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Tibetan Label

Observations by C. L. Denver and Karl-Heinz Milstein


The extent of Tibetan culture and religion is not limited to the geographical area we now call Tibet, and the political borders confine it even more artificially. The map below shows the huge Tibetan Plateau, which is nowadays governed by China, but culturally and religiously, Tibet has extended far beyond it.

The Tibetan Plateau

Thus we must distinguish between "political Tibet," the region that historically has been governed by Tibetan rulers, and cultural/geographic Tibet, parts of which have been integrated into China for many centuries, and parts of which are included in other surrounding countries. Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, and Mongolia all have direct cultural connections to Tibet, and the ideas of Tibetan Buddhism have had influence on the development of Buddhism as far away as Japan. Also, Tibetan Buddhism has become "exported" to many nations around the world, particularly due to the popularity of the present Dalai Lama, Tenzen Gyatso. 


Tibetan Buddhism is a part of the large Mahayana movement. However, because of its distinctiveness, it is also often considered a third “vehicle,” Vajrayana—“the diamond vehicle,” or possibly "the thunderbolt vehicle.” In early Hinduism, the vajra was the lightning bolt wielded by the sky god Indra. In Tibetan Buddhism it has become a rather stylized two-orbed object, frequently carried by a Buddha or a bodhisattva in depictions, and its meaning has likely changed to "diamond." In either case, the idea is that enlightenment can come as quickly as a lightning bolt and will be as clear and permanent as a diamond, so both meanings can be accommodated. 

For the outside observer, it may not be easy to specify one singular item in which Vajrayana is different from other forms of Buddhism. In fact, when one looks at specific beliefs, practices, or objects, they frequently seem to fall right into mainstream Mahayana. There is no doubt that it is all a part of the same vast Buddhist complex, and yet, when one is struck by the complete assemblage of colors, sounds, Buddhas, gods and goddess, magic, and the always-present aura of the mysterious, it seems to have a nature all its own. This impression stems to a large degree from the fact that much added material came from various non-Buddhist sources and was eventually incorporated into Tibetan religion as a whole, including its Buddhism. 

A Short History

Unsurprisingly, books on the history of Tibet and on the history of Tibetan religion tell virtually the identical story.1 The two are so intertwined that they cannot be separated.

According to tradition (which may or may not be historically accurate), in the seventh century AD, the king (tsenpo) of a large area in southern Tibet managed to subdue other ambitious princes and clan chiefs and establish himself over a rather sizeable Tibetan empire. His name was Namri Lötsen, and it was under his son, Songsten Gampo, that Buddhism took its first formal steps into Tibet. The tsenpo was considered divine, and he was assisted by his ministers as well as his priests, wo were called Bönpos. 2 This latter phenomenon has led some scholars to infer that the indigenous religion at the time went by the name of Bön, if it had a name at all. We need to return to this point. 

Tibetan Street

Songsten Gampo, "Songsten the Wise," recognized that it would take a unified culture to maintain a unified empire. To that end, he commissioned a man named Tömni to create a script for reading and writing the Tibetan language. Political motivation may also have played a role in his friendliness toward Buddhism, the religion of the neighboring kingdoms. In the decade from 630 to 640 AD, when the king of Nepal, Narendradeva, was forced to flee into exile, he decided to settle in Tibet's capital city, Lhasa, where Songsten welcomed him and had a temple built for his use. This, the first Buddhist structure in Tibet, was called the "Jokhang Temple," and, given our present knowledge, the construction of this temple represents the first sanctioned presence of Buddhism in Tibet. 

Songsten attempted to make a marriage alliance with China by asking the emperor of the newly established Tang dynasty for the hand of the Princess of Wencheng in marriage. When an envoy from the Tibetan king showed up at X'ian, the Chinese capital at the time, he was brusquely turned away. Songsten was rather displeased with this action and the attitude behind it, and so he sent an army into China, which defeated the Chinese several times, and extended the Tibetan border close to X'ian. A new delegation went to visit the Chinese emperor again, and this time they returned with the Princess of Wencheng. Since she was a Buddhist, she brought with her a statue of the Buddha, which was placed in the Jokhang Temple. On less reliable grounds, it is also said that Songsten married a Nepalese princess, and that this princess, named Tritsün, brought a statue of the Buddha with her as well. Some authors claim that in later folklore these two queens were became the prototypes for the deities called the White and Green Tara, but there is no direct evidence for this linkage. Whether Songsten actually became a Buddhist himself is a matter of debate, with the probability favoring the conclusion that he was not, though he definitely was accommodating to this new religion. 

This video gives us a sample of the colorful nature of Tibetan Buddhism. 

A Visit to the Tibetan Cultural Center 

Dharma2Grace on Vimeo.

There followed a time during which the tsenpos were rather powerless, and Tibet was really governed by the kings' prime ministers. From this point on, when we talk about the Tibetan kingdom, we must keep in mind that any actual unity was often more of an ideal than a reality, because once again, quarreling princes and warlords were destabilizing any apparent central government. Buddhism remained barely alive until another Chinese princess, Jincheng by name, was brought to Tibet to be the nominal queen alongside an eight-year old tsenpo and his domineering mother. Queen Jincheng took up the cause of the few monks, who were still continuing the line of Buddhism in Tibet, and she also opened the gates for refugee monks from other countries to settle in Lhasa. She became their patroness, providing funding for their sustenance, monasteries, and temples. Unfortunately, her work was brought to a sudden halt by an outbreak of smallpox, which the Bönpos claimed (not without justification) to have come into the country along with the foreign monks. Jincheng succumbed to the disease herself, and the foreign monks were expelled. When the Tibetan monks submitted as an ultimatum that, if the foreign monks had to leave, so would they, they were immediately given permission to depart. Buddhism, too, was on the verge of dying of smallpox in Tibet. 

Still, even though Buddhism may have been moribund, it was not dead. Eventually the tsenpos regained true power in their domain. A little over a hundred years after Songsten, Trisong Detsen became king (ca. AD 755). In 763 his army actually sacked X'ian, the Chinese capital under the Tang dynasty, because the emperor refused to pay tribute to him. He extended Tibetan power over the Silk Road, which up to then had been dominated by the Chinese. Most importantly for our purposes, Trisong declared Buddhism to be the official state religion of Tibet. Monasteries and temples sprung up; the indigenous religion was rudely shoved aside; and it looked as though Buddhism was about to establish itself firmly and permanently. Its new growth spurt, was, however, accompanied by some further disruptions, such as natural disasters occurring during the attempt to build a large temple called Yamse. After discussions with several leading Indian Buddhists monks and teachers, Trisong Detsen extended an invitation to a Buddhist master named Padmasambhava to come to Tibet in order to rid the country of the evil spirits that were interfering with the new endorsement of Buddhism by the Tibetan king. 


Padmasambhava only stayed in Tibet for a few months, and he was not a Buddhist lama ("monk"). Still, he is most commonly thought of as the true founder of Tibetan Buddhism. The most traditional of the Tibetan schools worships him as a deity, and everyone venerates him as "Guru Rinpoche," the "Precious Teacher." He was a master of the school of thought called Tantrism (which we shall discuss later), and--for all practical purposes--he was a sorcerer and exorcist. The traditions tell us that he was extremely successful in dispelling the evil spirits connected to the Yamse temple building project. He also applied his powers to various other matters intended to make life easier in Tibet. In fact, his magic was said to be so successful that it provoked a general fear among royalty and nobility that he was working towards taking over as ruler of Tibet. Trisong Detsen rather abruptly called in Padmasambhava for an audience, thanked him perfunctorily for his services, and commanded him to leave Tibet. Just to make sure that he was really leaving, the king sent a group of archers behind him. The story goes that the angry Tantric master warded off the soldiers by immobilizing them. 

Subsequently, Padmasambhava's standing rose steadily in the eyes of Tibetan Buddhists. More and more stories became connected to him, in many of which he visited regions far distant from Lhasa. Eventually, the idea became popular that he had written numerous treatises, which he had hidden in various places, where they would be discovered at the appropriate time. Thus, for the last thousand years these termas ("treasures") have been found by holy people so that Tibetan Buddhists would receive guidance from Padmasambhava himself in their specific circumstances. Skeptics claim that the termas had been written by their "finders" shortly before they were unearthed. 

The sequence of rulers directly after Trisong is not entirely clear. Apparently two of his sons became kings after him. Things become clearer again with Ralpachen, his grandson son, who emerged successfully out of the struggle and secured the throne for a lengthier period. Along with Songsten Gampo, whom we mentioned above, and Trisong Detsen, Ralpachen is considered to be one of the three "Dharma kings," a label invented later that indicates their great support for Buddhism and their roles in assuring its presence in Tibet. However, his devotion may have been too enthusiastic because he sunk close to the entire treasury of the kingdom into temple and monastery building projects as well as the translation and distribution of Buddhist literature. This policy was neither good economics nor effective internal diplomacy. Keeping in mind that many leaders on many levels had not yet embraced Buddhism, the expenditure irritated them severely. Furthermore, according to traditional history, Ralpachen issued numerous decrees favoring Buddhism. Supposedly, as little as scowling at a monastery or a Buddhist monk could result in serious physical punishment. Even if this traditional report were true, it is unlikely that this order was ever implemented. Nevertheless, it illustrates the zeal that has been associated with Ralpachen's reign. There is no consensus concerning his death, but it is likely that he was assassinated.

Ralpachen was replaced by a brother of his, a powerful, energetic man who was generally called Lang Darma, "Darma the Ox." Though he may have been a Buddhist nominally, Darma's actions were decidedly pro-Bön and anti-Buddhist. His real religion, as it were, focused more on hunting and drinking than on meditation and chanting. He dismissed Buddhist ministers that had served at the court for a long time. He did not continue his brother's funding of Buddhist projects, which forced numerous newly-established monasteries to collapse and many new monks to return to private life. Eventually, a Buddhist monk named Lhalung killed him by approaching him in disguise. 

As important as it may have been for Lhalung to rid Tibet of this immoral tsenpo, the consequence was, at least politically, worse. There were two young children who stood as contenders for the throne, both of them with implausible credentials. The central government, such as it had been, collapsed completely, and Tibet turned into a collection of self-governing provinces, most of which were at war with most of the others much of the time. 

Contrary to a widespread misunderstanding, there was as much blood shed in the history of Tibet as in other countries, much of it between internal rival Buddhist factions. However, Buddhism had by now become a permanent part of Tibet, and wherever there would be a dominant party, it would be constituted by a noble family and the Buddhist order, who were mutually reinforcing each other's influence. Clan membership and religious affiliation became the two dominant categories for political legitimacy in Tibet. There were a number of important Buddhist teachers, but there would be no single government until the Gelug order established itself. 

Tibetan temple in Taiwan

For the next several centuries, different orders and lineages struggled for ascedancy in Tibet. Two of the main orders still present today, the Kagyupas and Sakyapas were vying for power. Another order that arose during the eleventh and twelfth centuries were the Nyingmapas, who attempted to reconstruct the true teachings of Padmasambhava, and, thus, had few political ambitions.These three orders are sometimes classified together as the "Red Hats," based on the color of cap they wore at special occasions. Then the Gelugpas came along. They became known as the "Yellow Hats." Initially merely intended as a reform movement, they managed to gain the ascendancy that had eluded others. (Today there is a greater spirit of unity among the schools, which is expressed by the saying, "Red hats are lined with yellow, and yellow hats are lined with red.")

By the time of the supreme Lama of the Gelug order, the Mongols were no longer at the peak of their power, but still maintained a significant military presence in East Asia. Altan Khan, the head of one of the stronger Mongol clans, gave the Gelug Lama the designation that is commonly abridged as Dalai Lama and usually translated as “The Lama whose Wisdom is as Great as the Ocean," and this title became retroactive to the previous two holders of that office. Also, from the third Dalai Lama on, it was accepted that he was the incarnation of the bodhisattva Chenresig, commonly known as Avalokitesvara. The second highest leader among the Gelugpa became known as the Panchen Lama. A short while later, with the continued backing of the Mongols' military strength, the fifth Dalai Lama was able to situate himself as undisputed ruler of Tibet, carrying out purges where his authority was not recognized. He is frequently called "The Great Fifth." We shall return to this topic with some more details later on in this section under the heading of The Lamas.

Politically, Tibet was once again autonomous, though always under the suzerainty of another country, first the Mongols and then the Manchus, who also constituted the royal dynasty of China into the twentieth century. The thirteenth Dalai Lama momentarily was able to regain sovereignty for Tibet, but it did not last much longer than the blink of an eye. During the rule of the fourteenth Dalai Lama (the present one as of this writing), the People’s Republic of China extended direct control over Tibet in 1950/51, a set of events that was not helped by serious in-fighting among the Tibetans.  Under the direction of a prophecy from the state oracle of Tibet, the Nechung oracle, the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959. The Panchen Lama sided with the Chinese at first, but ultimately found himself in jail for non-cooperation. After his release, he took a stand against the Chinese treatment of Tibet. The "Cultural Revolution" of 1966/67 was intended to obliterate Tibet's religious heritage, though it did not succeed as well as it originally looked.  At this point, there are many refugees from Tibet living in India and other countries. 

As of this writing, Tibetan Buddhism has once again been allowed to have a presence in its country, at least as a historical legacy, though under strict control. The government of China is not only permitting the rebuilding of some temples and monasteries, it is even funding some such constructions under the agenda of refurbishing important sites of Chinese history and attracting tourism. In the meantime, Tibetan temples and centers have popped up around the world.


1. Three of the main sources for these pages are:

Melvyn C. Goldstein, The Snow Lion: China, Tibet, and the Dalai Lama. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1997.
Matthew T. Kapstein, The Tibetans. Malden, Mass: Blackwell, 2006.
Sam van Shaik, Tibet: A History. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2011.
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2. Frequently, in Tibetan terminology, the suffixes "pa, pas" and "po, pos" indicates that the word is used either as an adjective or in describing a person who is associated with the word. Thus, there is an order of monks called Gelug. It is the Gelugpa order. Its members are Gelugpas.
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