- by Caroline
- Last Updated: 2023-06-25
With the development of Tibet tourism, more and more people choose Tibet as the dreaming tour destination. This mysterious place which has 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 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, Buddhism which was originated from ancient India had some changes after spreading to Tibet, which is called “Tibetan Buddhism” by the public. This post is going to introduce the beginning, development, 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 the 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 the Tubo tribe and also the first emperor of Tibet, Songtsen Gampo, sent ministers to bring Buddhist scriptures from ancient India and the northern part of China (it was Tang Dynasty at that time) 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, which was Tibetan Buddhism.
Srongtsen Gampo was the first king in Tibet to enforce people to believe in Buddhism by law. After him, there were another two kings who 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 leadership of these two eminent monks. Later, Trisong Detsen invited another 12 Indian monks to tonsure 7 Tibetan young nobles in Samye Monastery. And then, they started to let monks translate the scriptures that were 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 and temples were built during those times, 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 was out of control. He destroyed the temples and monasteries, and enforced monks or lamas to resume secular life. It was really dark time for Buddhism in Tibetan history.
Around 100 years after he died, 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. At the beginning of the 15th century, when Gelugpa was set up, Tibetan Buddhism was finally separated into four main denominations which exist until now.
The Four Denominations of Tibetan Buddhism
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. "Dge-lugs-pa" means good law & practice in Tibetan. The school emphasizes strict observance of discipline, hence its name. Lamas could not eat meat or drink alcohol and must obey celibacy. This school of monks wears yellow monk hats, so it is also called the yellow religion.
It was founded by Tsongkhapa, who was a great Buddhist theorist. The founder Tsongkhapa was originally a Kadang monk, so this school is also called Xinkadang.
Ganden, Drepung, Sera(these three monasteries are located near Lhasa, collectively known as the Great Three Monasteries), Tashilunpo(located in Shigatse, Tibet), Taér Monastery(located near Xining, Qinghai Province), and Labrang Monastery (located in Xiahe County, Gansu Province) are the top six Gelugpa Monasteries.
Nyingmapa (Red Sect)
Nyingmapa is the oldest and second-largest sect of Tibetan Buddhism, formed in the 11th century. Because its monks all wear red caps, it is also called the red religion. "Rnying-ma" means "ancient" and "old" in Tibetan. The so-called "ancient" means that its doctrine was passed down from the 8th century AD and has a long history; the so-called "old" means that some of its doctrines are based on the old secret mantra of Tubo in ancient times. The Nyingma School is closely related to the Yongzhong Bon religion inherent in Tibet. From the 8th to 9th centuries AD, Tantra in Buddhism was introduced to Tibet from India and passed on from father to son, from generation to generation. However, Yongzhong Bon's basic religion has a great influence on Tibetan folk. It happens that the mystery of Tantra is very similar to Yongzhong Bon. As a result, the two gradually combine. There are no monasteries for this sect, no organization, no systematic doctrines, and no complete Sangha system. Nyingma monks are not required to be celibate.
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.
Kagyupa (White Sect)
It’s the third-largest sect. "Bkav－rgyud" is its Tibetan name. "Bkav" means the Buddhist language, and "rgyud" means inheritance. Put together, it means dictation and inheritance. The followers practice to achieve inner peace, that’s why it was called “the Tibetan Zen” as well. Due to the white stripes in the monk robes of the Kagyu monks, later scholars are also commonly known as "white religion".
Sakyapa (Variegated Sect)
As the smallest sect of Tibetan Buddhism, Sakyapa was named for the Sakya Monastery, which is located near Shigatse, Tibet. "Sa-skya" means “gray and white earth” in the Tibetan language.
Sakya Monastery is also famous for its rich collection of the library. The walls of Sakya Monastery were painted with red, white and cyan color, which symbolize the "Three Lords" of Manjushri, Guanyin, and Vajrayana Bodhisattva. So, Sakyapa is also called “the Variegated Tibetan Buddhist sect".
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