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By Geshe Thubten Jinpa

Historical Background

According to traditional Tibetan accounts Buddhist scriptures first came to the vast plateau of Tibet in the third century CE during the reign of the king Lha Thothori Nyentsen. Legend has it that this devout king received some Buddhist texts as gifts from India. As he was able to neither read them nor find anyone among his subjects able to do so, he placed them on his altar as objects of worship. One night he had a prophetic dream that indicated that the profound meaning of these scriptures would be revealed to his people after twelve generations.

Twelve generations later the famous Tibetan monarch Songtsen Gampo (7th century) appeared, universally recognized by Tibetan Buddhists as both a human incarnation of the Buddha of compassion and the country's first Buddhist king. It was during his reign that Thömi Sambhotra (7th century) first developed the present system of Tibetan writing, based on an ancient Indian script. Thömi Sambhotra also undertook the first translations of Buddhists texts into Tibetan. Songtsen Gampo married a Nepalese princess and a Chinese princess and, according to tradition, it was due to their influence that he had the earliest Buddhist temples built in Tibet. Recent historical and archaeological scholarship has suggested however that there exists a close connection between the early history of Buddhism in Tibet and the Tibetan conquest of many regions of central Asia. At the height of its power during the eighth and ninth centuries CE, the Tibetan Empire extended from the northern part of China to the far corners of Central Asia.

Perhaps credit for the systematic establishment of Buddhism as Tibet's state religion really belongs to the monarch Trisong Detsen (8th century), who was responsible for building Samye, the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet. Further, under his decree the Indian version of Mahayana Buddhism gained dominance over a version of Ch'an from China following the famous debate at Samye between the main proponents of the two rival traditions of Buddhism. Traditional Tibetan histories identify three key figures in the establishment of Buddhism in Tibet during that period. They were, in addition to the monarch Trisong Detsen, the Indian thinker Shantarakshita (circa 8th century) who introduced the Buddhist monastic system in Tibet, and the mystic Padmasambhava (circa 8th century) who, in addition to disseminating a large body of Vajrayana meditative practices, integrated many of the pre-Buddhist icons into the Tibetan Buddhist iconography.

In recognition of their great contribution to the flourishing of Buddhism in Tibet, these three personalities are often depicted together in religious paintings and referred to as the trio: the abbot, the master and the religious king. The establishment of Buddhism was further strengthened during the reign of the monarch Tri Ralpa- chen (9th century) when the Tibetan language was reformed and its philosophical and religious terminology standardized. However Buddhism in Tibet went into serious decline during the next 150 years following the death of Tri Ralpa-chen in about 838. It was only during the 11th century, following the arrival of the Indian Buddhist master Atisha in Tibet, that a full revitalization of Buddhism took place in the country. Today this later period is known as the time of the 'second dissemination of Buddhism in Tibet.'

Denominations: The Four Schools

There are four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism: Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyü, and Geluk (described below). All four schools belong to the Mahayana (Great Vehicle) tradition, and therefore propound universal enlightenment. Historically the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism spread from India to China, Japan, Korea, Tibet, Mongolia, and all the regions of the Tibetan cultural sphere (Bhutan and the entire Trans-Himalayan area), as well as the republics of Thuva, Buriat and Kalmykya found in the present-day Russian federation. Philosophically, all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism uphold the Middle Way thought of the Indian Buddhist thinker Nagarjuna (2nd century CE). In the realm of meditative practice, all embrace the complex and profound teachings of Vajrayana Buddhism (Diamond Vehicle). Differences among the four schools are primarily (1) association with a specific lineage of Indian masters, (2) special emphasis on specific aspects of meditative practice, (3) the use and meaning of certain religious and technical terms, (4) the interpretation of Nagarjuna's philosophy of emptiness, and (5) degree of attention to various matters of epistemological and philosophical concern.

Nyingma: The Old Translation School

Although the name Nyingma (Old School) is a retrospective label, Nyingma historians recognize the Indian mystic Padmasambhava who came to Tibet in the 9th century as the School's founder. Central to the Nyingma tradition is a genre of scriptures recognized as treasure texts (terma). These are works that are believed to have been written by Padmasambhava and hidden. These spiritual treasures are discovered by specially blessed masters when the time is ripe for their dissemination. Thus according to the Nyingma tradition there are three streams of transmission of spiritual teachings. These are, (1) the distant canonical lineage that traces its origin to the words of the Buddha, (2) the close lineage of the revealed treasures, and (3) the profound lineage of pure visions, said to emerge from spontaneous mystical experience. The best known of this school's teachings are the meditative practices related to Zokchen, the "Great Perfection".

Among the great masters of the Nyingma Schools are Longchen Rapjampa (1308-1368), who first systemized the theory and practice of the Great Perfection, Rikzin Jikme Lingpa (1729-1798), greatest discover of the treasure texts, Patrül Rinpoche (1808-1887), greatest elucidator of the Nyingma meditative practices, and Ju Mipham (1846-1912), greatest commentator of the Nyingma perspectives on the Indian Mahayana classics.

Sakya: Upholders of the Chalky Region Monastery

The Sakya School emerged as a distinct tradition in the eleventh century following the founding of the Sakya monastery by Khön Könchok Gyalpo (1034-1102) in 1073. It derives its name "the chalky region" from the site where the monastery was built. Khön Könchok Gyalpo studied under the famous translator Drokmi (992- 1072) who propagated many of the Indian lineages he had studied and practiced. By the thirteenth century the Sakya School had not only reached great heights in its development, but also had effectively assumed the political power in Tibet as well. The central teaching of the Sakya School is the "Path and its Fruition" (lamdre) tradition, which is based on the literature of the Hevajra Tantra as revealed by the Indian mystic Virupa (late 10th century CE). Among the great luminaries of this school are the 'Five Exalted Masters of Sakya,' each of whom holds a unique place in the development of the Sakya tradition. Sachen Kunga Nyingpo (1092-1158) was the first of the five and also the son of Khön Könchok Gyalpo. Lopön Sönam Tsemo (1142-1182) and Jetsün Drakpa Gyaltsen (1147-1216) were both instrumental in systematizing the various teachings of the "Path and its Fruition" cycle. Sakya Pandita (1182-1251), most famous of all, was not only a great master of the Sakya School but also a pioneer in the introduction of Sanskrit poetics into the Tibetan language. He was also responsible for developing much of the scholastic discipline in the Tibetan monastic tradition. Finally, during the patriarchy of Drogön Chögyal Pakpa (1235-1280) the Sakya reached its political zenith through close relations with the Mongol Khan family.

Kagyü: The Sacred Word Lineage

The Kagyü School traces its lineage to the teachings of the Indian mystics Tilopa (circa 988-1089) and Naropa (circa 1016-1100), whose lineage was transmitted in Tibet by the great translator Marpa (1012-1097). Marpa's principal disciple was Milarepa (1052-1135), arguably Tibet's best known religious poet and mediator. Among Milarepa's many students was Gampopa (1079-1153), a polymath and a great synthesizer, who can be recognized as the real founder of Kagyü as a distinct School of Tibetan Buddhism. Following Gampopa's teachings, there evolved the 'Four Major' and the 'Eight Minor' lineages of the Kagyü School.

The central teaching of the Kagyü School is the doctrine of Mahamudra (Great Seal) as elucidated by Gampopa. This doctrine focuses on four principal aspects of meditative practice: (1) development of single- pointedness of mind, (2) transcendence of all conceptual elaboration, (3) cultivation of the perspective that all things are of a 'single taste,' and (4) application of the path that lies beyond any meditative practice. It is said that through these four stages of development the practitioner will attain the perfect realization of Mahamudra.

Among the many luminaries of the Kagyü lineages are such personalities as the translator Marpa, the poet saint Milarepa, the grand synthesizer Gampopa, the encyclopedist Baram Chökyi Wangchuk and, of course, the successive lineage of the Karmapas.

Geluk: The Virtuous Tradition

The Geluk School was founded by Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), Tibet's best known religious reformer and arguably its greatest philosopher. A great admirer of the Kadam teachings, Tsongkhapa was an enthusiastic promoter of the Kadam School's emphasis on the Mahayana principle of universal compassion as the fundamental spiritual orientation. He combined this orientation with strong emphasis on the cultivation of profound insight into the doctrine of emptiness, as propounded by the great Indian masters Nagarjuna (2nd century CE) and Chandrakirti (7th century CE). Tsongkhapa suggested these two aspects of the spiritual path (compassion and insight), must be rooted in a whole-hearted wish for liberation and impelled by a genuine sense of renunciation. He called these the 'Three Principal Aspects of the Path,' and said that only on this basis may one embark on the profound path of Vajrayana Buddhism.

The central teachings of the Geluk School are Lamrim (Stages of the path), based on the teachings of the Indian master Atisha (circa 11th century), and the systematic cultivation of the view of emptiness. This is combined with the deity yoga meditations of such Highest Yoga Tantra deities as Guhyasamaja, Chakrasamvara, Yamantaka and Kalachakra, where the key focus is the realization of the indivisible union of bliss and emptiness. By the end of the 15th century, Geluk had become the most dominant School of Tibetan Buddhism, and since the period of the Great Fifth Dalai Lama in the 17th century the Dalai Lamas have held political power in Tibet as well.

Among the many luminaries of the Geluk school are the master logician Gyaltsap (1364-1432), the great commentator Khedrup (1385-1438), the mystic Ensapa Lobsang Dhöndup (1505-1566), the noted historian Panchen Sönam Drakpa (1478-1554), the philosopher Künkhyen Jamyang Shepa (1648-1722), the lojong master Yongzin Yeshe Gyaltsen (1713-1793), and the custodian of vast practice lineages Ngülchu Dharma Badra (1772-1851). In addition, the successive reincarnations of Tibet's two most well known lama institutions, the Dalai Lamas and the Panchen Lamas, belong to this School.

Central doctrines of Tibetan Buddhism

The Four Noble Truths

Like all Buddhists, the schools of Tibetan Buddhism uphold the doctrine of the Four Noble Truths. It constitutes the heart of the Buddha's first public sermon, given in the Deer Park in Sarnath, India more than 2,500 years ago. The Noble Truths are (1) the truth of suffering, (2) the truth of the origin of suffering, (3) the truth of the cessation of suffering, and (4) the truth of the path that leads to the cessation of suffering. The first Truth means that any form of conditioned existence is ultimately the nature of suffering and dissatisfaction. The second Truth means that suffering, which we all instinctively shun, comes about due to conditions, namely the afflictions that lie within us, and the karmic actions which impel us. This state of suffering and delusion is often illustrated by means of the so-called Wheel of Life that depicts the interlocking chains of the 'twelve links of dependent origination.' The third Truth means that there is the possibility of the elimination of all our suffering. Lastly, the fourth Truth presents the true path, or the way that will lead to the attainment of this freedom from suffering.

These teachings on the four noble truths are often illustrated through a metaphor of healing. In order for the patient to overcome his or her illness, first a correct diagnosis must be made of the patient's condition. Second, the physician should examine the conditions that gave rise to the illness and continue to sustain it. Once this examination is done correctly, the physician will be in a position to assess the chance the patient has of overcoming his or her ailment. Then the physician will be able to prescribe the most appropriate regimen for the patient so that he or she will be able to achieve the wellness they seek. The teaching of the Four Noble Truths encapsulates the essence of the teachings of the Buddha.

Emptiness and Dependent Origination

The philosophical view of all four Schools of Tibetan Buddhism is the Mahayana doctrine of emptiness. In this view, all things and events are said to be devoid of any intrinsic and absolute existence. They merely come into being due to the aggregation of multiple causes and conditions. Not only is their material existence dependent upon other factors, but even their very identity is dependent upon other factors such as language, thought and concepts. These together make up worldly convention. This absence of intrinsic existence and intrinsic identity is what is meant by emptiness, and is considered to be the ultimate truth of all things and events. Among the profound implications of this theory of emptiness is that it suggests that all things and events come into being only through a process of dependent origination. They are dependent upon other factors and this fundamental truth about the nature of reality is best explained through a language of interdependence and interrelationship.

Tibetan Buddhist thinkers see this theory of emptiness as an elaboration and refinement of the basic Buddhist theory of no-self (Sanskrit anatman), which lies at the heart of the Buddha's teaching of the four noble truths. The theory of emptiness was systematically developed as a philosophical standpoint by the well-known Indian Buddhist master Nagarjuna (circa 2nd century CE). His writings, especially the Fundamentals of the Middle Way, led to the evolution of the highly influential Indian Buddhist school called the Middle Way (Madhyamaka). All four principal schools of Tibetan Buddhism perceive themselves to be proponents of the Middle Way philosophy.

The Altruistic Ideal

Together with the cultivation of a profound philosophical insight into emptiness, the development of an altruistic motivation lies at the heart of Tibetan Buddhism. This principle is known as the "Bodhisattva ideal" and refers to a self-less motivation born of great compassion towards all things living. "Great compassion" means the spontaneous wish to see all others free of suffering simply because they are suffering creatures. It is universal, non-discriminatory, and passionate, the individual dedicating his or her entire being to the benefit of other sentient beings. Such noble beings are called Bodhisattvas, individuals with heroic aspirations. Their commitment to relieve others from their sufferings is such that they continually appear in the world in different manifestations to fulfill their noble aspiration.

This Bodhisattva ideal permeates the entire spectrum of Tibetan Buddhist thought and practice, even including the origin myths of the Tibetan people. For example, the Tibetan people believe that they have a special karmic bond with Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of compassion. He is believed to manifest in different forms, such as the Dalai Lamas, and continues to serve the needs and spiritual aspirations of the Tibetan people. This myth of the Buddha of compassion is also portrayed in powerful images of Tibetan iconography, a most famous example being the image of the thousand-armed Avalokiteshvara. The mantra of the Buddha of compassion, OM MANI PADME HUM, may be found on the lips of all Tibetan Buddhists.

The altruistic Bodhisattva ideal is acted out as the perfection of six practices. They are the perfections of (1) generosity, (2) ethical discipline, (3) forbearance, (4) joyous effort, (5) concentration, and (6) wisdom. Through the pursuit of the perfection of these six practices the Bodhisattva fulfils his or her aspiration to bring about the welfare of all sentient beings. Of the many Indian Buddhist works of Mahayana Buddhism, Nagarjuna's Precious Garland and Shantideva's Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life remain, to this day, the most influential texts for Tibetan Buddhists on the practice of the altruistic ideal of universal compassion. For example, the present Dalai Lama repeatedly states that the following verse from Shantideva is his greatest source of inspiration:

For as long as space endures,
For as long as sentient beings remain,
May I too abide, and
Dispel the miseries of beings.

Vajrayana Buddhism

The Tibetan Buddhist traditions, in addition to perceiving themselves to be the upholders of the Mahayana teachings, identify themselves also as followers of Vajrayana, the Diamond Vehicle. According to the Vajrayana, it is not adequate to simply cultivate the altruistic aspiration to seek enlightenment for the sake of all beings. Rather, a Bodhisattva must generate this altruistic aspiration to such a degree that he or she is no longer capable of tolerating the sight of other sentient beings suffering for even a single instant. The Vajrayana path is therefore a swift path that leads to the fulfillment of the basic aspiration of bodhichitta. The swiftness of the Vajrayana path does not arise because of a profound philosophical outlook, but because of the practice of most profound and sophisticated meditative methods.

Unlike other Buddhist teachings, in Vajrayana, various techniques and skilful means are presented that help transform the powerful resources of such negative emotions as attachment, anger, hostility, jealousy and so forth into factors that are conducive to the path to enlightenment. These methods consist of complex visualization practices, the cultivation of self-identification as a divinity, and transcendence of the bounds of ordinary perception and identity. These practices are key features of the heart of the Vajrayana meditation called deity-yoga, which is intimately connected with the visualization of the Mandala. At the root of this deity-yoga practice is the union of blissful experience, such as that derived from the stimulation of the sexual impulse, with the single-pointed mind focused on the emptiness of all things. This is known as the "indivisible union of bliss and emptiness" and the state of Buddhahood is the perfection of this union. This profound meaning of the Vajrayana path is portrayed explicitly in the complex iconography of the Tibetan Buddhist world, within which Mandalas occupy a central place. The Vajrayana meditation also includes sophisticated techniques involving the utilization of certain aspects of the human physiology such as the channels, chakras (energy centers) and the vital energies that flow within the channels. Corresponding to the level of emotions used, there are different levels of the Vajrayana path, the apex of which is Highest Yoga Tantra.

Guru-Yoga as the Axle of Practice

All four schools of Tibetan Buddhism agree on the centrality of Guru-yoga for successful Vajrayana practice. The heart of this meditation on the Guru (the spiritual mentor) is to cultivate a perspective that enables the practitioner to view the nature of his or her own mind as indivisible from that of the spiritual teacher and their meditation deity. In other words, the practitioner perceives the enlightened state of his mind as actually being the Guru and also the meditation deity. There is thus an identity among the object of meditation (the deity), the source of inspiration (the Guru), and the meditating mind (the practitioner's own mind). Furthermore, the mediator also cultivates the pure vision of the spiritual mentor as the embodiment of all the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and Meditation Deities of all directions. This meditation of Guru-yoga is often undertaken in the form of a visualization of a "merit-field", which is illustrated in the form of a large tree of assembly. The image of the Lama Chöpa assembly tree is one such example.

This arrangement of the assembly tree provides a valuable glimpse into the basic topography of the Tibetan Buddhist path to enlightenment. The presence of the masters of the three lineages indicates the importance of having an uninterrupted transmission of the teachings through a succession of realized masters. The lineage of the "Profound View" pertains to the cultivation of insight into the ultimate nature of reality, namely emptiness, while the lineage of the "Expansive Practice" relates to the development and enhancement of compassion and the altruistic aspiration to attain enlightenment for the sake of all beings. Lastly, the "Experiential Lineage" evokes the mystical dimension of the path that is related to direct, spontaneous experience derived from the inspiration of realized masters. This, of course, refers to the Vajrayana path. Together these three lineages underline the importance of the union of wisdom and compassion on the basis of a deeply inspired meditative practice. This is the heart of the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual practice.

This essay was posted with the kind permission of Geshe Thubten Jinpa. 

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