Tibetan Buddhism

Tibetan Buddhism and Vajrayana

Tibetan Buddhism and Vajrayana are usually lumped together and often confused. Tibetan Buddhism is a form of Mahayana Buddhism that developed in Tibet and the Himalayan region beginning in the 8th century C.E. It combines Mahayana philosophy, meditation, tantric symbolic rituals, Theravadan monastic discipline and the shamanism of Bon, the indigenous religion. Tibetan Buddhism is, then, a form of Mahayana Buddhism that inorporates the practice of tantra (Vajrayna).

Tibetan Buddhism derives from the convergence of Buddhism and yoga which started to arrive in Tibet from India briefly around the late eighth century and then more steadily from the thirteenth century onwards. Indian Buddhism around that time had incorporated both Hindu yogic and tantric practices along with the classical teachings of the historical Buddha who lived around 500 BC. It acknowledged that there were two paths to enlightenment ( complete transcendence of identification with the personal ego ).

  • One path was that taught in the sutras according to the historical teachings (the sutrayana). The heart of sutra practice was based on morality, concentration, and wisdom ( not identifying with the personal ego ).
  • The other path, which has become the cornerstone of Tibetan variations, was tantric. This practice blended the sutra teachings with techniques adapted from Hindu systems of yoga and tantra.

It is very important to understand that the core teachings of the Theravada tradition embodied in the Pali scriptures are the foundation of the Buddha's teachings. Beginning with these teachings, one can then draw on the insights contained in the detailed explanations of the Sanskrit Mahayana tradition. Finally, integrating techniques and perspectives from the Vajrayana texts can further enhance one's understanding. But without a foundation in the core teachings embodied in the Pali tradition, simply proclaiming oneself a follower of the Mahayana is meaningless.

If one has this kind of deeper understanding of various scri-tures and their interpretation, one is spared from harboring mis-taken notions of conflicts between the "Greater" versus the "Lesser" Vehicle (Hinayana). Sometimes there is a regrettable tendency on the part of certain followers of the Mahayana to disparage the teachings of the Theravada, claiming that they are the teachings of the Lesser Vehicle, and thereby not suited to one's own personal practice. Similarly, on the part of followers of the Pali tradition, there is sometimes a tendency to reject the validity of the Mahayana teachings, claiming they are not actually the Buddha's teachings.

As we move into our examination of the Heart Sutra, what is important is to understand deeply how these traditions complement each other and to see how, at the individual level, each of us can integrate all these core teachings into our personal practice.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama, The Heart Sutra


Tantric practices are psychologically very profound techniques to quickly achieve Buddhahood. This is considered important, not for oneself, but because as a Buddha one has the best achievable qualities to help others. The motivation is: 'the faster I can achieve Buddhahood, the sooner I can be of maximum benefit to others'.

Depending on the class of tantra, extra vows may need to be taken on top of the Refuge and Bodhisattva vows. Also, specific commitments may be required like doing a specific retreat, daily recitation of mantras or a daily meditation practice. (For more details see the page on Tantra.)

In the 8th. century, the Mahayana and Tantrayana (or Vajrayana) traditions of (North) Indian Buddhism were introduced into Tibet. In fact, only in Tibet, Bhutan and Mongolia a virtually complete set of tantric teachings was preserved. The Tibetan tradition can also be found in the Himalayan range of Ladakh (Northwest India), Sikkhim (Northeast India) and Nepal, and in Mongolia (which is virtually identical to the Tibetan tradition). In China and countries like Korea and Japan, remnants of Vajrayana can be found.

The term Sutrayana is used within the Mahayana to indicate the non-tantric Mahayana teachings.

The Origins of the Vajrayana Tradition
Peter Della Santina

The three yanas

In tibetan Buddhism the path is described as being made up of three vehicles:

In Buddhist writings many different systems of belief and tradition are explained. These are referred to as vehicles, the vehicles of divine beings and human beings and the low vehicle (Hinayana), the great vehicle (Mahayana), and the vehicle of Tantra. The Dalai Lama

The Three Vehicles
Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche

The schools of Tibetan Vajrayana

As Vajrayana Buddhism spread from India to Tibet and then throuhout Tibet, various schools or sects developed over time. Although there is and has always been communication between and overlap of these traditions, Tibetan Buddhism today still consists of several schools, each with its own distinct set of practices and its own description of the path.


DharmaNet introduction
The Schools of Tibetan Buddhism

Introduction to the Five Principal Spiritual Traditions of Tibet
H.H. The Dalai Lama

For study resources on Tibetan Buddhism see the Learning Center's Study section.