Padmasambhava (19th c.) © Himalayan Art Collection

Buddhism in Tibet

Buddhism was known in Tibet as early as the 6th century A.D. In the 8th century the Tibetan King, Trisong Detsen, invited two Buddhist masters, Padmasambhava (also known as Guru Rinpoche) and Shantarakshita to Tibet. At that time the king initiated translation of many important Buddhists texts into Tibetan. This early activity of teaching and translation brought about the Nyingma tradition, referred to as the "Old Translation School." The teachings in the Nyingma tradition are based on the texts of this early period of translation.

In the 9th century, Buddhism in Tibet suffered a period of repression and decline under the reign of King Langdarma who converted the Buddhist monasteries to the pre-Buddhist religion of Bon. Not until the 11th century would Buddhism flourish again in Tibet. At that time, a second period of translation occurred that involved the revision of earlier terminology and included new translations as well. The traditions that base their transmission on that period are referred to as the Sarma traditions or the "New Translation Schools." Of these the Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug schools are the most well known.

The Kagyu tradition was introduced to Tibet by Marpa Lotsawa, the translator (1012-1097). Marpa emphasized four special transmissions that trace their origin to the Indian siddha Tilopa and other Indian masters of the Mahamudra lineage. The Sakya tradition was founded by Khon Konchog Gyalpo (1034-1102), who focused his transmission on the teachings expounded by the Indian Mahasiddha Virupa. The Gelug tradition was established by Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), who stressed the teachings of the Kadampa school founded in Tibet by the Indian master Atisha (982-1054).

Marpa © Francoise Pommaret Collection, Himalayan Art Collection

Today, there are four main schools of Mahayana Buddhism in Tibet and they are the Nyingma, the Sakya, the Gelug (drawing on the Kadampa) and Kagyu. All the schools of Tibetan Buddhism share the basic teachings of the Buddha and have the same objective. The differences between them are both historical, as they each stem from a different lineage of teachers, and practical, as the techniques of each school are variously suited to different types of beings seeking Enlightenment.