Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism

by Khenpo Sherab Sangpo

Tibet is located in Central Asia. It is on the highest plateau in the world and includes Mt. Everest (Jomo Longma in Tibetan). The Tibetan territory is five times larger than France. There are more than six million Tibetans living in Tibet under the Chinese government. About four million ethnic Tibetans live in the southern Himalayas under the governments of India, Nepal, and Bhutan. There are approximately 200,000 Tibetan refugees living in South Asia and other countries, including those living with His Holiness the Dalai Lama in India. Tibet has approximately eight thousand Buddhist monasteries and most Tibetans are Buddhists, living simply as nomads, farmers, merchants, and artisans with an ancient, spiritual culture.

Our supreme Dharma teacher, Śākyamuni, at age thirty-five attained enlightenment under the bodhi tree at vajrāsana in Bodhgayā on the fifteenth day of the fourth month, 2,592 years ago (591 B.C.E.). Buddha taught the dharma for the next forty-seven years. Thereafter, the buddhadharma flourished throughout the world.

Since the eighth century, around 1,300 A.B.B. (After Buddha’s Birth), the Kingdom of Tibet invited many great Indian Buddhist masters, most importantly the masters of Dzogchen, including Abbot Śāntarakṣita, Mahasiddha Guru Padmasambhava, and Mahapandita Vimalamitra to bring Buddhism to the Land of Snow. In those times, the kingdom of Tibet sent approximately four hundred of Tibet’s most intelligent young people to India. Only about one hundred survived the difficulties to return as translators. These young Tibetans learned Sanskrit and Buddhism, and then invited more than two hundred great Indian Buddhist masters to Tibet to spread the buddhadharma. The most renowned translators were Thönmi Sambhota, Vairotsana, Yeshé Tsogyal, Kawa Paltsek, Chokro Lüi Gyaltsen, and Nanam Shyang Yeshé Dé.

Emperor Trisong Detsen and the Tibetan government offered an extraordinary amount of gold, jewels, and other resources for the purpose of bringing the Dharma to Tibet. Within forty years, most of the Buddha’s teachings, consisting of more than 370 volumes of tantra, sūtra, and śāstra were translated into the Tibetan language at the glorious Samyé Monastery, Pangtang Kamé, and Ushangdo in central Tibet.

As a result of the Buddha’s teachings, great historical and cultural changes took place in Tibet. For example, twenty-five of Padmasambhava’s disciples became mahasiddhas, eighty people in Yerwa attained rainbow body, thirty practitioners from Chubori became great meditation masters, and twenty-five practitioners in Sheldrak reached high realization.

Hundreds of hidden yogis attained buddhahood and many Tibetans became fully-ordained monks or nuns. In establishing Buddhism in Tibet, some Tibetans opposed Buddhism and there were many obstacles to overcome. Because of the miraculous change in their way of life, the entire population of Tibet gradually became peace-loving Buddhists. It is now widely known that Tibet has preserved all three yānas or vehicles of Buddhism. Therefore, it is important to acknowledge Tibet’s great contribution to the preservation of Buddhism in the world. The Vajrayāna brought from India to Tibet in the early eighth century is known in the Tibetan language as the Nyingma. Centuries later, the Kagyü, Sakya, and Gelug traditions of Tibetan Buddhism emerged. Through the Nyingma practice, from the beginning until today, many practitioners have achieved enlightenment of rainbow body.

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