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Almost all Tibetans follow Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism is called “Buddhism” by the local Tibetans, without any words to qualify it. Elsewhere in the outside world it is know as Lamaism, Tibetan Buddhism etc.
Before Buddhism was introduced into Tibet, Tibetans followed the primitive Bo religion (also known as Bon or Black religion), mainly concerned with driving out evil spirits and divining luck.
Buddhism spread from the Central Plains and Nepal into Tibet during the 7th century, particularly during the ZhenGuan years of Tang Dynasty (Zhen Guan was the name given by the emperor to symbolize the years when he reigned).
Songtsan Gambo (a king in Tibet) was influenced by his wives Princess Khridzun of Nepal and Princess Wencheng of China's Tang Dynasty towards Buddhism. He also began the creation of Tibetan calligraphy and the translation of Buddhist scriptures. Thus Buddhism rose in popularity in Tibet while Bon went into decline. Buddhism spread quickly, and has exerted an extensive and profound influence on the Tibetan race in terms of Tibetan values, morals, psychology and the mode of thinking.
In the late 8th century, in order to shield and sustain Buddhism, Trison Detsan built many monasteries and translated a large number of Buddhist scriptures. He invited Zhibatsho and Padmasambhava, famous Indian monks, to carry forward the spirit of Buddhism. Padmasambhava combined elements from the Indian Esoteric Sect with the Tibetan primitive Bon religion to form “Tibetan Esoteric Buddhism”(or Tibetan Tantrism). Since then, Tibetan Buddhism separated from the Central Plains, and although deeply influenced by Indian Buddhism developed a style of its own.
In 837 BC, the Tibetan King Tritso Detsan was assassinated and Langdarma, who was supported by Bon forces, ascended the throne. He persecuted Buddhists, forced monks and nuns to resume secular life and was later killed by Buddhists. Though Langdarma had only reigned in Tibet for four years, he brought great destruction to Tibetan Buddhism.
After the strike, Tibetan Buddhism had been quiet for more than a century and it began to revive at the beginning of the 11th century. After the mid-11th century, numerous Buddhist Acts emerged, including the Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu and Gelug sects and since then Buddhism prospered again. It was the prevailing period of Tibetan Buddhism. At the time many different independent sects appeared.
The doctrine of the Tibetan Buddhism is based on the Mahavairocana-sutra and the Kalacakraindriya-sutra but priority is given to Mahavairocana-sutra. The four Characteristics of Tibetan Buddhism are the constant practice of its paternoster; highly respect to Lamas; beliefs in reincarnation and the combination of religion and politics.
Four main sects of Tibetan Buddhism
One of the main Characteristics of Tibetan Buddhism is that, for a long time in the history, Tibetan kings reigned with a combination of religion and politics. Most Tibetan people believe in Buddhism and they are devout to it. It has a strong mysterious color, especially with the reincarnation system which is a distinct feature of Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism focuses on religious practice and has a large number of followers. Numerous Buddhist Acts emerged during a long time of development, including some main sects as Nyingma, Gagyu, Sakya and Gelug sects.
- Nyingma-Red Sect
This sect has a loose organization and focuses on mantra practice. It does not have systematic doctrines and complete ranking system among monks. Nyingmapa lamas respected Indian Buddhism as their origin, absorbed their doctrine, built monasteries and finally became an independent sect. Because its lamas wear red robes and caps, it is also known as the Red Sect.
- Gagyu-White Sect
The 3 famous major masters of the Gagyu Sect are Marba, Milha Riba and Tabolhagyi. Among whom, Marba had been to India for three times to learn from many eminent masters, including Naruoba and Meizhiba, who ranked the 84th achievement masters of Tantric Hinduism. While the supreme master of the former was a strong-minded yoga gymnosophist with firm standpoint, who brought numerous supreme Tantric Hinduism to the snowy highland, offering boundless beneficence to Tibetan Buddhism and the Gagyu Sect. Milha Riba, the first disciple of Marba, however, was an achievement master.
Being an apotheosis for all gymnosophists, he was regarded as the first generation Buddha through religious cultivation, holding a grand position in the hearts of the faithful believers. Moreover, Tabolhagyi, Milha Riba’s disciple taught by his spirit, who was highly praised as the shining sun in the sky, carried forward the tenets of the Gagyu Sect and cultivated numerous outstanding disciples, making the reputation of the Gagyu Sect well-known in the snowfield.
Its succession system is summarized as "Four Large and Eight Minor", among which, Garma, Pazhu, Zhigung, Dalung and Zhuba gagyu are the most flourishing ones, the others, on the contrary, got lost or confluenced with other religious branches, only existing for a short period. Garma Gagyu took the lead in adopting the Living Buddha Reincarnation, taking the Black Hat Living Buddha as its chief, who had ever been invited, sustained and conferred the title by the Yuan and Ming Dynasties. The title of the Black Hat Living Buddha has been passed down to the 17th generation, the first recognized Living Buddha inland after the reform and opening, who is learning sutra in the Chubu Monastery at present.
- Sakya-Colorful Sect
The core of Sakya Sect was developed from the Khon family, a prosperous family during the period of Tobu which reigned an area of Lhasa, Angren and Sakya. After one of the seven nobles in the family tonsured at Samye Monastery , the family produced many early lamas and secular masters of Nyingma Sect.
Konchog Gyalpo, as one of them, visited renowned monks and studied scriptures and mastered the doctrine of different schools. He built Sakya monastery and began to teach his own followers. Sakya Sect thus came into being. Sakya means "white land'' in Tibetan. The name of the Sakya Sect is from the fact that the Sakya Monastery is built on a grayish white hill. As the enclosure of the monastery is painted red, white and black, it is also called "Colorful Sect".
- Gelug-Yellow Sect
Therefore, Zhong Kaba preached and spread the tenets around, calling on people to value the religious disciplines, wrote books to explain his religious theory, assailing the monks who broke the religious disciplines, pushing on the Buddhist Reformation in Tibet. In the first month of the Tibetan calendar in 1409, he held the Great Religious Meeting for Wishing at the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, it was the Great Religious Event handed down till today.
After that, Zhong Kaba built the famous Ganden Monastery and set up a highly disciplined sect, Gelug (means being good at discipling). Since Zhong Kaba and his followers all wore yellow hats, it is also known as the Yellow Sect. Later, Zhaibung, Sera, Tashihungpo, Tar and Labrang monasteries were built in succession and, together with the Ganden Monastery, called the "top six monasteries" of the Gelug sect. Besides, they also founded the two greatest Living Buddha Reincarnation systems --Dalai and Panchen Lamas.
The Panchen and Dalai Lamas
Dalai and Panchen are two Living Buddha systems of the Gelug Sect (the Yellow Sect). Tibetan Buddhism circle believe that the former is the incarnation of Chenrezi (Buddhism Guanyin), and the latter of Amitayus (Buddha of Infinite Light).
In Tibet, most monasteries as well as ordinary Tibetan families enshrine and worship the statues or portraits of Dalai and Panchen Lamas. Tibetans say that Dalai and Panchen are just like the sun and moon in the sky. Being given the latest color photos of Dalai and Panchen by tourists, the faithful believers will receive in both hands, hold above their heads and reward with particular enthusiasm.