Tibetan Buddhism, (formerly also called Lamaism after their religious gurus known as lamas), is the body of religious Buddhist doctrine and institutions characteristic of Tibet and the Himalayan region. It is a school within Tantric Buddhism (also called Vajrayana Buddhism), which in turn is part of the great Mahayana school.
Tibetan Buddhism may be distinguished from other schools of Tantric Buddhism by a number of unique traits including:
- belief in reincarnation lineages of certain lamas (known as tulkus) such as the Dalai Lama
- a practice wherein lost or hidden ancient scriptures are recovered by spiritual masters known as tertons
- belief that a Buddha can be manifest in human form, such as in the person of Padmasambhava in the 8th century
In common with other Tantric schools (primarily Shingon Buddhism in Japan), Tibetan Buddhism is esoteric and tantric. It is esoteric because it believes the religious texts or sutras can only be interpreted by a religious master. It is tantric because it believes the path to enlightenment is greatly accelerated by the use of certain external rituals and ritual objects (see below). Special utterances known as mantras aid in achieving a higher state of awareness.
In common with Mahayana schools, Tibetan Buddhism believes in a "pantheon" of Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and Dharma protectors. Arya-bodhisattvas are able to escape the cycle of death and rebirth but compassionately choose to remain in this world to assist others in reaching nirvana or Buddhahood. Dharma protectors are mythic figures incorporated into Tibetan Buddhism from various sources (including the native Bön religion, and Hinduism) who are pledged to protecting and upholding the Dharma. Many of the specific figures are unique to Tibet.
Rituals and ritual objects
Non-initiates in Tibetan Buddhism may gain merit by performing rituals such as food and flower offerings, water offerings (performed with a set of bowls), religious pilgrimages, or chanting prayers (see also prayer wheel and prayer flag). They may also light butter lamps at the local temple or fund monks to do so on their behalf.
In Bhutan, villagers may be blessed by attending an annual religious festival, known as a tsechu, held in their district. In watching the festival dances performed by monks, the villagers are reminded of Buddhist principles such as non-harm to other living beings. At certain festivals a large painting known as a thongdrol is also briefly unfurled — the mere glimpsing of the thongdrol is believed to carry such merit as to free the observer from all present sin (see Culture of Bhutan).
Tantric practitioners make use of special rituals and objects. Meditation is an important function which may be aided by the use of certain hand gestures (mudras) and chanted mantras (such as the famous mantra of Chenrezig: "om mani padme hum"). A number of esoteric meditation techniques are employed by different traditions, including mahamudra, dzogchen, and the Six yogas of Naropa. Qualified practitioners may also study or construct special cosmic diagrams known as mandalas which assist in inner spiritual development. A lama may make use of a dorje, a small eight-pronged dumbell-like object representing a diamond-strong sceptre which represents method or compassion, along with a handbell known as a drilbu which represents wisdom. A ritual dagger or phurpa is symbolically used to kill demons, thus releasing them to a better rebirth.
Another important ritual is the 'Cham', a dance featuring sacred music, healing chants, and dancers wearing masks and colorful and richly ornamented costumes. Monks use mudras to revitalize the spiritual energies of wisdom, compassion and healing within Enlightened Beings. In some cases the dances are accompanied by narration or a demonstration of monastic debate. The cham provides a fascinating glimpse into ancient and current Tibetan culture however due to PRC prohibitions, these dances may no longer be held in Tibet but may still be observed in India or Bhutan.
See Tibetan Buddhist canon for a list of important tantric texts recognized by different sects.
Schools of Tibetan Buddhism
Tibetan Buddhism has four main schools (the suffix pa means sect):
- Nyingma(pa), The Ancient Ones, the oldest and original school founded by Padmasambhava himself
- Kagyu(pa), Oral Lineage, headed by the Karmapa and having four sub-sects, the Karma Kagyu, the Drigung Kagyu, the Drukpa Kagyu and the Shangpa Kagyu.
- Sakya(pa), Grey Earth, headed by the Sakya Trizin, founded by Sakya Pandita 1182-1251CE
- Geluk(pa), Way of Virtue, also known as Yellow Hats, whose spiritual head is the Ganden Tripa and whose temporal head is the Dalai Lama, who was ruler of Tibet from the mid-17th to mid-20th centuries.
And one minor one:
- Jonang(pa), suppressed by the rival Gelukpas in the 1600s and once thought extinct, but now known to survive in Eastern Tibet.
There is also an ecumenical movement known as Rime (alternative spelling:Rimed).
Regarding the so-called "New Kadam Tradition" ("NKT"), which claims to be a distinct element of the Gelugpa school, read  (http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Ithaca/4886/gkg001.htm). For further information about this much debated topic, there is a 23 pages long thread at e-Sangha forum (rather indepth):  (http://www.lioncity.net/buddhism/index.php?showtopic=147)
For information on the Shuk-Den controversy which relates to the lineage of the 5th Dalai Lama, read the Tibetan Government in Exile statement: http://www.tibet.com/dholgyal/index.html
History of Tibetan Buddhism
Certain Buddhist scriptures arrived in southern Tibet from India as early as 173 AD during the reign of Thothori Nyantsen, the 28th king of Tibet. During the third century the scriptures were disseminated to northern Tibet (which was not part of the same kingdom at the time). The influence of Buddhism was not great, however, and the form was certainly not tantric as the earliest tantric sutras had just begun to be written in India.
In 641 King Songtsen Gampo unified Tibet and married Chinese Princess Wenzheng of the Tang Dynasty who brought with her images of the Buddha. King Gampo established a network of 108 Buddhist temples across the region, including the fabulous Potala Palace in Lhasa and the historic Kyichu and Jampa temples in Bhutan.
The most important event in Tibetan Buddhist history, however, was the arrival of the great tantric mystic Padmasambhava in Tibet in 774 at the invitation of King Trisong Detsen. It was Padmasambhava (more commonly known in the region as Guru Rinpoche) who merged tantric Buddhism with the local Bön religion to form what we now recognize as Tibetan Buddhism. In addition to writing a number of important scriptures (some of which he hid for future tertons to find), Padmasambhava established the Nyingma school from which all schools of Tibetan Buddhism are derived.
Tibetan Buddhism exerted a strong influence from the 11th century AD among the peoples of Central Asia, especially in Mongolia and Manchuria. It was adopted as an official state religion by the Mongol Yuan dynasty and the Manchu Qing dynasty of China.
- The Office of Tibet, the official agency of the Dalai Lama in London (The Government of Tibet in Exile) http://www.tibet.com/Buddhism/
- A View of (mostly Tibetan) Buddhism (http://www.buddhism.kalachakranet.org)
- E-Sangha Buddhism Portal (http://www.e-sangha.com)
- The Sakya Tradition (http://www.tibet.com/Buddhism/sakya.html)
- The Karma Kagyu Order (http://www.kagyu.org/)
- The Jonangpa Order (http://people.freenet.de/gruschke.andreas/Jonang_paper_E.htm)
- Drikung Kagyu Order (http://www.drikung.org/)
- Teaching Archives
- The extensive archives of teachings from Alexander Berzin (http://www.berzinarchives.com)
- The Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive (LYWA) (http://lamayeshe.org/) - the collected works of Lama Thubten Yeshe and Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche
- LamRim.com (http://lamrim.com/) - Tibetan Buddhist Internet Radio (Audio Teaching Archive)
- AudioDharma.com (http://www.audiodharma.org) - Dharma Talks from a variety of teachers, in mp3 format. There are some teachers from Tibetan traditions included.
- A Student's Notes (http://tibetan.editme.com/) - A Student of Sogyal Rinpoche produces a daily reading of learnings about Tibetan Buddhist Thought.
- Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT) (http://www.fpmt.org)
- North America: Canada, United States
- Central America: Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala
- South America: Brazil, Colombia
- Europe: Austria, Latvia, Denmark, Netherlands, England, Spain, France, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, Greece, Russia, Italy
- Asia: China, Nepal, India, Singapore, Japan, Taiwan, Mongolia
- Pacific Region: Australia, Malaysia, French Polynesia, New Zealand, Indonesia
- Karma Kagyu Centers (http://kagyu.org/centers/cen00.html) - World-wide, including many US locations
- Jewel Heart (http://www.jewelheart.org/)
- Shambhala Mountain Center (http://www.shambhalamountain.org/) - Location of The Great Stupa
- Drikung Kagyu Centers (http://www.drikung.org/centers.html/) - worldwide list of monasteries, schools and meditation centers.
- Rigpa International (http://www.rigpa.org/) - Sogyal Rinpoche's worldwide centers of teaching and meditation.