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Tibetan Buddhism

General Essay on Tibetan Buddhism

Tibetan Buddhism was primarily derived from the later Indian Buddhism of the Pala era, but also, especially in the early period when Buddhism was first established in Tibet (from the seventh to eighth centuries CE), Chinese and Central Asian Buddhist teachers were active in Tibet.  Some pre-Buddhist Tibetan religious traditions were incorporated into Tibetan Buddhism, and in turn, Buddhism had an impact on the formation and development of the self-conscious non-Buddhist tradition, Bon.
            Tibetan historians conventionally classify Tibetan Buddhism into two major divisions: that deriving from the early transmissions (the snga-'gyur) and that deriving from the "new" transmissions (the gsar-'gyur).  The early transmissions were sponsored and encouraged by the monarchs of the Tibetan empire between the seventh and ninth centuries CE until the state collapsed in the mid-ninth century.  Aristocratic patronage of Buddhism began again from the late tenth century: Tibetans travelled to India for religious training, Indian Buddhist teachers were again invited to Tibet, and new translations of Buddhist texts were undertaken.  In focusing on state and noble patronage, this twofold division perhaps rather obscures the extent to which Buddhism was gradually established in Tibet outside monastic centres but it does help us appreciate the organisational structure of the Tibetan Buddhist schools.  It was in the later period that the gSar-ma-pa ("new") schools were formed and developed strong monastic bases, supported by prominent noble families or local rulers.  In response to the new schools, by the fourteenth century, the followers of the "ancient" lineages, now called the rNying-ma-pa ("old"), had developed a common identity and some of their prominent lamas began to systematize and collate their teachings, although they never became an integrated or hierarchically ordered "school".  From the seventeenth century, they created larger scale centres, establishing or expanding several of their principal monasteries.
            The Tibetan Buddhist schools should not be thought of as different "sects": they do not derive from doctrinal controversies but rather, from different lineages of early Buddhist masters.  Each school has its own set of teachings, and there have been polemical conflicts between prominent adherents of different groups, occasionally related to political disputes.   The Jo-nang-pa, for example, were doctrinally attacked and finally lost their monasteries to the ruling dGe-lugs-pa, who were mainly motivated by political considerations, although the Jo-nang-pa religious lineages have persisted in the other schools.  However, the groupings represent traditions rather than sects: adherence to one school did not require exclusive allegiance and it was common for people to patronise and take teachings from lamas of different schools.  This feature also generally characterised the training of prominent lamas, and it engendered the interpenetration of teaching lineages and creative revitalisation and development within the different schools.  For example, the early bKa'-brgyud-pa was founded by sGam-po-pa, who inherited his main transmission of teachings from the yogin Mi-la-ras-pa, but who had also received a bKa'-gdams-pa monastic training, and the new bKa'-brgyud-pa represented a fusing of these separate traditions.  Many later bKa'-brgyud-pa hierarchs mastered and transmitted rNying-ma-pa as well as bKa'-brgyud-pa teachings.  Similarly, the Shangs-pa bKa'-brgyud-pa lineages were transmitted outside Shangs-pa establishments and thus survived despite the demise of the school.  Such influences between the different schools are extensive and it is not possible to fully illustrate them on the chart; however, some of the most important are depicted by the dotted lines.
            The Sa-skya-pa school developed from the teachings of 'Brog-mi, a Tibetan who had received teachings from Indian Buddhist masters, and its organisational establishment crystallised around the 'Khon family and the monastery founded at Sa-skya.  The 'Khon had maintained a hereditary Buddhist lineage from the early period.  They discarded some of their rNying-ma heritage on adopting the new lineage, but continued to uphold and still practise some of their "old tantra" teachings today.  The Sa-skya Khri-'dzin of the 'Khon family is the head of the school.  Sub-groups of the Sa-skya-pa were associated with different areas and specific Sa-skya-pa teachings, but the school retained more of an integrated structure than the separate bKa'-brgyud-pa branches.
            Different students of sGam-po-pa or their later successors, were responsible for the establishment of the major bKa'-brgyud-pa groupings, all of which can be considered as "schools" in their own right, since they had independent monastic hierarchies.  The 'Brug-pa bKa'-brgyud-pa further divided into a "northern" division (represented in Tibet and Ladakh) and a "southern" division (centred in Bhutan) after a dispute over the succession of the head lama in the seventeenth century CE.
            The bKa'-gdams-pa tradition, which focused on monastic discipline and the pure practice of the Mahayana ethical code, had a major impact on the other schools, helping to shape their monastic organisation, although it did not survive as an independent school in the long-term.
            The new dGe-lugs-pa school which was founded by Tsong-kha-pa (1357-1419) was an offshoot from the bKa'-gdams-pa school.  The dGe-lugs-pa secured political power in Central Tibet in the mid-seventeenth century, and the dGe-lugs-pa monastic hierarchy became an integral part of the pre-modern Tibetan political system from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries.  To some extent, their political role and the clerical ethos of their religious tradition distinguishes them from the other Tibetan Buddhist schools in the pre-modern period: they were relatively less open to innovation and influences from outside their own fold than were the other traditions.
            In the nineteenth century, in the context of increasing political centralisation, the Ris-med (non-sectarian) movement developed in the eastern areas of ethnic Tibet, with the aim of preserving the full range of religious traditions.  It affected all the non-dGe-lugs-pa Buddhist schools and even the Bon-po (there was a division between the traditional ("old") Bon-po who kept themselves distinct from Buddhists and the "new" Bon-po who became involved with the non-sectarian Buddhists).
            The Chinese invasion and occupation of Tibet from 1950 marks a radical break in the transmission of Tibetan Buddhism.  All Tibetan Buddhists (except, of course, those outside Chinese territory, such as the southern 'Brug-pa) suffered from the dismantling of the entire social, economic and political system, which was intertwined with the Buddhist religion, and furthermore, there was severe persecution of religious beliefs and practice, especially during the Cultural Revolution.  Nonetheless, despite their political powerlessness, the Tibetans have strongly resisted Chinese cultural imperialism, and have maintained considerable continuity in their Buddhist traditions by their reconstruction efforts, especially in exile.  All the major Buddhist schools (and the Bon-po) now have centres in exile, and many monasteries are also being rebuilt in Tibet.  Monastic organisation has changed dramatically in the radically different circumstances of modern India or Chinese ruled Tibet but the Tibetans have preserved much of their religious teachings and elaborate ritual and meditative practices relatively intact.  In this context in which the whole of Tibetan Buddhism is perceived to be under threat, the non-sectarian impetus has extended to include much of the dGe-lugs-pa: the present Dalai Lama is an ecumenical figure who has transmitted non-dGe-lugs-pa teachings to mass audiences.  In Tibet, Buddhist practice is restricted by the Chinese government, which attempts to direct and control its expression and to use it to legitimise its rule.  Despite such a limitation, Tibetan Buddhist reconstruction has been active in recent years and many exiled lamas have also helped to reestablish their monasteries in Tibet.


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