Records of human civilization on the Tibetan plateau stretch back thousands of years, however Tibetan culture is only starting to be widely recognized. Even so, analysts focus on only their recent history and some of their Buddhist past. I hope that this section will give a brief, but comprehensive, explanation of the basic history of Tibetan Buddhism and its pre-Buddhist roots, prior to the Chinese invasions of 1912 and 1949.
Early Tibetan History
Bon: The First Religion of Tibet
Prior to the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet, the majority of the Tibetan people practiced an animistic religion called Bon. Bon originated in Olmo Lungring, a region west of modern day Tibet, it then spread east to Zhang Zhung and finally to Tibet where it took root and is still practiced by a minority of Tibetans today as well as by a significant percentage of Lepchas, the indigenous inhabitants of Sikkim.
Unfortunately, although Tibetan history stretches back thousands of years, writing was only brought to Tibet with Buddhism. In addition to this hindrance, due to persecution of Bon religion, Bon adopted many Buddhist practices (and vice versa.) So while we have a good oral history of Bon, no one knows how accurate it is and what the original Bon religion was like.
Bon lore states that the religion was founded by Tonpa Shenrab 16,000 years ago. Tonpa Shenrab has studied Bon philosophy in past ages in heaven but was born on earth to teach them. Similar to the Buddha, he was born a prince, married, had children but then later chose to renounce the palatial life he was born in to in order to spread the Bon teachings and bring the doctrine to Tibet. However, Tonpa Shenrab found Tibet to be inhospitable to the Bon teachings and he was forced to give up. He hid the Bon teachings throughout Tibet and died at the age of 8,200. Later teachers were able to teach Bon in Tibet and it took root and flourished.
Bonpos believe that Tonpa Shenrab and other Bon teachers were enlightened beings (similar to Buddhas) who existed prior to the birth of Buddha Shakyamuni. Bon is another path to enlightenment that was not taught by Buddha Shakyamuni but instead was taught by these sages. As an animistic religion Bon also has a great respect for nature and a desire to be in harmony with it. It also includes many spirits who must be satisfied. Overtime, Bon beliefs melded with the Buddhist beliefs brought from India and both Bon and Buddhism changed as a result.
Nyingma, the oldest of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism, is in fact very similar to Bon and the two religions practice some of the same forms of meditation and share certain teachers and deities.
When Buddhism started to gain popularity in Tibet, Bon was repressed by the Buddhist leaders in their attempts to establish Buddhism as a state religion. In order to preserve the teachings, Bonpo teachers hid terma, or treasure teachings, throughout Tibet. In 1017, Shenchen Luga uncovered many of these termas and brought about a Bon revival. Although Bon never overtook Buddhism in popularity in Tibet, Bon was openly studied for many years after this revival.
In 1727, Tibet was invaded by the Dzungars. A great repression of the Bonpos and Nyingmapas followed and many were killed. The Dzungars would make people stick out their tongues believing that speaking mantras would turn one’s tongue black. The Nyingmapas and Bonpos were known for their constant recitation of mantras and this test was part of the witch hunt to find them .
The fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Losang Gyatso, declared Bon to be a fifth school of Buddhism in Tibet, a stance which has been reiterated by the present, 14th Dalai Lama. However, Tibetans differentiate between Bonpos and Buddhists, referring to practitioners of Bon as “Bonpo” while calling members of the other four schools of Buddhism “Nangpa,” literally “Insider.”
Buddhism was brought to Tibet in the eighth century by the Indian saint, Padmasambhava (Tibetan: Pema Jugne, Guru Rinpoche) at the invitation of King Trisong Duetson. While Buddhism had been introduced by King Songsten Gampo a few decades earlier, it had not gained much popularity. Padmasambhava subdued the local demons (presumed by many to be Bon spirits, or a metaphor for the Bon priests themselves) and created Samye, the first Buddhist monastery. Trisong Deutson, Songsten Gampo and Ralpachen, all Buddhist are considered the three great kings of Tibet. Under their rule, Buddhism flourished and became the state religion of Tibet and Zhang Zhung and Olmo Lungring were annexed by Tibet. Buddhist scholars were brought in from neighboring countries to visit Tibet and teach Buddhist philosophy and many temples and monasteries were built. Tibet became so famed for its Buddhist teachers that the Mongol Khans and the Chinese Emperors both sent for Buddhist Teachers from Tibet to advise the courts.
However the forty second and final king of the Tibetan dynasties, Langdharma, brought an end to this religious honeymoon. Langdharma was a practitioner of Bon and was very bitter against Buddhism’s popularity. He forced monks and nuns to leave their monasteries and attempted to destroy Tibetan Buddhism through systematic persecution. Langdharma was assassinated during a ceremonial dance performance by an ex-monk, posing as a performer.
The Four Schools of Buddhism
Tibetan Buddhism is split into four schools (five, if one counts Bon.) While these schools follow the same basic philosophy, they have different teachers and often put the emphasis on different aspects of the Buddhist teachings.
This is the oldest of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism. In fact, its name literally means “Old.” Unlike the other three schools, Nyingma does not always have one set leader who is the most important lama in the school. Like Bon, the dzogchen form of meditation is very important, likewise they share many teachings and deities. Padmasambhava is very important in the Nyingma school and the school emphasizes practice, versus study of the sutras.
Sakya, meaning “Gray Earth” is the next school of Buddhism. Leadership is passed down through the family line versus reincarnation of leaders and its monasteries are distinguished by very high walls. The Sakya school is historically important as it was the school of choice among many of the Mongol Khans.
The Kagyu school was the first school to use reincarnation as a form of continuing teachings with the same masters. The first lama recognized as a reincarnation was the Karmapa, who is the head of the Karma Kagyu sect. The Kagyu sect includes many subsections, such as Karma Kagyu and Drikung Kagyu. The Kagyu school held power in Tibet for many years before the Gelug school took power with the fifth Dalai Lama. It is also the main school in Bhutan and Sikkim and predominant in south eastern Tibet. It is also the main school of Tibetan Buddhism practiced in the west.
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