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The Origins of Tibetan Buddhism

Tibetan Buddhism is a religion in exile, forced from its homeland when Tibet was conquered by the Chinese. At one time it was thought that 1 in 6 Tibetan men were Buddhist monks.

Buddhism became a major presence in Tibet towards the end of the 8th century CE. It was brought from India at the invitation of the Tibetan king, Trisong Detsen, who invited two Buddhist masters to Tibet and had important Buddhist texts translated into Tibetan.

Tibetan Buddhism covers the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism along with Tantric and Shamanic rituals, and is in some part influenced by Bon, the ancient, indigenous religion of Tibet.

There is a tremendous amount in common between Bon religion and the Tibetan Buddhism. Bon also talks about enlightenment, attaining enlightenment, Buddhas, and so on. Bon has a tradition of debate, exactly as the Tibetan Buddhist traditions do.

Although Tibetan Buddhism is often thought to be identical with Vajrayana Buddhism, they are not identical - Vajrayana is taught in Tibetan Buddhism together with the other vehicles.

Distinction of Tibetan Buddhism from other Buddhists schools

  • the status of the teacher or "Lama"

  • preoccupation with the relationship between life and death

  • important role of rituals and initiations

  • rich visual symbolism

  • elements of earlier Tibetan faiths

  • mantras and meditation practice

Supernatural beings are prominent in Tibetan Buddhism. Buddhas and bodhisattvas abound, gods and spirits taken from earlier Tibetan religions such as Bon, continue having a big part in Tibetan Buddhism. Bodhisattvas are portrayed as both benevolent godlike figures and wrathful deities.

This metaphysical context has allowed Tibetan Buddhism to develop a strong artistic tradition, and paintings and other graphics are used as aids to understanding at all levels of society.

Visual aids to understanding are very common in Tibetan Buddhism - pictures, structures of various sorts and public prayer wheels and flags provide an ever-present reminder of the spiritual domain in the physical world.

Tibetan Buddhism is strong in both monastic communities and among lay people.


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