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The Buddhism of Tibet

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Buddhism came to Tibet in 127 CE during the reign of King Thothori Nyantsen. The Buddhist teachings spread and were assimilated into the Tibetan culture, becoming Tibet's state religion. The success of Buddhadharma in Tibet was largely the result of the efforts of great religious Kings such as Song Tsen Gampo.

During his life Song Tsen Gampo was to build two great temples in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet and to send his minister Thomni Sambhota to India to learn Sanskrit. From this mission, the Tibetan script was devised as Tibet had previously no written script of its own.

He was also to invite learned sages such as Kumara and Shankara from India and Shilmanju from Nepal to begin propagation and translation of the Buddha's teachings. The King himself gave instructions on the teachings of Avalokiteshvara to many followers.

Later on, another Dharma King, Trisong Deutsen reinforced the spread of Buddhism in Tibet by inviting the great adepts Shankarakshita and Padmasambhava to Tibet. The translation of Buddha's teachings into Tibetan was given great importance and as many as one hundred and eight Indian scholars were engaged in this work, along with the establishment of monasteries throughout Tibet.

Three generations later King Tri Ralpachen ordered that every monk should be supported by seven households. At that time, thousands of temples were constructed and many more Indian masters such as Jinamitra, Surendrabodhi and Danashila were invited to revise and standardise the earlier translations.

Buddhism in Tibet was flourishing up to the time of King Ralpachen's successor, King Lang Dharma, who was not a supporter of the Buddha's teaching. He persecuted Buddhism and emptied the monasteries, forcing monks to disrobe and often recruiting them for the army. Three great holders of the lineage of Shankarakshita, however, managed to escape to the most northern region of Tibet, where with the assistance of two Chinese monks they gave full ordination ceremony which marked the revival of Tibetan monasticism. Others arrived from western Tibet and the community multiplied, with masters later returning to central Tibet to revive Buddhism there.

In eastern Tibet, another revival was occurring due to the efforts of the then King, Yeshe 'O. He, like many of his predecessors sent out many young Tibetans, this time to Kashmir, to study and retrieve the Buddhist doctrine. Two such delegates were the great translator Rinchen Zangpo (958 - 1055) and Legden Sherab who returned to Tibet steeped in Dharma and spread the doctrine through translations, teachings and the establishment of monasteries.

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Perhaps the boon in re-establishing the Dharma was the coming of Lama Atisha to Tibet. Atisha was a great master of the Buddhist teachings and like the Buddha himself was an Indian Prince in the region of Bengal. He renounced palace life and went in search of spiritual instruction. For many years he studied with the greatest masters of India and himself became a great scholar and adept, but something was still lacking. In Bodhgaya, he was told by a statue of Tara to search for teachings on 'Bodhicitta' and thus undertook a perilous thirteen month sea voyage to Indonesia, where Suvarnadvipa, holder of that lineage resided with his monks. He was to stay with Suvarnadvipa for twelve years in a mutual teacher/ disciple relationship. Upon returning to India, he was appointed by King Mahabala to the Library of Vikramashila Monastery.

King Yeshe 'O was told of Atisha by Rinchen Zangpo and the other Tibetan masters who had returned from their studies in India and developed an unshakeable faith that Atisha would most benefit Tibet. He sent Gyatsoen Sengye and eight others to India to invite Atisha to Tibet.

Meanwhile, a feudal ruler, the Khan of Garlog heard about the King's plans and captured him, imprisoning and threatening him with death if he did not end his quest to bring Atisha to Tibet. King Yeshe 'O sent news to his nephew Jangchub 'O that he was happy to give his life for the Dharma, and that he should quickly send a delegation to India with all the gold he could find in order to bring back Atisha for the sake of the Tibetan people.

After a long journey they reached Vikramashila Monastery in India and met with Atisha, who thought deeply about the invitation. He thoroughly investigated whether it would be beneficial for the Buddhist doctrine and Tibetan people if he were to accept the offer. Checking with his meditation deities Avalokiteshvara and Tara, he found that it would be of great benefit to go to Tibet, but would shorten his life span by almost twenty years. Ignoring this, he decided to go to Tibet for the benefit of the people there.

Upon reaching that country, King Jangchub 'O requested Atisha to teach a simple, error-free and easy-to-practice Dharma. Atisha was pleased with the request and wrote the 'Lamp on the Path to Enlightenment' which in three volumes elucidates all of the meaning of the Sutras and Tantras and set the pattern for all the graded path 'Lam-Rim' texts found in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition to this day.

The Lam-Rim consolidates all of the 84,000 bundles of the Buddha's teachings into one systematic and easy-to-follow path. Amongst Atisha's many disciples was Dromtonpa who later consolidated Atisha's teachings and founded the Kadampa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. This tradition evolved into the Gelug school after the teachings of Lama Tsong Khapa.

Lama Tsong Khapa wrote extensive texts on both Sutra and Tantra, including three quintessential texts which expound the Lam-Rim in short, medium and great versions. He also summarised the Lam Rim in a famous text known as " Three Principal Aspects of the Path " which was revealed to him by Manjushri on the roof of the Lhasa Cathedral.

During this period, Tibet's contact with the Indian Buddhist tradition was restored, and the influence of different masters led to a diversity of teaching lineages. Gradually four traditions arose. These were the three new traditions of the Sakya, Kagyu and Gelug. The other Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the old school or Nyingma, stems from the earlier teachings of Guru Padmasambhava. By the turn of the sixteenth century, the power and influence of the Gelug tradition had grown enormously and the lineage of the Dalai Lamae undisputed spiritual leader of Tibet has strengthened Buddhism's continued role in the hearts of the Tibetan people to this day.

In 1959, with the advent of the Chinese invasion of Tibet, His Holiness the Dalai Lama sought refuge in India. A government in exile was set up to take care of education, culture, settlements, monasteries and the political issue of Tibet. In this way, significant steps have been taken towards maintaining the Tibetan cultural heritage. There were more than 6000 monasteries and nunneries in Tibet prior to 1959, however virtually none have been left undamaged and the majority have been completely destroyed. In exile, more than 200 monasteries and nunneries have been re-established in India, Nepal and Bhutan and hundreds of Tibetan Buddhist centres are functioning as religious and cultural centres in various countries around the world.

Source

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