A Brief Historical Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism

Excerpted from The Words of My Perfect Teacher by Patrul Rinpoche.


Gautama, the Buddha was born in Northern India in the fifth century BC, the son of a king who brought him up as heir to the throne. His birth and youth were remarkable, and it was clear from the beginning that the young prince Siddhartha was destined to be an extraordinary being. His early life was spent in palatial luxury, with few worries or cares, and he excelled in all the pursuits of his time, both academic and athletic.

Before long, however, he began to doubt the validity of his worldly life. Fleeing his father’s palace, he sought a more meaningful life, studying under a number of highly regarded masters of philosophy and meditation. Such was the sincerity of his quest that he rapidly achieved the highest meditational accomplishments that these masters could teach him, but he was still not satisfied. Despite years of strenuous ascetic practice, he found that none of these systems could take him beyond the limits of conditioned existence. He decided to continue his search alone, and through his own efforts finally attained enlightenment at present-day Bodh Gaya. What he discovered was so profound and vast that at first he was reluctant to reveal it to anyone else, fearing that none would understand it. Later however he began teaching, and quickly attracted a large following of disciples, many of whom became highly accomplished in meditation.

The diversity of people who came to the Buddha to receive his teaching and practice his path called for a corresponding diversity in the way in which he taught, and different individuals or groups received different instructions appropriate to their respective temperaments and intellectual abilities. The teachings that the Buddha taught during his lifetime can therefore be broadly divided into three categories – those that were eventually collected together in the Pali Canon and form the basis for what is now known as the Theravada School, emphasizing moral discipline and ethics; the teachings of the Mahayana, or Great Vehicle, which stress compassion and concern for others; and the tantric teachings of the Vajrayana or Secret Mantrayana, which use an enormous variety of skilful methods to bring about profound realization in a relatively short time. The latter were given by the Buddha himself only on a limited scale, but he predicted that they would be spread in this world by other enlightened beings, who would appear later. This is why the Vajrayana is no less a Buddhist teaching than the other two schools, even though it was not widely taught in the Buddha’s lifetime.

After the Buddha’s death the differences between the various teachings that he had given became more rigidly apparent as different schools and traditions took shape. The present Theravada tradition, for example, has its beginnings in a group of the Buddha’s disciples which later divided into eighteen schools. The Mahayana similarly diversified into a number of traditions, each with their own subtly individual philosophical differences. The same is true for the Vajrayana, in which there is an immense variety of practices, many of which were originally taught only to a single individual.

During the centuries that followed, these different traditions were gradually propagated all over India and further afield, until Buddhism had extended its influence through much of Central, Eastern and Southern Asia, even as far as Indonesia. Some traditions were lost entirely, others merged into newer forms of Buddhism. By the thirteenth century, AD, the arrival of Islam and political changes in Indian society had driven the Buddhadharma from its land of origin, and it was in other countries that the teachings were preserved – the Theravada in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand and Cambodia, the Mahayana in China, Japan, Korea and Indo-China, and the Vajrayana mainly in Tibet. Tibet was doubly fortunate. Not only was it one of the few countries in which the Vajrayana continued to be practiced, it was also the only one in which the full range of teachings, from all three traditions, was transmitted and preserved.

Over the centuries these many strands of the Buddha’s teaching have been handed down from master to student in the numerous lineages which comprise the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism we know today. The members of these lineages were not simply learned scholars who studied the teachings they received, but fully realized individuals who had practiced and mastered what had been transmitted to them, and were thus fully qualified to pass on the teachings to their students.

Of these four, the Nyingma school (whose name derives from the Tibetan for “old”) follows the traditions which were originally introduced in the eighth century by such Indian masters as Santaraksita, Vimalamitra and Padmasambhava, whom the Tibetans refer to as Guru Rinpoche, “the Precious Master,” and handed down through fully realized Tibetan masters such as Longchenpa, Jigme Lingpa and Jamyang Khyenste Wangpo. The lineages which have been passed down to the other three main schools – the Kagyupa, Sakyapa and Gelugpa – were introduced into Tibet after the tenth century following the attempts by an anti-Buddhist king to destroy the Dharma in Tibet. Just as the different forms of Buddhism in other parts of Asia had been adopted and had evolved to meet the needs of different peoples and cultures, each of these four schools had its origins and development in widely diverging situations – historical, geographical and even political – which served as a prism to split the light of the Buddha’s teaching into a many-coloured spectrum of traditions and lineages.

The enormous range of teachings to be found within Tibetan Buddhism can nevertheless be summarized by the Four Noble Truths, which the Buddha expounded shortly after his enlightenment. The first of those points out that our conditioned existence is never free from a state of suffering, never truly satisfactory. Any happiness we have is only temporary and in due course gives way to suffering. The reason for this, as explained by the second truth, is that any action one may do, say or think gives rise to a result which as to be experienced either later in one’s life or in a future life. Indeed, rebirth is the result of one’s actions, and the conditions into which one is born in one life are directly dependent on the actions one has done in previous lives, and particularly the motives and attitudes involved. This, the principle of cause and effect, explains why, for example, some people remain poor all their lives despite their efforts to become wealthy, while others have everything they could want even though they do nothing to gain it. The second truth goes on to show that the driving force behind our actions is the negative emotions such as hatred, attachment, pride, jealousy and, especially ignorance, which is the root of all of the others. This ignorance concerns not only a lack of wisdom in how we act, but the basic ignorance behind how we ordinarly perceive the whole of existence and constantly become caught in our clinging to the idea of our own egos and of the outer world as solid and lasting. Because there is no end to our actions, there can be no end to our continuously taking rebirth in the cycle of conditioned existence. Only when we cease to act through ignorance can this cycle be broken, as shown by the third truth which expounds the cessation of suffering and freedom from conditioned existence.

The fourth truth explains the way through which this can be achieved. This essentially means, on the one hand, the accumulation of positive actions, such as venerating and making offerings to the Buddha, Dharma (his teaching), and Sangha (the community of practitioners), and practicing charity and so on; and on the other hand, the practice of meditation, which can directly dispel the root ignorance which is the cause of suffering. A practitioner who follows this path with only his own liberation in mind can attain a high degree of realization and become an Arhat (one who has overcome negative emotions.) But this is not full enlightenment. Only those who have as their motivation the good and ultimate enlightenment of all other beings can attain final Buddhahood. Such practitioners, who follow the path of the Great Vehicle based on compassion, are known as Bodhisattvas. A Boddhisattva who moreover practices the profound and skilful teaching of the Vajrayana is able to become fully enlightened in a very short time.

During his lifetime the Buddha created a community of monks and nuns who became the core for upholding and continuing the teachings. This did not, however, exclude lay men and women as serious followers of the path, and this was reflected in Tibet where, from the 8th century onwards, the community of practitioners comprised two complementary congregations: on the one hand, a very large monastic community, and on the other a strong tradition of practitioners with lay ordination, whether yogis or householders, many of whom would appear to be leading ordinary lives while following an inner spiritual path and eventually attaining full realization. Within the Nyingmapa tradition monastic ordination is considered a very useful support for the practice, but by no means the only way to progress in meditation. This is encouraging for those who seriously wish to put the teachings into practice but are unable to involve themselves in a monastic lifestyle.

Albert Einstein once pointed out that Buddhism was the tradition that he felt fulfilled the criteria he thought necessary for a spiritual path adapted to the twentieth century. Today modern physicists are drawing conclusions which approach the doctrines the Buddha expounded two thousand five hundred years ago. While the attractions of materialism have had an adverse affect on traditional spiritual life throughout Asia, there are increasing numbers of people in the West who are showing an interest in the possibilities offered by the study and practice of Buddhism.

When the continuity of the Buddhist lineages was threatened by the political changes in Tibet in the nineteen fifties, numerous qualified lamas, who had not only received the proper lineage transmissions from their teachers, but also, through study and meditation, gained full understanding and realization of the teachings, sought to preserve them by bringing them to India. At the same time, some Western visitors to India began to show an interest in these lamas and their spiritual heritage. Since it has been said by Guru Rinpoche, that, of the Buddha’s teachings, the Vajrayana would prove especially powerful and effective for individuals living in a time when emotions are stronger than ever, many teachers felt that it would be appropriate to introduce these teachings to the West. The Vajrayana is particularly flexible and adaptable to the sorts of situations in which modern people find themselves, and, without losing its traditional form, has now been taught to a wide range of people all over the world.

The Tertön Tradition in Tibetan Buddhism

H.E. Namkha Drimed is a Tertön, or Discoverer of Dharma Treasures called Termas. H.E. Namkha Drimed has received treasures concerning the complete aspects of the Gesar of the Three Roots and of the accomplishment of the Four Activities combined together, as well as Phurba, Yeshe Tsogyal, Dorje Drolo, the heart practice of the Guru, Dzogchen, and so forth. He has received these many profound dharma treasures at the appropriate time in order to clear the degeneration of the dharma and beings and up until the present moment has revealed the auspicious number (eight) volumes of terma.

Here is a description of the tradition, excerpted with permission from “The Hidden Teachings of Tibet” by Tulku Thondup Rinpoche:

“Termas are scriptures that have been deliberately concealed and discovered at successively appropriate times by realized masters through their enlightened power. They represent a most profound, authentic and powerful tantric form of Buddhist training. Hundreds of Tertöns, have found thousands of volumes of scripture and sacred objects hidden in earth, water, sky, mountains, rocks and mind. By practicing these teachings, many of their followers have reached the state of full enlightenment, Buddhahood. Various schools of Buddhism in Tibet have Termas but the Nyingma school has the richest tradition.

The source of Dharma Treasure, the person who established the Terma system of the Nyingma, is Guru Padmasambhava, assisted by his consort Yeshey Tsogyal. There are also teachings that were concealed or reconcealed by his disciples, such as Vairocana, and their reincarnations, and also by Vimalamitra, a great Indian scholar and sage of the ninth century.

The Termas are tantric scriptures, notably of the three Inner Tantras. There are two types of concealment of the Nyingma Termas. The first is Earth Terma, the concealment and discovery of the Terma using symbolic scripts as the key. Symbolic scripts written on scrolls of paper are concealed in rocks, lakes and temples. It is called Earth Terma because symbolic scripts on scrolls of paper are used as the key to awaken the recollection of the teaching that has been concealed in the essential nature of minds. Sometimes the whole text of the teaching is discovered at the concealment place. All the sacred objects discovered as Termas are also Earth Termas.

The second is Mind Terma. In most cases of this type, the discoverers find the symbolic scripts in their minds first, then the symbolic scripts become the key to the discovery of the teachings. The significant characteristic of the Nyingma Terma system is that Guru Padmasambhava concealed the teachings in the essential nature of the minds of his realized disciples through his Mind-mandate Transmission power. So, Nyingma Termas are not scriptures that are concealed in a realm or place as books and then rediscovered or brought back as the same physical text. Rather, they are discovered through the awakening of the teachings from the nature of the minds of the realized disciples of Guru Padmasambhava and others.”

King Gesar of Ling


With respect to his mind termas, from The Story of the Secret Key, Padmasambhava says:

In that turbulent degenerating time
I Lotus-born Guru, will promulgate for the benefit of future generations
Various sadhana practices appropriate to the times
For the purpose of pacifying, enriching, magnetizing and destroying,
Particulary, wrathful rites for averting armies at the border,
According to the tradition of Gesar, heroic tamer of negative forces.

Gesar of Ling, one of the four main ancestral sovereigns of Shambhala, represents the quintessence of the Tibetan warrior tradition—an enlightened being who took birth as a Buddhist warrior king to defeat the enemies of the dharma.

As the Vidyadhara Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche explains in his Foreward to “The Superhuman Life of Gesar of Ling” by Alexandra David-Neel and Lama Yongden:

“In order for us to understand Gesar of Ling, the great warrior king of Tibet, it is necessary first to understand the principle of warriorship itself. This concept has for centuries been the heart of the lineage of Gesar of Ling, whose Tibetan descendents still exist today. Although it has been somewhat influenced by Buddhism, as has virtually all of Tibetan culture, basically the principle of warriorship stands on its own.

By warriorship we are not particularly talking about the skills necessary to wage war in the conventional sense. We are not talking about learning how to handle lethal weapons and crank up our aggression and territoriality so that we can burst forth and conquer all our enemies. Warriorship here refers to realizing the power, dignity and wakefulness that is inherent in all of us as human beings. It is awakening our basic human confidence which allows us to cheer up, develop a sense of vision and succeed in what we are doing.

Because warriorship is innate in human beings, the way to become a warrior – or the warrior’s path – is to see who and what we are as human beings and cultivate that. Gesar represents the ideal warrior, the principle of all-victorious confidence. As the central force of sanity he conquers all his enemies, the evil forces of the four directions, who turn people’s minds away from the true teachings of Buddhism, the teachings that say it is possible to attain ultimate self-realization. These enemies of the four directions represent quite graphically the different manifestations of cowardly mind which the ideal warrior subjugates through the power of his unconquerable confidence.

Gesar’s magical weapons and his magnificent winged charger, Kyan Go Karkar, are also important principles of energy in the warrior’s world. Weapons are the symbol of warriorship itself. The warrior does not carry weapons because he is afraid of being attacked, but rather as an expression of who he is. Weapons actually magnetize the qualities of warriorship and inspire the warrior to be brave and very gentle. Gesar’s winged horse symbolizes the warrior’s confidence. He is the ideal image of something beautiful, romantic, energetic and wild that the warrior can actually capture and ride. Such a horse could be very dangerous and unworkable, but the idea here is that when the warrior has challenged and conquered the enemies of the four directions, then he can ride the great winged horse of confidence and success with dignity and pride.

The Ocean of Play of Buddha Activity

A Daily Supplication to the Warrior Gesar, the Great Being Döndrup, King of Werma, Tamer of Enemies.

Namkha Drimed Rinpoche, who had originally requested the text in 1958, recalls:

“In July and August of 1958, I attended the Rinchen Terdzö empowerments that Trungpa Rinpoche was giving at Yak monastery in Tsawa Gang. That was the first time I met Trungpa Rinpoche. I already had a very personal connection with Gesar. I had received some Gesar terma teachings, but they were not complete. Realizing that Trungpa Rinpoche was a great master and also had a very special connection to Gesar, I asked him to write something for me. He immediately wrote down the Gesar supplication, The Ocean of the Play of Buddha Activity. After the text was copied, he sealed the original and presented it to me.

During the empowerments, we were occasionally able to talk about our Drala, Werma, and Gesar visions. Since I was young, I have been guided by visions of Gesar in various forms. Whenever I received prophecies, Gesar was in the form of a young boy dressed in white. I knew that this boy was an aspect of Gesar, but did not know his name. As soon as I mentioned this to Trungpa Rinpoche, he identified the boy as Akar Werma. Today, whenever I perform a Gesar arrow divination, I base it on the Akar Werma sadhana.

At one point during the empowerment, I was not well for a few days. Trungpa Rinpoche came to visit me and blessed me with a very beautiful phurba. The phurba, twelve inches long, was a terma that Trungpa Rinpoche used for special blessings. A few days later, I was fully recovered.

At the end of the empowerments, Trungpa Rinpoche told me that times were changing and that many uncertainties were approaching. There were already Chinese intrusions in the area of Surmang, but my own monastery was still quiet. Nevertheless, Trungpa Rinpoche was very clear that things were about to change. He said that he had to return to Surmang at least one more time, but that he would soon leave again—this time not in monk’s robes, but in the dress of a lay person. After presenting me khatas and offerings, he asked me to give him my blessing and to pray for the success of his journey.

In 1959, I left my monastery with my family and a group of monastics. It was a difficult journey, because we could not travel on the established routes, which were being watched closely by the Chinese. I devised our escape route through gorges and mountains, based mostly on Gesar prophecy and arrow divinations. During our escape, Trungpa Rinpoche and I met at Nyewo and conferred to confirm the safety of our route. Trungpa Rinpoche used mirror divination, and I used arrow divination, but the results were nearly the same. We decided to follow the route through Trakke, which has very harsh terrain and difficult gorges to pass through.

Trungpa Rinpoche and I met again on the plateau of Rigong-kha and consulted with one another. We thought about joining our two groups, but decided against it. Since I was leading a group of about a hundred people and Trungpa Rinpoche had an equal number or more, traveling together would have been very difficult and dangerous. However, Rinpoche’s mirror divination indicated that we would arrive safely in India, no matter which route we took.

Trungpa Rinpoche took the route along the Kongpo mountain range and eventually escaped through the region of Pemakö. I followed the water route, which was easier but longer, because there were more old and infirm people in my group. At one point, we were captured by the Chinese. As we were dressed as ordinary lay persons, no one could tell who was a lama or a leader. For some reason, the Chinese left my family alone, but sent everyone else back to Kham. This was truly a miracle. The fact that my entire family was able to escape together was only possible through the grace, power, and blessings of Gesar.”

Sacred Stories, Songs and Poems

This song of Milarepa’s provides wonderful inspiration for women seekers of enlightenment. It describes his meeting with Sahle Aui, who became one of the four foremost yogini disciples of the Jetsun. Here, she supplicates Milarepa for teachings:

Please listen to me,
Great Repa Yogi, the accomplished One.
When I look at human lives
They remind me of dew on grass.
Thinking thus, my heart is full of grief.

When I see my friends and relatives,
They are as merchants passing in the street.
Thinking thus, my heart is grieved and sad.

When I see goods hard to earn
They remind me of the honey
Of hard-working bees.
Thinking thus, my heart is filled with grief.

When I see my native land,
It suggests a den of vice.
Thinking thus, my heart is sad.

By day, I contemplate this truth,
At night, I think about it without sleep.

Because of my good deeds in former lives,
I was born this time a human being.
My past life drives me from behind,
Cooking and household duties pull me on.
I draw closer to death every minute.
This decaying body
At any time may fall.
My breath, like morning-fog,
At any time may disappear.
Thinking thus, I cannot sleep.
Thinking thus, my heart is sad.

Oh, my Father Jetsun,
For the sake of Dharma I visit you.
Pray bless, protect and pity me,
And grant me the holy Teachings!

With ignorant and bewildered mind
I have thought and searched.
In the depths of my heart
I have reflected on the transiency of life.
I have seen death strike down both young and old
Since first I saw the light of day.

Life is precarious and fleeting
Like dew upon the grass.
Time flies unnoticed, and then life is o’er.
I have never seen or heard of an immortal man.
I am certain beyond doubt
That I shall die one day.
I have no freedom or choice.
Of where to go when I am dead.
I am sad and fearful
When I think of the pains that I
In Lower Realms might bear.

This world is but a play –
The endless toil of housework,
The struggle for a living,
Leaving one’s gracious parents,
Giving up one’s life to one’s betrothed –
If into the Lower Realms one falls,
Progress and Liberation will be lost.

Sometimes to myself I thought,
How does it make sense –
Freely to give yourself with your parents’ goods
To someone who for life enslaves you as a servant?

At first a lover is an angel,
Next a demon, frightening and outrageous,
In the end a fierce elephant,
Who threatens to destroy you.
Thinking thus, I feel sad and weary.
Now, this maid shall devote herself to the Dharma,
Now, she will join her Vajra-brothers!

Most men are but credit-collectors;
Seldom does a gifted one appear.
First they steal your youthful beauty,
Next they snatch your food away,
Then they pull jewels from your hands.
Thinking thus, I feel sick at heart.
Now, I shall devote myself to practicing the Dharma.
Hereafter I shall foster the children of Wisdom.

Houses and temples are like prisons;
At first, they break your heart,
Then they give you an aching back,
In the end, they leave you in despair.
Thinking thus, I feel sick at heart.
This maid will now devote herself
To building a chapel for the immortal Dhyana.