Tibetan Buddhism is a form of Buddhism that developed in the Tibet region of China, Bhutan, the state of Sikkim in India, Mongolia, and parts of Siberia and SW China from 7th century CE onwards. It had its origin in the Mahayana form of Buddhism of India and also incorporates the esoteric mysticism of Tantra as well as the ancient shamanism and sorcery of Bon, an age old animistic religion of Tibet.
Tibetan Buddhism is also known as the Tantrayana (tantra vehicle) or Vajrayana (vehicle of the thunderbolt).
The first feature of Tibetan Buddhism is that it is esoteric and tantric. It is esoteric because it needs a person to be an empowered before he begins practising. It is tantric since it lays stress on tantric methods of transformation as the path.
Tibetan Buddhism is known for its system of reincarnating lamas. It believes that the identity of the high lamas can be preserved through tulku. In this, a person consciously chooses to be reborn to complete his pending work. Some important examples of this are the Dalai Lama, the Panchen Lama and the Karmapa.
As similar to the Mahayana Budhism, Tibetan Buddhism has faith in Buddhas, bodhisattvas and Dharampalas. Buddha are those souls who have attained enlightenment while bodhisattvas are those who have foregone their enlightenment so as to assist others on path of Buddhism. The Dharampalas, also known as the Dharma protectors are mythic figures, often ferocious, included into Tibetan Buddhism from Hinduism as well as Bon religion. These protectors are meant to uphold the dharma by destroying evil forces.
Tibetan Buddhist Schools
There are four main schools in Tibetan Buddhism. The oldest one, Nyingma(pa) was founded by sage Padmasambhva who is credited for the establishemnt and spread of Buddhism in Tibet.
The Kagyu (pa) lineage is categorised into one major and one minor subsect. The major subsect, Dagpo Kagyu is further subdivided into four sub sects - Karma Kagyu, Tsalpa Kagyu, Barom Kagyu and Pagtru Kagyu. The last one, Pagtru Kagyu subsect has eight more subsects, prominent amongst which are the Drikung Kagyu and the Drukpa Kagyu.
The other two important schools comprise the Sakya School and the Gelug School. The first one came into being during the 11th century and has two sub schools - The Ngor and Tshar. The second School is the most recent one and combines the teachings of the three great lineage of Kadampa School along with the Sakya and Kagyu School teachings.
Apart from the four major schools, Tibetan Buddhism also has some minor schools. Important amongst these are Jonang, Zhije, Bodong and Button. The Bon religion, that was dominant in Tibet prior to the spread of Buddhism, is also considered a school of Tibetan Buddhism. This is because post development of Buddhism in Tibet, Bon religion, has incorporated many of Buddhist features to an extent that now its practitioners claim that the founder of the religion preached doctrines that were similar to those taught by Shakyamuni Buddha.
Streams of Tibetan Buddhism
Tibetan Buddhism is segregated into four main streams of philosophical tenets. Two of these are associated with the older Hinayana path while the rest two belong to Mahayana path. The two adhering to the former are Vaibhasika and Sautrantika while the two adhering to the latter are Yogacara and Madhyamaka.
Vaibhasika draws its insipiration from the Abhidharma-kosa, a text written in verse by Vasubandhu that presents the doctrine of one of the early schools of Buddhism, Sarvastivada, in eight chapters comprising 600 verses. The Sautrantika school of Buddhism was initially a part of the Sarvastivada School, however, it seperated later on and also selceted the original sutras of the canon over the Abhidharma-kosa.
Texts from Maitreya, Asanga and Vasubandhu serves as the base for the Yogacarin School of Buddhism while texts of Nagarjuna and Aryadeva formed the basis of the Madhyamika views.
Tibetan Buddhism Sacred Texts
The original Buddhist texts were translated into Tibetan language between the period of 11th to 14th century. The siginificance of these translated texts can be judged from the fact that though many of the original Sanskrit texts have been destroyed over a period of time, their Tibetan version still remain preserving the valuable texts. The list of the sacred Tibetan Buddhist texts are compiled in the Tibetan Buddhist Cannon. This list comprises more than 300 volumes and thousands of individual texts. Apart from the early Buddhist texts, the canons also consists of the tantric texts.
The Canon is segregated into two parts - The Bka'-'gyur or Kanjyur ("Translated Word") and the The Bstan-'gyur or Tenjyur ("Transmitted Word"). The former is made up of 600 canonical texts divided into 98 volumes. Its first printing dates back to 1411 in Beijing, China. In Tibet itself, the first edition was printed in 1731.
The latter is a compilation of 3262 semi canonical commentaries and treatise in 224 volumes. Further subdivision shows that the majority of these texts are comentaries on tantra, 3055 texts in 86 volumes. Besides, there is 1 volume of 64 sutra texts and 137 volumes of 567 texts on commentaries on sutras.
One of the extremely popular of Tibetan Buddhist text is the Bardo Thodol, also known as the Tibetan Book of Dead. It is basically a book that relates the experiences of the soul during the time post death and rebirth. This period, which is called bardo, is divided into three - chikhai bardo, chonyid bardo and sidpa bardo. The first one is the bardo of the moment of death while the second one is the bardo of experiencing reality. The third one is the bardo of rebirth. Apart from these three bardo, the book also mentions three more bardos pertaining to life, meditation and dream.
Rituals & Ritual Objects
Meditation is of utmost significance in the Tibetan Buddhism, however for more common devotees rituals such as food, water and flower offering; religious pilgrimage and chanting prayers are good way of gaining blessings. Participating in Chaam dances or even observing them can serve the purpose of a non initiate. Important ritual objects include mandalas, dorje (a dumbell loke object), drilbu, phurpa, prayer wheels etc.