The History of Buddhism in Tibet

The History of Buddhism in Tibet

Tibetan Buddhism is a unique religion combining Buddhist beliefs with local traditions and practices. It is one of many religions in the region.

The History of Buddhism in Tibet

Contrary to popular belief, the ‘Bön’ religion was not the very first religion in Tibet. Bon appeared in the 8th Century which, as a result of a more recent investigation, indicates it rose alongside an earlier form of Tibetan Buddhism. What is certainly known is that one did not pre-date the other. Sadly over the passage of time all references to the earlier religion(s) have been lost.

Tibetan Cavalry
Tibetan Warfare

As hard as it might be to imagine, the Tibetan people 2000+ years ago were fractured and war like. Dominant clans rose and fell throughout the region for hundreds if not thousands of years with battles and even major wars a routine occurrence.

There are many theorized reasons for this, from control over over workable land, access to precious resources, fruitful hunting grounds or the simple human desire of increasing control and influence.

Tibet’s geography is an electic mix of awe inspiring mountains and baron scrub lands that can freeze overnight. Control over a country so vast and with a geography such as this would be a challenge for any leader.

With a mindset such as this, it should come as no surprise that preservation of their history was understandably not deemed a priority during this dark chapter.

Tibetan Soldiers
Tibetan Soldier & Cavalry

It was Indian Missionaries who introduced Buddhism to Tibet and they did so during the 3rd Century –  700 years after the death of Buddha.

They travelled over the mountainous border from the South although it didn’t prove popular with the people and failed to spread for over 400 years. This was in part owed to the small number of missionaries combined with the difficulty navigating the terrain across the whole country. To add to this, the religion was relatively new at the time (having only been followed by a small number since its splinter from Hinduism).

Buddhist Monks
Buddhist Monks

The 8th Century is when everything changed.

Large numbers of Buddhist Monks began to traverse the region routinely, from neighbouring India and Nepal. To combine with this was an influx of Buddhist Arts and Scriptures from China. Slowly but surely the religion began to entrench itself but it only became official when the Royal Court adopted it as a religion.

King Songtsen Gampo
King Songtsen Gampo

The 33rd King of Tibet – Songtsen Gampo – was partly responsible for this, he took Chinese and Nepali wives in the 7th century who practised Buddhism so it became familiar at the highest level of government through him.

However it was during the reign of King Trisong Detsen, beginning circa year 755, Buddhism became the official religion of the Tibetan people as he himself adoped its beliefs. It therefore began to spread throughout the cities and towns first where the Kings power was strongest.

The King invited famous Buddhist teachers such as Shantarakshita and Padmasambhava to Tibet. Padmasambhava, is remembered by all Tibetans as Guru Rinpoche “Precious Master” for his key role in the adoption and development of the religion.

Bon Monks
Bon Monks

The Bon religion on the other hand, had risen to almost equal importance over the period due to its sheer number of devout followers. Rather than in the cities,

Bon was practised primarily throughout the countryside. Both religions did not live in harmony and as both grew in popularity, there were assassinations and battles throughout the country for control.

However both religions had much in common at this stage.

The form of Buddhism practised during this period was Tantrism, a particular sect within Buddhism and Hinduism that incorporates esoteric religion, ritualistic magic and philosophy. Some of the magical and mystical elements of Tantrism were closely related with the practices of the Bon religion.

Tibetan Buddhist Monk
Tibetan Buddhist Monk

A form of assimilation was therefore inevitable and after a period of resistance, Buddhism officially surpassed the Bon religion in number of followers. By the 11th century, it was the dominant religion in Tibet although Bon never disappeared entirely.

Over the period of the 8th – 11th Centuries, the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism were formed.

  • Nyingma (རྙིང་མ་) 8th Century master Padmasambhava.
  • Sakya (ས་སྐྱ་) 11th Century scholar Drogmi.
  • Kagyü (བཀའ་བརྒྱུད་) 11th century master Mahamudra.
  • Jonang ( ཇོ་ནང་) 12th century master Yumo Mikyo Dorje.

Special Mention:

  • Kadam (བཀའ་གདམས་པ་) 11th Century lay master Dromtön.

Later the fifth and sixth schools were formed:

  • Gelug (དགེ་ལུགས་) 14th Century philisopher Je Tsongkhapa.
  • Rimé (རིས་མེད་) 19th Century masters Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo and Jamgön Kongtrül.

When monks or nuns refer to following the ‘Gelug Tradition’ they are referring to the above School in which they studied Buddhism.

Tibetan Buddhist Texts
Tibetan Buddhist Texts

Today Tibetan Buddhism is collectively known as the ‘Mahayana School of Buddhism’ or more commonly ‘Lamanism‘. The latter name owed to the religion being preached by ‘Lamas’ e.g the Dalai Lama.

Tibetan Buddhism and Bon are now joined by newer religions in Tibet from all around the world but with Tibetan Buddhism still undisputedly the most common. For specifics numbers please see below:

Religions in Tibet  – % of the Population
(Correct as of 2012)

  • Tibetan Buddhism (78.5%)
  • Bon (12.5%)
  • Chinese religions and others (8.58%)
  • Islam (0.4%)
  • Christianity (0.02%)

Tibetan Buddhism by its nature is centred around Peace. Sharing Love and Kindness to all, avoiding bad karma (forgiving sins) and preparing for reincarnation to the next life. Devout followers therefore live a life of humbleness to achieve this and by doing so avoid distractions or temptation.

Tibetan Buddhists Praying
Tibetan Buddhists Praying

It therefore would come as no surprise that a peaceful religion such as this could be seen as easy prey. One could argue that as the popularity of Tibetan Buddhism rose the defensive capabilities of the country fell. A far cry from the strength and intimidation of the warring clans in Tibet’s distant past.

With the rise of the powerful and now unified Communist China right on it’s doorstep; Tibet was suddenly sandwiched in a vitally important corridor to access the entire continent along the Indian and Nepalese borders. To compound this reality, Tibet has always been rich in natural resources. Namely Gold, Silver, Copper and Lithium which is highly prized to any developing nation The reason for being so resource rich and for so long, is the due to the Tibetans adhering to the Buddhist mantra.  They never mined their land because by doing so would cause harm to nature. All factors considered, It was inevitable China would come knocking eventually…

For more interesting knowledge about Tibet, it’s customs, traditions and more please visit our Blog and remember to visit Our Shop!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.