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Transmission of Buddhism

Tibetan Buddhism on the Silk Roads

Tibet first encountered Buddhism when the Tibetan empire expanded across the Central Asia. Tibetan Buddhism took root and evolved into several new schools and practices, many of which are still popular today.

About the Tibetan Empire

At the start of the 7th century, King Songtsen Gampo (r. 618–649 CE) led the Tibetan army into Central Asia. At the western end of the Silk Road, the cities of Kashgar, Kucha and Khotan fell to the Tibetan army. To the east, the Tibetans came into direct conflict with China. A war between the two states, interspersed with periods of peace, lasted for nearly two centuries. In the middle of the 9th century, the Tibetan empire began to collapse, but Tibetan influence remained in Central Asia.

The first transmission of Buddhism into Tibet

Painting of the bodhisattva Akashagarbha sat on lotus with golden halo, with Tibetan inscription beneath.

Tibetan Bodhisattva

Tibetan Bodhisattva

This 10th century silk painting of a bodhisattva is said to show either Tibetan or Khotanese stylistic influences. It was found in Mogao Cave 17 in Dunhuang and dates back to the early 9th century, the period of Tibet’s influence in Central Asia.

Recent scholarship has suggested that the figure depicted may be the bodhisattva Akasagarbha. This bodhisattva, whose name signifies the sky or space, has the ability to purify bad karma. He is pictured with emblems of the sun and moon, and a canopy.

At the bottom is an inscription in Tibetan, which reads ‘The Holy Lord of the Directions [who is accompanied by] all the Hum mantras of the space above’. On the right side is the name: ‘Te Goza Legmo.’ The feminine termination ‘mo’ suggests that the artist, or perhaps the sponsor, was a noblewoman.

Buddhism arrived in Tibet in the same period as the empire’s influence in Central Asia. Buddhist scriptures were first translated into Tibetan during the reign of King Songtsen Gampo. But it was King Trisong Detsen (r. 755-797 CE) that made Buddhism the state religion. Trisong Detsen invited Buddhist scholars to Tibet and funded the translation of thousands of Buddhist texts from India and China.

The first decline of Buddhism in Tibet occurred at the same time as the collapse of the Tibetan empire in the 9th century. According to Tibetan tradition, King Lang Darma, the last of the Tibetan kings, was firmly anti-Buddhist and destroyed the Buddhist monasteries that had been built over the previous century.

The Second Transmission

It was not until the 11th century that Buddhism regained influence in Tibet again. Tibetan Buddhist scholars travelled to India and discovered newer Indian Buddhist scriptures called Tantras. New translations were made, and new schools emerged. These were based on ‘tantric lineages’ from India (the lines of enlightened teachers extending back to the Buddha). The most important of the new schools were the Sakya, the Kagyu and the Geluk. Those who followed the older lineages were known as Nyingma, ‘the old ones’.

The Buddhism of Tibet is most closely aligned with Vajrayana Buddhism. It is rooted in monastic life, with much of it drawing from the Tantra texts and tantric practices. Tibetan Buddhism also introduced the Tulku tradition, in which lamas or Buddhist teachers choose to be reborn. The most famous Tulku lineage is the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader.

Tibetan Buddhism eventually spread outside of Tibet. When the Mongol Yuan Dynasty took over Tibet in 1244, its emperor Kublai Khan made Tibetan Buddhism the state religion. Even after the Yuan Dynasty crumbled in the late 14th Century, Tibetan Buddhism remained influential in Mongolia. Tibetan Buddhism also reached Nepal and Bhutan, and has long been practiced there. In the 1950s, Tibetan Buddhist leaders fled to India shortly after Tibet came under the control of the Chinese Communist Party. This led to Buddhism spreading around the world in the late 20th century.

Remains on the Silk Road

Tibetan Buddhist manuscripts were discovered in military forts in Central Asia, including the ruins in Miran and Mazar Tagh in the Lop Nor and Taklamakan deserts. An even larger number of Tibetan manuscripts were found in Cave 17 in Dunhuang.

The Tibetan manuscripts from Dunhuang date back from the 9th and 10th centuries, the period of Tibet’s influence in Central Asia. These are some of the earliest known Tibetan Buddhist manuscripts, and they cover a great range of Buddhist literature. There are versions of the Vinaya (the rules for monastic life) and various sutras and tantras, as well as later commentaries on them.

A page of a Pothi manuscript made up of horizontal strips of paper, inscribed with Tibetan script.

Tibetan Tantra

Tibetan Tantra

This manuscript, discovered in the Mogao Caves at Dunhuang, is the Upayapasa-tantra or ‘Noose of Methods Tantra’. It is a Vajrayana scripture or ‘tantra’ with a commentary by the famous Vajrayana adept Padmasambhava, who is credited with a key role in bringing Buddhism to Tibet. In the image the commentary is visible in smaller writing in between the lines of the tantra, which are written in larger Tibetan letters.

Tantras are Buddhist scriptures focussed on ritual practices and techniques used in Vajrayana Buddhism. These techniques typically include the use of mudras (sacred hand gestures), mantras, and visualisation. This tantra is in a format known as a Pothi, a loose-leaf stack of horizontal papers usually held together with string.

In the region of Kharakhoto (in what is now Inner Mongolia) Buddhist manuscripts in Tibetan and Mongolian dating from the 13th century onwards have also been discovered. In the cave complex at Dunhuang, two caves were discovered that were decorated with Vajrayana deities in the Tibetan style, which probably date from the same period.