History of Tibetan Buddhism

The history of Tibetan Buddhism has been analyzed through researches of numerous oral traditions and written records.

Early history

In the reign of King Thothori Nyantsen (5th century),[1] a basket of Buddhist scriptures arrived in Tibet from India.[2] Written in Sanskrit, they were not translated into Tibetan until the reign of king Songtsän Gampo (618-649).[3] While there is doubt about the level of Songtsän Gampo's interest in Buddhism, it is known that he married a Chinese Tang Dynasty Buddhist princess, Wencheng, who came to Tibet with a statue of Shakyamuni Buddha. It is clear from Tibetan sources that some of his successors became ardent Buddhists. The records show that Chinese Buddhists were actively involved in missionary activity in Tibet, but they did not have the same level of imperial support as Indian Buddhists, with tantric lineages from Bihar and Bengal.[4]

According to a Tibetan legendary tradition, Songtsän Gampo also married a Nepalese Buddhist princess, Bhrikuti. By the second half of the 8th century he was already regarded as an embodiment of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara.[5]

The successors of Songtsän Gampo were less enthusiastic about the propagation of Buddhism but in the 8th century, King Trisong Detsen (755-797) established it as the official religion of the state.[6] He invited Indian Buddhist scholars to his court. In his age the famous tantric mystic Padmasambhāva arrived in Tibet according to the Tibetan tradition. In addition to writing a number of important scriptures, some of which he hid for future tertons to find, Padmasambhāva, along with Śāntarakṣita, established the Nyingma school.

The outlines of the history of Buddhism in Tibet from this time are well-known.[7] At this early time also, from the south came the influence of scholars under the Pāla dynasty in the Indian state of Magadha. They had achieved a blend of Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna that has come to characterize all forms of Tibetan Buddhism. Their teaching in sutra centered on the Abhisamayālankāra, a 4th-century Yogācārin text, but prominent among them were the Mādhyamika scholars Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla.

A third influence was that of the Sarvāstivādins from Kashmir in the south west[8] and Khotan in the north west.[9] Although they did not succeed in maintaining a presence in Tibet, their texts found their way into the Tibetan Buddhist canon, providing the Tibetans with almost all of their primary sources about the Foundation Vehicle. A subsect of this school, Mūlasarvāstivāda was the source of the Tibetan vinaya.[10]

The Chinese princess Jincheng (Kon-co) and the Khotanese monks

The Chinese princess Jincheng Gongzhu (zh:金城公主) (?-739), the "real daughter" of the king of Yong, and an adoptive daughter of Emperor Zhongzong of Tang (r. 705-710),[11] was sent to Tibet in 710 where, according to most sources, she married Mes-ag-tshoms, who would have been only six or seven years old at the time.[12] She was known in Tibet as Gyim shang Ong co, or, simply, Kim-sheng or Kong-co, and was a devout Buddhist.

Five Buddhist temples were built at: 'Ching bu nam ra, Kwa chu in Brag dmar, 'Gran bzang, 'Khar brag and sMas gong.[13]

Buddhist monks from Khotan (Li), fleeing the persecutions of an anti-Buddhist king, were given refuge by Kim-sheng about 737. The story of these Khotanese monks is recorded the Li yul lung-btsan-pa or 'Prophecy of the Li Country', a Buddhist history of Khotan which has been preserved as part of the Tibetan Tanjur.

Kim-sheng died during an outbreak of smallpox sometime between 739 and 741. The rise of anti-Buddhist factions in Tibet following the death of the Chinese princess began to blame the epidemic on the support of Buddhism by the king and queen.[14] This forced the monks to flee once again; first to Gandhara, and then to Kosambi in central India where the monks apparently ended up quarrelling and slaughtering each other.[15]

Padmasambhāva, founder of the Nyingmapa, the earliest school of Tibetan Buddhism; note the wide-open eyes, characteristic of a particular method of meditation[16]

Chan Influence

Tibetan king Khri srong lde btsan (742–797) invited the Chan master Mo Ho Yen (和尚摩訶衍) (whose name consists of the same Chinese characters used to transliterate “Mahayana”) (Tibetan: Hwa shang Mahayana) to transmit the Dharma at Samye Monastery. Mo-ho-yen had been disseminating Dharma in the Tun-huang locale, but, according to Tibetan sources, lost an important philosophical debate on the nature of emptiness with the Indian master Kamalaśīla, and the king declared Kamalaśīla's philosophy should form the basis for Tibetan Buddhism.[17][18] Kamalaśīla wrote the three Bhāvanākrama texts (修習次第三篇) after that. However, a Chinese source found in Dunhuang written by Mo-ho-yen says their side won, and some scholars conclude that the entire episode is fictitious.[19][20]

Pioneering Buddhologist Giuseppe Tucci speculated that Hwashang's ideas were preserved by the Nyingmapas in the form of dzogchen teachings.[21] According to A. W. Barber of the University of Calgary,[22] Chan Buddhism was introduced to the Nyingmapa in three principal streams: the teachings of Korean Master Kim, Kim Ho-shang, (Chin ho shang) 金和尚 transmitted by Sang Shi[23] in ca. 750 AD; the lineage of Master Wu Chu (無住禪師) of the Pao T'ang School was transmitted within Tibet by Ye-shes Wangpo; and the teaching from Mo-ho-yen, that were a synthesis of the Northern School of Chan and the Pao T'ang School.[24]

John Myrdhin Reynolds and Sam van Schaik hold a very different point of view. Reynolds states "Except for a brief flirtation with Ch'an in the early days of Buddhism in Tibet in the eighth century, the Tibetans exhibited almost no interest at all in Chinese Buddhism, except for translating a few Sutras from Chinese for which they did not possess Indian originals."[25] Schaik emphasises that Chan and Dzogchen are based on two different classes of scripture, Chan being based on sutras, while Dzogchen being based on tantras.[26] Schaik further states "apparent similarities can be misleading."[26]

Whichever may be the case, Tibetan Buddhists today trace their spiritual roots to Indian masters such as Padmasambhāva, Atiśa, Tilopa, Naropa and their later Tibetan students.

Later history


From the outset Buddhism was opposed by the native shamanistic Bön religion, which had the support of the aristocracy, but with royal patronage it thrived to a peak under King Rälpachän (817-836). Terminology in translation was standardised around 825, enabling a translation methodology that was highly literal. Despite a reversal in Buddhist influence which began under King Langdarma (836-842), the following centuries saw a colossal effort in collecting available Indian sources, many of which are now extant only in Tibetan translation.

Tibetan Buddhism exerted a strong influence from the 11th century AD among the peoples of Inner Asia, especially the Mongols. It was adopted as the de-facto state religion by the Mongol Yuan dynasty that ruled China. The rulers of the Manchu Qing dynasty also supported Tibetan Buddhism, especially the Gelug sect, for most of their dynasty.[27] The Mongols may have been attracted to the Lamaist tradition and responded the way they did due to the Lamaist's superficial culture similarities with the Mongol's Shamanist culture. Even with this attraction, however, the Mongols "paid little attention to the fine points of Buddhist doctrine."[28] Coinciding with the early discoveries of "hidden treasures" (terma),[29] the 11th century saw a revival of Buddhist influence originating in the far east and far west of Tibet.[30] In the west, Rinchen Zangpo (958-1055) was active as a translator and founded temples and monasteries. Prominent scholars and teachers were again invited from India. In 1042 Atiśa arrived in Tibet at the invitation of a west Tibetan king. This renowned exponent of the Pāla form of Buddhism from the Indian university of Vikramashila later moved to central Tibet. There his chief disciple, Dromtonpa founded the Kadampa school of Tibetan Buddhism, under whose influence the New Translation schools of today evolved.

Spread to the mongols and central asia

Buddhists entered the service of the Mongol Empire in the early 13th century. Buddhist monasteries established in Karakorum were granted tax exempt status, though the religion was not given official status by the Mongols until later. All variants of Buddhism, such as Chinese, Tibetan and Indian Buddhism flourished, though Tibetan Buddhism was eventually favored at the imperial level under emperor Möngke, who appointed Namo from Kashmir as chief of all Buddhist monks.

Tantric style Tibetan Buddhism was possibly first spread to the Mongols via the Tangut state of Western Xia.[31][32]

During the Yuan dynasty founded by Kublai Khan, the Tibetan Buddhism became the de-facto state religion of the Yuan. The top-level department and government agency known as the Bureau of Buddhist and Tibetan Affairs (Xuanzheng Yuan) was set up in Khanbaliq (modern Beijing) to supervise Buddhist monks throughout the empire. The Sakya Imperial Preceptors were active at the Yuan court and enjoyed special power.[33] During this period Tibetan Buddhism was not only practiced within the capital Beijing or the Tibetan Plateau but throughout the country. For instance, Hangzhou, capital of the former Southern Song dynasty and the largest city in the Yuan realm, became an important hub of the activities of Tibetan Buddhism, which took public or official precedence over Han Chinese Buddhism. Similarly, Mount Wutai, the sacred site of Bodhisattva Manjusri and the holy mountain of Chinese Buddhist pilgrims, was greatly influenced by Tibetan Buddhism.[34]

Similar to the Yuan dynasty, Shamanism and Buddhism were once the dominant religions among the ruling class of the Mongol khanates of Golden Horde and Ilkhanate, the two western khanates of the Mongol Empire. In the early days, the rulers of both khanates increasingly adopted Tibetan Buddhism, resembling the Yuan dynasty at that time. However, the Mongol rulers Ghazan of Ilkhanate and Uzbeg of Golden Horde converted to Islam in 1295 AD and 1313 AD respectively. Yuan dynasty based in China and Mongolia later became the only division of the Mongol Empire that did not embrace Islam, but instead favored Tibetan Buddhism to the end of the dynasty.

Tibetan Buddhism was patronized by the Ming dynasty.[35][36] The Chinese Ming dynasty also deliberately helped to propagate Tibetan Buddhism instead of Chinese Buddhism among the Mongols. The Ming assisted Altan Khan, King of the Tümed Mongols, when he requested aid in propagating Lamaism.[37]

During the early period of the Northern Yuan dynasty, Shamanism again became the sole dominant religion in Mongolia, but the last sixty years before the death of the last khan Ligdan Khan are marked by intensive penetration of Tibetan Buddhism into Mongolian society. In 1578, Sonam Gyatso was invited to Mongolia and had converted Altan Khan to Buddhism along with his tribe (the first Mongol tribe to be so converted), the King conferred the title "Dalai" on him, "Dalai" being the Mongolian translation of his Tibetan name "Gyatso", which means "sea" or "ocean".[38] This is where the title Dalai Lama came from. Within 50 years nearly all Mongols had become Buddhists, including tens of thousands of monks, almost all followers of the Gelug school and loyal to the Dalai Lama.[39] Since then Tibetan Buddhism played a very important role among the Mongols. It was the single important religion among the Mongols under Qing rule, as well as the state religion of the Kalmyk Khanate, Dzungar Khanate and the Khoshut Khanate. The Tibetan Buddhism was also adored by the Qing court since both Mongols and Tibetans believed in Tibetan Buddhism.

Some historians viewed the promotion of Lamaist Buddhism among the Mongols by the Ming and Qing as a deliberate plot to weaken the Mongol's military prowess, but others reject the theory.

See also


  1. On this date, see Richardson, Hugh: "The Origin of the Tibetan Kingdom", in: The History of Tibet, ed. Alex McKay, Vol. 1, London 2003, p. 159. Traditional Tibetan sources state that this event occurred rather in 233.
  2. According to a Tibetan legendary tradition, they fell from the sky and included Kāraṇḍavyūhasūtra: Studholme, Alexander: The Origins of Om Manipadme Hum, Albany, NY 2002, pp. 13-14.
  3. Berzin, Alexander, A Survey of Tibetan History
  4. Powers 2004, pp. 38-39
  5. Macdonald, Alexander: Religion in Tibet at the time of Srong-btsan sgam-po: myth as history, in: The History of Tibet, ed. Alex McKay, Vol. 1, London 2003, p. 354-363 (for the queens see p. 355); Dargyay, Eva: Srong-btsan sgam-po of Tibet: Bodhisattva and king, in: The History of Tibet, ed. Alex McKay, Vol. 1, London 2003, p. 364-378 (for the queens see p. 373).
  6. Beckwith, C.I.: The revolt of 755 in Tibet, in: The History of Tibet, ed. Alex McKay, Vol. 1, London 2003, p. 273-285 (discusses the political background and the motives of the ruler).
  7. Conze, 1993. For more detail, see Berzin, Alexander (1996). The History of the Early Period of Buddhism and Bon in Tibet
  8. Conze, 1993, 106
  9. Berzin, Alexander (2000). How Did Tibetan Buddhism Develop?; Berzin, Alexander (1996). The Spread of Buddhism in Asia
  10. Berzin, Alexander, as above
  11. Lee, Don Y. The History of Early Relations between China and Tibet: From Chiu t'ang-shu, a documentary survey, p. 29. (1981). Eastern Press, Bloomington, Indiana. ISBN 0-939758-00-8.
  12. Wangdu and Diemberger (2000), pp. 33-34 and n. 56.
  13. Wangdu and Diemberger (2000), pp. 33-35 and n. 56.
  14. Ancient Tibet, p. 253.
  15. Hill (1988), pp. 179-180
  16. Wallace, 1999: 183.
  17. 定解宝灯论新月释
  18. Yamaguchi, Zuihō (undated). The Core Elements of Indian Buddhism Introduced into Tibet: A Contrast with Japanese Buddhism. Source: Thezensite.com (accessed: October 20, 2007)
  19. 敦煌唐代写本顿悟大乘正理决
  20. Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism (Volume One), page 70
  21. Masao Ichishima, "Sources of Tibetan Buddhist Meditation." Buddhist-Christian Studies, Vol. 2, (1982), pp. 121-122, published by University of Hawai'i Press.
  22. A.W. Barber
  23. Sang Shi later became an abbot of Samye Monastery.
  24. Barber, A. W. (1990). "The Unifying of Rdzogs Pa Chen Po and Ch'an". Chung-Hwa Buddhist Journal. 3, 04.1990: 301–317. Retrieved April 23, 2011.
  25. Reynolds, John. http://vajranatha.com/teaching/DzogchenChinese.htm (accessed: November 18, 2010)
  26. 1 2 RSchaik, Sam van. http://earlytibet.com/2011/11/22/tibetan-chan-v/ (accessed: February 27, 2011)
  27. The Circle of Bliss: Buddhist Meditational Art, by John C. Huntington, Dina Bangdel, Robert A. F. Thurman, p48
  28. Jerry Bentley, Old World Encounters: Cross-Cultural Contacts and Exchanges in Pre-Modern Times (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 142.
  29. Berzin, Alexander. The Four Traditions of Tibetan Buddhism: Personal Experience, History, and Comparisons
  30. Conze, 1993, 104ff
  31. Charles Orzech; Henrik Sørensen; Richard Payne (2011). Esoteric Buddhism and the Tantras in East Asia. BRILL. pp. 540–. ISBN 90-04-18491-0.
  32. Ann Heirman; Stephan Peter Bumbacher (11 May 2007). The Spread of Buddhism. BRILL. pp. 12–. ISBN 978-90-474-2006-4.
  33. History of civilizations of Central Asia.: A.D. 750 to the end of the fifteenth century. Part two : The achievements, p59
  34. Esoteric Buddhism and the Tantras in East Asia, by Charles Orzech, Henrik Sørensen, Richard Payne, p548
  35. http://www.history.ubc.ca/sites/default/files/documents/readings/robinson_culture_courtiers_ch.8.pdf
  36. https://www.sav.sk/journals/uploads/040214374_Slobodn%C3%ADk.pdf p 166.
  37. Patrick Taveirne (1 January 2004). Han-Mongol Encounters and Missionary Endeavors: A History of Scheut in Ordos (Hetao) 1874-1911. Leuven University Press. pp. 67–. ISBN 978-90-5867-365-7.
  38. McKay 2003, p. 18
  39. Laird, Thomas (2006). The Story of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama, p. 144. Grove Press, N.Y. ISBN 978-0-8021-1827-1


  • Conze, Edward (1993). A Short History of Buddhism (2nd ed.). Oneworld. ISBN 1-85168-066-7. 
  • Hill, John E. "Notes on the Dating of Khotanese History." Indo-Iranian Journal, Vol. 13, No. 3 July 1988. To purchase this article see: . An updated version of this article is available for free download (with registration) at:
  • Ringu Tulku. The Ri-Me Philosophy of Jamgon Kongtrul the Great: A Study of the Buddhist Lineages of Tibet. Shambhala. ISBN 1-59030-286-9. 
  • Smith, E. Gene (2001). Among Tibetan Texts: History and Literature of the Himalayan Plateau. Boston: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-179-3.

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