The Shocking Origin of Tibetan Buddhism
In contrast with the Buddhist schools that originated in India, Tibetan Buddhism is the new kid on the block. Chronologically speaking, first came Theravada (Hinayana) and Mahayana followed 2-3 centuries later. However, it was not until about the 6th century A.C.E. that the forefather of Tibetan Buddhism – Vajrayana became established in Northern India.
The Vajrayana meaning is a combination of 2 Sanskrit words “vajra” and “yana”, the English translation is “diamond vehicle”. The allure of Vajrayana is its expediency. Indeed, it offers an fast track method that can result in achieving Buddhahood in a single lifetime. This expedient method was founded by a radical sect of ancient Indian gurus called mahasiddhas.
The practice of Vajrayana Buddhism incorporated mantras, mandalas, mudras and visualization of Buddhas and deities.
Furthermore, these mahasiddhas were openly hostile to the existing monastic order of Buddhism. As such, they incorporated controversial and sometimes shocking rituals into their practice.
Disdain of the Mahasiddhas
The open disdain of the mahasiddhas was exhibited by visiting charnel grounds (open air cemeteries) to practice meditation. As part of their shocking practice rituals they also ingested taboo substances such as meat, urine and alcohol. However, they would go even further by performing sexual acts and taking human body parts as accouterments.
Additionally, their pursuit of magical powers (siddhis) would result in the association of Vajrayana (and subsequently Tibetan Buddhism) with shamanism.
The Inception of Tibetan Buddhism
Vajrayana began to be assimilated into Tibet sometime in the 8th century. Although Tibetan Buddhism is quite similar to Vajrayana, there were some novel elements that were incorporated in Tibet. For example: besides translation into the Tibetan language, additional elements include Dzogchen, new sadhana texts, the tulku system, Terma literature and Tibetan scholastic works.
Santaraksita was an Indian Buddhist master that was instrumental in the integration of Tibetan Buddhism. At the behest of the Tibetan King Trisong Detsen he traveled to Tibet from Northern India sometime before 767 A.C.E. Santaraksita is widely attributed with the translation of the teachings into the Tibetan language and the establishment of the first monastery at Samye.
Historical records of Santaraksita are few, however his mythical attributes have been widely embraced in Tibet. This has resulted in some very intriguing legends such as the one surrounding the construction of the first monastery at Samye.
Tibetan Buddhism Facts & Myths
An auspicious location for the Samye monastery was chosen and construction was initiated. However, every time construction reached a certain stage the structure would inexplicably collapse. The workers were very disturbed by this and were convinced that it was a bad omen caused by a local demon.
Soon afterwards a contemporary of Santaraksita known as Padmasambhava (lotus born) arrived at Samye. When asked about his origins Padmasambhava replied:
“My father is the self arisen Samantabhadra and my mother is the sphere of reality Samantabhadri. My caste is the union of primordial reality and dhammadhatu (Realm of Phenomenon) and my name is the glorious Samantabhadra.”
Padmasambhava performed the Vajrakilaya dance and implemented the “rite of namkha”. These sacred rituals apprehended the evil at Samye and removed the obscurations that hindered the completion of the first monastery.
He then trapped all the evil spirits at Samye in a skull that was perched on top of a pyramid shaped mound of dough. As such, the mystical tantric dance of Padmasambhava had purified the ground for construction of the monastery.
Thanks to the effective rituals performed by Padmasambhava, construction was completed in 767 A.C.E. Additionally, completion of the Samye monastery laid the foundation of the first school of Tibetan Buddhism known as Nyingma for which Padmasambhava is the founder.
As a result of the miracles performed by Padmasambhava, his tantric form of Buddhism was chosen by the king over of the sutra based teachings of Santaraksita. However, the recorded Tibetan Buddhism history surrounding both of them is very limited. As a result one could speculate that Santaraksita and Padmasambhava were indeed one in the same.
The Fate of the Samye Monastery
The monastery at Samye would serve as an important metaphor for Tibetan Buddhism history. Unfortunately, the demons that Padmasambhava had exorcised would return and the monastery would fall into ruin.
Again and again the buildings on the monastery grounds would be rebuilt and then destroyed by fire, earthquakes, war and the cultural revolution of the Chinese communists. Finally, in 1986 a replica of the Samye monastery was constructed where it serves as an important pilgrimage and touristic destination.
Tibetan Buddhism Destruction and Renaissance
Similar to it’s original monastery at Samye, Tibetan Buddhism would disintegrate along with the Tibetan empire in the 9th and 10th centuries.
However, in the 11th century Tibetan Buddhism history would experience a renaissance. As a result, Indian Buddhism masters were once again invited to visit Tibet. Over time this resulted in a diverse evolution of Tibetan Buddhism creating 4 main schools and lineages.
After the renaissance of Tibetan Buddhism in the 11th century, Tibet would successfully handle the invasion of the Mongols and successive Chinese dynastic rulers. However, the political turbulence of the 20th century imposed unbearable hardship on the political autonomy of Tibet.
Indeed, the rise of the Chinese Communists after WWII would nearly destroy Tibetan Buddhism once and for all. However, on March 17, 1959 the 14th Dalai Llama escaped into exile across the Indian border where he has reestablished the foundation of Tibetan Buddhism at Dharamshala in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh.
The persistence and the political savvy of the 14th Dalai Llama has created a new renaissance. Once again, Tibetan Buddhism has been close to the brink of annihilation only to be reborn again.