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Tibetan Buddhism

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Basic terms




Tibetan Buddhism is the body of religious Buddhist teachings from Tibet. The form of Buddhism taught in Tibet is inclusive of the full range of Buddhist teachings (or "three vehicles"). All traditions of Tibetan Buddhism practice the fundamental teachings and vows of moral discipline (Pratimoksha) of the hearer's vehicle (Shrāvakayāna[a]); the vows of universal liberation and philosophy of the great vehicle (Mahāyāna); and the pledges and special methods of the secret mantra vehicle (Vajrayāna).

Buddhism first came from India into Tibet in 173 CE during the reign of Lha Thothori Nyantsen. However, Buddhism did not grow strong until much later. In the 8th century, an Indian teacher called Padmasambhava brought Buddhism to Tibet again while Trisong Detsen was king of Tibet. Padmasambhava (more commonly known as Guru Rinpoche) merged Buddhism with the local Bön religion to create Tibetan Buddhism. He also wrote a number of important texts.

Tibetan Buddhism had a strong effect on the peoples of Central Asia in the 11th century CE, especially in Mongolia and Manchuria. It was made the official state religion by the Mongol Yuan dynasty and the Manchu Qing dynasty that ruled China.

Since the annexation of Tibet by the People's Republic of China in 1959, Tibetan Buddhism has spread to many Western countries.

Schools of Tibetan Buddhism

Tibetan Buddhism has four main schools. Two of these schools hold practice as more important and two hold scholasticism (study of philosophy) more important. The four schools are:

  • Nyingma, The Ancient Ones, the oldest and original order founded by Padmasambhava. This school is of the practice tradition.
  • Kagyu, Oral Lineage, has one major subsect (Dagpo Kagyu) and one minor subsect (Shangpa Kagyu). This school is of the practice tradition.
  • Sakya, Grey Earth, headed by the Sakya Trizin, founded by Khon Konchog Gyalpo, a disciple of the great translator Drokmi Lotsawa. This school is of the scholarly tradition.
  • Gelug, Way of Virtue, also known as Yellow Hats, whose spiritual head is the Ganden Tripa and whose temporal head is the Dalai Lama, who was ruler of Tibet from the mid-17th to mid-20th centuries. This school is of the scholarly tradition.


Some of the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism are Mahamudra, the Six Yogas of Naropa, and Dzogchen.


Lamayuru monastery.

Monasticism was the foundation of Buddhism in Tibet. There were over 6,000 monasteries in Tibet, however nearly all of these were destroyed by Chinese Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution.[1] Most of the major monasteries have been at least partly restored while many others remain in ruins.


Today, Tibetan Buddhism is found in the Tibetan Plateau, Nepal, Bhutan, Mongolia, Kalmykia, Siberia, and the Russian Far East. The Indian regions of Sikkim and Ladakh are also home to large Tibetan Buddhist populations. Tibetan Buddhism has expanded to the West and throughout the world. Celebrity practitioners include Brandon Boyd, Richard Gere, Adam Yauch, Jet Li, Sharon Stone, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Glass, Mike Barson and Steven Seagal.

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  • a Sometimes called "Hinayana" or Fundamental Vehicle


  1. "Tibetan monks: A controlled life". BBC News. March 20, 2008. 

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