Tibetan Buddhism

Literally, the Buddhism of Tibet, but more widely defined beyond the cultural-religious ethnicity of Tibetans. Tibetan Buddhism is spread through Tibet, Nepal, India (diasporan Tibetans, and Ladhakh), Bhutan, the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Yunnan, Sichuan, Gansu, and Inner Mongolia, Mongolia, and the Russian provinces of Buryatia, Tuva, and Kalmykia. Since the diaspora of the Tibetans in the 1960s, Tibetan Buddhism has spread globally, especially into Europe, North America, and Australasia. It continues to be readily accessible due in large to the globe-trotting of the Dalai Lama, the endorsement of celebrities, the active placement of lamas into western locations, promotion by the media, and a growing web presence.

Loosely fitting in the Mahayana stream of Buddhism (more precisely the Vajrayana), Tibetan Buddhism was woven historically into the original underlying Bön of Tibet, Shamanism of Mongolia/Siberia and/or the Animism of the host culture. Drawing strongly from Indian tantrism, and now the secularism of the West, Tibetan Buddhism has evolved into an eclectic mix of doctrines and practices. Like the rest of Buddhism, lineage of lama (teacher) to student is important, and hence Tibetan Buddhism is sometimes known as “Lamaism”: devotees may take refuge in Four Jewels: Buddha, Dharma, Sangha and Lama. 

The Indian tantric master Padmasambhava is credited as bringing Buddhism to Tibet from India around the eighth century AD and establishing the Nyingma school. From the ninth century the Great Translators reformed much Tibetan Buddhism. The poet Milarepa (c.1052-1135) founded the Kargyu school: the Drukpa sect of this became dominant in Ladakh and Bhutan.  The Sakyas also rose about the time of Milarepa. The Kadampas were reformed by Tsong Khapa (c1357-1419) earning the school the new name of Gelugpa (“virtuous way”), which then established several monastries (Nechung, Gandan, Sera, Trashilungpo) throughout Tibet and grew to be the most influential school. The current leader of the Gelugpa (or “yellow hat”) sect, is His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, resident with his Government in Exile,  in Dharmsala, north India.

Tibetan Buddhist worldview is derived from a mixture of rigorous rationalistic Buddhist philosophy, the shamanism of Bön, and Indian tantrism. Rituals seek to empower participants by animating models of the universe called mandalas, a circular picture or three dimensional constructions often made of fine coloured sand.  Alternatively pilgrimages to holy sites, especially Mount Kailash in western Tibet are auspicious in gaining karmic merit. The appeasement of  ghosts, demons, and territorial spirits by blood sacrifices, mediated by the shaman, who is skilled in magic, ritual healings, and occasionally claiming to control the weather, is common. The shaman enters into an ecstatic trance in which he travels to the spirit world. Thus Bön found full expression in Tibetan Buddhism, rather than being replaced by it. All of this is centred around a monastic heirarchy which originally claimed up to one third of the male work force in pre-Chinese Tibet. 

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Extract from Hugh P. Kemp, “Tibetan Buddhism.” STJ Encyclopedia of New Religions. Read the remainder of the encyclopedia entry when you sign up for a free subscription to Sacred Tribes Journal.