How Buddhsim Came To Tibet
by Ken Holmes
The first recorded Buddhism in Tibet was the arrival, in 433 CE, of four things: two sutras, the mantra om mani padme hung carved on precious stone and a golden stupa. Legend has it that they descended from the sky, in a casket, amid rainbows and celestial music, landing before King Lhatotori on his palace roof. The sixty-year-old king is said to have then become like a youth of sixteen and lived for a further sixty years, simply through the respect he felt for these sacred but unknown objects. Some more sceptical Tibetans see this as a poetic way of explaining the sudden arrival of these texts in non-Buddhist Tibet. It is, indeed, very likely that at that time Eastern Tibet was catching something of the widespread influence of Buddhism in China, where Kumarajiva was translating Buddhist texts for the later Ch'in dynasty. Western and Central Tibet were also in some contact with Buddhism, which was flourishing in nearby Khotan, through the Silk Route. Yet, despite his miraculous transformation, King Lhatotori stuck to his native Bön religion (a form of shamanism) and Buddhism gained no real foothold in Tibet during his reign. In any case, it would have been difficult for any new philosophy to spread in that land as it had no written language of its own.
The language problem was resolved in the seventh century, at a time when the Tibetan empire and Tibetan Buddhism were both being established through the activity of King Songtsen Gampo. Soon after his enthronement, he sent his trusted minister, the brilliant Tönmi Sambhota, to India, with the mission of finding a script and grammar that would suit the Tibetan language, this in order to establish a clear moral and legal code for his people and to give them access to the Buddhist scriptures. Tönmi returned some years later with an alphabet (probably based upon northwestern Gupta script), a grammar and many mahayana texts and tantras.
Songtsen Gampo unified the Tibetan tribes and made his isolated land cosmopolitan, bringing mathematical and astrological sciences from China, Buddhism from India, a legal system from the Turks and Khotan and trading skills from Nepal. Recognising how deeply entrenched was the native Bön religion, he had many Buddhist temples built in carefully chosen power spots throughout the land and sent his ministers to India and Nepal to seek rare statues he had seen in visions. He also made marriage alliances with neighbouring Nepal and China. His princess brides brought the rare statues with them - in particular his Chinese bride, who brought the famous Jo-wo statue, which had originally come to China from India. Songtsen managed to establish a powerful empire but not to establish Buddhism as a national religion.
The First Wave
His successor had even more problems introducing Buddhism and was forced to expel his Buddhist guests by his powerful ministers and advisors, all of which adhered to Bön. The following king, Trisong Detsen, was enthroned in 756 CE at the age of thirteen. For the next seven years he skilfully reduced the power of Bönpo ministers. Around 760, he brought the great Buddhist scholar of the time, Santaraksita, from India to teach Buddhism. On meeting the master, the king remembered their previous lives together, fostering the buddhadharma. Although Santaraksita's work bore some success, attempts to build monasteries and further the dharma were severely thwarted by negativity, with Bön priests blaming local natural catastrophes on the coming of Buddhism.
Santaraksita advised the king that only the powerful guru Padmasambhava could overcome this hostility and therefore the king sent an invitation for him to come to Tibet. Vivid accounts of his arrival from Nepal tell of him subduing powerful and often highly exotic local gods and demons, one after another, and binding them to Buddhism.
The threefold power of Trisong Detsen's royal patronage, Padmasambhava's spiritual presence and Abbot Santaraksita's vast knowledge enabled Buddhism to take a firm hold in Tibet. It was declared to be the national religion and, most importantly, the great monastic complex of Samye was constructed and the first monks were ordained. The gifted scholar Vairocana was sent to India to search out teachings and later supervised translations of Buddhist texts on a grand scale.
The Second Wave
For almost a century Buddhism flourished. The Tibetan empire flourished. Then both crumbled during the brief but catastrophic reign of the psychotic king Langdarma (838 - 841), who had temples closed or destroyed and monks banished. Chaos followed. However, some of the first wave (rNying.ma) traditions and monasteries were gradually restored in the climate of social unrest and invasion that marked the ninth and tenth centuries. The eleventh and twelfth centuries however saw a great renewal of Tibetan Buddhism.
Tibetan masters went to India to secure teachings, with Drogmi establishing what is now the Sakya tradition and Marpa establishing the Kagyu. Indian masters were invited to Tibet, the most significant being Dipankara, who established the Khadampa tradition which later gave rise to the Gelug order. At the same time many Tibetan and Indian scholars were industriously translating and re-translating the scriptures to establish a complete Buddhist canon in Tibet. The traditions originating in this second wave of Buddhism are known as Sarma (gsar.ma).