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Tibetan Buddhism Teachings and practices

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Part of the article on Tibetan Buddhism


In traditional Buddhist cosmology, the earth is flat, with the cosmic mountain Sumeru at its center. Sumeru is inhabited by gods, and surrounded by a complex of seas and mountain ranges which effectively function as walls and moats. Four continents extend in each of the cardinal directions, each with a different geometrical shape. For example, "we" live on the southern continent of Jambudvipa (Tib. Jambuling), which bears the shape of a southward-pointing triangle (reminiscent, perhaps, of the Indian subcontinent). While few people today believe in the literal truth of this cosmology, it is often used symbolically, for example in the form of mandalas.

The visible, physical world, exists alongside a number of other realms (dhatu), which are conceived as stacked planes. Many of them correspond to states of meditative concentration. In general, realms are less physical locations than experiences shared by those with the karma to be reborn there. In addition to this "vertical" (chakravada) cosmology, there is a "horizontal" (sahasra, "thousand") one which describes groups of a thousand, million, or billion world-systems.

Similarly vast units of time are used for time, which is measured in various types of kalpa (see Hindu units of measurement). Time is cyclical, and alternates among four yugas (eons) in which goodness steadily degenerates. We are living in the worst of these, the kaliyuga; but like the alternation of the seasons, this will one day be replaced by the satyayuga or Golden Age. Time, and the world, are also beginningless and endless—there is no creation myth of the type found in other religions.

The six realms describe several types of possible rebirth (which however do not correspond exactly to the realms described above): Hell-beings, pretas (ghosts), animals, humans, asuras (warring gods), and devas (peaceful gods). The goal of Buddhist practice is to escape rebirth altogether. This does not entail abandoning the human world, however. The Pure Land in which an enlightened being dwells is closely related to his or her sambhogakaya ("enjoyment body"), and may appear even on earth.


Like most Indic religions, Tibetan Buddhism accepts the doctrines of reincarnation and karma, in which sentient beings are said to repeatedly die and be reborn into diverse states and circumstances (see six realms), depending on their good or bad actions; as well as the ultimate goal of escape from samsara.

The Bardo Thodol (the so-called "Tibetan Book of the Dead") describes the experience which a dead person can expect in the Bardo, the realm "in-between" incarnations. It is meant to be read aloud to the deceased for forty days after his or her death—the time period in which reincarnation (or liberation) is thought to occur.

Divine Beings

Tibetan Buddhism inherited from Hinduism a mythology surrounding Indian gods such as Brahma and Indra. From "local" religions (e.g., in Tibet) it acquired a variety of other divine beings, some of them originally or potentially malevolent. While Buddhist doctrine does not consider any of these beings to be matters of ultimate concern, as a practical matter their cults are often found integrated into local Buddhist practice (see Dharmapala).

Buddhas and bodhisattvas are distinct from these, in that their existence and activities are deemed matters of ultimate concern. Tibetan Buddhist lore describes (and its religious art depicts) numerous Buddhas and bodhisattvas. Besides Sakyamuni Buddha, other familiar ones include

Their number is said to be countless or infinite. As in Mahayana Buddhism generally, the goal of Tibetan Buddhist practice is to join their ranks—i.e., to achieve enlightenment (Buddhahood) not only for one's own sake, but in order to most efficiently help all other sentient beings attain this state (see bodhicitta).

Buddhahood is defined as a state of freedom from obstructions to liberation, as well as obscurations to omniscience.[1] The former are the afflictions, negative states of mind, and the three poisons (klesa, nyon-mongs) – desire, anger, and ignorance. The latter are subtle imprints, traces or "stains" of delusion that involve the imagination of inherent existence.

While Buddhas and bodhisattvas have a symbolic aspect, they are not solely abstract entities, but also manifest on earth in the form of tulkus (from a Tibetan word meaning nirmanakaya) and emanations. For example, the Dalai Lama is said to be an emanation of the bodhisattva Avalokitshvara, while the Nechung oracle is regularly possessed by the protector deity Nechung.

Path Literature

Tibetan Buddhist teachings are often found arranged in the form of a graduated path, in a genre known as Lamrim ("Stages of the Path") or in the Sakya tradition, Lamdre ("Path and Fruition").

Atisha, the originator of the genre, begins the sequence with bodhicitta, the aspiration to attain enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings. Gampopa begins with Buddha Nature, the innate potential within every sentient being to attain enlightenment (or alternatively, the primordially enlightened nature hidden within all sentient beings). Tsongkhapa begins with the necessity of relying on a spiritual teacher (lama or guru).

Other typical topics include

  • "precious human rebirth"--the teaching that since rebirth as a human being is rare and valuable, we ought to take advantage of our good fortune in order to engage in spiritual practice
  • Description of lower, middling, and higher motivation (depending on whether one's goal is rebirth in higher realms, escape from samsara altogether, or "full enlightenment" (i.e., with bodhicitta).
  • tantric practice as a means of pursuing full enlightenment as quickly as possible, so that one may begin saving other sentient beings more quickly

Popular Religiosity

Spiritual practices common among laypeople include mantra recitation (most famously, Om Mani Padme Hum); circumambulation of stupas, mani walls, and other holy sites; making prostrations; the use of prayer wheels and prayer flags; donation to pilgrims and beggars; and worship before home altars (see Offering (Buddhism)).

Pujas are held on auspicious days during a monthly cycle, typically during the new and full moons (see Uposatha).


The English (and Latinate) word "meditation" has no precise equivalent in Sanskrit or Tibetan. Tibetan Buddhist practice often takes forms such as ritual, mantra recitation, or discursive philosophical reflection, which may or may not be considered "meditation" by English speakers.

Two major types of (seated) meditation, which are found throughout the Buddhist world, are shamatha ("calm abiding") and vipassana ("special insight") meditation. The former aims at stabilizing the mind—not as an end in itself, but as an aid to vipassana, which involves reflecting on the nature of the universe and oneself as empty, luminous, etc. The goal is stabilize this insight until it can be achieved nonconceptually.

A unique and indigenous Tibetan form of meditation would be lojong ("mind training"), which aims at transforming problems into opportunities for spiritual practice, e.g. through patience, compassion, and wisdom. Another would be the Chöd ritual, in which the practitioner symbolically and compassionately offers up his body to be devoured by demons, ghosts, and other fearsome creatures.

Tantric meditation typically involves visualizing a deity (who may be a Buddha, bodhisattva, tutery deity, or protector) and/or his/her mandala, chanting his or her mantra, and making offerings (either real or imagined). Permission must be received from a guru who is part of an initiatory chain of teachers and their disciples. Tibetan tradition distinguishes among a number of types of tantras (nine for the Nyingma, four for the Sarma schools) depending on whether the deity is seen as a king or queen to whom one bows; a lover; or as one's own nature.

Several Tibetan schools prescribe a series of elaborate preliminary practices (see Ngöndro) which must be completed before tantric initiation is possible. Lengthy, sequestered retreats may also be undertaken afterwards, with "three years, three months, and three days" often being prescribed for future lamas.


Major annual Tibetan Festivals include Losar ("New Year"), the Tibetan New Year (known as Tsagaan Sar in Mongolian), of which the Monlam Prayer Festival is the most important religious component (in pre-revolutionary Urga the climax was a Maitreya festival); and Saga Dawa ("Buddha's Moon"), a celebration of Sakyamuni Buddha's birth and enlightenment.

Numerous local festivals are observed, often arranged by individual monasteries. Examples would be the Mani Rimdu festival associated with Tengboche (in Solu Khumbu), or the Hemis festival (Ladakh). Common activities include the display of giant thangkas, and the performance of the so-called "Devil Dances."

Religious Specialists

Tibetan Buddhism involves various kinds of religious specialists. Besides the institutionalized sangha (monks and nuns), we may identify non-monastic yogins, non-celibate ngakpas, traditional wizards and fortune-tellers, and miscellaneous others.

Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns follow the Sarvastivadin Vinaya (code of rules). Traditionally, nuns could not receive full ordination. In the late 20th century, feminist pressure resulted in proposals to transplant female ordination from the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya lineage.

Within monasteries, several types of authoritative figure emerged. Tulkus are identified (usually as children) as the reincarnations of some saintly predecessor, enthroned, and receive training until they are ready to fill the role. Meanwhile, Tibetan Buddhist scholasticism awarded different levels of the Geshe or Khenpo degrees after a monastic curriculum which might last two decades.


The Tibetan canon consists of two collections, the Kangyur (the Tibetan Tripitaka, including Mahayana sutras as well as tantra texts) and the Tangyur (commentarial treatises). These are published in block print form, as xylograph folios, and kept in temples, where they are venerated as physical embodiments of the dharma.

The Tibetan canon was compiled by Bu-ston in the 14th century, and first published at Narthang Monastery in the 18th. Derge later became Tibet's main publication center. Twelve distinct editions exist, each named for its place of publication, with the Beijing edition being especially influential.

The Nyingma school recognizes additional scriptures not included in these collections, including terma (revealed "treasures") as well as sutras with no extant Sanskrit counterpart.


Following the Sandhinirmocanasutra, which proposes that the Buddha gave "higher" or "lower" teachings in accordance with the needs and abilities of his audience, Tibetan Buddhism classifies sutras according to Three Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma:

1. Hinayana teachings emphasizing anatman ("no-self")
2. Prajnaparamita literature emphasizing sunyata ("emptiness")
3. Sutras teaching Buddha Nature

By consensus, Tibetan exegetes endorse the perspective of the Indian Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, whose Madhyamaka ("Middle Way") school identifies the Prajnaparamita sutras and the doctrine of sunyata as representing the "highest" truth. We, and the world, are "empty" in that everything is impermanent, composed of parts, and subject to causes and conditions. This tilts Tibetan Buddhism in the direction of negative theology, although positive formulations exist as well.

Positively, one finds references to the purity and luminosity of the Dharmakaya, Buddha Nature, or other abstractions. Tension between positive and negative approaches has taken a number of forms in Tibetan intellectual history, including debate over the Three Turnings as well as over the relationship between Madhyamaka and Yogacara, or between rival interpretations of Madhyamaka (such as zhentong vs. rangtong). Tantric practice is often thought to incline practitioners in the direction of "positive" language.

Besides Nagarjuna, most Tibetan scholars also endorse the views of Nagarjuna commentator Chandrakirti, whose interpretation is called Prasangika Madhyamaka, in contrast to the Svatantrika Madhyamaka views of his rival Bhavaviveka. (Note that the Prasangika / Svatatrika distinction is itself a Tibetan development, though the texts being commented upon are Indian.) Nearly all Tibetan Buddhist philosophers accept Prasangika Madhyamaka as the highest / truest / best description of Buddhism, and reality in general. However, considerable disagreement exists (e.g. between Tsongkhapa and Mipham) as to what "Prasanghika Madhyamaka" actually teaches.

Under the influence of Tsongkhapa, Tibetan philosophy recognized four Indian Buddhist "tenet systems" (and indeed, concluded that there must be exactly four), arranged from "lowest" to "highest" like so:

Hinayana schools
Mahayana schools
Svatantrika ("Autonomous," referring to a willingness to construct syllogistic arguments) Madhyamaka
Prasangika ("Consequentialist," referring to reliance on the reductio ad absurdum technique) Madhyamaka

Despite the primacy accorded to Prasangika Madhyamaka, much of the curriculum of Tibetan monasteries is devoted to "lower" schools. Logic and debate training make use of the writings of Dharmakirti and Vasubandhu, which are variously classified with Sautrantika or Yogacara, while the five texts of the Maitreya-Asanga corpus are classed with Yogacara or Svatantrika. Again, this arrangement is the contribution of Tsongkhapa, who sought to teach Buddhist philosophy in a systematic and progressive fashion, with each succeeding view more subtle than its predecessor.

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