Tibetan Buddhism originally started in the South of Tibet about 2000 years ago, but did not spread very far, and was in direct competition to the pre-existing Bon religion, which was more believing in the ideas of gods and shamans, and is somewhat similar to the existing Siberian religion.
It is estimated that up to 10 percent of Tibetans still follow a more Buddhist oriented version of the original Bon religion.
Tibetan Buddhism (which is also called Vajrayama or Tantrayama Buddhism, is basically a branch of Buddhism that combines the teachings of the major Hinayana and Mahayana branches, and with the addition of its own Vajra (or Tantra) teachings and practices.
There are many sub-branches, but they may all be divided into two major groups – the Red Hat Sect and the Yellow Hat Sect.
The main difference between the two branches is in the origin of the teachings of each, although the actual teachings themselves have only minor differences.
Probably the most well known Tibetan Monk is the present 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso.
He is the spiritual head of the Yellow Hat sect, and was the spiritual leader for all of Tibetan Buddhism before the Chinese invasion of 1959.
Following an unsuccessful uprising against the invading Chinese, he, with thousands of his followers, fled to India.
The Indian Government donated land near the town of Dharamsala, in the Himalayas, where a Tibetan “Government in Exile” has been set up, and now has many thousands of Tibetan refugees – who all still practice their Tibetan Buddhism.
Prior to this he lived in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, in probably the most sacred, (and certainly the most well known), of the Tibetan Buddhism sites in all of Tibet – the Potala Palace in the winter,(as in the following photo), and the Norbulingka Palace, 3 kilometers west, in the summer.
Before the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959, approximately 25 percent of the population were monks, although they did not all live in one of the many monasteries.
One of the most important influences on Tibetan Buddhism was the arrival of an Indian Tantric Mystic or Guru called Padmasambhava (also known as Guru Rinpoche) in 774 A.D. – he merged Tantric Buddhism with the already existing Bon religion, and the result has evolved as Tibetan Buddhism.
A very early name for Tibetan Buddhism was Mantrayana, as the main focus for the practice of Tibetan Buddhism was the repetition of a mantra, usually repeated many thousands of times daily by most of the Tibetan people. (See the page on Mantras in this website.
They traditionally use a Mala, which is like a Catholic rosary, but with 108 beads, and one main, or ‘Guru’ bead . It is used by moving one bead at the same time as saying the mantra, and slowly progressing through the whole 108.
Here is one on the left, together with a Tibetan bell and a Vajra, which is a representation of a thunderbolt, and all are used in Tibetan Buddhism meditations.
When one has reached the main or Guru bead, it is never “crossed over” to start again counting in the same direction – one always then reverses direction and starts a series of 108 all over again going the opposite way.
The number 108 has special significance in many Eastern religions, and is often used as the number of mantras or hymns or chants to perform.
In Tibetan Buddhism, there is a very unique and nice refinement – a complete ‘set’ of 108 mantra repetitions only “counts” as 100 repetitions of the mantra for the spiritual benefit of the user – the other 8 are considered as being offered for the benefit of “all sentient beings.”
Traditionally the mantra OM MANE PADME HUM is used, here it is in Tibetan script ; –
(However most peasant Tibetans have difficulty with the pronunciation, and will usually be heard saying “Om Mane Peme Hung” instead – and nearly all the Tibetan peasants that one meets will be continuously repeating this mantra all day long ! )
It is also considered of spiritual benefit in Tibetan Buddhism to not only say the mantra, but also to write it and display it in public, and thereby spread it throughout the world,
– thus all over Tibet there are prayer flags with OM MANE PADME HUM on them, fluttering in the breeze, and the same also carved into stones and on prayer wheels, which all Tibetan Buddhist people will turn a few times whenever they pass, as in the photo below.
Around the Dalai Lama’s palace in the mountains near Dharamsala in India, thousands of pilgrims have left small slate-like stones engraved with Om Mane Padme Hum, they cover the sides of the hill, and there must be literally millions of them – it is impressive to see, and an appropriate testament to Tibetan Buddhism.
There have been many incorrect interpretations of the mantra in the past (‘Behold the Jewel in the Lotus‘ being the most common ), whereas the true Tibetan Buddhist meaning is as expressed by two authorities;-
Tibetan Buddhism’s own H.H. the 14th Dalai Lama’s definition;-
“It is very good to recite the mantra Om mani padme hum, but while you are doing it, you should be thinking on its meaning, for the meaning of the six syllables is great and vast
… The first – Om symbolizes the practitioner’s impure body, speech, and mind; it also symbolizes the pure exalted body, speech, and mind of a Buddha”
“The path is indicated by the next four syllables. Mani, meaning jewel, symbolizes the factors of method – the altruistic intention to become enlightened, compassion, and love.”
“The two syllables, padme, meaning lotus, symbolize wisdom”
“Purity must be achieved by an indivisible unity of method and wisdom, symbolized by the final syllable hum, which indicates indivisibility”
“Thus the six syllables, om mani padme hum, mean that in dependence on the practice of a path which is an indivisible union of method and wisdom, you can transform your impure body, speech, and mind into the pure exalted body, speech, and mind of a Buddha.”
The other (maybe more easily understood) explanation is given by another Tibetan Buddhist – Gen Rinpoche’s definition;-
“The mantra Om Mani Padme Hum is easy to say yet quite powerful, because it contains the essence of the entire teaching.
When you say the first syllable Om it is blessed to help you achieve perfection in the practice of generosity,
Ma helps perfect the practice of pure ethics, and
Ni helps achieve perfection in the practice of tolerance and patience.
Pad, the fourth syllable, helps to achieve perfection of perseverance,
Me helps achieve perfection in the practice of concentration, and the final sixth syllable
Hum helps achieve perfection in the practice of wisdom.
“So in this way recitation of the mantra helps achieve perfection in the six practices from generosity to wisdom.
The path of these six perfections is the path walked by all the Buddhas of the three times.
What could then be more meaningful than to say the mantra and accomplish the six perfections?”
The way to use this mantra is in the same way that I have given directions for in the page on Mantras, so refer to that page if you wish to meditate using the Tibetan Buddhist mantra – Om Mane Padme Hum.
Also there is an organization called Dharamsalatours@yahoo.co.in, that does wonderful Tibetan Meditation, Trekking, Tibetan language and many other relevant courses – all centered on Dharamsala, as the name suggests. To learn more about this interesting company, click;- HERE
We should certainly look at one important aspect of Tibetan Buddhism that causes a lot of confusion and mis-use, as follows;-
Tibetan Buddhism and Tantra
There are three main branches of the Tibetan Buddhist Tantric (or Tantrayama ) tradition – Sanaja – also known as the “Right Hand Path”, Mishra, and Kaula – also known as the “Left Hand Path.”
It is only the last of these, the Kaula tradition, that uses sexual practices as part of their system – yet this has caused a tremendous amount of mis-understanding and mis-use and ‘prurient’ interest in the West.
(The definition of this word in the dictionary, in case you are not familiar with it is;-
Adjective: prurient. meaning – 1.Uneasy with desire; itching; especially, having a lascivious anxiety or propensity; lustful. 2. Lascivious, lecherous, exciting lechery. 3. In United States legal application, sick, morbid or shameless. )
Somehow the West, and especially the U.S.A. , seems to have got the idea that Tibetan Buddhist Tantra involves some kind of “Intercourse Meditation” that can be enjoyed by anyone as a spiritual method.
Unfortunately this has caused a lot of “teachers” to have emerged – who are doing it simply for the sexual enjoyment that they can get out of it .
True – Tantric sexual ceremonies certainly do exist, but they must be looked at accurately, and in context.
So let’s look at that to make things clear;-
Firstly it is only the followers of the one branch of Tibetan Buddhist Tantra – the Kaula Tantra – that practice anything remotely like this.
At a very high level in the training of students of Kaula, after they have completely mastered and understood the three main branches of Buddhism – Mahayana, Hinayana and Vajrayana, and also have a very good understanding of Hinduism and Yoga, their Guru or teacher may decide that they can utilize sexual union as an exercise.
This traditionally takes place in a Tibetan Buddhist “charnel house”- a house where the dead are cremated, (this keeps the attention on the ‘impermanence’ of reality), and ALWAYS done with the Guru or teacher in attendance.
A male and a female advanced student would couple sexually in a form of sitting meditation posture, with NO ORGASM or sexual movements from either, and meditate together on the male and female energies combining and complementing each other in this way.
The theory was that this would awaken the Kundalini energy and allow it to rise up through the Chakras from the First Chakra, thus causing a spiritual ‘awakening’.
The unsupervised practice of true Tibetan Buddhism Tantra or Vajrayana can cause much physical, mental and psychological harm unless studied with an experienced and authentic Tantric Yogic Guru.
The “Neo-Tantra” or “California Tantra” is a corruption of an authentic and ancient system, and as such, has a lot of potential for harm and mis-use.
A few further thoughts from two authors;-
According to one author and critic on religion and politics, Hugh Urban:
“Since at least the time of Agehananda Bharati, most Western scholars have been severely critical of these new forms of pop Tantra or neo-Tantra. This “California Tantra” as Georg Feuerstein calls it, is “based on a profound misunderstanding of the Tantric path. Their main error is to confuse Tantric bliss … with ordinary orgasmic pleasure”.
He goes on to say that he himself does not consider neo-Tantra “wrong” or “false” but rather “simply a different interpretation for a specific historical situation.”
Shambhavi Saraswati gives a description of the difference between real Tantra and Neotantra:
“Neo-Tantra ritualizes sex. Authentic Tantra sexualizes ritual”.
For three Tantric practitioners (two well-known and one lesser-known), see the Dalai Lama (Tibetan Buddhist), Shri Ramakrishna (Hindu) and Shri Gurudev Mahendranath (Hindu).
I hope that this clears up a few misconceptions for you, about Tibetan Buddhism and Tantra.
As with all kinds of meditation, it is important not to leap in blindly “where angels fear to tread,” but to be cautious and use some sort of respectable and authentic teacher.
So to finish our section on Tibetan Buddhism, I would like to add the flag of the Tibetan Government in Exile.
This is in my own way a small protest at the way the Chinese invaded Tibet, which was one of the last “Shangri La” type places in the world, and with probably the most spiritual people anywhere…the unforgettable Tibetan Buddhists.