Tibetan Buddhism evolved from the Mahayana school of Buddhism -- Buddhism that relies on ritual, scripture and sacred objects to bring all souls to enlightenment -- with strong influences of Tantra, another branch of Indian Buddhism, and from the practices of an indigenous religion, Bon. Tibetan Buddhist teachings form a rich, complex net of beliefs that support and sustain the Tibetan diaspora, millions of Buddhists still living inside Tibet, and a global interest in the spiritual practices embodied by the fourteenth Dalai Lama, living in exile in Dharamsala, India.
Buddhism in Tibet provides a spiritual path to enlightenment with help from a pantheon of divine beings, the discipline of daily practices, and the grace of the physical incarnation of the Three Jewels of Buddhism: the Dalai Lama. The Three Jewels -- Buddha; his teachings, or dharma; and the community of the faithful, or sangha -- are at the heart of the practice. The Buddha is the exemplar of an awakened being, one who transcends the delusion of ordinary existence to live completely in compassion and understanding of the truth. The dharma is the entire, sophisticated body of knowledge about the meaning of life and the means to attain enlightenment. The sangha are monks, nuns and lay practitioners who live according to Buddhist dharma. Lamas, monks who have mastered the teachings after years of study and practice, are believed to be capable of transmitting spiritual insight directly to students. Lamas are so central to Tibetan Buddhist practice and belief that the practice is sometimes referred to as lamaism.
The Four Noble Truths and the Eight Fold Path
Tibetans believe in the Four Noble Truths taught by the Buddha: all life is suffering; the causes of suffering are ignorance and attachment; the end to suffering is nirvana, the freedom of perfect understanding; and nirvana is achieved by following the Eight Fold Path. The Buddhist formula for enlightenment is a wisdom path, a primer on how to live. The Eight Fold Path of right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration is a continuous effort to see things as they really are and to make choices based on compassion and the guidance of the dharma.
Mandalas, Meditation and Mantra
The physical manifestations of Buddhist practice embraced by Tibetans reflect the colorful and artistic Himalayan culture. Sand mandalas, elaborate geometric designs that include symbolic deities, flowers and other auspicious depictions, are painstakingly created from colored sand. A mandala serves as a focal point for meditation during traditional ceremonies and then is swept away to demonstrate the ephemeral nature of reality. Daily meditation is the basis of practice, the way to clear the mind and reach enlightenment. Mantras -- sacred phrases like Om Mani Padme Hum -- invoke blessings and inner stillness. Om Mani Padme Hum is a Sanskrit invocation to the Buddha of Compassion that defies simple translation but means something like: Behold! The jewel in the lotus! The six syllables, according to the Dalai Lama, "...transform your impure body, speech and mind into the pure body, speech, and mind of a Buddha." Mantras are chanted aloud in prayer ceremonies, repeated silently to calm the mind during meditation, and carved into prayer wheels which are spun to multiply blessings.
The Role of the Bodhisattva
A bodhisattva is a person who has achieved enlightenment but chooses to remain in human form to assist all people to reach the state of nirvana. A broader definition includes every individual, enlightened or not, giving up selfish goals out of compassion and the desire to liberate all beings. The concept of bodhisattva is important in Mahayana Buddhism, a central influence of Tibetan Buddhism. Bodhisattvas take a vow to remain in service until universal enlightenment is a reality. Revered teachers like the Dalai Lama are believed to be part of an unbroken lineage working, lifetime after lifetime, to benefit others. To be a bodhisattva is a great blessing and a great responsibility. It involves cultivating personal compassion, becoming fearless, remaining open no matter what circumstances arise, and constant adherence to the Buddhist practices in order to achieve and share deeper understanding of the true nature of existence.
Karma and Reincarnation
Humans are reborn throughout many lifetimes until they reach enlightenment and are admitted to nirvana. That belief informs all of Tibetan Buddhism, including the concepts of the tulku and a shadowy state called the bardo. Reincarnation, for Tibetans, means that the consciousness identified as a sense of self experiences a succession of rebirths, not all of them necessarily in human bodies. A human birth indicates great merit accumulated in former lifetimes -- the role of karma. Karma is simply the law that every action has consequences. Behave admirably and gain merit. Create harm and you will inevitably pay the price. When the consciousness leaves the body at death, Tibetan Buddhists believe that, in almost every case, it hovers in a state called the bardo, between death and rebirth. Some few enlightened beings go straight to nirvana but bodhisattvas and the rest take on a new form and return to the world of the living. Tulkus are great bodhisattvas who are reborn in a direct lineage to serve as exceptionally powerful teachers. They are generally recognized at a very young age, like the Panchen Lama or the Dalai Lama, and trained in a monastery to assume their leadership roles as adults.
- "The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying"; Sogyal Rinpoche; pp.82 - 110
- BBC Religions: Tibetan Buddhism
- PBS Frontline: Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism
- Exploring Religions, University of Wyoming: The Cosmos
- Sakya Monastery of Tibetan Buddhism: Intro to Tibetan Buddhism
- Shambala Sun magazine: The Bodhisattva
- Feng Li/Getty Images News/Getty Images