tibetan buddhism
Photo courtesy of Yale University Press

Tibetan Buddhism is attracting Buddhist from all over, but what exactly is it? Sam van Schaik, a leading writer and researcher on Tibet, offers an accessible introduction to Tibetan Buddhism by examining key points. A comprehensive overview of the richness of the popular teachings and concepts in Tibetan Buddhism will give insight into rebirth, compassion, mindfulness and the graduated path. Written for those new to the practice, this introduction into the world of Tibetan Buddhism provides a deep and broad understanding.

Excerpt from The Spirit of Tibetan Buddhism, pages 2-4

In a wider circle around the teacher and his or her lay students is the Buddhist community or sangha. In its broadest and most inclusive sense, the sangha includes all Buddhists, all over the world. But the word is more often used to refer to smaller communities, the monks and lay people associated with a particular monastery, teacher, or Buddhist centre. It is these groups that will come together for the regular practices of listening to teachings, meditation, recitation of prayers, and other ritual activities. Thus Tibetan Buddhism is far from the inward-looking, self-involved practice that images of meditating monks might suggest.

What, then, is Tibetan Buddhism for? Or, to put it another way, what is the attraction for those who were not born into this tradition? Like all other Buddhist traditions, Tibetan Buddhism is informed by the original motivation expressed by the Buddha in his early sermons: to escape the cycle of suffering by losing one’s illusions and ‘waking up’ (Sanskrit, budh) to the way things really are. The will to become an awakened person (Skt. buddha) is motivated by love and compassion, and the wish to free all sentient beings from suffering.

As in other Buddhist traditions, investigation into the nature of the mind and reality plays an important part in Tibetan Buddhism. In fact it is probably the most philosophically sophisticated modern Buddhist tradition, not only having preserved the major philosophical schools that developed in India, but also with a vibrant tradition of philosophical thought, commentary, and debate. Sometimes it is asked whether Buddhism should be considered a religion or a philosophy. That question is based on a distinction between religion and philosophy that arose in seventeenth-century Europe; in Buddhism it makes little sense to try to tease them apart. Philosophy is present in Buddhism, but always in the service of liberation from suffering. Thus, despite certain similarities, comparisons between Buddhist philosophies and modern academic philosophy are likely to be unsatisfactory because of their quite different aims.

What makes Tibetan Buddhism different from other Buddhist traditions, such as the Theravada, or the Zen schools of Japan, is the great variety of practices that were brought to Tibet from India and incorporated into the Buddhist path. These practices comprise the three ‘vehicles’ (so called because each represents a way of travelling the path to enlightenment): the early teachings of the Buddha, known in Tibet as the vehicle of the hearers, or the lesser vehicle (hīnayāna); the scriptures and practices of the greater vehicle (mahāyāna); and the full range of practices of the diamond vehicle (vajrayāna). Since the practices of vajrayāna derive from texts known as tantras, vajrayāna is also commonly known as ‘tantric Buddhism.’

A little more should be said about these three vehicles. The hīnayāna refers to teachings that are now practiced by the Theravada sect in South and Southeast Asia, but since members of the Theravada certainly do not consider their path to be ‘lesser,’ they do not accept it as a description. Thus the term hīnayāna is only used by those who consider themselves as belonging to the mahāyāna, as a way of distinguishing scriptures (sūtra) and practices that are specific to their ‘greater’ vehicle. The main differentiating feature of the mahāyāna is the importance of the ideal of the bodhisattva, who strives for liberation not only for him or herself, but for all living beings, and the practices associated with bodhisattvas as Tārā, the embodiment of compassionate activity.

For most people it is the artwork, material culture, and ritual practices of the vajrayāna that give Tibetan Buddhism its distinct character. Yet the vajrayāna is considered to be an extension of the mahāyāna, not a departure, as the vajrayāna is still based on the motivation to save all sentient beings from the cycle of suffering, but with more powerful practices to accomplish this aim. Thus there is no great disconnect from other Buddhist traditions. The great success of the practitioners and scholars of Tibet was to integrate the tantric practices of the vajrayāna with the aims and philosophy of mahāyāna in coherent systems of practice (or ‘paths’), staring at the beginning of spiritual practice and ending with the state of enlightenment itself.

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