Tibetan Buddhism History, Myth and Renaissance

In contrast with the other Buddhist schools that originated in India, Tibetan Buddhism is the new kid on the block. Chronologically speaking, first came Theravada (Hinayana) in the 6th century BCE and Mahayana followed 2-3 centuries later. However, it was not until about the 6th century ACE that the forefather of Tibetan Buddhism – Vajrayana Buddhism – became established in Northern India.

The Allure of Vajrayana in Tibet

The Vajrayana meaning is a combination of 2 Sanskrit words “vajra” and “yana”, the English translation is “diamond vehicle”. The allure of Vajrayana is its expediency. Indeed, it offers an fast track method that can result in achieving Buddhahood in a single lifetime. Ancient Indian gurus called “mahasiddhas” were the first practitioners of Vajrayana. The methods of the mahasiddhas were controversial.

The practice of Vajrayana Buddhism incorporated mantras, mandalas, mudras and visualization of Buddhas and deities. Many of these practices would be adopted into Tibetan Buddhist rituals. However, these mahasiddhas were openly hostile to the existing monastic order of Buddhism. As a result, they incorporated controversial and sometimes shocking rituals into their practice.

Disdain of the Mahasiddhas 

The mahasiddhas practiced meditation in open air cemeteries called “charnel grounds”. As part of their shocking practice rituals they also ingested taboo substances such as meat, urine and alcohol. However, they would go even further by performing sexual acts and taking human body parts as accouterments. Furthermore, their pursuit of magical powers (siddhis) would result in the association of Tibetan Buddhist rituals with shamanism. 

KURUKULLA, Dancing Red Tara
Wrathful Tibetan deities such as Kurukulla are believed to have occult like powers.

The Assimilation of Tibetan Buddhism

Santaraksita was an Indian Buddhist master that was instrumental in the integration of Tibetan Buddhism. At the behest of the Tibetan King Trisong Detsen he traveled to Tibet from Northern India sometime before 767 ACE. Santaraksita translated the teachings into the Tibetan language and established the first monastery at Samye, with the assistance of Padmasambhava (see below).

The assimilation of Vajrayana Buddhism in Tibet began in the 8th century. However, Tibetan Buddhist rituals would incorporate some novel elements that were exclusive of Vajrayana. Besides translation into the Tibetan language, additional elements include:

  1. Dzogchen – The ultimate teachings of the Buddhas passed down from the Primordial Buddha Samantabhadra.
  2. New sadhana texts – Sadhana is literally “means of accomplishment” to achieve the ultimate state of a deity or Buddha composed in ritual texts.
  3. The tulku system – Institution of Tibetan Buddhist masters who chose to be reincarnated and continue teaching in the human realm. Examples include the Dalai Lamas and the Karmapas.
  4. Terma literature – Spiritual treasures hidden by Padmasambhava and his consort Yeshe Tsogyal in the earth and the minds of disciples. Treasure revealers called “tertons” will discover the terma treasures at the appropriate time.
  5. Tibetan scholastic works

Samye Monastery Facts and Myth

An auspicious location was chosen for construction of Tibet’s first Buddhist monastery at Samye. However, every time construction reached a certain stage the structure would inexplicably collapse. The workers assumed that a local demon was haunting the construction grounds. Soon afterwards a contemporary of Santaraksita known as Padmasambhava (lotus born) arrived at Samye.

Padmasambhava performed the Vajrakilaya dance and implemented the “rite of namkha”. As a result of the sacred rituals, the evil at Samye was apprehended which removed the obscurations. Indeed, the mystical tantric dance of Padmasambhava had purified the ground for construction of the monastery.

Guru Rinpoche Statue
Padmasambhava is also known as Guru Rinpoche and he commonly featured in Nepali sculpture.

Completion of the Samye monastery in 767 ACE laid the foundation of the first school of Tibetan Buddhism known as Nyingma for which Padmasambhava is the founder.

The teachings of Santaraksita were based in the sutra method. However, the Tantric methods performed by Padmasambhava had better impressed the Tibetan king.

The Fate of the Samye Monastery

The monastery at Samye would serve as an important metaphor in Tibetan Buddhism history. Unfortunately, the demons that Padmasambhava had exorcised would return and the monastery would repeatedly fall into ruin. Destruction of the monastery was caused by fire, earthquakes, war and the Chinese cultural revolution.

A Samye monastery replica was constructed in 1986 and has become an important destination for pilgrims and tourism. 

Tibetan Buddhism Destruction and Renaissance

Similar to its original monastery at Samye, Tibetan Buddhism would disintegrate along with the Tibetan empire in the 9th and 10th centuries.

However, in the 11th century Tibetan Buddhism history would experience a renaissance. As a result, Indian Buddhism masters were once again invited to visit Tibet. Over time, this resulted in a diverse evolution of Tibetan Buddhism creating 4 main schools and lineages.

Guru Tsongkhapa statue
Guru Tsongkhapa is the founding father of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism.

After the renaissance of Tibetan Buddhism in the 11th century, Tibet would successfully handle the invasion of the Mongols and successive Chinese dynastic rulers. However, the political turbulence of the 20th century imposed unbearable hardship on the political autonomy of Tibet.

Indeed, the rise of the Chinese Communists after WWII threatened to destroy Tibetan Buddhism once and for all. However, on March 17, 1959 the Tibetan Buddhist leader – the 14th Dalai Lama – escaped into exile across the Indian border where he has reestablished the foundation of Tibetan Buddhism at Dharamshala in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh.

Fortunately, the persistence and the political savvy of the 14th Dalai Lama has created a new renaissance. Once again, Tibetan Buddhism has been close to the brink of annihilation only to be reborn.