Buddhism of Tibet

03 Sep

1. Early Days

1.1. India and Tibet (known to Tibetans themselves as Bod and to Indians as Bhota Desha) have had a long and a continuous cultural contact. The links between the old neighbors intensified when in 620 AD the emperor Sorang – sGam-Po (569 – 650 AD) sent his emissary to Kashmir to evolve a suitable script for the Tibetan language and to invite Buddhist scholars to Tibet. Interestingly this move was at the wish of two women one from Nepal and the other from China who were married to the monarch .The two queens were pious Buddhists .It does not however mean Buddhism was not known in Tibet until then. It appears that at least a hundred years earlier when LHa- THo- THo ruled the land a number of Buddhist texts were available in Tibet but not many could read the script. The initiative taken by the monarch not only brought in a gentler religion, a mellowed way of life but also a new “religious speech” (CHos – sKad) enriched by Sanskrit. Since then Tibet has regarded India as its sacred land and India in turn looks upon Tibet as its religious frontier. The mutual regard and respect has continued to this day.

2. Buddhism Enters

2.1. The introduction of Buddhist influence into Tibet was neither sudden nor violent. It was a gradual and a gentle process. This was a remarkable feat considering that the Tibetans and their religion at the time were “wild“ and that the Monarch did not resort to violence or repression to usher in Buddhism. The Tibetans were mostly nomadic in nature, Spartan in their ways of life and fiercely warlike. The religion native to Tibet called Bon –pronounced Pon – meaning “to mutter magic spells”, often described as shamanism, fetishism filled with rituals, spells, dances etc. had a strong influence on its followers. Yet the transformation brought about following the introduction of Buddhism is astounding. Today there is no gentler race than the Tibetans. No other people have preserved the high ideals of Buddhism as the Tibetans have even in the face of persistent trials, tribulations, displacements of immense proportions forced on them. How did this come about?

3. Synthesis

3.1. The religion that Indian monks planted in Tibet was not the one practiced in India at the time. In order to become acceptable to the populace of Tibet it was necessary that Buddhism evolve itself into a new form by letting in Bon practices and ideas while firmly retaining its basic Buddhist tenets. In the process, Buddhism took in materials and attitudes native to the soil, lent them a new sense of direction and grafted them with the Mahayana doctrines. It allowed many Bon attitudes, ideas, tribal gods, goddesses, and the associated rituals and instilled in them the spirit of Karuna. Thus While the form was traditional to the soil, the soul was Buddhist. Bon at the same time also adopted numerous Buddhist practices, attitudes and ideas.

3.2. It is important to remember that the Indian monks who brought in Buddhism were not missionaries in the usual sense of the term. They were not interested in conversions.

3.3. Some call the Tibetan religion as Vajrayana. It may perhaps be more appropriate to recognize it as Bon- CHos (Buddhism grafted on Bon). Because, what we have here is a harmonious synthesis of two religious practices and ideas rather than domination of one over the other. Tibet manifests a truly unique CHos (Dharma) with its own scheme of values.

4. Vajrayana

4.1. The form of Buddhism that took root in Tibet belongs to Vajrayana (the path of the thunderbolt) an offshoot of the Yogachara branch of the Mahayana. Vajrayana had its origin in South India, blossomed in the universities of Nalanda, Vikramashila and Odantapura in North India .It later took root in Tibet and Mongolia. Its characteristics are involvement in Tantric rituals, incantations (Mantras) and visualization of deities. At the same time the adaptable integration of the body (Kaya – Snkt,), speech (Vacha – Sanskt) and mind (manas – Sanskt.) is also a main plank of the Vajra (Diamond) path.

4.2. The Yoga – Tantra ideology (known to Tibetans as Grub –Thob) developed during the early part Christian era by a class of Indian seers called Siddhas became the driving force of the Vajrayana. Siddhas brought in the concept of Bhodhi –chitta.

4.3. As per the concept, Bhodhi-Chitta resides in all of us in its twin aspect: (1) as ordinary consciousness soiled by actions and agitated by thoughts, and (2) as a hidden pool of tranquility, unaffected, “ever washed bright”, beyond the phenomenal involvements. The former aspect is mind (Manas -Sanskrit) (Yid – Tibetan) and the latter is consciousness (Chitta – Sanskrit) (Sems – Tibetan). The object of the Tantra is to transform the former (characterized by Stress – Klesha) into the latter (experienced as Bliss – Sukha).

4.4. To illustrate the Bhodhi – Chitta, the mind is like a pool of water. The agitated water should become still before what lies beneath (consciousness) becomes visible. Beating or stirring the water does not help. The pool should be left undisturbed .The art of letting the mind alone (“let go”, “open hand”) to allow it to settle naturally into silence and tranquility is at the core of the disciplines advocated by the Siddhas. The instruction is “cast aside all clinging and essence will at once emerge”.

This concept gives rise to another one viz. Vipasyana meaning clear vision, which comes about because of stilling the constitutional mind.

4.5. These concepts entail a process that lays stress on utilizing the mind to reach a state of “no mind”, refinement and sharpening of the mind, purifying it and making it “like a cloud less sky”, “like a wave less occasion”,” like a bright lamp in a windless night” etc. In short, the object is to attain a clear, bright and a stable state. This process is also called as emptying the mind. The Tantra here not only suggests a path from a cruder form of thought and emotions to a higher level of functioning but also prescribes practices that transform and elevate the human being.

5. The Masters

5.1 From the 8th century onwards, the scholars at Nalanda began to play an active part in the propagation of Buddhist religion and culture in Tibet. It is likely Tibetan was taught at the institution. Chandragomin, at Nalanda, was the pioneer in the field.

Chandragomin (7th century CE) was a Buddhist scholar at Nalanda; and, he always dressed in the white robes of the Yogic tradition. It is said; Chandragomin challenged Chandrakirti (c.600 – c.650) another Buddhist scholar at Nalanda and a commentator on the works of Nagarjuna (c.150–c. 250 CE) to a debate held in Nalanda Mahavihara. Chandrakirti would immediately reply to any statements made by Chandragomin. But, Chandragomin, on the other hand, would take his time to answer – sometimes he would wait until the next day. His answers, nevertheless, were very precise and clear. The debate, it appears, lasted for many years.

Chandragomin’s work on Sanskrit grammar became popular in Tibet. And, scores of his works were translated into Tibetan; many scholars were in fact engaged in translation work.

5.2. The credit for evolving a wonderful synthesis of the two religious practices goes to the Tibetan monks and their Indian Gurus the prominent among whom, in the early stages, were Padmasambhava and Santarakshita.

Santarakshita, another Nalanda monk and scholar, was invited to Tibet by its king Khri-sron-deu-tsan in 74 (J A.D. for the purpose of preaching Buddhism. He was given a royal reception and the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet was built under his instructions. He became its chief abbot and vigorously helped the spread of Buddhism till his death in 762 A.D.

He received very valuable cooperation in this work from Padmasambhava, a Kashmirian monk educated at Nalanda ‘. Intellectual and literary activity of Nalanda must have continued in subsequent centuries also, for several manuscripts have been, preserved to this time, which were copied at Nalanda during the 10th, 11th  and 12th centuries A.D.-

Padmasambhava built the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet (bSam Yas) around 749 AD modeled on the Odantapura monastery while combining three styles of India, Tibet and China. He persuaded the great scholar Santharakshita of Nalanda to preside over the monastery.

Both were men of great learning. While Padmasambhava had his roots in Tantra, Santarakshita was a quiet ascetic in the traditional mold. The Padmasambhava – Santarakshita team was a curious combination of dissimilar capabilities .One complimented the other. One would argue thunder and coerce while the other could explain, expound, teach and convince. One had a mass appeal; the other had the quiet regard of the elite. One emphasized magic, rituals and success; the other highlighted the value of virtues, contemplation and wisdom. Padmasambhava stood for powerful action; Santarakshita symbolized gentle being. The two great men together molded the attitudes and approach of later day Tibetans. If the Tibetans have successfully accommodated the thunderbolt (Vajra) with the abiding peace of vacuity (Shunya) then a large share of the credit must go to these Masters each working in his own way for the betterment of humanity.

5.3. If the Padmasambhava – Santarakshita team introduced the Buddhist excellence the other team of Dipankara and Brom firmly established Buddhist influence in Tibet Dipankara, a prince from Bengal earlier in his life, presided over the VikramsilaUniversity. He was a great Mahayana scholar in the mould of Santharakshita. He was 60 when he arrived in Tibet where he lived for 13 years until his death in 1054 AD. He was fortunate in securing a very capable and devoted Tibetan disciple in Brom. The two together strived to clean up the cobwebs since settled in the Tibetan Buddhism and to restore the traditional values and virtues.

5.4. Another revered name in the annals of Tibetan Buddhism is TSong –Kha – Pa (1357 – 1419 AD), a scholar of great renown and author of the celebrated Lam – Rin CHen Mo. He is worshipped even today as a living presence, next only to Buddha. The Chinese emperor honored TSong –Kha – Pa’s nephew as a Bhodhi Sattva. Later in 1650, the Mongolian emperor conferred the all-powerful status of Dalai Lama on a descendent of TSong –Kha – Pa. Since then the successive abbots have been the religious and secular heads of Tibet.

TSong –Kha – Pa brought large scale and enduring reforms in the Buddhist monastic organizations in Tibet. The achievements of TSong –Kha _Pa and his contribution to Tibetan Buddhism in particular and to Dharma in general are too numerous to recount here.

6. India’s Debt to Tibet

6.1. India owes a debt of deep gratitude to Tibet for preserving Yoga-Tantra tradition and keeping it alive even though it has become extinct in the land of its origin.

6.2. Further, because of the large-scale destruction of Buddhist and Hindu texts stored in Nalanda when Muslim forces attacked it during the middle periods, many ancient texts are no longer available in India. The only credible source for such ancient texts is the body of Tibetan translations carried out centuries earlier by Tibetan monks.

6.3. More importantly, the extraordinary sprit of tolerance, non-violence and resilience displayed by the large population of ordinary men and women displaced from their homeland is a true tribute to Buddha and his ideals.

1. Tibetan Tantric Traditions
– Prof. S K Ramachandra Rao
2. The Buddhist Tantras
– Alex Wayman


Posted by on September 3, 2012 in Buddhism


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5 responses to “Buddhism of Tibet

  1. sreenivasaraos

    March 21, 2015 at 12:21 pm

    this is an excellent essay on an important topic. it’s well documented and objective in the views it offers.

    india and tibet certainly have a wonderful spiritual relationship and india’s offer of political asylum to the dalai lama and the tibetan exiles is always to be admired.

    you mention that much of the knowledge of tantra has been preserved (and alive) in the tibetan tradition.

    may i say also that a great deal of hinduism that is now covered in hoary tradition and vague complexities will be more apparent if one studied tibetan buddhism in particular and buddhism in general. hinduism and buddhism, one will find, inform each other.

    Raj Armugam

    • sreenivasaraos

      March 21, 2015 at 12:21 pm

      dear raj armugam,

      thank you for your comments.

      you are a very kind person.

      i agree that hinduism and buddhism influenced each other in many ways. the buddhist notion of non-injury and compassion toward all living beings took deep roots in the indian ethos, while mahayana buddhism took cue from the traditional indian methods of devotional worship. buddhism influenced the growth and development of indian art and architecture and contributed richly to the practice of breathing and meditation in attaining mindfulness and higher states of consciousness. the hindu tantra influenced the origin and evolution of vajrayana buddhism that flowered in tibet. the systems of buddhism and hinduism are not either contradictory to one another or completely self contained.

      thanks to your comment. i am thinking of posting a short write up on mahayana in india.


      • sreenivasaraos

        March 21, 2015 at 12:24 pm

        dear sreenivasaroa s

        with those comments you have gone into the relationship between hinduism and buddhism even further and most admirably.

        let’s see if we can, together my friend, as two good friends who bring out the best in each other, extend it a bit further.

        though we have some description, w e do not know exactly what traditions the teachers of the buddha belonged to. but we know they are surely indian and therefore belong to the indian traditions, a long time before rigid demarcations appeared between hinduism, jainism and buddhism.

        leaving aside the assertion of certain groups that the buddha knew everything before he came to the earth, and sticking to the idea that the buddha was a man who evolved in his discovery and thinking, and then showed human beings a particular dharma which is possible for all humans to follow, we can assume that he was also influenced by the upanishads. scholars who have an interest in such matters will be be able to point out similarities in the upanishads and the buddha’s teachings. this does not diminish the buddha’s standing – on the contrary, it only strengtehns the standing of both indian traditions (i view them now as world traditions).

        there is a third indian tradition that we should not ignore: jainism. my intuition tells me that it is jainism that first brought into fullness the concept of ahimsa – and this concept was so powerful and complete and logical in spiritual terms, no one could ignore it. the others simply had to re-examine their philosophies and absorb ahimsa.

        so to me the indian mind is a synthesis of all three, and the marvelous thing is you can choose any one particular way of these three and yet belong to all.

        Raj Armugam

  2. sreenivasaraos

    March 21, 2015 at 12:24 pm

    dear raj armugam,

    thank you for the comments.

    the pali texts do mention about samana gotama’s teachers. there were jain samanas and vedic/ brahmin hermits. (what is now called hinduism was then yet to acquire that label).

    jainism and buddhism developed in the same geographical area in an overlapping timeline; though jainism was older of the two. the ideas of non injury and karuna might have been in circulation in those times. it was more a matter of emphasis and treatment than its exclusiveness that highlighted non injury in jainism.

    as regards the buddha , the pali tradition treats him as a human , though an extraordinary one. it was in the later sanskrit texts that the buddha and his life story acquired supernatural elements.
    please see life of the buddha- the pali tradition

    there are similarities between the buddha’s teachings and the upanishads. “buddhism” did not start as a religion. it was initially a moment to interpret the true meaning of the dharma.

    the “indian mind” is a synthesis of not merely the three but several other influences, cultures and thoughts.

    thank you


  3. sreenivasaraos

    March 21, 2015 at 12:26 pm

    dear priyaananda

    thank you for inviting me to thubten lekshey ling (dharma subhashita). i appreciate the gesture.



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