Where is Tibetan Buddhism practiced and how did it come to the West?

Despite its name, Tibetan Buddhism is practiced not only in Tibet but across the Himalayan region and around the world, in Asia, Europe, Africa, North and South America, and Australia. But before the 20th century, Tibetan Buddhism was virtually unknown in the West.

In the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, a handful of Europeans managed to evade Tibet’s ban on foreign visitors, and travelers like Alexandra David-Néel, Lama Anagarika Govinda (born Ernst Lothar Hoffmann), and Heinrich Harrer, who became the 14th Dalai Lama’s English, geography, and science tutor, wrote books about their experiences. In the early 20th century, Christian missionaries attempted unsuccessfully to bring Christianity to Tibet, while the British, who were ruling India at the time, launched a short-lived invasion in 1903. But the Tibetan Buddhist tradition began to reach more Westerners only after the 14th Dalai Lama and other Tibetan leaders fled Tibet in 1959 following the Chinese invasion.

The exiled Tibetan lamas settled in India, where they re-established religious and political institutions. There, a new generation of foreign visitors encountered Tibetan Buddhist teachers and teachings. A few Westerners, including the American Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman, took ordination as Tibetan Buddhist monastics, with some later returning home to establish practice communities in their countries of origin. Books on Tibetan Buddhism began to appear in English, and importers rushed to work with craftspeople in India and Nepal to feed a growing interest in Tibetan Buddhist practice and study materials.

In the late 1960s and 70s, Tibetan monks and lamas living in India began accepting invitations to study abroad and teach interested dharma students in Europe and the Americas. Later, as interest in the Tibetans grew, Tibetan scholars, including Geshe Lhundup Sopa, began filling teaching posts in the West, and Tibetan language and literature became topics of study in colleges and universities. The Dalai Lama traveled to the West for the first time in 1979, before becoming a worldwide symbol of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy and practice when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.

Tibetan refugees, meanwhile, were settling in many countries in the West, where Tibetan Buddhist exiles were forming practice communities and offering retreats. As more Americans and Europeans completed formal training at these centers, Western-born lamas and teachers began to fill dharma seats at Tibetan Buddhist centers in the West and even in Asia.

Today, all the major schools of Tibetan Buddhism have dharma centers on every continent but Antarctica.


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