonang view (called "Great Madhyamaka"), which championed zhentong, was declared to be heretical by the fifth Dalai Lama and suppressed in the 17th century.

Academic Study

Academic research on Tibetan Buddhism usually combines the fields of Buddhist Studies and Area Studies such as Tibetology, Mongolian Studies, etc. Academic disciplines commonly include philology, history, anthropology, philosophy, and art history, among others.

Western knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism initially came from travel literature and missionary writings (e.g. Marco Polo, William of Ruysbroeck, Antonio de Andrade, Ippolito Desideri), with a few diplomats (e.g., Charles Alfred Bell) also of note. The work of Hungarian philologist Alexander Csoma de Kőrös in the nineteenth century marks the beginning of formal academic research into Tibet. Tibetan Buddhism gained new popularity after the 1960's, as a result of the activity of various exile lamas and the 1960's counterculture. The International Association of Tibetan Studies (IATS) is a well-known inter-disciplinary body.

See also


  1. From Glenn H. Mullin, "The Practice of Kalachakra" (Snow Lion: 1991), p. 21: "The Vajrayana can only be successfully attempted under qualified tutorage. Some of the pieces...can be used for daily practice, although anyone interested in doing so should first search out a qualified lama with whom to read the texts and discuss the process." Similarly, the Padmakara Translation Group begins its commentary "A Guide to The Words of My Perfect Teacher" (Shambhala: 2004), p. xxi, with the observation that "Even for the fortunate students who now had access to these teachings in printed form, it was no less important to receive transmission and instruction directly from their teacher. In the first place, the Buddhist tradition of oral transmission (leng) is considered an essential step in studying the scriptures and their commentaries and in practicing ritual instructions..."
  2. estimates twenty million for "Lamaism (Vajrayana/Tibetan/Tantric)."
  3. The 2007 U.S. State Department report on religious freedom in Bhutan notes that "Mahayana Buddhism is the state religion..." and that the Bhutanese government supports both the Kagyu and Nyingma sects.
  4. Lopez, Donald S. Jr. (1999). Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 6, 19f. ISBN 0226493113. 
  5. Steven Seagal - "The Action Lama"
  6. Wallace, 1999: 183
  7. Studholme, Alexander: The Origins of Om Manipadme Hum, Albany, NY 2002, p. 14.
  8. Macdonald, Alexander: Religion in Tibet at the time of Srong-btsan sgam-po: myth as history, in: The History of Tibet, ed. Alex McKay, Vol. 1, London 2003, p. 354-363 (for the queens see p. 355); Dargyay, Eva: Srong-btsan sgam-po of Tibet: Bodhisattva and king, in: The History of Tibet, ed. Alex McKay, Vol. 1, London 2003, p. 364-378 (for the queens see p. 373).
  9. Beckwith, C.I.: The revolt of 755 in Tibet, in: The History of Tibet, ed. Alex McKay, Vol. 1, London 2003, p. 273-285 (discusses the political background and the motives of the ruler).
  10. Worden, Robert L. "Arrival of Buddhism". In Savada.
  11. Cf. Dhargyey (1978), 64f; Dhargyey (1982), 257f, etc; Pabongka Rinpoche, 364f; Tsong-kha-pa II: 183f.
  12. Wylie: ris-med


  • 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. Oneworld. ISBN 1851680667. 
  • Dhargyey, Geshe Ngawang; ed. Alexander Berzin, based on oral trans. by Sharpa Tulku (3rd edn, 1978). Tibetan Tradition of Mental Development. Dharmsala: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives.  [A pithy lam-rim by a geshe appointed in 1973 by His Holiness the Dalai Lama as head of the translation team at the Tibetan Library.]
  • Dhargyey, Geshe Ngawang; ed. Alexander Berzin, based on oral trans. by Sharpa Tulku (1982). An Anthology of Well-Spoken Advice on the Graded Paths of the Mind, Vol. I. Dharmsala: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. ISBN 8186470298.  [The first part of a more extensive lam-rim by a geshe appointed in 1973 by His Holiness 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.]
  • Hopkins, Jeffrey (1996). Meditation on Emptiness. Boston: Wisdom. ISBN 0861711106.  [Definitive treatment of emptiness according to the Prasangika-Madhyamika school.]
  • Lati Rinpoche; trans. & ed.: Elizabeth Napper (1980). 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 0937938025. 
  • 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 0877280738. 
  • Pabongka Rinpoche; Ed. Trijang Rinpoche, transl. Michael Richards (3rd edn. 2006). Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, A Concise Discourse on the Path to Enlightenment. Somerville, MA: Wisdom. ISBN 0861715004.  [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 978-0195174267
  • 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 0091256216.  [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).]
  • Tsong-kha-pa; the Lamrim Chenmo Translation Committee; Joshua Cutler, ed. in chief; Guy Newland, ed. (2000). The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, Volume I. Canada: Snow Lion. ISBN 1559391529. 
  • Tsong-kha-pa; the Lamrim Chenmo Translation Committee; Joshua Cutler, ed. in chief; Guy Newland, ed. (2002). The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, Volume II. Canada: Snow Lion. ISBN 1559391685. 
  • Tsong-kha-pa; the Lamrim Chenmo Translation Committee; Joshua Cutler, ed. in chief; Guy Newland, ed. (2004). The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, Volume III. Canada: Snow Lion. ISBN 1559391669. 
  • 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 (etic)
-----, (June 25, 2008). A Concise Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. Snow Lion, ISBN 1559392967, ISBN 978-1559392969
Introductory books (emic)
  • Patrul Rinpoche, with the Padmakara Translation Group (Dec 28, 1998). The Words of My Perfect Teacher (2nd edition). AltaMira Press, ISBN 0761990275, ISBN-13: 978-0761990277
Other books
  • Coleman, Graham, ed. (1993). A Handbook of Tibetan Culture. Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc.. ISBN 1-57062-002-4.
  • Lati Rinpoche; trans. & ed.: Elizabeth Napper (1980). 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 0937938025. 
  • 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

Glossary of Terms Used

affliction nyönmong nyon-mongs kle´sa
analytic meditation jegom dpyad-sgom
calm abiding shiné zhi-gnas shamatha
fixation meditation joggom 'jog-sgom
devotion to the guru lama-la tenpa bla-ma-la bsten-pa guruparyupaasati
incarnate lama tulku sprul-sku nirmaanakaya
inherent existence rangzhingi drubpa rang-bzhin-gyi grub-pa svabhaavasiddha
preliminary practices ngöndo sngon-'gro
root guru zawé lama rtsa-ba'i bla-ma
stages of the path lamrim lam-rim
motivational training lojong blo-sbyong
mind of enlightenment changchub sem byang-chhub sems bodhicitta
omniscience t’amcé k’yempa thams-cad mkhyen-pa sarvajñaa
transmission and realisation lungtok lung-rtogs aagamaadhigama
vehicle t'ekpa theg-pa yāna

als:Tibetischer Buddhismus bn:তিব্বতি বৌদ্ধধর্ম bo:བོད་བརྒྱུད་ནང་བསྟན། bs:Tibetanski budizam ca:Budisme tibetà cs:Tibetský buddhismus da:Tibetansk buddhisme et:Tiibeti budism eo:Tibeta budhismo ko:티베트 불교 hy:Տիբեթական բուդդայականություն id:Agama Buddha di Tibet is:Tíbetskur búddismi ka:ტიბეტური ბუდიზმი sw:Ubuddha wa kitibeti lt:Lamaizmas mn:Төвдийн Буддизм ja:チベット仏教 no:Tibetansk buddhisme uz:Tibet Buddizmi pt:Budismo tibetano ro:Budism tibetan ru:Тибетский буддизм simple:Tibetan Buddhism sk:Tibetský budhizmus sr:Тибетански будизам sh:Tibetanski budizam fi:Lamalaisuus sv:Tibetansk buddhism tl:Tibetanong Budismo th:พุทธศาสนาในทิเบต tr:Tibet Budizmi uk:Ламаїзм vi:Phật giáo Tây Tạng zh:藏傳佛教