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Tibetan (Tantric) Buddhism: Key facts

Information: This section contains a brief summary of the history and key teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, also known as Tantric Buddhism.

Tibetan Buddhism is also known as Vajrayana Buddhism.

Tibet was the last of the great Asian kingdoms to convert to Buddhism.

Prior to the arrival of Buddhism in Tibet, the native religion was Bn. This was largely a set of beliefs and practices based on the notion that the world was inhabited by good and evil spirits, and that all things were inter-dependent. As such, Tibetans believed there were gods (deities) everywhere in the natural realm, including the underworld and the heavens.

Tantric Buddhism was brought to Tibet by Padmasambhava (aka Guru Rinpoche - "Precious master") around 700CE. Despite initial resistance from the Bn priests, he managed to blend the two worldviews thus giving Tibetan Buddhism many of its distinctive features.

A statue of Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche)

Statue of Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche) - Source: Wikipedia

Indian Buddhist tantric practices have been preserved in Tibetan Buddhism. Buddhism all but died out in India in the 10th Century CE, due to the destruction of Buddhist monasteries by invading Muslim armies.

Tantric Buddhists emphasise using one's imagination and embracing your emotions in order to progress towards Enlightenment. They believe that too much emphasis on the study of the Dharma (the Buddha's teaching), may end up leaving negative emotions such as anger, greed, or fear being ignored.

Tantric Buddhists actively engage with their feelings, emotions and imagination. For example, during meditation they will imagine what it was like to be the Buddha in a certain place or time.

A key feature of Tibetan Buddhism is the use of special (esoteric) techniques to accelerate the process of achieving Enlightenment.

A body of texts called the Tantras was written so that only initiates of a particular guru would be able to understand them. They are said to provide intimate details of mantras, mudras and mandalas, which enable devotees to achieve a magical transformation into Buddhahood.

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Worship in a Tibetan Buddhist shrine is a colourful and noisy affair. Horns are blown, mantras are chanted, there are many images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas all around, and there are candles and incense. Colourful robes are also worn by devotees.

Mantras are a series of words or sounds, which when they are recited over and over again are intended to focus a person's thoughts and aid concentration.

The most famous (and revered) mantra in Tibetan Buddhism is Om Mani Padme Hum, which can be translated as, 'Come! Jewel in the Lotus! In my heart!'. This mantra is also associated with Avalokitesvara (the Buddha of Compassion).

Tibetan Buddhist Chanting - Om Mani Padme Hum (www.youtube.com)

Mantras are sometimes written down and placed in prayer wheels. They can also be found on prayer flags.

Mudras (special hand gestures) are used by devotees during worship to represent a particular Buddha, or a quality associated with them. Mudras can be seen on images and statues of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

Two mudras - Dana-mudra (generosity) and Dhyana-mudra (meditation)

Two pictures of mudras - Dana-mudra (generosity) and Dhyana-mudra (meditation)

Mandalas are representations of the Buddha land, or a vision of the Buddha which show the nature of experience (both before and after Enlightenment). They are designed to aid meditation, and are also regarded as a sacred space (Buddhafield); a place of nirvana and peace.

To symbolise the idea of impermanence (annica), mandalas composed of sand are brushed together after completion, and placed in running water to spread its blessings.

Buddhist monks creating a sand mandala in the Mall of America, Minnesota USA

Buddhist monks creating a sand mandala in the Mall of America, Minnesota USA

Tibetan Buddhism uses many images of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas. Some of these are:

  • Avalokitesvara (or Chenrezig): The most popular Bodhisattva in Tibetan Buddhism, he represents compassion. He is sometimes shown as having 1000 arms, suggesting he is ready and willing to help people in any situation. He is also shown as having one foot in the meditation position and one foot pointing down towards the earth, suggesting he is aware of suffering in the world.
  • Tara: The female representation of compassion. She is sometimes shown in different colours, the most important (and popular) being green and white.

Statue of Tara (Buddha of Compassion)

Statue of Tara (Buddha of Compassion) - Note the position of her feet (as mentioned earlier).

Something to think about: Why do you think there are both male and female representations of compassion?

  • Vajrapanai: One of the oldest Bodhisattvas, he represents all of the power of all the Buddhas. He also tramples underfoot all obstacles which get in the way to someone achieving Enlightenment, and also represents the quality of determination.

Stupas are monuments to the Buddha's teaching, or places which house relics associated with him. In Tibetan Buddhism, Stupas are called Chortens. They act as visual aids, representing the whole of reality or teaching people something about the Buddha.

Stupa element Reality Buddha Associated colour
Crown/dewdrop

Inverted crescent moon/hemisphere

Cone/spire

Dome/sphere

Square base

Space/
void

Air

Fire

Water

Earth

Enlightenment

All encompassing action

Compassion

Indestructibility

Equanimity

No colour

Green

Red

White

Yellow

Gurus have a very important place in Tibetan Buddhism, as emphasis is placed on the personal transmission of the dharma by teachers to students. For this reason, Tibetan Buddhism is sometimes (wrongly) called Lamaism (lama meaning 'spiritual teacher').

The Dalai Lama is widely regarded as the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people.

There are two major sects in Tibetan Buddhism: the Nyingmapa (Red Hats) and the Gelupa (Yellow Hats). The Dalai Lama is head of the Gelupa order of monks.

One of the best-known Tibetan Buddhist books is the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which describes the state between living and dying (Bardo). As with other Buddhists, Tibetans believe in reincarnation, and this book gives instructions as to how a person may influence and choose the next life they live.

When a senior monk dies, other monks search for the child who they believe is the reincarnation of their dead teacher (Tulku). When they find a suitable candidate, the monks perform 'tests' to see if they are the Tulku. For instance, they might ask the child to select an object belonging to their dead teacher, from a pile of similar things.

The first Buddhist monastery in Tibet was Samye Ling.

Tibet came under Chinese occupation in 1950, and as a result monasteries were closed and monks were killed. It was estimated that until the Chinese arrived, one in five people lived in monasteries.

An unsuccessful uprising against the Chinese occupiers in 1959 resulted in many Buddhists leaving Tibet (including the Dalai Lama). Some went to Scotland (UK), where they founded the Samye Ling monastery and international centre of Buddhist training.

The Samye Ling monastery was founded by Dr. Akong Tulku Rinpoche and Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in 1967. It was the first Tibetan Buddhist center in the West.

A Stupa at the Samye Ling monastery in Scotland

A Stupa at the Samye Ling monastery in Scotland (Source: Wikipedia)

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