Tibetan Buddhism | Overview

1. Tibetan Buddhism

Tibetan Buddhism is the form of Buddhism practiced in Tibet where it is the dominant religion.

It is also found in the regions surrounding the Himalayas (such as Bhutan, Ladakh, and Sikkim), much of Central Asia, the Southern Siberian regions such as Tuva, as well as Mongolia.

Tibetan Buddhism is a form of Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna Buddhism stemming from the latest stages of Indian Buddhism. It thus preserves "the Tantric status quo of 8th century India," inclusive of native Tibetan developments and practices.

In the pre-modern era, Tibetan Buddhism spread outside of Tibet primarily due to the influence of the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), founded by Kublai Khan, which ruled China, Mongolia and parts of Siberia.

In the modern era, it has spread outside of Asia due to the efforts of the Tibetan diaspora.

Apart from classical Mahāyāna Buddhist practices like the 6 perfections, Tibetan Buddhism also includes Tantric practices, such as deity yoga and the Six Dharmas of Naropa.

Its main goal is Buddhahood or rainbow body.
The main language of scriptural study in this tradition is classical Tibetan.

Tibetan Buddhism has 4 major schools, namely Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug.

The Jonang is a smaller school, and the Rime movement is a recent non-sectarian movement which cuts across the different schools.

Each school is independent and has its own monastic institutions and leaders.

2. Teachings

Tibetan Buddhism upholds classic Buddhist teachings such as:

=> 4 Noble Truths,
=> Anātman (not-self),
=> 5 aggregates,
=> Karma and rebirth,
=> Dependent arising.

They also uphold various other Buddhist doctrines associated with Mahāyāna Buddhism as well as the tantric Vajrayāna tradition.

3. Buddhahood and Bodhisattvas

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:

This motivation is called Bodhicitta (mind of awakening) - an altruistic intention to become Enlightened for the sake of all sentient beings.

Bodhisattvas (Tib. jangchup semba, literally "awakening hero") are revered beings who have conceived the will and vow to dedicate their lives with Bodhicitta for the sake of all beings.

Widely revered Bodhisattvas in Tibetan Buddhism include Avalokiteśvara, Mañjuśrī, Vajrapāṇi, and Tārā.

The most important Buddhas are the 5 Buddhas of the Vajradhātu mandala as well as the Ādi Buddha (first Buddha), called either Vajradhara or Samantabhadra.

Buddhahood is defined as a state free of the obstructions to liberation as well as those to omniscience (sarvajñāna):

When one is freed from all mental obscuration, 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.

Tibetan Buddhism claims to teach methods for achieving Buddhahood more quickly (known as the Vajrayāna path).

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.

An important schema which is used in understanding the nature of Buddhahood in Tibetan Buddhism is the Trikāya (3 bodies) doctrine.

4. The Bodhisattva path

A central schema for spiritual advancement used in Tibetan Buddhism is that of the 5 Paths (Skt. pañcamārga; Tib. lam nga) which are:

1. The path of accumulation - in which one collects wisdom and merit, generates Bodhicitta, cultivates the 4 foundations of mindfulness and right effort (the "4 abandonments").

2. The path of preparation - Is attained when one reaches the union of calm abiding and higher insight meditations and one becomes familiar with Emptiness.

3. The path of seeing - one perceives Emptiness directly, all thoughts of subject and object are overcome, one becomes an Ārya.

4. The path of meditation - one removes subtler traces from one's mind and perfects one's understanding.

5. The path of no more learning - which culminates in Buddhahood.

The schema of the 5 paths is often elaborated and merged with the concept of the bhūmi or the Bodhisattva Levels.

5. Lamrim

Lamrim ("stages of the path") is a Tibetan Buddhist schema for presenting the stages of spiritual practice leading to Liberation:

In Tibetan Buddhist history there have been many different versions of Lamrim, presented by different teachers of the Nyingma, Kagyu and Gelug schools.

However, all versions of the Lamrim are elaborations of Atiśa's 11th-century root text A Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment (Bodhipathapradīpa).

Atiśa’s Lamrim system generally divides practitioners into those of lesser, middling and superior scopes or attitudes:

a) The lesser person is to focus on the preciousness of human birth as well as contemplation of death and impermanence.

b) The middling person is taught to contemplate karma, dukkha (suffering) and the benefits of liberation and refuge.

c) The superior scope is said to encompass the 4 Brahmā Vihāras, the Bodhisattva Vow, the 6 Pāramitās as well as Tantric practices.

Although Lamrim texts cover much the same subject areas, subjects within them may be arranged in different ways and with different emphasis depending on the school and tradition it belongs to.

Gampopa and Tsongkhapa expanded the short root-text of Atiśa into an extensive system to understand the entire Buddhist philosophy.

In this way, subjects like Karma, Rebirth, Buddhist cosmology and the practice of meditation are gradually explained in logical order.

6. Vajrayāna

Tibetan Buddhism is a form of Vajrayāna (Vajra vehicle), "Secret Mantra" (Skt. guhyāmantra) or Buddhist Tantra, affirming the views espoused in the texts known as the Buddhist Tantras (dating from around the 7th century CE onwards).

Tantra (Tib. rgyud) generally refers to forms of religious practice which emphasize the use of unique visualizations, ideas, symbols and rituals for inner transformation.

The Vajrayāna is seen by its adherents as the fastest and most powerful vehicle for Enlightenment because it contains many skilful means (Upāya) and because it takes the effect (Buddhahood itself, or Buddha nature) as the path (and hence is sometimes known as the "effect vehicle", phalayāna).

An important element of Tantric practice is Tantric Deities and their Maṇḍalas. These deities come in peaceful and fierce forms.

Tantric texts also generally affirm the use of sense pleasures and other defilements in Tantric ritual as a path to Enlightenment, as opposed to non-Tantric Buddhism which affirms that one must renounce all sense pleasures.

These practices are based on the theory of transformation which states that negative or sensual mental factors and physical actions can be cultivated and transformed in a ritual setting.

As the Hevajra Tantra states:

Those things by which evil men are bound, others turn into means and gain thereby release from the bonds of existence. By passion the world is bound, by passion too it is released, but for heretical Buddhists this practice of reversals is not known.

Another element of the Tantras is their use of transgressive practices, such as drinking taboo substances such as alcohol or sexual yoga. While in many cases these transgressions were interpreted only symbolically, in other cases they are practiced literally.

7. Mādhyamika and tenet systems

Mādhyamika, also called Śūnyavāda (the emptiness doctrine) is the dominant Buddhist philosophy of Tibetan Buddhism and is generally seen as the highest view, but is interpreted in various ways.

Śūnyatā, the true nature of reality, or the Emptiness of inherent existence (Svabhāva) of all things, is traditionally propounded according to a hierarchical classification of 4 classical Indian philosophical schools.

While the classical tenets-system, as propagated by the Gelug school, is limited to 4 tenets (Vaibhāṣika, Sautrāntika, Yogācāra, and Mādhyamika),

more complicated systems include also the Shentong-view of the Jonang and the Kagyu,

and also differentiates between the Radical Emptiness of the Gelugpa-school, and the Experiential Emptiness of the Nyingma and the Sakya.

2 tenets belong to the path referred to as the Hīnayāna, and are both Sarvāstivāda - sub-schools. They do not include Theravāda, the only surviving of the 18 classical schools of Buddhism:

1. Vaibhāṣika. The primary source for the Vaibhāṣika is the Abhidharmakośa of Vasubandhu and its commentaries. This system affirms an atomistic view of reality as well the view that perception directly experiences external objects.

2. Sautrāntika. The Abhidharmakośa was also an important source for the Sautrāntikas. Dignāga and Dharmakīrti are the most prominent exponents:

As opposed to Vaibhāṣika, this view holds that we do not directly perceive the external world, only phenomenal forms caused by objects and our senses.

The other 2 tenets are Mahāyāna:

3. Yogācāra - also called Cittamātra "Mind-Only". Yogācārins base their views on texts from Maitreya, Asaṅga and Vasubandhu. Yogācāra is often interpreted as a form of Idealism.

The system is entirely rejected by the Gelugpa, but elements of it form part of the teachings of the other schools.

4. Mādhyamika - The philosophy of Nāgārjuna and Āryadeva, which affirms that everything is Empty of Essence (Svabhāva) and is ultimately beyond concepts.

4.1 Rangtong, a term introduced by Dölpopa, which rejects any inherent existing self or nature. This includes:

4.1.1 Svatantrika Sautrāntika Svātantrika Mādhyamika - Bhāviveka Yogācāra Svātantrika Mādhyamika - Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla, the oldest Buddhist teachings to be introduced in Tibet.

4.1.2 Prasaṅgika, based on Buddhapālita and Candrakīrti.
Within Prasaṅgika, a further division can be made: Intellectual emptiness, which is realized by absolute denial. This is the view of Tsongkhapa and the Gelugpa School, which rejects any statements on an absolute reality beyond mere emptiness. Experiential emptiness, which is realized when the understanding of intellectual emptiness gives way to the recognition of the true nature of mind, c.q. Rigpa. This is the view of Nyingma (Dzogchen) and Sakya.

4.2 Shentong, systematised by Dölpopa, and based on Buddha-nature teachings and influenced by Śāntarakṣita's Yogācāra-Mādhyamika:

It states that the Nature of Mind shines through when Emptiness has been realized. This approach is dominant in the Jonang School, and can also be found in the Kagyu tradition.

The tenet systems are used in monasteries and colleges to teach Buddhist philosophy in a systematic and progressive fashion, each philosophical view being seen as more subtle than its predecessor.

Therefore, the 4 tenets 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, culminating in the philosophy of the Mādhyamika, which is widely believed to present the most sophisticated point of view.

Non-Tibetan scholars point out that historically, Mādhyamika predates Yogācāra, however.

8. Texts and study

Study of major Buddhist Indian texts is central to the monastic curriculum in all 4 major schools of Tibetan Buddhism:

Memorization of classic texts as well as other ritual texts is expected as part of traditional monastic education. Another important part of higher religious education is the practice of formalized debate.

The canon was mostly finalized in the 13th century, and divided into 2 parts:

a) Kangyur (containing Sūtras and tantras)
b) Tengyur (containing śāstras and commentaries).

The Nyingma School also maintains a separate collection of texts called the Nyingma Gyubum, assembled by Ratna Lingpa (1403–1478) in the 15th century and revised by Jigme Lingpa.

Among Tibetans, the main language of study is classical Tibetan; however, the Tibetan Buddhist canon was also translated into other languages, such as Mongolian and Manchu.

During the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, many texts from the Tibetan canon were also translated into Chinese.

Numerous texts have also recently been translated into Western languages by Western academics and Buddhist practitioners.

9. Sūtras

Among the most widely studied Sūtras in Tibetan Buddhism are Mahāyāna Sūtras such as the Perfection of Wisdom or Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras, and others such as the Ārya-saṁdhi-nirmocana-sūtra, and the Samādhirāja Sūtra.

10. Śāstras

The study of Indian Buddhist texts called Śāstras is central to Tibetan Buddhist scholasticism:

Since the late 11th century, traditional Tibetan monastic colleges generally organized the exoteric study of Buddhism into "5 great textual traditions".

1. Abhidharma
==> Asaṅga's Abhidharma-samuccaya
==> Vasubandhu's Abhidharma-kośa

2. Prajñāpāramitā
==> Abhisamayālaṅkāra
==> Śāntideva’s Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra

3. Mādhyamika
==> Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā
==> Āryadeva’s Four Hundred Verses (Catuhsataka)
==> Candrakīrti’s Madhyamakāvatāra
==> Śāntarakṣita's Madhyamākalaṁkāra
==> Śāntideva’s Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra

4. Pramāṇa
==> Dharmakīrti’s Pramāṇavarttika
==> Dignāga's Pramāṇa-samuccaya

5. Vinaya
==> Guṇaprabha's Vinayamūla Sūtra

11. Other important texts

Also of great importance are the "5 Treatises of Maitreya" including the influential Rātnagotravibhāga, a compendium of the Tathāgata-garbhā literature, and the Mahāyāna-Sūtrālamkāra-Kārikā, a text on the Mahāyāna path from the Yogācāra perspective, which are often attributed to Asaṅga.

Practiced focused texts such as the Yogācārabhūmi-Śāstra and Kamalaśīla's Bhāvanākrama ("stages of meditation") are the major sources for meditation.

While the Indian texts are often central, original material by key Tibetan scholars is also widely studied and collected into editions called sung-bum.

The Commentaries and Interpretations that are used to shed light on these texts differ according to tradition:

The Gelug School for example, use the works of Tsongkhapa, while other schools may use the more recent work of Rime movement scholars like Jamgön Kongtrül and Jamgön Ju Mipham Gyatso.

A 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 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 literature, both stemming from teachings by the Indian scholar Atiśa.

12. Tantric literature

In Tibetan Buddhism, the Buddhist Tantras are divided into 4 or 6 categories, with several sub-categories for the highest Tantras.

In the Nyingma, the division is:

I. Outer Tantras (Kriya-yoga, Charya-yoga, Yogatantra);

II. Inner Tantras (Mahāyoga, Anuyoga, Atiyoga (Tib. Dzogchen)), which correspond to the "Anuttara-yoga-tantra".

For the Nyingma School, important tantras include the Guhyāgarbha tantra, the Guhyasamāja tantra, the Kulayarāja Tantra and the 17 Dzogchen Tantras.

In the Sarma schools, the division is:

1. Kriya-yoga - These have an emphasis on purification and ritual acts and include texts like the Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa.

2. Charya-yoga - Contain "a balance between external activities and internal practices", mainly referring to the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṁbodhi Tantra.

3. Yogatantra, is mainly concerned with internal yogic techniques and includes the Tattva-saṁgraha Tantra.

4. Anuttara-yoga-tantra, contains more advanced techniques such as subtle body practices and is subdivided into:

4.1 Mother class tantras, which emphasize illusory body and completion stage practices and includes the Guhyasamāja tantra and Yamantaka tantra.

4.2 Father class, which emphasize the development stage and clear light mind and includes the Hevajra Tantra and Cakrasaṁvara Tantra.

4.3 Non-dual class, which balance the above elements, and mainly refers to the Kalachakra tantra.

It is important to note that the root tantras themselves are almost unintelligible without the various Indian and Tibetan commentaries; therefore, they are never studied without the use of the tantric commentarial apparatus.

13. 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 Asaṅga’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 Sūtra 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.

14. Practices

In Tibetan Buddhism, practices are generally classified as either Sūtra (or Pāramitāyāna) or Tantra (Vajrayāna or Mantrayāna), though exactly what constitutes each category and what is included and excluded in each is a matter of debate and differs among the various lineages.

According to Tsongkhapa for example, what separates Tantra from Sūtra is the practice of Deity yoga.

While it is generally held that the practices of Vajrayāna are not included in Sūtrayāna, all Sūtrayāna practices are common to Vajrayāna practice.

Traditionally, Vajrayāna is held to be a more powerful and effective path, but potentially more difficult and dangerous and thus they should only be undertaken by the advanced who have established a solid basis in other practices.

15. Pāramitā

The Pāramitās (perfections, transcendent virtues) is a key set of virtues which constitute the major practices of a Bodhisattva in non-tantric Mahāyāna. They are:

1. Dāna Pāramitā: generosity, giving of oneself
2. Śīla Pāramitā: virtue, morality, discipline, proper conduct
3. Kṣānti Pāramitā: patience, tolerance, forbearance, acceptance, endurance
4. Vīrya Pāramitā: energy, diligence, vigour, effort
5. Dhyāna Pāramitā: one-pointed concentration, contemplation
6. Prajñā Pāramitā: wisdom, insight

The practice of Dāna (giving) while traditionally referring to offerings of food to the monastics can also refer to the ritual offering of bowls of water, incense, butter lamps and flowers to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas on a shrine or household altar. Similar offerings are also given to other beings such as hungry ghosts, ḍākinīs, protector deities, local divinities etc.

Like other forms of Mahāyāna Buddhism, the practice of the 5 precepts and Bodhisattva Vows is part of Tibetan Buddhist moral (Śīla) practice. In addition to these, there are also numerous sets of Tantric Vows, termed Samaya, which are given as part of Tantric initiations.

Compassion (Karuṇā) practices are also particularly important in Tibetan Buddhism:

One of the foremost authoritative texts on the Bodhisattva path is the Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra by Śāntideva.

A popular compassion meditation in Tibetan Buddhism is Tonglen (sending and taking love and suffering respectively).

Practices associated with Chenrezig (Avalokiteśvara), also tend to focus on Compassion.

16. Śamatha and Vipaśyanā

The 14th Dalai Lama defines Meditation (gompa) as "familiarization of the mind with an object of meditation."

Traditionally, Tibetan Buddhism follows the 2 main approaches to Meditation or Mental Cultivation (bhāvanā) as taught in all forms of Buddhism:

1. Śamatha (Tib. Shine)
2. Vipaśyanā (lhaktong).

The practice of Śamatha (calm abiding) is one of focusing one's mind on a single object such as a Buddha figure or the breath. Through repeated practice one's mind gradually becomes more stable, calm and happy.

It is defined by Dakpo Tashi Namgyal as

"fixing the mind upon any object so as to maintain it without distraction...focusing the mind on an object and maintaining it in that state until finally it is channelled into one stream of attention and evenness."

The 9 Mental Abidings is the main progressive framework used for Śamatha in Tibetan Buddhism. Once a meditator has reached the 9th level of this schema they achieve what is termed "pliancy" (Skt. Praśrabdhi), defined as

"a serviceability of mind and body such that the mind can be set on a virtuous object of observation as long as one likes; it has the function of removing all obstructions." This is also said to be very joyful and blissful for the body and the mind.

The other form of Buddhist meditation is Vipaśyanā (clear seeing, higher insight), which in Tibetan Buddhism is generally practiced after having attained proficiency in Śamatha.

This is generally seen as having 2 aspects:

a) Analytic Meditation, thinking rationally about ideas and concepts in a scholarly or philosophical manner. As part of this process, entertaining doubts and engaging in internal debate over them is encouraged in some traditions.

b) The other type of Vipaśyanā is a Non-Analytical, "simple" yogic style called trömeh in Tibetan, which means "without complication".

A meditation routine may involve alternating sessions of Vipaśyanā to achieve deeper levels of realization, and Śamatha to consolidate them.

17. Preliminary practices

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.

The aim of preliminary practices (Ngöndro) is to start the student on the correct path for such higher teachings. Just as Sūtrayāna preceded Vajrayāna historically in India, so Sūtra practices constitute those that are preliminary to tantric ones.

Preliminary practices include all Sūtrayāna 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 3 principle stages of the path:

1. renunciation,
2. the altruistic Bodhicitta wish to attain Enlightenment
3. 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.

The most widespread preliminary practices include:

a. Taking Refuge,
1. Prostrations,
2. Vajrasattva Meditation,
3. Mandala Offering
4. Guru Yoga.

The merit acquired in the Preliminary Practices facilitates progress in Vajrayāna.

While many Buddhists may spend a lifetime exclusively on Sūtra 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.

18. Guru yoga

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.

One particular feature of the Tantric view of teacher-student relationship is that in Tibetan Buddhist Tantra, one is instructed to regard one's Guru as an Awakened Buddha.

19. Esotericism and vows

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.

Practicing Tantra also includes the maintaining of a separate set of Vows, which are called Samaya (damtsik):

There are various lists of these and they may differ depending on the practice and one's lineage or individual Guru. Upholding these vows is said to be essential for tantric practice and breaking them is said to cause great harm.

20. Rites and rituals

There has been 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.

Traditionally Tibetan Lamas have tended to the lay populace by helping them with issues such as protection and prosperity.

Common traditions have been the various rites and rituals for mundane ends, such as purifying one's karma, avoiding harm from demonic forces and enemies, and promoting a successful harvest. Divination and exorcism are examples of practices a Lama might use for this.

Ritual is generally more elaborate than in other forms of Buddhism, with complex altar arrangements and works of art (such as mandalas and Thangkas), many ritual objects, hand gestures (mudra), chants, and musical instruments.

A special kind of ritual called an Initiation or Empowerment (Sanskrit: Abhiṣeka, Tibetan: Wangkur) is central to Tantric practice:

These rituals consecrate a practitioner into a particular Tantric practice associated with individual mandalas of deities and mantras. Without having gone through initiation, one is generally not allowed to practice the higher Tantras.

Another important ritual occasion in Tibetan Buddhism is that of Mortuary Rituals which are supposed to assure that one has a Positive Rebirth and a good spiritual path in the future.

Of central importance to Tibetan Buddhist Art of Dying is the idea of the Bardo (Sanskrit: antarābhava), the intermediate or liminal state between life and death:

Rituals and the readings of texts such as the Bardo Thodol are done to ensure that the dying person can navigate this intermediate state skilfully.

Cremation and sky burial are traditionally the main funeral rites used to dispose of the body.

21. Mantra

The use of (mainly Sanskrit) prayer formulas, incantations or phrases called Mantras (Tibetan: sngags) is another widespread feature of Tibetan Buddhist practice:

So common is the use of mantras that Vajrayāna is also sometimes called "Mantrayāna" (the Mantra Vehicle). Mantras are widely recited, chanted, written or inscribed, and visualized as part of different forms of meditation.

Each Mantra has symbolic meaning and will often have a connection to a particular Buddha or Bodhisattva. Each deity's mantra is seen as symbolizing the function, speech and power of the deity.

Tibetan Buddhist practitioners repeat mantras in order to train the mind, and transform their thoughts in line with the divine qualities of the mantra's deity and special power.

Tibetan Buddhists see the etymology of the term mantra as meaning "mind protector", and mantras is seen as a way to guard the mind against negativity.

According to Lama Zopa Rinpoche:

Mantras are effective because they help keep your mind quiet and peaceful, automatically integrating it into one-pointedness. They make your mind receptive to very subtle vibrations and thereby heighten your perception.

Their recitation eradicates gross negativities and the true nature of things can then be reflected in your mind’s resulting clarity. By practising a transcendental mantra, you can in fact purify all the defiled energy of your body, speech, and mind.

Mantras also serve to focus the mind as a Śamatha (calming) practice as well as a way to transform the mind through the symbolic meaning of the mantra.

In Buddhism, it is important to have the proper intention, focus and faith when practicing mantras, if one does not, they will not work.

Mantras are part of the highest tantric practices in Tibetan Buddhism, such as Deity Yoga and are recited and visualized during tantric Sādhanas:

Thus, Tsongkhapa says that mantra "protects the mind from ordinary appearances and conceptions". This is because in Tibetan Buddhist Tantric praxis, one must develop a sense that everything is divine.

22. Tantric Yoga

In what is called Higher Yoga Tantra the emphasis is on various yoga practices which allow the practitioner to realize the true nature of reality.

Deity Yoga is a fundamental practice of Vajrayāna Buddhism involving visualization of mental images consisting mainly of Buddhist deities such as Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and Protectors, along mantra repetition.

Deity Yoga involves 2 stages, the Generation Stage and the Completion Stage:

In the Generation Stage, one dissolves the mundane world and visualizes one's chosen deity (Yidam), its mandala and companion deities, resulting in identification with this divine reality.

In the Completion Stage, one dissolves the visualization of and identification with the Yidam in the realization of Śūnyatā or Emptiness.

Completion stage practices can also include subtle body energy practices, as well as other practices such as the Six Yogas of Naropa.

The views and practices associated with Dzogchen and Mahāmudra are often seen as the culmination of the tantric path. These practices focus on the very nature of reality and experience, termed Dhammakāya or Rigpa.

23. Institutions and Clergy

Buddhist Monasticism is an important part of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, all the major and minor schools maintain large monastic institutions based on the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya (monastic rule) and many religious leaders come from the monastic community.

That being said, there are also many religious leaders or teachers (called Lamas and Gurus) which are not celibate monastics:

This is where religious leadership in Tibetan Buddhism contrasts most strongly with much of the rest of the Buddhist world.

Lamas are generally skilled and experienced tantric practitioners and ritual specialists in a specific initiation lineage and may be laypersons or monastics:

They act not just as teachers, but as spiritual guides and guardians of the lineage teachings that they have received through a long and intimate process of apprenticeship with their Lamas.

Tibetan Buddhism also includes a number of lay clergy and lay tantric specialists, such as Ngagpas (Skt. mantrī), Gomchens, Serkyims, and Chödpas (practitioners of Chöd).

In the more remote parts of the Himalayas, communities were often led by lay religious specialists:

Thus, while the large monastic institutions were present in the regions of the Tibetan plateau which were more centralized politically, in other regions they were absent and instead smaller Gompas and more lay oriented communities prevailed.

In some cases a Lama is the leader of a spiritual community.

Some Lamas gain their title through being part of particular family which maintains a Lineage of Hereditary Lamas (and are thus often laypersons).

In other cases, Lamas may be seen as "Tulku" ("incarnations"). Tulkus are figures which are recognized as reincarnations of a particular Bodhisattva or a previous religious figure:

They are often recognized from a young age through the use of divination and the use of the possessions of the deceased lama, and therefore are able to receive extensive training:

They are sometimes groomed to become leaders of monastic institutions. Examples include the Dalai Lamas and the Karmapas, which are seen as key leaders in their respective traditions.

The system of Incarnate Lamas is popularly held to be a Tibetan alteration to Indian Buddhism.

Another title unique to Tibetan Buddhism is that of Tertön (treasure discoverer), who are considered capable of revealing or discovering special revelations or texts called Termas (lit. "hidden treasure"):

They are also associated with the idea of Beyul ("hidden valleys"), which are power places associated with deities and hidden religious treasures.

24. Women in Tibetan Buddhism

Women in Tibetan society, though still unequal, tended to have a relatively greater autonomy and power than in surrounding societies. This might be because of the smaller household sizes and low population density in Tibet.

Women traditionally took many roles in Tibetan Buddhism, from lay supporters, to monastics, lamas and tantric practitioners.

At least one major lineage of tantric teachings, the Shangpa Kagyu, traces itself to Indian female teachers and there have been a series of important female Tibetan teachers, such as Yeshe Tsogyal and Machig Labdrön.

It seems that even though it might have been more difficult for women to become serious tantric yoginis, it was still possible for them to find Lamas that would teach them high tantric practices.

Some Tibetan women become lamas by being born in one of the hereditary lama families such as Mindrolling Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche and Sakya Jetsun Kushok Chimey Luding.

There have also been cases of influential female lamas who were also Tertöns, such as Sera Khandro, Tare Lhamo and Ayu Khandro.

25. Nuns

While monasticism is practiced there by women, it is much less common (2% of the population in the 20th century compared to 12% of men). Nuns were also much less respected by Tibetan society than monks and may receive less lay support than male monastics.

Traditionally, Tibetan Buddhist nuns were also not "fully ordained" as Bhikṣuṇīs (who take the full set of monastic vows in the Vinaya). When Buddhism travelled 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 Śrī Lankan nun Candramāla, whose work with Śrījñāna resulted in the tantric text Śrīcandramāla Tantrarāja.

There are accounts of fully ordained Tibetan women, such as the Samding Dorje Phagmo (1422-1455), who was once ranked the highest female master and Tulku in Tibet, but very little is known about the exact circumstances of their ordination.

In the modern era, Tibetan Buddhist nuns have taken full ordinations through East Asian Vinaya lineages. The Dalai Lama has authorized followers of the Tibetan tradition to be ordained as Nuns in traditions that have such ordination.

26. Western nuns and lamas

Freda Bedi was a British woman who was the first Western woman to take ordination in Tibetan Buddhism, which occurred in 1966.

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 Ḍākinī Nunnery in Vermont, was officially consecrated. It offers novice ordination and follows the Drigung Kagyu lineage of Buddhism:

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.

Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo gained international attention in the late 1980s as the first Western woman to be a His Holiness Penor Rinpoche enthroned Tulku within the Nyingma Palyul.

Schools and lineages

27. Major Lineages

The Tibetan Rime (non-sectarian) scholar Jamgön Kongtrül, in his Treasury of Knowledge, outlines the "8 Great Practice Lineages" which were transmitted to Tibet.

His approach is not concerned with "schools" or sects, but rather focuses on the transmission of crucial meditation teachings. They are:

1. The Nyingma traditions, associated with the first transmission figures such as Śāntarakṣita, Padmasambhava and King Trisong Detsen and with Dzogchen teachings.

2. The Kadam Lineage, associated with Atiśa and his pupil Dromton (1005 - 1064).

3. Lamdre, traced back to the Indian Mahāsiddha Virūpā, and today preserved in the Sakya School.

4. Marpa Kagyu, the lineage which stems from Marpa, Milarepa and Gampopa, practices Mahāmudra and the Six Dharmas of Naropa, and includes the four major and eight minor Kagyu lineages.

5. Shangpa Kagyu, the lineage of Niguma

6. Shyije and Chöd which originate from Padampa Sangye and Machig Labdrön.

7. Dorje Naljor Druk (or Jordruk) (the 'Six Branch Practice of Vajrayoga') which is derived from the Kalachakra lineage.

8. Dorje Sumgyi Nyendrup ('Approach and Accomplishment of the Three Vajras'), from the Mahāsiddha Orgyenpa Rinchen Pal.

28. Tibetan Buddhist Schools

There are various schools or traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. The 4 main traditions ones overlap markedly, such that "about 80% 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, there has historically been disagreement regarding the nature of Yogācāra and Buddha-nature teachings (and whether these are of expedient meaning or ultimate meaning), which still colours the current presentations of Śūnyatā (emptiness) and Ultimate Reality.

The 19th century Rime movement downplayed these differences, as still reflected in the stance of the 14th Dalai Lama, who states that there are no fundamental differences between these schools.

However, there are still philosophical disagreements between the different traditions, such as the debate regarding Rangtong and Shentong interpretations of Mādhyamika philosophy.

The 4 major schools are sometimes divided into the Nyingma "Old Translation," and Sarma "New Translation" traditions, which follow different canons of scripture (the Nyingma Gyubum along with Terma and the Tengyur-Kangyur respectively).

Each school also traces itself to a certain lineage going back to India as well as certain important Tibetan founders.

While all the schools share most practices and methods, each school tends to have a certain preferred focus.

Another common but trivial differentiation is into the Yellow Hat (Gelug) and Red Hat (non-Gelug) sects.

The features of each major school (along with one influential minor school, Jonang) are as follows:

29. Nyingma

"The Ancient Ones" is the oldest school of Tibetan Buddhism and the original order founded by Padmasambhava (8th century) and Śāntarakṣita (725-788).

Other important Nyingma teachers were Garab Dorje, Vimalamitra and Longchenpa.

Whereas other schools categorize their teachings into the 3 Yānas or "vehicles", Hīnayāna, Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna, the Nyingma tradition classifies its teachings into 9 Yānas, among the highest of which is Dzogchen.

Terma "treasures" (revealed texts) are of particular significance to the Nyingma School. One of the most influential Terma cycles is the Longchen Nyingthig which was revealed by Jigme Lingpa (1730 - 1798).

30. Sakya

The "Grey Earth" school represents one of the first Sarma (new translation) scholarly traditions.

Headed by the Sakya Trizin, this tradition was founded by Khön Könchok Gyalpo (1034 - 1102), a disciple of the great Lotsawa, Drokmi Śākya and traces its lineage to the Mahāsiddha Virūpā.

A renowned exponent, Sakya Paṇḍita (1182 - 1251CE), was the great-grandson of Khön Könchok Gyalpo.

Sakyapa was named because of the Sakya Monastery, of which the wall was painted into Red, White, and Cyan.

Other important Sakya figures were Naropa and Ratnākaraśānti and Gorampa.

Sakyas teach the Hevajra Tantra as the basis of their Lamdre system

31. Bodong

The Bodong School is one of the minor schools, being much smaller and less influential than the 4 main schools:

This tradition was founded in 1049 by the Kadam teacher Mudra Chenpo, who also established the Bodong E Monastery. Its most famous teacher was Bodong Penchen Lenam Gyelchok (1376-1451) who authored over 135 volumes.

This tradition is also known for maintaining a female Tulku lineage of incarnated lamas called the Samding Dorje Phagmo.

32. Kagyu

Kagyu means "oral transmission" and consists of a series of lineages which all trace themselves back to Indian Mahāsiddhas like Saraha and Tilopa.

Its most famous Tibetan exponent was Milarepa, an 11th-century mystic. Other important teachers are Gampopa, Marpa, Naropa and Maitrīpāda.

It is often divided into the larger Dagpo Kagyu and the smaller Shangpa Kagyu lineages:

The Dagpo Kagyu, encompasses those Kagyu schools that trace back to the Indian master Naropa via Marpa Lotsawa, Milarepa and Gampopa and consists of 4 major sub-sects:

1. Karma Kagyu, headed by a Karmapa,
2. Tsalpa Kagyu,
3. Barom Kagyu,
4. Phagdru Kagyu.

There are a further 8 minor sub-sects, all of which trace their root to Phagdru Kagyu's founder, Phagmo Drupa. The most notable of these are the Drigung 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 female siddhas Niguma and Sukhasiddhi, transmitted to Tibet via Khyungpo Naljor in the 11th century.

33. Jonang

The Jonang is a minor school which can be traced to early 12th century master Yumo Mikyö Dorje, but was popularized by the influential master Dölpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (1292 - 1361).

The Jonang re-established their religio-political centre in Golog, Nakhi and Mongol areas in Kham and Amdo centred at Dzamthang Monastery and have continued practicing uninterrupted to this day.

The tradition was suppressed in 1650 in Gelug-controlled regions and subsequently banned and its monks and nuns converted to the Gelug School in 1658:

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 Rime 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.

Jonang tradition focuses on Kalachakra Tantra and Rātnagotravibhāga teachings.

34. Gelug

The "Path of Virtue" school was originally a Reformist Movement and is known for its emphasis on logic and debate:

The order was founded in the 14-15th century by Je Tsongkhapa, renowned for both his scholarship and virtue. He was a prominent supporter of the Mādhyamika philosophy and formalized the Svatantrika-Prasaṅgika distinction.

Their other important lineage teachers are Atiśa, his disciple Dromtön.

Its spiritual head is the Ganden Tripa and its temporal one the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama is regarded as the embodiment of Avalokiteśvara.

After the Civil War in the 17th century and the Mongol intervention, the Gelugpa School dominated Tibetan Buddhism, and successive Dalai Lamas ruled Tibet from the mid-17th to mid-20th centuries.

Gelugpa is the youngest but largest sect of Tibetan Buddhism. People also call it the Yellow Sect because they wear Yellow Hats.

The discipline of Gelugpa is very strict: Followers cannot get married, cannot eat meat, cannot drink alcoholic beverages.

Gelugpa tradition focuses on Guhyasamāja Tantra, the Cakrasaṁvara Tantra, and the Kalachakra Tantra.