rightTibetan Buddhism is a syncretic mix of Mahayana Buddhism, Tantrism and local pantheistic religions, particularly the Bon religion. Its organization, public practices and activities are coordinated mainly by monasteries associated with temples. Religious authority is in the hands of priests called lamas. Although the goal of Tibetan Buddhism is individual enlightenment, the social organization of the religion rests on a laity that is expected to support the religious practices of the monastic population. Thus, Tibetans contributed sons, produce, savings, and labor to the monasteries to acquire religious merit. [Source: Rebecca R. French, e Human Relations Area Files (eHRAF) World Cultures, Yale University]

Tibetan Buddhism belongs to the Mahayana school of Buddhism, practiced in China, Japan and Korea, as opposed to Theravada Buddhist, practiced in Southeast Asia. Regarded by some as a third branch of Buddhism, it emphasizes symbolic ritual practices of Tantric Buddhism (Vajrayana) and incorporates features of the indigenous Tibetan Bon Religion. Tibetan Buddhism is more mystical than other forms of Buddhism.Tibetan Buddhism has many sects and sub-sects. The most well-known sect is Gelugpa, the order which the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama belong. It also known as the Yellow Hat sect because high-ranking monks sometimes don yellow hats. The sect began with Tsong Khapa, a great Buddhist reformer, in 1407. It stresses strict discipline and study of scriptures. [Sources: BBC, “CultureShock! China: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” by Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner, Marshall Cavendish 2011]

Sometimes called Lamanism, becauses its leaders are called lamas, Tibetan Buddhism is the main religion of Tibet. It is also practiced by Mongolians and tribal groups such as the Qiang and Yugur in Yunnan, Sichuan, Gansu, Qinghai and other provinces and by Tibetan- and Mongolian-related people in India, Nepal, Bhutan and Russia. After years of being brutally repressed by the Communists, especially during the Cultural Revolution, Tibetan Buddhism is making a comeback. Some nunneries have a waiting list of four or five years. The religion is also flourishing outside Tibet, particularly in Sichuan Province, where there are large numbers of Tibetans.

Websites and Resources on Tibetan Buddhism: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Tibetan Buddhist archives sacred-texts.com ; Buddha.net list of Tibetan Buddhism sources buddhanet.net ; Tibetan Buddhist Meditation tricycle.org/magazine/tibetan-buddhist-meditation ; Gray, David B. (Apr 2016). "Tantra and the Tantric Traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism". Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion. oxfordre.com/religion ; Shambhala.com. largest publisher of Tibetan Buddhist Books shambhala.com ; Tibetan Philosophy, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu/tibetan

Websites and Sources: Official Dalai Lama site dalailama.com ; Central Tibetan Administration (Tibetan government in Exile) www.tibet.com ; Chinese Government Tibet website eng.tibet.cn/; Wikipedia article on Tibet Wikipedia ; Wikipedia article on Tibetan History Wikipedia ; Tibetan News site phayul.com ; Snow Lion Publications (books on Tibet) snowlionpub.com ; Tibetan Cultural Sites: Tibetan Cultural Region Directory kotan.org ; White Paper on Tibetan Culture english.people.com.cn ; Tibet Activist Groups: Free Tibet freetibet.org ; Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy tchrd.org ; Friends of Tibet friendsoftibet.org Tibetan Studies and Tibet Research: Tibetan Resources on The Web (Columbia University C.V. Starr East Asian Library ) columbia.edu ; Tibetan and Himalayan Library thlib.org Digital Himalaya ; digitalhimalaya.com ; Center for Research of Tibet case.edu ; Tibetan Studies resources blog tibetan-studies-resources.blogspot.com

Vajrayana, Tantric Buddhism and Esoteric Buddhism

Tibetan Buddhism is considered a type of Vajrayana ("Diamond Vehicle" or “Thunderbolt Vehicle”) Buddhism. Vajrayana is a sub-school of Mahayana Buddhism and is sometimes referred to as the Tantric branch of Mahayana Buddhism. Vajrayana developed during the A.D. 5th and 5th centuries. Its practices aim to bring a person quickly to enlightenment. Its teachings are based on texts called Tantras, which describe meditation and techniques for Buddhist practice. Some of these techniques include yoga, chanting or repetition of mantras, and the creation of mandalas. Tibetan Buddhism is the most well-known form of Vajrayana Buddhism. Vajrayana Buddhism is followed by 6 percent of Buddhists.

Joseph W. Williams wrote in the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences:According to Vajrayana teachings, principles in the world that appear to be fundamentally opposed are actually united and one. Enlightenment occurs when individuals grasp this reality. Whereas earlier Buddhist sources emphasized a long path to enlightenment, Vajrayana offers instead enlightenment in this lifetime through the disciplined practice of meditation. Often, adherents visualize various deities during meditation. Among elite practitioners, these deities are often considered representations of inner states within the individual, though this is less often the case for the average adherent. Vajrayana proved very influential in the formation of Tibetan Buddhism, though the two terms are not synonymous. [Source: Joseph W. Williams, International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 2000s, Encyclopedia.com]

Vajrayana is also sometimes called Tantric Buddhism or Esoteric Buddhism. To some scholars they are different but they are at least similar. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Esoteric Buddhism grew out of Mahayana Buddhism beginning in the late sixth or early seventh century. Esoteric Buddhists accepted the tenets of the Mahayana but also used forms of meditation subtly directed by master teachers (gurus) involving magical words, symbols, and practices to speed the devotee toward enlightenment. They believed that those who practiced compassion and meditation with unwavering effort and acquired the wis- dom to become detached from human passions could achieve in one lifetime a state of perfect bliss or “clear light,” their term for ultimate realization and release. Their practices paralleled concurrent developments in Hinduism. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

"Many new deities appeared in the Esoteric Buddhist pantheon who, in their poses, gestures, and expressions, visualize philosophical ideas. For instance, male and female deities shown in embrace express the union of wisdom and compassion. Wrathful deities symbolize protection, and their violent and horrific appearance helps devotees to overcome the passions that hinder salvation. Also central to Esoteric thinking were the five celestial Buddhas (the four directions and the zenith), who represent both the energy of the universe and the potential for wisdom within the psychological make- up of the individual."

Features of Tibetan Buddhism

Special features of Tibetan Buddhism according to the BBC include: 1) the status of the teacher or "Lama"; 2) preoccupation with the relationship between life and death; 3) important role of rituals and initiations; 4) rich visual symbolism; 5) elements of earlier Tibetan faiths; and 6) mantras and meditation practice. [Source: BBC]

Tibetan Buddhism emphasizes symbolic ritual practices of Tantric Buddhism (Vajrayana) and incorporates features of the indigenous Tibetan Bon Religion. Tibetan Buddhism is more mystical than other forms of Buddhism due to Tantric and Bon influences, relying strongly on mudras (ritual postures), mantras (sacred speech), yantras (sacred art) and other initiation rites which have traditionally been performed in secrecy. Although Tibetan Buddhism is often identified as being identical with Vajrayana (“Thunderbolt Vehicle” or “Diamond Vehicle”) Buddhism, they are not the same. Vajrayana is taught in Tibetan Buddhism together with the other vehicles.Tibetan Buddhism has many sects and sub-sects.

According to the BBC:"Supernatural beings are prominent in Tibetan Buddhism. Buddhas and bodhisattvas abound, gods and spirits taken from earlier Tibetan religions continue to be taken seriously. Bodhisattvas are portrayed as both benevolent godlike figures and wrathful deities. This metaphysical context has allowed Tibetan Buddhism to develop a strong artistic tradition, and paintings and other graphics are used as aids to understanding at all levels of society.

Tibetan Buddhist Practices

According to the Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology: “In addition to the regular monastic disciplines of complex prayer, meditation rites, and regular religious festivals, lamas traveling through Tibet were expected to act as oracles, fortune-tellers, and healers for the ordinary people. Prayer wheels with the mystic mantra "Om mani padme Hum" (Om, The Jewel in the Lotus) and rosaries were in use all over the country, and groups of prayer-flags fluttered around the villages. In the monasteries, tankas (complex symbolic mandala banners) became a focus for mystical meditation. [Source: Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology, 2001 The Gale Group Inc.]

According to the BBC: “Tibetan Buddhist practice features a number of rituals, and spiritual practices such as the use of mantras and yogic techniques. Visual aids to understanding are very common in Tibetan Buddhism — pictures, structures of various sorts and public prayer wheels and flags provide an ever-present reminder of the spiritual domain in the physical world.

“ Tibetan Buddhism was much influenced by Tantra, and this has brought in a wealth of complex rituals and symbols and techniques. Tantra originated in India and appears in both the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. It brings Tibetan Buddhism a magical element and a rich portfolio of heavenly beings. It also brings a wide variety of spiritual techniques such as mantras, mandalas, ceremonies, and many varieties of yoga.

Symbolism and Activity of Tibetan Buddhism

Religion is a daily, if not hourly practice. Tibetans spend much of their time in prayer or doing activities, such as spinning prayer wheels, that earn them merit (Buddhist brownie points that move them closer to nirvana). Like all Buddhists, Tibetans practice nonviolence, do good deeds, present gifts to monks and aspire to have gentle thoughts.

John Power wrote: One aspect of life in a Tibetan community that strikes most Westerners immediately is the pervasiveness of such symbolism. Everywhere one walks, Buddhist symbols stand out: there are walls of prayer wheels inscribed with mantras, and people who turn them are thought to be sending out a prayer for the benefit of all sentient beings. Prayer flags with short mantras or invocations written on them flap in the wind, each movement sending out a prayer for the benefit of others. Shrines of various sizes, as well as monasteries, monks, nuns, temples, and statues catch the eye everywhere, and many of the people one passes are engaged in activities associated with Buddhist practice: a woman on the way to the market is holding her prayer beads and softly chanting a mantra; a group of children is prostrating in front of a temple; and a line of people is moving slowly around a wall of prayer wheels, turning each one for the benefit of others. [Source: John Power, “Bon: A Heterodox System”, From Chapter 16 of “Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism”, Snow Lion Publications, 1995. Powers is an American born Professor of Asian Studies and Buddhism who much of his teaching career at the Australian National University in Canberra.]

Everywhere one looks, one perceives signs of activities that would be identified by most Westerners as "religious," but they are so deeply woven into the fabric of daily Tibetan life that it is difficult to single out a part of the tapestry that is purely "religious" or a part that is only "secular." There is no clear distinction between religious and secular life in Tibetan societies, and "religion" is not compartmentalized into certain places and times as it tends to be in Western societies. Rather, Buddhism is the very lifeblood of the community, and its influence is seen in all aspects of daily life.

Complexity and Flexibility of Tibetan Buddhism

John Power wrote: Tibetan Buddhism is a multilayered tapestry comprised of many different strands, and anyone hoping to write an introduction to this system is faced with the daunting task of sorting through centuries of history, huge amounts of textual material, and multiple lineages of teaching and practice. The problem is compounded by the scope of Tibetan Buddhism, which is found throughout the Tibetan cultural area. This area includes the core religions of central Tibet; large parts of western Tibet that have traditionally been autonomous; Amdo and Kham in the eastern regions which, although culturally Tibetan, speak distinctive dialects and have maintained their independence from the central regions; the open plains of the Changtang, home of the Tibetan nomads; much of present-day Mongolia; large areas of central Asia; smaller areas in present-day Russia and parts of several republics of the former Soviet Union; much of the Himalayan region of northern India, including Ladakh, Zanskar, and Sikkim; and the neighboring countries of Nepal and Bhutan. [Source: John Power, “Bon: A Heterodox System”, From Chapter 16 of “Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism”, Snow Lion Publications, 1995]

Because of its multifaceted nature, however, there is no one "truth" that can be put into words, nor is there one program of training that everyone can or must follow. Tibetan Buddhism recognizes that people have differing capacities, attitudes, and predispositions, and the dharma can and should be adapted to these. Thus, there is no one church in which everyone should worship, no service that everyone might attend, no prayers that everyone must say, no text that everyone should treat as normative, and no one deity that everyone must worship. The dharma is extremely flexible, and if one finds that a particular practice leads to a diminishment of negative emotions, greater peace and happiness, and increased compassion and wisdom, this is dharma. The Dalai Lama even states that one may practice the dharma by following the teachings and practices of non-Buddhist traditions such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, or Hinduism.2 If one belongs to one of traditions, and if one's religious practice leads to spiritual advancement, the Dalai Lama counsels that one should keep at it, since this is the goal of all religious paths.

In this sentiment he hearkens back to the historical Buddha, Sakyamuni. who was born in the fifth century B.C.E. in present-day Nepal. As he was about to die, the Buddha was questioned by some of his students, who were concerned that after the master's death people might begin propounding doctrines that had not been spoken by the Buddha himself and that these people might tell others that their doctrines were the actual words of the Buddha. In reply, the Buddha told them, "Whatever is well-spoken is the word of the Buddha."3 In other words, if a particular teaching results in greater peace, compassion, and happiness, and if it leads to a lessening of negative emotions, then it can safely be adopted and practiced as dharma, no matter who originally propounded it.

In addition, due to the diaspora of the Tibetan people brought about by the invasion and occupation of Tibet by China, today Tibetan religion and culture are being spread all over the world, and increasing numbers of people in the West consider themselves to be adherents of Tibetan Buddhism. Millions more have heard teachings or read books and articles by Tibetan teachers, with the result that Tibetan culture is attracting unprecedented attention outside of its homeland at the same time that it is being systematically eradicated in the land of its origin.

Influence and Range of Tibetan Buddhism

Tibetan Buddhism is not just limited to Tibetan cultural areas, but also widely affects geographical regions such as Central Asia and South Asia. In fact, it also penetrates into the ruling dynasties in China: Influenced by the Tangut, the Mongols of the Yuan Dynasty had accepted Tibetan Buddhism as their main religious belief. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

During the Ming Dynasty, several Han Chinese emperors interacted closely with Tibetan Buddhist monks, such as Chengzu and Xuanzong in the early period, and also Xianzong and Wuzong in the middle period. In the Qing Dynasty, the Gelugpa School of Tibetan Buddhism became as the common belief sect followed by the people of Manchu, Mongol and Tibet.

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: Tibetan Buddhism spread to China during the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), an empire founded by Kublai Khan (1215-1294) who revered lamas. Later on, during the Ming and the Qing dynasties (1368-1911), lamas came to be honored by people from all walks of life, from members of the imperial families to the common souls, and for reasons ranging from political expediency to religious faith. Followers of the religion scrambled to seek empowerments from lamas, to paint portraits or make statues of Buddhist figures, to chant mantras, to practice meditation, and to build monasteries and stupas. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

Han Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism

Many modern middle class Han Chinese have taken an interest in Tibetan Buddhism seemingly to fill a vacuum left by China’s increasingly materialist society, They are aided in their spiritual quest by lots of Internet sites and blogs. Many followers are women and many follow a particular lama. For the most part the government doesn’t bother them because their numbers are still relatively low. Sometimes security forces trail lamas with large followings to see what they are up to.

Tibetan Buddhist rituals practiced by Han Chinese include releasing fish in holes bored in ice-covered lakes and walking clockwise around a bonfires, while chanting incantations against evil spirits ad throwing food and cigarettes into the fire. Han Chinese practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism have traveled in mass to a frozen reservoir north of Beijing and released 53,000 fish in holes bored in the ice and participated in a rituals in which they walk clockwise around a bonfire, while chanting incantations against evil spirits and throwing food and cigarettes into the fire. When the rituals were first held there were maybe a dozen participants. Now they arrive by the busload. [Source: Mareen Fan, Washington Post, February 21, 2009]

Some Chinese Buddhist temples invite Tibetan monks in an effort to attract to more followers. A Tibetan monk who has been in trouble with authorities for traveling to India to study at a religious college run by the Dalai Lama said he counted many Han from Beijing and Shanghai in his classes, “They are looking for meaning in their lives and find that we as Tibetan Buddhists can give it to them.”

Some Han Chinese deeply revere the Dalai Lama. One man from Jiangsu Province who was visiting the Dalai Lama’s birthplace told Reuters, “He is the holiest of them all. My heart jumps a beat when I see his picture, he is the most important of all the living Buddhas.” A Han woman from Guangdong Province said, “They have more complex emotions than we do. I think we can learn from out Tibetan compatriots.”

Chinese Take on Tibetan Buddhism and Religion

According to the Chinese government: Tibetan people believe in Tibetan Buddhism, which is also commonly called Lamaism (because its religious practitioners are called "Lama"). It belongs to a branch in the Mahayana Buddhism propagated to the north, and it came into being in the Tibetan region of China at the end of the 10th century, which is a localized form of Buddhism in Tibetan region. It was founded on the basis of doctrines of Buddhism, and it absorbed some gods and ceremonies of Bon Religion. The Mahayana Buddhism has both mysticism and tradition of sutras, emphasizes the tradition of sutras first and then mysticism, and regards the supreme yoga mysticism as the highest level in practicing, which becomes Tibetan mysticism. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

Lamaism is divided into many different sects, each claiming to be the orthodox. Apart from the Red sect, all the others, including the White sect, the Sakya sect and the Yellow sect, established at different times local regimes that integrated political and religious powers. The Yellow sect practices the institution of reincarnation of living Buddhas. The Dalai Lama and Bainqen Erdini are supposed to be the reincarnations of two Grand Living Buddhas of the Yellow sect. It was stipulated during the Qing Dynasty that the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, the Bainqen Lama and other Grand Living Buddhas of the Yellow sect had to be approved by the Qing court or determined by drawing lots from a gold urn. When a Grand Living Buddha dies, his disciples are required to choose a child, in most cases from a noble family, to be his reincarnation. Monasteries of the Yellow sect are scattered all over the Tibetan areas. The most famous of them are the Sera, Drepung, Zhashi Lumpo and Qamdo, as well as Lapuleng in Gansu and Ta'er in Qinghai.

In the western part of Tibet and the pastoral areas of Qinghai and Sichuan provinces, the early Tibetan native religion, the Bon, known locally as the Black sect, is still active. There are also Taoist temples built by the Han people, mosques built by the Huis and some Christian and Catholic churches built by foreign missionaries in a few places.

Image Sources: Purdue University, Kalachakranet.org

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated January 2024

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