Tibetan Buddhism ［チベット仏教］ ( Chibetto-bukkyō): A distinctive form of Buddhism that developed in Tibet around the seventh century and later in Mongolia and other regions. It is a tradition that derives from Indian Mahayana Buddhism, especially the doctrine of non-substantiality ( shūnyatā) of the Mādhyamika school, and incorporates the doctrine of the Yogāchāra (Consciousness-Only) school as well as the esoteric rituals of Vajrayāna (Tantric, or Esoteric, Buddhism). Tibetan Buddhism is also monastic, having adopted the vinaya, or monastic rules, of early Buddhism. It has traditionally involved a large number of monks and nuns. Tibetan Buddhism is sometimes (incorrectly) referred to as Lamaism, due to its system of “reincarnating” lamas. The title lama means a venerable teacher. Some lamas of certain Tibetan monasteries are believed to be successively reincarnated, each head lama being considered a reincarnation of the last in the lineage. In these traditions, sets of instructions are handed down that lead to the identification of a child believed to be the reincarnation of a previous lama. When signs point to a certain child (always a boy), he is tested, and upon passing the tests, is recognized as the reincarnated lama. He then receives monastic training and education and takes on full responsibilities as a lama at a specified age.
Buddhism evolved in Tibet in the early seventh century during the reign of King Songtsen Gampo (581–649). A series of religious kings contributed to its adoption and eventual institution as a state religion. Songtsen Gampo took as his wives a Nepalese princess and a Chinese princess, both of whom were devout Buddhists. They influenced the king to take faith in Buddhism and build the first Buddhist temples in Tibet. Songtsen Gampo also sent Thonmi Sambhota to study Buddhism in India. When he returned, he developed a Tibetan writing system based upon the Indian scripts he had studied (Tibet until that time had no set writing system). With this Tibetan script, translation of Sanskrit Buddhist texts into Tibetan began.
Later King Thisong Detsen (742–797) further established Buddhism in Tibet against strong opposition from practitioners of the native religion called Bon. He invited Shāntarakshita, a noted Indian monk of the Mādhyamika school, to come to Tibet to teach Buddhism. On Shāntarakshita’s advice, the king also invited the Indian Tantric master Padmasambhava. Padmasambhava is credited with “converting” the Bon deities to Buddhism (incorporating them into the Buddhist teachings) and quelling Bon opposition. Shāntarakshita and Padmasambhava together established Tibet’s first monastery at Samye in 779. The Nyingma, one of today’s four major Tibetan Buddhist schools, claims to preserve the teachings of Padmasambhava. King Thisong Detsen also sponsored a religious debate between Kamalashīla, an Indian monk, and Mo-ho-yen, a Chinese priest of the Zen (Ch’an) school, held at the Samye monastery in 794. The king decided in favor of the Indian teacher and thus officially adopted the teachings of Indian Buddhism, or more specifically, the Mahayana teachings founded on Nāgārjuna’s philosophy of the Madhyamika school and the bodhisattva ideal. He rejected the introspective doctrines of Zen that claimed to ensure sudden enlightenment through meditation.
King Thitsug Detsen (806–841), a grandson of King Thisong Detsen, built temples and monasteries and contributed greatly to the translation of Sanskrit Buddhist scriptures into Tibetan as well as to Buddhist art and culture. According to one account, in 841 Bon followers had him assassinated, and his brother, Langdarma, succeeded him. The new king opposed Buddhism. He destroyed temples and monasteries, oppressed Buddhist monks, and abolished Buddhism as an institution; it was not restored until two centuries later. According to another account, the death of King Langdarma led to a power struggle that resulted in the division of the nation and a collapse of the Buddhist Order. In either case, after a period of political and religious turmoil, the ruler of western Tibet invited Atīsha, an Indian Buddhist teacher of the Madhyamika school, to the region in 1042 to help restore Buddhism.
Atīsha propagated Buddhist teachings, reformed Tantric practices that had involved overt sexual activity, and brought about a revival of Buddhism. Atīsha’s teachings were inherited by his disciple Domton, who founded the Kadam school of Tibetan Buddhism. (Later this school was absorbed by the Gelug school, also known as the Yellow Hat school, which was founded in the late fourteenth century by Tsongkapa, a Buddhist reformer.) In the same century, Marpa returned to Tibet from his journey to India to study Buddhism and, with his disciple Milarepa, founded the Kagyu school. By the fourteenth century, Buddhism was well established in Tibet, and most of the available Indian scriptures had been translated into Tibetan. A number of lost Sanskrit scriptures have been preserved until today through their Tibetan translations.
Tibetan Buddhism also spread outside of Tibet, most notably in Mongolia and the Mongol Empire. In the mid-thirteenth century, Sakya Pandita, an eminent scholar of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism, journeyed to Mongolia with his nephew and student, Phagpa. Deeply impressed by them, Mongol officials converted to Buddhism. Later Phagpa was appointed imperial teacher and became an adviser to Kublai Khan, the ruler of the Mongol Empire. He was also appointed the temporal ruler of Tibet. In 1578 the Mongolian ruler Altan Khan hosted the renowned Sonam Gyatso, the leader of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism, and conferred upon him the honorific title “Dalai Lama.” Dalai is a Mongolian word for ocean. The title was also applied to his two predecessors.
With the aid of the Mongols, the Gelug school and its lineage of Dalai Lamas became the most prominent and powerful in Tibet. The Dalai Lama came to be regarded as the country’s spiritual leader and temporal ruler, and each was believed to be a successive incarnation of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, Perceiver of the World’s Sounds. Since the popular uprising against Chinese rule in Tibet in 1959 and the resulting exile of the fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso (b. 1935), and his followers, interest in Tibetan Buddhism has grown in the West. The Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, and Gelug are the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism, the Gelug being the most prominent.