Buddhism A–Z
What is Tibetan Buddhism?

Tibetan Buddhism is a largely tantric or Vajrayana form of Buddhism developed in Tibet and northern India. It is also known as “Indo-Tibetan Buddhism” or “Northern Buddhism” to account for its existence beyond the borders of Tibet proper. It exists today in various forms in Tibet, Mongolia, Bhutan, Sikkim, Ladakh, Nepal, and parts of North India, with pockets in China and Russia. It has also been spread throughout the world largely as a result of the Tibetan diaspora occasioned by the Chinese takeover of the country in 1959.

Tibetan Buddhist Beliefs and Practices

The lineages of Tibet all belong to the Vajrayana branch of Buddhism. In the Vajrayana view, all phenomena are primordially pure. Ego is understood as a factor that emerges to obscure this understanding, and it can be transformed into wisdom by the use of various skillful means. Adherence to this view is enhanced through a devotional relationship to a guru, or Vajrayana teacher, who holds to this view with uncompromising conviction.

The view of Vajrayana is transmitted through advanced Mahayana teachings, especially on buddhanature (that each of us is a Buddha in essence); on sunyata (Skt., emptiness, indicating that all beings and all phenomena are empty of independent existence); and on compassion (when ego-clinging is fully dispelled, a natural caring for all beings emerges). Vajrayana employs a wide range of practices that will vary from lineage to lineage and student to student. In general, These included formless meditation (meditation with no particular object of meditation), visualization, chanting, mantra recitation, movement, yoga, art, and many other methods—all intended to accelerate the realization arising from mindfulness and awareness.

Origins and Development of Tibetan Buddhist Lineages

While Buddhist teachings trickled into Tibet as early as the third century CE, the first major dissemination of Buddhism—in the form of Sanskrit Buddhist texts from India and Nepal translated into Tibetan—occurred in the seventh century CE during the reign of King Songtsan Gampo, credited with establishing the Tibetan empire. 

Buddhism then waned in influence in Tibet until King Trisong Detsen reached the throne in the middle of the eighth century CE. He declared Buddhism as the state religion and invited Indian masters to travel to Tibet, most prominently the highly revered teachers and adepts Padmasambhava and Santaraksita. A vast translation project occurred at this time, resulting in what is known as the “Old Translation School,” known in Tibetan as the Nyingma Lineage, whose first monastery was Samye, the seat of both Santaraksita and Padmasambhava.

Following a period that saw the dissolution of the Tibetan Empire, a Buddhist revival emerged in the late tenth century. The arrival of the renowned teacher Atisha Dipankara in 1042 is the landmark event of the period. He brought with him a powerful form of Mahayana teachings whose influence is felt strongly to this day. During this period, the “New Translation” schools emerged, beginning with the Sakya, celebrated for its scholarship and headquartered at Sakya Monastery, built in 1073.

Also in the middle of the eleventh century, the great translator Marpa traveled to Nepal and India, bringing back many tantric texts and teachings, which he transmitted to his principal disciple, the most famous Tibetan yogi, Milarepa, creating the Kagyu lineage, known for its strong focus on meditative discipline.

The Tibetan form of tantric Buddhism gradually spread to the Mongol Empire, which eventually absorbed Tibet during the thirteenth century. Eventually, Mongol rulership of Tibet receded, and it was during this period of renewed independence that the fourth of Tibet’s principal lineages, the Gelugpa, was founded in the late fourteenth century by the teacher and scholar Je Tsongkhapa, who promoted the importance of analytical meditation to establish the correct view of emptiness.

The Dalai Lama

In the late sixteenth century, Sonam Gyatso, the head of the Gelugpa lineage at that time, was invited to Mongolia and converted Altan Khan to Buddhism, who in turn conferred on him the name Dalai, a Mongol translation of the Tibetan Gyatso, meaning “Ocean.” Lama is the Tibetan term for a revered teacher.

Eventually, the Dalai Lamas would exercise political power in Tibet as well as leadership within the Gelugpa Lineage. The current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is the fourteenth in line and is the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people as well as the leader of the Tibetan Government-in-exile.

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Buddhism A–Z

Explore essential Buddhist terms, concepts, and traditions.