Tibetan Buddhism

Buddhism was Introduced into Tibet during the 7th century. The Tibetan kings brought the Tibetan tribes to some kind of unified government. With the country unified, they started to expand and interact with the great cultures of India and China. One of the most important and influential elements that Tibetans found in these cultures was a sophisticated practice of Buddhism.

King Songtsän Gampo ordered the construction of a series of temples around the country because he was told that Tibet laid on the body of a demoness. He ordered to build these temples to subdue the demoness. The actions of Songtsän Gampo didn’t just subdue the demoness, but also gave Tibet the form of a Mandala. Today, pilgrims walk around the country visiting these temples to later go straight to the center of the Mandala, which is a temple in the capital city of Lhasa. This temple is the most sacred place in Tibet. This is how starts the History of Tibetan Buddhism.

After the time of Songtsän Gampo, a king by the name of Trisong Detsen sponsored the construction of the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet. The king was helped by the Tantric saint Padmasambhava and the philosopher Shantarakshita. These two individuals represent the two faces of Tibetan Buddhism. Padmasambhava is the Tantric magician that subdued the demons that opposed the construction of the temple with rituals. Shantarakshita is the scholar that introduced the sophisticated monastic curriculum into Tibet.

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

In the 11th century occurred what we call the later diffusion of the dharma. During this time, many important teachers emerged, either Indian saints and philosophers that came into Tibet or 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.

Tibetans adopted this new religious practice grabbing influence from the greater countries India and China, but as they did this, they created a unique mix in the history of Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism is said to incorporate the three yanas or vehicles of Buddhism: the Theravada, the Mahayana and the Vajrayana.

There are four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism: the Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya and the Gelug. Each one of these has slight differences from each other, but they share some common traits. Tibetan Buddhism is a strongly scriptural tradition. They don’t just revere old texts that come back from the time of the Buddha, but texts that are generated by authoritative figures who manifest themselves from time to time in the history of Tibet.

Tibetan Buddhism has a canon of scripture. It is big and widely disseminated. It was settled in the 13th century and contains within it what you might call the authoritative Tibetan definition of the teaching that came to Tibet from India. In a broader sense, the Buddhist canon in Tibet still remains open. New texts can be generated or discovered to respond to all sorts of new situations.

The word lama is common in the Tibetan tradition. It is the equivalent of the Sanskrit word guru, which means a religious teacher. It also means someone who passes on a lineage or power. The lama is particularly important in Tantric and Tibetan Buddhism because the secrecy of Tantric rituals are always present. It is important to learn from a teacher who can tailor it effectively.

Lamas are so important in Tibetan Buddhism that the tradition itself is sometimes referred to as Lamaism. This word expresses an important truth about Tibetan Buddhism. It really does rely on Lamas. You might say that in Tibetan Buddhism the Lama is the representation of the Buddha.

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