It received a boost when it was actively promoted in the 7th century
during the reign of King Songtsen Gampo (?- 649 or 650 AD), who
married a Nepalese Princess as well as a Chinese Princess, both
of whom were Buddhists. As part of their dowries, they brought many
Buddhist scriptures and statues to Tibet. As a consequence, Buddhism
began to infiltrate Tibetan culture and to displace the indigenous
Bon religion. However, during Landama's (or Lang Darma) reign, Buddhism
was banned and went into decline. The distinct form of Tibetan Buddhism
also called Lamaism developed during the 10th century and it became
firmly established from this time onwards. Tibetan Buddhism has
its particular form as it absorbed aspects of the Bon religion as
it gradually established its dominance. Tibetan Buddhism also spread
into neighboring provinces and countries. As the years passed a
number of different sects evolved and which were to develop political
as well as religious influence.
Tibetan Buddhism is based on Madhyamika and Yogacara and belongs
to the Mahayana school. It also utilizes the symbolic ritual practices
of Tantric Buddhism (Vajrayana) while incorporating features of
the indigenous Tibetan Bon religion that had continued its opposition
to the new faith. The influence of Tantric doctrines and Bon make
much more mystical than other forms of Buddhism. There is a strong
reliance on mudras (ritual postures), mantras (sacred speech), yantras
(sacred art) and secret initiation rites.
Tibetan Buddhism has many sects and sub sects of which the following
five are the most influential.
Tibetan Buddhist Sects and Characteristics
Numerous Buddhist Acts emerged after the mid-11th century, including
the Nyingma, Gatang, Sagya, Gagyu, Zhigyed, Gyoyul, Gyonang, Kodrag
and Xalhu sects. The latter five were rather weak owing to the lack
of political support. They were thus forced to join force or were
otherwise annexed by other sects, and as individual entities fell
into the oblivion of the long flow of history. The following five
sects enjoyed impressive popularity:
Nyingma Sect : The sect, founded in the 11th century, is also known
as the Red Sect and is the oldest sect of Tibetan Buddhism. The
sect paid great attention to absorbing the fine points of the Bon
religion and, at the same time, did its best to locate Buddhist
sutras secreted away when Darma moved to suppress Buddhism. Based
on its practice of Buddhism deeply rooted in the Tubo Kingdom of
the 8th century, the sect called itself Nyingma, a word meaning
ancient and old in the Tibetan language. Monks of the Nyingma Sect
wore red hats, hence the name the Red Sect. The Red Sect mainly
advocates the study of Tantrism. Its theory was strongly influenced
by Han Chine language Buddhism, and is quite similar with the theory
of Ch'an School of Buddhism in China's hinterland. Today, the Red
Sect is not only active in Tibetans inhabited areas in China, but
also in India, Bhuttan, Nepal, Belgium, Greece and France, as well
as in the Unite States.
Gatang Sect : The Gatang Sect, founded in 1056, primarily advocated
the study of Exoteric teachings, with later emphasis on Tantrism.
In the Tibetan language, Ga refers to the teachings of Buddha, with
tang meaning instruction. The combination Gatang thus refers to
advising people to accept Buddhism based on the teachings of Buddha.
Its doctrines were promoted far and wide and thus exerted great
influence on various Tibetan Buddhist sects. However, along with
the rise of the Gelug Sect in the 15th century, the Gatang Sect
dissolved with its monks and monasteries merging with the former.
Sagya Sect : Sagya means "white land'' in the Tibetan language.
The Sagya Sect, founded in 1703, derived its name from the fact
that the Sagya Monastery, the sect's most important monastery, is
grayish white in color. Enclosures in the sect's monasteries are
painted with red, white and black stripes, which respectively symbolize
the Wisdom Buddha, the Goddess of Mercy and the Diamond Hand Buddha.
Hence, the sect is also known as the Stripe Sect. The ever increasing
influence of the sect and the expansion of feudal forces throughout
its formation led to the increasing fame of the "five Sagya
Sect Forefathers''. The Fourth Forefather Sapan Gonggar Gyaincain
was summoned to Liangzhou in 1247 by the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368)
ruler to dialup matters concerning Tibet pledging allegiance to
the Yuan Dynasty. This was followed by Sapan bringing various feudal
forces in Tibet under control of the Mongols. Following the death
of Sapan, Pagan, the Fifth Forefather of the Sagya Sect, emerged
as a high-ranking official in the Yuan court. Pagba Was granted
honorary titles such as "State Tutor", ''Imperial Tutor''
and ''Great Treasure Prince of Dharma.'' Thereafter, the Sagya Sect
emerged as the Yuan Dynasty representative in Tibet. During the
Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) , Gonggar Zhaxi, an eminent monk with the
Sagya Sect, journeyed to Nanjing, capital of the Ming Dynasty, to
pay homage to Emperor Yongle. Gongar was granted an honorary title
as the "Mahayana Prince of Dharma'', one of the three Princes
Gagyu Sect : The Gagyu Sect, founded in the 11th century, stresses
the study of Tantrism and advocates that Tantrist tenets be passed
down orally from one generation to another. Hence the name Gagyu,
which in the Tibetan language means "passing down orally.''
Marba and Milha Riba, the founders of the Gagyu Sect, wore white
monk robes when practicing Buddhism, leading to the name White Sect.
In the early years, the White Sect was divided into the Xangba Gagyu
which declined in the 14th and to 15th centuries, and the Tabo Gagyu.
The Tabo Gagyu was powerful and its branch sects were either in
power in their respective localities or otherwise dominant amongst
Gelug Sect : The Gelug Sect, founded in 1409, was the most famous
Buddhist sect in Tibetan history dating to the 15th century. The
sect was founded during the reform of Tibetan Buddhism initiated
by Zongkapa. Zongkapa himself was born at a time when the Pagmo
Zhuba replaced the Sagya Regime in power. At that time, upper-class
monks involved in political and economic power struggle led a decadent
life, and rapidly lost popularity with society. Faced with this
situation, Zongkapa called for efforts to follow Buddhist tenets.
He proceeded to undertake lecture tours in many areas and wrote
books accusing decadent monks of failing to abide by Buddhist tenets.
Zongkapa spared no effort to press ahead with Buddhist reform. For
example, in the first month of 1409 according to Tibetan calendar,
Zongkapa initiated the Grand Summons Ceremony in Lhasa's Jokhang
Monastery. The ceremony remains in practice even today. This effort
was closely followed by the construction of the famous Gandain Monastery
and the founding of the Gelug Sect which was famous for its strict
adherence to commandments. The Tibetan language meaning of Gelug
is "commandments''. Zongkapa and his followers wore yellow
hats, and thus the Gelug Sect is also known as the Yellow Sect.
Since its founding, the Yellow Sect has built the Zhaibung, Sera,
Tashilhungpo, Tar and Labrang monasteries, which join the Gandain
Monastery as the six major monasteries of the Gelug Sect. The Yellow
Sect is also known for formation of the two largest Living Buddha
reincarnation systems - the Dalai and Panchen systems.
Dalai Lama & Panchen Lama
The Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, both of the Gelugpa lineage
of Tibetan Buddhism, are at the top of the lama hierarchy in old
Tibet. They used to be the religious and administrative leaders
of the Tibetans. The Dalai Lama ruled Utsang (front Tibet) while
the Panchen Lama ruled Tsang (rear Tibet).
The title "Dalai Lama", meaning Ocean Of Wisdom, was first
conferred on Sonam Gyatso by the Mongol King Altan Khan who was
converted to Tibetan Buddhism in 1578. Sonam Gyatso is the third
Dalai Lama since his two predecessors were posthumously conferred
as the first and the second Dalai Lamas. The practice of conferring
the title "Dalai Lama" became established when Emperor
Shunzhi of the Qing Dynasty bestowed the same title on the Great
Fifth (the fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Losang Gyatso) in 1653. The
Dalai Lama is considered the incarnation of Chenrezi (Avalokiteshvarra),
Bodhisattva of Compassion and the patron deity of Tibet by Tibetan
people. There have been fourteen Dalai Lamas, each one considered
a reincarnation of the former. The fourth is of Mongol descent and
the sixth is Menpa while the rest are all Tibetans. The present
Dalai Lama lives in India.
The title of Panchen, Great Scholar, was conferred on Lobsang Choekyi
Gyaltsen by Qosot Mongol Gushri Khan in 1645. Lobsang Choekyi Gyaltsen
was the fourth Panchen Lama and the three abbots before him were
conferred the title posthumously. In 1713, Emperor Kangxi conferred
the title of Panchen Erdeni (Erdeni, in Manchurian, means treasure)
to the fifth Panchen Lama. The Panchen Lama is esteemed as the incarnation
of Amitayus, Buddha of Infinite Light. Tashilungpo Monastery is
the traditional seat of the Panchen Lamas. Till now there have been
eleven Panchen Lamas. The eleventh Panchen, identified in 1995,
now lives in China.
The Reincarnation of the Living Buddhas
The reincarnation system for the Living Buddhas is the main point
distinguishing tibetan Buddhism from other forms of Buddhism. What
led to the introduction of the system?
The term Living Buddha emerged in the early Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368)
when Emperor Kublai Khan honored Pagba, head of the Sagya Sect,
by granting him the title "Buddha of the Western Paradise.''
Thereafter, eminent Tibetan monks we distinguished themselves in
the practice of Buddhism were referred to as ''Living Buddhas.''
However, the term Living Buddha was not recognized as a special
title for a monk who became the successor of the deceaed leader
of a monastery until the eventual introduction of the Living Buddha
In 1252 , Kublai Khan granted an audience to Pagba and Garma Pakshi,
an eminent monk with the Garma Gagyu Sect. Garma Pakshi, however,
sought the patronage of Monge Khan who proceeded to bestow him a
gold-rimmed black hat and a golden seal of authority. Prior to his
death in 1283, Garma Paksli penned a will to ensure the established
interests of his sect. The will advised his disciples to locate
a boy to inherit the black hat, with the instruction based on the
premise that Buddhist idelogy is eternal, and a Buddha would be
reincarnated to complete the missions he had initiated. Garma Pakshi's
disciples acted in accordance with the will and located the reincarnated
soul boy of their master. The event marked the introduction of the
Living Buddha reincarnation system for the Black-Hat Line of Tibetan
Buddhism. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Emperor Yongle honored
Black-Hat Living Buddha Garmaba as the ''Great Treasure Prince of
Dharma,'' the first of the three "Princes of Dharma.'' The
Living Buddha reincarnation system remains in operation today. On
September 27, 1992, the Curpu Monastery in Doilungdeqen County,
Lhasa, was the site of a grand ceremony marking the enthronement
of the 16th Living Buddha Garmaba. The event marked a new page in
th history of the Garma Gagye Sect.
Various sects of Tibetan Buddhism reacted to the introduction of
the Living Buddha reincarnation system by creating numerous similar
systems. During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) reign of Emperor Qianlong
alone, 148 Grand Living Buddhas registered for reincarnation with
the Board for Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs, with the number of
registrants rising to 160 by the end of the dynasty. The most influential
reincarnation systems have since been the Dalai and Bainqen Lama
The reincarnation system for the Dalai Lama was introduced in the
16th century. In the early years of the Qing Dynasty, the 5th Dalai
Lama journeyed to Beiing to pay homage to Emperor Shunzhi. The Qing
emperor granted him the honorific title of "the Dalai Lama,
Overseer of the Buddhist Faith on Earth Under the Great Benevolent
Self-subsisting Buddha of the Western Paradise.'' The title Dalai
Lama was thus established and is still in up today. The current
Dalai Lama was enthroned in the Potala Palace on February 22, 1940,
during a ceremony presided over by Wu Zhongxin, minister of the
Commission for Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs of the nationalist
government of the Republic of China (1911-49). The nationalist government
ordered that he be confirmed as the reincarnated soul boy of the
13th Dalai Lama without the requirement to carrying the established
method of drawing lot from the golden urn and that he instead directly
succeed as the 14th Dalai Lama.
The reincarnatin system for the Bainqen Lama was introduced in 1713
when the 5th Bainqen was granted the honorific title as "Bainqen
Erdeni," with Erdeni meaning "great treasure" in
Manchu. The 9th Bainqen Erdeni and the 13th Dalai Lama were at odds
during the period of the Republic of China, with the 9th Bainqen
Erdeni departing for China's hinterland. He later passed away in
Qinghai Province. The Tashilhungpo Monastery, the resident monastery
for the Bainqen Erdeni, located a boy by the name of Gongbo Cidain.
All signs pointed to the fact that he was indeed the reincarnated
soul boy of the 9th Bainqen Erdeni. Li Zongren, the acting president
of the Republic of China, issued a special order instructing that
the boy "be excuses from the lot-drawing method and given the
special permission to succeed as the 10th Bainqen Erdeni."
The grand enthronment ceremony held in the Tar Monastery on August
10, 1949, was presided over by Guan Jieyu, minister of the Commission
for Mongolian and Tibean Affairs of the nationalist government of
the Republic of China.
The Gelug Sect of Tibetan Buddhism came to power in Tibet in the
17th century and the Living Buddha reincarnation system became a
bone of contention with the upper class in Tibet. In 1793, as part
of an effort to turn the tide by overcoming drawbacks characteristic
of soul boys nominated from the same tribes, the Qing government
promulgated the 29-Article Ordinance for the More Efficient Governing
of Tibet. Article one of the Ordinances stipulates: In order to
ensure the Yellow Sect continues to flourish, the Grand Emperor
bestows it with a golden urn and ivory slips for use in confirming
the reincarnated soul boy of a deceased Living Buddha. For this
purpose, four major Buddhist Guardians will be summoned; the name's
of candidates, as well as their birth years, will be written on
the ivory slips in the three languages - Manchu, Han chinese and
Tibetan; the ivory slips will be placed into the golden urn and
learned Living Buddhas will pray for seven days before various Hotogtu
Living Buddhas and High Commisioners stationed in Tibet by the Central
Government officially confirm the reincarnated soul boy by drawing
a lot from the golden urn in front of the statue of Sakyamuni in
the Jokhang Monastery.
The system of drawing lot from the golden urn thus perfected the
Living Buddha reincarnation system of Tibetan Buddhism. Following
the lot-drawing ceremony, the High Commissioners and leaders of
the soul boy search group were required to report the result to
the Central Government. The enthronement ceremony was held following
the approval of the Central Government.
The Qing court commissioned artisans to create two golden urns.
One go1den urn, used to confirm reincarnations of the Dalai Lama
and the Bainqen Erdeni, is currently housed in the Potala Palace
in Lhasa. The other, used to confirm the reincarnations of Mongolian
and Tibetan Grand Living Buddhas and hotogtu Living Buddhas, is
housed in the Yonghegong Lamasery in Beijing.
"Tibetan Buddhism: Tantra" Glossary
Tantras are writings that appeared in India in about the seventh
century and form the scriptural basis for Tibetan Buddhism (and
the Vajrayana tradition). They were passed on from master to disciple
and display an emphasis on ritual, mantras and visualizations.
Tibetan Tantra (also known as the Vajrayana) incorporates the major
aspects of both the Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhist teachings. It
is basically an esoteric extension on these themes. Hinayana and
Mahayana are two schools of Buddhist practice that have basically
similar goals and techniques but somewhat differing philosophies.
For instance, Theravadin Buddhism (known for its Vipassana meditation)
is a Hinayana teaching and Zen Buddhism is a Mahayana teaching.
Tantra itself has various schools which can be grouped by the relative
emphasis they place on working with exoteric and esoteric practices.
The tantric path includes the following steps:
Lamrim (literally, stages of the path). These are indispensable
topics for reflection and contemplation and also the meditations
and activities that should naturally follow on from them. The Lamrim
embodies the necessary prerequisites for tantra. It is set out as
a progressive set of steps.
Relying upon a Spiritual Guide (learning from someone already on
The Preciousness of Human Life (the importance of using life for
something valuable )
Death and Impermanence (uncertainty of death and the unsatisfactory
nature of this world)
The Danger of being Reborn in a Lower Realm
Taking Refuge from Samsara (the cycle of endless grasping and eventual
Karma ( the law of cause and effect which works in this world as
well as at esoteric levels )
Developing Renunciation for Samsara (integrating spiritual understanding
Developing Equanimity (accepting, and seeing past, both good and
Recognizing that all Beings are as Precious as our Mothers (the
beginnings of bodhichitta )
Remembering the Kindness of Others
Equalizing Self and Others (realizing that we all want, and deserve,
to be happy)
The Disadvantage of Self-Cherishing
The Advantage of Cherishing Others (loosening the hold of ego through
Exchanging Self with others (this is the core practice for developing
bodhichitta--it involves developing the wish to voluntarily take
on others' problems and freely give them one's own happiness in
exchange. A sketch of the technique is as follows: breathe in others'
woes as black smoke--let it settle into the heart, then breathe
out all one's own happiness as white light--let it expand to fill
all the cosmos. A practitioner should imagine and rejoice at the
effect of both the in- and out-breath. For, on the in-breath, the
reality and weight of all the problems in this world sink into the
heart and help to dissolve the ego. Likewise, the out-breath brings
relief and joy to all others. )
Developing Great Compassion
Taking Responsibility to Relieve Others' Burdens ("exchanging
self with others" in action )
Sharing One's Own Good Fortune with Others
Bodhichitta (the desire to attain full enlightenment for the sake
of all beings)
Tranquil Abiding (developing advanced stages of concentration)
Superior seeing (developing emptiness--that is, non-identification
with the personal ego)
Common Preliminary Tantric Practices These are the beginning activities
that are unique to the Vajrayana path.
Prostrations (physical prostration, visualization and prayer for
Vajrasattva Meditation (visualization and mantra recitation for
Mandala Offering (visualization and prayer for developing surrender
and gaining merit)
Guru Yoga (visualization, mantra recitation and prayer for developing
devotion and receiving blessings)
Generation Stage of Tantra These are preparatory practices that
utilise imagination and much visualization. They prepare the psychological
and psychic groundwork for the spiritual energy that will be developed
and harnessed in the following completion stage practices.
Beginning Meditation (visualization of oneself as a deity in the
centre of a mandala full of other deities)
Subtle Meditation (visualization of a body mandala which corresponds
to points on the subtle nervous system)
Completion Stage of Tantra These are very advanced meditations that
primarily utilise subtle energies known as winds prana and chi are
some other names for this energy). These winds normally circulate
throughout the psychic nervous system. When they are collected into
a central place they provide great stability and clarity for the
meditator. The normal collection point is commonly known as a chakra.
It corresponds to a node or plexus in the psychic nervous system
and acts as a link between the psychic, or astral, level of existence
and our normal level of experience.
Tibetan yoga employs a simplified version of the metaphysical structure
that is used in Hindu yoga. According to the Tibetan scheme there
are three realms to consider in spiritual practice. These correspond
to the Emanation Body (this world ), the Enjoyment Body ( the astral
dimension ), and the Truth Body ( a dimension that is much deeper--that
is, much more subtle--than the astral ).
Isolated Body, Speech, and Mind (progressive isolation of consciousness
from this level of reality)
Illusory Body (development of an astral body) Consciousness now
is based in the astral not the physical)
Clear Light (development of a very subtle consciousness at the Truth
Union or Full Enlightenment (linking the Truth Body consciousness
to the Enjoyment, or astral, Body )
Meditation on emptiness is integral throughout this practice. A
simple way to understand emptiness is as follows. In the physical
world, the personal ego has a relative span and will cease when
the body does. So relative to it, the soul, or Enjoyment Body, is
much more important since it will continue on after death. Thus
saying the ego or self is empty means it is better to ground awareness
in the soul and experience the ego as a garment, rather than only
experiencing the ego and having no real connection with the soul.
Thus emptiness is a statement about priority--we should consider
the bigger context of our experience in order to live more wisely
The same principle of emptiness applies as progressively higher
levels of reality are experienced. Hence, when the Enjoyment Body,
or soul, becomes a living reality for the meditator, she or he continues
to take it as relatively real and keeps grounding awareness in the
encircling context. The context, or deeper level, for the soul is
the Truth Body (which is just a more subtle version of the soul).
So as a meditator realises the Truth Body, the Enjoyment Body becomes
the new object for meditation on emptiness.
To recapitulate the entire process: at the beginning we have a body
and mind (the personal ego or self ). Next an astral body (Enjoyment
Body) is developed and it is as if the physical body and personal
ego have become the "body" and the astral body has become
the "mind". Next a very subtle body (Truth Body) is developed
and the final result is that the astral body becomes the "body"
and the Truth Body becomes the "mind". At each stage of
this sequence, the "body" is subjectively experienced
as being empty by the "mind".
What is the experience of emptiness like? At the beginning level
of physical body and mind, emptiness means that one does not identify
with any experience whatsoever. Any sight, sound, or other sense
is recognised and honoured for what it is, but it is not clung to.
Similarly, all thoughts and feelings are also taken in this way--as
being real and valuable, but not as being in one's possession so
that one does not cling to the experience of them. It is as if all
experiences, whether external ( in the world "out there"
) or internal ( inner thoughts, hopes, feelings, and desires ),
are viewed as clouds passing by. The reality is the sky which the
clouds float by in. And if the sky is noticed, it too is taken as
just another cloud wafting by. The result of this amazing relation
to one's experience is an enormous sense of relief, peace, and clarity.
At first it seems that one will die if one doesn't cling to experience,
but after awhile it becomes apparent that one continues to live
on anyway. We are more than just the experiences that we engage
The same process applies at progressively more subtle levels of
experience. The contents of experience become more and more amazing
and wonderful ( to our normal way of thinking ) but the most skilful
way of relating to them still remains the practice of mindfulness
( emptiness meditation ). So once a yogi creates an astral body
and can experience reality at that level, he or she works at non-identification
with the astral body. And similarly, once a Truth Body exists, meditation
on its emptiness continues as well.
Six Syllable Mantra - Om Mani Padme Hum
The mantra OM MANI PADME HUM (or HUNG) sometimes gives rise to fanciful
or mysterious translations. However, it is simply one name of Chenrezig
placed between two sacred and traditional syllables, OM and HUM.
OM represents the body of all Buddhas; it also begins nearly all
MANI means "jewel" in Sanskrit;
PAD ME, the Sanskrit pronunciation, or PEME in Tibetan means "lotus";
HUM represents the mind of all Buddhas and often ends mantras.
MANI refers to the jewel that Chenrezig holds in his two central
hands and PADME to the lotus he holds in his second left hand. Saying
OM MANI PADME HUM names Chenrezig through his attributes: "the
one who holds the jewel and the lotus." "Chenrezig"
or "Jewel Lotus" are two names for the same deity.
Each syllable allows us to close the door of painful rebirths in
one of the six realms composing cyclic existence:
OM closes the door of rebirths in the world of the gods (devas)
MA the door of the world of demigods (asuras)
NI the door of the human realm
PAD the door of the animal world
ME the door of the world of hungry ghosts (pretas)
HUM the door of the hell worlds.
Each syllable has a purifying effect:
OM purifies the veils of body
MA purifies the veils of speech
NI purifies the veils of mind
PAD purifies the veils of conflicting emotions
ME purifies the veils of latent conditioning
HUM purifies the veil that covers knowledge.
Each syllable is a prayer in itself:
OM is the prayer addressed to the body of the Buddhas
MA the prayer addressed to the speech of the Buddhas
NI the prayer addressed to the mind of the Buddhas
PAD the prayer addressed to the qualities of the Buddhas
ME the prayer addressed to the activity of the Buddhas
HUM gathers the grace of the body, speech, mind, qualities, and
activity of the Buddhas.
The six syllables correspond to the six paramitas, or transcendental
OM corresponds to generosity
MA to ethics
NI to patience
PAD to diligence
ME to concentration
HUM to wisdom.
The six syllables correspond to the six buddhas reigning over the
six buddha families:
OM to Ratnasambhava
MA to Amoghasiddhi
NI to Vajradhara
PAD to Vairocana
ME to Amitabha
HUM to Akshobya.
The colors that correspond to each syllable are:
OM : white
MA : green
NI : yellow
PAD : blue
ME : red
HUM : black.
Lastly, one links each syllable to the six wisdoms:
OM = wisdom of equanimity
MA = wisdom of activity
NI = the wisdom born of itself
PAD = the wisdom of dharmadhatu
ME = discriminating wisdom
HUM = mirror-like wisdom.
Benefits of reciting the Six Syllable Mantra
Extracted from the Daily Enlightenment
By reciting the mantra, the gates leading to rebirth in the six
realms of samsara is closed. This powerful mantra's sound and vibration
invoke the blessings of all Buddhas to liberate the sufferings of
all sentient beings. It removes negative karmas and defilements
like greed, anger and ignorance that cause rebirth in the six realms
of samsara namely the hell realms, hungry ghosts’ realms, animal
realms, human realms, demi-god realms and god realms. This mantra
is so precious and holy that it embodies the Buddha's holy speech.
By listening to it with faith and understanding, one is sure to
obtain good rebirths after death. If any animal or insect should
hear this mantra before dying, it would be reborn to Amitabha's
Pure land. While reciting the mantra with mindfulness and a proper
understanding, one is ensured of its effectiveness to increase positive
merits and the spiritual power of compassion. By dedicating the
merits of recitation to all beings and especially our loved ones
in times of pain and sickness, all sufferings will dissolve.
Buddhist Statues in Tibetan Buddhism
Visitors to Tibet will inevitably feel drawn to one or more of the
numerous monasteries in order to discover something of the mystery
and traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. These buildings house many statues
and illustrated thangkas [scrolls] and exotic murals, which at first
sight may be somewhat confusing. The Buddha has many manifestations
and there are helpful clues in the iconography to enable the viewer
recognize the more important of these.
Sakyamuni, the Indian prince who in the 5th century BC founded Buddhism,
is featured in almost every monastery. He is usually depicted in
a cross legged seated position upon a lotus throne. The legs will
be crossed with the right leg over the left. His hands are placed
in a symbolic position or mudra. Typically, the position will be
with the left hand open palm upwards, resting in his lap with the
right hand palm downwards across the right leg. This mudra is the
sign for calling the earth to witness. The figure will be draped
in a robe, often blue in color and which leaves the right arm and
right breast bare. The hair will be in a top knot. When this image
is in the form of a mural or in a thangkra, the head will be surrounded
by a halo.
Avolokiteshvara, called Chenrezi or Chenrezig in Tibetan, is the
Bodhisattva of Compassion. This figure is of great importance as
the deity is the patron saint of Tibet. The image, which can be
found virtually everywhere, is in a standing position and has many
arms and eleven heads, which are arranged in the form of a pyramid.
The hands are placed in a variety of mudras. Greatly revered by
all Buddhists, as he is said to postpone his own fulfillment until
he has helped everyone on earth to achieve emancipation, his head
was said to have spilt due to his concern for the wickedness in
the world. Each segment reformed into a complete head, enabling
him to look in all directions.
Tsong Khapa, is the founder of Gelugpa (the Yellow Hat sect) and
a great reformer. Depicted in a cross legged position, his hands
are raised before his chest in a mudra that symbolizes his teaching
of the law. Flanked on either side by a lotus flower, he may also
appear with his two disciples. He wears a yellow cap with long flaps
on each side.
The Four Heavenly Kings are commonly depicted as statues or murals
guarding the entrance to the monastery. They each guard one of the
cardinal points of the compass. They have fiery haloes and are shown
against a background of clouds. The East has a white face and holds
a musical instrument, the South has a blue face and carries a sword,
and the West has a red face and carries either a stupa or a snake
while the North has an orange colored face and carries an umbrella.
In some locations the items carried by these deities may vary.
Stupa in Tibetan Buddhist Temples
Stupa(Chorten in Tibetan) is an important religious monument in
Tibet. This unique religious architectural form expresses significant
religious symbolism and presents Buddha's physical presence. It
generally consists of three parts; a whitewashed base, a whitewashed
cylinder and a crowning steeple or shaft. The square base foundation,
representing the Buddha's lotus throne, symbolizes earth, the state
of solidity and five forces (faith, concentration, mindfulness,
perseverance and wisdom. The four stepped base may or may not have
openings. Above the base is a square or hexagon four stepped pedestal
which represents The Buddha's crossed legs. Seated on the base is
the cylinder, representing his torso. This symbolizes water, the
state of fluidity and seven essential conditions of enlightenment:
concentration, effort, equanimity, flexibility, mindfulness, joy
and wisdom. Sometimes a stupa has a shield like grillwork in one
face. This allows relics of high lamas, statues and other items
to be put inside. Between the cylinder and the crowning steeple,
there is a square box, called Harmika, which represents the Buddha's
eyes. It is considered to be the residence of the gods, symbolizing
the eightfold noble path. The crowning steeple, the Buddha's crown,
is usually hand-made of brass and/or covered with gold leaf. It
is segmented into 13 tapering rings, a parasol and a twin symbol
of the sun and the moon. Those rings, representing fire and the
thirteen steps of enlightenment, successively symbolize ten powers
of the Buddha and three close contemplations. The stylized parasol,
representing wind, wards off all evil. At the top of the steeple
is the twin symbol of the sun and the moon, which represent wisdom
and method respectively. A flaming jewel may be found atop the twin
symbol, symbolizing the highest enlightenment.
Stupas always house items that Buddhists hold sacred. Sutra scripts,
Buddha statues, Tsa-Tsas, hair clippings, fingernails, relics and
cremation ashes of saints are usually enshrined in stupas along
with jewels, herbs and other objects. They are sometimes used as
tombs in which mummified bodies of high lamas are buried.
Stupas may also be built in commemoration of high Lamas as a sign
of merit accumulation, or for their funerals. Building a stupa and
any other work done on it are considered of work of the highest
purity and merit. Buddhists always show their devotion by circling
the stupa clockwise. Doing this can also accumulate merit. The size
and style of stupa may vary, from the large stupas commonly seen
in monasteries and on road passes, to portable ones many Tibetan
people carry with them as sacred objects and amulets.
The fluttering prayer flags can often be found along with piles
of mani stones on rooftops, mountain passes, river crossings, and
other sacred places. Prayer flags are actually colorful cotton cloth
squares in white, blue, yellow, green, and red. Woodblocks are used
to decorate the prayer flags with images, mantras, and prayers.
Usually at the center of a prayer flag, there is an image of the
Wind Horse which bears the Three Jewels of Buddhism. On the four
corners of the flag, are images of Garuda, Dragon, Tiger, and Snow
Lion which are the four sacred animals representing the four virtues
of wisdom, power, confidence, and fearless joy respectively. Sometimes
auspicious Buddhist symbols can be found on the edges. In the blank
spaces between the images, prayers and mantras are printed. There
are two kinds of prayer flags, the horizontal ones called Lungta
in Tibetan and the vertical ones called Darchor. Horizontal prayer
flags are squares connected at the top edges with a long thread.
The less used vertical prayer flags are usually single squares or
groups of squares sewn on poles which are planted in the ground
or on rooftops. Tibetans believe the prayers and mantras will be
blown heavenward as offerings to their deities and will bring benefits
to the one who hangs them, his neighborhood, and all sentient beings,
even flying birds. However, if the flags are hung on the wrong astrological
dates, they will bring only negative results. And the longer it
hangs, the greater the obstacles which will arise. Old prayer flags
are replaced with new ones annually on Tibetan New Year.
Prayer wheels, called Chokhor in Tibetan, are very common religious
objects in Tibet. A hand held prayer wheel is a hollow wooden or
metal cylinder attached to a handle. Om Mani Padme Hung mantras
are printed or etched in relief on the cylinder. Attached to the
cylinder is a lead weight with a chain, which facilitates the rotation.
Tibetans use prayer wheels to spread spiritual blessings to all
sentient beings and invoke good karma in their next life. They believe
that every rotation of a prayer wheel equals one utterance of the
mantra, thus the religious practice will in return help them accumulate
merits, replace negative effects with positive ones, and hence bring
them good karma. The religious exercise is part of Tibetan life.
People turn the wheel day and night while walking or resting, whenever
their right hands are free while murmuring the same mantra. Buddhists
turn the wheel clockwise. Bon followers turn the wheel counter clockwise.
Prayer wheels vary in size and type. Not all prayer wheels are hand
held. It is common for bucket-sized prayer wheels to be lined up
on wooden racks along walking paths circling monasteries and other
sacred sites, for the benefit of visiting pilgrims. Larger water,
fire, and wind prayer wheels are built so that they are empowered
by the flowing water, the flaming light, and the blowing wind which
drive them, and can later pass their positive karma to all who touch
Travelers to Tibet may find mani stones and mani stone mounds almost
everywhere, in monasteries, beside villages, along paths and on
mountains. Sometimes they are decorated with sheep and yak horns.
Usually the universal mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum, is inscribed on
these smooth stone plates, pebbles and rocks. Images of deities
and great adepts and sutra texts are also common themes. Tibetan
people build these unique works of art to show their piety to their
deities and the Buddha's teachings. Upon encountering a mani stone
mound, Tibetan people circumambulate it clockwise as a prayer offering
for health, peace, and protection.
Tsatsa, with its origin in Sanskrit, is a typical Tibetan Buddhist
art form. Actually tsatsas are votive tablets in Tibetan Buddhism,
usually clay impressions made with a metal mould containing hollowed,
reversed image of a deity, a stupa or other sacred symbols. Tibetan
people believe that making tsatsas is a merit accumulating action.
As holy objects, tsatsas can be found inside stupas, prayer wheel
niches, holy caves and monastery altars or beside holy mountains,
holy lakes and other holy sites. Small tsatsas can be put inside
a portable amulet shrine (called Gau in Tibetan) and taken as amulets
by those traveling. Making tsatsa is a compulsory skill of monks
in Tibetan monasteries.
Tsatsas fall into different categories in accordance with ingredients
added, including plain clay tsatsa, which has no special ingredient;
ash tsatsa, which has ashes of late lamas added; medicine tsatsa,
which has Tibetan herbs added; humoral tsatsa, which contains liquid
produced in the mummifying procedure of late high lamas; and tsatsa
made by high lamas themselves or other celebrities. In addition,
however, there are some virtual tsatsas made. Lucky travelers may
find in some region that Tibetans are using their tsatsa moulds
stamping in wind, water and fire! Tibetan people believe everything
can be used to make the holy object, even wind, water and fire.
After tsatsas being molded, they are dried or fired to be hard.
Only after ritually empowered can they be used as holy objects!
Butter sculpture is another Tibetan Buddhist artistic visual impact.
The sacred offering is made from mainly butter and other mineral
pigments. The size of butter sculpture varies from several centimeters
torma to several meters tableaux, covering a variety of subject
including deities, butter mandalas, flowers, animals and Buddhist
motifs. Traditionally, butter sculptures are displayed on monastery
altars and family shrines as offerings. In the session of the Great
Prayer Festival, there will be a butter sculpture display and competition
before the Jokhang Temple.
Butter sculptures are modeled by hands. Since butter melts easily,
monk artists making butter sculptures need to work in cold conditions,
they have to dip their hands into cold water to make their fingers
cold enough then can they start to model. Monks take great pride
to do the religious work. A few tools, such as hollow bones for
making long threads and moulds for making leaves and alike, are
The butter sculptures in Ta'er Monastery enjoy the highest reputation
in the Tibetan world. The monastery has a butter sculpture museum
housing a collection of fine butter sculptures.
Frescos are a universal feature of temples and monasteries in Tibet.
There are over 200 in Jokhang Monastery alone, covering an area
of 300 square meters. The painters followed strict rules. For instance,
the Buddha must be solemn, and his body must be depicted in certain
specific proportions. Historical and folklore themes abound in murals,
and the paints used are similar to those used for Thanka painting.
Tangka is a kind of scroll painting mounted on silk. It has distinctive
ethnic features and a strong religious flavor. Its unique artistic
style is highly prized by the Tibetan people.
The origin of tangka can be traced back to the early Tubo Kingdom.
During the 7th century, King Songtsan Gambo united Tibet. To strengthen
political, economic and cultural exchanges with Tibet's neighbors,
he married Princess Chizun of Nepal and Princess Wencheng of the
Tang Dynasty. Around this period he ordered the construction of
Potala Palace and some other grand edifices. To decorate them, he
drafted a large number of people to paint murals. This greatly promoted
Tibet's art of painting. According to the Catalogue of Jokhang Monastery
written by the Fifth Dalai Lama, "The King (Songtsan Gambo)
used the blood from his nose to paint a portrait of the White Lhamo.
Later, while a statue of the White Lhamo was being sculpted, the
portrait was hidden in the abdomen of the statue." This is
the earliest record of a tangka painting. This tangka has been lost,
but we can conclude that tangka was a new Tibetan art form which
flourished during the reign of Songtsan Gambo.
Following the spread of Buddhism, Buddhist art also flourished.
Since tangkas are easy to make, not limited by the variety of buildings,
and easy to hang and store, they were used as a means to spread
Buddhism. From then on, tangkas and murals developed side by side,
becoming two bright pearls in the history of Tibetan painting.
Tangkas depict a wide range of themes. A considerable number of
ancient tangkas have been preserved. However, few tangkas dating
from the Tang and Song dynasties remain. The Sakya Monastery houses
a tangka entitled Sanggyai Dongsha, which contains 35 Buddhist images.
Its style is similar to the murals found in the Dunhuang Grottoes.
It is said to have been completed during the Tubo Kingdom, and is
a rare treasure. The Potala Palace houses three Song Dynasty tangkas,
two of which are kesi (a type of weaving done in fine silks and
gold thread by the tapestry method). A portrait of Palma Toinyoi
Chuba has a caption written in Tibetan at the bottom of the tangka
saying that it was made at the order of Gyaincain Zhading as a gift
for his teacher Chagba Gyaincain. A tangka with a portrait of Kungtang
Lama (1123-1194) was made in the late Song Dynasty. Another tangka,
depicting the life of Mila Rigba, describes Mila Rigba's self-cultivation.
Experts have concluded that it was made in the Tang Dynasty.
In the Ming and Qing dynasties, to strengthen its rule over Tibet,
the central government conferred honorific titles on religious leaders
in Tibet. In the Ming Dynasty eight religious leaders received the
title of prince, and in the Qing Dynasty the titles of Dalai Lama
and Panchen Lama were conferred. These measures were favorable to
Tibet's social order, and social and cultural development. In this
period, the art of tangka also scaled a new height. The number of
tangkas saw a remarkable increase, and different schools emerged.
In general, the tangkas of Eestern Tibet are noted for fine brushwork,
expertly depicting the inner world of man; the tangkas of Western
Tibet are similar to gongbi (traditional Chinese realistic painting
characterized by fine brushwork and close attention to detail) paintings
with their bright colors.
Very few tangkas bear the names of their painters, but some of the
most famous painters of tangka, such as Lozhag Dainzin Norbu of
Eastern Tibet, and Qoiying Gyaco and Jamyang Wangbu of Western Tibet,
were master painters of the 17th century. Some tangkas were painted
by talented lamas. In the past, monasteries were places of learning.
Many senior monks were not only masters of Buddhist theory, but
also excellent painters. Atisa, who entered Tibet to spread Buddhism
during the 11th century, was a master painter of Buddhist portraits.
It is said that he painted two tangkas. One is kept in the Razheng
Monastery, and the other, a portrait of Vajra-Buddha, is kept in
the Nietang Temple, which also houses a self-portrait of Atisa.
Gunga Gyaincain of the Sakya Monastery painted a portrait of Manjusri
Bodhisattva for the North Sakya Monastery. Tsongkapa, founder of
the Yellow Sect of Tibetan Buddhism, was also good at painting.
It is said that he once painted a self-portrait for his mother living
in what is now Qinghai Province. Religious leaders of later generations,
such as Ngaming Losang Gyaco, also painted tangkas for monasteries.
Most tangkas are painted on cloth, silk or paper, but there are
also tangkas of embroidery, brocade and applique. Embroidery tangka
is done with silk thread of different colors, depicting landscapes,
figures, flowers, feathers, pavilions and towers. Brocade tangkas
are woven on jacquard looms, with warp-and-weft patterns. Applique
tangkas are made by pasting figures and patterns of colored silk
on a background material; and kesi tangkas are like relief sculpture,
with a three-dimensional effect, something like a special handicraft
combining the art of painting with silk weaving. These fabric tangkas
have compact compositions, fine patterns and bright colors. They
are of close texture and very decorative. Some tangkas are inlaid
with pearls and precious stones. At first, most fabrics used for
making tangkas were made in the interior. Later, Tibet developed
embroidery and applique tangkas. There are also tangkas made from
woodblock prints, the working procedures including painting the
original design, engraving the block, printing, color application
Tangkas depict a wide range of themes taken from Tibetan history,
social life, folk customs, astronomy, the calendar and traditional
Tibetan medicine. Using paintings to reflect history is a remarkable
characteristic of tangkas. Tangkas depicting the general history
of Tibet are composed of scenes of important events at various stages
of Tibetan history, together with captions. Tangkas depicting dynastic
history portray scenes of historical periods, reflecting relevant
historical events. There is another kind of tangkas portraying the
life stories of certain personages (including religious figures).
Potala Palace houses a tangka of an atlas of celestial bodies. Each
planet is in the form of an animal, symbolizing one of the 12 heavenly
bodies moving in its own orbit. It is an important cultural relic
for the study of ancient astronomy and the Tibetan calendar. Norbu
Lingka houses a complete set of medical tangkas, totaling 62 paintings
and showing medical principles, the structure of the human body,
acupoints on the channels and collaterals of the body, medical apparatus
and pharmaceuticals. In the 17th century, during the reign of Sanggyai
Gyaco, famous painters from various parts of Tibet were summoned
to make a complete set of tangkas illustrating the corpus of Tibetan
The main theme of tangka is religion, such as portraits of Buddhas
and Bodhisattvas, scenes of saints expounding the sutras, temples,
religious personages, and religious stories. Such pictures make
up more than 80 percent. Even tangkas depicting Tibetan history
and science have a strong religious flavor. In general, a tangka
depicting a religious theme is divided into three parts: upper,
middle and lower, representing heaven, earth and the underworld,
respectively. The middle part shows Buddhas, such as Sakyamuni;
the upper part shows Bodhisattvas; and the lower part has pictures
of monks and guardian deities.
All big monasteries in Tibet house a considerable number of tangkas.
At Potala Palace a two-story building was built as a warehouse for
storing tangkas. On the 30th day of the second month by the Tibetan
calendar a prayer ceremony is held. Several thousand lamas from
Zhebung Monastery and other temples gather at Potala to hold religious
rites and various other ceremonies. Two huge tangkas with portraits
of Buddha are hung on the terrace. This is called "sunning
Tibet's murals while preserving the fine traditions of Tibetan painting,
have also absorbed techniques from the interior of China as well
as neighboring countries such as India and Nepal, to form a style
of their own. Over a long period of time, different schools have
appeared, the most famous being the "Maintang" and "Qingzi."
The former features compact composition and elegance, represented
by the murals in Jokhang Monastery and Potala Palace; the latter
features boldness and liveliness, represented by murals and tangkas
in Xialu, Baiqoi and Toding monasteries.
Mandala, called Dultson Kyilkhor in Tibetan, means container of
essence. The Mandala is a tri-dimensional graphical and geometrical
representation of the universe. It represents a combination of the
enlightened mind and body of Buddha and is considered to have great
power. These unique and exquisite works are usually made of colored
sand. However, powdered flowers, herbs and even precious gems are
also popularly used materials. Although Mandalas were originally
created as religious objects used to aid in meditation and decorate
and sanctify monasteries and homes, they have become appreciated
as artwork for their elegance and beauty.
Mandalas are usually symmetric with series of concentric circles
and squares. The center point is the residence of the deity, from
whom the Mandala is identified. Lines are drawn from the centre
until they intersect and form circles and squares. The finished
Mandalas have four gates, which symbolize a culmination of the four
virtues: compassion, kindness, sympathy and equanimity. Other Buddhist
auspicious symbols can also be included in the design. Form and
color application techniques are strictly followed in the process
of creating a Mandala to show religious meanings.
Tibetan Buddhism Symbols
It is common to see various religious symbols when traveling in
Tibetan monasteries, villages. They are used as sacred adornments.
The Eight Auspicious Signs, or eight motifs, generally symbolize
how to progress along the Buddhist path.
White Umbrella: a symbol of loyalty and faith and Dharma protection
from all evil.
Golden Fish: a symbol of happiness, soul emancipation, and salvation
from the sea of suffering
Vase: stores the nectar of immortality and symbolizes hidden treasure
Lotus: symbolizes purity and spiritual enfoldment
Conch Shell: proclaims the teachings of the enlightened ones and
symbolizes the spoken word.
Knot of Eternity: symbolizes the unity of all things and the illusory
character of time.
Victory Standard: the cylinder symbolizes the victory of Buddhism
over ignorance and death.
Dharma Wheel: symbolizes the unity of all things, spiritual law
and Sakyamuni himself. The wheel is usually flanked by two deer,
the first to listen to Sakyamuni's teachings. The male deer symbolizes
the realization of great bliss while the female deer symbolizes
the realization of emptiness.
Other common symbols:
Swastika: commonly seen on home walls or on monastery floors. Meaning
good fortune, it symbolizes infinity, universe and sometimes sun
and moon. Buddhists draw it clockwise while bon followers draw it
Kalacakra Seal: an adorning motif in murals or on monastery walls.
It symbolizes the highest initiations into occult knowledge which
can only be possessed by a few high lamas.
Wheel of Life: in murals or on monastery walls. The demon of impermanence
holds a wheel, segmented into six sections, which mean all realms
of existence respectively. These are: Heaven, demigods, humankind,
hell, hungry ghosts and animals. The hub in the center symbolizes
ignorance, hatred and greed, the three poisons.
Sun and Moon: usually seen on village houses and top of stupas.
The adorning motif symbolizes the source of light and union of opposites.