Tibetan Buddhism and Bon

Tibetan Buddhism (Lamaism)

Tibetan Buddhism, also called Lamaism, was introduced to Tibet under the reign of King Songtsen Gampo after he married the China and Nepal princesses who were both Buddhist. However, it was officially formed only in the 10th century. Tibetan Buddhism adopted the symbolic ritual practices of Tantric Buddhism and some concepts of Tibet indigenous Bon faith. It later developed into many sects and sub-sects with the following five orders the most influential ones in Tibet.

Nyingma, a word meaning ancient and old in Tibetan language, is also know as the Red Sect as its monks wore red robes and hats. It incorporates the fine points of Bon religion and mainly advocates the study of Tantrism. Nyingma Lamas can be married and usually live in small groups. They believe that one can be Buddha through Buddhist cultivation to prevent disturbances from outside world. Mindroling Monastery located in Shannan area is one of its famous monasteries in Tibet.

Gatang advises people to accept Buddhism based on the teachings of Buddha. It believes samsara and retribution with which it developed rapidly in Tibet since founded in 1056. Its doctrines were promoted far and wide and thus make great influence on various other Tibetan Buddhist sects. Later with the rise of Gelugpa Sect in 15th century, it merged with the later one.

Gagyu / Kagyu means “passing down orally” in Tibetan language. It is also called “ White Sect” as its founders (Marba and Milha Riba) wore white robe while practicing Buddhism. It focuses on Tantrism and advocates teaching orally from one generation to another. It believes that one can get cultivation through asceticism and obedience. The famous incarnation system was established by it. Tsurpu Monastery about 70km west of Lhasa City is its main shrine.

Sagya / Sakya derives its name from Sagya Monastery in 1073. As the monastery is painted with red, white and black stripes, it is also known as the Stripe Sect. It persuades people to do good deeds to gain good incarnation in next samsara, and to discard all temporal desires to get relieved from pain. It had very close relationship with han’s Yuan and Ming dynasty. Sagya Monastery is located in Shigatse area.

Gelugpa, founded in 1407, is the order of Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama. It is also called Yellow Sect as its monks wore yellow hats. It appeared in the reform of Tibetan Buddhism initiated by Zongkapa who opposed the decadent life of upper-class monks involved in political and economical power. He undertook lecture tours in many areas and called for efforts to follow Buddhist tenets. So Gelugpa Sect is famous for its strict adherence to Buddhist commandments. Now it is the most influential sect in Tibet with others playing a minor role only. There are many famous Gelugpa monasteries in Tibet, including Ganden Monastery, Drepung Monastery, Sera Monastery and Tashilumpo Monastery, etc.

Bon Faith in Tibet

Bon is the indigenous religion of Tibet. After it lost in competition with Buddhism in the 9th century, its followers were forced to retreat to remote areas. Nowadays, you can find most of Bon monasteries in Dengchen County of Chamdo with one of the largest one named Zezhol Monastery.

In the 7th century, Buddhism was introduced into Tibet. As Bon priests who claimed being granted super powers interfered in Tubo’s political and royal affairs, the Tubo royal family decided to support Buddhism and prohibit Bon. During Lang Darma’s rule, Bon won its place again and for the first time, Buddhism was banned. However, after Lang Darma was assassinated, Bon faded out and its rival, Buddhism regained its popularity in Tibet gradually. In order to pass the faith down and survive the hard time, Bon adopted some concepts of Buddhism. Although it was not encouraged ever since, Bon developed its own tradition in an extensive way. It is now getting more and more attention from people for both scientific research and general interest.