first recorded Buddhism in Tibet was the arrival, in 433 CE,
of four things: two sutras, the mantra om mani padme hung
carved on precious stone and a golden stupa. Legend has it
that they descended from the sky, in a casket, amid rainbows
and celestial music, landing before King Lhatotori on his
palace roof. The sixty-year-old king is said to have then
become like a youth of sixteen and lived for a further sixty
years, simply through the respect he felt for these sacred
but unknown objects. Some more sceptical Tibetans see this
as a poetic way of explaining the sudden arrival of these
texts in non-Buddhist Tibet. It is, indeed, very likely that
at that time Eastern Tibet was catching something of the widespread
influence of Buddhism in China, where Kumarajiva was translating
Buddhist texts for the later Ch'in dynasty. Western and Central
Tibet were also in some contact with Buddhism, which was flourishing
in nearby Khotan, through the Silk Route. Yet, despite his
miraculous transformation, King Lhatotori stuck to his native
Bön religion (a form of shamanism) and Buddhism gained
no real foothold in Tibet during his reign. In any case, it
would have been difficult for any new philosophy to spread
in that land as it had no written language of its own.
language problem was resolved in the seventh century, at a
time when the Tibetan empire and Tibetan Buddhism were both
being established through the activity of King Songtsen Gampo.
Soon after his enthronement, he sent his trusted minister,
the brilliant Tönmi Sambhota, to India, with the mission
of finding a script and grammar that would suit the Tibetan
language, this in order to establish a clear moral and legal
code for his people and to give them access to the Buddhist
scriptures. Tönmi returned some years later with an alphabet
(probably based upon northwestern Gupta script), a grammar
and many mahayana texts and tantras.
Gampo unified the Tibetan tribes and made his isolated land
cosmopolitan, bringing mathematical and astrological sciences
from China, Buddhism from India, a legal system from the Turks
and Khotan and trading skills from Nepal. Recognising how
deeply entrenched was the native Bön religion, he had
many Buddhist temples built in carefully chosen power spots
throughout the land and sent his ministers to India and Nepal
to seek rare statues he had seen in visions. He also made
marriage alliances with neighbouring Nepal and China. His
princess brides brought the rare statues with them - in particular
his Chinese bride, who brought the famous Jo-wo statue, which
had originally come to China from India. Songtsen managed
to establish a powerful empire but not to establish Buddhism
as a national religion.
His successor had even more problems introducing Buddhism
and was forced to expel his Buddhist guests by his powerful
ministers and advisors, all of which adhered to Bön.
The following king, Trisong Detsen, was enthroned in 756 CE
at the age of thirteen. For the next seven years he skilfully
reduced the power of Bönpo ministers. Around 760, he
brought the great Buddhist scholar of the time, Santaraksita,
from India to teach Buddhism. On meeting the master, the king
remembered their previous lives together, fostering the buddhadharma.
Although Santaraksita's work bore some success, attempts to
build monasteries and further the dharma were severely thwarted
by negativity, with Bön priests blaming local natural
catastrophes on the coming of Buddhism. Santaraksita advised
the king that only the powerful guru Padmasambhava could overcome
this hostility and therefore the king sent an invitation for
him to come to Tibet. Vivid accounts of his arrival from Nepal
tell of him subduing powerful and often highly exotic local
gods and demons, one after another, and binding them to Buddhism.
The threefold power of Trisong Detsen's royal patronage, Padmasambhava's
spiritual presence and Abbot Santaraksita's vast knowledge
enabled Buddhism to take a firm hold in Tibet. It was declared
to be the national religion and, most importantly, the great
monastic complex of Samye was constructed and the first monks
were ordained. The gifted scholar Vairocana was sent to India
to search out teachings and later supervised translations
of Buddhist texts on a grand scale.
For almost a century Buddhism flourished. The Tibetan empire
flourished. Then both crumbled during the brief but catastrophic
reign of the psychotic king Langdarma (838 - 841), who had
temples closed or destroyed and monks banished. Chaos followed.
However, some of the first wave (rNying.ma) traditions and
monasteries were gradually restored in the climate of social
unrest and invasion that marked the ninth and tenth centuries.
The eleventh and twelfth centuries however saw a great renewal
of Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetan masters went to India to secure
teachings, with Drogmi establishing what is now the Sakya
tradition and Marpa establishing the Kagyu. Indian masters
were invited to Tibet, the most significant being Dipankara,
who established the Khadampa tradition which later gave rise
to the Gelug order. At the same time many Tibetan and Indian
scholars were industriously translating and re-translating
the scriptures to establish a complete Buddhist canon in Tibet.
The traditions originating in this second wave of Buddhism
are known as Sarma (gsar.ma).