Tibetan Buddhism is the most widely practiced religion in the Himalayan areas. Buddhism was first introduced in Tibet in the late 7th century CE when the first Tibetan king, Songtsen Gampo, invited Indian Buddhists to teach Tibetans. The movement was supported by the government, and the first monastic center was established in the 8th century. During this time, the Nyingma school was founded. Nyingma translates to “Ancient Ones” or “Older Schools.” The Nyingma follow the practices taught by Padmasambhava. This includes Dzogchen (“great perfection”), a method for obtaining deep meditative insight.
King Langdarma, who ruled Tibet during the 9th century, converted to Bön – based on shamanism. He outlawed Buddhism, and many Buddhists were persecuted during this time. After his death, in the 10th century, Indian Buddhists were invited back to Tibet. This new wave of Indian Buddhists brought with them new teachings called Sarma or the “New Ones” or “New Schools.”
In the 11th century, the Kagyu (oral tradition) and Sakya (“Pale Earth”) schools emerged. Kagyu has several lineages that mainly follow the teachings of tantric yogi Tilopa. These teachings speak about the nature of the mind called Mahamudra (“Great Seal”). The primary practice of Sakya is called Lamdre (“Path and Its Result”), which includes the chanting of mantras.
The most recent Tibetan Buddhist school appeared in the 15th century. The Gelug school incorporates monastic discipline and philosophical analysis along with tantric practices. Different schools of Tibetan Buddhism follow different practices. However, most have adopted practices from Indian Buddhism. These practices include meditative practices like shamatha (“calm abiding”) and vipassana (“insight”), taking refuge vows, and following monastic discipline as set out by the Theravada tradition.
From the Mahayana tradition, they adopted the bodhisattva vow, Pure Land practices, and lojong (methods that train the mind to rouse compassion). The Vajrayana tradition brought practices like ngondro (preliminary practices), mantras (phrases, syllables, verses, and sounds), mudras (hand gestures), mandalas (sacred diagrams), and yogic discipline.
While Buddhism was brought to Tibet from India, by the time the youngest Tibetan Buddhist school was formed, the movement started dying out in India. Tibet became the heart of Buddhism in Central Asia. From here, Buddhist practices spread to countries like Mongolia, Nepal, Bhutan, and parts of what is known today as Russia and India.
Tibetan Buddhism started to reach the west in the 1950s when the 14th Dalai Lama and other Tibetan leaders like him fled their country following an invasion from the Chinese. The movement grew in the west, and today there are Tibetan Buddhism schools and dharma centers on every continent except Antarctica.