History of Buddhism
Andrew Skilton
11/03/2010 11:25 (GMT+7)
Font size:  Zoom out Zoom in


Andrew Skilton


TIBETAN BUDDHISM IS REMARKABLE for having preserved until the 20th century the unbroken tradition of the monastic universities of northern India, a tradition which, since the Chinese invasion of 1959, has been transplanted to India and many Western countries. To understand the nature of this tradition one must look at its origins in the monastic milieu of the Pala dynasty of India, which provided the definitive model for the Tibetan monastic system. The Indian universities and their Tibetan counterparts stressed a synthesizing approach to Buddhism, in which an attempt was made to categorize and incorporate all previous doctrines and practices, reconciling all differences in a universal system that covered all aspects of the Dharma-Vinaya. Grasping this synthesis in its entirety required an encyclopedic knowledge of the sutras and sastras, or treatises, for which a training lasting many years was needed. Since the sutras themselves were so apparently contradictory and thereby resistant to synthesis, they had of necessity to be approached by way of the commentaries and treatises of the great acaryas, or teachers. It is for this reason that, in contrast to Chinese Buddhism, where individual sutras were made the centre of doctrinal systems, Tibetan Buddhism places it characteristic emphasis upon the sastras, giving them primacy over the sutras in the monastic education programmes.

Linked with this heritage from the monastic universities of India was the concept of an elaborate path structure incorporating the cultivation of the bodhicitta, practice of the Perfections, completion of the Five Paths, and the passage through the Bodhisattva bhumis towards full and perfect Buddhahood for the sake of all sentient beings. Spiritual progress was measured on a long and gradual path towards Enlightenment. However, contrasting with the complementing this sophisticated and complex systematization was the Tantric tradition, which, particularly amongst the mahasiddhas, challenged the complacency of the monastic establishment and incorporated non-rational, magical rituals into Buddhist practice in the service of the quest for Enlightenment. Whilst the present account concentrates on the history of the Tibetan Buddhist orders, these were largely centralized organizations, and it should be remembered that there was a parallel, though by its nature ill-recorded, history of Tibetan Buddhism formed by the localized activities of Buddhist monk-priests, shamanic in character and only partly overlapping with the concerns of the history of the orders.


Whilst there is some suggestion that Buddhism had begun a slow and piecemeal infiltration into Tibetan culture prior to the 7th century, the first significant contact occurred through the king Srong-btsan-sgam-po (pronounced song sen gam po; died c.650), who had two Buddhist wives, one from Nepal and the other from China. Moreover, this king was responsible for the considerable expansion of the Tibetan empire, incorporating parts of China that were already Buddhist. In the 8th century, the king Khri-Srong-Ide-brtsan (pronounced tree song detsun) founded the first monastery, bSam-yes (pronounced sam yay), by inviting Buddhist teachers from India to his court. The monk who responded to the invitation, called Santaraksita, a Yogacara-Svatantrika-Madhyamika from the northern Indian university tradition, had considerable difficulty establishing the monastery, and retired to India, from where the king next called on the services of a Tantric yogin called Padmasambhava, who was rather more successful than Santaraksita, since, it is said he was able to subdue the local deities who had resisted the efforts of the scholar-monk. The significance of this episode is open to interpretation. It is known that there were factions opposed to the king, who identified themselves with the pre-Buddhist religious tradition, centered on ideas of sacred kingship, and which resisted the introduction of Buddhism. Perhaps it also reveals the relative weakness of the sophisticated intellect when faced with the need to transform relatively gross cultural phenomena. Be that as it may, Padmasambhava later left Tibet, and Santaraksita was able to return and continue his work in training the first generation of Tibetan monks, enlisting his Indian disciple Kamalasila in the task. 

Even so, progress was not assured for the Indian missionaries, since Buddhist influences were making themselves felt from very different sources - namely Central Asia and China. The diversity of influences is well symbolized by the two wives of Srong-btsan-sgam-po, each a Buddhist, and each with accompanying missionaries from China and Nepal. By the time of King Khri-Srong-Ide-brtsan (8th century), relations between representatives of the two traditions were acrimonious, and the arguments were to be resolved by a debate, or series of debates, held in the monastery at bSam-yes. The Indian party, representing the gradualist approach to Enlightenment, was championed by Kamalasila. The Chinese tradition was represented by a monk called Ho Shang Mahayana, who appears to have put forward a form of Chan teaching that led to sudden Enlightenment by cutting all mental discrimination. Eventually the king declared Kamalasila the victor, and that henceforth all Tibetan Buddhists should be practitioners of the Indian tradition. Ho Shang was banished.

It is probable that the king’s decision was in part pragmatic, since the Indian party argued that the view of sudden Enlightenment undermined morality. If Enlightenment occurred suddenly, without the preparation of the gradual path that the gradualists advocated, then the practice of morality and the Perfections was pointless. This seems to have been a misrepresentation of Ho Shang’s true position, for other sources indicate that he advocated practice of the Perfections and full monastic ordination. However, it is possible that the king was concerned that the religion should be a civilizing influence upon his people, and therefore chose that tradition which gave the greatest emphasis to morality. This was not the end of teachings of the type espoused by Ho Sang, however, for very similar ideas occur in those of the rNying-marDzogs-chen (pronounced zog chen). This episode also illustrates the role that Buddhism was to play in bringing a higher culture to the Tibetan people. Hitherto a pre-literate culture, even the Tibetan alphabet was devised so as to permit the writing down of Buddhist scriptures. Kamalasila was to write three treatises, each entitled the Bhavanakrama, ‘steps of meditation’, in which he summarized the Path as understood in the Indian universities, and also criticized Ho Shang’s position. These, along with Atisa’s Bodhipathapradipa, were to become the main source for the Tibetan understanding of the gradual path.

For the first centuries of its development in Tibet the monastic tradition was characterized by considerable unity. Both then and thereafter, by royal decree, all monasteries observed a single Vinaya, that of the Mula-Sarvastivada. However, the monarchical system which supported this growth was not itself stable, and by the mid-9th century the last of the pro-Buddhist sacred kings, Ral-pa-can (pronounced relpa chen) had been assassinated (c.838) and replaced by his brother, Clang-dar-ma (pronounced lang darma). He vigorously persecuted the Buddhists in his realm, until he too was assassinated (in 842) by a Buddhist monk who wished to preserve the Dharma from further attack. This period of persecution is regarded by Tibetan tradition as marking the end of the first diffusion of the Dharma in Tibet.


Thereafter Tibet entered a phase of political fragmentation and internal division, during which Buddhism itself apparently suffered some kind of decline into lawlessness, accompanied by an upsurge of self-proclaimed siddhas roaming the countryside. By the 10th century the political situation had begun to stabilize, Buddhism began to slow recovery, and new monasteries and literary centers began to flourish. The old royal lineage surviving in the western region continued to support monastic scholarship and translation, a notable product of this being Rin-chen-bzangs-po (pronounced rin chen zang po; 958-1055), a prolific translator and builder of temples. However, more famous still was an Indian teacher, Atisa, who was invited to Tibet in 1042. His impact upon the recuperating Buddhist community was enormous, and he is therefore associated with the initiation of the second diffusion of Buddhism to Tibet. Unlike the first diffusion, this second phase was characterized by an almost total reliance upon Indian sources of inspiration. Among his many works he composed a highly influential treatise on the Path called the Bodhipathapradipa (‘Lamp on the Path to Bodhi’), and his disciples formed the first Tibetan ‘order’, known as the bKa-gdams (pronounced ka dam) Order, for which this was the root text. This second diffusion brought with it from the Indian universities the new yogottara and yogini tantras. Introducing this new and shocking material to the Tibetans, Atisa adopted a conservative policy, insisting that the sexual imagery and ritual were purely symbolic. Should a monk perform them literally, he would be in breach of the parajika rule of the Vinaya that enjoins total celibacy.


In the same period Tibetan Buddhists were also founding orders. The wealthy land-owning layman, Mar-pa, had travelled in India, where he had been instructed by the mahasiddha Naropa. Returning to Tibet with many texts he had collected on his journeys, he took pupils, among whom the most famous is the poet Mi-la-ras-pa (pronounced mila ray pa; 1040-1123). Mi-la-ras-pa was the composer of a large collection of songs in the style of the dohas of the Indian siddhas, and his biography has been a much loved source of inspiration to subsequent generations of Buddhists. Mi-la-ras-pa’s disciple, sGam-po-pa (pronounced gam po pa; 1079-1153) founded the bKa-rgyud (pronounced kaa gyu) Order, also known as the ‘red hats’, and was the composer of a lam rim (‘stages on the Path)’ text known as the Jewel Ornament of Liberation. The bKa-rgyud Order as a whole needs to be seen as an affiliated group of lineages, rather than a single unified order. Generally, the bKa-rgyud Order is associated with yogic practice par excellence, teaching the Six Yogas of Naropa, which lead to the mystic mahamudra, or ‘great seal’. Of particular note among its sub-orders is the Karma(-pa) Order (also known as ‘the black hats’), which is credited with the innovation (in 1283) of finding the reincarnations of deceased lineage holders, and training them from childhood to reoccupy the position they had held in their last life. This practice, possibly introduced from India, was adopted by other orders, most notably the later dGe-lugs (pronounced ge look) Order, with its lineage holder, entitled the Dalai Lama. Another contemporary of Atisa, ‘Brag-mi (pronounced drak me; 992-1072), who studied Sanskrit in Nepal, and then the Tantra at Vikramasila under the siddha Santipa, founded the Sa-skya (pronounced sakya) Order.

It must be emphasized that these orders were not divided by any schism, ie. differences over Vinaya, nor primarily by doctrinal difference, but more by virtue of the enormous emphasis placed, in Tibetan Buddhism, upon the guru or teacher (Tibetan, bla-ma; pronounced lama), and his relationship with individual disciples. This emphasis might be traced to Atisa and the Indian Tantric tradition that he represented, who affirmed that the direct instruction of one’s teacher should take precedence over instruction from the treatises. In this light the different Tibetan orders can be seen not as schools, in the sense familiar from either the early phase of Buddhism or the Mahayana, but instead as more or less loosely related lineages of transmission from guru to disciple. The transmission consisted of both ordination, initiation, and instruction. The main characteristics that serve to differentiate the orders are the texts which they hold to be authoritative, the yidams, or ‘deities’, used for meditation, and, in some cases, specific spiritual practices or teachings developed by bla-mas, or teachers, within that tradition.

All the orders used the same terminology of emptiness and the Middle Path, and doctrinally they showed little difference except in their understanding of the nature of ultimate reality, where they tended to emphasize either a positive or a negative description. This debate was discussed in terms of the gZhan tong (pronounced zhen tong) and rang tong perspectives. The gZhan tong (literally ‘other empty’) position holds that there is an ultimately existent reality, which is a pure radiant consciousness, but that in the unenlightened state it is defiled by adventitious defilements. In truth, this reality is not empty of its own being or inherent nature (svabhava), but is empty of the defilements, which are wholly other to it. In other words the gZhan tong perspective takes the Tathagatagarbha doctrine as paramartha-satya, the ultimate truth, even though it insists that it is true Madhyamaka, and take pains to derive its doctrinal stance from the works of Nagarjuna. This position contrasts directly with the rang tong perspective which is essentially that of the Madhyamka as interpreted by the Indian representatives of the school, viz that reality is not a really existing thing, but is the emptiness (sunyata) or absence of inherent existence, or own-being (svabhava), in all things, including the dharmakaya.

In the course of the 12th century, and in response to the influence of the new orders of the second diffusion, there appeared the first signs of an order identifying itself with the first diffusion of Buddhism, calling itself the rNying-ma (pronounced nying ma) Order, the ‘old order’, and retrospectively claiming the siddha Padmasambhava as its founder. It seems likely that this was a response to the critical impact of the new orders, and was an attempt to define the preserve the older teachings and practices. Generally, these teachings reflect the character of the first diffusion, which incorporated elements from Chinese and Central Asian Buddhism absent in the second diffusion. Conspicuous among these, and the focus of much rNying-ma practice, is that of the ‘Great Fulfilment’ or rDzogs-chen, which incorporates Chan-like teachings derived from Central Asian and Chinese sources of a type which were rejected after the bSam-yes debates of the 8th century in favour of the Indian gradualists. Otherwise, in the rNying-ma schema, the rDzogs-chen corresponds to the third and ultimate division of the anuttara tantra, also known as atiyoga. The rNying-ma Order also preserves many tantras derived from India in the early period, but which were thought to be apocryphal by the second diffusion orders, and therefore not accepted as canonical. Whilst also acknowledged by the other orders, Padmasambhava is especially venerated by the rNying-ma Order, which elevated him to the status of a second Buddha. He is also regarded as being responsible for the composition of numerous texts and teachings, which were left hidden, ready to be found by later generations of practitioners. These texts were known as gTer-ma (pronounced terma), and there were a number of famous discoverers of gTer-ma, who were known as gTer-stons (pronounced ter ton). It should be pointed out that such discoveries included not just the recovery of physical texts from hiding places, but the ‘discovery’ of teachings in the depths of the mind. The most famous of these gTer-ma is the Bar-do-thos-grol (pronounced bar do to dol), the Tibetan Book of the Dead. They also include the Padma-bKai-thang-yig (pronounced padma kaitang yik; ‘the precepts of Padma’) known as the Life and Liberation of Padmasambhava. Klong-chen-rab-‘byams-pa (pronounced long chen rap jyang pa) was a prolific and original rNying-ma author who lived in the 14th century. Doctrinally, the rNying-ma Order often emphasizes a gZhan tong position as the ultimate reality.

The rNying-ma Order remained free from the political involvements that after a while began to preoccupy the new orders - probably because of its lack of centralization (five out of its six main monasteries were only founded in the 17th century) and an underlying lack of interest in secular power. In the vacuum left after the demise of the old sacred kingship of the Tibetan empire, the new schools of the second diffusion assumed political power, and within several generations had become hereditary power brokers, in which powerful abbots passed their demesne to a son or nephew - clearly, strict celibacy was no longer observed at this period. Pre-eminent among these was the Sa-skya Order, which, Tibet having succumbed to Mongol domination in the 13th century, was given overlordship of the whole of Tibet. Since, within a generation, the Mongols became emperors over China too, the field of Sa-skya influence was immense. However, with the warning of Mongol power, the Sa-skya Order also lost influence, in particular to the bKa’-rgyud Order.

Closely associated in origin with the Sa-skya Order was an order that appeared in eastern Tibet in the 13th century, called the Jo-nang Order. Its founder, one Yu-mo, received teachings in Kailasa, and its systematizer, Dol-pu-pa, apparently lived in the Dol-po region on the border with Nepal. The Jo-nang Order adopted the Tathagatagarbha doctrine as the ultimate truth, treating texts like the Tathagatagarbha, Srimaladevi-simhananada, and Mahaparinirvana Sutras as nitartha, ie. of definitive meaning, not needing interpretation. In doing so, it upheld a gZhan tong, or ‘other empty’, position, in opposition to the other second diffusion orders, which maintained the absolute truth of the Madhyamaka perspective, in which the Perfection of Wisdom sutras are regarded as nitartha. While the Jo-nang Order occupied what was apparently an isolated position, and was regularly caricatured as Buddhist brahmanism by its opponents, it enjoyed a high reputation and considerable support for a period of several centuries. Indeed, two of its number were teachers of the great Tsong-kha-pa. Perhaps most famous of its members is the Tibetan historian Taranatha (born 1575).

The 14th century saw the finalization of the compilation of the Tibetan Buddhist canon by the great scholar Bu-ston (pronounced poo ton; 1290-1364), who completed work already begun at the monastery of sNar thang (pronounced nar tang). As there was no formally structured Indian Mahayana canon for the Tibetans to model their own collections upon, and as there was great need to establish some order upon the enormous collection of texts brought to Tibet over the preceding six centuries, they devised an arrangement which bore little if any connection with the arrangement of the Tripitaka of the Indian schools. They divided the materials they had into what they considered to be the genuine word of the Buddha on the one hand, called the bKa’gyur (pronounced kan jyur) or ‘translated word’, and on the other the words of commentators, which they called the bsTan ‘gyur (pronounced ten jyuri) or ‘translated treatises’. The former was divided between sections on Vinaya, Perfection of Wisdom sutras, other Mahayana sutras, and tantras; to the latter were confined the sastras, treatises, and the Abhidharma works of the Mahayana and non-Mahayana schools.

The youngest of the second diffusion orders was founded in the 15th century by a reformed called Tsong-kha-pa (1357-1419), who sought to return to the purity of Atisa’s original foundation. Thus identifying himself with the bKa’-gdams Order founded by Atisa, he reinforced the rule of celibacy, forbade the practice of father-son inheritance within monasteries, and generally excluded practices which had no Indian Buddhist precedent. In ten years (1409-19) he established three new monasteries, the first of the new dGe-lugs Order, near to Lhasa (pronounced hlasa), and the capital of central Tibet. He also stressed learning, being greatly erudite himself, and composed among many other things an exhaustive lam rim, or text describing the stages of the path, based on Atisa’s Bodhipathapradipa.

The dGe-lugs Order maintains that the Prasangika Madhyamaka represents the best account of paramartha-satya, ultimate truth, although it also emphasizes an extensive grounding in logic and debate as preparation for meditation upon emptiness. It later took up the practice of discovering reincarnations of the heads of the order, and the third of these, bsod-nams-rgya-mtsho (pronounced sirnam gyatso), was named ‘ocean’ or dalai (a Mongolian term) by the Mongol Khan, and thereafter known as the Dalai Lama (his two predecessors being post-humously given the same title). The fourth Dalai Lama was himself a Mongol, ensuring the future devotion of Mongolian Buddhists to the dGe-lugs camp, whilst the fifth Dalai Lama gained political control of Tibet in the 17th century, after crushing the power-base of the rival Karma(-pa) Order. Subsequently, the Dalai Lamas have been in theory the leaders of the Tibetan people, though a number have ruled through regents, prior to gaining their majority. A further victim of the dGe-lugs Order in the 17th century was the Jo-nang Order, whose monasteries it took over and whose treatises were systematically burned. This substantially accounts for the low representation of the gZhan tong view among modern Tibetan orders.

The remaining noteworthy development was the Ris-med (pronounced ree may) movement of the 19th century, originated in eastern Tibet, which sought to draw attention back to the Indian sources of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and reorientate the monastic education programme accordingly. Among its proponents were numbered ‘Jam-dbyangs-mKhyen-brtse (pronounced jamyang kyentsay; 1820-92), and Mi-pham (pronounced me pam; 1841-1912). In an attempt to reconcile doctrinal differences the Ris-med tended towards upholding a gZhan tong position which takes reality to be a really existent entity beyond the realm of rational thought and thereby undermines the ultimate validity of rational discourse and disagreement. 

Source: Andrew Skilton (1994), A Concise History of Buddhism, British Library, England.


 Go back      Go top        Print view       Send to frinend        Send opinion
Xuân Nhâm Thìn
» Audio
» Photo gallery
» Buddhism Dictionary
» Lunar calendar