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.

"We in the West tend to project all our fantasies about mystical spiritualism onto Tibetan Buddhism," Erik Curren, author of “Buddha's Not Smiling: Uncovering Corruption at the Heart of Tibetan Buddhism Today”, told the Los Angeles Times. "It's really like a civil war. There's lots of acrimony."

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.

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.

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. larges publisher of Tibetan Buddhist Books shambhala.com ; Tibetan Philosophy, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu/tibetan ; Book: “Tibetan Buddhism” by L. Austine Waddell; Buddhism: Buddha Net buddhanet.net/e-learning/basic-guide ; Religious Tolerance Page religioustolerance.org/buddhism ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Internet Sacred Texts Archive sacred-texts.com/bud/index ; Introduction to Buddhism webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/buddhaintro ; Early Buddhist texts, translations, and parallels, SuttaCentral suttacentral.net ; East Asian Buddhist Studies: A Reference Guide, UCLA web.archive.org

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 ; Book: "Tibetan Civilization" by Rolf Alfred Stein.

History of Tibetan Buddhism

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Bon shaman

Kathryn Selig Brown wrote in on Metropolitan Museum of Art website: Buddhism was introduced to Tibet by the seventh century and was proclaimed the state religion by the end of the eighth century. Although Buddhist influence waned during persecutions between 838 and 942, the religion saw a revival beginning in the late tenth century. It rapidly became dominant, inaugurating what is known as the "later diffusion of the Buddhist faith." During the first few hundred years of this renewed interest, many monks from Tibet traveled abroad to India (The Great Teacher Marpa, 1995.176), the homeland of Buddhism, to study the religion, and Indian scholars were invited to Tibet to lecture and give teachings.[Source: Kathryn Selig Brown, Independent Scholar,Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Before Buddhism was introduced to Tibet the people there practiced the Bon religion. Tibetan Buddhism absorbed elements of Bon when it developed in the A.D. 8th century. Bon religion is an ancient shamanist religion with esoteric rituals, exorcisms, talismans, spells, incantations, drumming, sacrifices, a pantheon gods and evil spirits, and a cult of the dead. Originating in Tibet, it predates Buddhism there, has greatly influenced Tibetan Buddhism and is still practiced by the Bonpo people. Prayer flags, prayers wheels, sky burials, festival devil dances, spirit traps, rubbing holy stones — things that are associated with Tibetan religion and Tibetan Buddhism — all evolved from the Bon religion. The Tibetan scholar David Snellgrove once said “Every Tibetan is a bonpo at heart.” See Bon Religion

Buddhism developed out of Hinduism. Most Tibetan Buddhist pay homage to gods found in both religions as well as animist and shamanist ones. Some Himalayan people say "the mountain gods are Buddhists."

Early Tibetan tribes were warlike. It has been argued that Buddhism pacified them, making it easier for the Chinese and tribes from the north to conquer them.

The story of the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet is a mix of history and legends about religious heros and their conquest of local gods and spirits and converting them to Buddhism. Most of the religious heros are believed to have been real people put some of their achievements and characteristics are clearly legendary and supernatural.

Tibetan Buddhist heros are often regarded as manifestations or reincarnations of gods, spirits and bodhisattvas and their “historical” achievements often involve fighting and defeating evil gods and spirits and allying themselves with good gods and bodhisattvas and wrathful and vengeful ones.

Arrival of Buddhism in Tibet

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Buddhism was introduced into Tibet in the A.D. 3th century, about 700 years after Buddha's death, by Indian missionaries, but the religion didn't really take hold until the 7th and 8th century when monks from India and Nepal appeared in large numbers. Buddhist scriptures from China also played a part in the spread of Buddhism in Tibet.

In the early days, Buddhism was practiced by the royal court of Tibet — particularly after King Songtsen Gampo took Nepali and Chinese wives in the 7th century — but was not practiced in the countryside where the Bon religion prevailed and Buddhism was greeted with hostility. The Buddhist priests of this period were probably Indians or Chinese.

The kind of Buddhism introduced to Tibet was Tantrism, a sect within Buddhism and Hinduism that incorporates esoteric religion, ritual magic and sophisticated philosophy (See Beliefs). Some of the mystical and magical aspects of Tantrism dovetailed with mystical and magical practices of the Bon religion. After a period of resistance Buddhism replaced the Bon religion and was firmly established in Tibet by the 11th century.

Guru Rinpoche and Milarepa

Guru Rinpoche

Guru Rinpoche is an Indian sage who is said to have introduced Buddhism to Tibet in the Earth Ox Year of A.D. 749 and is regarded as one of the founders of the Nyingmapa order. According to legend he emerged from a lotus blossom when he was born in the Milk Ocean Land (present-day Swat, Pakistan) and began teaching in Tibet when he was 1,000 years old. Employing Tantric powers, he and his monks purportedly converted thousand of demons to Buddhism, which is supposedly why Tibetan Buddhists worship so many gods as well as follow the teachings of Buddha.

Known in Sanskrit as Padmasambhava, Guru Rinpoche is regarded as the second Buddha by members of the Nyingmapa sect and a manifestation of the Amitbha Buddha. He is said to have lived on a copper-colored mountain paradise called Zangdok with a group of cannibalistic trolls. In paintings he wears a red Nyingmapa-style hat, a ritual dagger in his belt and has a curly moustache. In his left hand is skull cup and a staff topped with three skulls and cross bolts of lightning known as vajas. In his right hand is a thunderbolt, symbolizing compassion. Guru Rinpoche has eight manifestations which are known collectively as the Guri Tsengye.

Milarepa (“the Cotton Clad”) is one of Tibetan Buddhism's most well-known figures. Regarded as one of the founders of the Kagyupa (Red Hat) order, he was an 11th century monk, poet, alchemist and magician who is famous for walking around in the cold with nothing on but a thin cotton shirt (hence his name) and subsisting on a diet of nettles. He purportedly wrote "one hundred thousand songs," some of which are still known to Tibetans today, and taught Tantric sexual techniques to mountain goddesses.


Milarepa was a follower of the Marpa school, a popular Buddhist sect that emphasized yoga and spiritual principals over philosophy. A sort of Buddhist version of St Francis of Assisi, he is said to have turned to Buddhism and spent six years mediating in cave to repent for trying to poison his uncle and attained the supreme enlightenment of Buddhahood in one lifetime. Most paintings depict him smiling, holding his hands over his ears and singing. He is sometimes green to indicate that he lived on a diet of nettles.

Buddhism Takes Hold in Tibet

In the late 8th century, under King Trisong Detsen, Tibetan Buddhism developed in an area that extends from Xigaze to Zetang on the Yarlung Zangpo river. Monasteries, temples and chapels were built; scriptures were translated into Tibetan; Buddhism became the religion of the Tibetan court; and the religion spread along the Central Asian trade routes that Tibet controlled.

Tibetan Buddhism evolved through a continuous process of debate and interpretation over the meaning of Buddhism between factions and sects with different beliefs. At the same time traditional Tibetan customs, deities, incantations and ceremonial practices were absorbed. But the process was far from smooth, a number of competing sects were created and they vied for dominance and sometimes engaged in violent conflicts.

Buddhism in Tibet was dealt as severe blow when Tibet's control of the Central Asian trade routes faltered and the empire collapsed completely around A.D. 840. It experienced a revival in far western Tibet under the guidance of Ye-shes-'od, a regional ruler. In 985, Ye-shes-'od, renounced his throne and was ordained as a Buddhist monk and used his influence to spread the religion. During the 10th and 11th century many temples and monasteries were built. Western Tibet remained the center of Tibetan Buddhism for the next 500 years.

Tibet in the 10th century was in a state of anarchy. The Tibetan people were divided. Buddhism had been corrupted, ridden with misinterpretations and mixed with the shamanistic Bon religion. There were reports of "robber monks” who got drunk, engaged in sex and kidnaped and killed people and ate them. The Sanskrit translator Rinchen Zangpo, and the legendary Indian master Atisha were also instrumental in reintroducing Buddhism to western Tibet.

Establishment of the Buddhist Bureaucracy

The 60-year-old Indian master Atisha was lured by small fortune in gold to trek to Guge in Tibet in 1042. He helped bring order to Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism by setting strict rules prohibiting sex, alcohol, travel and possessions. These rules set the tone for the anti-materialist aspects of Tibetan Buddhism. Atisha's campaign was supported by noble families, whose young men were recruited as lamas, teachers, administrators and teachers.

Under Atisha’s system, sons for the highest ranking families were made the head lamas of monasteries on their land. The offices were hereditary but because the lamas were celibate monks leadership positions were handed down from uncle to nephew.

Large numbers of Tibetans traveled to the great centers of Buddhist learning in the Pali Empire in India. They dominated entire colleges in Bengal and Bihar and copied libraries of texts which they brought back to Tibet.

By the 13th century, monks in the monasteries in Tibet were the equivalent of the Mandarins in Imperial China. They ran the bureaucracy and administered the country but were ultimately accountable to the kings and nobles. Over time the monasteries grew in power and maintained their hold on power until the invasion by China in 1950.

Han Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism

Many 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.

Other rituals include releasing fish in holes bored in ice-covered lakes and walking clockwise around a bonfire, 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]

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.

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 Religion

According to the Chinese government: “Lamaism [Tibetan Buddhism] belongs to the Mahayana School of Buddhism, which was introduced into Tibet in the seventh century and developed into Lamaism by assimilating some of the beliefs and rites of the local religion called "Bon." 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. [Source: China.org china.org |]

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.

Chinese Take on Tibetan Buddhism

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. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

Its doctrines are mainly Great Vehicle doctrines incorporating doctrines of Hinayana Buddhism. 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. Many important denominations were formed in history, such as Ningma, Gadang, Saja, Gaju, and Gelu, and strict temple organizations and Classics learning system were formed. It has completely Threefold Canon translated into Tibetan, and it mainly spreads in Tibetans, Mongolians, Tus and Yugurs in China, and over Bhutan, Sikkim, Nepal, Mongolia and Siberia. ~

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 July 2015

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