Tibetan Buddhism

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Tibetan Buddhism (藏传佛教) is the school of Buddhism predicated on scriptures that have been translated into Tibetan. Because its monks are known as lamas in the Tibetan language, Tibetan Buddhism is also called "Lamaism."

Tibetan Buddhism

The development of Tibetan Buddhism falls into two stages. The first stage lasted for approximately 200 years from the mid-seventh century to the mid-ninth century; the second stage has continued to this day since the mid-tenth century.

Prior to the seventh century, the Tibetans had no written language. In the early seventh century, under the rule of the wise and far-sighted king Songtsan Gampo, Tibet began to grow in strength by gradually expanding its territory and unifying the tribes on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. To create a written language so that he could issue orders and exchange documents with neighboring countries, he selected a group of noble house children and sent them to study in Kashmir. Among these was Thonmi Sambhota, who excelled in linguistic studies and returned home to become the inventor of a grammar and written language for Tibet, thereby furnishing favorable conditions for the translation and dissemination of Buddhist literature.

The invention of this written language encouraged Songtsan Gampo to step up the introduction of Buddhism into Tibet. Under his leadership, translators teamed up to work on the scriptures, and the sculptures of the Buddha and other deities in the Buddhist pantheon were enshrined for local worshipers. To show goodwill to neighboring countries, he married Princess Bhrkuti of Nepal in the West and Princess Wencheng of the Tang Dynasty to the East. Both brides brought their homelands' versions of Buddhist statues with them when they arrived in Lhasa. Construction of temples thus proceeded in Tibet for these statues. Songtsan Gampo also formulated laws according to the principles of Buddhism, and ushered Tibet into civilized society.

Several generations after the death of Songtsan Gampo, Buddhism entered another stage of robust growth under the rule of Tride Tsugtan (r. 704-755), who married Princess Jincheng of the Tang Dynasty and sent people to study Buddhism in the interior of China. They eventually returned with large numbers of Buddhist scriptures. Development of Buddhism in Tibet, however, was not smooth sailing. It suffered setbacks at the hands of the stubborn followers of an indigenous religion, Bon. It was only after Tride Tsugtan's son, Trisung Detsan (reigned 755-797), took the throne that Tibetan Buddhism revived. During the 762-766 period, the renowned Samye Monastery was built.

In 767, an Indian delegation of 12 bhiksus (mendicants) arrived in Tibet and held the first summons ceremony to introduce commandments in the Buddhist history of Tibet. Under the reign of Trisung Detsan, large numbers of Indian sutras were translated into Tibetan, and Tibetan Buddhism reached its zenith during this stage of development. It was also during this period that the compilation of the Tripitaka was completed, with many Indian and Chinese scholars joining their Tibetan counterparts in the translation of this colossal Buddhist work. Thanks to their concerted efforts they left a precious cultural legacy for the Tibetan people.

In 841, the king of Tibet, Lang Darma (?-842), masterminded a purge of Buddhists, incurring tremendous losses to the religion. As a result, for a little more than a century Buddhist monks virtually disappeared from the land of Tibet – they took refuge in the safety of the Kham region. The persecution of Buddhism ended in the early tenth century, when Tibetans began to arrive in Kham to learn the doctrines, and Tibetan Buddhism staged a slow comeback that marked the beginning of its second stage of development.

In 1042, the Tibetans invited Mahanayaka Atisa (982-1054) from India to preach on Buddhism. Atisa, translated as "Shusheng" in Chinese, was actually not the real name of the man who was the second of three brothers in the royal family of a tiny Indian kingdom. It was an honorary title bestowed on him by a king of Ngari. Translation and preaching were the tasks of Atisa's mission to Tibet, where he was only supposed to stay three years but remained there after the road of return to India was blocked by war in the border region of Nepal. In 1046, he settled in Nyetang, where he died at the age of 72. During his lifetime, Atisa translated more than a hundred Buddhist writings, which greatly replenished the literature of Tibetan Buddhism. As an important figure in the second stage of development of Tibetan Buddhism, his academic ideas had a far-reaching influence on the later development of Lamaism.

During the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), Emperor Kublai Khan appointed the celebrated Lama Phags-pa of Tibet as an imperial patriarch and entrusted him with the task of creating a written form for the Mongolian language. As a result, Buddhism at that time reached its acme in Tibet, and Tibetan Buddhism spread throughout Mongolia.

The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) saw the emergence of another famous personage in Tibetan Buddhism. He was none other than Tsong-kha-pa, a native of Qinghai who began studying Buddhism in Lhasa after he was ordained as a monk. He rose to fame, wrote copiously, and went all out in boosting Tibetan Buddhism, acquiring quite a following and eventually emerging as the guru of Lamaism in its later stage of development. He revamped the religious system of Tibet so as to cope with rampant corruption and safeguard the integrity of Buddhism. He eventually convened a grand assembly and established the Gelupa sect, or Yellow Hat sect, so named because its members wear yellow hats. The Gelupa is the dominant sect of Tibetan Buddhism, having the largest number of followers and most lamaseries in Tibet.

During the course of five centuries of development after Buddhism first spread into Tibet in the eighth century, Tibetan Buddhism had branched into 11 sects: Bka'-gdems-pa, Bka'-brayud-pa, Sa-skya-pa, Jo-nang-pa, Shi-byed-pa, Zhi-byed-pa, Ko-tra-pa, Shangs-pa Bka’-brgyud-pa, Sha-lu-pa, Rnying-mama-pa, and Dge-lugs-pa (Gelupa).

The Tripitaka of Tibetan Buddhism consists of two parts. The first part is Kanjur, or The Section of the Buddha, which includes the holy words of the Buddha and the commandments and secret incantations he formulated. The second part is Bstang'gyur, or The Section of Ancestors, which is a collection of eulogies to Tibetan kings, and enunciations of sutras and incantations. Totaling more than 4,000 volumes, the Tibetan Tripitaka is a component part of the world's cultural heritage.

Two persons have figured prominently among the religious leaders of Tibetan Buddhism. These are the Panchen Lama and the Dalai Lama. Both have been regarded as reincarnations of Tsong-kha-pa's two disciples. Tsong-kha-pa was the reformist leader of Tibetan Buddhism. The current Panchen is the 11th reincarnate, and the current Dalai is the 14th.

The first Panchen Lama was Khedrub Je (1385-1438) born in the village of Chewo in Latu Toshong in Tsang (the part of Tibet that has Xigaze as its chief city). He became a novice and began learning the doctrines while a child. At 18, he showed his talent in writing. At 23, he became a disciple of Tsong-kha-pa. In 1431, he became the abbot of the Ganden Monastery. In 1438, he died at the age of 54, ending his life as a famed Buddhist scholar with a wealth of writings to his credit. The later generations of the Panchen Lama were all said to be his reincarnates. The current 11th Penchen Lama is still a young boy.

The first Dalai Lama was Gedun Truppa (1391-1474), born at the Shabtu Pasture near the Sakya Monastery in Tsang. The son of a poor family, he grazed cattle for other families as a young child. He began his monkhood at seven. At 25 he attended the lectures of Tsong-kha-pa. In 1426 he became a Lamaist preacher, and after he turned 40 he began to write. In 1447, he built the Tashilhunpo Monastery. In 1474, he died at the age of 84, going down in Tibetan history as a preeminent Buddhist scholar and author of many religious writings. It is said that the later generations of the Dalai Lama were all Gedun Truppa's reincarnates. The incumbent 14th Dalai went into exile in India during his 1959 rebellion in Tibet.


There are some 1,700 monasteries and nunneries of Tibetan Buddhism in the Tibet Autonomous Region, with 46,000 resident monks and nuns, 93 Living Buddhas and over 130,000 religious followers.

The prevailing sects of Tibetan Buddhism: Nyingma (known as the Red Sect), Sagya (known as Colorful Sect), Gagyu (known as the White Sect) and Gelug (known as the Yellow Sect). Of all the sects, Gelug, founded by Zongkapa after his religious reform in the early 15th century, is the most powerful. The two major Living Buddha systems, Dalai and Panchen, came from the Gelug Sect.

Through a prolonged period of cultural exchanges, Tibetan Buddhism is practiced mainly in China's Tibet as well as Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces, plus areas concentrated with such ethnic groups in China as the Mongolian, Tu, Yugur, Lhoba, Moinba, Naxi, Primi and Han. It has worshippers also in Bhutan, Nepal, Mongolia and Russia.

During the heyday of Tibetan Buddhism, each Tibetan family was required to provide at least one member to become a monk or nun. This is why Tibetan monks and nuns made up a quarter of the Tibetan population in the 16th century and thereafter. In 1951 when Tibet was peacefully liberated, there were 100,000 monks and nuns, or over 10 percent of the Tibetan population in Tibet. After the Democratic Reform in 1959, all monasteries went through reform. Tibetan people have since enjoyed freedom to be lamas or resume secular life.

Living Buddha Reincarnation

Tibetan Buddhism has many sects, which have introduced their own system for disciples to take over the teaching from their masters so as to safeguard their established interests and defend their own rule.

Garma Gagyu was the first among the various sects of Tibetan Buddhism to introduce the Living Buddha reincarnation system. In 1283, when Garma Baxi, an eminent monk with the Garma Gagyu Sect who had been bestowed with the title of Imperial Tutor by the Mongol Khan Mongo, was granted a gold-rimmed black hat as the badge of office on his deathbed, he expressed a wish to find a boy as his reincarnation to inherit the black hat. This was the beginning of the black-hat Living Buddha reincarnation system.

The Dalai Lama reincarnation system was introduced in the 16th century, and that for the Panchen Erdeni in 1713. The Qing court promulgated the 29-Article Ordinance for More Effective Governing of Tibet in 1793. Article 1 of the Ordinance prescribed the introduction of the system of drawing a lot from the gold urn to determine the reincarnated soul boy of a deceased Living Buddha. For this purpose, the Qing court had two gold urns made: one for the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Erdeni, which is still kept in the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa; and one for Grand Living Buddha and Hutogtu Living Buddha in Mongolia and Tibet, which is still kept in the Yonghegong Lamasery in Beijing.

In 1992, the State Council Bureau of Religious Affairs approved the succession of the 17th Karmapa Living Buddha. In 1995, the Tibet Autonomous Region, at the approval of the State Council, accomplished the seeking and confirmation of the 10th Panchen Lama's reincarnated soul boy and the conferment and enthronement of the 11th Panchen Lama.

More than 30 Living Buddhas have been determined as new Living Buddhas with the approval of the State Council and Tibet Autonomous Region government following the end of the Democratic Reform in 1959.

Bon Religion

In the 5th century BC, Prince Sinrao Mibo of the ancient state of Shangshung founded the Bon religion on the basis of an existing primitive religion unique to Shangshung. It conducted rituals mainly in the Montog area of Gar County primarily to pray for luck and for dispelling evil. It gradually spread to the area drained by the Yarlung Zangbo River, becoming a dominant religious force in the plateau.

When Buddhism spread to Tibet, priests of the Bon religion and Buddhist monks fought each other. For the sake of its own survival and development, Bon was forced to absorb, directly or indirectly, contents of Buddhism.

Tibet has 88 monasteries of the Bon religion. They include 55 in Qamdo, 23 in Nagqu, six in the Xigaze area, two in Nyingchi, one in Lhasa and one in Ngari.