Tibetan Buddhism

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Please note:  This page is intended merely as an overview of a comprehensive multi-facetted Buddhist path that has not "gone extinct," and that is not obscure nor "esoteric" as some writers would suggest,  and is not only practiced by Tibetans.

  • If you would like to read about this topic in greater detail, visit Menu of Tibetan Buddhism where you can link to various other articles. 


Merchants including salt-traders have been using the high mountain passes from India to Tibet and back again for more than three thousand years, so it is fairly certain that, not long after the time of Buddha Shakyamuni (ca. 560 BCE) some of the Dharma went home with them.  However, ancient accounts mention that the Tibetans were a wild and combative people at that time, so until Buddhism was re-introduced in the 8th century of our era it did not have a wide-spread, enduring success in the Tibetan region.

Though a number of notable translators were responsible for importing Buddhist scriptures and commentaries into Tibet, it is not until the arrival of Padmasambhava, who is considered a culture hero, that we can say Buddhism was established there. Cycles of legends arose concerning the deeds he performed to subdue primeval spirits and pacify local deities.  And his exploits in the interest of converting the "untamed" Tibetans to firmly establish Mahayana Buddhism on the High Plateau are often told.  In the language of that land, he is called Guru Rinpoche that is, "Precious Teacher."   

Buddhism did not enter a cultural void.  The people, who in one myth trace their descent from the marriage of a monkey and a demoness, practiced a form of animism.  Traces of the belief in many spirits remain in the religion called Bon [beun] but the Bon of today also contains many elements of Buddhism.  

  • For more details concerning the early history, see About Tibet

 Lamas, Monks, Rinpoches and Yogis

The Sanskrit word for teacher is guru. It can be used in an everyday sense, but for someone learning methods to tame the mind, it has added significance.  In that context, a guru is a mentor who shoulders some responsibility.  The Tibetan translation of this is lama which has the meaning "nurturer of the spirit." 

One L lama, he's a priest;

Two L llama, he's a beast,

But I can bet a silk pyjama

There isn't any three L lama.

                                 ~ Ogden Nash (1902-1971)  

Special Lamas are frequently addressed as Rinpoche, meaning precious one.  Some people write "rim-poche" because the word sounds a lot like rim.po.shay.  This term is added after their names in recognition of the fact that they are accomplished holders of that which is precious -- the Buddha-Dharma or the teachings of Buddha. 

Lamas act in the capacity of spiritual mentors, pastors, doctors, astrologers, artists, musicians and of course, teachers of many different subjects. Also, not all esteemed lamas are members of a monastic order.  Many are householders, itinerant yogis or hermits. There are lamas of every type who happen to be female.   

Lamaism is not an appropriate name for Tibetan Buddhism, since it can be misunderstood as if the worship of lamas were the whole objective.  However one can understand why the term became popular, since Tibetan Buddhism is not confined to Tibet.  It is practiced in other Himalayan lands and now, all over the globe.

Not all lamas are monks or nuns, and celibacy is not a requirement for teaching in most Tibetan Buddhist denominations.  However, in the denomination to which His Holiness Dalai Lama belongs, celibacy is the rule.

  • The important role played by the lama is exemplified in Shantideva's prayer to the Lama called The Wish for Buddhahood is Evergreen.

A sample Tibetan Buddhist teaching  

"Without bodhicitta, perfect enlightenment is not possible. [This requires us]. . .  to have loving-kindness, compassion and patience for all mother sentient beings.  

"There are two levels of bodhicitta: absolute and relative bodhicitta. Relative bodhicitta is the wish or vow that all mother sentient beings attain buddhahood.  After making the vow or aspiration, one should engage in the actual activity of [making the vow a reality -- working to help all other sentient beings attain perfect enlightenment.] . . .  Merely making the [bodhisattva] vow is not enough; so how do we actually help them then?"

"Right now, we are as blind as other sentient beings. We do not have the capacity to help beings the way a Buddha can. Therefore, we need to quickly attain complete enlightenment before we can lead other sentient beings to happiness. 

As human beings, we now have the opportunity of cultivating the teachings of Buddha [Buddha Dharma].  Human birth is powerful and useful, but human existence without Dharma only leads us deeper into samsara. Therefore, we should make meaningful use of our human existence to give rise to the bodhicitta mind and benefit others.

All Buddhas were once sentient beings who made the vow.  After accumulating merit, purifying their negativities, and finally attaining perfect Buddhahood, they turned the Dharma Wheel three times.  They gave different teachings to suit the capacities of different sentient beings. Therefore, there are 84, 000 Dharmas for the 84, 000 kinds of sentient beings.

The Buddhas also taught about Buddha-nature or tatha-gatha-garbha.  Without this inherent Buddha-nature, it is impossible for anyone to attain enlightenment.  Buddha-nature is the capacity for enlightenment and we all have that."  . . .  .

"There are three essentials that we need to attain enlightenment. They are basis, conditions and methods. The basis is the human body, the conditions are the teachers; while the methods are the teachings.

When we go to teachings, our motivation must be pure. In other words, one must have the bodhicitta mind -- listening to teachings so that one can one day attain enlightenment based on those teachings, and then liberate other sentient beings. 

One must also have discipline while listening to teachings: Attentiveness is extremely important. One should not be like an upside-down vase, or a vase with holes in it, or a poisoned vase. 

To be an upside down vase means not listening to the teachings at all. One might be physically at a teaching, but one's mind in somewhere else. Thus . . . any amount of teaching given by the teacher cannot enter a student who is not listening. 

A vase with holes in it cannot be filled no matter how much water one pours into it.  . . . there are some people who do not remember anything they hear during a teaching. It just goes right through them without registering. 

Finally, a poisoned vase is useless no matter how sweet the nectar poured into it.  So, no matter how profound or wonderful a teaching is, if it is given to someone who clings to wrong views and ideas, the teaching will only be . . . distorted." 

"While listening to teachings, one should have four positive thoughts: 

[of ] 1. teacher as doctor,  2. student as patient, 3. Dharma as medicine and  4. delusion as the sickness.

We have to give up pride that manifests as "I'm better than the teacher" or "I'm better than everyone else." Furthermore, strong devotion and faith are like the legs for walking and the hands for gathering virtue. Without devotion there is no attainment." 

"One needs to have interest in the Dharma first, before one can start to learn anything.

The mind should be kept free from distractions. Keep it from going wild in ten directions at the same time. The body is like a prison, while the mind is like a wolf running wild from mountain to mountain. Laziness, boredom, sloth and indolence are a few of the hindrances to practice [controlling.]              

One should always listen to the Dharma with joy . . . it is the antidote to our poisons."

~ first part of a discourse by Lama Sonam Jorphel Rinpoche of the Drikung Kagyu given in the context of introducing Preliminary Practices (Tib. ngondro.)  It was edited for inclusion in the context of this site. 

Kinds of Teachings: TheYanas

The Buddha turned the Dharma Wheel for the first time at Varanasi, India when he taught the Four Noble Truths. There he taught the Hinayana teachings of renunciation and self-control. 

Later, the Buddha again turned the Dharma Wheel for the second time on Vulture Peak.  There, he taught the Prajnaparamita teachings of Emptiness (shunyata,) an important aspect of Mahayana

Then, the Buddha turned the Dharma Wheel for a third time. This time he gave the tathagatha-garbha* (Buddha-nature) teachings. These teachings were given so that sentient beings would not fall into nihilism.

The Mahayana comprises various different methods, so it could be further classified as Sutrayana and Tantrayana (or, Vajrayana.) These three yanas (vehicles) -- Hinayana, Sutrayana Mahayana and Tantrayana Mahayana were taught to suit the various capacities of beings. They are all useful and they are inseparable. [For instance] a baby without teeth will choke when given solid food. Therefore, a good parent slowly introduces different foods according to its capacity to digest them.

Mantrayana is also a Mahayana approach that is usually included under Tantrayana, but it can exist apart.  It emphasizes the chanting of mantras as an essential tool for liberation of the self and others.

The Vajrayana or vajra path, can be divided into kriya-tantra, charya-tantra, yoga-tantra and anuttarayoga-tantra. In the last class, there are three further sub-divisions. They are the father-tantra, mother-tantra and non-dual tantra. The four tantric methods (kriya, charya, yoga and anuttarayoga) are often compared to: gazing at the desired one, smiling, touching and embracing in union, respectively.  These four may be thought of as a set of antidotes.  Each one is a particular type of "medicine" that works at a different level. 

The empowerment (wang) and the practice of sadhana or ritual are both important in Vajrayana.  Traditionally, one cannot practice without first receiving the proper empowerments.

Practical Distinctions, according to Lama Sonam Jorphel:

"The difference between Buddha Dharma and non-Buddha Dharma is that there is Refuge in Buddha Dharma but there is no Refuge in non-Buddha Dharma. 

The difference between Mahayana and Hinayana is that Mahayana has the bodhicitta mind [or conscious attitude] while Hinayana doesn't. 

Finally, the difference between Vajrayana and Mahayana (Sutrayana) is that Vajrayana has empowerments while Mahayana doesn't.

Denominations or Schools

It is crucial to understand that the term Vajrayana does not equate with Tibetan Buddhism  It is a most important feature of it, though.  Also, Tibetan Buddhism is not homogeneous. There once were eight different Buddhist schools in Tibet but only four main ones are left today. They are the Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug. Besides teaching Vajrayana, all denominations have systems that offer a graduated path to enlightenment (Tib. lam-rim.) 


Taking the Kagyu denomination as the example, we will see one way lineages develop. The Kagyu originates from Dorje-chang (Vajradhara Buddha) and was first transmitted to the Indian, Tilopa. Tilopa taught Naropa, who was the teacher of the Tibetan translator, Marpa.  Marpa's most famous disciple was the ascetic, Milarepa.  Milarepa  transmitted the Kagyu view and method to the monk, Gampopa

The Life of Milarepa

Gampopa had many students and his immediate disciples started the different major Kagyu lineages.  One student was Phagmo Drukpa whose own disciple, Jigten Sumgon (known to his devotees as Ratna Shri) founded the Drikung Kagyu lineage. Only four Kagyu lineages are still actively intact: Drikung, Karma, Talung and Drukpa.  A fifth tradition, the Shangpa continues in association with the others and is being revived under Kalu Rinpoche, who succeeded the esteemed master who died in 1989.  

What is Vajrayana?

Vajrayana is actually another name for Tantric Buddhism. Many scholars think that it derives from the schools of esoteric Hinduism that developed in Bengal and South India.  Some say, however, that it is the other way around. 

In it, various skilful techniques are used which operate to refashion the psyche.  Since one of the widespread tools in this process is the saying of mantras, this approach is sometimes referred to as mantrayana

It is important to know that a special preparation and transmission called initiation or empowerment is required for the practice of tantric rituals.  An example of one practice that is considered beneficial for anyone at any time and that does not require special preprartion is the ritual of Chenrezi, bodhisattva of compassion.  The associated mantra, using the Sanskrit pronunciation, is Om mani padme hum.  In Tibetan, it is pronounced Om Mani Pehmeh Hoong! 

Tibetan Buddhism and the West

Westerners have always been fascinated by rumours of a place high in the mountains of Asia where enlightened masters with super-human abilities live unusually lengthy lives.  However, it was not until the 19th century that credible eye-witness reports began to circulate.  

A few Russians who had received monastic training wrote of their experiences. Later, the French woman, Alexandra David-Neel [pron. Dahveed-Nail] managed to study Buddhism in Lhasa, Tibetís capital, in the first part of the 1900s.  She wrote of her experiences in several books, still popular and available, such as Magic and Mystery in Tibet

Later, works of fantasy/fiction appeared, including the 1933 political thriller Lost Horizon by James Hilton that was made into a film by Frank Capra in 1937.  It awakened in the general public curiosity about the culture of Tibet as depicted in the mysterious Blue Moon valley of Shambala.  

In the 1950's, a series of novels by the pseudonymous British writer, "T. Lobsang Rampa"  appeared.  Ironically, in response to what many view as a series of fraudulent depictions, genuine interest was stimulated as readers sought to uncover the truth about mystical practices in the Himalayan region.

When political events in 1959 necessitated the emigration of many authentic teachers, it became possible for people outside south Asia to have contact with genuine Tibetan lamas and to study Buddhism under their guidance. Now there are Tibetan Buddhist centres on all continents (not yet Antarctica,) and in all countries where there is freedom of religion. There are undoubtedly practitioners in all countries.


                       When the iron bird flies,

People of Tibet will be scattered like ants across the world,

And the Dharma will come to the land of the red man.  

 ~ attributed to Guru Padmasambhava, circa 800 C. E. 

A few children outside Asia have been identified as tulkus, or emanations of past teachers.  One of these was Sonam Wangdu (b. 1991) of Seattle, Washington, identified as the incarnation of Deshung Rinpoche.  Other Westerners, including some adults, have also been recognized as "incarnations."

  •  The American tulku as he came to the attention of the media in 1996.

  The Golden Child, the 1986 film and Kundun (1996) were inspired by the tulku idea. 

Some Pioneers:

The first authentic Tibetan Buddhist monastery established in the West was founded in 1967 in Eskdalemuir, Scotland and is now called Kagyu Shangpa Kagyu.  He founded many centres in the United States, Canada and other countries such as France, and was the first to set up a traditional 3-year retreat program in the western world.

Pema Chodron is the well-known North American woman teacher, who is abbess of Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia, Canada.  She is admired for her ability to convey the teachings of Buddhism in a down-to-earth fashion.  She was one of the first to bring conversations about the dharma to the Internet.

Clearing Up a Few Misconceptions 

Karma is not Punishment

According to Buddhism, neither punishment nor reward is meted out by some "Higher Power."

However, we are subject to the consequences of our actions, a situation called karma.  Because our constant wants and needs are ever-changing, that fact initiates yet more activity with consequences.  Therefore, we should try to act judiciously or, mindfully. 

The impermanent nature of reality complicates the situation, as it is influenced by the sum total of all the consequences of the ever-changing inter-activity of all beings. To help the situation, we should avoid actions that are un-virtuous (or perhaps a better expression is unskilful) such as those that are motivated through anger, lust, greed, confusion or ignorance  

To untangle the web of consequences, we ought to perfect the three forms of action --  mental, verbal, and physical by: 

  1. not harming living things, 

  2. not contributing to chaos by lying or slandering 

  3. nor by stealing 

  4. nor behaving improperly in sexual matters, 

  5. and not diminishing mindfulness or adding to confusion by indulging in intoxicants.

These 5 are known as the lay precepts, ie. vows anyone may undertake.  Anyone who is qualified (primarily by their example) to witness our vows is known as a Preceptor.

Please note:  This long page is intended merely as an introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, a form of Buddhism that is not only practiced by Tibetans.

  • If you would like to go into this topic in greater detail, the scope of the subject as found on this site is at the Menu of Tibetan Buddhism where you can link to various topics. 


NB When Sanskrit or Tibetan words are written using Latin letters, different spellings for the same term may be used by various writers as each tries to replicate the pronunciation of the word according to the rules of their native language or their teacher's pronunciation. 

Tata-gata-garb'ha is a way to write it that is closer to the sound of Sanskrit.

Tibetan Buddhist: It can be an ambiguous expression since this way of Buddhism can be practiced by anyone from any culture.  It means Buddhism in the Tibetan manner.

BCE:  Before [this] Common Era.  A format adopted by scholars and scientists who prefer a non-sectarian way of considering the passage of centuries.

Lhasa:  the capital city, is in central Tibet, now mainly the TAR (Tibetan "Autonomous" Region) of China.  The L in its name is not always sounded.  It is frequently pronounced Hasa

The poisons  [Tibetan: kleshas] are also called obscurations or defilements.  They derive from the three fundamental contaminating qualities of delusion, anger, desire. 

nihilism:  a false view since, if shunyata is taken to mean absolute nothingness, it could lead to the wrong and harmful conclusion that nothing matters. 

Kagyu is pronounced either kah-ghyoo, or kah-djoo as in East Tibet.


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