History of Buddhism in Tibet



Before arrival of Buddhism in Tibet: Bön-Po (Schamaism): they recited Mantras which could be used for exorcism, invoking powerful spirits.

33rd King: Srong Tsen Gampo: 609-649 (ruled since 627) (Incarnation of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara/Tschenresig: Bodhisattva of Compassion): married with: Brikuti Devi (Trishun) and Weng Cheng (Munshang Kongto);

(Padmasambhava - Guru Rimpoche: who founds the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet, Samye: he keeps the old Bön-Po demons as "dharmapalas" (the old animistic gods became guardians of the Dharma: the old Bön-Po gods were obliged to submit to the Dharma) and Shântarakshita are the pioneers of Tibetan Buddhism). Influential is the great religious debate of Samye: between 792 and 794)(Indian Mahâyâna against Chinese Ch'an (Zeng)) which is won by the Indian Mahâyâna brand of Buddhism except the Dzogchen movement in the 20th century which is based on the Chinese Ch'an-Buddhism and can be rooted back to Bön-Po.

Tri Ralpachan (805-836)

The translation of Buddhist texts into the Tibetan language continues.

821: Pact of Non-Aggression with China: Stele at Jhokang Temple

838: Tri Ralpachan is murdered by Langdarma (elder brother of Ralpachan: he supported the old Tibetan Bön-Po Religion)

842: Pegyi Dorje (Buddhist monk in Hidingi) assassinated Langdarma:

Fall of the Yarlung Dynasty. The Dark Age (838-ca 1000) begins in Tibet.



The Buddhism is revived in the western Tibetan province of Ngari in the upper Sutlej valley (Gugé kingdom) with the twin cities of Thöling and Tsaparang as well as Purang, just south of the sacred Lake Manasarovar).

Once Buddhism was re-installed, the doors were closed to outside influence and the Mahâyâna Buddhism of India was reverently preserved by diligent Tibetan guardians. A distinctive, "bhuddocratic" style of government developed. The teachings were analysed and a complete canon of Tibetan Buddhism created by Butön (14th century): Kangyur (Sûtra: 108 volumes) and the Tengyur (Shastra: commentaries: 225 volumes).

Middle: 11th Century: Alliance: Nobility with religious orders: Nyingma-Pa; Kagyu-Pa; Kadam-Pa and Sakya Pa (dominance with support of Mongols).

Nyingma-Pa (Old Ones) goes back to Padmasambhava. Mindroling is their most important monastery. They have "secret" texts (terma) hidden by Padmasambhava (a person who finds such texts is a tertön). The school is individualistic to anarchistic with married monks (Ngakpas).

The Kagyu-Pa (Transmitted Command) has a number of branches but all go back to the Indian masters: Naropa and Tilopa and ultimately back to Buddha Vajradhâra (Yogas of Naropa: heat yoga (dumo) and the yoga of the bardo). The spiritual founder is Marpa and his disciple Milarepa (1052-1135). Milarepa's most influential disciple is Gampopa (1079-1153) whose disciples found three sub-branches: Karma-Pa (Black Hat Sect)(Tsurphu monastery), Drugpa (Bhutan and Ladakh) and Drigung-Pa.


12th Century: Gengis Khan threatens Tibet: Tibet offers tribute.

1240: Sakya Pandita saves Tibet by converting Godan (grandson of Gengis Khan) to Buddhism: Kublai Khan, another grandson of Gengis Khan grants regency overTibet to Sakya-Pa.

Sakya-Pa falls before Mongolian empire due to inner-Ttibetan differences.

For three centuries different kings and religious orders ruleTibet which is practically independent.


During 14th and 15th century Tsong Kha-pa (Lobsang Drakpa or Jé Rimpoche)(1357-1419), believed to be an incarnation of Bodhisattva Manjushri (wisdom), reformed Tibetan Buddhism by the creation of a new religious order: Gelug-Pa (Yellow Hat Sect). He originates from the Lake Kokonor in north-eastern Tibet. Originally he favours the Kadam-Pa school. He founded the three "Pillars of Buddhism", the three monasteries near Lhasa: Ganden (1409), Drepung (1416) and Sera (1419) (Drasang: monastic universities). Tsong Kha-pa also established the Great Prayer Festival (Mönlam Chemno) after New Year (Lossar). He confirms Atisha's stress upon monastic virtues and the need to establish a firm basis in the Sûtras before graduating to the Tantras. He follows the teachings of the great Indian teachers Nâgârjuna, Asanga and Dignâga.

On the death of Tsong Kha-pa his successor is Gedün Drub who implements the system of incarnations (tulku system) to establish the heads of the Gelug-Pa.

1578: Sonam Gyatso (3rd Incarnation) gets the title "Dalai Lama" (Ocean) by the Mongolian ruler, Altan Khan. The title of first Dalai Lama is posthumously bestowed to Gendün Drub (1391-1474), the disciple of Tsong Kha-pa. Another important reincarnating system is the system of Panchen Lamas from Tashilhunpo Monastery at Shigatse.

The Gelug-Pa achieves more importance by strengthening their ties with the Mongols.

1642: The Mongolian ruler Gushri Khan crushes all opposition against the Gelug-Pa, especially from the Karma-Kagyu Pa sub-school.

Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso (1617-1682) becomes the 5th "Great" Dalai Lama. He unifies and pacifies Tibet and completes the Potala Palace in Lhasa which he extends from Srong Tsen Gampo's chapel. The relationship with the Chinese Manchu-Dynasty remains on diplomatic level. This situation changes with the death of the 5th Dalai Lama (the death was concealed for 13 years).

Love-struck 6th Dalai Lama and unstable Mongolian fractions lead to the intervention of the Chinese: The Manchu Emperor uses the Quosot Mongols to pursue their intentions to control the unstable 6th Dalai Lama who subsequently dies on a forced trip to China to Manchu Emperor Kang Hsi.

1767: The Dsungar Mongols invade Tibet and defeat the Qosot Mongols. The Manchus interfere directly: The first Chinese army is wiped out but the second army is successful and is warmly received in Tibet because the Manchus bring the 7th Dalai Lama.


Manchu Emperor Kang Hsi secures toehold overTibet by implementing the system of two Chinese "Ambans": the protective city walls of Lhasa are demolished.

The Dalai Lamas from 8th to 12th are weak and unable to govern Tibet efficiently (during the greater part of the 18th century).

1792: the Nepalese Gurkhas conquer Shigatse. They are, however, defeated by the Manchus who close Tibet to the outside world.

1856: The Gurkhas invade again Tibet. This time Tibet is not protected by the Manchus. Tibet has to pay tribute to Nepal (for one century).

Amdo and Kham are consequently incorporated into the Chinese motherland by the Manchus. But, the protective role of the Manchus has disappeared completely by the fall of the 19th century (fall of the Qing Dynasty 1911).


The end of the 19th century is overshadowed by a rivalry between Russia and the UK in Central Asia: British suspicions are strengthened by the visit of the Buddhist and Russian "research traveller" Khampo Agvan Lobsang Dorjeff (Burjat Mongol) who visits the Russian Tsar in 1898. Dorjeff is acting as intermediary to the 13th Dalai Lama, Tubten Gyatso (1876-1933) (followed by Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, b. 1935). The UK is further worried by stories about a clandestine Sino-Russian treaty on Tibet. The British conquer Sikkim at the beginning of the 20th century. This leads consequently to the "Younghusband-Tibet- Campaign" to Gyantse, Shigatse and finally to Lhasa in 1904 which opens Tibet to British influence for some decades.

In the 20th century Dzogchen (Great Perfection) based on the practical idea of the practical-minded Chinese Ch'ang brand of Buddhism develops, although it is transmitted as a tantric teaching of the Nyingma-Pa school. It can be regarded as an essence of all other teachings and its origins can be traced back to pre-Buddhist times, when it flourished among the Bön-po of Zhang-zhung, the mythical original Tibet.


Based on the Buddhist Handbook, John Snelling.