History of Tibetan Buddhism

The first introduction of Buddhism to Tibet is known as the “first diffusion of the dharma”. It began in the 7th century, about the time when Tantra was beginning to manifest itself in the Indian Buddhist community. During the 7th century the Tibetan kings brought the Tibetan tribes to some kind of unified government. They began to expand their military influence out of central Tibet and into the rest of Asia.

As they did this, they came into contact with China and India. In both of these places they found quite sophisticated Buddhist cultures. These early Tibetan kings began to link themselves to the larger countries of Asia by beginning to adopt some of their religious practices. Buddhism was a central part of what they encountered in these places.

Songtsän Gampo and the Introduction of the Cult of the Buddha

According to the Tibetan chronicles, king Songtsän Gampo, who reigned roughly from 609 to 649, invited one of his two Buddhist wives to help him introduce the cult of the Buddha to Tibet. What this meant was to introduce a statue of the Buddha in Tibet and establish him as a focus of worship.

According to stories, the first attempts to build the temple in the capital city of Lhasa were unsuccessful. The carts that were carrying the Buddha’s statue fell to the swamps and were impossible for them to construct the temple the day they hoped to build it.

In a dream, the king was told that the land of Tibet laid on the body of a demoness, who had to be subdued before the cult of the Buddha could successfully be established. So, he ordered a series of temples to be build around the country. These temples were pinning down her knees, her elbows, her hips and her shoulders. Finally a temple was build in the center of the capital city to pin down her heart. This temple today is the most sacred in Tibet and is the focus of Buddhist pilgrimages.

The actions of Songtsän Gampo not only subdued the demoness but marked Tibet with the form of a Mandala, a Mandala that could be traced by pilgrims as they made their way from the fringes of the Tibetan plateau into this holy site in the center.

Trisong Detsen and the First Monastery

After the time of Songtsän Gampo, the next series of major events in Tibetan history occurred in the 8th century during the reign of another Buddhist king named Trisong Detsen. Trisong Detsen sponsored the construction of a monastery at Samye. This was the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet and obviously it marked a major shift in the relationship between Tibet and Buddhism.

The construction of the monastery required the help of the Tantric saint Padmasambhava, also known in Tibet as Guru Rinpoche or “precious teacher”. With his magic power, Padmasambhava subdued the demons that opposed the monastery’s construction. He has become the focus of tremendous story telling and myth making in Tibet.

King Trisong Detsen needed the help of another specialist as well. Padmasambhava was good at Tantric magic but he wasn’t necessarily a scholar. For the scholarly curriculum of his new monastery, king Trisong Detsen had to turn to one of the representatives of the Indian tradition whose name was Shantarakshita. He was actually a Madhyamaka philosopher of the Svātantrika branch. He helped introduce to Tibet that sophisticated monastic corriculum that we talked about in another article.

I think that you could say that these two figures represent the two faces of Tibetan Buddhism. A reverence for the power of a Tantric practitioner has always been important in Tibetan Buddhism. Tantra is a living force in Tibetan society and it manifests itself in a form of practice that is not unlike the practices associated with Padmasambhava. There also has been in Tibetan culture a deep reverence for the practice of Buddhist scholasticism as represented by Shantarakshita.

If you want to study philosophy in the way we discussed here, Tibetan Buddhism is the way to go. The scholarly tradition is still alive, active and flourishing in Tibetan monasteries.

The Definition of the Character of Tibetan Buddhism

The Tibetan tradition also tell us that Trisong Detsen didn’t just founded a monastery but he sponsored a debate to determine the character of Tibetan Buddhism. He brought a Chinese religious specialist and an Indian religious specialist. He set them up in a mode of discourse that would lead eventually to a conclusion about which variety of Buddhism would be best for Tibetan culture.

Representing the Chinese side was a meditation master whose name was Moheyan. He advocated the practice of sudden awakening. Representing the Indian side was a disciple of Shantarakshita whose name was Kamalashila. He advocated the practice of gradual awakening.

According to the Tibetan tradition, the king decided in favor of the Indian party and permanently oriented the Tibetan tradition towards India. This was another watershed in Tibetan history.

The Later Diffusion

What we call the “later diffusion of the dharma” took place in the 11th century. It is associated with important teachers, one of these is a man by the name of Atisha, who was an important scholar who came from one of the monasteries in Eastern India. In Tibet he had a group of disciples and established a lineage that recreated some of the scholarly tradition.

There were also some indigenous Tibetan figures who traveled to India and studied with Tantric saints and came back to Tibet to promulgate the tradition of Tantric practice. Out of these individuals floating through Tibet grew most of the schools of Tibetan Buddhism.

Return from History of Tibetan Buddhism to Tibetan Buddhism

Copyright © Buddhism Through Buddhist Eyes
Question or Comment? Do not doubt to contact me.
Template by bloggertheme