What is the history of Tibetan Buddhism?

history of tibetan buddhism potala palace tibet

The Potala Palace in Lhasa was the winter palace of the Dalai Lamas from the 17th century to 1959. | View Stock / Alamy Stock Photo

Buddhism first came to Tibet in the late 7th century CE, when the first Tibetan king, Songtsen Gampo, asked Indian Buddhist teachers to come to the country and instruct his subjects, who mainly had been practicing local traditions that likely resembled the shamanic practices found in contemporary Central Asia. For several generations after Buddhism appeared in Tibet, it flourished under state sponsorship. In the mid 8th century, King Trisong Detsen invited Shantarakshita, abbot of the Indian Buddhist monastic university Nalanda, and the Indian master Padmasambhava (later known as Guru Rinpoche) to establish a monastic center in Tibet. They founded the Nyingma (“ancient ones”) school, the oldest of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism that exist today. King Trisong Detsen’s minister traveled to India to learn Sanskrit and translate Buddhist texts into Tibetan. 

In the 9th century, King Langdarma is said by some accounts to have converted to Bön, a shamanistic tradition, after which he outlawed and persecuted Buddhists. After his death, Tibet fell into a period of civil war and political unrest.

Then in the 10th century, a second wave of Buddhist teachers from India was invited to Tibet, and in turn, Tibetan translators and scholars began traveling to India to receive teachings in various schools and lineages, including tantric ones, that had not reached Tibet previously. This brought about a set of new dharma transmissions called the Sarma or “new ones” traditions. Among them was the Kadampa school, founded by Dromton, chief Tibetan disciple of the Indian master Atisha. After that, many great teachers arose in Tibet, passing down the various Buddhist transmission lineages over the following centuries.

Tibetan Buddhism incorporated a range of practices from Indian Buddhism. These include the meditation practices of shamatha (calm abiding) and vipassana (insight), refuge vows, and monastic discipline from the Theravada tradition, and from the Mahayana, the bodhisattva vow, Pure Land practices, and lojong (mind training methods to awaken compassion). Tibetan Buddhist schools also incorporated the Vajrayana practices of ngondro (preliminary practices), mantra (sacred syllables and verses), mudra (sacred hand gestures), mandala (sacred diagrams representing the universe), and yogic discipline.

The transmission of Buddhism from India to Tibet was inspired by the lively and rich Buddhist atmosphere of late Indian Buddhism, from the 8th-century to the 12th century, when interactions among various traditions, philosophies and practices was at its height. By the 14th century, however, Buddhism had largely disappeared from its Indian homeland, in part due to invasions, institutional competition, and scarcity of the resources needed to support the large Buddhist universities of India. Fortunately, the Buddhist traditions that had taken root in other parts of the world survived. Tibet became the center of Buddhism in central Asia, as Tibetan Buddhism spread to neighboring Mongolia, Bhutan, Nepal, and parts of what are now Russia and India. Today, Tibetan Buddhism is the predominant religion of the Himalayan region.


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