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A Brief History of Buddhism Within Tibet

Updated on April 6, 2015
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Missing Link is originally from rural Ohio. He currently lives in Hillsboro, OR. with his Wife and two Sons.

It is estimated that Buddhism first came to Tibet in the fourth century during the reign of Tibet's 28th king Lhatotori. It slowly sifted into Tibet mainly from India thanks to the journeys of various adventurers, holy men, and political/religious emissaries. As it did, it began to replace Bon, the shamanistic, animistic religion which had dominated Tibet for so long.

Buddhism began to take a strong hold on Tibet in the seventh century under the rule of Songtsen Gampo. At the time of Songtsen Gampo, Tibet was militarily very powerful. As a gesture of friendship and as an act of appeasement in hopes that Tibet would not bring harm to surrounding countries, Nepal and China offered to Songtsen Gampo a "bride from their own royal families" (Batchelor 1987:16). Through his wives, Songtsen Gampo became aware of the inspiring force of Buddhism in surrounding countries and later accepted and embraced Buddhism as the religion of Tibet. As king, he held power over the different peoples of Tibet: the aristocratic landowners, the peasants, the clergy, the merchants, and the nomads. It was under Songtsen's reign that Buddhist temples and shrines began to dot the Tibetan countryside.

The next great king of Tibet was Trisong Detsen who began his reign in 755. He inherited an empire which had been made strong by the kings who had ruled since Songtsen Gampo. Trisong continued in this tradition and made military expeditions into India and China. Trisong considered himself Buddhist but was frustrated that Buddhism had not caught on that much in Tibet: Bon was still the preferred religion. In an attempt to remedy this situation, Trisong invited several Indian Buddhist masters to Tibet, the most famous being Shantarakshita and Padmasambhava.

Shantarakshita established the first monastic order in Tibet and encouraged the construction of the monastery at Samye. Legend has it that what was built of Samye during the day was destroyed at night by spirits sent out by local Bon priests. Adherents to Bon saw the increasing popularity of Buddhism as a threat to their beliefs.

Padmasambhava was asked to come to Samye to pacify the destructive Bon spirits and this he did. Eventually, Samye was completed. Padmasambhava's charismatic personality lodged itself firmly in the Tibetan imagination and became a lasting symbol for the victory of the wisdom, compassion and power of Buddhism over the more "primitive" and less universal beliefs of Bon.

In 838, a Bon adherent named Langdarma became King of Tibet. As one would expect, he set out to suppress Buddhism and was quite successful. He was responsible for the destruction of many Buddhist temples and shrines and forced many monks of the time to renounce their vows. Langdarma was assassinated by a monk in 842. After his death, the kingdom that had been unified under Songtsen Gampo broke up into many different fiefdoms. In a few sectors of Tibet, Buddhism remained, but in most parts its influence waned. For about two hundred years, there was little active, widespread practice of Buddhism in Tibet.

At the beginning of the eleventh century, a renewed interest in Buddhism began to arise. The two figures associated most with this time period are Atisha and Marpa. Atisha was an Indian spiritual master who wandered throughout Tibet for many years spreading his Buddhist teachings. Marpa was a translator who traveled to India several times to gather texts and to study with Indian masters. Between stays in India, Marpa spread what he had learned in India to many Tibetan people. This time period is looked upon as the renaissance of Buddhism in Tibet. Tibet remained independent and at relative peace until the thirteenth century.

Around the beginning of the thirteenth century, the Mongolians, under the rule of Genghis Khan, forced Tibet to submit to their rule. Mongolian influences in Tibet lasted until 1354. "As the power of the Mongolians in China declined, a nationalist movement arose in Tibet under the leadership of Jangchum Gyeltsen" (Batchelor 1987:21). Jangchum Gyeltsen, a Tibetan, was soon thereafter acknowledged by the Mongolians as the ruler of Tibet.

In the fourteenth century, as at the time of Songtsen Gampo, there existed various sects within Buddhism who sought to perpetuate their own beliefs at the expense of other sects. The existence of these varying forms were due to differences of interpretation concerning various Buddhist texts. These sects competed with one another for spiritual and political control of Tibet. In 1357, the birth of Tsongkhapa, a reformer of Tibetan Buddhism, signaled the beginning of a change in the amount of competition between the different sects. Tsongkhapa sought to avoid getting involved in the religious squabbles of the day and "produced a lucid and synthetic vision of Buddhist thought and practice and lived a monastic life that paid strict attention to the ethical values embodied in the ordained community" (Batchelor 1987:23-24). This new synthesis attracted many followers and became known as the Gelukpa order.

After Tsongkhapa died, his nephew, Gendun Drup, was named the leader of the Gelukpa order. Gendun announced to his followers that after his death he would take rebirth somewhere in Tibet and left instructions with his followers as to where and how they could find him. This idea of rebirth was one that Gendun borrowed from the Karmapas, another Mahayana Buddhist religious order in Tibet. The next leader of the Gelukpas was Gendun Gyatso who "further consolidated the prestige of Tsongkhapa's tradition" (Batchelor 1987:24).

The next leader of the Gelukpa order was Sonam Gyatso who was born in 1543. It seems the Mongolians at the time were really taken with Sonam's wisdom and his skilled leadership of the Gelukpas. As a result of this, the Mongolians gave to Sonam the "title 'Ta-le', the Mongolian word for 'ocean' (in Tibetan, 'gyatso'), which is now written as 'Dalai'" (Batchelor 1987:24). In Tibetan, the word lama is associated with wisdom and usually refers to someone who is a teacher, therefore, the term Dalai Lama translates as ocean of wisdom. The title of Dalai Lama "was retrospectively bestowed upon Sonam Gyatso's two predecessors, and thus Sonam Gyatso became the Third Dalai Lama" (Batchelor 1987:24).

The Dalai Lama thus became the spiritual and temporal leader and figurehead of Tibet. If Mahayana Buddhism was the basis upon which Tibetan society stood, and still stands, then the Dalai Lama has to be seen as the glue which holds this basis together. The Dalai Lama is seen as the earthly emanation of Chenresi, the Bodhisattva of compassion, and he is therefore worshipped as a god, as the living Buddha.

The other rulers of Tibet at the time of Sonam Gyatso became alarmed at the Mongol/Gelukpa friendship and attacked the Gelukpa strongholds of Sera and Drepung monasteries at Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. As a result of this attack, the Fourth Dalai Lama, Yonten Gyatso fled and soon thereafter died. The next Dalai Lama was the Great Fifth, Ngawong Losang Gyatso. He, along with the backing of the Mongolians, conquered the other rulers of Tibet in 1642. Not long after this, Mongolian influences in Tibet dwindled and Yonten became the absolute ruler of Tibet. "This was the first time in the history of Tibet that a single, indigenous regime, uniting spiritual with secular authority, truly dominated the land" (Batchelor 1987:26). From the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama's death in 1682 to the birth of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama in 1876, Tibet was fraught with instability and violence thanks mostly to the Mongolians, the Chinese, and the Nepalese.

During the nineteenth century, Tibet adopted a policy of isolation and attempted to close its borders to all foreigners; however, this did not last long. The Thirteenth Dalai Lama did well to keep his country together during this time because there was much turmoil and trouble. He was forced into exile to Mongolia in 1904 when the British sent an "expedition" into Tibet. The British "were suspicious that the Tibetans were dealing with the Russians and were eager to establish their own trade route agreement with Tibet" (Batchelor 1987:29). The Thirteenth Dalai Lama was again forced into exile to India in 1910 when the Manchus invaded and tried to convert Tibet into a province of China. The Tibetans were able to drive both invaders out and the Dalai Lama returned to Tibet in 1913 declaring Tibet a free nation. The Thirteenth Dalai Lama died in 1933 and the search for The Fourteenth began.

Tenzin Gyatso was deemed and found to be the present reincarnation of the former Dalai Lama of Tibet. He was only four and a half years old at the time. As the young leader of his country, the Dalai Lama was taught courses in reading, writing, grammar, and scriptural memorization. As he grew older, he became involved in religious discussion and debate, metaphysics, and philosophy. At the age of 24, he took very important examinations in the form of debate at Ganden, Sera, and Drepung, the three largest monasteries in Tibet. About a year afterwards, he took his final examinations and received his Master of Metaphysics. For his final test, he was questioned on logic, took part in debates, was questioned concerning the canon of monastic discipline known as the Vinaya, and was tested on his knowledge of numerous metaphysical subjects.

The Fourteenth's young life was spent in or around Lhasa, mostly in the Potala. He grew up knowing little of the outside world but wanted very much to learn. "I grew up with hardly any knowledge of worldly affairs, and it was in that state, when I was sixteen, that I was called upon to lead my country against the invasion of Communist China" (Gyatso 1962:57).

© 2015 Missing Link


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    • Missing Link profile image

      Missing Link 2 years ago from Oregon

      Thanks Swapnil!

    • Swapnil Kashyap profile image

      Swapnil Kashyap 2 years ago from India

      I am writing about Hinduism Plz must read it. I will also give the links to origins of other religions with time.

    • ainezk profile image

      ainezk 2 years ago

      Perhaps one part of that is it is a very old culture. You're welcome

    • Missing Link profile image

      Missing Link 2 years ago from Oregon

      yes I know---that is interesting isn't it? I wonder why? That would be a fascinating thing for someone to look into---to write a hub about. Thanks very much!

    • ainezk profile image

      ainezk 2 years ago

      It seems that so many religions came out of India.

    • Missing Link profile image

      Missing Link 2 years ago from Oregon

      Thanks WiccanSage!

    • WiccanSage profile image

      Mackenzie Sage Wright 2 years ago

      Wow, interesting. Thanks for the great detailed history!