A Historical Sketch of Buddhism in Tibet
Summary and Keywords
With the available historical Tibetan written records from late 8th century on and the existing scholarly works on Buddhism, this historical overview recounts how Buddhism was Tibetanized and how it became both the national religion of Tibet and a world religion spread to Inner Asia, East Asia, and other parts of the world. It also adds interpretive commentaries leading to more historical inquiries and suggestions for alternative historiographical approaches to the formation of Tibetan Buddhism, adopted from disciplines other than history of religion and Buddhist studies. An emphasis is placed on the significance of folk accounts that reveal “the geomythological reorientation” of Buddhist conversion in the historical Tibetan context not merely as an intellectual and doctrinal acceptance of Indian Buddhism but also as a symbiotic process in which Indian Buddhism and indigenous religious practices mutually transformed each other. The emergence of the different Buddhist schools in Tibet is also a result of the politics of the sect-specific powers throughout Tibetan history. It is thus essential to recognize the formation of the five schools also as a set of religio-political occurrences, particularly since the formation of Gelug (dGe lugs) School in the 15th century and later becoming a Gelug-based Tibetan polity in the 17th century. The Gelug School dominated Tibetan Buddhism, and successive Dalai Lamas ruled Tibet from the mid-17th to the mid-20th centuries. Given the regional and global status of Tibetan Buddhism, emphasis is placed on Tibetan Buddhism as a transregional religion in Inner Asia and later as a form of modern Buddhism since the middle of the 20th century. With these emphases, the historical overview presented here is intended to generate more scholarly discussions and inquiries into the history of Tibetan Buddhism in both monastic and lay spheres in and outside Tibet.
This article gives a historical overview of how Buddhism was Tibetanized and how it became both the national religion of Tibet and a world religion spread to Inner Asia, East Asia, and other parts of the world. With the reiteration of the available historical narratives based on Tibetan written records from late 8th century on and the existing scholarly works on Buddhism, this article adds interpretive commentaries leading to more historical inquiries and suggestions for alternative historiographical approaches to the formation of Tibetan Buddhism, adopted from disciplines other than history of religion and Buddhist studies. It also emphasizes the importance of folk accounts that reveal “the geomythological1 reorientation” of Buddhist conversion in the historical Tibetan context, not merely as an intellectual and doctrinal acceptance of Indian Buddhism but also as a symbiotic process in which Indian Buddhism and indigenous religious practices mutually transformed each other. Evidence of this is seen in the geomythological marks and signatures of Padmasambhava as a Tibetanized Indian Buddhist saint on the Tibetan landscape.
The emergence of the different Buddhist schools is also a result of the politics of the sect-specific powers throughout Tibetan history. It is thus essential to recognize the formation of the five schools also as a set of religio-political occurrences, particularly since the formation of Gelug (dGe lugs) School in the 15th century, and later becoming a Gelug-based Tibetan polity in the 17th century. The Gelug School dominated Tibetan Buddhism, and successive Dalai Lamas ruled Tibet from the mid-17th to the mid-20th centuries. Given the regional and global status of Tibetan Buddhism, another emphasis of this article is on Tibetan Buddhism as a transregional religion in Inner Asia and later as a form of modern Buddhism since the middle of the 20th century. With these emphases, this historical overview presented is intended to generate more scholarly discussions and inquiries into the history of Tibetan Buddhism in both monastic and lay spheres in and outside Tibet.
Sketching a wide-ranging view of the history of Buddhism in Tibet will have some inevitable limitations. For instance, recognizing the existence of extensive international scholarship on Tibetan Buddhism, more information could have been included. This is a direct consequence of presenting the entire picture of the history of Tibetan Buddhism in a limited space, which unavoidably leads to a difficulty in including essential sources. However, with concise explanation and examination, we offer an expansive view of the history of Tibetan Buddhism with comprehensive bibliographical references.
The Arrival of the Nālandā Tradition (7th to 10th Centuries)
The historical Buddhism that Śākyamuni Buddha promulgated in India began to see the advent of its Pan-Asian diffusion when King Aśoka (Mya ngan med) was converted to Buddhism in the 1st century bce after his fierce conquest of Kaliṅga,2 the last piece of territory was incorporated into the dominion of his Mauryan dynasty covering nearly all the Indian subcontinent and southern Himalayan territories adjacent to Tibet. In a manner similar to how the Roman Empire contributed to the spread of Christianity and how the successive caliphates expanded the sphere of Islam, Aśoka’s empire laid the secular foundation of Buddhism as a world religion and as an instrument of domestic governance and international diplomacy.3 As Buddhist populations increased at the southern edges of Tibet after the heyday of King Aśoka, it was inevitable that Buddhism would later spread into Tibet and Inner Asia with a similar signature of imperial-religious alliance.4
The Fourteenth Dalai Lama, currently the most authoritative Tibetan Buddhist scholar, has emphasized the Buddhist nature of the Tibetan civilization in his numerous publications. His understanding of the systematic introduction of Buddhism into Tibet in history often references the Nālandā Tradition,5 traced back to the Nālandā Mahāvihāra (the influential ancient Buddhist university, 5th to 13th centuries) to which Tibetan Buddhism owes its foundation and inheritance of both Mahāyāna (theg pa chen po) and Vajrayāna (rdo rje theg pa) traditions. He and many university-based scholars acknowledge that Tibetan Buddhism preserves the most complete teachings of the Seventeen Nālandā Paṇḍitas, among whom were Nāgārjuna (Klu sgrub), Āryadeva (‘Phags pa Lha), Asaṅga (Thogs med), Vasubandhu (Dbyig gnyen), Dignāga (Phyogs glang), and Dharmakīrti (Chos kyi Grags pa).6
In recorded history, the Nālandā-based introduction of Buddhism to Tibet began with King Songtsen Gampo (Srong brtsan sGam po, 617–649), who married Princesses Bhrikuti Devi (Bal bza’ Khri btsun) from Nepal and Wencheng (rGyal bza’ Kong jo) from Tang China.7 Through his Buddhist wives, the king was converted to Buddhism.8 He was so enchanted by Buddhist teachings that he sent Thönmi Sambhota (Thon mi Sam bho Ta), one of his most learned ministers, to India to create a Sanskrit-based written Tibetan language in a concerted and systematic effort to introduce the full Buddhist canon into Tibet.9 Without disappointing his king, Thönmi Sambhota successfully developed the written form and the grammar of the current Tibetan language after returning from India.
However, it was both a costly journey across the Himalayas into India and a devotional learning process in spiritual and material terms. Most of Sambhota’s young travel companions perished or turned back to their homeland as they could not withstand the treacherous trans-Himalayan passages and the unbearable heat of the Indian plain. Upon reaching India, Sambhota took discipleship with a paṇḍita named Lipidatta. In solidifying his discipleship with the paṇḍita, Sambhota presented the gold he had brought all the way from Tibet and made a moving devotional vow:
Oh, thou incarnate sage of the divine race, who art full of mercy, and who, on account of thy moral merits art born as a Bráhman, vouchsafe unto this humble stranger, a little of thy attention. By dint of the virtues of thy former life thou hast now become talented and marvelously accomplished in Āgama Śāstras and the art of writing. I am a minister of the king of Himavat the border country of Arya Bhȗmi. My king, the sovereign ruler of Himavat ascended the throne of his ancestors at the age of thirteen and having made his people happy with the doctrine of Buddha, has promulgated the laws based on the ten commandments within his dominions. In my country no kind of written language is known, none of my countrymen can read or write. The king has therefore sent me to this country with presents to wait upon Indian professors for acquiring a knowledge of the art of writing. May I therefore approach thee with the humble prayer of being granted knowledge of the words and letters of Sanskrit, the language of the gods.10
After mastering the Sanskrit language, Sambhota received Buddhist teachings under the tutelage of Ācārya Devavid Siṃha (Lha rig pa’i Seng ge) at Nālandā. To be noted, the 7th century was one of the historical highpoints of Nālandā, the magnetic center of Buddhist teachings, where numerous pilgrims and pupils from many parts of Asia were hosted.11 While Sambhota was receiving instructions from Ācārya Devavid Siṃha, his Chinese contemporary Xuanzang, a Tang dynasty monk, studied under Śīlabhadra (Ngang tshul bZang po), the head of Nālandā.12 Buddhist teachings at Nālandā, especially the Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna traditions, attracted not only pilgrims and disciples from other parts of India but also those from Central Asia, Inner Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia.
Upon his return to Tibet and successful invention of the written script, Sambhota imparted the new language system to his students in the court including King Songtsen Gampo. It is said that after his acquisition of the Tibetan script from Sambhota, the king entered a four-year retreat in order to complete the translation of many Buddhist texts from Sanskrit. Thus, it is clear that starting from Songtsen Gampo, Buddhism was propagated as the national religion of Tibet with royal sanctions. This imperial-religious alliance continued beyond the reign of Songtsen Gampo. To be noted, the legacy of Nālandā, responsible for the inception of Tibetan Buddhism, lies not only in its magnetic attraction to pilgrims and scholars from Tibet but also in many of its paṇḍitas who traveled north across the Himalayas into Tibet.13
In the 8th century, during the reign of King Trisong Detsen (Khri srong lDe btsan), Buddhism largely replaced the native Bön religion14 as the national religion of Tibet except in some geographically marginal areas of the Tibetan empire. Śāntarakṣita (Zhi ba ‘Tsho), a Nālandā paṇḍita and the spiritual council of the king of Magadha (Yul ma Ga dha), was invited to Tibet as the royal guest of King Trisong Detsen. He was responsible for introducing to Tibetans the Mūlasarvāstivāda-vinaya (gzhi thams cad yod par smra ba’i ‘dul ba), an enormously complex code for monastic governance and the regulation of monks’ social behaviors.15 Along with the introduction of the vinaya, Śāntarakṣita ordained the first seven monks (sad mi bdun) and established Samyé (bSam yas), the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet. He left the first physical marks and institutional structure of Buddhism in Tibet with the direct lineage from the Nālandā tradition.
In the same time period, Padmasambhava, known among Tibetans as Guru Rinpoche (Gu ru Rin po che), arrived in Tibet at the request of Śāntarakṣita to assist in exercising his power to subdue indigenous deities of Tibet and in the establishment of Samyé monastery. He was also imparting the Tantric Buddhist tradition on King Trisong Detsen’s invitation. The tantras, unlike Mahāyāna sūtra, seek to bring about the masters’ rapid awakening by means of ritual techniques and methods of yoga. Maybe because of its transgressive nature or its tantric rituals involving violations of rules of the strict codes of monastic Buddhism, as well as the occult powers attributed to its masters, Tantric Buddhism enjoyed great success and was established in Tibet. Hence, while Śāntarakṣita is remembered as a historical figure who laid the monastic foundation of Tibetan Buddhism, Padmasambhava’s tantric and miracle-performing legacies continue to pervade the entire Tibetan religious landscape and cultural ethos.
However, the Tibetan court wished to maintain an exclusive right to control the dissemination of possibly disruptive esoteric teachings of tantra in Tibet. As Schaeffer et al. point out, “Although some elements of tantric teachings thus entered into restricted circulation under the Tibetan empire, it was after the empire’s fall during the mid-ninth century that the tantras became particularly prominent in Tibetan Buddhist circles. . . . Evidence of this is seen in the Tibetan documents from Dunhuang, where the large majority of the numerous tantric texts that are preserved appear to be from the post-imperial age.”16 Hence, little is known of his activities in Tibetan historiographies. Consequently, it is clear that the Tibetans’ apotheosis of the historical person of Padmasambhava since the 8th century makes his hagiographies available but does not provide for accurate historiography based on clearly recorded dates and events. This mythological-hagiographical dimension of Tibetan Buddhism will be discussed in more detail later.
At any rate, the formal establishment of Buddhism in Tibet was sanctioned by Tibetan kings who made concerted efforts to send pilgrims and scholars to India and to bring Nālandā paṇḍitas and tantric masters to Tibet. Between the 8th and the 11th centuries, Tibet hosted at least 160 Nālandā paṇḍitas and tantric masters whose names are found in the historical record.17 These paṇḍitas and masters were responsible for assisting Tibetans to establish the material culture and philosophical systems of Buddhist teachings inside Tibet. The entirety of Tibet underwent a thorough, irreversible Buddhist conversion and indigenization process. Up to the present day, unique among Mahāyāna traditions, Tibetan Buddhism is credited with inheriting and upholding the teachings of the Seventeen Paṇḍitas of the Nālandā, thereby preserving the Nālandā tradition.18
Folk Accounts of Indian Buddhism in Tibet
The Indo-Tibetan interface is not only documented in written records but is also recounted in folklore and mythological narratives. Oral history is often discounted as inaccurate in the face of written history. Given the fact that Tibet had a long period without a formal writing system except Zhang Zhung (Zhang zhung),19 it is reasonable to recognize the historical legitimacy of oral accounts prior to Sambhota’s invention of the current writing system in the 8th century that was intended exclusively for the importation of Buddhism from India. From the perspective of Himalayan studies, it is also viable to recognize that ancient Tibet was an integral part of trans-Himalayan trade and other networks20 before the formal establishment of Buddhism in Tibet through its imperial sanction. Through these networks, pre-Buddhist Tibet had interactions with its neighbors along the southern foothills of the Himalayas.21
In Tibetan oral history, the first king of Tibet, Nyatri Tsenpo (gNya’ khri bTsan po), came from the Magadha Kingdom in India in the 1st century bce. One account says that he was a king who crossed the Himalayas into Tibet after losing his kingdom during the Mahābhārata war. Another account says that he descended from the sky, a heavenly, majestic young man, into the Yarlung (Yar klung) Valley of Central Tibet (dBus gtsang). Local people accepted him as the first king of the Yarlung dynasty. Yumbu Lhakang Palace (Yum bu bLa sgang), currently in Nédong (sNe gdong) County of TAR (Tibetan Autonomous Region), is said to have been built for King Nyatri Tsenpo. This ancient structure can be regarded as testifying to the earliest known, orally recorded, history of the Indo-Tibetan connection, in spite of a lack of written Buddhist sources.
The formal appearance of Buddhism in Tibetan folk narratives points to the time of Lha Thothori Nyentsen (Lha tho Tho ri gNyan btsan), the twenty-eighth king of the Yarlung dynasty, when a bundle of Buddhist sutras written in Sanskrit appeared in Tibet in a miraculous way.22 It is said that the sutras descended from the sky in a basket.23 Later the king prophesied, based on a dream, that Tibetans would fully accept the Buddha’s teachings after approximately 200 years. In scholarly studies of this oral account, the dates of Lha Thothori Nyentsen’s rule are debated as they vary from the 2nd century to the 5th century ce.24 By cross-referencing Chinese historical sources, most scholars lean toward the 5th century as the time when the Buddhist texts appeared in Tibet. The sutras did not drop from the sky but were brought into Tibet by an Indian monk named Buddharakṣita, but King Lha Thothori Nyentsen made the Buddhist texts as a secret or linguistically unintelligible out of his fear for religious conflicts with Bönpo clerics.25
The two to five centuries’ difference between the oral accounts and the recorded history (either the 2nd or 5th century ce as suggested in oral tradition and the 7th century ce as recorded in written historiographies) of the first appearance of Buddhism in Tibet are left out of the formal historiography of Tibetan Buddhism. This is understandable considering the written language invented by Sambhota in the 7th century was the only method available to record history in writing. Yet it is important to remember that, by the 7th century, Tibet was surrounded by many Buddhist neighbors, for example, India, Nepal, Kashmir, and China.26 In this historical context, oral accounts deserve more historiographical attention as many questions remain for clarification and further inquiries into this long historical gap need to be made. For instance:
• Before King Songtsen Gampo decided to make Buddhism the national religion in the 7th century, had merchants-turned-Buddhists brought Indian Buddhism to Tibet through Himalayan trade routes?
• Is it fair to ask whether or not King Lha Thothori Nyentsen’s prophetic vision was a later interpolation intended to attribute the credit for importing Buddhism from India to Tibet to the imperial accomplishment of the successive Tibetan courts?
• How could the Nepali and the Chinese princesses convince King Songtsen Gampo to convert to Buddhism given the historical fact that women’s social status in Tibet, Nepal, and China rarely allowed them to be regarded as religious teachers?
• Did King Songtsen Gampo receive teachings from other sources?
• How did Indian Buddhism become known to King Songtsen Gampo and what prompted him to send Sambhota and the accompanying young scholars to Nālandā if he was heretofore unacquainted with the tradition?
Tibetanization of Buddhism as a Geomythological Conversion
Returning to the folk accounts of Buddhism’s entry into Tibet in the 3rd century and its subsequent acceptance into Tibetan societies from the 7th century onward, as shown in the court narratives of Kings, Songtsen Gampo, Trisong Detsen, and their successors. It could be inferred that the arrival of Śāntarakṣita and Padmasambhava in the 8th century was a continuation of rather than the starting point for popularizing Buddhism among Tibetans. It is also reasonable to infer that the monastic Buddhism systematically introduced by Śāntarakṣita was limited to court-sanctioned practices and, therefore, occupied a narrow social margin, whereas Padmasambhava’s tantric practices were widely disseminated in the popular realm of Tibet. Historiographically, Śāntarakṣita’s monastic Buddhism was spread vertically, through the social hierarchy, under the sanction of King Trisong Detsen, while Padmasambhava’s was a horizontal dissemination through the lay conversion process. Thus, the Early Diffusion of Buddhism (bstan pa snga dar) in Tibet was largely a case of lay conversion, with oral transmission, rather than of a large-scale, systematic importation of Indian monastic Buddhism exclusively based on the Nālandā tradition.
The court-centered history is seen in the uneven historical representations of Śāntarakṣita and Padmasambhava. The presence of the two Indian masters in Tibet was differentially chronicled in the court history, with Śāntarakṣita representing the initial establishment of the Nālandā-based monastic Indian Buddhism in Tibet, while Padmasambhava, though remembered as the king’s guest, is cherished outside the court more than his contemporary. Padmasambhava, by employing Tantric powers, purportedly converted thousands of local demons to Buddhism. It is said that the mystical and magical aspects of Padmasambhava’s Tantrism dovetailed with practices of Tibetan’s local rituals and beliefs, and thus he and his tantrism was practiced and prevailed among the common people. The difference between how these two Indian masters are remembered and represented lies in the difference between historiography and hagiography.
While Śāntarakṣita is recorded in Indian and Tibetan sources as a historical figure associated with the university at Nālandā, Tibetans do not dedicate popular hagiographies to him. In other words, he was well received in court but is not as well remembered in the popular sphere. In the case of Padmasambhava, his hagiographies appear in both written and oral forms, while both Indian and Tibetan historical records about him, as a person, are scant. His position in the history of Buddhism is much more emblematic of the indigenization of Buddhism in Tibet than that of Śāntarakṣita. In other words, Padmasambhava is accepted as an apotheosized Tibetan saint, while Śāntarakṣita remains rooted in history as an Indian. It is impossible to reconstruct a chronology or a list of verifiable events out of the hagiographies of Padmasambhava; however, his historical effects in Tibet’s pre-Buddhist-to-Buddhist transformation, before the emergence of the sectarian divisions in the 11th century, deserves more historical recognition beyond just referring to him as the founder of Tibetan tantric Buddhism.
From the varied historical narratives about Śāntarakṣita and Padmasambhava, it is discernible that the indigenization of Buddhism in Tibet in its first five centuries shows an emphasis on the transformations of cultural institutions and a geomythological reorientation of the Tibetan landscape rather than a diversification of Indian Buddhism through doctrinal debates and divergent interpretations of the Buddhist canon and commentaries. In this case, Lang Darma’s (Glang dar Ma) reaction against Buddhism could be read as Tibetan indigenous religious constituencies’ resistance to the widening social and cultural impact of Buddhism. Furthermore his anti-Buddhist stance could also be considered an indicator of Buddhism’s rapid growth and the indigenization of a foreign religion, quite possibly under the popular influence of Padmasambhava. If King Aśoka spread Buddhism in his South Asian dominion by force, Padmasambhava’s method of spreading Buddhism was through his performance of a series of magic and visionary acts.27 While Aśoka’s Buddhist edicts are found on rocks and pillars and in caves throughout the Indian subcontinent and in Himalayan nations like Nepal, Afghanistan, and Kashmir, Padmasambhava’s cave meditation sites, face prints, hand prints, and body prints are found in many parts of cultural Tibet.28 His popular outreach to Tibetans beyond the monastery walls signifies that the initial introduction of Buddhism to Tibet was more a lay movement than a form of monasticism. These tangible marks on the landscape are the geomythological signature of Padmasambhava as a Tibetanized Indian Buddhist saint. It is plausible to say that Buddhism had already gained significant popularity in Tibet before the emergence of the new schools.
To argue this point a bit further, these geomythological landscape transformations are not one-sided changes brought by Indian Buddhism; instead, they took place as one of the most symbiotic processes of the entwinement of native cosmovisions and Buddhist teachings. This unique symbiosis of Indian Buddhism and the indigenous place-based pantheon is the foundation of the Tibetanization of Buddhism. The Buddhist conversion of Tibet starting from King Songtsen Gampo can be seen as the simultaneously horizontal spread of Buddhism and vertical transformation of the Tibetan landscape animated with indigenous deities and spirits. The former means the popular acceptance of Buddhism, while the latter refers to the dissemination of Buddhism through the king’s power. At the suggestion of his Chinese wife, Princess Wencheng, the king had Jokhang Temple (Jo khang) built, not merely as the spiritual center of Buddhism in Lhasa but also as the first step of his methodic pacification of Supine Demoness (srin mo gan rkyal), who was conceived by pre-Buddhist Tibetans to be the genius loci of the entirety of the Tibetan landscape. From the perspective of the Buddhist king, she was the demonic cause of social and personal disorders and, therefore, needed to be permanently subdued. This, then, initiated the vertical transformation of the Tibetan landscape through the power of the successive kings of Tibet.29
To start with, the strategic location of Jokhang Temple is directly above her heart, a move made with symbolic and literal intent to subdue her with the vertical power of the king and his newly acquired Buddha Dharma. Later, other temples and monasteries were built upon the demoness’ shoulders, knees, and other vital parts of her body.30 Conversion in this sense, then, was not merely the replacing of a native belief system with the Buddhist religion. It was also a geomythological remapping of pre-Buddhist Tibet so that places of cultural import and the attending local deities were also converted to Buddhism. Whether pre-Buddhist Tibet is understood as a uniformly Bön religious sphere or a diverse animist land, Buddhism was positioned to revamp Tibet’s human, natural, and spiritual worlds. This transformation is commonly understood as both a cultural transition and a political transition;31 however, this historical picture presents Buddhism and the indigenous religious beliefs as being diametrically opposed.
Padmasambhava’s Buddhist conversion of Tibet, however, tells a different story about the Tibetan landscape—not as having the shape of the Supine Demoness to be vertically subdued by the king’s power, but more as a complex mountain-and-deity system to be given a Buddhist reorientation. By following oral accounts and the communally syncretic practices of Buddhist and indigenous beliefs, a growing number of scholars reject the idea that the acceptance of a world religion in a new national or cultural environment is merely a rational choice by its elites; instead, it is a complex process involving the intertwinement of indigenous belief systems, cultural institutions, and livelihoods of common people.32 This is not a black and white binary, setting the court opposite the popular realm, or putting the foreign religion and the indigenous beliefs as diametrical opposites as portrayed in the historical case of subduing the Supine Demoness, when the imperially sanctioned Buddhism immobilized the local deity in a torturous manner. Instead, the lived, popular dimension of Buddhism in a new national environment needs to be factored in the historical studies of Tibetan Buddhism.
The anthropological take on the history of Tibetan Buddhism is noteworthy as it reaches the same assessment as that of Buddhist studies among Southeast Asianists pointing to the pronounced difference between the doctrinal and the lived aspects of Buddhism. The former is often referred to as the Bodhi-orientation, a gravitation toward the soteriological goal of Buddhism, while the latter is understood as “spirit cult”33 “apotropaic Buddhism,”34 “practical religion,”35 and “spirit religion.”36 As in other national contexts of Buddhism, both the doctrinal and lived dimensions of Buddhism are equally important components of Tibetan Buddhist history. The doctrinally oriented monastic aspect of Buddhism associates worldly human affairs with the idea of saṃsāra (‘khor ba), which is the sphere of suffering locked in the cycle of birth and death and, therefore, is the target of Buddhist spiritual liberation efforts. In practice the doctrines and the monastically styled regimentation of “clerical Buddhism”37 encounter non-Buddhist religious beliefs and a myriad of human activities relating to livelihoods, health, household economics, and personal and intercommunity conflicts. This is where Buddhism becomes a spirit religion and where the indigenous human needs and religious practices take initiative to transform Buddhism, a world religion, into a localized, hybrid religious system serving the worldly interests of the native population and its polity.
In this historical context, as aforementioned, on the one hand, Padmasambhava tamed Tibet’s non-Buddhist deities and transformed them into Buddhist protective gods and goddesses. On the other hand, the native religious practices indelibly Tibetanized Indian Buddhism with a keen communally practical orientation38 grounded in the physical landscape of Tibet. The communally based spread of Buddhism is thus a geomythological hybridization process or a “recreation of the cosmological spheres”39 of Tibet as a sanctuary of Buddha Dharma, which continues to be protected by indigenous but Buddhist-turned deities. Mountain and water gods and goddesses are regarded among folks as Dharma protectors (chos skyong srung ma). Deity mountains and lakes are revered as sacred sites (gnas), soul-places (bla sa), birth-gods (skyes lha), or birthplaces (skyes sa). In the geomythological sense, Buddhism is an emplaced religion40 intricately rooted in the natural and communal environments of Tibet as a non-monastic Buddhism especially commenced in the First and the Intermediate Periods of Buddhism in Tibet between the 7th and the 11th centuries. This trend continued on as a persistent parallel to the development of the New Schools after the 12th century until today in spite of the Chinese socialist suppression of religions in the latter half of the 20th century.41
The Emergence of Old and New Schools
The Nyingma (rNying ma), Kagyü (bKa’ rgyud), Sakya (Sa skya), and Gelug Schools are commonly regarded as the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism. The historical emergence of these schools was not characterized by spontaneous, separate occurrences. Their emergence occurred in the same historical period, between the 10th and the 15th centuries, widely regarded as the era dividing Tibetan Buddhism into the general categories of the Old (nyingma) and New Schools (gsarma). Not to mistake “nyingma” as the name of the current Nyingma School, it should be noted that prior to this era, there is no recorded evidence of sects or schools. This general division of Buddhism into Old and New Schools came about through a combination of the advent of a new political era and the arrival of a new religious lineage. The former refers to King Lang Darma’s persecution of Buddhists during his reign in the 9th century, which led to the near destruction of Buddhism in Tibet. The persecution stopped after a monk named Lhalung Belgyi Dorje (Lha lung dPal gyi rDo rje) assassinated the king.42
After the assassination of the King Lang Darma and the collapse of the Tibetan Empire in the 9th century, Buddhist monasteries in Tibet lost their sponsorship from the royal family and were shuttered, and the monks no longer exempt from military service. With the loss of its system, without doubt, the survival of the traditional monks’ discipline is important as to the survival of religion.
According to the legend, three monks, so-called The Three Wise Men (mkhas pa mis gsum): Marben Śākyamuni (dMar ban Sha kya Mu ni), Yo Gechung (g.Yo dge Chung) and Tsang Rabsel (gTsang rab gSal) took a load of Buddhist texts and escaped from Central Tibet to Tsongkha (Tsong kha) region in Amdo, where they continued the Buddhist teachings and monk ordination. Many more monks from Central Tibet also headed to Amdo with Buddhist scriptures when their monasteries were closed. However, it is the three monks who cultivated the legend of Gongpa Rabsel (dGongs pa Rab gsal)43 and given credit to the triumphant reintroduction of monastic Buddhism to Tibet.
The ending of Lang Darma’s rule marked the beginning of the era of a disintegrated Tibet and of new Buddhist schools emerging as the religion underwent a revival. Tibetan Buddhism evolved through a continuous process of debate and interpretation over the meaning of Buddhism between masters and scholars with different beliefs and practices. At the same time traditional Tibetan customs, deities, incantations, and ritual practices were absorbed. But the process was far from smooth; as a result, a number of competing schools or sects were established. This era, between the 10th and the 15th centuries, known as the Later Diffusion Spread of Buddhism (bstan pa phyi dar),44 became the focal point of a far-reaching and a revival of Buddhist influence developing in far western Tibet. It is no doubt that the Amdo (A mdo) region played an important role in reviving of Buddhism, but the trade and pilgrimage relations between western Tibet and adjacent parts of India, particularly Kashmir, where Buddhism remained strong, were also decisive for reinvigorating Buddhism.
After the demise of Tibetan Buddhism, for many years not only did the great translators such as Rinchen Zangpo (Rin chen bZang po, 958–1055), who promoted the spread of Indian Buddhist culture, appear in Tibet, but prominent scholars and masters were again invited from India in order to reintroduce Tibetan Buddhism. A royal invitation was also extended to Atīśa Dīpaṃkara Śrījñāna (Jo bo rJe dPal ldan A ti Sha, 982–1054), the abbot of Nālandā Monastery, beseeching him to lend help to revive Buddhism in Tibet.45 After a treacherous journey across the Himalayas, he arrived in Tibet. He devoted the remainder of his life—thirteen years—to the restoration and flourishing of Tibetan Buddhism. His chief disciples, Khuton Tsöndru Yungdrung (Khu ston brTson ‘grus g.Yung drung, 1011–1075), Ngok Lekpé Sherab (rNgog legs pa’i Shes rab, 1018–1115), and Dromtönpa Gyelwé Jungné (‘Brom ston pa rGyal ba’i ‘Byung gnas, 1004–1064), were instrumental in reinvigorating Buddhism. Most importantly, they formed a new Buddhist order called Kadampa (bKa’ gdams pa).46 Thus, along with other Indian masters, Atīśa is regarded as a key figure credited with the establishment of the new schools starting with the Kadampa School of Tibetan Buddhism.
Atīśa’s legacy did not dwindle in the 11th century but continued to flourish in Tibet with the development of new monastic centers and the translation and education projects fostered by the diverse masters and their disciples in Tibet. For example, during that period, another great Tibetan translator and renowned tantric adept, Marpa Chökyi Lodrö (Mar pa Chos kyi Blo gros, 1012–1097), went to India to learn Buddhism under Drokmi Lotsawa and the Master Yogin Nāropa. He then transmitted his teachings to Milarepa (Mi la Ras pa, 1040–1123), whose student Gampopa Sönam Rinchen (sGam po pa bSod nam Rin chen, 1079–1153) established the lineage of Kagyü School (bKa’ brgyud) in the 12th century. The masters and institutions of this school continue to play an important role in the dissemination of Tibetan Buddhism.
Although the new schools were beginning to emerge after the death of Lang Darma, the political fragmentation of Tibet presented a precarious social environment to the revitalizations of Buddhism. Leading Buddhist teachers were actively involved in rebuilding a politically stable Tibetan society. In particular, Tibet reached another religious and political highpoint during the rule of Sakya monks, who dominated Tibetan political and religious affairs from the 13th to the 14th centuries. The Sakya School was developed by the first Sakya throne holder, Khön Könchok Gyalpo (‘Khon dKon mchog rGyal po, 1034–1102), in the late 11th century. When the Mongols began to encroach upon Tibet in the mid-13th century, the political and religious situations of Tibet became ever more dynamic. Shortly after the Mongols’ first military campaign in 1240,47 Sakya Paṇḍita Kunga Gyeltsen (Sa skya Paṇḍita Kun dga’ rGyal mtshan, 1182–1251),48 the head of the Sakya School, was summoned to the Mongol court, accepting the Mongols’ rule of Tibet under choe-yon (mchod yon) or the patron-priest relationship.49 This led to the political integrity of Tibet under the Mongols’ rule.
In order to deepen the connection between Mongol and Tibetan, Pakpa Lodro Gyeltsen (‘Phags pa Blo gros rGyal mtshan, 1235–1280) and Chana Dorje (Phyag na rDo rje, 1239–1267), following their uncle Sakya Paṇḍita’s step, became Imperial Preceptors (dbu bla) under Khubilai Khan. Sakya monks of Khön family successively appointed as Imperial Preceptors, who were active at the court of the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1271–1368) and enjoyed special power. Tibetan Buddhism was thus adopted as the state religion by the Mongol Yuan dynasty, and it was practiced not only within the capital Beijing but throughout the country. For instance, Hangzhou, capital of the former Southern Song dynasty and the largest city in the Yuan realm, became an important hub of the activities of Tibetan Buddhism.50 This situation continues to last until the collapse of the Yuan dynasty in the 14th century.
Encompassing Tibetans’ endeavors during the Later Diffusion of Buddhism, the Mongol Empire’s patron–priest relationship with Tibet added new political power to Tibetan Buddhism under the Mongol rule. In this religio-political process, Sakya Paṇḍita is regarded as a historical hero for averting the Mongols’ full military occupation of Tibet and reunifying the Tibetan polity. Certainly he was a key figure who forever changed the historical course of Tibetan Buddhism and polity by involving an external imperial power. On the one hand, the patron–priest relationship with the Mongol Empire turned Tibetan Buddhism into a transregional religion. On the other hand, the sovereignty of the recentralized Tibetan feudal state entered a new geopolitical milieu by changing its relationship with the Mongols, the Manchus, and the modern states of China.
In the historical context of the fragmented Tibetan polity and the intervention of the Mongol Empire, the emerging new schools of Tibetan Buddhism all became politically engaged in harnessing secular support and protection.51 With the decline of the Mongol Yuan dynasty, Central Tibet was ruled by successive families from the 14th to the 17th centuries. In the mid-14th century, the Phagmodru (Phag mo Gru pa) family, led by Changchub Gyaltsän (Byang chub rgyal mtshan, 1302–1364), weakened Sakya power and took control in central Tibet. He created an autonomous kingdom after Mongol rule, revitalized the national culture, and reintroduced a new legal system in Central Tibet. Thus, although he left all Mongol institutions in place as hollow formalities, the power remained in the hands of the Phagmodru family. However, the internal family strife and the strong localism of the various fiefs within the Phagmodrupa dynasty led to a long series of internal conflicts. Its power receded due to the rise of the ministerial family of the Rinpungpa (Rin spungs pa, 1435–1565) based in Tsang (gTsang, west of Central Tibet), which dominated politics in 1434. In 1565 the Rinpungpa family was overthrown by Zhingshak Tseten Dorjé (Zhing shag Tshe brten rDo rje, ?–1599), who established the Tsangpa polity (Tsang pa sDe srid, 1565–1642) in Zhigatse (gZhis ka rtse). The Tsangpa regime expanded its power in different directions of Tibet in the following decades and favored the Karma Kagyü School.
During this period, while the Kagyüpa, the Sakyapa, and the Nyingmapa were drawing political support for their own sectarian growth, Tsongkhapa Lobzang Drakpa’s (Tsong kha pa Blo bzang Grags pa, 1357–1419) ambitions in reforming Tibetan Buddhism and establishing the Gelug School began in the 15th century. The son of a Tibetan mother and a Mongolian father born in Amdo, Tsongkhapa (1357–1419) became a novice at the age of nine at Shakhyung Monastery (Bya khyung dGon). At the age of sixteen he journeyed to Lhasa. In less than ten years in Central Tibet he became an accomplished lama who mastered the teachings of the Nyingma, Sakya, and Kyagu Schools; however, his persistent spiritual path was based on Atīśa’s teachings. Tsongkhapa’s rigorous revitalization of Tibetan Buddhism was centered upon Atīśa’s teachings of the Tripiṭaka (sde snod gsum)—Sūtrapiṭaka (mdo sde’i sde snod), Vinayapiṭaka (‘dul ba’i sde snod), and Abhidharmapiṭaka (chos mngon pa’i sde snod)52—the canonical texts and doctrinal prescriptions for practicing the Buddha’s teachings, especially in a monastic environment. As an accomplished spiritual leader, Tsongkhapa wrote numerous essays and treatises concerning Abhidharma (chos mngon pa), Yogācāra (rnal ‘byor spyod pa), and Madhyamaka (dbu ma pa).53 Besides his spiritual and philosophical accomplishments, Tsongkhapa is known for his strict implementation of monastic precepts. As the founder of the Gelug School, his contribution to Tibetanized Buddhism is also shown in the Buddhist material culture of Tibet, particularly in the large monastic establishments and their greater communities, such as Drepung (‘Bras spungs), Sera (Se ra), Gaden (dGa’ ldan), Tashi Lhunpo (bKra shis Lhun po), Litang (Li thang), Kumbum (sKu ‘bum Byams pa gling), and Labrang (Bla brang bKra shis ‘khyil) monasteries throughout Central Tibet, Amdo, and Kham (Khams).
With regard to the great religious reformer Tsongkhapa, scholars recognize that he laid the foundation for a politically unified Tibet with a pan-Tibetan Buddhist spirituality54 based on Atīśa’s teachings, and thus scholars refer to Tsongkhapa’s efforts as “centralized spirituality” or “common spirituality.”55 His work led to the establishment of the Gelug School as the state religion and as a governing body of Tibet and marked Gelugpa as the center of gravity for the Later Diffusion. During his lifetime, Tsongkhapa was not directly involved with the governing body of Tibe. It was after the passing of his disciple Gendün Drupa (dGe ‘dun grub pa, 1391–1474) that the reincarnation system (sPrul sku) as a political institution began its precedence in Tibetan politics under the auspices of both the Mongols and eventually the Manchus.
The alliance between the Third Dalai Lama Sönam Gyasto (bSod nams rGya mtsho) and the Tumed leader Altan Khan (1578) likely aroused the fear of some aristocratic families in Central Tibet and of the non-Gelug schools. This motivated the Karmapa to seek protection from the Tsangpa rulers. The Tsangpa family assisted Karmapa by opposing the Gelugpa (dGe lugs pa) and Dalai Lamas. It is said that the Tsangpa ruler Karma Phuntsok Namgyal (Kar ma Phun tshogs Rnam rgyal, 1587–1620) invaded Central Tibet and attacked the Drepung and Sera Monasteries. The hegemony of Tsangpa was, however, only of a brief nature. Receiving help from the Mongolian leader Gushri Khan, the Fifth Dalai Lama Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso (Ngag dbang Blo bzang rGya mtsho, 1617–1682) defeated the Tsangpa king Karma Tenkyong Wangpo (Kar ma bsTan skyong dBang po, 1617–1682) and found a new Tibetan government in 1642, named the “Ganden Phodrang” (dGa' ldan Pho brang). This was a triumph for the Gelug School represented by the Dalai Lama and later his regent, Desi Sanggyé Gyatso (sDe srid Sangs rgyas rGya mtsho, 1653–1705). The Gelug School dominated Tibetan Buddhism and successive Dalai Lamas ruled Tibet from the mid-17th to the mid-20th centuries.
The institution of the Dalai Lama, as a result of Tibetan-Mongolian alliance, became a combined body of religion and polity. It was in 1518 when Altan Khan (1507–1583) formally conferred the title of “Dalai Lama” upon Sönam Gyasto, the second reincarnation of Gendün Drupa, who sought patronage from the Mongols to support the Gelug School and to resume a politically stable, unified Tibet. By receiving the title, Dalai Lama, from Altan Khan in Mongolia, Sönam Gyasto in turn helped legitimize Altan Khan’s rule over Mongolia by ceremonially recognizing him as a reincarnation of Kublai Khan (1260–1294) and bestowed on him the title of “Dharma King.”56 Note that to be a Mongol ruler then the bloodline from the royal lineage of Genghis Khan was required. Altan Khan was not of the ruling bloodline. The alliance of Sönam Gyatso and Altan Khan suited each other’s interest. Even Altan Khan’s great-grandson was enthroned as the Fourth Dalai Lama Yonten Gyatso (Yon tan rGya mtsho, 1589–1617).57 From this historical point on, the Gelug School became the ruler of Tibet as well as the largest, most established new school of Tibetan Buddhism. Both Gendün Drupa and Gedün Gyatso (dGe ‘dun rGya mtsho, 1475–1542) were posthumously recognized, respectively, as the first and the second Dalai Lamas. Unfortunately, the Sixth Dalai Lama (Tshangs dbyangs rGya mtsho, 1683–1760) was unwilling to take up the difficult task of leadership, and the succession faltered after Sanggyé Gyatso’s death in 1705. Moreover, the internal competition over resources quickly arose between monasteries of the Gelug School. The civil war of 1727 led to the appointment of Polhané Sönam Topgyé (Pho lha ne bSod nams sTobs rgyas, 1689–1747) as the ruler of Central Tibet, and the Seventh Dalai Lama Kelzang Gyatso’s (sKal bzang rGya mtsho, 1708–1757) rule was briefly restored between 1750 and 1757. However, with the death of the Seventh Dalai Lama, the Tibetan regency was left among a small group of reincarnate lamas who were selected and vetted by the Qing court until the time of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama Thupten Gyatso (Thub bstan rGya mtsho, 1876–1933), who took up rule in 1895. Despite all these internal disturbances, the Gelug School was successfully and firmly established in Tibet. It may well be concluded that from the 16th century on, the institution of the Dalai Lama steered the historical course of Tibet and cultivated Tibetan Buddhism as a regionally viable religious tradition throughout Inner and East Asia and in modern times around the world.
The Advent of Modern Tibetan Buddhism
The establishment of the Gelug School in the 15th century marked a new beginning of the spread of Tibetan Buddhism into Inner Asia and of later geopolitical entanglements with the Manchu and modern Chinese states. From this historical angle, the Gelug School becoming the most influential new school of Tibetan Buddhism not only reflected the domestic development of Buddhism but also the process of it becoming a transregional religion in Asia. The Gelug School was the ultimate historical catalyst forging and defining the Buddhist civilization of Tibet. It created the reincarnation system of Dalai Lama with the Mongols ensuring a non-hereditary polity and allowing a non-Tibetan imperial intervention in Tibet’s political and social affairs. It impelled non-Gelug schools to Tibet’s geographical peripheries and sowed the seeds of the global spread of Tibetan Buddhism as a form of modern Buddhism.
The historical prelude to modern Tibetan Buddhism was entangled with geopolitical changes in the period of the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, when Tibet was caught in the Great Games of the British and Russian territorial interests in Inner and Central Asia,58 when individual Western spiritual seekers took interest in Tibetan tantric Buddhism,59 when Chinese Buddhist teachers attempted to acquire Tibetan Vajrayāna teachings for the purpose of revitalizing declining Chinese Buddhism,60 and after the Fourteenth Dalai Lama went into exile in India in 1959. In this historical period, the political status of the Gelug School continued to determine the modern development of Tibetan Buddhism. In 1903, British forces led by Sir Francis Younghusband (1863–1942) invaded Tibet. Before they reached Lhasa, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama Thupten Gyatso (Thub bstan rGya mtsho, 1876–1933) fled to Mongolia. His temporary asylum in Mongolia strengthened the transregionality of Tibetan Buddhism in Inner Asia as he performed various empowerment ceremonies for his Mongolian audience. In East Asia his contemporary and political rival the ninth Panchen Lama Thupten Chöekyi Nyima (Thub bstan Chos kyi Nyi ma, 1883–1937) held numerous Dharma teaching sessions for Chinese Buddhist constituencies when he was in exile in China in the early 20th century. The spread of Tibetan Buddhism to non-Tibetans was a side effect of political changes in Tibet. This characteristic of early modern Tibetan Buddhism continued well into the latter part of the 20th century and into the 21st century.
Modern Tibetan Buddhism in this context refers to not merely the monastic revitalizations after the religious suppression of the Chinese state during the first three decades of its establishment61 but also the leading Tibetan Buddhist teachers’ outreach to non-Tibetan populations around the world. In this regard, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama is both a political refugee and a leading figure in building modern Buddhism beyond Asian contexts along with other prominent Buddhist teachers, such as Thích Nhất Hạnh and Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki. Like other versions of modern Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism outside Tibet since the 1960s has been socially engaged and parallel to other new religious, spiritual, and social movements. Its outreach to non-Tibetan constituencies, especially in North America, Europe, Australia, and contemporary China,62 is characteristically a lay movement responding to the multitude of public concerns and discourses on humanitarianism, peacebuilding, environmental care, spirituality, and inter-religious dialogue.63 In this process, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama plays the most significant role in modernizing and secularizing Tibetan Buddhism in both Tibetan and non-Tibetan social contexts as shown in his numerous public engagements and publications, such as Ethics for the New Millennium (2001)64 and Beyond Religion: Ethics for the Whole World (2012).65 Tibetan Buddhism continues to evolve as it is becoming more engaged with modern social contexts beyond Tibet.
This article briefly presents the historical progress of Buddhism’s localization in Tibet and its dissemination to other parts of the world. In particular, through reviewing the Tibetan historical records and folk accounts as well as the existing scholarly works on Buddhism, it argues that there is a possibility that Buddhism entered Tibet before the 7th century. Moreover, from the varied historical narratives about Padmasambhava, it is evident that the indigenization of Buddhism in Tibet underlines the transformations of cultural institutions and a geomythological conversion of the Tibetan landscape rather than a diversification of Indian Buddhism through doctrinal debates and divergent interpretations of the Buddhist canon and commentaries. Thus, it can be suggested that Padmasambhava’s Buddhism in Tibet was a horizontal dissemination through the lay conversion process compared to vertical spread of Śāntarakṣita’s monastic Buddhism through the social hierarchy.
The efforts of different generations of scholars translating Buddhist texts from Sanskrit under the patronage of successive rulers and Tibetan scholars’ commentaries on such texts led to the emergence of different sectarian schools of Tibetan Buddhism. In the mid-17th century, with the help of their Mongol patrons, the center of Tibetan history was largely marked by the political predominance of the Gelug School. This power was enhanced through the alliance between the institution of the Dalai Lama and the Mongol rulers. This historical dynamic has changed little up to the present day as the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, the ultimate representation of Tibetan religion and politics, continues to hold the authoritative position in reassessing the historical course of Tibetan Buddhism.
Since the late 19th century, the historical spread of Tibetan Buddhism has continued as a form of modern Buddhism, which enjoyed remarkable popularity within a broad society by Tibetan Buddhist teachers’ outreach to non-Tibetan populations around the world. Therefore, drawing on a historical sketch of Buddhism in Tibet, this article also proposes future research on the role of Tibetan Buddhism in forging Tibetan civilization and in diversifying the religious landscape of the modern world.
Overview of Primary and Secondary Sources
Tibetan Buddhism is one of the world’s most widespread Buddhist traditions in the 21st century. Texts concerning its historical origin and sectarian formation are in great demand in both academic and popular realms. The rise and development of Tibetan Buddhism from a variety of perspectives developed from the earliest Tibetan writings and from the surviving Tibetan annals, inscriptions, and edicts of imperial times. A brief review of some of the important primary and secondary sources presented here will aid the reader in comprehending the adoption of Buddhism and the formation of Tibetan Buddhism.
The historical works in the Tibetan language provide direct or firsthand evidence or accounts of the history of Buddhism in Tibet. In particular, the Tibetan texts discovered at the cave temples of Mogao at Dunhuang, known as Cave 17, provided one of the earliest records on the Tibetan imperial time. These texts cover a broad range of topics, such as histories, religious treaties, manuals of divination and of ritual, and so on.66 Thus, the Dunhuang Tibetan documents are considered one of the most reliable sources for Tibetan studies. Many of the most important documents are preserved as Pelliot tibétan at the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris and IOL Tib at the British Library in London.67 Besides the manuscripts discovered at Dunhuang, invaluable information on both Tibetan religious and political matters was documented in the various imperial edicts that preserved as inscriptions. For instance, the two inscriptions on eleven- and nine-foot-tall pillars at the west and east gates of the Zhé Temple complex in the northeast of Lhasa, the inscription on a thirteen-foot-tall pillar in the south west of Lhasa, and both the pillar and bell inscription (bsam yas rdo ring dang cong)68 at the Samyé monastery recorded King Tride Songtsen’s (Khri lde Srong brtsan) supportive, favorable policy toward Buddhism and the foundation of the Samyé monastery. Among the most significant inscriptions, the Samyé stone inscription is considered to be the earliest Tibetan-language record related to Buddhism in Tibet to survive.69 All these texts and inscriptional sources reflected the full-fledged establishment of Buddhism in the Tibetan court during the reign of King Trisong Detsen and its continued expansion under his successors.
Apart from the Tibetan manuscripts excavated from the cave temples at Dunhuang and the ancient inscriptions found at numerous Buddhist sites of Central Tibet, a large number of Tibetan historical writings dealing with the history of Buddhism in imperial Tibet emerged before and after the Later Diffusion of Buddhism. These include dBa’ bzhed (Testament of Ba, late 8th century), Bstan pa phyi dar gyi lo rgyus (The Chronicle of the Later Diffusion of Buddhism, early 11th century), Bka’ chems ka khol ma (The Vase-shaped Pillar Testament, 11th century), Ma ṇi bka’ ‘bum (Collection of Teachings and Practices Focused on Avalokiteśvara, mid-12th century), Chos ‘byung me tog snying po sbrang rtsi’i bcud (The Distilled Sweet Essence of Flowers, late 12th century), Rgya bod kyi chos ‘byung rgyas pa (History of Buddhism in India and Tibet, later than 1261), Bu ston chos ‘byung (History of Buddhism by Bu-ston, 1322), Deb ther dmar po (The Red Annals, 14th century), Pad ma bka’i thang yig (Biography of Padmasambhava, 1352), Rgyal rabs gsal ba’i me long (Clear Mirror of Royal Genealogies, 1368), Yar lung jo bo’i chos ‘byung (Yarlung Jowo’s Religious History, 1376), Deb ther sngon po (The Blue Annal, 15th century), Mkhas pa’i dga’ ston (The Feast for the Learned, 16th century), Chos’byung dpag bsam ljon bzang (The Historical Treatise dPag-bsam lJon-bzang, 1748), and Mdo smad chos ‘byung ngam deb ther rgya mtsho (History of Buddhism in A-mdo, 1865). Some of these texts appear to have different versions and their dates and authors are still being contested; however, they all provide invaluable information on how Buddhism was introduced to and disseminated in Tibet.
Because of Tibet’s past geographical isolation and language barriers, larger-scale historical studies of Tibetan Buddhism began only in the late 1950s, after the Dalai Lama went into exile in India. Three strands of secondary literature have contributed to the historical research of Buddhism in Tibet as an interdisciplinary endeavor of scholars across many fields in the humanities and social sciences.
The initial body of publications on Tibetan Buddhism appeared in the late 19th and mid-20th centuries. They were a combination of writings by scholars, explorers, seekers, and colonial officers, such as Brian H. Hodgson, Sven Hedin, L. Austin Waddell, Sarat Chandra Das, Charles Bell, Francis Younghusband, Alexandra David-Neel, Andrei Ivanovich Vostrikov, and Giuseppe Tucci. This era could be regarded as the inception of the historical studies of Tibetan Buddhism. It was exploratory in nature, with limited access to Tibetan-language sources. Both scholarly and colonial explorations of Tibet were largely discouraged by Tibet’s geological formation and the imperial standoffs between British India and the Manchu Empire in the Himalayas. In the capacity of a colonial officer and a scholar, Hodgson’s endeavor to collect Tibetan Buddhist texts in Nepal in the mid-1800s attested to the geopolitical challenges facing systematic Tibetan Buddhist studies. Those who later entered Tibet mostly formulated their knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism from travel writings, diaries, and official documentations based on observations of monasteries and social environments and conversations with statesmen, noblemen, monks, and common people. In many ways, this body of literature on Tibetan Buddhism has an ethnographic characteristic. For instance, Waddell’s volume—The Buddhism of Tibet or Lamaism, published in 1895—was largely based on the mutual curiosity between him and Tibetans. The latter opened for him the doors into monasteries and lay communities. Sir Charles Bell’s voluminous works were also written from his experience as the British special ambassador to Lhasa and from his extensive travels in Tibet. In the same manner, the works of Das and Tucci were also largely based on their exploratory activities in Tibet. This initial body of the literature continues to influence later scholarly works.
Since the 1960s, historical writings about Tibetan Buddhism have become more diverse and comprehensive thanks to the increasing availability of Tibetan sources. This body of literature now plays a defining role in recapitulating and interpreting how Buddhism came to Tibet and how it became Tibetanized. In particular, the works by Andrei Vostrikov, David Snellgrove, R. A. Stein, E. Gene Smith, Robert Thurman, Kurtis Schaeffer, Matthew Kapstein, Dan Martin, Donald Lopez Jr., Janet Gyatso, Leonard van der Kuijp, John Powers, Graham Coleman, and Gray Tuttle are responsible for the expanding fields of Tibetan Buddhist history. Unlike their predecessors’ works in the first half of 20th century, these texts situate Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism in larger historical and geographical contexts regarding the Indo-Tibetan, Tibetan-Mongolian, Tibetan-Manchu, and Sino-Tibetan interfaces. At the same time it is recognizable that they continue to bear signatures from the previous generations of scholars. The most noticeable imprint of the previous scholarship on the current body of historical writings is a court-centered narrative about the historical points and periods regarding when Buddhism came to Tibet and who was responsible for spreading it and/or resisting it.
Given the historical evidence that Tibet had been an integral part of trans-Himalayan trade and cultural networks prior to the spread of Indian Buddhism and that Tibet was surrounded by Buddhist nations and communities since the 1st century bce, it is reasonable to hypothesize that the date of Buddhism’s entrance into Tibet could be earlier. The starting point of Buddhism might not be the historical Tibetan kings’ formal meetings with Indian masters in the court from the 7th century onward but could be the other way round, that is, with the popular realm serving as the initial space of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist encounters at an earlier date.
This historical trajectory’s inquiry mostly originates from anthropologists and those scholars who conduct extensive fieldwork in Tibet and the regions adjacent to it. Their works are culminating in a new body of literature assessing the history of Tibetan Buddhism on the communal level, especially in regard to how Buddhism was indigenized into the regionally varied native religious systems of Tibet. Oral accounts, the hybridization of native pantheons and Buddhist mythologies, and the Buddhist conversion of native earth-deities and re-mandalization of indigenous Tibetan landscapes all point to the possibility of additional accounts of Buddhist history in Tibet. The works of Samten Karmay, Geoffrey Samuel, Toni Huber, Charles Ramble, Mona Schrempf, Alex McKay, Martin Mills, John Vincent Bellezza, Dan Smyer Yü, Robert Miller, and others emphasize the history of Tibetan Buddhism marked in Tibetan physical landscapes with clear existential, political, historical, and spiritual orientations. This growing body of literature characteristically interprets the indigenization of Buddhism as a lived historical process among common people rather than solely as an institutional transfer of a world religion from one region to another.
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(1.) The term “geomythology” was primarily proposed by Dorothy Vitaliano in 1968 and is the study of the geological events and aspects underlying in myths or legends. Vitaliano believes that oral traditions about nature may contain genuine and perceptive natural knowledge based on careful observation of physical evidence, which are otherwise scientifically unknown or difficult to trace. Thus, he attempts to convert mythology back into history. Dorothy B. Vitaliano, “Geomythology: The Impact of Geologic Events on History and Legend with Special Reference to Atlantis,” Journal of the Folklore Institute 5, no. 1 (1968): 5–30.
(2.) Ananda W. P. Guruge, “Emperor Aśoka and Buddhism: Unresolved Discrepancies Between Buddhist Tradition & Aśokan Inscriptions,” in King Asoka and Buddhism: Historical and Literary Studies, ed. Anuradha Seneviratna (Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1994), 42–45.
(3.) Vincent Smith, Ashoka: the Buddhist Emperor of India (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1920), 75–106.
(4.) Donald Lopez Jr., “Introduction,” in Religions of Tibet in Practice, ed. D. Lopez Jr. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), 6.
(5.) Dalai Lama, The Middle Way: Faith Grounded in Reason (Boston: Wisdom, 2009), 153–161.
(6.) Dalai Lama, The Middle Way, 155; and Taranatha, History of Buddhism in India, trans. Lama Chimpa and Alaka Chattopadhyaya, ed. Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1990), 50–67.
(7.) Martin Slobodnik, “The Chinese Princess Wencheng in Tibet: A Cultural Intermediary Between Facts and Myth,” in Trade, Journeys, Inner- and Intercultural Communication in East and West (up to 1250), ed. Marián Gálik and Tatiana Štefanovičová (Bratislava, Slovakia: Lufema, 2006), 267–276.
(8.) Robert Buswell Jr. and Donald Lopez Jr., The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014), 2086.
(9.) Rolf Alfred Stein, Tibetan Civilization (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1972), 58.
(10.) Sarat Chandra Das, Indian Pandits in the Land of Snow (Calcutta: The Baptist Mission Press, 1893), 48; Gedun Choephel, The White Annals, trans. Samten Norboo (Dharamsala, India: Tibetan Library and Archives, 1978), 70–73; and Sakyapa Sonam Gyaltsen, The Clear Mirror: A Traditional Account of Tibet’s Golden Age, trans. McComas Taylor and Lama Choedak Yuthok (New York: Snow Lion, 1996), 99–110.
(11.) Tansen Sen, Buddhism, Diplomacy, and Trade: the Realignment of Sino-Indian Relations, 600–1400 (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2003), 102–141.
(12.) David Snellgrove, Indo-Tibetan Buddhism: Indian Buddhists and Their Tibetan Successors (Boston: Shambhala, 2002), 184–185.
(13.) Das, Indian Pandits in the Land of Snow, 75–76.
(14.) The origins of the Bön tradition are still the subject of great debate in the Tibetan scholarship. On the one hand, Buddhists believe that Bön came to be organized as a system of faith with Buddhist-like doctrines and a complete philosophy around the 10th century, and thus reflecting the profound impact of Buddhist beliefs, practices, and institutions on Bön. On the other hand, the followers of Bön came to believe that their religion introduced to Tibet from Zhangzhung, an ancient culture and kingdom in western and northwestern Tibet, and thus Bön served as an early indigenous Tibetan religion before Buddhism was adopted. However, it is worth noting that although there is may be no organized and systematic religion called “Bön,” a number of funerary documents discovered at Dunhuang suggests the continuity of Bön in relation to the earlier ritual practices, incarnations, and divinations; the term “bön” refers to the titles of the priest who perform the services. Thus, it is now widely believed that Buddhism absorbed elements of Bön when it was introduced to Tibet and formed what we know as Tibetan Buddhism today. Kurtis Schaeffer, Matthew T. Kapstein, and Gray Tuttle, eds., Sources of Tibetan Tradition (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 130.
(15.) L. Austine Waddell, The Buddhism of Tibet or Lamaism: With Its Mystic Cults, Symbolism and Mythology, and in Its Relation to Indian Buddhism (New Delhi: Asian Educational Services, 2005), 28–29.
(16.) Schaeffer, Kapstein, and Tuttle, Sources of Tibetan Tradition, 156.
(17.) Das, Indian Pandits in the Land of Snow, 76.
(19.) Dan Martin, “Knowing Zhang-zhung: The Very Idea,” The Journal of the International Association for Bon Research, Inaugural Issue (2013): 175–197.
(20.) Christoph Bergmann, “Confluent Territories And Overlapping Sovereignties: Britain’s Nineteenth-Century Indian Empire in the Kumaon Himalaya,” Journal of Historical Geography 51(2016): 88–98.
(21.) Toni Huber, The Holy Land Reborn: Pilgrimage and Tibetan Reinvention of Buddhist India (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 42–43.
(22.) Mantosh Mandal, Indian Pandits Engaged in Tibetan Translations of Buddhist Logic (Maharastra, India: Laxmi, 2014), 17.
(23.) Angela Sumegi, Dreamworlds of Shamanism and Tibetan Buddhism: The Third Place (Albany: State University of New York, 2008), 73.
(24.) Hugh Richardson, “The Origin of the Tibetan Kingdom,” in The History of Tibet, ed. Alex McKay (London: Routledge Curzon 2003), 1:159.
(25.) Buswell and Lopez, The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, 1045.
(26.) José Ignacio Cabezón, “Tibetan Buddhist Societies,” in The Oxford Handbook of Global Religions, ed. Mark Juergensmeyer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 91–108.
(27.) Huber, The Holy Land Reborn, 238–239.
(28.) Alan Pope, “Metabletics in the Light of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism,” Janus Head 10, no. 2 (2010): 531–549.
(29.) Janet Gyatso, “Down with the Demoness: Reflections on a Feminine Ground in Tibet,” in Feminine Ground, ed. Janice D. Willis (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 1987), 33–51.
(30.) Martin Mills, “Re-Assessing the Supine Demoness: Royal Buddhist Geomancy in the Srong btsan sgam po Mythology,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies 3 (December 2007): 1–47.
(31.) Mills, “Re-Assessing the Supine Demoness,” 9.
(32.) Geoffrey Samuel, Civilized Shamans: Buddhism in Tibetan Societies (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993), 7–9.
(33.) Stanley J. Tambiah, Buddhism and the Spirit Cults in North-East Thailand (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1970).
(34.) Melford Spiro, Buddhism and Society: A Great Tradition and Its Burmese Vicissitudes (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), 143.
(35.) Yukio Hayashi, Practical Buddhism Among the Thai-Lao: Religion in the Making of a Region. (Kyoto, Japan: Kyoto University Press and Trans Pacific Press, 2003.
(36.) Dan Smyer Yü, The Spread of Tibetan Buddhism in China: Charisma, Money, Enlightenment (London: Routledge, 2011), 73.
(37.) Samuel, Civilized Shamans, 9–10.
(38.) John Vincent Bellezza, Spirit-mediums, Sacred Mountains and Related Bon Textual Traditions in Upper Tibet: Calling Down the Gods (Boston: Brill, 2005), 2.
(39.) Mona Schrempf, “Taming the Earth, Controlling the Cosmos: Transformation of Space in Tibetan Buddhist and Bon-po Ritual Dance,” in Sacred Space and Powerful Places in Tibetan Culture, ed. Toni Huber (Dharamsala, India: the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 1999), 198–224.
(40.) Dan Smyer Yü, “Sentience of the Earth: Eco-Buddhist Mandalizing of Dwelling Place in Amdo, Tibet,” Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture 8, no. 4 (2014): 483–501.
(41.) David Germano, “Re-membering the Dismembered Body of Tibet: Contemporary Tibetan Visionary Movements in the People’s Republic of China,” in Buddhism in Contemporary Tibet: Religious Revival and Cultural Identity, ed. M. C. Goldstein and M. T. Kapstein (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 53–94; and C. E. Makley, The Violence of Liberation: Gender and Tibetan Buddhist Revival in Post-Mao China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).
(42.) John Powers, Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 1995), 154.
(43.) He again ordained the ten monks from Central Tibet, including Lume Tshülthrim Sherab (Klu mes Tshul khrims Shes rab), thus continuing the tradition line of Tibetan Buddhism.
(44.) Craig Watson, “The Introduction of the Second Propagation of Buddhism in Tibet According to R.A. Stein’s Edition of the ‘sBa-bzhed’,” The Tibet Journal 5, no. 4 (Winter 1980): 20–27; Gray Tuttle and Kurtis Schaeffer, eds., The Tibetan History Reader (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 80; and Sven Bretfeld, “The Later Spread of Buddhism in Tibet,” in The Spread of Buddhism, ed. Ann Heirman and Stephan Peter Bumbacher (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007), 341.
(45.) Geshe Sonam Renchen and Ruth Sonam, Atisha’s Lamp for the Path (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 1997), 15–17.
(46.) ‘Gos lo Tsa ba gZhon nu dPal, Deb ther sngon po, Vol. 2 (Chengdu, China: Si khron mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 1984).
(47.) Giuseppe Tucci, Tibetan Painted Scrolls (Rome: La Libreria Dello Stato, 1949), 2:652.
(48.) When the Mongols invaded Tibet in 1240, and at the behest of Köten (1206–1251), Sakya Pandita and his two nephews Pakpa Lodro Gyeltsen and Chana Dorje served as delegates of Tibet’s political leadership at the suggestion of the Abbot of Reting Monastery and went to meet Köten in 1247.
(49.) Shared K. Soni, “Exploring Mongol-Tibetan Relations: The Contribution of Buddhism,” Mongolian and Tibetan Quarterly 22, no. 2 (2013): 50–61.
(50.) Charles Orzech, Henrik Sørensen, and Richard Payne, eds., Esoteric Buddhism and the Tantras in East Asia (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2011), 24:548.
(51.) D. Seyfort Ruegg, “Mchod Yon, Yon Mchod and Mchod Gnas/yon Gnas: On the Historiography and Semantics of a Tibetan Religio-social and Religio-political Concept,” in Tibetan History and Language: Studies Dedicated to Uray Géza on his Seventieth Birthday, ed. Ernst Steinkeller (Vienna: Arbeitskreis für Tibetische und Buddhistische Studien Universität Wien, 1991), 441–453.
(52.) Tripiṭaka, meaning “three baskets,” is one of the most common and best known of the organizing schema of the Indian Buddhist canon. These three baskets are the Sūtrapiṭaka (basket of discourses), Vinayapiṭaka (basket of disciplinary texts), and Abhidharmapiṭaka (basket of “higher dharma” or “treatises”); and Buswell and Lopez, The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, 2256.
(53.) These are Buddhist texts. Abhidharma refers to detailed scholastic reworkings of doctrinal material appearing in the Buddhist sutras; Yogācāra emphasizes phenomenology and ontology through the interior lens of meditative and yogic practices; Madhyamaka has come to refer the middle way between extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification; and Robert Buswell Jr. and Donald Lopez Jr., The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press), 4, 1033–1034, 487.
(54.) Jia Luo, Social Structuration in Tibetan Society: Education, Society, and Spirituality (New York: Lexington Books), 76.
(55.) D. Seyfort Ruegg, “Indian and the Indic in Tibetan Cultural History and Tsoṅ Kha Pa’s Achievement as a Scholar and Thinker: An Essay on the Concepts of Buddhism in Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism,” Journal of Indian Philosophy 32, no. 4 (2004): 321–343.
(56.) Kublai was the fifth emperor of the Mongol Empire and a grandson of Genghis Khan. He founded the Yuan dynasty in China as a conquest dynasty in 1271 and ruled as the first Yuan emperor until his death in 1294; Thomas Laird, The Story of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama (New York: Grove, 2006), 146; and Thubten Samphel and Tendar, The Dalai Lamas of Tibet (New Delhi: Roli & Janssen, 2004), 86.
(57.) Rolf Alfred Stein, Tibetan Civilization (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1972), 82.
(58.) Lobsang Rapgay, “The Thirteenth Dalai Lama,” Bulletin of Tibetology 2 (1977): 26–28; and Melvyn Goldstein, The Snow Lion and The Dragon: China, Tibet, and the Dalai Lama (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 24–26.
(59.) Donald Lopez, Prisoners of Shangri-la: Tibetan Buddhism and the West (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 1–14.
(60.) Gray Tuttle, Tibetan Buddhists in the Making of Modern China (New York: Columbian University Press, 2005), 3–5; and Gray Tuttle, “Translating Buddhism from Tibetan to Chinese in Early-Twentieth-Century China (1931–1951),” in Buddhism Between Tibet and China, ed., Matthew Kapstein (Somerville, MA: Wisdom, 2009), 241–280.
(61.) Melvyn Goldstein, “The Revival of Monastic Life in Drepung Monastery,” in Buddhism in Contemporary Tibet: Religious Revival and Cultural Identity, ed. M. Goldstein and M. Kapstein, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 15–52.
(62.) Jeffery Paine, Re-enchantment: Tibetan Buddhism Comes to the West (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004), 165–208.
(63.) Dan Smyer Yü, “Buddhist Conversion in the Contemporary World,” in The Oxford Handbook of Religious Conversion, ed. Lewis Rambo and Charles Farhadian (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 465–487.
(64.) Dalai Lama, Ethics for the New Millennium (New York: Riverhead Books, 2001).
(65.) Dalai Lama, Beyond Religion: Ethics for the Whole World (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 2012).
(66.) Schaeffer, Kapstein, and Tuttle, Sources of Tibetan Tradition, 36.
(67.) Dunhuang Tbetan documents collected by Paul Pelliot are desinated “Pelliot tibétan” and those by Marc Aurel Stein are designated “IOL Tib,” meaning “India Office Library Tibetan.”
(68.) Schaeffer, Kapstein, and Tuttle, Sources of Tibetan Tradition, 58–72.
(69.) Schaeffer, Kapstein, and Tuttle, Sources of Tibetan Tradition, 65.