Buddhism travelled into Tibet towards the end of the 8th century CE when its King, Trisong Detsen, invited two Buddhist masters from India. Shantarakshita from Nalanda (in modern day Bihar, India) was the first to arrive, followed by Padmasambhava. Together, they translated several major Buddhist texts into Tibetan and built Tibet’s first monastery.

Buddhism in India had evolved considerably since the days of Gautama Buddha, assimilating the Hindu practices of yoga and tantra. Tibetan Buddhism combined the original, or Mahayanist practices with yoga, tantra, shamanic rituals and elements of an older Tibetan religion known as Bon.

Schools of Tibetan Buddhism

Among the five schools of Tibetan Buddhism, the Nyingmapa sect was the first, founded by Padmasambhava, followed by Kagyupa (988-1069), headed by the Karmapa Lama and the Sakyapa school, founded in the 11th century. The Gelugpa founded by Je Rinpoche (1357-1419) is the sect led by the Dalai Lama. There’s also the controversial New Kadampa, a Buddhist sect founded in the United Kingdom


The aim of all Buddhist sects is to end human suffering through attaining self-enlightenment. Tibetan Buddhism takes this further: all sentient beings are linked together in their suffering. True liberation therefore, can only be achieved when individuals work towards relieving the pain of others as well.

Practices and Rituals

Tibetan Tantra (Vajrayana) is an esoteric practice that sharply distinguishes it from other schools of Buddhism. Unlike other religions which urge followers to suppress or deny one’s primal urges, Tantra acknowledges them and aims to harness their power. Through careful practice and skill, these basic drives such as desire or hatred are cleansed of impurity and eventually come under control. Tantric influence brought in new spiritual techniques (mantras, mandalas), yoga, secret rites of initiation, rich symbology and a certain mystical element into Tibetan Buddhism.

Deities from other religions, bodhisattvas and supernatural beings abound in Tibetan Buddhism, resulting in the development of an art tradition. Indeed, Tibetan Buddhism lays strong emphasis on visual aids for meditation and greater understanding.

Lay Tibetans practice a more externalized form of worship, involving varied rituals such as chanting mantras, prostrating, going on pilgrimages and attending public discourses.

Temple ceremonies are a spectacular confluence of color and sound against the backdrop of arrestingly designed temples.

Life and Death

Awareness of the transient nature of life is one of the key features of Tibetan Buddhism. The true Buddhist should not fear death; neither should he desperately seek solace in base pleasures. Rather, death should be consciously acknowledged and accepted; this allows the Buddhist to arrive at a deeper appreciation of every living moment.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead is a sacred text that contemplates the state of an individual between death and rebirth, said to last around 49 days.

The Lama

Lamas or teachers are senior monks (or nuns). Lay Tibetans can also become lamas.  Well-versed in the sacred texts, a lama must also possesses the requisite skills for conducting rituals. Lamas are believed to be reincarnations of former teachers.

Once a little-known religion confined to its tiny nation, Tibetan Buddhism ironically achieved worldwide recognition when it was forced into exile by China’s Communists.  The acknowledged face of Tibetan Buddhism today is the current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth of his line, who lives in exile in India.