With the development of Tibet tourism, more and more people choose Tibet as the dreaming tour destination. This mysterious place which existed in isolation for nearly 14 centuries becomes touchable and accessible to the world nowadays. People who had visited Tibet or know a little about it may know that it is a religious place, where the Buddhism had been integrated with the locals’ life. You can see Buddhism affects the Tibetans from every aspect of their behaviors, such as cooking, building houses, praying, etc. Due to the distinctive location, the Buddhism which was originated from ancient India had some changes after spreading to Tibet, which is called as “Tibetan Buddhism” by the public. This post is going to introduce the beginning, developing, and current situation of Tibetan Buddhism, to help travelers know more about Tibetan culture.
It should be dated back to 1,800 years ago when it was Ancient Katao Dynasty in Tibet area, the prince Xinrao Miwo who is regarded as the master of Shakya Muni founded a religion for saving the poor people from all the pain of lives. This native religion was called Bon, which was the origin of Tibetan culture. Tibetan people considered it as the supreme belief and followed the doctrine strictly. Bon religion ruled the entire Tibet for years until the 7th. century, the 33rd. leader of Tubo tribe and also the first emperor of Tibet, Srongtsen Gampo, sent ministers to bring Buddhist scriptures from ancient India and the north part of China (that time was Tang Dynasty) and promoted it widely in Tibet. Because the ultimate doctrines of Buddhism and Bon were the same, Buddhism had a quick development without difficulties and mixed with some teachings of Bon. Finally, there emerged a new religion in Tibet, that was Tibetan Buddhism.
Srongtsen Gampo was the first king in Tibet to enforce people believe in Buddhism by laws. After him, there were another two kings also did great efforts to protect Buddhism and encourage its development.
One is Trisong Detsen, who invited Indian monks Shantarakshita and Padma Sambhava to teach Buddhism in Tibet. This was a significant event in Tibetan Buddhist history. As the famous Samye Monastery was built under the leader of these two eminent monks. Later, Trisong Detsen invited another 12 Indian monks to tonsure 7 Tibetan young nobles in Samye Monastery. And then, started to let monks translate the scriptures that brought from India. Even he allowed monks to embark the political affairs.
The other one is Triral Pachen, who respected monks very much and enacted laws that monks were tax-free and no need to work, per 7 lay people need to afford one monk’s life. Buddhism was flourished due to the support from the top echelons of society. A lot of monasteries, temples were built during those time, such as Jokhang Temple, Drepung Monastery, etc. and people were proud of being monks or at least practicing Buddhism at home. Believing in Buddhism was justified no matter to the royalty, nobility, or populace.
But then, the last Tibetan king started to suppress Buddhism as he thought the power of monks and lamas were out of control. He destroyed the temples, monasteries, enforced monks or lamas to resume secular life. It was really a dark time for Buddhism in Tibetan history.
Around 100 years after he died, the Buddhism was revived but the scale was not as large as before. Since then, Buddhism had developed into Tibetan Buddhism with unique plateau features, and formed several different denominations. In the beginning of 15th. century, when Gelugpa was set up, Tibetan Buddhism was finally separated into four main denominations which exist until now.
Current Situation of Tibetan Buddhism - The Four Denominations of Tibetan Buddhism
Gelugpa (Yellow Sect)
Gelugpa is also called the Yellow Hats sect as the followers all wear dark red frocks and yellow hats. Although Gelugpa is the youngest sect of Tibetan Buddhism, it’s the largest and most important one. It was founded by Tsongkhapa, who requested a strict discipline. Lamas could not eat meat or drink alcohol and must obey celibacy. Ganden, Drepung, Sera, and Tashilunpo are top four Gelugpa Monasteries in Tibet.
Nyingmapa (Red Sect)
Nyingmapa is the oldest and second largest sect of Tibetan Buddhism. The founder is Padma Sambhava, who is honored as “the second Buddha” by the followers. It was changed a little by Longchenpa in the 14th. century. Nyingma monks are not required to be celibate.
Kagyupa (White Sect)
It’s the third largest sect. The followers practice to achieve the inner peace, that’s why it was called “the Tibetan Zen” as well.
Sakyapa (Variegated Sect)
As the smallest sect of Tibetan Buddhism, Sakyapa was named for the Sakya Monastery, which is located in the south of Tibet. Sakya means “gray and white earth” in the Tibetan language. The walls of Sakya Monastery were painted with red, white and cyan color. So, Sakyapa is also called “the Variegated Tibetan Buddhist sect".