I was introduced to Tibetan Buddhism through the teachings of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Tibetan Buddhism, sometimes referred to as Lamaism, is the form of Mahayana Buddhism that developed in Tibet and the surrounding Himalayan region beginning in the 7th century CE.
Tibetan Buddhism incorporates Madhyamika and Yogacara philosophy, Tantric symbolic rituals, Theravadin monastic discipline and the shamanistic features of the indigenous religion, Bön.
Among its most unique characteristics are its system of reincarnating lamas and the vast number of deities in its pantheon.
Buddhist Sacred Texts
Between the 11th and 14th centuries, the Tibetans translated every available Buddhist text into Tibetan. Today, many Buddhist works that have been lost in their original Sanskrit survive only in Tibetan translation.
Distinctive Beliefs of Tibetan Buddhism
In common with Mahayana schools, Tibetan Buddhism includes a pantheon of Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and Dharma protectors. Arya-bodhisattvas are able to escape the cycle of death and rebirth but compassionately choose to remain in this world to assist others in reaching nirvana or buddhahood.
Dharma protectors are mythic figures incorporated into Tibetan Buddhism from various sources (including the native Bön religion, and Hinduism) who are pledged to protecting and upholding the Dharma. Many of the specific figures are unique to Tibet.
Four Schools of Tibetan Buddhism
There are four principal schools within modern Tibetan Buddhism:
- Gelug (Geluk, “School of the Virtuous”), also called the Yellow Hats, is the youngest of the Tibetan schools, but is today the largest and the most important.
- Kagyü (“Oral Transmission School”;) is the third largest school of Tibetan Buddhism. Its teachings were brought to Tibet by Marpa the Translator, an 11th century Tibetan householder who traveled to India to study under the master yogin Naropa and gather Buddhist scriptures.
- Nyingma (“School of the Ancients”) is the oldest of the Tibetan Buddhist schools and the second largest after Geluk. The Nyingma school is based primarily on the teachings of Padmasambhava, who is revered by the Nyingma school as the “second Buddha.”
- Sakya is today the smallest of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism. It is named for the Sakya (“Gray Earth”) monastery in southern Tibet. The abbots were devoted to the transmission of a cycle of Vajrayana teachings called “path and goal” (Lamdre), the systemization of Tantric teachings, and Buddhist logic.