Tibetan Buddhism

Tibetan Buddhism

Tibetan Buddhism, also known as Lamaism, Vajrayāna Buddhism, Tantric Buddhism or Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, is the Buddhism that developed in the Himalayas. This form of Buddhism is followed by 6% of all Buddhists, being one of the most widely practiced Buddhist schools and one of the best known in the West.

In addition to classical Mahayana Buddhist practices such as the six perfections, Tibetan Buddhism also includes tantric practices such as deity yoga and the six yogas of Naropa. Its main goal is Buddhahood. The main language of scriptural study in this tradition is Tibetan.

Tibetan Buddhism is present in Bhutan, Mongolia, Nepal, several regions of the People's Republic of China (such as Tibet and Manchuria), several regions of the Russian Federation (Buryatia, Kalmukia and Tuva) and several regions of India (such as Ladakh, Sikkim and several municipalities in the Indian Himalayas such as Dharamsala).

With some 20 million followers, with a majority in different countries and autonomous regions, it is one of the largest and most important branches of Buddhism.

Associated with this type of Buddhism is the figure of the lama, who may be lay or monastic. In the classic division of Buddhism between monks and laymen, the Tibetan lamas are a figure with relevance not only religious, but were the center of the social and economic life of Tibet.


In Tibet, the term for Buddhist person is ནང་པ་ nang-pa (/naŋ˩˧.pa˥˥/), from nang 'inner' and -pa, nominalizing suffix of person, i.e., 'person seeking within'. The term for Buddhism itself is ནང་བསྟན nang-bstan (/naŋ˩˧.tɛ̃˥˥/) 'the teachings of the inner self', or else nang pa sangs rgyas pa'i chos 'the Buddha Dharma of the people within'.

  This is contrasted with other forms of organized religion, which are called chos lugs (dharmic system), e.g., Christianity is called Yi shu'i chos lugs (Jesus dharmic system).

Westerners initially turned to China in search of an understanding of Tibetan Buddhism. There the term used was Lamaism (lama jiao) to distinguish it from traditional Chinese Buddhism (fo jiao).

The term was taken up by Western scholars, including Hegel, as early as 1822. To the extent that it implies a discontinuity between Indian and Tibetan Buddhism, the term has been discredited.

Another term, "Vajrayāna" (Tib. dorje tegpa) is occasionally used for Tibetan Buddhism. More precisely, Vajrayāna means a certain subset of practices and traditions that are not only part of Tibetan Buddhism, but are also prominent in other Buddhist traditions.

In the West, the term "Indo-Tibetan Buddhism" has become current, in recognition of its derivation from the later stages of Buddhist development in northern India.


Tibetan Buddhism upholds classical Buddhist teachings such as the four noble truths (Tib. Pakpé denpa shyi), anatman (no-self, bdag med), the five aggregates (phung po) karma and rebirth, and dependent arising (rten cing 'brel bar 'byung ba). They also uphold other Buddhist doctrines associated with Mahāyāna Buddhism (theg pa chen po), as well as the tantric tradition of Vajrayāna.

Buddhahood and bodhisattvas

Tibetan Buddhism upholds the goal of Mahāyāna, which is to achieve Buddhahood in order to help all beings attain this state in the most efficient way. This motivation is called bodhicitta, an altruistic intention aimed at Buddhahood. Bodhisattvas (Tib. jangchup semba, literally "heroes of awakening") are revered beings who dedicate their existence to this path.

Bodhisattvas widely revered in Tibetan Buddhism include Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri, Vajrapani, Vajrasattva and Tara. The most important Buddhas are Sakyamuni, the five Buddhas of the Vajradhatu mandala (Vairocana, Akshobhya, Amitābha, Amoghasiddhi, and Ratnasambhava), as well as the Adi-Buddha (first Buddha), called Vajradhara or Samantabhadra.

In Tibetan Buddhism, Buddhahood is defined as a state free from obstructions to liberation and omniscience (sarvajñana). When one is freed from all mental obscurations, one is said to attain a state of continuous bliss mixed with a simultaneous awareness of shunyata, the true nature of reality.

In this state, all limitations on one's ability to help other living beings are removed. Tibetan Buddhism claims to teach methods for attaining Buddhahood more quickly (the Vajrayāna path).

An important scheme used to understand the nature of Buddhahood is the Trikaya (Three Bodies) doctrine which holds that Buddhahood consists of three kāyas or bodies:

The Dharmakāya, also known as the buddha-nature, or body of truth, signifying the true nature of ultimate reality, shunyata and the very principle of awakening that is formless and limitless.

The Saṃbhogakāya, a pure, spiritual body of bliss and manifestation of clear light.

The Nirmāṇakāya, the human embodiment of the buddhas, their bodies manifesting in time and space.

The bodhisattva path

Five paths

A central scheme for spiritual advancement used in Tibetan Buddhism is that of the five paths (Skt. Pañcamārga; Tib. Lam nga) which are:

The path of accumulation: in which one gathers wisdom and merit, generates bodhicitta, cultivates the four foundations of mindfulness (satipatthana) and right effort (the "four forsakennesses").

The path of readiness: attained when one attains the union of samatha and vipasyana and becomes familiar with shunyata or emptiness.

The path of sight: one perceives shunyata directly, all thoughts of subject and object are overcome, and one becomes an arya (a noble, enlightened being).

The path of meditation: one removes subtler traces of the mind and perfects understanding.

The path of no more learning: culminating in buddhahood.
The scheme of the five paths is often elaborated and combined with the concept of bodhisattva levels (bhumis).


Lamrim ("stages of the path") is a scheme for presenting the stages of spiritual practice. In the history of Tibetan Buddhism there have been many different versions of lamrim, presented by different masters of the Nyingma, Kagyu and Gelug schools. However, all versions of lamrim are elaborations of Atiśa's root text "A Lamp for the Path of Awakening" (Bodhipathapradīpa).

Atisha's lamrim system generally divides practitioners into those of lower, intermediate, and higher realms or attitudes, and describes practices and meditations in a progressive manner using this scheme.

Although the various lamrim texts cover the same subject areas, the subjects within them may be organized in different ways and with different emphases depending on the school and tradition to which they belong.

Gampopa and Tsongkhapa expanded the brief root text of Atiśa into an extensive system for understanding the whole of Buddhist philosophy. In this way, topics such as karma, rebirth, emptiness, and meditation practice are gradually explained in a logical and progressive order.

Vajrayāna Buddhism

Tibetan Buddhism includes the practices of Vajrayāna (vehicle of the Vajra), "Secret Mantra" (Skt. Guhyamantra) or Tantric Buddhism, which is based on texts known as "Tantras" (dating from around the 7th century CE).

Tantra (rgyud) generally refers to forms of religious practice that emphasize the use of unique visualizations, ideas, symbols, and rituals for spiritual transformation. Vajrayāna is seen in Tibetan Buddhism as the fastest and most powerful vehicle for enlightenment because it contains many skillful means (Skt. upaya).

An important element of tantric practice is the tantric deities and their mandalas. These deities come in peaceful and fierce forms.

Tantric texts also affirm the use of sense pleasures and other impurities in tantric ritual as a path to enlightenment, as opposed to other Buddhist sects that claim one must renounce all pleasures. These practices are based on the theory of transformation which states that negative mental and sensual factors can be ritually cultivated and transformed.

Another element of the Tantras is the use of transgressive practices, such as the consumption of taboo substances like alcohol or sexual yoga. While in many cases these transgressions were interpreted symbolically, in other cases they are practiced literally.


Madhyamaka, also called shunyavada (the doctrine of emptiness) is the dominant Buddhist philosophy of Tibetan Buddhism and is generally seen as the highest view, but is also interpreted in various ways. Shunyata, the true nature of reality, is the inherent non-existence (svabhava) of all things.

Buddhist philosophy is generally studied by using a scheme called the "four philosophical systems" (drubta shyi), although different schools may add other views, the "shentong" philosophy that developed in Tibet.

Two of these systems belong to the path called Hinayana and are based on two main Indian Buddhist sects. In Tibetan scholasticism, they are derived mainly from the Abhidharma-kośa of Vasubandhu No include Theravada:

Vaibhāṣika (Wylie: bye brag smra ba). This system affirms an atomistic view of reality, as well as the idea that external objects are directly perceived.

Sautrāntika (Wylie: mdo sde pa). Unlike Vaibhāṣika, this view holds that we do not directly perceive the external world, only phenomenal forms caused by objects and our senses.

The other two are based on Mahayana schools of thought from India:

Yogācāra, also called Cittamātra "mind alone" (Wylie: sems-tsam-pa). Yogacārins base their views on the texts of Maitreya, Asaṅga and Vasubandhu. Yogacara is often interpreted as a form of idealism.

Madhyamaka (Wylie: dbu-ma-pa). The philosophy of Nāgārjuna and Āryadeva, which asserts that everything is empty of essence (svabhava) and is ultimately beyond concepts. In Tibet, most philosophical discussions focus on the finer points of this tradition and are sometimes divided into different subcategories, such as:

Rangtong, a term introduced by Dolpopa, which rejects any existing self or nature. This includes:

Svatantrika, a form of Madhyamaka expounding the theory of emptiness through the use of autonomous syllogism (svātantra), includes the subcategories of:

Sautrantika Svātantrika Madhyamaka, associated with Bhāviveka.
Yogācāra Svātantrika Madhyamaka, associated with Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla, the oldest Buddhist teachings introduced into Tibet that blend the Yogācāra system with Madhyamaka.

Prasaṅgika, based on Buddhapālita and Candrakīrti. It is based solely on a philosophical method of reductio ad absurdum. This is generally regarded as the highest perspective in most Tibetan scholastic presentations. It is interpreted in different ways among the various philosophers and schools.

Shentong, systematized by Dolpopa and based on Buddha-nature teachings and influenced by Yogācāra. It asserts that ultimate reality is not void of its true luminous nature.

This approach is dominant in the Jonang school, and can also be found in the Kagyu tradition but is vehemently opposed in the Gelug school.
This systematic exposition is used in monasteries and colleges to teach Buddhist philosophy in a progressive manner, and each philosophical view is considered more subtle than its predecessor.

Dzogchen philosophy is a different tradition, found in the Nyingma school. Sometimes it is interpreted from a Yogacara-Madhyamaka perspective, but sometimes it is seen as its own philosophical view that is higher than Madhyamaka.

Texts and study

The study of major Indian texts is fundamental to higher education in Tibetan Buddhist schools. Memorization of classical texts, as well as other ritual texts, is expected as part of traditional monastic education. Another important part of religious education is the practice of formalized debate.

The Tibetan canon was mainly finalized in the 13th century and divided into two parts, the Kangyur (containing sutras and tantras) and the Tengyur (containing shastras and commentaries). The Nyingma school also maintains a separate collection of texts called the Nyingma Gyubum, collected by Ratna Lingpa in the 15th century and revised by Jigme Lingpa.

Among Tibetans, the main language of study is classical Tibetan; however, the Tibetan Buddhist canon was also translated into other languages, such as Mongolian and Manchu. During the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, many texts of the Tibetan canon were also translated into Chinese.

Numerous texts have also recently been translated into Western languages by Western Buddhist scholars and practitioners.


The most studied sutras in Tibetan Buddhism are Mahayana texts, such as the Perfection of Wisdom or the Prajñāpāramitā sutras, and others such as the Saṃdhinirmocana-sūtra and the Samādhirāja Sūtra.


The study of Indian Buddhist texts called shastras (treatises) is central to Tibetan Buddhist scholasticism. Since the late 11th century, traditional Tibetan monastic universities have generally organized the exoteric study of Buddhism into "five great textual traditions" (zhungchen-nga).

Asanga - Abhidharma-samuccaya
Vasubandhu - Abhidharma-kośa
Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom)

Shantideva - Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra
Madhyamaka (Centrism)
Nagarjuna - Mūlamadhyamakakakārikā

Aryadeva - Catuhsataka
Candrakīrti - Madhyamakāvatāra
Śāntarakṣita - Madhyamākalaṃkāra
Shantideva - Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra

Pramana (Epistemology)
Dharmakirti - Pramāṇavarttika
Dignāga - Pramāṇa-samuccaya
Vinaya (Monastic Rule)

Gunaprabha - Vinayamula Sutra
Also of great importance are the "Five Treatises of Maitreya", which include the influential Ratnagotravibhāga (Uttaratantra), a compendium of tathāgatagarbha literature, and the Mahayanasutralankara, a text on the Mahayana path.

The Yogācārabhūmi-Śāstra and the Bhāvanākrama of Kamalaśīla, are the main sources for meditation practice.

While Indian texts are often central, the original material of the great Tibetan scholars is also widely studied and compiled in editions called sungbum. The commentaries and interpretations used differ according to tradition.

The Gelug school, for example, uses the scriptures of Tsongkhapa, while other schools follow the thinkers of the Rimé movement such as Jamgon Kongtrul and Jamgon Ju Mipham Gyatso and the past leaders of their lineage such as Sakya Pandita for the Sakya school and the 8th Karmapa Migyur Dorje for the Karma Kagyu school.

Tantric literature

In Tibetan Buddhism, Buddhist tantras are divided into four or six categories, with various subcategories.

In the "New Translation," (Sarma) schools the division is:

Kriyayoga - These have an emphasis on purification and ritual acts and include texts such as the Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa.

Charyayoga - Contains "a balance between external activities and internal practices," referring primarily to the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra.
Yogatantra - Deals primarily with the internal techniques of yoga and includes the Tattvasaṃgraha Tantra.

Anuttarayogatantra - Contains more advanced techniques, such as subtle body practices and fierce deities, and is subdivided into:

Mother Tantras, which emphasize illusory body practices and the completion stage and includes Guhyasamaja Tantra and Yamantaka Tantra.

Father Tantras, which emphasize the stage of development and clear light mind and include the Hevajra Tantra and Cakrasamvara Tantra.

Non-dual Tantras, which balance the above elements and refer mainly to the Kalacakra Tantra.

In Nyingma, the division is into external tantras (Kriyayoga, Charyayoga, Yogatantra); and the internal tantras (Mahayoga, Anuyoga, Atiyoga or Dzogchen), which correspond to the Anuttarayogatantra. For the Nyingma school, the important tantras include the Guhyagarbha tantra, the Guhyasamaja tantra, the Kulayarāja tantra and the 17 Dzogchen tantras.

It is important to note that the root tantras themselves are almost unintelligible without the various Indian and Tibetan commentaries, therefore, they are never studied without the use of these commentaries.


In Tibetan Buddhism, practices are generally classified as Sutra (or Pāramitāyāna) or Tantra (Vajrayāna or Mantrayāna), although exactly what constitutes each category is a matter of debate among the various lineages. According to Tsongkhapa (and thus for the Gelug school) for example, what separates Tantra from Sutra is the practice of deity yoga.

While it is generally held that Vajrayāna practices are not included in Sutrayāna, all Sutrayāna practices are common to Vajrayāna practice. Traditionally, Vajrayāna is considered to be a more powerful and effective, but potentially more difficult and dangerous path, so it should only be practiced by advanced students who have established a solid foundation in other practices.


The Pāramitās (perfections, transcendent virtues) is a key set of virtues that constitute the main practices of a bodhisattva:

Dāna pāramitā: generosity (Tibetan: སབྱིན་པ sbyin-pa).
Śīla pāramitā: virtue, morality, discipline, self-conduct (ཚུལ་ཁྲིམས tshul-khrims).
Kṣānti pāramitā: patience, tolerance, acceptance (བཟོད་པ bzod-pa).
Vīrya pāramitā: energy, diligence, vigor, effort (བརྩོན་འགྲུས brtson-'grus).
Dhyāna pāramitā: meditative absorption(བསམ་གཏན bsam-gtan).
Prajñā pāramitā: wisdom (ཤེས་རབ shes-rab).

The practice of Dāna (giving) while traditionally referring to offerings of food to monastics can also refer to the ritual offering of water, incense, butter lamps, and flowers to Buddhas and Bodhisattvas on a household altar or shrine. Similar offerings are also offered to other beings such as to dakinis, protective deities, local divinities, etc.

Like other forms of Mahayana Buddhism, the practice of the five precepts and bodhisattva vows is part of Tibetan Buddhist moral practice (sila). In addition to these, there are also numerous sets of tantric vows, called samaya, which are given as part of tantric initiations.

Compassion practices (karuṇā) are also particularly important in Tibetan Buddhism. One of the main authoritative texts on the bodhisattva path is Shantideva's Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra.

A popular compassion meditation in Tibetan Buddhism is tonglen (sending and receiving love and suffering, respectively). Practices associated with Chenrezig (Avalokiteshvara) are also related to compassion.

Dhyāna - śamatha and vipaśyanā.

The 14th Dalai Lama defines meditation (bsgom pa) as "familiarization of the mind with an object of meditation. " Traditionally, Tibetan Buddhism follows the two main approaches to mental cultivation (bhavana) taught in all forms of Buddhism, śamatha (Tib. shine) and vipaśyanā (lhaktong).

The practice of śamatha (tranquility, calmness) is the practice of focusing on a single object, such as a Buddha-figure or the breath. Through repeated practice, the mind gradually becomes more stable, calm and happy. Takpo Tashi Namgyal defines it as "fixing the mind on any object to keep it undistracted. "

The "nine levels of meditation" are the main progressive framework used for śamatha in Tibetan Buddhism. Once a meditator has reached the ninth level of this scheme, they achieve what is called "flexibility" (Tib. shin tu sbyangs pa, Skt. prasrabdhi), defined as "a disposition of the mind and body that allows one to settle the mind on any object for as long as one wishes. It has the function of removing all obstructions. "

The other form of Buddhist meditation is vipaśyanā, which in Tibetan Buddhism is generally practiced after attaining śamatha competence. It has two aspects. One is analytical meditation, that is, thinking rationally about ideas and concepts in a philosophical manner. The other type of vipaśyanā is a "simple" yogic style, called trömeh in Tibetan, meaning "uncomplicated. "

A meditation routine may involve alternating sessions of vipaśyanā to reach deeper levels of realization, and śamatha to consolidate them.

Preliminary practices

Tibetan Buddhists believe that vajrayāna is the fastest method of attaining Buddhahood, but for unqualified practitioners it can be dangerous. To engage in it, one must receive proper initiation (also known as "empowerment") from a qualified lama....

The aim of the preliminary practices (ngöndro) is to initiate the student onto the correct path for such higher teachings. The preliminary practices include all sutrayāna activities, such as listening to teachings, prostrations, offerings, prayers, and acts of kindness and compassion.

The most important elements of sutra practice are renunciation, bodhicitta, and prajñaparamita. It is said that practicing vajrayāna without the foundation of these three is like a small child attempting to ride a wild horse.

Preliminary practices include: refuge, prostration, vajrasattva meditation, mandala offering, and guru yoga.

The merit acquired in the preliminary practices helps progress in tantric practices. While many Buddhists may spend a lifetime exclusively in sutra practices, nevertheless, to some extent it is common to practice an amalgam of the two. For example, to train in śamatha, one may use a tantric visualization as a meditation object.

Guru yoga

As in other Buddhist traditions, an attitude of reverence for the teacher, lama or guru, is also very important. One's interaction with the teacher should be imbued with reverence and devotion. By treating the teacher with respect and enthusiastically following his or her instructions, much merit is accrued and this can significantly help to improve one's practice.

There is a general sense in which any Tibetan Buddhist teacher is called a lama. A student may have taken teachings from many authorities and in this general sense they are all his lamas. However, he will normally have one of them as his "root guru" or "heart teacher. "

Esotericism and samaya

Tibetan Buddhists subscribe to a voluntary code of self-censorship about the details of higher tantric practices. Tibetans today maintain varying degrees of confidentiality regarding tantric teachings. In Buddhist teachings in general, there is also a caution about revealing information to people who may not be prepared.

The practice of tantra also includes keeping a separate set of vows, which are called samaya (dam tshig). There are various lists of these and they may differ according to practice and lineage or individual guru. Upholding these vows is said to be essential to tantric practice and breaking them is said to cause great harm.

Rites and rituals

There was always a close association between the religious and the secular, the spiritual and the temporal in pre-modern Tibet. Traditionally, Tibetan lamas assisted the lay population with rituals for protection and prosperity.

The various rites and rituals for mundane purposes, such as purification of karma, avoiding harm from evil forces, and promoting a successful harvest. Divination and exorcism are examples of practices that a lama might use for this.

Tibetan Buddhist ritual is generally more elaborate than in other forms of Buddhism, and includes complex arrangements of altars and artwork (such as mandalas and thangkas), various ritual objects, hand gestures (mudra), chanting and musical instruments.

A special type of ritual called initiation or empowerment (Sanskrit: abhiṣeka, Tibetan: wangkur) is central to tantric practice. These rituals consecrate an initiate in a particular tantric practice associated with individual mandalas of deities and their mantras. Without having undergone initiation, one is generally not allowed to practice the higher tantras.

Another important ritual occasion in Tibetan Buddhism is that of death rituals that are supposed to ensure a positive rebirth and a good spiritual path in the future. Of central importance is the idea of the bardo (Sanskrit: antarābhava), the intermediate or liminal state between life and death.

Rituals and readings from texts such as the Bardo Thodol (known as the "Tibetan Book of the Dead") are performed to ensure that the dying person can navigate the intermediate state. Cremation and "heavenly burial" are traditionally the main funeral rites used to dispose of the body.


The use of prayer formulas, incantations or phrases, called mantras (Tibetan: sngags) is another general feature of Tibetan Buddhist practice. So common is the use of mantras that sometimes Vajrayana is also called "Mantrayāna" (the mantra vehicle). Mantras are widely recited, chanted, written or inscribed, and visualized as part of different forms of meditation.

Each mantra has a symbolic meaning and a connection to a particular Buddha or Bodhisattva. The mantra of each deity is considered to symbolize the power of the deity.

Tibetan Buddhist practitioners repeat mantras to train the mind and transform their thoughts in line with the divine qualities of the deity and the special power of the mantra.

Tibetan Buddhists consider the etymology of the term mantra to mean "protector of the mind," and mantras are considered a way to protect the mind against negativity.

Mantras also serve to focus the mind as a samatha practice, as well as a way to transform the mind through the symbolic meaning of the mantra. In Buddhism, it is important to have the proper intention, focus and faith when practicing mantras or they will not work.

Tantric yoga

In what is called "higher tantra yoga," the emphasis is on various yoga practices that enable the practitioner to realize the true nature of reality.

"Deity yoga" (Tibetan: lha'i rnal 'byor; Sanskrit: devata-yoga) is a fundamental practice of Vajrayana Buddhism that involves the visualization of mental images consisting mainly of Buddhist deities such as the Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and fierce deities, throughout the repetition of mantras.

Deity yoga involves two stages, the generation stage and the completion stage. In the generation stage, one dissolves the mundane world and visualizes the chosen deity (yidam), its mandala and companion deities, resulting in identification with this divine reality. In the completion stage, one dissolves the visualization into the realization of sunyata or emptiness.

Completion stage practices may also include energy or subtle body practices, as well as other practices such as from the Six Yogas of Naropa, such as dream yoga.

The views and practices associated with Dzogchen and Mahamudra are often considered the culmination of the tantric path. These practices focus on the very nature of reality and experience, called dharmakaya or rigpa.

The views and practices associated with the teachings of Dzogchen and Mahamudra are often considered the culmination of the tantric path and the highest meditations. These practices focus on the direct realization of the nature of reality, called dharmakaya or rigpa.

Institutions and teachers

Monasticism is an important part of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the main and secondary schools maintain large monastic institutions based on the Mulasarvastivated Vinaya (monastic rule) and many religious leaders are from the monastic community.

However, there are many religious leaders (called lamas or gurus) who are not celibate monastics. According to Geoffrey Samuel, this is where "religious leadership in Tibetan Buddhism contrasts most sharply with the rest of the Buddhist world. "

Lamas are tantric practitioners and ritual specialists in a specific initiation lineage and may be lay or monastic. They act as teachers, spiritual guides and guardians of the lineage teachings they have received through a long and intimate process of apprenticeship with their lamas.

Tibetan Buddhism also includes various clerics and lay tantric specialists, such as ngagpas (Skt. mantrī), gomchens, serkyims, and chödpas (Chöd practitioners). According to Samuel, in the more remote parts of the Himalayas communities are often led by lay religious specialists.

While large monastic institutions are present in the regions of the Tibetan plateau that were more politically centralized, in other regions they were absent and in their place are smaller lay-oriented communities.

Samuel describes four types of religious communities in Tibet:

Small communities of lay practitioners attached to a temple and a lama. Lay practitioners may stay in the gompa for periodic retreats.

Small communities of celibate monastics attached to a temple and a lama, often part of a village.

Communities (medium or large) of celibate monastics. These may support hundreds of monks and may have extensive properties. They may also be financially independent and act as commercial centers.

Large scholastic monasteries with thousands of monks, such as the large Gelug establishments of Sera (with over 6000 monks in the first half of the 20th century) and Drepung (over 7000).

In some cases, a lama is the leader of a spiritual community. Some lamas obtain their title by being part of a family that maintains a lineage of hereditary lamas (and are therefore laypeople). One example is the Sakya family of Kon, who founded the Sakya school, and another example is the hereditary lamas of Mindrolling Monastery.

In other cases, a lama can be seen as a "tülku" ("incarnation"). Tülkus are figures recognized as reincarnations of a bodhisattva or a previous religious figure. Therefore, they are able to receive extensive religious training. They are sometimes trained to be leaders of monastic institutions. Two examples are the Dalai Lamas and the Karmapas.

Another title unique to Tibetan Buddhism is that of tertön (treasure discoverer), who is considered capable of revealing or uncovering special revelations and texts called termas (lit. "hidden treasure"). They are also associated with the idea of beyul ("hidden valleys"), which are places of power associated with deities and religious treasures.

Women in Tibetan Buddhism.

Women traditionally assumed many roles in Tibetan Buddhism, from lay people to monastics, lamas and tantric practitioners. There is evidence of the importance of women practitioners in Indian Tantric Buddhism and pre-modern Tibetan Buddhism.

One lineage of tantric teachings, the Shangpa Kagyu, can be traced back to Indian women teachers, and there have also been a number of important Tibetan women teachers such as Yeshe Tsogyal and Machig Labdrön.

Some Tibetan women become lamas by being born into a lama family such as Mindrolling Jetsün Khandro Rinpoche and Sakya Jetsün Kushok Chimey Luding. There were also cases of influential female lamas who were also tertöns, such as Sera Khandro, Tare Lhamo and Ayu Khandro.

Some of these figures were also tantric consorts (sangyum, kandroma) with male lamas, and thus participated in the sexual practices associated with the higher levels of tantra.


While women practiced Tibetan monasticism, it was much less common (2 percent of the population in the twentieth century compared to 12 percent for men). Nuns were also far less respected by Tibetan society than monks and may receive less lay support than monks.

Traditionally, Tibetan Buddhist nuns were also not "fully ordained" as bhikṣuṇīs (taking the full set of monastic vows). When Buddhism traveled from India to Tibet, apparently the quorum of bhikṣuṇīs required to grant full ordination never arrived.

However, there are accounts of fully ordained Tibetan women, such as Samding Dorje Phagmo (1422-1455), who was once ranked as the highest tulku teacher in Tibet, but little is known about the exact circumstances of her ordination.

In the modern era, Tibetan Buddhist nuns have taken full ordinations through the Vinaya lineages of East Asia. The Dalai Lama has authorized nuns in the Tibetan tradition to be ordained with these traditions.

Buddhist author Michaela Haas notes that Tibetan Buddhism is undergoing a radical shift in the West, with women playing a much more central role.


Early Diffusion (7th-10th centuries)

While some histories depict Buddhism in Tibet prior to this period, the religion was formally introduced to Tibet during the Tibetan Empire (7th-10th centuries). Buddhist scriptures from India were first translated into Tibetan under the reign of Songtsän Gampo (618-649 CE).

This period also saw the development of the Tibetan writing system and classical Tibetan. The empire of Tibet extended over the cultural and religious influences of the Himalayas, being of great importance in cities such as northern India, Nepal and Bhutan.

Until that time, there existed in the world a religious animist and shamanistic character, called Bön. With the elite of Buddhism, the Bon religious did not disappear, until then gradually transformed. Part of the Bon belief also influenced Tibetan Buddhism, partially similar to the Shinbutsu shūgō in Japan.

In the eighth century, King Trisong Detsen (755-797 CE) established Buddhism as the official state religion. Trisong Detsen invited Indian Buddhist scholars to his court, including Padmasambhāva (eighth century) and Shāntarakṣita (725-788), considered the founders of Nyingma (Elders), the oldest tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.

Trisong also invited the Zen master "Hwa shang Mahayana" to Samye Monastery to transmit the Dharma. Some sources claim that a debate took place between Moheyan and the Indian master Kamalaśīla, but disagree on the victor, and some modern scholars consider the event to be fictitious.

Era of fragmentation (9th-10th centuries).

A decline in Buddhist influence began under King Langdarma (r. 836-842), and his death was followed by the "Age of Fragmentation," a period of disunity and conflict during the ninth and tenth centuries. During this era, the political centralization of the Tibetan empire collapsed.

Despite this loss of state patronage, Buddhism survived and thrived in Tibet. According to Geoffrey Samuel, this was because "Tantric (Vajrayana) Buddhism came to provide the main set of techniques by which Tibetans deal with the spiritual world.

Tibetans came to see these techniques as vital to their survival and prosperity in this life. " This included rituals for communicating with local gods and spirits, which became a specialty of some Tibetan Buddhist lamas and lay ngagpas (mantrikas, mantra specialists).

Second Diffusion (10th-12th centuries)

The tenth and eleventh centuries saw a revival of Buddhism in Tibet with the founding of the "New Translation" (Sarma) lineages, as well as the appearance of "hidden treasures" (terma) in the literature that reformed the Nyingma tradition.

In 1042, the Indian master Atiśa (982-1054) arrived in Tibet at the invitation of a Tibetan king. His main disciple, Dromtön, founded the Kadampa school of Tibetan Buddhism, one of the first Sarma schools. Several other Indian masters also traveled to Tibet during this time. During this era, the Sakya monastery was founded along with the Sakya school and the various Kagyu schools.

Dagpo Kagyu is the most influential Kagyu subgroup today. It was founded by the monk Gampopa, and he merged the Marpa lineage with the Kadampa monastic tradition.

Mongol rule (13th-14th centuries)

During the 11th century Tibetan Buddhism was very influential among the peoples of Central Asia, especially among the Mongols. The Mongols invaded Tibet in 1240 and 1244. They eventually annexed Amdo and Kham and appointed the great scholar Sakya Pandita (1182-1251) as the viceroy of Central Tibet in 1249.

Tibet was thus incorporated into the Mongol Empire, with the Sakya hierarchy retaining nominal power over religious and regional affairs. Tibetan Buddhism also became the primary religion of the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) of Kublai Khan.

During this period, the Tibetan canon was compiled, led primarily by the efforts of the scholar Butön Rinchen Drup (1290-1364). The canon was carved on woodcut tablets, and the first copies of the canon were kept in the Narthang monastery.

Tibetan autonomy (14th-18th centuries)

Due to the light administration of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), central Tibet was ruled by various local families from the 14th to the 17th century.

The Phagmodrupa dynasty of Jangchub Gyaltsän (1302-1364) became the strongest political family in the mid-fourteenth century. Internal strife within the Phagmodrupa dynasty led to a long series of internal conflicts.

During this period, the reformist scholar Je Tsongkhapa (1357-1419) founded the Gelug school.

The Rinpungpa family, based in Tsang (west central Tibet), dominated politics after 1435. In 1565, the Rinpungpa family was overthrown by the Tsangpa dynasty of Shigatse, which expanded its power in different directions in Tibet in the following decades and favored the Karma Kagyu school.

In China, Tibetan Buddhism continued to be patronized by the elites of the Ming dynasty. According to David M. Robinson, during this era, Tibetan Buddhist monks "performed court rituals, enjoyed privileged status, and gained access to the guarded and private world of the emperors. "

The Ming Emperor Yongle (r. 1402-1424) supported the creation of a series of woodcut tablets of the Kangyur, now known as "the Yongle Kanyur." It is considered an important edition of the Tibetan canon.

The Ming dynasty also supported the spread of Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia during this period. Tibetan Buddhist missionaries also helped spread the religion in Mongolia.

It was during this period that Altan Khan, the leader of the Tümed Mongols, converted to Buddhism and allied himself with the Gelug school, conferring the title of "Dalai Lama" (Mongol: the Oceanic Lama) on Sonam Gyatso in 1578.

Under Altan Khan's reign, Tibetan Tantric Buddhism became the official religion of the Empire. To this day the Mongol peoples are mostly Tibetan Buddhists. The spiritual leader of Mongolian Buddhism is called Jebtsundamba Khutuktu.

During a Tibetan civil war in the 17th century, the chief regent of the 5th Dalai Lama, Sonam Choephel (1595-1657), conquered and unified Tibet and established the Ganden Phodrang government, with the help of Güshi Khan, leader of the Khoshut Mongols.

This Gelug government with its subsequent lineages of tulkus, the Dalai Lamas and the Panchen Lamas, maintained regional control of Tibet from the mid-17th century to the mid-20th century.

Qing period (18th-20th centuries)

The Qing dynasty (1644-1912) established Chinese rule over Tibet after defeating the Zungars in 1720. Qing rule lasted until the fall of the dynasty in 1912. The Manchu Qing rulers supported Tibetan Buddhism, especially the Gelug school, for most of their rule.

The reign of Emperor Qianlong was the high-water mark for Tibetan Buddhism in China. He oversaw the visit of the 6th Panchen Lama to Beijing, and the construction of Tibetan-style temples, such as Xumi Fushou Temple, Puning Temple and Putuo Zongcheng Temple (in the style of the Potala Palace).

The nineteenth century saw the rise of the Rimé movement, a non-sectarian movement involving the Sakya, Kagyu and Nyingma schools, along with some Bon scholars. In response to the decline of these Buddhist traditions in part to the influence of the Gelug school, scholars such as Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820-1892) and Jamgön Kongtrül (1813-1899) collected the teachings of Sakya, Kagyu and Nyingma, including many nearly extinct teachings.

Without the compilation and printing of rare works by Khyentse and Kongtrul, these teachings may not have survived to the present. The Rimé movement is responsible for a number of compilations, such as the Rinchen Terdzod and the Sheja Dzö.

During the Qing, Tibetan Buddhism also remained the main religion of the Mongols under Qing rule, as well as the state religion of the Calmuco Khanate (1630-1771), the Zungary Khanate (1634-1758), and the Khoshuud Khanate (1642-1717).

While interest in Tibetan Buddhism in the West dates back to the creation of the Theosophical Society in the nineteenth century and the interest of many theosophists in it, including Helena Blavatsky and the devout Buddhist Henry Steel Olcott, it is true that Lamaist Buddhism has only recently become popular in much of the West.

20th century

In 1912, after the fall of the Qing dynasty, Tibet became de facto independent under the 13th Dalai Lama, based in Lhasa, maintaining the current territory of what is now called the Tibet Autonomous Region.

During the Republic of China (1912-1949), the "Chinese Tantric Buddhist Tantric Revival Movement" (Chinese: 教 復興 運動) took place, and important Chinese figures such as Lama Nenghai (海喇嘛, 1886-1967) and Master Fazun (1902-1980) promoted Tibetan Buddhism. However, this movement was severely damaged by the cultural revolution.

After the Battle of Chamdo, Tibet was annexed by the People's Republic of China in 1950. In 1959, the 14th Dalai Lama and a large number of clerics fled the country to settle in India and other neighboring countries. The events of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) saw religion as one of the main political enemies of the Communist Party. Because of this, thousands of temples and monasteries in Tibet were destroyed and many monks and lamas imprisoned.

During this time, private religious expression as well as Tibetan cultural traditions were suppressed. Much of the Tibetan textual heritage and Tibetan institutions were destroyed, and monks and nuns were forced to abandon monasticism.

However, outside of Tibet in places such as Nepal and Bhutan, there was a resurgence of interest in Tibetan Buddhism, while the spread of Tibetan Buddhism in the Western world was achieved by many of the Tibetan lamas who escaped Tibet.

After liberalization policies in China during the 1980s, the religion began to recover and some temples and monasteries were rebuilt. Tibetan Buddhism is now an influential religion among educated Chinese and also in Taiwan.

However, the Chinese government maintains strict control over Tibetan Buddhist institutions in the PRC. Quotas on the number of monks and nuns are maintained, and their activities are supervised by the state.

21st century

Today, Tibetan Buddhism is widely adhered to throughout the Tibetan Plateau, Mongolia, northern Nepal, Kalmukia, Siberia (Tuva and Buryatia), and northeastern China.

In Bhutan, it is the official state religion, having great political influence. Tibetan Buddhist minorities abound among the ethnic Tibetan peoples of Sikkim and Ladakh, and among the Mongolian peoples of southern Russia; in fact, Buddhism is one of the four major religions of Russia and almost all Russian Buddhists are Tibetan Buddhists.

Although Tibetan Buddhist communities had existed in India (particularly the Indian Himalayan area) and Nepal for many centuries in the past, the arrival of thousands of Tibetan refugees escaping the Chinese invasion increased their numbers.

Today, the Dalai Lama and the largest Tibetan community in exile reside in Dharamsala (India). Bhutan is also home to a large number of Tibetan refugees. Religious communities, refugee centers and monasteries have also been established in southern India.

The 14th Dalai Lama is the leader of the Tibetan government-in-exile that was initially dominated by the Gelug school, however, according to Geoffrey Samuel:

The Dharamsala government under the Dalai Lama has succeeded in creating a relatively inclusive and democratic structure. Important figures from the three non-Gelukpa and Bonpo Buddhist schools have been included in the religious administration and relations between the schools are now generally very positive.

This is a great achievement, as relations between these groups were often competitive and conflict-ridden in Tibet prior to 1959, and initially there was much mutual distrust. The Dalai Lama's government in Dharamsala also continued to promote a negotiated settlement with China rather than an armed struggle.

In the wake of the Tibetan diaspora, Tibetan Buddhism has also gained adherents in the West as well as around the world. Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and centers were first established in Europe and North America in the 1960s, and most are now supported by non-Tibetan followers.

Some of these Westerners learned Tibetan, underwent extensive training in traditional practices, and were recognized as lamas.

Samuel sees the character of Tibetan Buddhism in the West as

That of a national or international network, generally centered around the teachings of a head lama. Among the largest are the FPMT, which I have already mentioned, now led by Lama Zopa and the child reincarnation of Lama Yeshe; the New Kadampa, originating from a schism with the FPMT; the Shambhala network, derived from Chogyam Trungpa's organization and now led by his son; and the networks associated with Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche (the Dzogchen Community) and Sogyal Rinpoche (Rigpa).

Famous figures such as Richard Gere, Steven Seagal and Oliver Stone have converted to Tibetan Buddhism, while actress Uma Thurman is a Lamaist Buddhist by birth raised in that religion by her parents.

Schools and lineages

Main lineages

Jamgon Kongtrul, a scholar of the Rime ("non-sectarian") movement, in his "Treasury of Knowledge," describes the "Eight main lineages of practice" that were transmitted to Tibet from India. His focus is not on "schools" or "sects," but rather on the transmission of crucial meditation teachings." They are:

The Nyingma traditions, associated with early transmission figures such as Santarakshita, Padmasambhava and King Trisong Deutsen and with the Dzogchen teachings.

The Kadam Lineage, associated with Atisha and his pupil Dromtön (1005-1064).
Lamdré, goes back to the mahasidha Virupa, and today is preserved in the Sakya school.

Marpa Kagyu, the lineage that comes from Marpa, Milarepa and Gampopa, and practices Mahamudra and the Six Dharmas of Naropa.Shangpa Kagyu, the lineage of Niguma.

Shyijé and Chöd originating from Padampa Sangyé and Machig Labdrön.
Dorje Naljor Druk (the 'practice of the six branches of Vajrayoga') which derives from the Kalachakra lineage.

Dorje sumgyi nyendrup ('Approach and Realization of the Three Vajras'), from the mahasidha Orgyenpa Rinchen Pal.


There are several organized schools or orders in Tibetan Buddhism. Their doctrines are very similar. They differ in emphasizing different practices, different deities, and focusing on different texts. There is some disagreement about the nature of Yogacara and Buddha-nature teachings (and whether these reflect conventional or ultimate truths).

The main schools are:

In the eighth century the Nyingma school arose. Founded from the legacy of the early introducers of Buddhism in Tibet. The Indian master Padmasambhava was the first who, according to Tibetan tradition, subdued the Tibetan nature deities and other forces. King Songtsän Gampo (618-649 CE) made Buddhism the official state religion.

In the 9th century the Kagyu tradition (oral tradition) appeared. There are several branches of this tradition, all derived from the Indian mahasidas Tilopa and Naropa brought to Tibet by Marpa, Milarepa's teacher. The largest branch is Dagpo Kagyu, founded by Gampopa, one of Milarepa's disciples.

It consists of four major sub-sects: the Karma Kagyu, headed by the Karmapa, Tsalpa Kagyu, Barom Kagyu and Pagtru Kagyu. There are eight other minor sub-sects, all of which trace their origin to Pagtru Kagyu's founder, Phagmo Drupa. The most notable of these are the Drikung and Drukpa Lineages. It is the official and majority school in Bhutan.

In the 11th century emerged the Sakia ("gray earth") school, named after its monastery of origin, founded by Khön Könchok Gyalpo. Its principal teachers are descended from the early disciples of the Indian mahasid Virūpa and came from a family of the ruling classes, the Khön, of the southern Tsang region.

Their leader is the Sakia Trinzin. A renowned exponent, Sakya Pandita (1182-1251), was the great-grandson of Khön Könchok Gyalpo.

In the 14th century and as a result of the spiritual reform of Lama Je Tsongkhapa, the order of the Gelug or Geluk-pa, called the yellow caps, was born from the Kadampa Tradition. Lama Tsongkhapa (1357-1415) was a renewer of the teachings of the great 11th century Bengali master, Atisha.

Je Tsongkhapa made every effort to bring together a more orthodox and grouping approach to the teachings of Tibet. Its leader is the Dalai Lama. It has a majority in Mongolia and southern Russia.

Another school recently recognized as one of the traditions of Vashraian Buddhism by the Dalai Lama is the Jonang or Jonangpa, which was founded in the 14th century by Dolpopa, although its lineage extends to the 12th century with the monk Yumo Mikyo Dorje.

In the 17th century, for political reasons, the fifth Dalai Lama declared it heretical and had all its followers converted to the Gelugpa religion. It was believed to have disappeared until monasteries were rediscovered in remote areas of the Tibet Autonomous Region, in Sichuan and Qinghai. Its current leader is Khalkha Jetsun Dampa Rinpoche the Bogd Gegeen of Mongolia.

The Bodong school is one of the smallest schools. This tradition was founded in 1049 by the Kadam master Mudra Chenpo, who also established the Bodong E Monastery.

Its most famous master was Bodong Penchen Lénam Gyelchok (1376-1451), author of more than 350 volumes. This tradition is known for maintaining a female lineage of tulkus, called "Samding Dorje Phagmo".

The characteristics of each main school (with an influential secondary school, Jonang) are as follows:

The Dalai Lama has also recognized the Bon religion and once called it "the fifth school of Tibetan Buddhism, " although formally it is not Buddhism, but a form of indigenous pre-Buddhist Tibetan shamanism. Since the exile of the Dalai Lama, relations between the Bon religion and Tibetan Buddhism have been generally cordial.

The current Bon religion has many doctrinal similarities with Tibetan Buddhism, although many scholars consider this to be due to syncretism, some Buddhist authors claim that the similarities are natural since the Bon religion would represent an ancient dharma, a heterodox tradition of Buddhism, or a parallel branch of Lamaism.

The Bon religion is not a majority religion in any region but is widely practiced among indigenous groups in Tibet and in Himalayan regions with ethnic Tibetan or family populations, such as in Ladakh (India) and Nepal. Its highest leader is the abbot of the Menri monastery, Lungtok Tenpa'i Nyima.

In a difficult geography where monasteries were sometimes widely separated and often with little frequent contact, the Gelug school historically assumed the official centrality of Tibetan Lamaism and from it stems the reforming efforts and character, while the other schools have specialized in retaining and administering their own legacy of teachings.

The Gelug and Kagyu schools are the most widespread in the West. The Dalai Lama, the ruler of Tibet, had to go into exile in 1959 just before the March 10 massacre (see History of Tibet). He was followed by the main leaders of the different schools, such as the karmapa (spiritual head of the kagyupa school of the karma kagyu), Sakia Trizin (sakiapa spiritual head) and the leader of the Bon religion.

The Dalai Lama was, until recently, seen as the political leader of all Tibetans in exile and the spiritual leader of the Lamaists in general.

However, each of the five traditional Tibetan schools have always had their own leaders who are also assigned the treatment of "His Holiness" and who have authority over the Dalai Lama in the internal affairs of their traditions, and the Dalai Lama was considered to have superiority only in matters of protocol to the other school leaders.

With the Dalai Lama's resignation from the monarchy in 2011, he became only a spiritual leader. In any case, relations between the respective leaders of each of the schools tend to be cordial and mutually respectful since the Chinese invasion and the Dalai Lama preserves a certain position of leadership for reasons of tradition and cultural heritage.

Some controversy arose when the Dalai Lama with the support of other leaders of Tibetan Buddhist schools banned the worship of Dorje Shugden as foreign to Buddhism and expelled monks from this unrecognized tradition.

The Dalai Lama claimed that this was because Dorje Shugde is a demon or evil spirit and its worship is not Buddhist. Critics claimed that such a move infringes on the religious freedom of Tibetan Buddhists and is contradictory as the Dalai Lama himself has in the past been very tolerant of non-Buddhist religious groups such as Bonpos and even Christians, Muslims and people of other religions who are allowed to participate in Buddhist events.

Proponents claim that the Dalai Lama as a religious leader has every right to ban a practice or cult that he considers contrary to the religion he leads, just as no one would find it strange if the Catholic pope attributed the origin of some dissenting Catholic order to Satan and banned Catholics from practicing it.

After financial and logistical links between the Shugden organization and the Chinese government were publicly disclosed by Reuters, the organization disbanded and announced that it would cease organizing protests against the Dalai Lama.

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