In A Nutshell...
The Tibetan Buddhism is a form of Vajrayana Buddhism (which in itself, is a subform of Mahayana Buddhism), practiced primarily in Tibet, but has spread to Southeast Asian countries, including Malaysia and Singapore. With Tibet nestled between China, Nepal and Bhutan, the country’s religions and culture had been undiscovered for many years; unknown to the outside world until the 1950s, where the travels of Tibetan Buddhism practitioners across Asia brought the religion to light.
It Had To Start Somewhere...
Buddhism did not come to Tibet until early seventh century BCE., under the rule of the 32nd King of Tibet, Songsten Gampo. Upon marrying a Chinese and Nepalese wife (he had two wives), it was only then when the Buddhist influences were introduced to the nation. Both wives were Buddhist devotees, bringing substantial amounts of deity statues, Sutras and prayer books with them. Since his wives were devout Buddhists, Songsten Gampo set out to build temples; two of which were large ones in Lhasa (the capital of Tibet). Furthermore, he sent one of his ministers to India with the sole intention of getting him to learning Sanskrit, then bringing the knowledge back to Tibet. As if that was not enough, Songsten Gampo also invited gurus from India and Nepal to translate Buddha’s teachings. However, the prominence of Buddhism was not obvious until the reign of the 37th King of Tibet, Trisong Detsen.
Around 762 BCE., Trisong Detsen invited Padmasambhava (also known as Guru Rinpoche), an Indian yogi, to help spread Buddhism and translate Sanskrit Sutras to Tibetan in a monastery built in Samye Ling (a town 35 miles southwest of Lhasa). It was then, that Buddhism became established.
One of Trisong Detsen’s successors (41st King of Tibet) Tri Ralpachen became so obsessed with Buddhism, he had thousands of temples built and brought over more Indian gurus to translate more Sutras. This resulted in an economic downturn for Tibet, as Tri Ralpachen wanted more families to support the monks at the monasteries. Nonetheless, Buddhism had flourished to its utmost potential at 836 CE.
After the fall of Tibetan royal dynasty (which also brought down Buddhism) from 850 CE. to 950 CE., the development of Tibetan Buddhism picked up again, towards the late tenth century and early eleventh century. It was then, that the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism started to develop and become as they are today.
The religion is distinguished by its various forms, techniques and methods for reaching personal spiritual development, as well as finding the spiritual journey to enlightenment. The practices of meditation, teachings, practices of mantras, learning with the Lama, and Dharma, are all related and necessary to the process of spiritual development.
Firstly, with the help of mantras, which are short chanted phrases, one can make a connection with an enlightened individual (Buddha). To make a simple comparison, Buddha is a transcendent being who is not different from the rest of the human beings, but rather, a wise individual who transcended from ordinary person to an enlightened being through meditations and realizations. Another difference is that, when chanting a mantra, one does not ask for blessings, but rather, aiming to become like Buddha through intense focus - the same way Buddha once did.
It is a must for Tibetans to circle around the Dalai Lama’s palace while chanting the mantra of Avalokitesvara: Om Mani Padme Hum. This allows one’s mind to focus on the goals of attaining compassion and wisdom —two very important qualities that Buddhas possess.
Other than the mantra, another way to gain merit is by performing rituals, such as food and flower offerings, and also goods such as perfume and jewelry. They may also light butter lamps or get help from monks to do so.
Oh would you look at that - Similarities!
Like many other Buddhist or Hindu religions, Tibetan Buddhist tradition places great emphasis on the importance of the Lama —venerable teachers who go through an extensive course of study to prepare them for their role as "the bestowers of initiations and esoteric teachings". They are also given the honorific title of Rinpoche, or “Precious One".
Again, like Hinduism (or Sanãtana Dharma), Tibetan Buddhism believes in Dharma. The word has no direct translations to English, but it roughly means to always do good—a righteous “way of life” to live by to achieve enlightenment and ‘escape’ Samsara. There is no one particular way to practice Dharma, as long as it diminishes negativity in one’s life and increases peace and happiness, as well as compassion and wisdom (a reminder that these are the two qualities Buddha has that many aim to achieve).
Uniqueness - We all like it
It is key to note that if one practices this religion just for personal benefit, it is almost the same as doing a “bad deed”, thus yielding little to no merits at all, lengthening one’s path to enlightenment. Hence, one would have to dedicate the religious practices in the name of others; specifically, all sentient beings that roam the Earth. This can be done by dedicating all offerings given, in the name of others while reciting the mantras.
Symbolism is also prevalent in the religion. Temple walls are lined with prayer wheels (that ‘send out’ a prayer to every sentient being as one turns it) and decked with mantras, the movement of prayer flags (same functions as prayer wheels), monosyllables such as Om and Hum are inscribed into Stupas, shrines, jewelry and other daily items. The religion is so integrated into the daily life of those who practice it, that it is no longer a religion, but a “way of life”.
A Way of Life
The religion has become such a central part of how Tibetans (and others who do follow the religion) live, that it is no longer considered a religion, but rather, a lifestyle. Such transition happened for a reason: it aims not to discriminate, but integrate and accept anyone of any religion, as long as one aims to do good and not harm anyone in the process. Without it, the people of Tibet would not have a way to live as they are. When China wanted possession of Tibet during the 1950s, for example, the Dalai Lama had no choice but to give in to Mao Ze Dong’s demands. This left a significantly empty void in the timeline and development of the religion. Chinese authorities attempted to rid all practices of Tibetan Buddhism, as they thought the Communist way of life was the way everyone should live. This led to many problems that did not exist beforehand. Problems such as the rise in poverty, paired with the Chinese government’s abuse of power lead to many Tibetans being stripped off their basic human rights. Such bad things did not happen when their “way of life” was still allowed to be practiced freely. Before they were influenced by the Chinese, everyone had the freedom to practice compassion—doing things for others without asking for much in return. This altruistic behavior kept the peace and harmony with everyone in the community, and maintained a democratic feeling among the people. The altruistic behavior stemmed from the concept in Buddhism where one does good deeds in hopes of collecting enough ‘merits’ to then escape the cycle of Samsara when time comes.
In modern times, many have claimed to be followers of Tibetan Buddhism. More and more people are beginning to recognize the beauty of the “way of life”, and apply it to their personal lives. Tibetan Buddhism seems to have been spread all the way to as far as the US. Abbeys have been set up and approved by the Dalai Lama in states such as Washington and New Mexico. Although not the biggest religion in the US, it is still significantly large as it stands behind Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Hinduism. Research has shown that only 32% of the Buddhist population are Buddhists natively; 53% of the Buddhist population are Caucasian by ethnicity—most of them converts to the religion (Pew Research Center, 2008). Why is there a peak in interest of the religion—Tibetan Buddhism in particular?
WHY? (It's always the question, isn't it?)
What we can infer about the increased involvement in the Buddhist religion in the West, is the counterculture movements of the 1960s. (As discussed via Twitter with Professor Bennett.) Hippies (musicians, poets and writers alike) opposed the idea of the rigidity of organized religions, and embraced the flexibility, spirituality and raw messages that Buddhism (and other Eastern religions) is based around. Alongside that, Chinese immigrants arriving in America during the 19th century had already started worshipping the Buddha in temples built in California. This slowly led to Caucasian Americans discovering Buddha through reading books written by scholars of the Sanskrit language. The texts describe Buddha’s teachings as a technique of thoughts related to philosophy and morality—highlighting the importance of ethics and understanding the psychological aspects of an individual. Whereas in Christian beliefs, there is a “creator” (ie. God), an emphasis on church related rituals and a devotion to the faith (i.e. one cannot be associated with any other faith/religion), as demonstrated in mantras chanted by the followers of the religion.
Tibetan Buddhism has fairly been documented, thanks to successor generations who bring to reality the idea of reaching a righteous way of life through mantras, teachings, meditation, Dharma and other methods to guide an individual through the path of enlightenment. Although they are divided by several school of practices, their ultimate goal to escape Samsara is essentially the same. The practice itself is what differs, the emphasis in Hatha Yoga or limitations in the diet, such as banning alcohol and meat. To highlight the strength of the religion (“way of life”), Tibetans suffered, yet remained strong even under the stressful influence of China. Furthermore, nowadays Tibetan Buddhism is also a well-known, respected religion because of it’s rather neutral dogma, and the fact that they welcome individuals of any background into it. It is through this sense of perseverance and belief that the tibetans have which has made Tibetan Buddhism such a long-lasting tradition it is today.