Tibetan Buddhism is the body of Buddhist doctrine and institutions characteristic of Tibet, the regions surrounding the Himalayas and much of Central Asia. It derives from the latest stages of Indian Buddhism and preserves "the Tantric status quo of eighth-century India." Tibetan Buddhism aspires to Buddhahood or rainbow body.
- Transmission and realization
- Analytic meditation and fixation meditation
- Devotion to a guru
- Preliminary practices and approach to Vajrayna
- Study of tenet systems
- Native Tibetan developments
- Tibetan Buddhism in the contemporary world
- Women in Tibetan Buddhism
Religious texts and commentaries comprise the Tibetan Buddhist canon, such that Tibetan is a spiritual language of these areas. Among its prominent exponents is the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet. The number of its adherents is estimated to be between ten and twenty million.
Westerners unfamiliar with Tibetan Buddhism initially turned to China for an understanding. There the term used was "lamaism" (literally, "doctrine of the lamas": lama jiao) to distinguish it from a then traditional Chinese form (fo jiao). The term was taken up by western scholars including Hegel, as early as 1822. Insofar as it implies a discontinuity between Indian and Tibetan Buddhism, the term has been discredited.
Another term, "Vajrayāna" is occasionally used mistakenly for Tibetan Buddhism. More accurately, it signifies a certain subset of practices included in, not only Tibetan Buddhism, but other forms of Buddhism as well.
The native Tibetan term for all Buddhism is "doctrine of the internalists" (nang-pa'i chos: …of those who emphasise introspection).
There is a "close association between the religious and the secular the spiritual and the temporal" in Tibet. The term for this relationship is chos srid zung 'brel.
In the west the term "Indo-Tibetan Buddhism" has become current, in acknowledgement of its derivation from the latest stages of Buddhist development in northern India.
Tibetan Buddhism comprises the teachings of the three vehicles of Buddhism: the Foundational Vehicle, Mahāyāna, and Vajrayāna. The Mahāyāna goal of spiritual development is to achieve the enlightenment of buddhahood in order to most efficiently help all other sentient beings attain this state. The motivation in it is the bodhicitta mind of enlightenment — an altruistic intention to become enlightened for the sake of all sentient beings. Bodhisattvas are revered beings who have conceived the will and vow to dedicate their lives with bodhicitta for the sake of all beings. Tibetan Buddhism teaches methods for achieving buddhahood more quickly by including the Vajrayāna path in Mahāyāna.
Buddhahood is defined as a state free of the obstructions to liberation as well as those to omniscience. When one is freed from all mental obscurations, one is said to attain a state of continuous bliss mixed with a simultaneous cognition of emptiness, the true nature of reality. In this state, all limitations on one's ability to help other living beings are removed.
It is said that there are countless beings who have attained buddhahood. Buddhas spontaneously, naturally and continuously perform activities to benefit all sentient beings. However it is believed that one's karma could limit the ability of the Buddhas to help them. Thus, although Buddhas possess no limitation from their side on their ability to help others, sentient beings continue to experience suffering as a result of the limitations of their own former negative actions.
Transmission and realization
There is a long history of oral transmission of teachings in Tibetan Buddhism. Oral transmissions by lineage holders traditionally can take place in small groups or mass gatherings of listeners and may last for seconds (in the case of a mantra, for example) or months (as in the case of a section of the Tibetan Buddhist canon). It is held that a transmission can even occur without actually hearing, as in Asanga's visions of Maitreya.
An emphasis on oral transmission as more important than the printed word derives from the earliest period of Indian Buddhism, when it allowed teachings to be kept from those who should not hear them. Hearing a teaching (transmission) readies the hearer for realization based on it. The person from whom one hears the teaching should have heard it as one link in a succession of listeners going back to the original speaker: the Buddha in the case of a sutra or the author in the case of a book. Then the hearing constitutes an authentic lineage of transmission. Authenticity of the oral lineage is a prerequisite for realization, hence the importance of lineages.
Analytic meditation and fixation meditation
Spontaneous realization on the basis of transmission is possible but rare. Normally an intermediate step is needed in the form of analytic meditation, i.e., thinking about what one has heard. As part of this process, entertaining doubts and engaging in internal debate over them is encouraged in some traditions.
Analytic meditation is just one of two general methods of meditation. When it achieves the quality of realization, one is encouraged to switch to "focused" or "fixation" meditation. In this the mind is stabilized on that realization for periods long enough to gradually habituate it to it.
A person's capacity for analytic meditation can be trained with logic. The capacity for successful focused meditation can be trained through śamatha. A meditation routine may involve alternating sessions of analytic meditation to achieve deeper levels of realization, and focused meditation to consolidate them. The deepest level of realization is Buddhahood itself.
Devotion to a guru
As in other Buddhist traditions, an attitude of reverence for the teacher, or guru, is also highly prized. At the beginning of a public teaching, a lama will do prostrations to the throne on which he will teach due to its symbolism, or to an image of the Buddha behind that throne, then students will do prostrations to the lama after he is seated. Merit accrues when one's interactions with the teacher are imbued with such reverence in the form of guru devotion, a code of practices governing them that derives from Indian sources. By such things as avoiding disturbance to the peace of mind of one's teacher, and wholeheartedly following his prescriptions, much merit accrues and this can significantly help improve one's practice.
There is a general sense in which any Tibetan Buddhist teacher is called a lama. A student may have taken teachings from many authorities and revere them all as lamas in this general sense. However, he will typically have one held in special esteem as his own root guru and is encouraged to view the other teachers who are less dear to him, however more exalted their status, as embodied in and subsumed by the root guru. Often the teacher the student sees as root guru is simply the one who first introduced him to Buddhism, but a student may also change his personal view of which particular teacher is his root guru any number of times.
Skepticism is an important aspect of Tibetan Buddhism. A critical attitude is encouraged to promote abilities in analytic meditation. In favor of skepticism towards Buddhist doctrines in general, Tibetans are fond of quoting sutra to the effect that one should test the Buddha's words as one would the quality of gold.
The opposing principles of skepticism and guru devotion are reconciled with the Tibetan injunction to scrutinize a prospective guru thoroughly before finally adopting him as such without reservation. A Buddhist may study with a lama for decades before finally accepting him as his own guru.
Preliminary practices and approach to Vajrayāna
Vajrayāna is believed by Tibetan Buddhists to be the fastest method for attaining Buddhahood but for unqualified practitioners it can be dangerous. To engage in it one must receive an appropriate initiation (also known as an "empowerment") from a lama who is fully qualified to give it. From the time one has resolved to accept such an initiation, the utmost sustained effort in guru devotion is essential.
The aim of preliminary practices (ngöndro) is to start the student on the correct path for such higher teachings. Just as Sutrayāna preceded Vajrayāna historically in India, so sutra practices constitute those that are preliminary to tantric ones. Preliminary practices include all Sutrayāna activities that yield merit like hearing teachings, prostrations, offerings, prayers and acts of kindness and compassion, but chief among the preliminary practices are realizations through meditation on the three principle stages of the path: renunciation, the altruistic bodhicitta wish to attain enlightenment and the wisdom realizing emptiness. For a person without the basis of these three in particular to practice Vajrayāna can be like a small child trying to ride an unbroken horse.
While the practices of Vajrayāna are not known in Sutrayāna, all Sutrayāna practices are common to Vajrayāna. Without training in the preliminary practices, the ubiquity of allusions to them in Vajrayāna is meaningless and even successful Vajrayāna initiation becomes impossible.
The merit acquired in the preliminary practices facilitates progress in Vajrayāna. While many Buddhists may spend a lifetime exclusively on sutra practices, however, an amalgam of the two to some degree is common. For example, in order to train in calm abiding, one might use a tantric visualisation as the meditation object.
In Vajrayāna particularly, Tibetan Buddhists subscribe to a voluntary code of self-censorship, whereby the uninitiated do not seek and are not provided with information about it. This self-censorship may be applied more or less strictly depending on circumstances such as the material involved. A depiction of a mandala may be less public than that of a deity. That of a higher tantric deity may be less public than that of a lower. The degree to which information on Vajrayāna is now public in western languages is controversial among Tibetan Buddhists.
Buddhism has always had a taste for esotericism since its earliest period in India. Tibetans today maintain greater or lesser degrees of confidentiality also with information on the vinaya and emptiness specifically. In Buddhist teachings generally, too, there is caution about revealing information to people who may be unready for it.
Study of tenet systems
Tibetan Buddhists practice one or more understandings of the true nature of reality, śūnyatā, or the emptiness of inherent existence of all things. Emptiness is propounded according to four classical Indian schools of philosophical tenets.
Two belong to the older path referred to as the Hinayana:
The primary source for the former is the Abhidharma-kośa of Vasubandhu and its commentaries. The Abhidharmakośa was also an important source for the Sautrāntikas. Dignāga and Dharmakīrti are the most prominent exponents.
The other two are Mahayana:
Yogacārins base their views on texts from Maitreya, Asaṅga and Vasubandhu, Madhyamakas on Nāgārjuna and Āryadeva. There is a further classification of Madhyamaka into Svatantrika and Prasaṅgika. The former stems from Bhāviveka, Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla and the latter from Buddhapālita and Candrakīrti.
The tenet system is used in the monasteries and colleges to teach Buddhist philosophy in a systematic and progressive fashion, each philosophical view being more subtle than its predecessor. Therefore, the four schools can be seen as a gradual path from a rather easy-to-grasp, "realistic" philosophical point of view, to more and more complex and subtle views on the ultimate nature of reality, that is on emptiness and dependent arising, culminating in the philosophy of the Mādhyamikas, which is widely believed to present the most sophisticated point of view.
The diagram to the right shows the growth of Tibetan Buddhist traditions. The four main ones overlap markedly, such that "about eighty percent or more of the features of the Tibetan schools are the same". Differences include the use of apparently, but not actually, contradictory terminology, opening dedications of texts to different deities and whether phenomena are described from the viewpoint of an unenlightened practitioner or of a Buddha. On questions of philosophy they have no fundamental differences, according to the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. The Tibetan adjectival suffix -pa meaning "man" or "person" is translatable as English "-ist", e.g., "Nyingmapa" is "person who practises Nyingma".
"The Ancient Ones" is the oldest school of Tibetan Buddhism and the original order founded by Padmasambhava and Śāntarakṣita. Whereas other schools categorize their teachings into the three yānas or "vehicles", Hīnayāna, Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna, the Nyingma tradition classifies its teachings into Nine Yānas, among the highest of which is Dzogchen. Terma "treasures" (revealed texts) are of particular significance to the Nyingma school.
"Lineage of the (Buddha's) Word". This is an oral tradition which is very much concerned with the experiential dimension of meditation. Its most famous exponent was Milarepa, an 11th-century mystic. It contains one major and one minor subsect. The first, the Dagpo Kagyu, encompasses those Kagyu schools that trace back to the Indian master Naropa via Marpa Lotsawa, Milarepa and Gampopa and consists of four major sub-sects: the Karma Kagyu, headed by a Karmapa, the Tsalpa Kagyu, the Barom Kagyu, and Pagtru Kagyu. There are a further eight minor sub-sects, all of which trace their root to Pagtru Kagyu and the most notable of which are the Drikung and Drukpa Lineages. The once-obscure Shangpa Kagyu, which was famously represented by the 20th century teacher Kalu Rinpoche, traces its history back to the Indian master Naropa via Niguma, Sukhasiddhi and Khyungpo Naljor.
The "Grey Earth" school represents the scholarly tradition. Headed by the Sakya Trizin, this tradition was founded by Khön Könchok Gyelpo (Wylie: 'khon dkon mchog rgyal po, 1034–1102), a disciple of the great lotsāwa Drogmi Shākya (Wylie: brog mi lo tsā wa ye shes) and traces its lineage to the mahasiddha Virūpa. A renowned exponent, Sakya Pandita (1182–1251CE), was the great-grandson of Khön Könchok Gyelpo.
The "Way of Virtue" school was originally a reformist movement and is known for its emphasis on logic and debate. The order was founded in the 14th to 15th century by Je Tsongkhapa, renowned for both his scholarship and virtue. Its spiritual head is the Ganden Tripa and its temporal one the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama is regarded as the embodiment of Avalokiteśvara. Successive Dalai Lamas ruled Tibet from the mid-17th to mid-20th centuries.
These first four major schools are sometimes said to constitute the Nyingma "Old Translation" and Sarma "New Translation" traditions, the latter following from the historical Kadam lineage of translations and tantric lineages. Another common but trivial differentiation is into the Yellow Hat (Gelug) and Red Hat (non-Gelug) sects, a division that mirrors the distinction between the schools involved in the Rimé movement versus the one that did not, the Gelug. The correspondences are as follows:
The Jonang is a minor school that branched off from Sakya traditions; it was suppressed in 1650 in Gelug-controlled regions and subsequently banned and its monks and nuns converted to the Gelug school in 1658.
The Jonang re-established their religio-political center in Golok, Nakhi and Mongol areas in Kham and Amdo centered at Dzamthang Monastery and have continued practicing uninterrupted to this day. An estimated 5,000 monks and nuns of the Jonang tradition practice today in these areas and at the edges of historic Gelug influence.
However, their teachings were limited to these regions until the Rimé movement of the 19th century encouraged the study of non-Gelug schools of thought and practice. In modern times it has been encouraged to grow by the 14th Dalai Lama, who installed the 9th Jebtsundamba Khutughtu as its head.
Native Tibetan developments
A distinct feature of Tibetan Buddhism which is popularly held to be an innovation is the system of incarnate lamas. Moreover, that even this is a distinctly Tibetan development is disputable. Two centuries before Buddhism was introduced to Tibet, in the fifth century CE, the Abhidharma teacher Buddhaghoṣa was declared by Sri Lankan elders to be a reincarnation of the bodhisattva Maitreya.
Significant genuine innovations in Tibetan Buddhism have been few. A small corpus of extra-canonical scripture, the treasure texts (terma) literature is acknowledged by Nyingma practitioners, but the bulk of the canon that is not commentary was translated from Indian, central Asian or Chinese sources. True to its roots in the Pāla system of North India, however, Tibetan Buddhism carries on a tradition of eclectic accumulation and systematisation of diverse Buddhist elements, and pursues their synthesis. Prominent among these achievements have been the Stages of the Path and mind training, both stemming from teachings by the Indian pandit, Atiśa.
Tibetan Buddhism in the contemporary world
Today, Tibetan Buddhism is adhered to widely in the Tibetan Plateau, Mongolia, northern Nepal, Kalmykia (on the north-west shore of the Caspian), Siberia (Tuva and Buryatia), the Russian Far East and northeast China. It is the state religion of Bhutan. The Indian regions of Sikkim and Ladakh, both formerly independent kingdoms, are also home to significant Tibetan Buddhist populations, as are the Indian states of Himachal Pradesh (which includes Dharamsala and the district of Lahaul-Spiti), West Bengal (the hill stations of Darjeeling and Kalimpong) and Arunachal Pradesh.
In the wake of the Tibetan diaspora, Tibetan Buddhism has gained adherents in the West and throughout the world. Fully ordained Tibetan Buddhist Monks now work in academia (see Ven. Alex Bruce ('Tenpa')).
Buddhist author Michaela Haas notes that Tibetan Buddhism is undergoing a sea change in the West. "Of all these changes that we are watching Buddhism undergo in the West, the most momentous may be that women are playing an equal role."
Women in Tibetan Buddhism
Under the Mulasarvastivadin Vinaya, as with the two other extant Vinaya lineages today (Theravada and Dharmaguptaka), in order to ordain bhikṣuṇīs, there must be quorums of both bhikṣuṇīs and bhikṣus; without both, a woman cannot be ordained as a nun (Tibetan: དགེ་སློང་མ་, THL: gélongma). When Buddhism traveled from India to Tibet, apparently the quorum of bhikṣuṇīs required for bestowing full ordination never reached Tibet.
Despite an absence of ordination there, bhikṣuṇīs did travel to Tibet. A notable example was the Sri Lankan nun Candramāla, whose work with Śrījñāna (Wylie: dpal ye shes) resulted in the tantric text Śrīcandramāla Tantrarāja (Tibetan: དཔལ་ཟླ་བའི་ཕྲེང་བའི་རྒྱུད་ཀྱི་རྒྱལ་པོ, Chinese: 吉祥月鬘本續王).
There are singular accounts of fully ordained Tibetan women, such as the Samding Dorje Phagmo (1422-1455), who was once ranked the highest female master in Tibet, but very little is known about the exact circumstances of their ordination.
The Dalai Lama has authorized followers of the Tibetan tradition to be ordained as nuns in traditions that have such ordination.
According to Thubten Chodron, the current Dalai Lama has said on this issue:
- In 2005, the Dalai Lama repeatedly spoke about the bhikṣuṇī ordination in public gatherings. In Dharamsala, he encouraged, "We need to bring this to a conclusion. We Tibetans alone can't decide this. Rather, it should be decided in collaboration with Buddhists from all over the world. Speaking in general terms, were the Buddha to come to this 21st century world, I feel that most likely, seeing the actual situation in the world now, he might change the rules somewhat...."
- Later, in Zürich during a 2005 conference of Tibetan Buddhist Centers, His Holiness said, "Now I think the time has come; we should start a working group or committee" to meet with monks from other Buddhist traditions. Looking at the German bhikṣuṇī Jampa Tsedroen, he instructed, "I prefer that Western Buddhist nuns carry out this work… Go to different places for further research and discuss with senior monks (from various Buddhist countries). I think, first, senior bhikshunis need to correct the monks' way of thinking.
- "This is the 21st century. Everywhere we are talking about equality….Basically Buddhism needs equality. There are some really minor things to remember as a Buddhist--a bhikshu always goes first, then a bhikshuni….The key thing is the restoration of the bhikshuni vow."
Alexander Berzin referred to the Dalai Lama having said on occasion of the 2007 Hamburg congress:
Sometimes in religion there has been an emphasis on male importance. In Buddhism, however, the highest vows, namely the bhikshu and bhikshuni ones, are equal and entail the same rights. This is the case despite the fact that in some ritual areas, due to social custom, bhikshus go first. But Buddha gave the basic rights equally to both sangha groups. There is no point in discussing whether or not to revive the bhikshuni ordination; the question is merely how to do so properly within the context of the Vinaya.
Pema Chödrön is an American woman who was ordained as a bhikṣuṇī in a lineage of Tibetan Buddhism in 1981. Pema Chödrön was the first American woman to be ordained as a Buddhist nun in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.
In 2010 the first Tibetan Buddhist nunnery in America, Vajra Dakini Nunnery in Vermont, was officially consecrated. It offers novice ordination and follows the Drikung Kagyu lineage of Buddhism. The abbot of the Vajra Dakini nunnery is Khenmo Drolma, an American woman, who is the first bhikṣuṇī in the Drikung lineage of Buddhism, having been ordained in Taiwan in 2002. She is also the first westerner, male or female, to be installed as an abbot in the Drikung Kagyu lineage of Buddhism, having been installed as the abbot of the Vajra Dakini Nunnery in 2004. The Vajra Dakini Nunnery does not follow The Eight Garudhammas.
In April 2011, the Institute for Buddhist Dialectical Studies (IBD) in Dharamsala, India, conferred the degree of geshe, a Tibetan Buddhist academic degree for monastics, on Kelsang Wangmo, a German nun, thus making her the world's first female geshe. In 2013 Tibetan women were able to take the geshe exams for the first time. In 2016 twenty Tibetan Buddhist nuns became the first Tibetan women to earn geshe degrees.