Tibetan Buddhism

Marcia Calkowski. Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices. Editor: Thomas Riggs. Volume 1: Religions and Denominations. Detroit: Gale, 2006.


Tibetan Buddhism, which originated during the seventh and eighth centuries in Tibet, has approximately 20 million followers. Founded by the Indian masters Santaraksita and Padmasambhava, it is the major religion in Tibet; Bhutan; Mongolia; regions of China; the Russian republics of Tuva, Buryatia, and Kalmykia; and the Ladakh region of India. It is well represented in Nepal, the Indian states of Himachal Pradesh and Sikkim, India’s northeastern border regions, and the Tibetan refugee settlements in northern India. Following the flight of the 14th Dalai Lama and thousands of his followers into exile in 1959, Tibetan Buddhism spread to many Western countries.

Drawing many of its ritual practices from Indian Tantric Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism stresses that the body, speech, and mind must be engaged in order for the individual to gain enlightenment and that the guidance of the lama, or spiritual teacher, is essential to the individual’s mastery of esoteric knowledge. The religion’s four major sects are the Nyingma-pa, Sakya-pa, Kagyu-pa, and Geluk-pa.


The Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo (617-50) laid the foundation for Tibetan Buddhism by building temples for the Buddhist images brought to Tibet by his Nepalese and Chinese wives and by having a script developed for translating Buddhist texts into Tibetan. Trisong Detsen, who reigned from 754 to 797, invited to Tibet the great Indian Buddhist masters Santaraksita, who promoted the construction of the first Tibetan monastery, and Padmasambhava, a Tantric practitioner whose magical feats and charismatic presence drew many converts to Buddhism. During his reign from 815 to 836 the last Buddhist king, Ralpachen, sponsored the translation of the entire Buddhist canon into Tibetan. In the mid-ninth century the Tibetan kingdom disintegrated and Buddhism in central Tibet declined

A major Buddhist revival in Tibet began in the mideleventh century. The arrival of the Indian master Atisa (982-1054) inspired the emergence of a new Tibetan Buddhist sect, the Kadam-pa, whose members vowed strict adherence to an ascetic lifestyle. Atisa’s contemporary Marpa (1012-96), a great transmitter of Indian Tantric doctrines who had learned in India how to transfer consciousness into another body or realm, ultimately inspired the development of the Kagyu-pa sect. Konchok Gyalpo (1034-1102) founded a monastery in Sakya in 1073 and established the Sakya-pa order. Those who continued the Tantric householder life introduced by Padmasambhava came to be called Nyingma-pa (followers of the old order).

During the late fourteenth century the reformist scholar Tsongkhapa (1357-1419) and his followers founded the fourth major Tibetan Buddhist sect, the Geluk-pa, which stressed monastic discipline. In the sixteenth century the Mongol prince Altan Khan bestowed the title Dalai Lama on Sonam Gyatso, the third reincarnation of one of Tsongkhapa’s chief disciples. In 1642 Mongol troops succeeded in establishing the fifth Dalai Lama (1617-82) as the spiritual and temporal leader of Tibet, effectively creating a theocracy dominated by the Geluk-pa sect with the Dalai Lama at its apex. By the mid-nineteenth century the Rimey movement, which adopted a nonsectarian approach to Tibetan Buddhist teachings, emerged in eastern Tibet, revitalizing the Sakya-pa, Nyingma-pa, and Kagyu-pa schools.

In 1950 troops of the People’s Republic of China occupied Tibet, and in 1959 the 14th Dalai Lama and 100,000 of his followers fled the war-torn country for refuge in Dharmsala, India. Although the Chinese have substantively repressed Tibetan Buddhism in the Tibet Autonomous Region and the Tibetan areas that have been incorporated into Chinese provinces, numerous monasteries have been rebuilt by Tibetans in exile.

Central Doctrines

Unlike other forms of Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism stresses Tantric practice as a means of attaining enlightenment in the practitioner’s current lifetime. Tantric practitioners incorporate rituals, symbols, and visualization techniques in their efforts to control or identify with beings in other realms of existence. Identification with these deities ultimately enables the practitioner to transform his or her consciousness into a higher state of being.

A key factor distinguishing Tibetan Buddhism from other forms of Mahayana Buddhism is the profound importance of the lama in the disciple’s spiritual progress. (Because of this, Tibetan Buddhism has often been referred to—erroneously—as Lamaism by Westerners.) The lama selects the disciple’s tutelary, or guiding, deity and determines when a disciple is ready for initiation into successively higher levels of secret teachings. The initiate is granted permission to read esoteric texts by the lama, who also provides instruction pertaining to the texts and empowers the meditations associated with them. Ideally, the disciple progresses until he or she can merge with the tutelary deity and the lama and thereby attain enlightenment. Spiritually advanced, reincarnated lamas are regarded as bodhisattvas, enlightened beings who have chosen to remain on earth. These lamas, known as tulku, embody the authority and power attributed to their previous incarnations and can thus perpetuate the transmission of a particular line of teachings.

Moral Code of Conduct

Different rules of conduct apply to monks, who must observe the Vinaya code of discipline (attributed to the Buddha), and to Tantrists, who do not generally reside in monasteries and who may drink alcoholic beverages. Although celibacy is expected of all monks, reincarnated lamas of the Nyingma-pa, Sakya-pa, and Kagyu-pa sects are viewed as nag-pa(also sngags pa; a kind of Tantric practitioner) and typically have female consorts or wives. Essential to the Tibetan Buddhist moral code is the practitioner’s absolute devotion to his or her lama.

Sacred Books

In addition to two great canons translated from Indic languages, the Kanjur (consisting of works attributed to the Buddha himself) and the Tenjur (a collection of commentaries on the Kanjur), Tibetan Buddhism has inspired a vast collection of sacred texts written by scholars from each sect. A number of important texts known as terma were believed to have been written and buried by Padmasambhava and later discovered by his disciples.

Sacred Symbols

Sacred symbols in Tibetan Buddhism include the vajra (Tibetan dorje; “thunderbolt”), which represents the union of method and wisdom that constitutes enlightened consciousness; a bell, typically combined with the vajra and symbolizing ultimate wisdom; and the mandala, a diagram or three-dimensional rendering of concentric circles that maps a sacred realm.

Early and Modern Leaders

Throughout the history of Tibetan Buddhism, hierarchs of the various sects have been key political figures. Sakya Pandita (1182-1251) and his nephew Phakpa (1235-80) were granted rulership over central Tibet by, respectively, the Mongol prince Godan and Kublai Khan. The fifth Dalai Lama (1617-82), as the first theocratic ruler, engaged in nation building and instituted the office of the Panchen Lama, the second highest-ranking Geluk-pa hierarch. The 13th Dalai Lama (1875-1933) proclaimed Tibet’s independence from China, and the 14th Dalai Lama (born in 1935) received the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent efforts to free Tibet from Chinese control.

The most prominent modern leaders of Tibetan Buddhism, apart from the 14th Dalai Lama, have included Rangjung Rigpe Dorje (1924-81), the 16th Karma-pa (head of the Karma Kagyu sect), and Ogyen Trinley Dorje (born in 1985), the 17th Karma-pa; the Karma Kagyu lamas Tai Situ Rinpoche (born in 1954) and Shamar Rinpoche (born in 1952); the Nyingma-pa lamas Mindroling Trichen (born in 1931), head of the Nyingma-pa sect, and Dudjom Rinpoche (1904-1987); and Sakya Trizin (born in 1945), head of the Sakya-pa sect. Chogyam Trungpa (1939-87), a Karma Kagyu tulku,and Geshe Rabten (1920-86), a Geluk-pa monk who attained a geshe degree, the Tibetan Buddhist equivalent of a doctor of divinity degree, were important Tibetan Buddhist missionaries.

Major Theologians and Authors

A key Nyingma-pa theologian was Longchen Rabjam (1308-63). Jamyang Khentse Wangpo (1820-92), a cofounder of the nonsectarian Rimey movement, exerted a major influence on such modern theologians as Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (1910-91), and Dudjom Rinpoche (1904-87). Prominent contributors to the other sects include Sakya Pandita (1182-1251) of the Sakya-pa; Gampopa (1079-1153) and Milarepa (1040-1123) of the Kagyu-pa; and Tsongkhapa and the 14th Dalai Lama of the Geluk-pa.

Organizational Structure

Tibetan Buddhist monasteries are headed by a khenpo (abbot). Monks assume a variety of official roles within the monastery. Large Geluk-pa monasteries may be divided into two branches and subdivided into houses that represent the regional affiliations of their respective members. Each house has a guardian deity. Monasteries are typically associated with at least one reincarnated lama, who has his own labrang (personal estate) and attendants.

Houses of Worship and Holy Places

Tibetan Buddhist temples consist of a central hall containing a statue of the Buddha and an altar. The entrance itself is topped by renderings of the dharma wheel and two deer. Temples may have a second floor and smaller chapels dedicated to specific deities flanking the main hall. Among the most important sacred sites in Tibet are Lhamo Lhatso, a lake whose waters are believed to reveal prophetic visions; Mount Kailash, which is regarded as the center of the world; Lake Manasarovar, where the Buddha’s mother is believed to have bathed; the Potala palace of the Dalai Lama in Lhasa; and the Jokhang, a temple near the Potala that houses the most sacred Buddha statue in Tibet.

What is Sacred?

Consecrated statues, masks, and paintings of the Buddha and Buddhist deities; consecrated amulets; Buddhist texts; relics of spiritual masters; food offerings that have been ritually blessed; prayer flags; stupas; and reincarnated lamas are considered sacred by Tibetan Buddhists.

Holidays and Festivals

Monlam Chenmo, the annual great prayer ceremony, commencing on the fourth day of the New Year and lasting 20 days, commemorates the Buddha’s expounding of the dharma at Sravasti. Two days prior to the New Year, the Tse Gutor, a monastic dance exorcising the accumulated evil of the past year, is performed. Drugpa Tsechu, which celebrates the birthday of Padmasambhava, features a series of monastic dances. Dzamling Chisang is an incense offering that marks Padmasambhava’s transformation of Tibet’s local deities into protectors of Buddhism. Lhabap Duchen is the anniversary of the Buddha’s descent from the Tushita heaven, which is devoid of suffering.

Mode of Dress

A monk’s basic dress consists of a red wrapped skirt with a yellow or red sleeveless shirt and a red shawl. Nuns may wear similar attire or a sleeveless red chupa, a long wrapped dress, over a yellow shirt. Tantric masters of the Nyingma-pa and Kagyu-pa sects wear off-white raw silk shawls with pink to red stripes over a red chupa and secure their long hair in topknots. Hats of different colors and shapes distinguish the four sects as well as the monastic or spiritual rank of the wearer.

Dietary Practices

Most Tibetan Buddhists eat meat, but many avoid fish. Ritual foods include dre-see, a dish made from rice, brown sugar, raisins, and a root called droma, and dough cakes made from barley flour, butter, and brown sugar. Besides its ritual uses, butter may adorn gifts of black tea and is dabbed on the rims of cups or glasses containing beverages served during New Year festivities.


Tibetan Buddhism has a rich variety of rituals. The most widely practiced include prostration, which expresses one’s desire to take refuge in the Buddha, dharma, and sangha (monastic order); the turning of prayer wheels; and the recitation of mantras. Pilgrims may journey to holy places by prostrating themselves repeatedly over distances of hundreds of miles. Prayer wheels, which range in size from those that can be held in the hand to huge mounted cylinders inscribed with the mantra om mani padme hum, are rotated clockwise to generate merit. Tibetan Buddhists attempt to gain the blessings of certain deities by raising prayer flags and burning juniper branches. Prayer flags are made from cloths in the five elemental colors of white, red, yellow, blue, and green and are stamped with woodblocks carved with mantras and auspicious animal images.

Many rituals entail constructing an altar and making offerings to the deities. These offerings include dough cakes, which are intended to serve as temporary abodes for the deities. At the completion of a ritual consecrated food offerings are distributed to all in attendance. Tantric practice requires the officiating lama to merge with a deity during the ritual.

Rites of Passage

Following the death of a tulku a variety of divinatory techniques are employed to identify the child who is his—or (rarely) her—reincarnation. The child officially so recognized then undergoes an enthronement ceremony, during which offerings are made to persuade him not to leave this life.

Corpses may be conveyed to a funeral ground, where they are ritually dismembered and offered to vultures in a process known as sky burial, though Tibetan Buddhists commonly cremate their dead. Lamas are either cremated or, in exceptional cases, mummified. The soul, or, more precisely, consciousness, is believed to undertake a 49-day journey through an intermediary state known as bardo before it is reborn. Monks read the Bardo Thosgrol, the Tibetan book of the dead, every seven days for seven weeks to guide the consciousness to an auspicious rebirth.


The success of Tibetan Buddhist missionaries in converting Mongol princes in the thirteenth century had a major impact on Tibet’s political history as well as on the propagation of Tibetan Buddhism in Siberia and parts of China. Today Tibetan Buddhist dharma centers may be found in many Western countries, and many have their own Internet sites.

Religious Tolerance

Tibetan Buddhism embraces tolerance of other religions. There have been occasions in Tibet’s history, however, when political rivals who supported different Tibetan Buddhist sects encouraged sectarian intolerance. In the early twentieth century several Geluk-pa lamas, against the wishes of the 13th Dalai Lama, forcibly converted some followers of other sects to the Geluk-pa order.

Social Justice

Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns have engaged in numerous peaceful demonstrations in Tibet, India, and Western countries advocating freedom for Tibet. Several monks and nuns who were imprisoned and tortured by the Chinese were finally released to the West following international diplomatic efforts, and they have become prominent campaigners for human rights. Among these are the monk Palden Gyatso (born in 1931), who was imprisoned in Tibet from 1959 to 1992, and the nun Pasang Lhamo, imprisoned from 1994 to 1999. The 14th Dalai Lama, in addition to his endeavors to negotiate Tibet’s future with China, has also participated in world conferences to preserve the environment.

Social Aspects

In Tibetan Buddhism weddings are not perceived as religious rituals, although monks may be invited to read prayers to bless a marriage. Tibetan Buddhist parents petition a lama to name a new child since they believe that the lama can identify the most auspicious name for the child. It is customary for families with several sons to send one to a monastery.

Controversial Issues

Despite the important roles played by women in the development of Tibetan Buddhism, nuns generally have had less access than monks to higher religious education, and they have not enjoyed equal status with monks. Birth control is acceptable to Tibetan Buddhists, but abortion and euthanasia are, according to the 14th Dalai Lama, permissible only in exceptional cases. In contravention of their vows many Tibetan monks took up arms against the Chinese in the 1950s in response to attacks on Tibetan monasteries and to safeguard the escape of the Dalai Lama from Tibet.

Cultural Impact

Tibetan Buddhism is expressed and represented through a rich variety of performing and material art forms. Tibetan operas (Ache Lhamo) recount Jataka stories, tales about the Buddha’s previous lives, through glottal-stop vocalizing, dancing, and clowning to the accompaniment of a drum and cymbals. Monastic dances (cham) portray various Buddhist deities. Tibetan Buddhist material art includes statues of the Buddha, Buddhist deities, and lamas; scroll paintings (tangkas); butter sculptures; masks; and mandalas made of colored grains of sand.