Question: "What is Tibetan Buddhism?"
Answer: Tibetan Buddhism is another name for Vajrayana Buddhism. Before addressing the specifics of Tibetan Buddhism, it will be necessary to address some of the distinctives of Buddhism in general.
Buddhism is a philosophy of life based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, a prince who was born into Hinduism and a life of luxury. According to the story (which is hard to verify, as the earliest records are some 400 years after he lived), Gautama was sheltered by his parents from all suffering. However, as he got older, he eventually encountered poor, crippled, and suffering people. He began to seek for a way for people to escape the rampant suffering he saw around him. He made no claim to divine revelation but claimed to have discovered this way himself. Thus, he became the Buddha, or the Enlightened One. Gautama did not claim to be a god, but later some of his followers treated him as such. In fact, deity does not figure prominently into Buddhism—some followers may worship a god or gods, while others may be atheists.
The Buddha discovered Four Noble Truths that would allow one to escape suffering. While the ultimate goal is Nirvana, which can only be attained with the extinguishing of all aspects of the individual, one can attain peace of mind and inner tranquility in this life. It is this aspect of Buddhism (zen) that is often most appealing to harried Westerners.
A very brief summary of the Four Noble Truths follows:
1. Life is fully saturated with pain.
2. Suffering is due to desire.
3. One can escape by disengaging with the world and relinquishing desire.
4. Follow the Eightfold Path (The fourth truth has eight steps):
• Acceptance of the Four Noble Truths
• Total commitment to the self-discipline needed to follow the path
• Charitable and humble speech
• Benevolent conduct
• Benevolent livelihood (cannot involve killing people or animals)
• Maintaining self-awareness concerning the state of body and mind
• Deep meditation focusing on a single object until eventually thought itself ceases and a state of utter purity is attained, producing neither pain nor pleasure. Desire is eliminated. Total enlightenment is achieved.
All of the trappings of Buddhism are simply techniques, methods, or aids to help a person reach this desired state. In Buddhism there is no sin and no need for a Savior. People are simply ignorant and need to be informed of what will allow them to escape the world of pain and suffering. This can only be accomplished through a lifetime of discipline. Reincarnation is part of Buddhist teaching; however, it is not a personal reincarnation. The person, or personality, is lost, but the stuff the person is made of will come back again in a new form. The ultimate state of rest for the Buddhist is to lose all personality and become one with everything else.
Mahayana Buddhism is the largest branch of Buddhism, and that is usually what is meant when people speak of Buddhism in general terms.
Vajrayana Buddhism is a development of Mahayana Buddhism. Because of the popularity of Vajrayana Buddhism in the Himalayan nations of Tibet, Nepal, and Mongolia, it is also known as Tibetan Buddhism. Because it is practiced in isolated locations, it has developed its own peculiar beliefs and practices. It is syncretistic, incorporating some of the native beliefs of converts before they adopted Buddhism. Some of the old gods have been changed to Buddhas (enlightened beings). This variety of Buddhism also teaches that through advanced Buddhist techniques it is possible to bypass the journey of traditional Buddhism and achieve enlightenment directly and efficiently. This is done through techniques considered too advanced and too dangerous for the uninitiated. These techniques are guarded secrets, but they involve various forms of meditation and rituals. It is said that the Buddha practiced these rituals himself but did not teach them to his followers because of the risks involved. Because initiates are sworn to secrecy, it is difficult to ascertain exactly what the techniques are and why they may be dangerous.
Many people have become familiar with Tibetan Buddhism because of the Chinese occupation of Tibet. The Dalai Lama is the foremost spiritual leader of the Gelug or “Yellow Hat” school of Tibetan Buddhism, which is dominant in central Tibet. The current Dalai Lama is believed to be the fourteenth reincarnation of an enlightened being, the Buddha of Compassion, who has chosen to be reborn in order to serve humanity. He lives in exile in India after a failed attempt to overthrow Chinese occupation in the late 1950s.