A Brief History of Tibetan Buddhism

A Brief History of Tibetan Buddhism 

A brief history of tibetan buddhism

Tibetan Mountains

After the death of Shakyamuni Buddha, Buddhism split into various sects or schools in India and one of the most famous Buddhist historical figures was King Ashoka who ruled his empire by the principle of Ahimsa (non-violence).

 Buddhism flourished in India until the 3rd century, after which it experienced a decline as the ruling Brahmins were not thrilled that the Buddha made all of their various innumerable paths obsolete (in a way).

The arrival of Buddhist Scriptures to Tibet

Buddhism has an extensive history in Tibet. Preceding the spread of Buddhism to Tibet, the region’s native culture and religion was Bon which had some influence on the development of Buddhism in Tibet.

It was during the reign of the King Thothori Nyantsen (latter half of the 2nd century) that Buddhism became established in Tibet. During his reign, some Buddhist scriptures arrived from India to southern Tibet. Later, in the 3rd century, the scriptures spread to northern parts of Tibet. During this period, Buddhism was actually beginning to take shape in Tibet.

The reign of King Songtsen Gampo and afterwards

A brief history of tibetan buddhism

King Songtsen Gampo

Buddhist scriptures might have made their way into the Tibet centuries earlier. But the actual history of Tibetan Buddhism begins with King Songtsen Gampo in 641 C.E. The King Songtsen Gampo conquered and unified Tibet through military conquest. He also married two Buddhist princesses. They were Princess Bhrikuti of Nepal and Princess Wen Cheng of China.

Both the princesses are credited with familiarizing their husband to Buddhism. Then, Buddhism was declared as the state religion.

In order to facilitate the installation of the Buddha statues brought by his wives, a large network of 108 Buddhist temples were built, including Jokhang in Lhasa and the Changzhug in Nedong. The king is also credited with the translation of the Sanskrit scriptures with the help of Tibetan translators, during his reign.

After the reign of King Songtsen Gampo, it took almost 100 years for the Buddhism to be re-established during the rule of the three emperors, who were – Tri Song Detsen (775 C.E.), Tri Saynalek (812 C.E.), and Tri Ralpachen (838 C.E.). It was during this period when huge translation projects were carried out so as to record the Indian texts in Tibetan. Also, the population began to accept Buddhism as a religion.

The last emperor of Tibet (reigned during 838-842) was an anti-Buddhist. He tried to suppress the religion. He was then assassinated due to his anti-Buddhist policies. The royal kingdom was shrunken by the end of 840s and hence collapsed. After that, for nearly two hundred years, the Tibetan Buddhism was dormant. During this period, there were no translation projects or monasteries. Still, Buddhism was able to survive in Tibet.

The Arrival of Padmasambhava & Atisha

a brief history of tibetan buddhism


a brief history of tibetan buddhism

Buddhist scholar Atisha

One of the major events in the timeline of Buddhism in Tibet was the advent of sage Padmasambhava. King Trisong Detsen had invited him to Tibet in the year 774. The sage Padmasambhava is said to have translated the Sanskrit Buddhist texts into the Tibetan language.

He is also credited with the combination of the local Bon religion with tantric Buddhism to create what is today known to us as the Tibetan Buddhism. The sage Padmasambhava also laid down the foundation of Nyingma, the first school of Tibetan Buddhism.

Atisha was another great Indian scholar. He arrived in Tibet to restore Buddhism during the 9th century when Buddhism was suffering a major resistance from the locals. Dromton was the disciple of Atisa and is credited with the foundation of Kadampa, which is yet another school of Tibetan Buddhism.

The Four Schools of Buddhism in Tibet

a brief history of tibetan buddhism

Nyingma sect monastery

Nyingma – The Ancient Ones

Nyingma means ‘ancient’ in the Tibetan language. It is considered as the oldest amongst the four schools. It is also the largest one after the Gelukpa School of Tibetan Buddhism. It was instituted during the first disseminations of Buddhism to Tibet during the 8th century. The other three schools were instituted in the second dissemination.

a brief history of tibetan buddhsim

The lineage Refuge Tree (Kagyu sect)

Kagyu – Oral Lineage

It was founded by the great translator Marpa. Milarepa and Gampopa were his disciples, who are also credited as the founders. Kagyu School is based on the principle of Mahamudra (the Great Seal). The principle places importance on four chief stages of meditative practice which is known as the “Four Yogas of Mahamudra”. It is through these four stages that the initiate attains the perfect awareness of Mahamudra.

a brief history of tibetan buddhism

Sakya sect monastery

Sakya – Grey Earth

The Sakya School was instituted by Khon Konchok Gyalpo in 1073. During this time, Khon Konchok Gyalpo established the Sakya monastery in the south central part of Tibet.  Unlike some of the other schools, Sakya have two different levels of teaching.

  1. General teaching for the general audience which is based on the sutras
  2. Esoteric teachings for initiates
A brief history of tibetan buddhism

Tashilhunpo Monastery (Gelug sect)


Gelugpa – Way of Virtue

As a transformation movement within the borders of Buddhism in Tibet, the Gelug school was founded by Gyalwa Tsongkhapa, who was a Tibetan religious teacher and a philosopher. It is the most recent of all the schools.

The Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Tulku system

The word Dalai means Ocean and the word Lama imply Guru. So, the Dalai Lama essentially implies ‘Spiritual Guru’. Tibetan Buddhist practise places very much importance on the lama.

These respected gurus are often bestowed with the title of Rinpoche means the Precious One. He is also being perceived by the Tibetan Buddhists as one of the many embodiments of Avalokiteshvara, who is the most valued Bodhisattva of Tibetan Buddhism.

With the departure of one Dalai Lama, the search is initiated for his reincarnation. Lamas generally look for a small child known as yangsi. This child should possess the qualities analogous to the preceding Dalai Lama. Ordinarily, the quest takes a few years to be finalized. After being finalized, new Dalai Lama is taken to Lhasa, where he undertakes training under the other Lamas.

The Emergence of the Tulku system

In Tibetan Buddhism, a Tulku is a reincarnated Buddhist monk and the system surrounding it is one of the unique characteristics of Tibetan Buddhism. The Tulku system is based on the theory that the soul of Buddha never vanishes. In order to lead his followers and accomplish his mission, it is believed that Buddha reincarnates in succession. Karma Pakshi is considered as the first reincarnations among the Buddhist monks.

a brief history of tibetan buddhism

Karma Pakshi

It so happened that, in 1193, the first Karmapa who belonged to the Karma Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, passed away. At the end, he told his disciples that he would reincarnate to complete his unaccomplished tasks.

His followers soon started searching for his infant reincarnation. Quite a few years later, it turned out that Karma Pakshi was the first re-embodiment in Tibetan Buddhism and became the leader of Karma Kagyu.

In order to keep Tibetan Buddhism consistent, many other sects started adopting this reincarnation system. As the system of practice started evolving, successors for hundreds of Gyalwas (considered as the living Buddhas) were being selected. Among these were the Panchen Lama and the Dalai Lama, who are the most significant.

Etymology and Nomenclature of the Tulku

The word ‘sprul’, in original form, was a verb in Tibetan literature. The original meaning of the word was the emperor taking a human form on the earth. As Buddhism continued to evolve in Tibet, the word ‘sprul’ became associated with ‘tulku’ or an ‘incarnation body’.  As time passed by, the word Tulku became associated with Nirmanakaya in Sanskrit.

In accordance with the philosophy of the “Three Bodies of the Buddha” or the “Trikaya”, Buddha’s physical body is considered as the Nirmanakaya. Thus, the historical Buddha, Siddharta Gautama, can be considered as an example of Nirmanakaya. So, in relation to this, the word Tulku is used in Tibetan Buddhism to denote the physical being of enlightened Buddhist masters. Interestingly the word for Tulku in Chinese huófó means “living Buddha”.

Characteristics of the Tulku system

Historically, most of the Tulkus have been Tibetans. Some have been born among the Mongols, with whom the Tibetans lived and had contact with. At present, tulkus are being found all over the world in the Tibetan diaspora.

Tulku might be simply considered as the high-ranking Lama – which may be the Panchen Lama, the Dalai Lama or the Karmapa. The Tulku can consciously choose the manner of his or her rebirth.

This reincarnation would be of the same sex as his or her precursor. Unlike a tulku, all others, including other lamas, have no choice as to the mode of their rebirth. Tulkus, on their deathbed, are also able to choose the place of their next birth.

One should not get confused about the Tulku incarnation line with the lineage of Buddhist teachers which concern the transmission of particular Buddhist spiritual practices and teachings from one generation to the next.

The process of finding a successor to the Lama

a brief history of tibetan buddhism

Various religious rituals and methods are used to identify a rebirth or reincarnation of a late lama. After a Lama’s or Tulku’s death a search party consisting of Lamas headed by another high lama, begins in which they search for infants with certain signs. 

Some of the special signs include:

  1. Children who have superior knowledge without being trained or educated
  2. New mothers who had uncommon and unfamiliar dreams
  3. Special bodily characteristics, such as having big ear lobes.

Some of the lamas are sent to the Oracle Lake, Lhamo Latso, to look for oracular visions to help detect the reincarnation.

Generally, a number of candidates are sought after. These selected candidates will be verified with the late lama’s belongings. During the testing phase, those who have astounding knowledge in recognizing their precursor’s possessions win and become the final contenders.

Since, during the time of search operations disputes might occur (which happened in the case of the 6th Dalai Lama), the Emperor Qianlong who belonged to the Qing Dynasty decided to use a lottery in a gold container to eliminate candidates who are not eligible.

The names and birth dates of the final contenders are inscribed onto ivory lots. The ivory lots are then wrapped up and sealed inside the vase. Spiritual ceremonies and rituals are held before the commencement of the lottery. The lottery is held at the Jokhang Temple. Finally, a new spiritual and sacred leader is soon selected and installed provided, the central government has verified the procedure.

The Dalai Lama

a brief history of tibetan buddhism

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

A brief history of Tibetan Buddhism would be incomplete without mentioning the current Dalai Lama.

The Dalai Lama belongs to the Gelugpa institution of Tibetan Buddhism. This tradition is the most influential tradition and the largest one among all others in Tibet.

The establishment and tradition of the Dalai Lama are a comparatively recent phenomenon. To date, there have been only 14 Dalai Lamas in the account of Tibetan Buddhism. The Buddhists in Tibet believe that the current Dalai Lama is a rebirth of a previous lama who decided to be reborn again.

Nevertheless, the name Dalai Lama implies “Ocean of Wisdom”. The title “Dalai Lama” was not conferred reincarnation in the form of Sonam Gyatso which was the 3rd reincarnation in 1578. Tenzin Gyatso is the current – 14th Dalai Lama.

He was born in 1935 and accepted as the rebirth of Thubten Gyatso (the precursor) at an early age. He was enrolled into a monastery at a tender age of five and continued to learn until the age of 25, getting the highest honors available. He is the first among the Dalai Lamas to travel to the West.

He also garnered much support for Buddhism and the Tibetan opposition movement. In the year 1989 he was conferred the Nobel Peace Prize for maintaining a policy of non-violence with the government of China. He did this in spite of the knowledge that many Tibetans would prefer to take up armed struggle to return him to his place as their leader.

“Our prime purpose in this life is to help others.
And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.”
– His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

Tibetan Buddhism Today

This concludes Today, Tibet remains under Chinese oppressive control and the Dalai Lama is doing all he can to help.  He runs Tibetan cultural centers in many different places.  For example in the US, the cultural center is called Tibet House US which I would encourage anyone to join.  With

May we realize Buddhahood for the sake of all sentient beings everywhere!

I will leave you with a lecture by Robert  Thurman for a discussion on the process of dying, death and rebirth.

I hope you enjoyed this article on a brief history of Tibetan Buddhism, and feel free to leave a comment below.

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8 Responses to A Brief History of Tibetan Buddhism

  1. Derek Marshall says:

    Hi Ian,

    I totally love this site! Absolutely freaking awesome. Obviously a man with solid and deep knowledge of Buddhism. I am a Buddhist for years and barely even scratch the surface of your knowledge. Did you study Buddhism at university in Thailand or somewhere? DId you spend sometime as monk?

    Absolutely bookmarking this and looking forward to more daily wisdoms from you.

    • Ian H says:

      Thank you! I didn’t study in Thailand but I started studying Buddhism when I was 12 reading the Bardo Thodol and no matter where my life path lead it always circled back to Buddhism specifically the Tibetan form.

      Thanks for bookmarking my site! 🙂

  2. Jack says:

    Wow. How timely. I just saw a documentary on the Budda on PBS and was facinated by his life and teachings. I like the pages devoted to the 4 truths. Also, the Noble Eight Fold Path. I find much wisdom here. I intend to order one of the many books offered to follow up on Buddhist teachings. Thank you for this wonderful site.

    • Ian H says:

      Thank you for you kind words. Yes, there is a lot of wisdom to be found in the Buddha’s teachings and many parallels between the enlightened and saints of other faiths such as Jesus, Rumi, St. Nicholas, etc.

      I will be doing many book reviews again to help you (and everyone else) decide which books to buy.

      Happy Holidays!


  3. Jovo says:

    Hi, this is such a fascinating story about Tibetan buddhism. Of course I knew a bit before but it is great to have it so nicely written in one place. I was not so familiar with the Tulku tradition

    I love the statement of Dalai Lama, inspiring indeed. Many thanks for this text.

  4. JP says:

    That was such an informative post. I remember learning just a little but about buddhism in the 7th grade but that was the extent of my knowledge on the subject. I learned more on this post than I did that whole year. keep up the good work and I look forward to some more posts.

    • Ian H says:

      Thanks for the comment! This is just the history of Buddhism in Tibet. I’m planning on writing more historical posts like this so stay tuned!

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