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What is Tibetan Buddhism?

A brief historyLama Yeshe en monniken van de FPMT

Shakyamuni Buddha lived in what is now Nepal and northern India. His teachings spread from there to other countries such as Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, present-day Pakistan, and Afghanistan, etc. Around the beginning of the Common Era, they also went to China, and from there to Japan and Korea, and sometime later to Tibet.

In the year 817, the Indian master Padmasambhava (or Guru Rinpoche) arrived in Tibet at the request of its King, Trisong Detsen. This began what became known as the Nyingma tradition.

After 842, King Langdharma violently suppressed Buddhism in Tibet. And because of that, there were no ordinations of monks and nuns, or any sort of central religious authority in Tibet for more than a hundred years.

In 978, with the help of King Yeshe O, there was a reintroduction of Buddhism by several Indian pandits and Tibetan monks studying in India.

In 1042 a great revival occurred when Lama Atisha (ca 982-1052) came to Tibet from India.

In addition to the Nyingma tradition, the Kadam tradition arose, which no longer exists, but which exerted a great deal of influence on the development of other important traditions. These were the Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug schools that arose between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries. All these traditions basically follow the same Buddhist teachings, but they all emphasize their own unique practices and monastic traditions.

During this period of introduction of Buddhism to Tibet, in India the Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions coexisted, and you could find people training in the separate traditions in one monastery. The Vajrayana tradition became popular in Tibet. By the 15th century, Buddhism had almost completely disappeared in India, but was preserved in its entirety in Tibet due to its isolated location.

Thus, Tibetan Buddhism and the Nalanda tradition is in fact Indian in origin, and is found not only in Tibet, but also in Bhutan, Northern Nepal, Northern India, Mongolia, and some states of the former Soviet Union.

What makes Tibetan Buddhism special?

Tibetan Buddhism is the only surviving tradition in which Tantric (Vajrayana) Buddhism from India has been preserved and practiced almost in its entirety. In fact, the teachings contain all the major schools of thought within Buddhism. In Tibetan Buddhism, the Theravada sutras are sometimes described as the foundation of the house, the Mahayana sutras as the walls, and the teachings of the tantras as the roof.

One of the issues with Buddhism is that there are a tremendous number of scriptures and teachings, not only from the Buddha, but also commentaries written by the great masters of the past. So, it can be very difficult to keep track of it all. For this reason, methods have been developed in Tibetan Buddhism to describe and summarize the entire path of spiritual development. Called the Lam Rim teachings in the Gelug tradition and the Lam Dre in the Sakya tradition, these condensed teachings formed the backbone of the teachings in monasteries.

Tantric Buddhism, also called Vajrayana, Mantrayana or Tantrayana, contains very special methods of purification and rituals for the development of the mind, which can seem very confusing to an outsider at first. Tantric Buddhism uses a lot of symbolism, from images of Buddhas to elaborate rituals in which musical instruments are played, hand gestures are made, and special chants are done. However, all this ritual is meant to focus the mind on the complex meditation techniques. The rituals are based on a profound symbolism, and it is completely wrong to regard the ritual aspect as a kind of theater or show for the outside world. In fact, the opposite is true, because tantric practices and commentaries are kept secret from those who have no affiliation with a qualified teacher and the particular practice.

The Main Schools of Buddhism


The Nyingma school began with the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet by the Indian pandit Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche). The historical information of him is mostly shrouded in myth (it is said that he lived in India for 3600 years before coming to Tibet). He came to Tibet in the year 817 at the invitation of King Trisong Detsen. Especially in the beginning there was a lot of emphasis on tantric practice and less on the study of logic and philosophy. 

There have been significant developments within the Nyingma school over the centuries, including the suppression by King Langdharma after 842.
Some typical aspects of the Nyingma tradition are the practice of Dzogchen (examining the fundamental nature of the mind directly, without visualizations or images), and the presence of hidden scriptures or 'terma' from Padmasambhava, which were discovered by later masters.


This was an important school in the reformation that took place with the arrival of Lama Atisha in 1042. Its most important student was the layman Dromtonpa who started the Kadam tradition. This tradition no longer exists, but it left a strong influence on the later Kagyu, Sakya and especially the Gelug schools.

Many Tibetan teachers, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama, emphasize that present-day Tibetan Buddhism mainly corresponds to eleventh-century Buddhism as it existed in India.


This tradition started with the Tibetans Marpa Chökyi and Khyungpo Nyaljor in the 11th century. They had Tilopa (988-1069) and his disciple Naropa (1016 - 1100) as their Indian teachers. Probably the most iconic practitioner and master in this tradition is Milarepa (1040-1123), who achieved Buddhahood in one lifetime through incredible persistence in his practice. Milarepa was a student of Marpa.
The Kagyu school is both a meditational and a philosophical school.

Some typical aspects of the Kagyu tradition are the practice of Mahamudra and the 'six yogas of Naropa’. There are currently several sub-schools in existence: such as the Karma-Kagyu (with the Karmapa as the leader), Drikung Kagyu and the Drukpa Kargyu schools.


The Sakya tradition has its origins with the Indian master Virupa, who passed on his lessons through the translator Drogmi to Khon Konchog Gyalpo. For the occasion, Khon Konchog Gyalpo built the Sakya Monastery and started the Sakya tradition in 1073. In 1247, the Mongolian prince Godan Khan conquered Tibet and handed over temporary leadership of Tibet to Lama Kunga Gyaltsen (better known as Sakya Pandita), who was one of the first important figures in the Sakya tradition. In 1254, Chögyal Phagpa was invited by the Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan to teach. Kublai Khan made Buddhism the state religion of Mongolia, and he made Buddhism the state religion of Tibet when Me Chogyal Phagpa became the first religious and secular leader of Tibet. Sakya masters ruled Tibet for over 100 years. In 1354, the leadership of Tibet passed to the non-Sakya monk Changchub Gyaltsen.

Some typical aspects of the Sakya school are the Lam Dre (leading to the state of Hevajra) teachings and the fact that the lineage is passed down from father to son, and not based on the rebirth of the leader or an important teacher.


The Gelug tradition has its origins in the Kadam tradition and was founded by the Tibetan Lama (Je) Tsong Khapa (1357-1419). In 1578, Sonam Gyatso (1543-1588) of the Gelug tradition received the title 'Dalai Lama' from the Mongol leader Althan Khan. In 1642, the fifth Dalai Lama was appointed the temporal and spiritual leader of Tibet by the Mongol leader Gushri Khan. Contrary to popular belief, the Dalai Lama is not the leader of the Gelug tradition; this is the Ganden Tripa (main abbot of the Ganden Monastery).

Some typical aspects of the Gelug tradition: much emphasis on ethics and extensive Buddhist education in the monasteries, the main teaching is summarized in the Lam Rim texts (inspired by a text by Lama Atisha).

The Maitreya Institute follows the Gelug tradition.