Brief introduction to Tibetan Buddhism

____ Sonam Jamtsho [dzongsar]


Tibetan Buddhism is a very rich tradition of meditation, philosophical insights, religious practices and above all a very vibrant and living tradition. Here I will attempt to lay down some of the fundamental practices and ideas that shaped it and gives life to it. In the first section I will focus mainly on the three vehicles or three different but interrelated practices and ideas. Next I will try to give a short accounts of its history. In the last section I will introduce some of the greatest masters of past and current holders of lineages.


  1. Three vehicles.

The Tibetan Buddhism can be understood in terms of three different but interrelated and overlapping layers of practises and ideas. At the foundation is the practises that belongs to Hinayana or root yana. These consist of teaching like four noble truths, selflessness, the individual monastic ethical codes based on Vinaya. Basic meditation practice of single pointedness and insights meditation are also some of the practices found within this levels. Tibetan also practice four mindfulness as part of this layer. Studies of five aggregates, twelve sense spheres are done as to gain understanding into the nature of view of selflessness of person. The world view here revolves around idea of Karma, Samsara and Nirvana. Samsara is the life cycles of births and deaths, which is deeply unsatisfactory. This in turn is caused by karma or intentional actions that have their roots in passion. The fundamental roots of our Samsaric experiences is misunderstanding in thinking that there is a permanent, single and unitary self. Yet, through deeper philosophical reflection and meditation practises it is possible to eliminates these roots and get liberated from the cycles.

On the second layer there are lots of practices and ideas mainly based on and contained in Mahayana sutra like those of wisdom sutras, Lankavatara sutras etc. These sutra teaches the ideal of Bodhisatva, beings who seeks ultimate perfection of Buddha-hood for the sake of liberating all sentient beings. And in order to achieve this lofty goal, the foundational practice is of awakening mind and six paramitas; generosity, ethical discipline, forbearance, diligence, meditation and wisdom, are practised. The different levels of realisation and two selflessness are studied, reflected and meditated upon. On this layer, the world view is one of interdependent origination. Every aspects of existence is interrelated with other aspects. The root of Tibetan Mahayana practice is of love and compassion for all others sentient beings. One of the most loved and revered practise, that of mind training too belongs to this layers.

The third layers consist of practice of Vajrayana, found in the Tantras. Here a secret path is taught. The fundamental world view of this layer is that reality at its most fundamental levels is pure. The unsatisfactory and uncertainty nature of our lives is result of adventitious and fleeting ignorance but these does not affect this basic purity, which remains hidden to ordinary beings. The tantric practices are meant to facilitate the revelation and actualisations of reality’s basic purity.  One begins practice through a relation with tantric Guru, corresponding to spiritual teacher in first two vehicles. Guru is fully enlightened being who manifest all the qualities of spiritual maturities. The Guru will introduce his or her students to the basic purity of nature by bestowing empowerments. Guru also gives and guides disciples along the path by providing special pith instructions to practice. Practise in Vajrayana are categorised into two distinct stages, that of generations and of completion. In the first one identifies oneself with a deity, visualising oneself as having deities body, ones speech as pure speech form and surrounding as the mansion of deities. The second stages mainly focuses upon the Yogic practices aimed at manipulating and controlling bodily energies so as to produce non-conceptual awareness. The first stage of Vajrayana corresponds to that of single pointed meditation and second to insight meditation.


  1. It’s brief history.

Buddhism first came to Tibet in seventh century during the reign of King Songtsen Gampo. He sent one of his minister to India to study who later invented Tibetan alphabets and established the grammatical conventions of language. This greatly facilitated the translation of many texts and scriptures primarily from Sanskrit but also from Chinese and Pali. During the reign of King Trisong Duetsen in eighth century he invited many great Indian scholars and realised masters who in collaboration with Tibetan translators succeeded in translating many Buddhist texts that belongs to all three vehicles. He also built many monasteries and established retreat centre. First group of Tibetan took monastic vows during his time. During the King Ralpachen, many translated texts were standardised. These three are commonly known as three great Dharma King.

After a brief eclipse of Dharma activities in the middle of ninth century, it was again to occupy the mind of best Tibetan. Many monastic centres dedicated for studies, meditation, translation and propagation of Dharma were built. In the mid thirteenth century Tibetan canon were collected and standardised. Tibetan have two canons, Kagyur or translated words of Buddha and Tangyur or translated words of later scholars. Collectively they consist of more than three hundred volumes of scripture. On top of which there are thousands of volumes written by Tibetan lama themselves.


  1. Some of the greatest masters.

Guru Rinpoche Padmasambhava is considered to be the father of Tibetan Buddhism. He is an Indian Yogi who brought Vajrayana form of Buddhism to Tibet. Through his activities and association Buddhism was firmly established into Tibetan soil. Abbot Santarakshita is another great Indian master who contributed by introducing the Vinaya and Middle way philosophy into Tibet. Atisha was another famed Indian master who taught in eleventh century. Vairochana, Kawa pal tsek, Rinchen Zangpo, Ngog Lotsawa, Brog mi Lotsawa, Marpa Lotsawa are some of the greatest translators.

Guru Rinpoche founded the Nyingma lineages. Do Drupchen, Dilgo Khyentse and Dzongsar khyentse are some of the leading modern Nyingma teachers.

Atisha founded the kadam lineage and later Tsongkhapa integrated it into Geluk lineage. HH Dalai Lama is the greatest teacher of this lineage still alive. Marpa and his student Milarepa founded kagyu lineage. The Karmapa and Gyalwang Drukpa are some of the greatest masters of kagyu. Sakya tradition is started by Sa Chen Kunga Nyingpo and his sons. Sakya Trizin is the lineage holder of this tradition. Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinooche is unique in the sense that he holds every teaching and practice lineage from all the traditions.




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