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History of Tibetan Buddhism

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Title: History of Tibetan Buddhism  
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History of Tibetan Buddhism

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


  • Early history 1
  • The Chinese princess Jincheng (Kon-co) and the Khotanese monks 2
  • Chan Influence 3
  • Later history 4
  • See also 5
  • Notes 6
  • References 7
  • Further reading 8
  • External links 9

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 however 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, 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 (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 an official state religion by the Mongol Yuan dynasty and the Manchu Qing dynasty that ruled China. 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."[27] Coinciding with the early discoveries of "hidden treasures" (terma),[28] the 11th century saw a revival of Buddhist influence originating in the far east and far west of Tibet.[29] 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.

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. ^ A Survey of Tibetan HistoryBerzin, Alexander,
  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 The History of the Early Period of Buddhism and Bon in TibetBerzin, Alexander (1996).
  8. ^ Conze, 1993, 106
  9. ^ Introductory History of the Five Tibetan Traditions of Buddhism and BonBerzin, Alexander (2000). ; The Spread of Buddhism in AsiaBerzin, Alexander (1996).
  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: (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. (accessed: November 18, 2010)
  26. ^ a b RSchaik, Sam van. (accessed: February 27, 2011)
  27. ^ Jerry Bentley, Old World Encounters: Cross-Cultural Contacts and Exchanges in Pre-Modern Times (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 142.
  28. ^ The Four Traditions of Tibetan Buddhism: Personal Experience, History, and ComparisonsBerzin, Alexander.
  29. ^ Conze, 1993, 104ff


  • Hill, John E. "Notes on the Dating of Khotanese History." Indo-Iranian Journal, Vol. 13, No. 3 July 1988. To purchase this article see: [3]. An updated version of this article is available for free download (with registration) at: [4]
  • Ringu Tulku. The Ri-Me Philosophy of Jamgon Kongtrul the Great: A Study of the Buddhist Lineages of Tibet. Shambhala.  
  • Smith, E. Gene (2001). Among Tibetan Texts: History and Literature of the Himalayan Plateau. Boston: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-179-3.

Further reading

Introductory books
Other books
  • Smith, E. Gene (2001). Among Tibetan Texts: History and Literature of the Himalayan Plateau. Boston: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-179-3

External links

  • The Tibetan and Himalayan Digital Library
  • The Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center
  • the Tibetan bibliography database
  • Tibetan Buddhism in the West by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche
  • Songtsen — The rescue and preservation of Tibet's cultural and spiritual traditions
  • Tibetan Buddhism: History and the Four Traditions
  • The extensive archives of teachings from Alexander Berzin
  • Tibetan Buddhism Forums
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