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Pure Land Buddhism in Tibetan Contexts  

Georgios Halkias

Buddhist literature in India and Tibet abounds with literal and allegorical references to terrestrial, celestial, and transcendent realms. Of all celestial dwellings cast along Buddhist lines, the pure land Sukhāvatī holds a prominent place in the religious, cultural, and national imagination of the Tibetans. Many centuries before the first imperially sponsored Sanskrit to Tibetan translations of the long and short Sukhāvatīvyūha sutras, Buddha Amitābha and his western abode Sukhāvatī made headway in the cosmopolitan region of greater Gandhāra. Active in the northwest of the Indian subcontinent he emerged as an influential solar deity with his own paradise in Buddhist monastic circles and enjoyed unprecedented success in his subsequent transmigration to East and Central Asia and across the Tibetan plateau. Notwithstanding a Mahāyāna theological reading of Amitābha and his Pure Land, heliocentric metaphors and symbols informed Mahāyāna Buddhism in its encounters with Eurasian solar cults celebrating the vital force of the sun and its metaphorical transition into a spiritual life triumphing over darkness and death. Ritual invocations and creative visualizations of Amitābha-Amitāyus are noticeable in Indian Vajrayāna scriptures imported to Tibet during the postimperial transmission of Buddhism. This second wave of religious assimilation coincides with Amitābha rising to a position of retroactive primacy and exclusivity in narratives concerning Tibet’s conversion to Buddhism and in ancestral myths of the Tibetan race rescued, through his divine emissary Avalokiteśvara, from indigenous forces of malignancy. His overstated presence in Tibetan mythopoiesis bears witness to various soteriological instantiations and expressions of worship in religious art and esoteric registers. In his dual function as the lord of infinite light (Amitābha) and infinite life (Amitāyus), this Mahāyāna deity absorbed functions that had previously been attributed to a range of divinities. Over time, Amitābha and his celestial field inspired a distinct genre of Tibetan pure land literature, the demön, comprising for the most part aspirational prayers for rebirth in Sukhāvatī and tributes to his extraordinary salvific powers. Under the guise of attaining rebirth in the pure land, these popular supplications of devotional nature were supplemented by substantive commentaries elaborating on Mahāyāna practices and doctrines. Hence, the demön came to encompass a wide range of exoteric and esoteric scriptures including funereal rites, tantric rituals for extending life, and meditation manuals derived from visionary kratophanies of the deity. Sukhāvatī inspired a number of ontological possibilities, corporeal, incorporeal, and subtle interpretations derived from the pure land sutras, the tantras, and the revealed scriptures of the Nyingma school. The fusion of devotional praises, faith-based aspirations, and esoteric subtle-body practices had a profound effect in the soteriological formulation of the pure land in Tibet conceptualized simultaneously as an external after-death destination, an interiorized place of the subtle-body infrastructure culminating in the Vajrayāna practice of mind transference to the pure land, and as a sublimated state representing the immutable nature of the awakened mind.


Tibetan Demonology  

Christopher Bell

Tibetans engage with a panoply of divinities and spirits in their daily lives and ritual activities. The word “demon” does not capture the sheer breadth and diversity of these beings because there is a rich assortment of distinct spirit types that cause illnesses, guard against calamities, or possess human mediums to provide clairvoyant advice. While comprehensiveness is impossible, a representative demonology is valuable by offering a foundation for further exploration. Most Tibetan spirits are capricious or overtly pernicious and require oracles, diviners, tantrikas, and other religious specialists to ward off or harness their power. The gods and spirits of Tibet also fit loosely into ontological categories along a larger spectrum that includes enlightened beings, transcendent deities, worldly gods, and fierce demons. The boundaries between these categories are often porous, especially when it comes to aligning certain spirits with buddhas, bodhisattvas, or wrathful deities of the land. For Buddhism and Bön, the two major religious traditions of Tibet, there are specific protector deities with robust mythologies and liturgical corpora that are frequently propitiated and revered in order to maintain these religions both materially and spiritually. Interacting with such divinities often takes the form of oracular ceremonies or image consecrations and offerings. The practices may vary dramatically between spiritual lineages and regions, but the overall concept is rooted in interacting with these powerful forces to effect social, communal, and individual change. In Tibet, spirits are potentially dangerous, but they also offer diverse opportunities for personal advancement and religious enrichment.


The Reincarnation System in Central Asian Buddhism  

Ruth Gamble

Reincarnation lineages, their traditions, and their institutions have been central to Tibetan religion, culture, society, and politics since the 13th century. They developed incrementally, dependent on doctrines from India and local precedents. From their Indian-Buddhist forebears, they took the tradition of past-life storytelling, the belief that celestial bodhisattvas constantly manifested to aid beings, and the practice of guru-yoga, which encouraged them to see their teachers as nirmāṇakāya (“creation bodies”; trülku [sprul sku] in Tibetan). From the 10th century in Tibet, they recognized an increasing number of beings as either bodhisattva emanations or prominent beings’ rebirths. Claiming rebirth status was particularly evident in the Nyingma school’s treasure tradition, whose visionaries claimed to be the rebirths of the 8th-century mahāsiddha Padmasambhava’s students. Treasure texts also contended that the celestial bodhisattva, Avalokiteśvara, constantly manifested in Tibet. During the 11th century, Kadam and Kagyü yogis made themselves jātaka protagonists, and the number of beings from all schools claiming to be emanations of celestial bodhisattvas increased. The Nyingma visionary Nyangrel Nyima Özer (Nyang ral nyi ma ‘od zer, 1124–1194) became the first to describe a series of his previous lives. The second and third Karmapas (13th century) developed on these precedents, adding future-life prediction and child recognition and linking rebirths to monasteries and inheritances. They combined the two ideas of rebirth and incarnation, claiming that the reborn Karmapas were a series of Avalokiteśvara’s emanations. After the Mongol emperors became the Karmapas’ students, their model was copied across Tibet. In the 16th century, the Dalai Lamas, aided first by Mongol rulers and then the Manchu-Qing Emperor, gained political supremacy in Tibet. This also enabled their school, the Geluk, to proselytize widely in the Mongol world and establish further guru-patron relationships. After an argument between two aristocratic reincarnates led to the Sino-Gurkha War in the late 18th century, the Qianlong Emperor mandated that Geluk reincarnates be chosen by drawing lots from a Golden Urn. The Geluks used the Golden Urn to establish many new reincarnation lineages but resisted its use to decide the Dalai Lamas or other highly ranked reincarnates. The Manchu-Qing had little influence on the non-Geluk lineages, who developed strongholds in the Himalaya and Kham in Eastern Tibet. After the Qing Empire fell, the thirteenth Dalai Lama declared Tibet independent. He did not live to see its dissolution into the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the 1950s. During the Mao period in Tibet and the Soviet period in Mongolia, reincarnates were first co-opted and then outlawed. They became refugees, and several became famous internationally. When the Soviet Union fell, and China opened, some reincarnates re-established their monasteries, but the PRC retained the authority to recognize reincarnates, including the next Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama, whose reputation underpins the entire reincarnation system, has refuted this claim. But as he single-handedly defends his institution against the PRC state and attempts to deal with a series of abuse and corruption scandals involving reincarnates—as perpetrators and victims—it appears certain the Dalai Lama’s next interregnum will challenge the entire reincarnation system.


Mahāmudrā in India and Tibet  

Roger R. Jackson

Mahāmudrā, “the Great Seal,” is a Sanskrit term (Tibetan: phyag rgya chen po) that connotes a wide range of concepts and practices in Indian Mahāyāna and, especially, Tibetan Buddhism, most of them directly or indirectly related to discourse on ultimate reality and the way to know and achieve it. The term first appeared in Indian tantric texts of the 7th or 8th century ce and gained increasing prominence in the final period of Buddhism’s efflorescence on the subcontinent, particularly in the sometimes transgressive Mahāyoga and Yoginī tantras and the works of such charismatic great adepts (mahāsiddhas) as Saraha, Tilopa, and Maitrīpa. By the 11th century, Mahāmudrā had come to refer, in India, to a hand gesture signifying clear visualization of a deity, one of a number of “seals” (with or without hand gestures) that confirm tantric ritual procedures, a consort employed in sexual yoga practices, a meditation technique in which the mind contemplates its own nature, the great bliss and luminous gnosis that result from advanced subtle-body practices, a way of living in the world freely and spontaneously, and the omniscient buddhahood that is the final outcome of the tantric path. It also came to be synonymous with such concepts as emptiness, the middle way, sameness, the co-emergent, the natural mind, luminosity, the single taste, non-duality, meditative “inattention,” buddha nature, non-abiding nirvāṇa, and a buddha’s Dharma Body—to name just a few. Although little discussed during the period of Buddhism’s introduction to Tibet (c. 650–850), Mahāmudrā came to the fore on the plateau during the so-called Tibetan Renaissance (c. 950–1350), finding a place of greater or lesser prominence in the ideas and practices of the religious orders that formed at that time, including the Kadam, Sakya, Shijé, Shangpa Kagyü, and—most notably—the powerful and influential Marpa Kagyü, for which it is a pivotal term, referring to the true nature of the mind, a style of meditation aimed at the realization of that nature, and the perfect buddhahood resulting from that realization. Although it has all these meanings and more, Mahāmudrā became best known as a contemplative technique in which the mind realizes, and settles within, its own true nature: as empty and luminous. It was brought to the center of Kagyü religious life by Gampopa (1079–1153), and studied, practiced, and systematized by generations of great Kagyü scholars and meditators. In later times, it sometimes inspired syncretic formulations, which combined the practices of Kagyü Mahāmudrā with those of the Nyingma Great Perfection (Dzokchen), or the Gelukpa analysis of the emptiness of all existents. Over the course of a millennium or more in Tibet, the Great Seal informed ritual, prompted ecstatic poetry, provoked debate, became the focus of yogic retreats, and was used as a lens through which Indian Buddhist thought and Tibetan institutional history might be viewed. With the post-1959 Tibetan disapora and the subsequent spread of Tibetan Buddhism outside Asia, Mahāmudrā has become a topic of interest for scholars and practitioners in many and varied settings, and a part of the vocabulary of educated Buddhists everywhere.


Buddhism and Biography  

Ben Van Overmeire

The Buddhist religion has a long and rich tradition of biographical literature. This literature has functioned to unify distinct and often contradictory elements of Buddhist ritual, practice, and doctrine, adjusting these elements to specific historical situations. Scholarship on the function of literary characters in making narrative worlds coherent supports this argument: when readers engage characters, they draw together textual and non-textual data to construct beings that are similar to themselves. This connection of a specific situation with a larger whole, a connection that is at the same time an organization, can be observed in how Buddhist biographies are built. Biographies of Shakyamuni, for example, contain many traces of changes motivated by local conditions. The body of Shakyamuni is used to authorize these changes: the local is situated at the heart of Buddhism. Biographies of Chinese Buddhist saints attest to the same process, as can be seen in the shifting representation of Indian saints in China or the literary transformations of the Patriarchs of the Chan school. While these changing representations reflect changes in historical Buddhist communities, they can also produce attitudes and regulate behaviors. The debate on the portrayal and effects of women and animals in Indian Buddhist texts provides an illustration of this, as does scholarship on how saintly ideals regulate behavior. The case of Buddhist autobiography, a genre at times so closely connected to biography that it is nearly indistinguishable from it, provides a final example of how identity is structured in Buddhist biography.


Nechung: A Tibetan Buddhist Oracle  

Christopher Bell

The Tibetan Buddhist monastery of Nechung (Gnas chung) is home to a powerful protector deity and historically housed the human oracle he would possess to give prophetic advice. Located on the outskirts of the Tibetan capital of Lhasa and downhill from the famous Geluk (Dge lugs) monastery of Drepung (’Bras spungs), Nechung has existed since at least the 16th century and had close ties to the lineage of the Dalai Lamas since the second incarnation. It is the Nechung Oracle, possessed by the deity Pehar (Pe har) or his ministerial emanation Dorjé Drakden (Rdo rje grags ldan), that the Dalai Lama has consulted on matters of state for centuries and continues to do so as part of his government-in-exile. This deity is likewise important for having once been the guardian of Tibet’s first Buddhist monastery, Samyé (Bsam yas). However, it was under the auspices of the Fifth Dalai Lama in the 17th century that Nechung Monastery was renovated and greatly expanded, and the Nechung Oracle took on the mantle of Tibet’s head state oracle. Nechung’s narrative and liturgical pedigree nonetheless extends back even to the 12th century and includes Nyingma (Rnying ma) and Sakya (Sa skya) influences that have allowed it to maintain an especially ecumenical character. As the institutional setting for rich mythic and ritual activity for nearly 500 years, Nechung is an important site for understanding Tibetan oracular practices, the Dalai Lama’s administration, and Tibet’s vibrant religious heritage.



Sam van Schaik

Dzogchen, often translated as “the great perfection,” is a tradition of meditation practice and poetic literary expression in Tibetan Buddhism. Though its origins lie in Indic Buddhism, Dzogchen developed a distinct form of practice and literary expression only in Tibet. In general, Dzogchen texts evoke and discuss a state of awareness present in all living beings that transcends dualities and conceptual elaboration. Common terms for this state of awareness are “mind itself” (sems nyid) and “awareness” (rig pa). Dzogchen literature often states that in the presence of this awareness, religious practice oriented toward enlightenment is dualistic and, therefore, not only unnecessary, but also obstructive. Nevertheless, Dzogchen is usually integrated with other forms of Buddhist practice. The Dzogchen tradition encompasses a variety of literature and practice; the most common way of categorizing this is a division into three classes, the mind series, the space series, and the instruction series. The mind series contains most of the early Dzogchen literature, and more recent material in the same style. The space series enjoyed only limited popularity, and little is known of it today. The instruction series, by contrast, increased in popularity from its appearance in the 11th century and in time supplanted the mind series and the space series, ultimately becoming the predominant form of Dzogchen. The practice of Dzogchen requires an authorized teacher and the ritual transmission of key texts, as well as an “introduction” to the nature of the mind given by the teacher to the student. The main scriptural sources of Dzogchen practice are texts held to be translations collected in semicanonical compendia, treatises by Tibetan scholars, and revealed texts known as terma, usually said to have been concealed in the 8th century by the tantric master Padmasambhava. Dzogchen is a living tradition, taught within all of the main Tibetan Buddhist schools, though it remains closely associated with the Nyingma school. Within the latter, Dzogchen is considered to be the most advanced of Buddhist meditation practices, placed at the top of a ninefold categorization of Buddhist practice, the “nine vehicles.” Known in this context as atiyoga, “the utmost yoga,” it is the highest of the three “inner yogas,” the other two being mahāyoga and anuyoga. Dzogchen is also at the pinnacle of the teachings of Tibet’s Bonpo religion, which shares much of its doctrine with the Nyingma school and has in recent years been formally identified as one of the Buddhist schools of Tibet.


Tsangpa Gyare (1161–1211), Founder of the Drukpa Kagyü School  

Seiji Kumagai

Buddhism was introduced to Tibet in the 7th century and became the state religion of the Tibetan Empire in the 8th century, only to face a temporary all-out decline in the ensuing century. After Atiśa’s visit to Tibet in the 11th century, Buddhism revived there. Just after the Kadam school (Bka’ gdams pa) was founded by the followers of Atiśa, the Kagyü school (Bka’ brgyud pa) and the Sakya school (Sa skya pa) were also established, and so Tibetan Buddhism became rich in diversity. The Sakya school was ruled by the Khön family and remained mostly unitary. On the other hand, the Kagyü school developed the master–disciple relationship, producing many subschools established by the foremost students of famous teachers. Thus, four disciples of Gampopa (Sgam po pa Bsod nams rin chen or Dwags po lha rje, 1079–1153) founded the four primary subschools, and Phagmo Drupa (Phag mo gru pa Rdo rje rgyal po, 1110–1170) established the eight secondary subschools. It is a well-known fact that the Karma Kagyü school (Karma bka’ brgyud) became the most prominent subschool among them. The second largest subschool regarding the number of followers was the Drukpa Kagyü school (’Brug pa bka’ brgyud). This school has been a state Buddhist school in Bhutan (or Druk Yul) since the establishment of the country by the 17th head abbot Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (Zhabs drung Ngag dbang rnam rgyal, 1594–1651). Fortunately, modern Western researchers have provided us with a general outline of the history of the Drukpa Kagyü. However, some details remain unclear. Due to difficulties of accessing many of his works, the life and thoughts of Tsangpa Gyare (Gtsang pa rgya ras Ye shes rdo rje, 1161–1211), the founder of the Drukpa Kagyü school, have been insufficiently studied. Information about its founder is necessary to improve our understanding of the school. Thus, this article aims to re-examine Tsangpa Gyare’s life, integrating both philological and field information in an effort to provide a historical mapping of Tsangpa Gyare according to both his spiritual lineage of pre-reincarnations and dharma lineages (master and disciple relationship), and an examination of his life. In order to understand the life and personality of this figure, this article will examine Tsangpa Gyare’s own works as well as varied sources referring to him.


Globalizing Tantric Buddhism  

Richard K. Payne

The historical spread of Buddhism can best be described as the extension of the nodes and strands of a network. “Globalization” is used here to identify the fact that over the last two centuries those networks have extended across the globe, bringing diverse communities in different countries into closer and more frequent contact than was previously possible. The two main sources of a globalizing tantric Buddhism are the Japanese tradition of Shingon and the lineages of Tibet in exile. From the 19th century Shingon spread to Hawai‘i and the west coast of the United States, and more recently to South America, particularly Brazil. These reflect similar patterns of growth and decline as well as revitalization frequently seen in immigrant churches with histories of over a century. The period from the end of the 19th into the 20th century saw the rise of a tantric movement in China that sought to reclaim the “lost” Tang era tradition. The “Tantric Rebirth Movement” looked either to Japan, as having a lineage continuous with Tang era tantra, or to Tibet, which was seen as having a superior form that could revitalize tantra in China. These two strains continue to mold tantric Buddhism in the present, including in Taiwan and other centers of Chinese expatriate populations. Tibetan Buddhism has also expanded globally, introducing tantric lineages, teachings, and practices to many different countries. The globalization of tantric Buddhism has not gone uncontested, however. Interactions with European and American adherents have created strains within the Tibetan community; the movement of modernizing Theravādin traditions in Nepal has created stresses on the traditional tantric communities there; and evangelical Christians have attempted to stave off what they see as the demonic influences of Tibetan tantric practice from the territories they claim as their own.


Introduction to Zhentong (Extrinsic Emptiness)  

Michael R. Sheehy

The zhentong (gzhan stong; also phonetisized shentong) philosophy of emptiness is a positivist tradition in the history of Indian and Tibetan Buddhist thought that includes a range of philosophical views and meditative experiences that express the ultimate to be emptiness (śūnyatā; stong pa nyid) devoid of everything other than (gzhan) buddhanature (tathāgatagarbha; de bzhin gshegs pa’i snying po), a luminous essence that pervades living beings. The literal meaning of zhentong is to be empty of other, which is commonly translated as “other-emptiness” or “extrinsic emptiness.” In contrast to zhentong, philosophical views that assert emptiness devoid of an intrinsic nature (svabhāva) are rangtong (rang stong), which means to be empty of itself, and is commonly translated as “self-emptiness” or “intrinsic emptiness.” Adherents to zhentong views are called “Zhentongpas,” while adherents to rangtong views are called “Rangtongpas.” Accordingly, Tibetan adherents to zhentong generally divide the Madhyamaka school of Buddhist thought into two sub-schools: (a) General Madhyamaka or Rangtong Madhyamaka, namely the Prāsaṅgika and Svātantrika approaches; and (b) Great Madhyamaka or Zhentong Madhyamaka. Historically, there are zhentong proponents from the Jonang, Nyingma, Kagyü, Sakya, and Kadam orders of Tibetan Buddhism. Canonical Indian Buddhist sources for zhentong include the ten Essence Sūtras, ten Sūtras on Definitive Meaning, Five Treatises of Maitreya, and Nāgārjuna’s Collection of Hymns. Influential sūtras that discuss buddhanature in these collections include the Śrīmālādevī-siṃhanāda Sūtra, Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra, and Laṇkāvatāra Sūtra. Among the Five Treatises of Maitreya, the Ratnagotravibhāga, or what is popularly known as the Uttaratantra, is most frequently cited. Nāgārjuna’s Collection of Hymns provides a positivist appraisal of the ultimate, juxtaposed to his more well-known Collection on Reasoning. The most important tantras for zhentong are the Bodhisattva Trilogy, which are the definitive Indian commentaries on the Kālacakra Tantra, Hevajra Tantra, and the Cakrasamvara Tantra. Among these, the Vimalaprabhā commentary on the Kālacakra is paramount. The most prominent proponent of zhentong in Tibet was the Jonang scholar Dölpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (1292–1361) who formalized the usage of the terms rangtong and zhentong to distinguish two modes of emptiness: emptiness devoid of an intrinsic nature, and what is not empty of buddhanature. During the 15th century, the most influential zhentong thinker was the Sakya scholar Shākya Chokden (1428–1507), whose zhentong view differed from Dölpopa’s, particularly on his interpretation of the constancy of nondual awareness. Several hierarchs in the Kagyü order of Tibetan Buddhism articulated zhentong views, including the Third Karmapa Rangjung Dorjé (1284–1339), Second Zharmapa Kachö Wangpo (1350–1405), Seventh Karmapa Chödrak Gyatso (1454–1506), and the Eighth Karmapa Mikyo Dorjé (1507–1554). The most prolific Jonang author in the history of zhentong after Dölpopa was Tāranātha (1575–1635) who was inspired by a vision to preserve Dölpopa’s insights. Following his death, however, the government of central Tibet headed by the Fifth Dalai Lama Ngawang Lobzang Gyatso (1617–1682) confiscated Tāranātha’s monastery, converted Jonang studies to a Geluk curricula, and banned books on zhentong. The Jonang fled to eastern Tibet where they revitalized their tradition of zhentong and the Kālacakra in regions of Amdo. The Nyingma polymath Rikzin Tsewang Norbu (1698–1755) from Katok Monastery in Kham inspired zhentong thinking in several important figures including his compeer Situ Paṇchen Chökyi Jungné (1699–1774), and the later Nyingma scholar Katok Getsé Paṇḍita Tsewang Chökdrup (1761–1829) who wrote on Zhentong Madhyamaka in the context of explaining Dzokchen. As part of their Rimé project, Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Tayé (1813–1899) and Jamyang Khyentsé Wangpo (1820–1892) centrally positioned zhentong within their brand of Buddhist ecumenicalism. Among Jonang scholars in the modern era, Khenpo Lodrö Drakpa (1920–1975) from Dzamtang was the most important author on zhentong whose work sought to realign zhentong philosophical thinking with Dölpopa and Tāranātha.


Chöd: A Tibetan Buddhist Practice  

Sarah Harding

Chöd (gcod), “severance” or “cutting,” is a Tibetan term referring to a cycle of Tibetan Buddhist practice and to the lineage initiated by the Tibetan woman Machik Lapdrön sometime in the 11th or 12th century. It is primarily based on the teachings of the perfection of wisdom (prajñāpāramitā) that represent the second phase of Buddhist texts that developed in India. In Tibet itself, Chöd was one of the many new sects that flourished in the second dissemination of Buddhism from India from 950 to 1350ce. Chöd has been classified as a branch of Zhijé (zhi byed) or “Pacification,” one of the eight great practice lineages that trace back to India, though no actual text on Chöd has been discovered in the early texts of Zhijé. Despite this quandary, its classification has afforded a kind of validation in being connected with the sources of Buddhism through the Indian master Dampa Sangyé. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Machik Lapdrön herself is the sole progenitor for the teachings and the lineage. This woman from the area of Lap in central Tibet was known as Lapkyi Drönma, “the Light of Lap.” The respectful title of Machik, “One Mother,” was added later and is shared with several other important women of the time, often leading to confusion. Lapdrön showed remarkable abilities from an early age, and later gained mastery of speed reading. This led to a job as a chaplain in a patron’s house, where she met her future partner, providing her biographers with a fascinating narrative revealing the problematic status of female masters in Tibet. The recitation of prajñāpāramitā sūtras also led to her epiphany around the parts on māra, “devil,” “demon,” or (spiritual) “death.” This, along with her visions of the bodhisattva Tārā and the important connection with the Indian master Dampa Sangyé, were the inspiration for what became one of the most widespread practices in Tibet. The early Chöd teachings represent aspects derived from both sūtra and tantra sources. The focus is on the understanding of emptiness that severs fixation on the reification of the self and the resultant conduct based on compassion for others. The impediments that prevent such realization, called māras in Sanskrit, were a point of departure. As time went on, specific techniques and methods of practice (sādhana) accrued to this philosophy. While the main practice has remained the cultivation of insight and the enactment of separating the consciousness from the body, the post-meditation practice known as lü jin (lus byin) “giving the body” developed elaborate visualizations and ritual accouterments that came to dominate popular practice. Renowned as a charnel ground practice due to the visualized offering of one’s corpse as food for demons and other beings in situations that are intended to provoke fear, it is this that has become known far and wide as Chöd. The sources for this aspect are obscure and may well come from the surrounding culture of the Tibetan plateau, harking back to Bön and other pre-Buddhist practices. Some elements associated with shamanic practices are enacted in the Chöd rituals, despite its Buddhist soteriological assertions. With its beautiful melodies and lurid visualizations, Chöd quickly became popular in Tibet for exorcism, healing, and other practical usages. Its followers did not establish monasteries, as the lifestyle of roaming mendicants was emphasized, but Chöd was incorporated into most other schools in Tibet. Their liturgies are drawn from the works of Lapdrön’s descendants, or from visionary experiences, or found as treasure texts (terma). As of the early 21st century, Chöd has gained popularity worldwide, with many iterations in 21st-century practice.


Tri Songdétsen  

Brandon Dotson

Emperor Tri Songdétsen (Khri Srong lde brtsan; 742–c.800 ce) is one of the most fascinating figures in Tibet’s religious and political history. He played a central role in shaping the character of early Tibetan Buddhism by patronizing and protecting it as an official religion of the Tibetan Empire (c. 608–866). After proclaiming his official patronage of Buddhism in c. 779, Tri Songdétsen oversaw the consecration of Samyé (Bsam yas) Monastery and made provisions for the official sponsorship of a nascent Sangha. From this point onward, Buddhism became an irrevocable component of Tibetan culture and spread its roots at both elite and popular levels. The basic contours of Tri Songdétsen’s life and work may be gleaned from contemporary administrative records and from the king’s own inscribed pillar edicts and their accompanying paper documents. These describe how he was enthroned as a fourteen-year-old boy after his father was assassinated in the course of a revolt. They also give Tri Songdétsen’s reasons for officCially supporting Buddhism, and mention some of the opposition that he faced. As accounts of the concerted introduction of Buddhism to Tibet, Tri Songdétsen’s edicts constitute a clear forerunner to later Tibetan “histories of the Dharma” (chos ’byung) that would become a standard medium for Tibet’s Heilsgeschichte from the 11th century to the 21st. In this way, Tri Songdétsen also played a key role in the genesis of Tibet’s unique form of Buddhist historiography. Ironically, the very historiographical traditions that Tri Songdétsen inaugurated in Tibet would in subsequent centuries come to express an ambivalent attitude toward the emperor’s central role in the establishment of Buddhism. Although he was lionized shortly after his death and in the century that followed, in Buddhist histories and hagiographies from the 12th century onward, Tri Songdétsen is eclipsed by the figure of the yogin Padmasambhava, who is credited as the real agent in the conversion of Tibet. Within this new narrative, the king is somewhat ineffectual in his commitment to Buddhism, such that his failure to follow Padmasambhava’s instructions eventually accounts for Padmasambhava’s departure from Tibet and for all sorts of future calamities that befall Tibet, its monarchy, and its people. The subordination of Tri Songdétsen to Padmasambhava is part of a larger movement by which kings receded from Tibetans’ devotional emphasis and from their daily lives, and by which the figure of the lama ascended to cultural paramountcy. In particular, it reflects a shift in devotional emphasis across the 11th to 13th centuries from the cult of Emperor Songtsen Gampo (Srong rtsan sgam po; c. 605–649), who was viewed as an emanation of Tibet’s protector bodhisattva, Avalokiteśvara, to that of the yogin Padmasambhava, revered as an emanation of the Buddha Amitābha. Tri Songdétsen became a supporting player in Padmasambhava’s hagiography and cult, as one of his twenty-five disciples, and was also refigured as an emanation of the bodhisattva Mañjusrī. It is in this guise that Tri Songdétsen is remembered within Tibetan cultural memory and within Tibetan Buddhism more generally from the 12th century to the 21st.



James B. Apple

Gelukpa is the name of a Tibetan Buddhist school that gained political influence and control across the Tibetan cultural world after the 17th century. Gelukpa (dge lugs pa) in Tibetan literally means “Followers of the System of Virtue” and refers to a person associated with the Geluk (dge lugs) school of Tibetan Buddhism. Gelukpas are the latest among the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism to develop. There are no subschools within the tradition. The school has its beginnings among the disciples of Tsongkhapa (1357–1419) and was initially known as Gandenpa (dga’ ldan pa), “those of Ganden Monastery,” based on the founding of Riwo Ganden (ri bo dga’ ldan) monastery in 1409. Tsongkhapa advocated strict Buddhist monasticism enhanced by scholarly training among his followers. The charismatic Tsongkhapa also influenced the development of the school based on his institution-building skills in establishing networks of patronage and performance of public rituals. The tradition soon established the three monasteries of Ganden, Drepung (founded in 1416), and Sera (founded in 1419) that became known as the “three seats of learning” (gdan sa gsum) in central Tibet. A fourth monastic seat, Tashi Lhünpo (bkra shis lhun po), was founded in Tsang (gtsang) in western Tibet in 1447. These monastic institutions developed into intellectual and political centers of hegemonic power and influence within the later Geluk system of monasticism. The head of the Geluk monastic system is the Ganden Tripa (dga’ ldan khri pa), “Holder of the Ganden Throne,” regarded as the selected successors of Tsongkhapa. The Geluk system of monasticism, in part through its administrative organization and institution-building techniques, was able to establish influence throughout Tibet, constructing new monasteries and renewing old ones. Over time, the Gelukpas developed an elaborate institutional hierarchy and administrative bureaucratic apparatus that interconnected regional monasteries with the four Geluk monastic seats in central Tibet. The school gradually spread as a cultural force of Tibetan Buddhism from central Tibet across the Tibetan plateau and into Mongolia as well as regions of Inner and East Asia. The Geluk gained renown politically for its establishment of the Ganden Podrang (dga’ ldan pho brang) government in 1642 under the rulership of successive Dalai Lamas (dā la’i bla ma) until 1959. After the fourteenth and present Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso (bstan ‘dzin rgya mtsho, b. 1935), escaped from the Chinese Communist invasion of Tibet in 1959, communities of refugee Geluk members (as well as non-Geluk Tibetans) re-established monasteries, nunneries, and colleges primarily in India and Nepal. Smaller versions of the three main monastic universities have been re-established in South India with over 10,000 monks. Although Geluk monastic communities still exist in the traditional geographical areas of Tibet, they do not resemble the pre-1959 institutions.


Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thödol)  

Casey Alexandra Kemp

Although in Tibet there is no single text directly referred to as the Tibetan Book of the Dead, this English work is the primary source for Western understandings of Tibetan Buddhist conceptions of death. These understandings have been highly influenced by Western spiritualist movements of the 20th and 21st centuries, resulting in efforts to adapt and synthesize various frameworks of “other” religious traditions, particularly those from Asian societies that are viewed as esoteric or mystical, including tantric or Tibetan Buddhism. This has resulted in creative forms of appropriation, reinterpretation, and misrepresentation of Tibetan views and rituals surrounding death, which often neglect the historical and religious realities of the tradition itself. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is a prime example of such a process. Despite the lack of a truly existing “book of the dead,” numerous translations, commentaries, and comparative studies on this “book” continue to be produced by both scholars and adherents of the tradition, making it a focal point for the dissemination and transference of Tibetan Buddhism in the West. The set of Tibetan block prints that was the basis for the original publication of the Tibetan Book of the Dead in 1927 by Walter Y. Evans-Wentz (1878–1968) consisted of portions of the collection known in Tibetan as The Great Liberation through Hearing in the Intermediate State or Bardo Thödol (Bar do thos grol chen mo). This work is said to have been authored by Padmasambhava in the 8th century ce, who subsequently had the work buried; it was rediscovered in the 14th century by the treasure revealer (gter ston) Karma Lingpa (Kar ma gling pa; b. c. 1350). However, as a subject for literary and historical inquiry, it is nearly impossible to determine what Tibetan texts should be classified under the Western conceptual rubric of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. This is due partly to the Tibetan tendency to transmit textual traditions through various redactions, which inevitably change the content and order of collected works. Despite this challenge, the few systematic efforts made by scholars of Tibetan and Buddhist studies to investigate Bardo Thödol literature and its associated funerary tradition have been thorough, and the works produced by Bryan Cuevas and Donald Lopez Jr. are particularly noteworthy. The Bardo Thödol is essentially a funerary manual designed to guide an individual toward recognizing the signs of impending death and traversing the intermediate state (bar do) between death and rebirth, and to guide one’s consciousness to a favorable next life. These instructions provide detailed descriptions of visions and other sensory experiences that one encounters when dying and during the post-mortem state. The texts are meant to be read aloud to the deceased by the living to encourage the consciousness to realize the illusory or dreamlike nature of these experiences and thus to attain liberation through this recognition. This presentation is indicative of a complex and intricate conceptual framework built around notions of death, impermanence, and their soteriological propensities within a tantric Buddhist program developed in Tibet over a millennium, particularly within the context of the Nyingma (rNying ma) esoteric tradition known as Dzogchen (rDzogs chen). Tibet and other tantric Buddhist societies throughout the Himalaya have developed a variety of technologies for practically applying Buddhist understandings of death, and so this particular “book” is by no means the only manual utilized during the dying and post-mortem states, nor is it even necessarily included in all Tibetan or Himalayan funerary traditions. Nevertheless, this work has captured the interests of Western societies for the past century and has unofficially become the principal introduction not only to Tibetan death rites but also to Tibetan Buddhism in general for the West.


The Kadampa: A Formative Movement of Tibetan Buddhism  

Ulrike Roesler

The Bka’ gdams pa (pronounced “Kadampa”) emerged as a distinct tradition of Tibetan Buddhism in the 11th century ce. The most common understanding of the name in Tibetan sources is that this tradition taught the complete word of the Buddha (bka’) as explained in the instructions (gdams) of the Indian teacher Dīpaṃkaraśrījñāna (982–1054). This is sometimes specified as referring to his instructions on the graded path (lam rim) toward Buddhahood that were later adopted and propagated by the Dge lugs pa (pronounced “Gelugpa”) school, beginning with Tsong kha pa’s (1357–1419) influential Lam rim chen mo. It is commonly assumed that during the 15th century, the Bka’ gdams pa were absorbed into Tsong kha pa’s reform movement of the “new Bka’ gdams pa” (bka’ gdams gsar ma), later known as the Dge lugs pa, but further research is needed on this issue. Dīpaṃkaraśrījñāna, also known by his Indian honorific title Atiśa[ya] or Adhīśa, was invited to western Tibet by its rulers and arrived there in 1042. At the request of King Byang chub ’od (984–1078), he composed his famous “Lamp on the Path to Awakening” (Bodhipathapradīpa; Tib. Byang chub lam sgron), which became an important model for Tibetan works on the graded path to awakening. He then accepted an invitation to central Tibet where he spent the rest of his life. He passed away in Snye thang near Lhasa in 1054. Several of Atiśa’s Tibetan students played an important role in the development of Buddhism on the Tibetan plateau. However, it is his student ’Brom ston Rgyal ba’i ’byung gnas (pronounced “Dromtön Gyelway Jungnay,” 1004–1064) who is traditionally regarded as the founding father of the Tibetan Bka’ gdams pa lineage since his students became instrumental in spreading the Bka’ gdams pa teachings in central Tibet. In addition to the lam rim, they became famous for their instructions on “mental purification” or “mind training” (blo sbyong, pronounced “Lojong”), which is meant to free the mind from attachment to the ego and generate the attitude of the “awakening mind” (Skt. bodhicitta). Lam rim and blo sbyong became highly popular doctrinal and didactic genres and have had an impact on Tibetan Buddhism far beyond the Bka’ gdams pa and Dge lugs pa traditions. The Bka’ gdams pa are often perceived as a tradition with an emphasis on monasticism and Mahāyāna ethics, rather than on yogic and tantric practice. However, it should be kept in mind that Dīpaṃkaraśrījñāna himself had grown up in the tantric traditions of Bengal. His work on the stages of the path to awakening includes instructions on tantra, but states that tantric practice may not contradict the vows taken (thus excluding antinomian practices for monastics). The early Tibetan Bka’ gdams pa masters take the same stance and promote the idea that Pāramitānaya (i.e., non-tantric Mahāyāna Buddhism) and tantra have the same validity and lead to the same goal, thus trying to strike a balance between the two approaches.