Buddhism in Tibet

Tantra and the Indian Mahasiddhas

At the same time, outside of society, the so-called Mahasiddhas maintained a tradition which only slowly became known to the official history, due to its secrecy. These practitioners, highly advanced yogis, applied Tantric methods in order to attain the goal of Buddhahood. They looked like crazy people, etc., in short, showing no 'religious' behaviour at all. During the time of Buddhism in India, this kind of Buddhism was clearly 'secret', unknown by the broad public and disallowed in monasteries. It was a special way for special persons.

(It should be mentioned once again that these mahasiddhas were highly advanced practitioners and not ordinary people like ourselves. It is therefore not at all convenient to think that one is 'able' to follow their example, while one is still under the influence of the emotions and of attachment. It is not an excuse for pride and attachment, but a method beyond such afflictions.)

Buddhism in Tibet

In the times of the Tibetan empire, Tibet (sometimes) ruled over Buddhist territories along the silk route as well as parts of China and India. Therefore, Tibet met Buddhist cultures whereever it turned its eyes. Central Asia must have played a more important role for Tibet than is generally assumed until now. It is possible that the Tibetan script developed in Central Asia under the influence of the Khotanese alphabet, for example.

When the Tibetan kings developed an interest in Buddhism and invited Buddhist masters from the 7th century onwards, this coincided with the islamic expansion across the western parts of the Buddhist world. The 'furor islamicus' struck Bamiyan (Afghanistan), and shortly later Khotan and other regions in Central Asia and led to the complete destruction of the Buddhist civilizations of these areas. At that time, this 'northwestern' Buddhism was a main source for the cultural transfer.

Tibet was under the influence of the Bön religion which had established a 'sacral' kingdom with the kings being representatives of the gods on earth for a limited amount of time of 13 years. The conversion of one king (Thrisong Deutsen) to Buddhism therefore also was a political move in order to break the strong influence of the Bön aristocracy which enjoyed much influence over a time-limited, usually weak king.

The Chinese emperor and the Nepalese king feared the Tibetan warriors so much that they sent one princess each as bride to king Thrisong Deutsen. These two queens brought with them two flavors of Buddhism: the Indian tradition and the Chinese tradition. King Thrisong Deutsen invited the abbot Shantirakshita and the Mahasiddha Padmasambhava from Kashmir and overcame the Bön opposition.

It was customary in Buddhism to have debates between diverging viewpoints, both with non-Buddhists and with Buddhists. Since the Tibetans were now in contact with the Chinese and Indian traditions of Buddhism, a debate was held, and the Indian debater, Kamalashila, won the debate. Therefore, the late North Indian Buddhism (Sarvastivada-Mahasanghika, Madhyamaka) became state religion, and (Chinese) Ch'an (Zen ) was no longer taught in Tibet, but perhaps quickly fused with the Mahaati and Mahamudra doctrines.

Shortly after having been established, a Bön king (Langdarma) ascended the throne and destroyed Buddhism in Central Tibet entirely. After some political turmoil, Buddhism was eventually reestablished. Now, the Tibetans went down to the North Indian monasteries, where they experienced the last days of Indian Buddhism, shortly before the advent of the islamic Mogul (Mongol) hords which destroyed almost every trace of monastic Buddhism.
Tantric Buddhism, situated outside of society, probably survived longer and probably at some point also merged with the religious beliefs of the lay people. Therefore, Tibet is the last country which received the highly complex system of Buddhist philosophy and tantric Buddhism from India, and we can find the most complete tradition of Buddhist scriptures only in Tibet.

The earlier introduced tradition of Buddhism, still established in the (Far-Eastern) marginal areas of Tibet, was brought back to Central Tibet as well, now named 'Nyingmapa' (the old ones), as opposed to the 'new' traditions ('Sarma') from India. The main Indian transmissions were termed 'Sakyapa' (those from Sakya ), 'Kadampa' ('those with the pure words'), and 'Kagyupa' (those with the oral Transmission ).

The Sakya school derived from a specific transmission (lam-dre) from India. The Kadampa teachings were the non-tantric methods (lam-rim) which came especially from Atisha, but not neglecting the tantric methods. The Kagyu school, however, was a derivative of a mahasiddha tantric tradition of Marpa and Milarepa, together with the Kadampa education of Gampopa. The Nyingmapa held the Sutra and tantra teachings of the Mulasarvastivada school from Kashmir. Thus, all schools contain the very same traditions of the monasteries and the mahasiddhas of India – technically speaking, they are all the same branch of the Sarvastivada School, all belong to the Madhyamaka view of Buddhist philosophy.

Later in history, when the discipline in many monasteries was low, a reformator was born in Tibet. His name was Tsongkhapa ('The one from the onion valley'). He received teachings from all Tibetan schools, made many retreats within different traditions, and wrote a great number of books clarifying many points of the entire Buddhadharma. Those who sided with him with respect to ethical discipline and maintenance of the vinaya rules, as a political move, wore yellow hats instead of the traditional red ones. Therefore, the distinction between red hats and yellow hats came to be known. In accordance with their high discipline, the yellow hats were subsequently called Gelugpa ('the discipline tradition'). The Gelug branch of Buddhism eventually was adopted by the majority of the monasteries, so that finally, Gelug was the dominant school in Tibet.

The Gelug school quickly established central monastic universities which played the same role as the earlier Indian monasteries such as Nalanda: as world-famous centers of Buddhist erudition, where many monks studied in order to resume leading jobs in their respective home monasteries – comparable to Oxford, Cambridge, or Harvard, so to say.

In response to political controversies between monasteries in Tibet, a number of high masters in the 19th century started a new movement, the Rime ('no lineage adherence'). They went to receive transmissions from schools other than their own one in order to show the equality of the various traditions.

After the murder of the last Bön king more than 1000 years ago, the Tibetan kingdom had no more leader. It was under the pressure of the Mongol expansion that a Lama from the Sakya school became the tributary leader of Tibet for the Mongolians. Some time later, a lama from the Gelug school got this title from the Mandju emperor; he became known as the Dalai Lama. The Chinese claim for Tibet goes back on this historical fact.

The Buddhist masters who were appointed leaders of Tibet used their political influence in order to keep Tibet free from invasions. Finally, in 1904, the British, and in 1951, The Chinese forces conquered Tibet. Therefore, the 13th Dalai Lama passed many years in Mongolia and China, while the 14th Dalai Lama had to flee to India and take permanent residence there.

The so-called Cultural Revolution from 1966 onwards, besides the immense loss of lives of human beings, especially of high Buddhist masters, led to the destruction of the entire Buddhist infrastructure.
But the Tibetan refugees recreated the main monasteries in exile and were able to maintain the high standards of their education. Finally, the rich Western countries took interest in Buddhism and started to contact these monasteries. This led to a spread of Buddhism into the Western world, and to some funding of the Buddhist monasteries in the East.