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Brief introduction to basic concepts of Tibetan Buddhism

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 There are books, too numerous to mention, that relate the story of the historic Buddha, Prince Gautama Shakyamuni, and explain his teachings and the basic concepts of the spiritual insight that he attained. Buddhism comprises three major branches or schools, which, despite differences in emphasis and focus, are based on the Buddha's fundamental precepts and teachings.


Theravada Buddhism, also known as Hinayana, predominates in southeastern
Asia, in such countries as Thailand, Burma, and Sri Lanka. Because of the dismissive connotation of the term Hinayana, which means "lesser vehicle," its followers prefer the name Theravada, or Way of the Elders (meaning the early disciples of the Buddha); it is also called the "Old Wisdom" school. Its followers claim with justification that it remains closest to the original teachings of the Buddha.


Mahayana Buddhism developed in northern India, and although Buddhism was driven from India after the Moghul invasions and conquest of India between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, Mahayana took root in the Himalayan countries -- Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan and Sikkim -- as well as in China, Japan and Korea. (Reference herein to "Tibetan Buddhism" refers broadly to the Buddhism of the countries and regions of the broader Tibetan cultural world: not only Tibet but also Bhutan, Sikkim, northern Nepal, northwestern India, and Mongolia.) Although the Theravadins claim seniority, the Mahayana movement was a fairly early development, and has been traced back to the first century B.C.E., or even earlier. Mahayana, meaning "greater vehicle," is a broader, more inclusive school, with a more ambitious approach and more visionary concepts. It is in light of Mahayana's grander aims that the term "lesser vehicle" came into use. Yet Mahayana and Theravada are branches of the same tree, and should not be considered as radically different or distinct.

These two schools, Theravada and Mahayana, can be broadly differentiated by their separate focus, as well as by more subtle differences of interpretation. Theravada emphasizes individual, personal pursuit of salvation or liberation -- "nirvana." In Theravada, supreme attainment is represented by the arhat, a spiritual master who has achieved enlightenment by his own efforts. The arhats, even the legendary ones, were ostensibly human beings. The ideal of Mahayana, on the other hand, is the Bodhisattva -- a spiritual hero. A Bodhisattva is a being, divine or human, who, upon reaching the threshold of enlightenment, chooses instead to remain behind, enduring the endless cycles of life, death, and rebirth (samsara) in order to help all other beings achieve enlightenment. In an act of self-sacrifice, delaying personal liberation, the Bodhisattva takes a mighty vow of dedication to this truly superhuman goal. The celestial Bodhisattvas are among the stars of the pantheon of Mahayana Buddhism, the best known of them the objects of profound devotion. But the path of the Bodhisattva is open to human beings as well, who may also take the great vow and dedicate themselves to the benefit and liberation of all beings.

The concept and cult of the Bodhisattva is a distinctive, quintessential feature of Mahayana. Yet it would be incorrect to assume that Theravadins do not also uphold the ideal of compassion and they believe that one gains merit from acts of mercy, kindness and generosity.

Vajrayana and Tantrism

The third category, Vajrayana or Tantrayana, which derives from Mahayana, is the school most closely associated with Tibetan Buddhism -- so integral a part of it that it has become virtually identified with the religion of Tibet. The most mystical and esoteric of the schools, Tantric Buddhism is farthest from the common origin, and found little or no acceptance in southeast Asia, where it is sometimes not even considered an authentic school of Buddhism. The concepts and practices of tantrism originated in India and are associated with Shaivism, the cult of Shiva, the god of Yogins. It was from Indian sources that Mahayanists absorbed this movement, and these two schools are exemplified in the great Lo Monthang gompas: Mahayana in Thubchen, and Vajrayana in Jampa.

Vajrayana or Tantrayana Buddhism involves mystical concepts and practices, some of which appear to depart sharply from central Buddhist precepts. In a relatively early book (1894) on Tibetan Buddhism, L. Austine Waddell, an English observer, called it a cult whose name, he wrote, should more properly be Lamaism, as its divergence from Buddhism was so great. Waddell thought that some of its higher rituals invited comparison with Catholicism (the resemblance is entirely superficial), but considered that many of its other practices were mere devil worship or sorcery. Having only a shallow understanding of Vajrayana, Waddell regarded it as an inferior, even primitive spiritual order. Yet so distinctively different are some aspects of Vajrayana that even Professor Giuseppe Tucci, one of the most distinguished scholars in the field, used the term "Lamaism" interchangeably with Buddhism.

Tantrism is a profoundly complex subject. It might be described as an alternative route to enlightenment, requiring intense concentration and induction through special rites of initiation, but offering the hope of achieving enlightenment in accelerated time, perhaps even in a single lifetime: a sort of spiritual shortcut. The way of Mahayana, the way of the Bodhisattva, is considered the slower way, requiring many lifetimes to achieve, whereas Vajrayana, the tantric way, is a faster, although more risky route. Sometimes known as Mantrayana, it uses mantric formulas, incantation, ritual, and magic to achieve power over supramundane beings and, ultimately, to transcend the self and become one with the deity. This is Buddhism in its least recognizable appearance, the form most difficult to adapt or reconcile with what are traditionally regarded as the original teachings of the Buddha Shakyamuni. Yet, although Vajrayana is almost synonymous with Tibetan Buddhism, its roots are in India.

Tantrism derives from Indian texts, the Tantras, which provide the theory
and describe practices of ritual yoga, as in a dramatic script. The yoga that has achieved popularity in the western world is a very late and only remotely recognizable offshoot of an ancient mystic concept. Yoga made use of certain physical disciplines and practices to achieve the mystic's goal, the exercises being a subordinate element. Rather than a training for mystical experience, aiming for a state of spiritual transformation, the yoga now popular in the West is often a system of physical exercise that makes use of breath control, offering enhanced flexibility, improved balance, relaxation of tension, and a sense of rejuvenation. The serenity thus gained by a relaxed body, regulated breathing, and calm mind is meant to provide a spiritual benefit as well. But although tantric yoga makes use of physical as well as mental discipline, it aims for much more than the physical benefits of flexibility and balance, or the tranquility of a calm mind in a calm body. It is based on the principle that the duality, the separation, of spirit and matter is an illusion, and its goal is the transcendance of such delusion into mystical union with the divine. The yogin, transported to another state of existence, reaches the ultimate state of bliss, of beatitude. Sometimes referred to as "ecstasy," this is not the ecstasy of Dionysiac frenzy, but rather of perfect serenity, of still, untroubled consciousness.

The state of union with the divine is symbolically represented in Buddhist tantric art by a depiction of sexual embrace between the divinity and his consort in the attitude known as "yab-yum" (see below).

In depicting the highly symbolic and non-naturalistic visions of Tibetan Buddhist art, the artist was in an ideal sense a yogi, who could thus convey the type of spiritual, extra-sensory vision required for this art.

The concepts and practices of tantrism in the Buddhist universities of eastern India have been dated at least to the eighth century, from which time translations have survived, yet the theory and some of the texts may be several centuries older. In its origin and later development in India, it is connected with Shaivism, rites performed by yogins, followers of the Hindu god Shiva. The influence of those ideas and practices reached the great Buddhist monastic universities that flourished in eastern India, and which were at their prime between the seventh and eleventh centuries. Some of the tantric masters who became known as mahasiddhas -- great adepts, master yogins -- were not necessarily attached to the monastic universities and the rules of the monastic orders, but were freely wandering yogins.

Arcane as Tantrism may seem, neither Tibetan Buddhism nor Tibetan art can be understood without this fundamental concept.

Although its divergence from "original" Buddhism may appear extreme, and despite its mysticism and aura of magic, followers and scholars of Vajrayana Tantrism hold it to be authentically Buddhist in its essence, affirming the interdependence of all things and thus the illusive nature of duality, and the truth of the interaction of cause and effect. Mahayanists hold that in each of us may be found the desired "Buddha-nature," which we can learn to uncover. Vajrayana goes farther, claiming that by cutting through misconceptions and delusions, one can perceive the deepest reality, the fundamental unity of phenomena. Because of the latter idea, Vajrayana can appear to hold good and evil to be equivalent, but that is a misinterpretation. Moreover, some tantric texts refer to practices (involving foods, physical functions, sexual acts, and even immoral acts) that contravene essential Buddhist teachings. Questions about the historicity of such practices, and whether they are meant to be viewed symbolically rather than understood literally, are complex and disputed. Because of the risk of misinterpretation of Vajrayana texts and concepts, even when they are understood symbolically, and because of the risk of other misdirections, Vajrayana emphasizes the necessity of having a spiritual guide, a teacher or "guru," to lead one through the complexities of meaning and practice.

Meditation, above all, is considered the key to reaching transcendent understanding and spiritual transformation, and the great vehicle for meditation is the mandala. Jampa, entirely painted with mandalas, is a fully tantric temple.


The religious practices found in the Tibetan cultural world, accepted by and even conducted by the monastic orders, include the incantation of mystic, magical formulas, the exorcism and destruction of demons, divination, auguries, oracles, and symbolic sacrifice and ransom -- aspects associated with Shamanism. It is this element within Tibetan Buddhism of magic and the supernatural, so remote from the original teachings and practices of Buddhism, that has led to its designation as Lamaism, as if it were a separate religion or at least a separate offshoot of the original faith. In attempting to account for these apparent contradictions, scholars have sought to identify the sources of these seeming divergences from what can be claimed as the pure, original Buddhist teachings.

Buddhism was a foreign import into Tibet, but Tibet made Buddhism its own, and that encompassing system of beliefs and practices known as Tibetan Buddhism can only be understood in the full context of the country, its history, its society, and its indigenous religious and cultural practices. It is also necessary to consider particular religious currents (i.e., Tantrism) within Buddhism that ultimately affected its form in Tibet.

At the core of Buddhist teachings are the four noble truths, explaining the nature and cause of suffering and the way to enlightenment: a focused approach that makes no mention of a creator and that seems in our contemporary world more a philosophy -- a perspective on reality -- and a guide to living, than a religion. Yet, although Tibetan Buddhism is based on those core teachings, it includes practices that extend into the supernatural realm, such as defense against omnipresent evil spirits. Thus the religion seems almost split into two paradoxical factions: the spiritual path to enlightenment, and rituals of protection against the hosts of evil. And although the original teachings of the Buddha do not mention a creator or other deities, Tibetan Buddhism embraces a vast pantheon of divinities.

These supramundane beings derive from the intersection of many sources and influences, both native and external. Only a general survey of this complex subject can be given here.

Shakyamuni, which was the Buddha's family name, was born in a small Indian state in what is now southern Nepal, although the present nation of Nepal did not come into existence until the late eighteenth century. He lived in the context of Indian culture and religion, and it was in India that Buddhism took root -- the original Buddhist stronghold. In its earliest, and some argue its purist or most authentic form, Buddhism was nontheistic, keeping its focus on a way of thought and a conduct of life that would release human beings from inevitable suffering. A basic premise of Buddhism is that neither the Buddha nor any divine being interferes in human life, or acts as a savior or intercedes as a saint might do. Rather, such beings teach, expound the Dharma (law), and show the way.

The concept of karma is fundamental to Buddhism. It is based on the premise of the inexorable relation of cause and effect: in familiar Western terms, you reap what you have sown. Your own actions, rather than the decision of a divine being who sits in judgment, or the intercession of any god, determine what will become of you.

Against its Hindu background, Buddhism has sometimes been seen as a reform movement analogous to the Protestant Reformation, an analogy that perhaps should not be stretched too far, and it has even been considered a revolutionary movement. Yet from its inception, and in the course of its subsequent development for many centuries, Buddhism was affected by the inevitable influence of its Hindu context, even as it was a reaction against the mother culture and religion. The Mahayana movement that flourished in the Buddhist universities of eastern India absorbed Hindu elements. These sources, Hindu and Buddhist, became interwoven and were the matrix for the later development, Vajrayana. Tantric texts depict the defeat of Hindu deities, most importantly the great god Shiva, by the Bodhisattva warrior, Vajrapani; the vanquished Hindu gods were converted, pledged allegiance to Buddhism, and were renamed and incorporated into the Buddhist structure. And tantric texts introduced yet other gods, such as Mahakala, who although one of the most important tantric deities in Tibetan Buddhism, has an ancient origin in Indian cults.

With the further development of Mahayana, and its cult of Bodhisattvas (whose numbers multiplied, along with the Buddhas with whom they were often paired), the pantheon expanded. Interweaving and building on these influences, introducing and absorbing yet more deities, Buddhism, like a living organism, continued to evolve, and the form that we would come to know as "Tibetan" grew increasingly labyrinthine.

Even that is not the end of the story. After Buddhism was first introduced into Tibet in the seventh century C.E., where it encountered a native culture, a struggle ensued between the new religion and the ancient, indigenous one. Ultimately and inevitably, Buddhism was influenced by that which it came to replace. This complex interaction developed into mutual adaptation, and the native traditions added their complement of gods to a growing Buddhist pantheon of deities and supramundane beings. A century after that first introduction, a Tibetan king summoned Padmasambhava, a mystic eighth-century yogin from an area northwest of India, now thought to be Pakistan's Swat valley, to establish the primacy of the new religion: this is known as the "first diffusion" of Buddhism in Tibet. Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, is honored and revered throughout the Tibetan cultural world, and even considered a second Buddha by followers of the Nyingma-pa sect. According to legend, this legendary master battled with and successfully overcame malevolent and hostile spirits, including the indigenous Tibetan gods, and bound them over with vows to serve the new faith. The old gods, former enemies, became champions of Buddhism; they joined the pantheon, swelling its prodigious array of deities and supernatural beings. Yet that, too, was not yet the end of the story.


When Buddhism was introduced into Tibet in the seventh century under King Songtsen Gampo, it was apparently centered in the royal court and did not, at first, put down deep roots. Almost a century passed until it found favor again under King Trisong Detsen, who with the aid of Padmasambhava strengthened its position. But even after that "first diffusion," the new religion lost ground, and it was not until the "second diffusion" of Buddhism in the ninth and tenth centuries that it became firmly and finally established as the majority religion of Tibet.

While this basic outline is not disputed, scholars have disagreed about precisely what it was that Buddhism replaced. Certainly, indigenous religious beliefs and practices dominated Tibet before even the first introduction of Buddhism in the seventh century, and during the subsequent stages of its history there. But with what did Buddhism struggle during that period between the "first" and "second" diffusions? And what were the influences that led Tibetan Buddhism to diverge so markedly from Indian Buddhism that later observers attached to it a new name -- Lamaism -- as to a separate, distinct cult?

The great Tibetologist, Giuseppe Tucci, called Tibet's indigenous religious beliefs and practices "the folk religion," for which R.A. Stein adopted the
telling designation, "the nameless religion." Just as various Middle-Eastern and European "pagan" beliefs, deities, customs and practices were absorbed into Christianity, so in Tibet many traces of the folk religion still exist, interwoven into Buddhist practices. But besides those popular beliefs, with their local cults and magical rites, another belief system either pre-dated Buddhism in Tibet or co-existed with it, and the relation of those two has been the subject of research and controversy.

That other religion is Bon. Giuseppe Tucci, David Snellgrove, and other scholars have worked to reconstruct the theology and iconography of early Bon, and have researched the question of Bon's origins, its history, and the extent of its relation to Buddhism. Tucci and other scholars believe that Bon preceded the introduction of Buddhism into Tibet. They identify divination and exorcism as central elements of the indigenous folk religion but also of Bon, and believe that both the folk religion and the more structured Bon contributed to the undeniably shamanistic aspect of Tibetan religious practice and customs. In this view, Bon brought a multiplicity of gods, demons, and spirits of nature into the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon, where they joined the gods absorbed from Indian tantrism. Tucci attributed Bon's formal doctrinal structure to a later borrowing from Buddhism. According to the standard history, Bon vied with Buddhism for dominance during the early centuries after the introduction of the new religion, and during the period between the first and second diffusions. In any case, Buddhism prevailed, but Bon, or some form of it, has survived in parts of Tibet as well as in remote Himalayan areas, such as Dolpo in northwestern Nepal, and there has recently been a Bon revival in the West.

According to this line of thought, the Bon that has survived was so heavily influenced and infused with later adaptations and borrowings from Buddhism that its original form can no longer be definitively distinguished from what is now the majority religion. Yet Buddhism was also heavily influenced by Bon: both shared traditions of magic and exorcism, and both were influenced by the still potent "folk religion." (Tucci considers that Bon was also influenced by Persian Zoroastrianism and by Shaivism, the cult of Shiva, which reached Tibet from the states on the western edge of the Himalayas.)

David Snellgrove, in contradiction, argues that Bon is not the old indigenous religion of Tibet. He agrees with the claim of present-day Bonpos (adherents of Bon) that their religion was, from the beginning, a form of Buddhism, however heterodox. Snellgrove maintains that before the famous introduction of Buddhism to Tibet in the seventh century under royal sponsorship, forms of Buddhism that had reached Central Asia were actually familiar to some Tibetans, and that Bon developed in Western or Central Asia earlier than its arrival, as traditionally understood, in Tibet. He points out that the Bonpos, like the orthodox sects, believe in an enlightened being, Shen-rab, analogous to Buddha, and that Shen-rab, like Shakyamuni, had previous incarnations and appears in various manifestations; he maintains, moreover, that the Bonpos also have a fully developed theology and a set of tantras that he finds corresponds with Buddhist practice. Snellgrove considers Bon much closer to the Nyingma-pa, known among the recognized orthodox Buddhist sects as the "old" school, than it is to the popular folk religion with its multitude of spirits, magical rites, divination, exorcism, auguries, etc. He argues that those supernatural aspects of the indigenous cult were accepted perforce by both Bonpos as well as Buddhists, as old, deeply ingrained customs against which it was futile to contend, however irrelevant or alien to their own beliefs.

To complicate matters, some Bonpos of the present time identify Bon as the religion that prevailed in Tibet prior to the introduction of Buddhism, a position that contradicts those who argue that Bon is merely another form of Buddhism, having developed at about the same time as Buddhism reached Tibet, if not somewhat earlier. And while Bonpos consider their religion as a form of Buddhism, present-day Tibetan Buddhists regard Bon as a distinct, different religion, not as a heterodox form of Buddhism.

In light of these contending, disparate views about the origin, history, and nature of Bon, and its disputed relation to Buddhism, Per Kvaerne has thus defined the three main theories:

    Bon was the pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet, its central figure a king with sacred powers;
    Bon was a form of Buddhism that developed in western Tibet at least as early as the period in which Buddhism was introduced into Tibet, and was similar in many respects to orthodox Buddhism;
    Bon, so-called, was not a religion in its own right, but the sum of all the indigenous beliefs, cults of local gods, popular rites, etc., that were once prevalent across Tibet.

Whatever the true origin, history, and nature of Bon, Tibetan Buddhist monastic orders are broadly tolerant of the old practices, some of which have almost no recognizable affinity with Buddhist belief. These native elements, whether they derive from Bon or from a folk religion, were strongly concerned with defence against hostile or ambivalent powers, ensuring that the dead do no harm to the living.

Many of the rites and practices meant to defeat such hostile powers have survived not only in the folk religion, but were even, in Buddhist guise, absorbed into orthodox Buddhist ritual. The people of the Tibetan cultural world are profoundly, devoutly Buddhist, yet the ancient traditions of folk religion not only remain vital, but have left their indelible stamp on Tibetan Buddhism, contributing to its distinctive nature. Basically, Tibetan Buddhism is the intersection of Mahayana and of Vajrayana Buddhism, with its component of Indian Tantrism, along with traditional, pre-Buddhist beliefs, whether Bon or not. And it is clear that in Tibet, rather than opposing the folk tradition, Buddhism accepted and absorbed it -- and in so doing, allowed its borders to stretch. Buddhism has never concerned itself with extirpating heresy, and has no concept of excommunication.

Like a great melting pot, Tibetan Buddhism admits a multitude of powers, some celestial, others earth-based -- local deities, mountain gods, spirits of the air, water, earth and soil. Among this great pantheon of divinities and spirits, many derive from the folk religion, and others -- especially the multi-headed and multi-limbed ferocious gods -- derive from Tantrism and also, arguably, from Bon.

The process by which local deities and pre-Buddhist beliefs and rituals were adapted by the new dominant religion was eased by certain shared aspects or resemblances between the indigenous religion and Tibetan Buddhism, since Vajrayana includes a powerful element of magic. According to legend, many of the old native gods, some benevolent, others malignant, were vanquished and then "converted" by Padmasambhava, who bound them over through mighty oaths to serve Buddhism in new roles as protectors or defenders of the law. Local deities, such as the gods of particular mountains, lakes, etc., were also admitted to the accepted pantheon, justified by their acceptance of the law. Lesser deities, with supernatural but not supreme powers, became guardians of the entrances to sacred spaces, to defend against malicious spirits. In the hierarchy of the pantheon, these are of lower rank than the great supramundane beings, such as the Bodhisattvas, but could also be explained as manifestations of the more important deities.


However and whenever Buddhism came to Tibet, it found itself in a rough, mountainous country with a harsh climate: a country of struggling farmers, nomadic herdsmen, and traders whose livelihood depended on perilous journeys. Mystery was a condition of existence, not only because of the inexplicable sicknesses against which, until modern times, all people were helpless, but also in the wild, changeable, unpredictable mountain weather that ruled their lives; when a spring hailstorm destroyed the crops or a sudden blizzard covered the grazing land and froze the animals, starvation loomed. The ordinary Tibetan believed himself or herself to be continually at the mercy of supernatural powers, surrounded by multitudes of spirits, both beneficent and malicious, that needed to be appeased or destroyed. The old folk religion offered rituals, techniques with which to safeguard the home, purify the village, protect the crops and animals, cure the sick, and see the souls of the dead into safety.

The challenge for Buddhism was to persuade and induce a population who believed their lives were governed by a host of invisible but omnipresent spirits, to accept a highly focused set of teachings involving a relatively abstract mental discipline. Even now, one can speak of Buddhism as it is understood by the women who weed the fields and the men who drive the yaks, a faith heavily imbued with the pre-Buddhist ideas and practices of the folk religion, and of the Buddhism understood and practiced by monks, lamas, and the learned classes, those exposed to Buddhist texts and commentaries and formal teachings.

Elements of those indigenous beliefs and practices remain part of Tibetan religious life, existing alongside the liturgy of monks and lamas who expound the texts they hold authentic.

The Buddhism of the monastery proved itself flexible, accommodating to popular beliefs that in any case it could only with difficulty have tried to suppress, if not eliminate. The tantric rituals accepted by Vajrayana, with their element of magic, helped bridge the gap.

Rites of sacrifice, exorcism, and ransom make up a regular part of Tibetan life. In their origin they are, however symbolically they were subsequently explained, quite alien to the original, essential Buddhist beliefs. The resemblance of many of these rites to shamanism is often undeniable. And at times, some of the old gods seem less than convincing in their new Buddhist dress. The triumph of Buddhism was its ability to adapt the ancient, ingrained beliefs and customs without compromising its own fundamental insight and precepts, while teaching the new theology to the people of Tibet and firmly establishing their acceptance and understanding of its ethical code.