Tibetan Buddhism

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Tibetan Buddhism
, predominant religion of Tibet and Mongolia, also called Lamaism; it is essentially Buddhism of the Mahayana school, with elements of modified Shaivism and native ritualistic shamanism. In AD 747 the Buddhist monk and scholar Padmasambhava (Sanskrit "born of the lotus flower") journeyed from northern India to Tibet, where he established the first order of lamas, or monks. Thereafter the religion spread rapidly. Tibetan Buddhist worship consists mainly in reciting prayers and sacred texts and chanting hymns to the accompaniment of horns, trumpets, and drums. For this worship, which takes place three times a day, the clergy are summoned by the tolling of a small bell and are seated in rows according to their rank. Religious rites performed by the lamas involve the use of rosaries, (known in Tibetan as pren-ba), prayer wheels, and prayer flags, in addition to holy relics, charms, talismans, and such mystical incantations as the frequently repeated om mani padme h'um (o lotus jewel, amen).


The Buddhism of Tibet is organized according to a traditional hierarchy. The supreme position is occupied by two lamas—namely, the Grand, or Dalai, Lama, and the Panchen, or Bogodo, Lama. Before the Chinese invasion of the area in 1950, both lamas theoretically had the same authority, but in actuality the Dalai Lama, possessing a greater temporal jurisdiction, was considerably more powerful. Next in rank are the Hutukhtus, or spiritual dignitaries. The third order is that of the Hobilghans, or bodhisattvas, those who have undertaken various ethical and spiritual disciplines with a view to achieving Buddhahood, or complete enlightenment. These three orders constitute the so-called higher clergy, the members of which are regarded as the incarnations of Buddhist saints. A lower clergy is recruited on the basis of probity and theological proficiency. The lower clergy has four orders: the novice, the assistant priest, the religious mendicant, and the teacher or abbot. The members of each order must take a vow of celibacy. Most live in monasteries.

Rituals, Holidays, and Scriptures

Much of the ritual of Tibetan Buddhism is based on the esoteric mysticism of Tantra, devotions that involve both yoga and mantra, or a mystical formula, and ancient shamanistic practices. On special holidays the temples, shrines, and altars of the lamas are decorated with symbolic figures; milk, butter, tea, flour, and similar offerings are brought by the worshipers, animal sacrifices being strictly forbidden. Tibetan Buddhist religious festivals are numerous. The most notable are New Year's, celebrated in February and marking the commencement of spring; the Flower Feast, held at the beginning of summer in commemoration of the incarnation of the Buddha; and the Water Feast, observed in August and September to mark the start of autumn.

The scriptures of Tibetan Buddhism are divided into two great collections: the canon, or sacred books, and the exegetical commentary. The canon, consisting of counsels and injunctions of the Buddha rendered from Indian and Chinese texts, contains more than 1000 works, which in some editions fill more than 100 volumes of approximately 1000 pages each. The commentary is likewise voluminous, but does not have the canonical authority of the canon.

Since 1950, many Tibetans have emigrated in the wake of Chinese repression. Tibetan refugees in India and Nepal continue the traditional practice of their religion. In both Europe and North America, a number of Tibetan lamas have emerged as influential religious teachers. Although numerous Tibetan Buddhist centers have been founded, these tend to emphasize meditation and ritual rather than traditional scholastic pursuits.

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