Wood Valley Temple & Guest House

Tibetan Buddhism

Tibetan Buddhism



Shrine at Wood Valley Temple with 1000 Arm Avalokitesvara on January 1, 2019. Photo: Andrew Richard Hara

Shrine at Wood Valley Temple with 1000 Arm Avalokitesvara on January 1, 2019. Photo: Andrew Richard Hara

Buddhism as it has been practiced and taught in Tibet for centuries, is the religion of an entire population of people; their lives and culture are intertwined with this faith. As early as the 8th century, Indian masters travelled over the high mountain passes at the invitation of the Tibetan kings, to teach the Buddhist doctrine. Pandits and adepts from the University of Nalanda and other prestigious centers of learning came to Tibet, and in turn, Tibetan scholars and philosophers journeyed the distances to India to study the Sanskrit language and the Buddhist teachings. A systematic grammar and written script for the Tibetan language was developed from Sanskrit. Painstakingly, the words of the Buddha and commentaries of Indian masters were translated into Tibetan.

Tibetan Buddhism is a very complete form of Buddhism: Hinayana - the Vehicle of the Hearers, and Mahayana—the Vehicle of the Bodhisattvas are inclusive paths in Tibetan Buddhism. Within the Mahayana teachings and practices, there are the categories of Sutra or the Perfections, and Secret Mantra or Tantra. Buddhism as transmitted and practiced in the Tibetan tradition is a union of Sutra and Tantra. In Ceylon, Burma and Thailand, where the Hinayana schools are prevalent, the form that is practiced is the Theravada division of the Hinayana Vaibhashika (Great Exposition) school. In Tibet, this Path of Individual Liberation is practiced by observance of monks' vows, and the respective disciplines and precepts are taken from the Sarvastivada system, another branch of the Vaibhashika school. The difference is the 227 monks’ vows in the Theravadin and 253 vows in the Sarvastivadin system. Other Theravadin practices, such as methods to generate meditative stabilization, set forth in Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakosha (Treasury of Knowledge) and the 37 harmonies of enlightenment (a central part of Hinayana path structure) are also practiced in Tibetan Buddhism.



The Mahayana doctrine spread to China, Japan, Korea, and some parts of Indochina. The main emphasis on the Path of the Bodhisattva is the generation of the altruistic mind of enlightenment (bodhicitta), or the wish to attain full Buddhahood in order to be of more benefit to sentient beings. This aspiration is actualized in the practice of the six perfections. Tenets of this doctrine are expressed in the Heart Sutra and Lotus Sutra. The two schools of thought on the view of emptiness are Chittamatra (Mind Only) and Madhyamika (Middle Way). The Mahayana principles of compassion and wisdom as key elements on the path of enlightenment are complete in Tibetan Buddhism. (1)

Secret Mantra is often divided into four levels; the first three levels spread to Japan and China, while the teachings and practices of all classes of Tantra were disseminated in Tibet. The word mantra means "mind protection" (man—mind and tra—protect). This indicates that the practice of mantra protects the mind from ordinary appearances. By cultivating a pure view of the external world, as well as of one's physical, verbal and mental facilities, the aspirant can transform ordinary appearances and activities into exalted ones; not only in meditation, but in all aspects of daily life. There are four main schools in Tibetan Buddhism, each with subsects, monasteries, head and lineage lamas that uphold the various traditions. These are Nyingma, Sakya, Gelug, and Kagyu. With respects to terminology and emphasis, the four schools may differ, but all contemporary masters agree that the basis of the lineages remain the same. The purpose of any spiritual practice is to accumulate meritorious energy and to overcome defilements which are obscurations to liberation and omniscience.

The masters most associated with the Nyingma lineage, known as the early transmission school, are Santaraksita, Padmasambhava and Vimalamitra. The great translator Rinchen Zangpo and Atisha are noted masters in the revival of Buddhism in the Sarma or new transmission school. The Kadam school, the first of the Sarma lineages, was established by Atisha. The other schools include the Gelug, Sakya, and Kagyu. The founder of the Gelug lineage was Je Tsong Khapa; his two chief disciples were Khedrup Je and Gyalsap Je. The Sakya lineage was founded by Khon Konchok Gyalpo; his son Sachen Kunga Nyingpo was the first of five great masters who helped establish the Sakya Lineage. The others were Sonam Tsemo, Drakpa Gyaltsen, Kunga Gyaltsen (Sakya Pandita) and Drogon Chogyal (Pakpa). Marpa, Milarepa and Gampopa are the early teachers who are the renown in the Kagyu lineage.



The Dalai Lamas, the religious and temporal leaders of Tibet, have been a chief motivating force for Buddhism throughout Central Asia for centuries. The influence of the Great Fifth Dalai Lama was very important in that he consolidated the religious and political systems, limited sectarianism and eliminated the feudal authority that had been prevalent in 17th century Central Asia. The Thirteenth Dalai Lama travelled extensively throughout Tibet, China, Mongolia and India, teaching and promoting peace between the different nations and cultures.

In the Nyingma lineage, the classifications of the path and teachings are divided into nine vehicles: Sutra—Sravaka, Prateyeka Buddha, Bodhisattva; and Tantra—Kriya, Upa, Yoga, Maha, Anu, Ati. The teachings of Dzogpachenpo (Dzogpa—complete and Chenpo—great), often translated as the Great Perfection, are found in Atiyoga. In the great expanse of the Great Perfection, the Essence of mind is empty—pure from the beginning, its Nature is luminous clarity, and its Compassion is all pervasive.

Dharmasri summarizes the essence of Atiyoga: "Atiyoga is a means to liberate the meaning of primordial Buddhahood into its own state, and it is the nature of freedom from abandonments and acceptances and expectations and fears." (2)

The tantras in the Sarma tradition are listed under Kriya (Action), Charya (Performance), Yoga and Annutarayoga (Highest Yoga Tantra). Annutarayoga is further divided into Father, Mother and Non-dual tantras, which respectively focus on method, wisdom of emptiness, and both (method and wisdom) equally. There are many techniques in the tantras for purification and transformation; such as in deity yoga, where one utilizes the practices of visualization, meditative samadhi, mantra and mudra during the stages of generation and completion. The stage of generation "ripens" the mental continuum; herein are meditations such as "taking the three bodies (of the Buddha) as the path". In the stage of completion, the power of meditative absorption focuses on the yogas of channeling the "winds" or vital energy of the body to enter, abide and dissolve into the central channel. As a result, an extremely subtle mind arises to realize compassion and the wisdom of emptiness.

In brief, by outer, inner and secret means, the student can manifest the qualities of the awakened mind and activities of the enlightened ones. Outwardly, discipline and ethical behavior are of utmost importance; inwardly, cultivation of the altruistic intention and activities to gain enlightenment for the sake of all living beings; and secretly, utilizing the subtle energies of the physical body—channels, veins and essential drops in meditation to place the mind in the state to realize emptiness directly.

The path of the union of sutra and tantra offers immeasurable methods for accomplishment and rapid realization. By means of oral transmissions, commentaries and empowerments, the unbroken lineages of the teachings have passed from master to disciple until the present day.

"Although sentient beings are intrinsically Buddhas,
They are obscured by adventitious defilement.
Remove the defilement, and there is the real Buddha." (3)


1. Kindness, Clarity and Insight, the XIV Dalai Lama, Snow Lion Publications N.Y.

2. Buddha Mind, Longchen Rabjam's writings on Dzogpa Chenpo, Snow Lion Publications

3. Tag-Nyi Tantra from Kun-zang La-may Shal-lung, Paltrul Rinpoche, Diamond Lotus Publisher