Huaiyu CHEN

Young Yellow Hat monks assembling for morning chanting. Xiahe, Gansu Province. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Tibetan Buddhism is one of most important and rigorous living Buddhist traditions in the world. Its history can be traced back to the seventh century. Tibetan Buddhists have also developed their unique monastic rituals and scholastic tradition.

Although Tibetan Buddhism is known by many unofficial terms in numerous popular books, including Vajrayana (Vehicle of the Diamantine Thunderbolt), Tantrayana (Vehicle of Tantra), and Lamaism (Teaching of Spiritual Master), by consensus it is a Mah?y?na Buddhist tradition that pursues Buddhahood, the highest state of enlightenment. In many other Mah?y?na Buddhist traditions in central China, Korea, and Japan, Tibetan Buddhism is also considered a special branch of Esoteric Buddhism, which is different from the Esoteric Buddhism of other regions, such as Han Esoteric Buddhism in central China and Shingon Buddhism in Japan. It is noteworthy that Esoteric Buddhism is neither the only religious tradition in Tibet nor the exclusive religion among Tibetans. However, in Tibet the esoteric tradition is regarded as the highest form of Buddhism. Before Buddhism was introduced to Tibet in the seventh century, the Tibetans were adherents of the Bon religion. Later Chan Buddhism, Manichaeism, and Nestorianism briefly flourished in Tibet from the eighth to the tenth centuries.

The first important figure in the history of Tibetan Buddhism was the Emperor Srong-btsan Sgam-po (605?–650 CE). Tibet first became a unified empire and began to expand under his reign. He began to establish a firm friendship with Tibet’s neighbors, the kingdom of Nepal and the Tang dynasty, by marrying the Nepalese princess Khri b’Tsun and the Chinese princess Wencheng (Tibetan: Mung-chang Kungco), the daughter of the Tang emperor Taizong. The princesses, both Buddhists, brought their religion to Tibet. Thereafter, Srong-btsan Sgam-po initiated the construction of Buddhist temples. Srong-btsan Sgam-po was viewed as the first Dharma-Raja, the righteous ruler who supported and advocated the Buddha’s teaching. Later kings were less interested in advocating Buddhism. However, when Khri-srong Lde-btsan came into power in the eighth century, he invited some influential Indian masters such as Shantarakshita and Padmasambhava to teach in Tibet. With his efforts Buddhism revived and flourished, taking shape as a new tradition during his era. Since the late eighth century the Tibetan ruler has been viewed as the embodiment of the bodhisattva (a being that compassionately refrains from entering nirvana in order to save others and is worshipped as a deity in Mah?y?na Buddhism) Avalokiteshvara, known in Chinese as “Guanyin.”

In the ninth century the Tibetan empire conquered many regions in central Asia and even temporarily blocked the silk trading route that linked central China and central Asia. Tibetan Buddhism was also spread to some oasis towns on the Silk Roads, such as Turfan and Dunhuang. Numerous manuscripts written in Tibetan have been discovered in Dunhuang. Starting in the eleventh century, Tibetan Buddhism gradually spread to the nomadic tribes who ranged through the Mongolian area. Subsequently Tibetan Buddhism was accepted by the Mongols and Manchurians and even became the state religion of the Chinese Yuan (1279–1368) and Qing (1644–1912) dynasties. In 1578 an abbot at the Drepung monastery, Sonam Gyatso, received the title of “Dalai Lama,” which later became the official title of the head of the Tibetan Buddhist Church. “Dalai” means “the ocean” in Mongolian, which refers to the Tibetan word “Gyatso.” Lama is from the Sanskrit word “Guru,” the spiritual teacher. Sonam Gyatso was viewed as the third Dalai Lama. The current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso (b. 1935), is the fourteenth leader who holds the title of Dalai Lama. The traditional seat for the Dalai Lama is Potala Palace in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. The second-ranking official in the Tibetan Buddhist Church is the Panchen Lama, whose traditional seat is at Tashilhunpo Monastery in Shigatse. The tenth Panchen Lama was Lobsang Trinley Lhündrub Chökyi Gyaltsen (1938–1989), commonly known as Chökyi Gyaltsen. Since the twentieth century Tibetan Buddhism has also spread to other neighboring regions besides Qinghai, Mongolia, and Manchuria, notably Nepal, Bhutan, and western Sichuan and Yunnan provinces in China. After the 1960s, with the exile of the Tibetan government, Tibetan Buddhism also spread to Europe and North America. Nowadays there are numerous Tibetan Buddhist centers in the United States.

Doctrine and Practice

The textual foundation for Tibetan Buddhism is the Tibetan Buddhist canon, which is usually divided into two categories: Kanjur and Tanjur. The former includes sections of the Vinaya Perfection of Wisdom sutras (discourses of the Buddha that constitute the basic text of Buddhist scripture), Avatamsaka, Ratnakuta, and other Mah?y?na and Ag?ma sutras, as well as tantras (later Buddhist scriptures dealing especially with techniques and rituals including meditative and sexual practices). The latter includes commentaries and treatises. The esoteric tradition of Tibetan Buddhism is a Mah?y?na tradition, mainly based on the Madhyamika theory of the “Middle Way” (dBu-ma). In general it teaches fast and complete enlightenment; yet, certain esoteric aspects make it unique in terms of tantrism, which emphasizes the application of divine power and the guidance of the spiritual gurus. Other important practices include the use of mantra (enlightened sound, powerful syllables), mandala, and sexual rituals involving female participation. In order to pursue Buddhahood, Tibetan Buddhism develops a unique method for a practitioner to control his or her body, speech, and mind as three esoteric elements. This method is designed to help practitioners eliminate negative karma (the force generated by a person’s actions held in Buddhism to perpetuate transmigration and in its ethical consequences to determine the nature of the person’s next existence). It requires its practitioners to develop strong contemplative powers through meditation and visualization. Unlike in other Buddhist misogynic traditions, the female plays an important role as a companion in the practice of Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism has inherited some aspects of the indigenous Bon religion: For instance, it relies on the supernatural power of shamans. The famous mantra Om mani padme hum is said to be able to invoke powerful blessing.

The term mandala literally means “circle” and refers to a pattern that represents a cosmos or a microcosmos of both mental and spiritual dimensions. The Tibetan mandala usually consists of an inner square and an external circle, often occupied by the divine figures, such as Buddhas and bodhisattvas. It functions as a sacred place where the deities manifest themselves in what is known as the “Buddha field.” In Tibetan Buddhism the mandala is a crucial visualization technique used in meditation. It also plays a central role in the rituals of purification and visualization. Sand mandalas are also often constructed and immediately destroyed in the teaching of Tibetan Buddhism; this process symbolizes the critical Buddhist concept of impermanence.

Schools of Tibetan Buddhism

Tibetan Buddhism has four main traditions: Nyingmapa (also known as hong jiao in Chinese or “red school”), Kagyupa (bai jiao in Chinese or “white school”), Sakyapa (hua jiao in Chinese or “flower school”), and
Gelugpa (huang jiao in Chinese or “yellow school”). Nyingmapa is also called the “ancient ones,” denoting the oldest school that was founded by Padmasambhava. It focuses on meditation practice. Numerous meditation centers are affiliated with this school. Kagyupa is the school of “oral lineage,” which emphasizes the transmission of teaching and practice from the master to the disciple. Sakyapa literally means “gray earth” and originated in the Sakya Monastery following its construction in 1073. Gelugpa means “way of virtue” and was founded by Gyalwa Tsongkhapa (1357–1419). Since its later origin it has comprehensively incorporated many ideas and practices of the first three schools as well as traditional Mah?y?na teachings. It is commonly called the “Yellow Hat School,” whereas the former three schools are called “Red Hat schools.” The current Dalai Lama belongs to the Gelugpa lineage. In Tibetan Buddhism, the incarnated lamas also earn a title commonly known as Rinpoche, which literally means “the precious one.” Tibetan Buddhism, especially the Gelugpa tradition, emphasizes scholastic learning. Tibetan Buddhist scholastic tradition develops a series of titles for different degree holders. The highest degree is called Geshe, which means “spiritual friend” in Tibetan. The curriculum of Geshe study is involved in the learning of Scriptures, commentaries, treatises, and monastic code.

Further Reading

Dalai Lama. (1995). The world of Tibetan Buddhism: An overview of its philosophy and practice. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.

Davidson, R. M. (2005). Tibetan renaissance: Tantric Buddhism in the rebirth of Tibetan culture. New York: Columbia University Press.

Dreyfus, G. B. J. (2003). The sound of two hands clapping: The education of a Tibetan Buddhist monk. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Goldstein, M. C. (1998). Buddhism in contemporary Tibet: Religious revival and cultural identity. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Kapstein, M. T. (2002). The Tibetan assimilation of Buddhism: Conversion, contestation, and memory. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.

Lopez, D. S., Jr. (1997). Religions of Tibet in practice. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Lopez, D. S., Jr. (1998). Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Samuel, G. (1987). Civilized shamans: Buddhism in Tibetan society. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Stein, R. A. (1972). Tibetan civilization. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Thurman, R. A. F. (1997). Essential Tibetan Buddhism. Edison, NJ: Castle Books.

Source: Chen, Huaiyu. (2009). Buddhism, Tibetan. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 239–242. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Man with a prayer wheel.

Yellow Hat monks assembling for morning chanting. Xiahe, Gansu Province. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Buddhism, Tibetan (Zàng Chuán Fójiào ????)|Zàng Chuán Fójiào ???? (Buddhism, Tibetan)

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