An Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism

Understand the basic structure, Tantra, and Lamas of Tibet

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Tibetan Buddhism is a form of Mahayana Buddhism that developed in Tibet and spread to neighboring countries of the Himalayas. Tibetan Buddhism is known for its rich mythology and iconography and for the practice of identifying the reincarnations of deceased spiritual masters.

The Origins of Tibetan Buddhism

The history of Buddhism in Tibet begins in 641 CE when King Songtsen Gampo (died circa 650) unified Tibet through military conquest. At the same time, he took two Buddhist wives, Princess Bhrikuti of Nepal and Princess Wen Cheng of China.

One thousand years later, in 1642, the Fifth Dalai Lama became the temporal and spiritual leader of the Tibetan people. In those thousand years, Tibetan Buddhism developed its unique characteristics and also split into six major schools. The largest and most prominent of these are Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug.

Vajrayana and Tantra

Vajrayana, the "diamond vehicle," is a school of Buddhism that originated in India in the middle of the first millennium CE. Vajrayana is built on the foundation of Mahayana philosophy and doctrines. It is distinguished by the use of esoteric rituals and other practices, especially tantra.

Tantra includes many different practices, but it is chiefly known as a means to enlightenment through identity with tantric deities. Tibetan deities are best understood as archetypes representing the tantric practitioner's own deepest nature. Through tantra yoga, one realizes the self as an enlightened being.

The Dalai Lama and Other Tulkus

A tulku is a person who is recognized to be the reincarnation of someone who is deceased. The practice of recognizing tulkus is unique to Tibetan Buddhism. Through the centuries, the many lineages of tulkus have become important to maintaining the integrity of monastic institutions and teachings.

The first recognized tulku was the second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi (1204 to 1283). The current Karmapa and head of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, is the 17th. He was born in 1985.

The best known tulku is, of course, His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is the 14th and he was born in 1935.

It is commonly believed that the Mongol leader Altan Khan originated the title Dalai Lama, meaning "Ocean of Wisdom," in 1578. The title was given to Sonam Gyatso (1543 to 1588), the third head lama of the Gelug school. Since Sonam Gyatso was the third head of the school, he became the 3rd Dalai Lama. The first two Dalai Lamas received the title posthumously.

It was the 5th Dalai Lama, Lobsang Gyatso (1617 to 1682), who first became the head of all Tibetan Buddhism. The "Great Fifth" formed a military alliance with the Mongol leader Gushri Khan.

When two other Mongol chiefs and the ruler of Kang—an ancient kingdom of central Asia—invaded Tibet, Gushri Khan routed them and declared himself king of Tibet. In 1642, Gushri Khan recognized the 5th Dalai Lama as the spiritual and temporal leader of Tibet.

The succeeding Dalai Lamas and their regents remained the chief administrators of Tibet until the invasion of Tibet by China in 1950 and the exile of the 14th Dalai Lama in 1959.

The Chinese Occupation of Tibet

China invaded Tibet, then an independent nation, and annexed it in 1950. His Holiness the Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959.

The government of China tightly controls Buddhism in Tibet. Monasteries have been allowed to function mostly as tourist attractions. The Tibetan people also feel they are becoming second-class citizens in their own country.

Tensions came to a head in March 2008, resulting in several days of rioting. By April, Tibet was effectively closed to the outside world. It was only partially reopened in June 2008 after the Olympic torch passed through without incident and the Chinese government said this proved Tibet was 'safe.'

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O'Brien, Barbara. "An Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism." Learn Religions, Apr. 5, 2023, O'Brien, Barbara. (2023, April 5). An Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. Retrieved from O'Brien, Barbara. "An Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism." Learn Religions. (accessed May 30, 2023).