The form of Buddhism that developed in Tibet in the 8th century is sometimes referred to as Tantric or Esoteric Buddhism, because it grew in part out of Indian Tantric practicies. However, it’s more commonly known today as Tibetan Buddhism, and it differs considerably from Zen and other forms of Buddhism. During the 7th century, the first king of a united Tibet introduced Buddhism into his country through marriages to Buddhist princesses from Nepal and China. He made Buddhism the state religion after converting from Bon, the indigenous religion of Tibet that combined shamanism, ritual divination, exorcism, and burial rites with belief in the doctrine of rebirth. Yet Buddhism failed to catch on in Tibet until 747, when another king invited the Indian Buddhist sage Padmasambhava to oversee the completion of a royal monastery there. Padma (popularly known as Guru Rinpoche, or “Precious Guru”) also began the first community of Tibetan lamas, or spiritual teachers.
To help popularize Buddhism with the Tibetan people, Padmasambhava incorporated certain superficial aspects of the Bon religion, adopting some local Tibetan deities and transforming some of the Bon deities and demons into lokapalas, or protective deities that embody the extreme forces of nature. Padmasambhava’s system became known as the Nyingma, or “Ancient” school, and is the oldest of Tibet’s four principal schools of Buddhism. The most advanced form of the Nyingma teaching is known as Dzogchen, or “Great perfection,” which holds that the pure and perfect nature of mind already exists within each of us, and needs only to be recognized. The other major orders of Tibetan Buddhism today ar the Sakya, Kagyu, and Geluk.
The esoteric aspects of Tibetan Buddhism derive from Padmasambhava’s origins as a professor of Tantric Yoga at the Buddhist University in Nalanda, India, and his reputed skills in occultism. The story goes that Padma Sambhava was originally invited to exorcise demons that were causing earthquakes and preventing the Tibetan king from building a Buddhist monastery there. Padma expelled the demons, the earthquakes quit, the locals were suitably impressed, and he was given control over the monastery. He is also traditionally credited with having originated the Bardo Thodol Chenmo, popularly known in the West as The Tibetan Book of the Dead, a guidebook for passing through the afterlife experience, viewed as a series of varying states of consciousness between death and rebirth.
By the 17th century, as the secularization of society was well under way in Europe, China, and Japan, Tibet was combining its secular government with a powerful and highly developed chain of Buddhist monastic orders. As all three major teachings of Buddhism — Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana — were being expounded pretty much simultaneously by the various Tibetan schools, Tibet developed an extraordinarily rich array of spiritual teachings and practices, from the broadly devotional to the deeply esoteric. Most of these teachings are available today in the West, offering advanced yogic techniques and meditation practices, visualizations, chanting, brightly colored mandalas and thangkas (iconographic scroll paintings), devotional prayer and services. The increasing appeal of these teachings in America has been highlighted by the surprising best seller status of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by a Cambridge-educated Tibetan lama named Sogyal Rinpoche, who had previously been little known outside of Buddhist circles.
Having been established for a longer time in the West, Zen has produced more American dharma-successors with authentic ties to Asian Buddhist lineages. However, the Tibetan tradition has also begun to produce American dharma-successors, notably Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun and one of the foremost students of Chogyam Trungpa, who was instrumental in bringing Tibetan teachings to the West. In 1986, she was named director of Gampo Abbey, a monastery for Western men and women in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.
The apparent tragedy of the devastation of Tibet’s people, monasteries, and sacred art treasures by the communist invaders is seen by many Tibetans, including the Dalai Lama, as serving a necessary, if painful, function. At the very least, it has brought about the departure of many highly realized lamas to the West, where they are spreading their teachings to a new and receptive audience.