TIBETAN
BUDDHISM

ABOUT BUDDHISM

Buddhism is one of the largest religions, often called a philosophy rather than a religion, with many texts written by ancient lamas describing the principles, philosophy, and studying techniques. Although it is impossible to cover Buddhism in all its complexity in short, in this article you will find the main concepts of Buddhism, information about the key figures of Tibetan Buddhism, different traditions, and schools. 

Buddhism emerged in India in about 500 BC and quickly spread to the neighboring countries. Nowadays over 500 million people around the world are Buddhists. Indian Buddhism also spread in Tibet, where it evolved greatly. Many of the profound works on Buddhist philosophy were written in Tibet by Tibetan lamas, shaping the religion as we now know as Tibetan Buddhism. 

IN THIS ARTICLE

Click on the section to navigate to it:

Buddhist traditions

Unlike other main religions, Buddhism doesn’t have one single source of its philosophy. Instead, a large corpus of texts was written by profound lamas. Buddhism evolved and it is currently presented by three main traditions: Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana.

Hinayana

Present Buddha Statue in temple in Thailand
Present Buddha Statue in the temple in Thailand

Also called the Lesser Vehicle. Hinayana tradition strictly follows Buddha teachings. The central idea is individual liberation. Emphasis is on leading a moral lifestyle, doing virtuous deeds, and avoiding non-virtuous, refraining from actions or speech that can cause harm. Leading this lifestyle helps achieve individual liberation, when the person exits samsara, the cycle of rebirth, aging, and dying.
Hinayana Buddhism is widespread in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.

Mahayana

Also called the Greater Vehicle. The school evolved from the Hinayana in the 1st century. The emphasis is on the morality of Bodhisattvas – dedicating life to helping others. According to Mahayana, it is not enough to seek individual liberation, when there is still so much suffering in the world. The person should not be selfish and instead, think more about others. Compassion towards others gives a purpose to our lives. The intention to reach enlightenment to help others is called Bodhichitta.
Mahayana Buddhism is popular in China and Tibet, Korea, and Japan.

Vajrayana

Vajrayana or the “Diamond Vehicle” is based on Mahayana tradition, and incorporates tantric tradition. The diamond in its name stands for the clear vision and its strength. Vajrayana includes special techniques to develop a state of mind that can more efficiently help others, going beyond the limitations of the human mind. 

THE MAIN PRINCIPLES AND CONCEPTS OF TIBETAN BUDDHISM

Buddhism evolved from the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, the historical figure known as Buddha. He renounced the comfortable life of a prince and spent years meditating in a search of a true path. Once he realized it, he reached enlightenment. Thus, the name of Buddha or awakened.

In a nutshell, Buddhism teaches us to follow the example of Buddha as all sentient beings can reach enlightenment and become Buddhas, as we all have “Buddha nature” within us. 

The teaching begins with an explanation of the 4 noble truths. Once we understand the 4 noble truths, Buddha offers us an 8 step path to enlightenment. 

It is also useful to understand concepts of the wheel of dharma, karma, wheel of life, as well as virtues and non-virtues, and interdependence. We will cover these concepts in more depth below. 

THE WHEEL OF DHARMA

Two listening deer and the wheel of Dharma Jokhang Temple
Two listening deer and the wheel of Dharma on top of Jokhang Temple

The Wheel of Dharma also called dharmachakra is the main symbol of Tibetan Buddhism, and one of the eight auspicious symbols of Buddhism. Its round shape represents the perfection of dharma.

There might be a different number of spokes representing various concepts. Most commonly seen in Tibet is the Wheel of Dharma with 8 spokes representing the Eight-Fold Path (see below for details).

It is said that Buddha turned the Wheen of Dharma three times. On the first turn of the wheel, he gave a teaching about the 4 Noble Truths. The second turn of the wheel includes teachings about emptiness, one of the principal concepts of Buddhism. The third turn of the wheel includes teachings about Buddha-nature and some profound meditation techniques.

4 noble truths

Buddha giving the first lecture to his 5 disciples
Buddha giving the first lecture to his 5 disciples (Kopan Monastery, Kathmandu)

1. Suffering

Buddha taught that all existence is suffering, and every rebirth brings suffering. First, there is suffering in daily life events, such as disease or mental pain. In addition, there is a suffering of change, when even pleasant moments cannot satisfy a person for a long time. Finally, there is suffering caused by previous karma called pervasive conditioning. 

2. The sources of suffering

There are 2 sources of suffering:

  • Afflictive or counterproductive emotions, such as hatred, jealousy, lust, fear. 
  • Contaminated karma. The actions in previous lives and past actions of the present life form karma. Karma forms certain predispositions of mind.

 3. Cessation of suffering

Nirvana or cessation of delusion, desire, envy, and attachment. Ending the cycle of rebirths (samsara, explained in more detail below) is a goal for Buddhists. You need to overcome ignorance towards the nature of people and objects.

4. True paths

Buddhism offers three essential parts of practicing: leading a moral life, practicing concentrated (single-pointed) meditation, and acquiring wisdom. Buddha taught it in a simple and clear manner to make it very practical for all followers. There is an 8-step path to enlightenment outlining the process.

8-step path to enlightenment

Travelers visiting Phuntsok Ling monastery in Tibet
Two listening deer and the wheel of Dharma on top of Jokhang Temple

Buddhist practitioners should follow the following steps to accumulate good merit. This path will eventually lead to nirvana.

The Noble Eightfold path is represented in a Wheel of Dharma with eight spokes on it that stand for the steps.

The Noble Eightfold Path:

  1. Right Understanding
  2. Right Thought 
  3. Right Speech 
  4. Right Action 
  5. Right Livelihood 
  6. Right Effort 
  7. Right Mindfulness 
  8. Right Concentration

KARMA

According to Buddhism, each thought or act has consequences. Only deliberate actions done through thought, speech, or body (see more about 10 virtues and non- virtues below) are important, as well as intent.  

Karma accumulates from current and previous lives. Karma determines the next rebirth and movement within the Wheel of Life.

NIRVANA

The third Noble Truth that Buddha taught is about the cessation of suffering. Nirvana means exiting the cycle of rebirth, leaving the Wheel of Life, and ending the suffering. Once you eliminate the three great poisons: desire, hatred, and ignorance, you can attain a nirvana state. 

Nirvana is not an equivalent of heaven, as it is not a place, but a state of bliss without any suffering. Additionally, Buddha realized Nirvana during his lifetime, when he reached enlightenment. He continued living after that to never be reborn after his death.

Wheel of life/ Samsara

The wheel of life painting at the entrance to the monastery
The wheel of life painting at the entrance to the monastery

Very often you can see a painted wheel of life by the entrance of temples and monasteries in Tibet. Upon entering the temple, visitors can see a representation of the world. 

The Wheel of Life depicts the god of death Yamantaka holding the wheel in his mouth. At the center of the wheel, you can see a pig, a rooster, and a snake representing ignorance, desire, and attachment respectively. They are the root causes of the cycle of rebirth. 

Around them are the six realms. The sentient beings are reborn within these six realms depending on accumulated karma. Buddha is depicted outside of the wheel since he already achieved nirvana and exited this cycle of rebirths. All of these realms are not the final stage. Once the good or bad karma runs out, the being of any of the realms dies and is reborn again. That gives a new chance even for those in lower realms.

3 higher realms:

Realm of gods(Deva)
Although it is the highest realm, it is not an ideal place for future lives. As gods lead happy and relaxed lives, they are not focusing on actions to exit Samsara. If during their long life as a god they deplete all good karma, they can be reborn in one of the lower realms.

Realm of demigods(Asura)
Demigods are jealous of gods and that depletes good karma and accumulates bad karma that can lead to rebirth in a lower realm.

Realm of humans(Manusya)
There are many sufferings in human life, such as birth, physical suffering, aging, and death. However, it is the best realm to practice dharma. Humans are not distracted neither by pleasures nor by continuous suffering as in lower realms.

3 LOWER realms:

Realm of animals(Tiryagyoni)
Animals live in ignorance, they follow instincts, fight and eat one another. They try to avoid discomfort and their aim is to be comfortable.

Realm of hungry ghosts(Preta)
Karma of greed, jealousy, and attachment leads to rebirth in a hungry ghost realm. Hungry Ghosts are constantly hungry and thirsty. They have huge empty stomachs and a thin neck that doesn’t let anything go through. When they try to eat, food burns and turns to ashes in their mouths.

Realm of hell(Naraka)
Karma of evil deeds, such as theft or lying leads to rebirth in a hell realm. Hell beings suffer tremendously for eons of time. There are 18 different types of hell, depending on misconduct. Each hell has various torments. There are hot hells, extremely cold hells, and others.

10 VIRTUES AND 10 NON-VIRTUES

Tibetan man rotating prayer wheels walking kora around Potala Palace
Tibetan man spinning a prayer wheel

10 VIRTUES

Physical or Body(3): Protect Life, Give Generously, Maintain One’s Discipline
Verbal or Speech(4): Speak Honestly, Reconcile, Speak Pleasantly, Speak Meaningfully
Mental or Mind(3): Generosity, Loving Kindness, Correct View of Reality

10 NON-VIRTUES

Physical(3): killing, stealing, sexual misconduct
Verbal(4): lying, divisive talk, harsh speech, and senseless chatter
Mental(3): covetousness, harmful intent, wrong views
Mental awareness is extremely important, as you must have the right motivation for all your actions.

BARDO

Sakya monastery murals depicting scenes about Bardo - after death
Murals depicting scenes about Bardo – state after death

In Tibetan Bardo means “Intermediate State“, it is a state between the lives. While in Bardo, the mind is in the subtle state, it is called the mind of the clear light.
In Tibet, after the person dies, relatives invite monks to read about Bardo to the deceased to prepare him for the journey.
You can read about Bardo in great detail in a book named: Tibetan book of living and dying” translated in English.

Interdependence

Statue of Shakyamuni Buddha in Gyantse monastery
Statue of Shakyamuni Buddha in Gyantse monastery

“When our understanding of interdependence has moved from head to heart and into action, our lives become fully effective and meaningful.”

— Ogyen Trinley Dorje, The 17th Karmapa

This is one of the central concepts in Tibetan Buddhism. This concept is also called Dependent Origination. No phenomenon or living being exists by itself. Instead, we are all dependent on each other, as well as events and phenomena have some cause. That’s why by helping other sentient beings to become happy and achieve enlightenment, we can make the entire world a better place. 


MEDITATION

Meditation cave in Rongbuk monastery
Meditation cave in Rongbuk monastery

The foundation of Buddhism is the practice of morality (covered in the Eightfold Path and 10 Virtues). The next level is the training of concentration or meditation. There are two types of meditation in Tibetan Buddhism: single-pointed meditation (shamatha) and analytical (vipassana). Single-pointed meditation refers to techniques helping to stay in a state of a calm mind. The practices of analytical meditation help practitioners engage with an object of meditation and focus on its deeper analysis.

Siddhartha Gautama/ Shakyamuni Buddha/ Present Buddha

Shakyamuni Buddha Mural on the wall of Jokhang Temple
Shakyamuni Buddha Mural on the wall of Jokhang Temple

The Buddhist religion developed from the teachings of historical figure Siddhartha Gautama. Siddhartha was born in Lumbini in present-day Nepal in the 5th century BC. He belonged to the Shakya clan and lived in Northern India. 

Jowo Shakyamuni Buddha statue in Jokhang Temple
Statue of Present Buddha in Jokhang temple depicting him at the age of 12

Born as a prince, young Siddhartha was sheltered from all problems of the world by his family. He lived happily until one day he saw the suffering of people: aging, sickness, and death. It affected him so much that he left his family, wife, and son, and dedicated his life to searching for a solution. 

At that time, Brahmanism was the dominant religion in India. First, Siddhartha joined Brahman ascets and practiced fasting and meditation. However, he soon realized that this way was too extreme. 

After that, Siddhartha sat down for a long meditation, when finally, at the age of 35, under the tree in Bodhgaya, he understood the principles of life, suffering and death, and reached enlightenment. He discovered the “Middle Way”, moderation instead of strict asceticism or indulgence. 

The name Buddha means the Awakened One. Another name of the Present Buddha is Shakyamuni, derived from his historical clan – Sakya Thukpa.

Shortly after the enlightenment, he gave his first sermon in the Deer Park in Sarnath. During his first teaching, he is said to turn the Wheel of Dharma for the first time. Buddha was teaching the new philosophy for about 45 years, and soon had a large following of both monastic and laypeople. 

Buddha died at the age of 80.

Buddhist scriptures

Page from an old scripture displayed in Gyantse monastery
Page from an old scripture displayed in Gyantse monastery

There is no single source of Buddhist teachings. Instead, there is a large corpus of scriptures written by Lamas throughout the centuries and translated to many languages.

However, it is impossible to learn Buddhism from scriptures only. One of the important characteristics of Buddhist texts is using elaborate metaphors and words summarizing complex meanings. The teacher has to explain many of the terms in the religious texts. The Buddhist teachings are transmitted from Teacher to disciples and Tibetan Buddhism has carefully preserved lineages. Thus, there 3 important aspects or the “Three Jewels” of Buddhism:

  1. Buddha: enlightened or awakened being, the teacher. That includes the story of Buddha’s life and the path to enlightenment.
  2. Dharma: the Teachings. That concept includes Buddha’s teachings about fundamental truths and Buddhist scriptures developed by enlightened masters over the centuries.
  3. Sangha: monastic community or more broadly the community of Buddhist practitioners.

Oral Tradition

Monks getting ready for chanting in the main court yard of Tashi Lhunpo
Monks preparing for chanting in the main courtyard of Tashi Lhunpo monastery, Shigatse, Tibet

At first, Buddhist teachings were transmitted orally, and the texts were memorized and regularly recited. After enlightenment, Buddha gave his first sermon and had been teaching for 45 years until the end of his life. Buddha was giving teachings to his disciples (the Arhats) and to many people following him. That’s how Buddhism was spreading in the early days. Consequently, the concept of a teacher and his disciples is very important in Buddhism. 

After the Buddha’s death, monks gathered to recite Buddha’s teachings. They recollected both religious teachings as well as the rules for the monastic community. They also added their analyses of the teachings. Monks practiced group recitings that assured the accuracy of preserved teachings. Up to this day, monks gather to recite or chant some of the teachings.

Early Buddhist Texts

Pali canon is the first known written Buddhist corpus of texts. It comes from Sri Lanka and dates to the 1 century BC. It consists of texts of Theravada Buddhism and primarily narrates the teachings of Buddha and description of his life. The language of the manuscript is Pali, an Indo-Aryan language in India. It consists of three parts or three “baskets” (‘Tipitaka’): the words of Buddha, the rules for the monastic community, and the analysis by the scholars. 

Other early Buddhist texts include Chinese Agamas similar in structure and the content to the Pali canon with some variation in details, and manuscripts from Afghanistan and Pakistan. The important Sanscrit Buddhist text (the “Sanskrit Canon”) was written in about 1 century CE. Although the original manuscript did not survive as a full text, there are several translations, including Tibetan translation.

The Buddhist scriptures known as Gandharan Scrolls (about 1 century CE) is the first work with ‘Perfection of Wisdom’ teaching that explains the concept of ‘emptiness’ essential for Mahayana Buddhism. 

Tibetan Buddhist canon: Kangyur and Tengyur

Collection of Buddhist scriptures
Buddhist scriptures in Tibetan monastery

Tibetan scriptures are one of the primary canons of Buddhist Texts. The first Sanskrit texts were brought to Tibet in the 7th century. More work on translations continued in the 8th and 9th centuries. These translated works were kept in several monasteries. 

In the 14th – 15th centuries works were compiled, classified, and organized. Shalu Monastery was one of the centers of this work. The great master Butön contributed to the compilation of Kangyur and Tengyur.

Although there are many different editions of Kangyur and Tengyur issued in different regions throughout the centuries, their core texts remain the same.

KANGYUR

Ani Tsamkhong Nunnery nuns reading scriptures
Nuns reading scriptures in Ani Tsamkhong Nunnery in Lhasa

Kangyur or Kanjur is the Translation of the Word of Buddha. It typically has texts in 108 volumes, but some editions had between 100 and 120 volumes. It consists of the teachings of the Buddha himself and was translated mainly from Sanskrit. The great quality of translations allows us to reconstruct original texts from the early period of Buddhism in India. 

Kangyur consists of the Vinaya or monastic code, Sutra or teachings of Buddha, and Abhidharma or analytical scholastic work on Buddhism (all three terms come from Sanskrit).

TENGYUR

Tengyur or Tenjur is the Commentaries or Translation of the Treatises. It consists of 225 volumes of texts, and some editions had up to 250 volumes. Tengyur consists of translated into Tibetan teachings of Indian masters giving commentaries on Buddha’s teachings and explaining elaborate Buddhist principles and concepts. It also includes “Jataka Tales” about Buddha’s previous lives. Additionally, it includes texts about grammar, medicine, crafts, and other ancillary works.

Where to see Buddhist texts

Collection of precious scriptures in Sakya monastery in Tibet
Collection of scriptures in Sakya Monastery

The largest library in Tibet recently discovered in Sakya monastery consists of over 84,000 Buddhist scriptures. 

You can see Buddhist texts on display in many other monasteries as well as Drepung monastery, Sera monastery, Palchoe monastery, and many others. 

There are printing presses in some monasteries where new scripts are made following ancient technology. You can see the printing process and even buy Buddhist texts in Tibetan in Sera and Drepung monasteries in Lhasa.

History of Tibetan Buddhism

According to the legends, the first religious scriptures fell on the roof of Yumbulagang in Tibet in the 5th century. However, at that time, no one could read and understand them. It wasn’t until king Songtsen Gampo who ruled Tibet in the 7th century, that these texts were finally discovered. Tibetan Buddhism starts spreading in Tibet and the time known as the period of Religious Kings begins.

Songtsen Gampo (7th century)

Meditation cave in Pabongka
Statue of King Songtsen Gampo in his meditation cave in Pabongka

Songtsen Gampo played one of the key roles in establishing Buddhism in Tibet, and nowadays all Tibetan people know him as a religious king of Tibet. 

He initiated the construction of the first temples in Tibet, including Jokhang Temple, Ramoche Temple, and Tradruk Temple

Songtsen Gampo also tried to secure peace with neighbors. To do it, he married Chinese and Nepalese princesses. As part of the dowry, both of the princesses brought important Buddhist statues, religious texts, and other religious objects to Tibet. 

Chinese princess Wenchen brought to Tibet the statue of Jowo Shakyamuni depicting 12 years old Buddha and Nepali princess Brikuti brought the statue of Jowo Mikyo Dorje to Tibet, which is when Buddha is 8 years old statue. Both statues were created during the lifetime of Shakyamuni Buddha and were consecrated by him. These two statues are some of the most important Buddha statues in the world. You can see these statues in the Jokhang Temple and Ramoche Temple in Lhasa.

Trison Detsen (8th century)

View of Samye monastery from Hepo Ri
Samye Monastery complex

King Trison Detsen is the great-grandson of Songtsen Gampo. 

In the 8th century, Tibetan king Trison Detsen decided to build a Buddhist monastery in Tibet. However, local demons were interrupting the construction. That’s why the king invited Indian master Padma Sambhava to Tibet. Padma Sambhava or Guru Rinpoche in Tibetan subdued the demons on the Hepo Ri hill and helped establish Samye monastery, the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet. 

Samye is one of the most beautiful monastery complexes in Tibet. If you climb up the Hepo Ri hill nearby, you will see that the complex is shaped in a form of a mandala, with the main temple in the center and four stupas on the sides.

Langtharma (10th century)

There was a decline in Buddhism with king Langtharma in the 10th century. At the same time, Langtharma was the last king of the unified Tibet. The 9th and 10th centuries are sometimes called an Era of fragmentation when regional rulers came to power and took control over different provinces. 

After the reign of king Langtharma in the 10th century, Tibet split into many small provinces each with a different ruler, such as local landlords or kings.

The revival of Tibetan Buddhism (10 – 12 centuries)

This period is known as the Second Diffusion of Tibetan Buddhism

During the 10-12 centuries Buddhism continued spreading in Tibet. Many important teachers came from India helping to establish Buddhist centers in Central, Southern, and Western Tibet.

Atisha and Rinchen Zangpo

Tsaparang, The Ruins Of The Ancient Capital Of Guge Kingdom And
The ancient Guge Kingdom in Western Tibet

In 1042 Indian Master Atisha arrived in Tibet. His student Rinchen Zangpo translated many Sanskrit Buddhist texts in Tibetan and established a number of important monasteries in the Guge Kingdom in Western Tibet. You can still visit some of these monasteries in Western Tibet. There is still an active Tholing monastery and some structures survived of the Tsaparang.

Another disciple of Atisha, Dromtonpa, founded the Kadampa school of Tibetan Buddhism. Later, Gelugpa school would evolve from it.

Sakya lineage

Statues of three founders of Sakyapa school of Tibetan Buddhism in Sakya monastery
Statues of three founders of Sakyapa school of Tibetan Buddhism

Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism formed in the 11th century. Kön Könchog Gyelpo (1034-1102) founded Sakya monastery in 1073. You can visit this spectacular monastery only about an hour away from Shigatse. 

The emphasis of Sakya school was on the scholarly approach of learning Buddhism. Unlike in other schools of Tibetan Buddhism, the Sakya lineage of lamas is hereditary.

Tilopa, Naropa, Milarepa

Statues of founders of Kagyu sect of Buddhism in Tsurpu
Statues of founders of Kagyu: Marpa, Milarepa, and Gampopa in Tsurpu Monastery

Kagyu, another influential school of Tibetan Buddhism, formed at that time. It started with the Indian master Tilopa (988–1069), Marpa, and his disciple Naropa (who died approximately in 1040) and spread with Milarepa (11th century). The emphasis of Kagyu is on extensive meditation practices, including some yoga techniques. Practitioners of Kague school often stay in long meditation retreats in caves.

The most famous places associated with Milarepa are scattered around Mount Kailash, where he spent a lot of time meditating. The first Kagyu monastery is Tsurphu, founded in 1187.

Mongol Invasion (13th century)

Mongols came to Tibet in 1240. They were already familiar with Buddhism, as it was spreading from Tibet to the neighboring Mongol empire. Mongols included Tibet in the Mongol Empire and appointed Sakya Paṇḍita to rule Central Tibet. He could control local and religious affairs. Tibetan Buddhism became a state religion of the Mongol Empire and gained prominence in China.

Gelugpa School (14th – 17th centuries)

Statues of Tsongkhapa and his two disciples in Sera monastery
Statues of Tsongkhapa and his two disciples in Sera monastery

With the decline of Mongol influence, prominent families in Tibet were coming to power. It was a peaceful time, and Tibetan culture, art, and religion were flourishing.  

Je Tsongkhapa (1357–1419) founded the Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism. Monks of this order wear yellow hats, thus another name of the school is Yellow Hat. Within the next 2 centuries and until the present day, Gelug will become the most widespread and influential school of Buddhism.

5th Dalai Lama (1617–1682)

View on iconic Potala Palace in Lhasa
Potala Palace in Lhasa

Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso is now known as the Fifth Dalai Lama or The Great Fifth. He unified Tibet, putting an end to conflicts within the country, and became both spiritual and political leader of Tibet.

He moved the capital back to Lhasa, and in 1642 the Fifth Dalai Lama established the Tibetan Government Ganden Phodrang. After that, Dalai Lamas ruled Tibet until the middle of the 20th century.

In 1645 he initiated the construction of Potala Palace in Lhasa. Together with the new government, he moved into the White Palace within the Potala Palace complex.

RIME MOVEMENT (19TH CENTURY)

In Tibet, different schools of Buddhism existed simultaneously. It was very common practice to receive teachings from masters of different schools. However, when Gelug school started gaining its popularity, many smaller orders lost their significance.

The Rime movement arose in response to the Gelug school being the dominant school in Tibet and having political power along with religion. Previously important Sakya, Kagyu, and Nyingma schools were losing their dominance. The Rime movement recognized the importance of different traditions, providing various views and styles.

Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo and Jamgön Kongtrül collected and preserved the teachings of these schools. Later, these printed works became very important for the survival of some smaller Buddhist traditions.

20-21st centuries

Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Woodstock, New York
Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Woodstock, New York

At the end of the 20th century, Tibetan Buddhism was rapidly spreading outwards with many temples, monasteries, and meditation centers opening in the Western countries. With easier transportation, Tibetan Lamas started traveling around the world and giving lectures to non-Tibetan communities. Many Tibetan Buddhist texts were translated to English and other languages. At the same time, the availability of teachings online allowed more people to learn about Tibetan Buddhism and start practicing it.

THE MAIN FIGURES OF TIBETAN BUDDHISM

Shakyamuni Buddha / Present Buddha

Shakyamuni Buddha statue in Sakya monastery, Tibet
Shakyamuni Buddha statue in Sakya monastery, Tibet

Historical or Shakyamuni Buddha is the central figure in Buddhism of Hinayana tradition. In Tibetan Buddhism, Shakyamuni is one of the main figures, although not the only one. In Tibetan tradition, there are Buddhas of Past, Present, and Future.

The depiction of Shakyamuni Buddha has a number of distinct characteristics. The main ones: long ear lobes from wearing heavy jewelry when he was a prince. Buddha has a hair knot, and he is touching the ground with his right hand, the gesture symbolizing the moment of enlightenment.

Padma Sambhava/ Guru Rinpoche

Statue of Padma Sambhava (Guru Rinpoche) in Nunnery in Tibet
Statue of Padma Sambhava in Nunnery in Tibet

The Indian master is also known as Lotus Buddha, and Tibetans call him Guru Rinpoche. Undoubtedly, he is the most prominent figure in Tibetan Buddhism. In the 8th century, the Tibetan king Trisong Detsen invited Padma Sambhava to Tibet. He helped to construct Samye, the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet. Since that time, Samye remains one of the most important centers of studying Buddhism. At the same time, he established the Nyingmapa order of Tibetan Buddhism.

santaraksita

Santaraksita (725–788) was an important figure during the reign of King Trisong Detsen. Together with Padma Sambhava he helped establish Samye, the first Buddhist Monastery in Tibet. Santaraksita became an abbot of Samye monastery. He is also a founder of the Nyingma, the first school of Tibetan Buddhism. 

ATISHA

Painting of Atisha
Atisha

Atisha was born in Pala Kingdom in India. Atisha studied Buddhism and other religious practices at that time, as well as art and music. Tibetan King of the Guge Kingdom Yeshe O invited Atisha to Tibet.

Atisha compiled Lam Rim about the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, a highly influential work that will later become a base for Lam Rim by Tsongkhapa. Later, he discovered Sanskrit Texts in the library of Samye monastery, which helpedto spread Buddhist teachings in Tibet.

His two main disciples Dromtonpa and Ngoglekpesherap helped to translate many Sanskrit texts into Tibetan.

Jetsun Milarepa

Statue of Jetsun Milarepa
Statue of Milarepa

Milarepa is the most famous Yogi in Tibet. He was a student of Marpa Lotsawa, another prominent figure in Tibetan Buddhism. Together they became founders of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism.

Milarepa was the first person to reach enlightenment within one lifetime. According to Kague practitioners, it is possible to reach enlightenment much faster, using specific methods of tantric yoga. While it might seem that Buddha also attained enlightenment within one lifetime, his karma of many previous lives led to it. Milarepa, on the other hand, took many bad actions in his early life and had to purify a lot of bad karma.

Milarepa stayed in solitary meditation retreats for many years. After that, he came to the realization of the true nature of things. As he continued his studies later, he reached enlightenment.

Tsongkhapa

Statue of Tsongkhapa in Kumbum Monastery in Xining
Statue of Tsongkhapa in Kumbum Monastery in Xining

Lama Tsongkhapa is one of the most influential figures in Tibet. He established the Gelug sect of Tibetan Buddhism and in 1409, founded the Ganden monastery about 45 km from Lhasa. He wrote Lam Rim Chen Mo, a comprehensive text on stages of the path to enlightenment, among many other works on Tibetan Buddhism.

His disciples continued spreading his teachings and founded important Gelug monasteries Sera and Drepung in Lhasa.

THE GREAT FIFTH DALAI LAMA

Lobsang Gyatso unified Tibet after centuries of conflicts and wars between small regions and reestablished Lhasa as a capital. He also became the first political and religious leader of Tibet.

He was born in a noble family in 1617. After he was recognized as the reincarnation of the 4th Dalai Lama, he took his monastic ordination at the Drepung Monastery in Lhasa. He received his lineage transmission from his tutor Lobsang Gyaltsen, the First Panchen Lama – the second most important Lama after the Dalai Lama. The Fifth Dalai Lama offered Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in Shigatse as a seat for all successive Panchen Lamas.

The 5th Dalai Lama was a great scholar and studied not only Gelug but also Nyingma and tantric traditions. During his lifetime, many monasteries were renovated and expanded. He also established Nechung Temple near the Drepung Monastery as a seat of the State Oracle.

In 1645, the Fifth Dalai Lama initiated the construction of Potala Palace that will become the government seat and a winter residence of all future Dalai Lamas’. The construction of the Palace was perceived as so important, that in order to complete it without interruptions, the death of the Fifth Dalai Lama was kept in secret for 12 years.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

Can I study Tibetan Buddhism in Tibet?

You are welcome to travel to Tibet, visit monasteries and learn history and information about the places you will visit. However, there are no programs to study Buddhism and you cannot stay in monasteries to learn from monks. Monks in Tibet sometimes give teachings to laypeople, but only in Tibetan.

How can I learn more about Tibetan Buddism?

It is not necessary to learn a lot about Buddhism to practice it. If you are still interested in learning more, there are many works that were translated from Tibetan into English and some other languages. You can study the scriptures and teachings of important Tibetan Lamas. One of the great sources of learning Tibetan Buddhism in depth is Lam Rim in 3 volumes by Lama Tsongkhapa. Remember, that learning all aspects of Buddhism in depth is possible only with a teacher and spiritual community.

HOW TO VISIT TIBET

MOST POPULAR TOURS IN TIBET

CONTACT US FOR TRAVEL DETAILS

RECENT BLOG POSTS ABOUT TRAVELING IN TIBET

Tibet reopening 2021

TIBET REOPENING 2021-2022

TIBET TRAVEL UPDATES IN 2021-2022 After more than a year of being closed to all foreign visitors, Tibet is finally reopening for foreign visitors currently living in China. There are additional requirements for travelers in 2022. Below, you will find full list of documents you need to visit Tibet. As we know, covid pandemic changed…
Meditation Places in Tibet

The Best Meditation Places in Tibet

In this article, we explore the best meditation places in Tibet. Tibetan Buddhist monks have been practicing meditation for centuries. Meditation is an essential part of studying Tibetan Buddhism. At the same time, it is also beneficial for anyone. No wonder meditation is becoming increasingly more popular as people experience it’s positive effects on everyday…
Stupas of The Dira Puk Monastery by the Kailash Mountain in Tibet

Prepare to Visit Mount Kailash – Complete Guide

PREPARE FOR MOUNT KAILASH TOUR In this article we will cover everything you need to know to prepare for Mount Kailash trek, known as kora in Buddhism and yatra/parikrama in Hinduism. You will find information about required documents, when is the best time to visit, how to travel to Mount Kailash from Tibet, Nepal and…
Northern ascent to Mount Everest in Tibet

Mount Everest is Closed for Spring 2020 Climbing Season

UPDATE: Nepal will reopen Himalayan Mountains including Everest for Fall season in 2020. On July 30th Nepal started issuing climbing permits. Tibetan side remains closed for all foreign climbers. In 2021 only domestic tourists were visiting Everest from Tibetan side. We post all updates in travel regulations on Tibet side in the following article: With…