How Did Tibetan Buddhism Develop?

Buddhism was introduced to Tibet through royal patronage, taking in teachers primarily from India. Over time, Tibetan Buddhism developed to become a major force not just in Tibet, but throughout the Himalayas, Mongolia, and China. This article is a brief introduction to the history of Buddhism in Tibet, its early development, and how the four main schools came about.

Emperor Songtsen-gampo

In the 7th century CE, Emperor Songtsen-gampo conquered Zhangzhung, a kingdom to the west of Tibet from where the Bon tradition originated, unifying Tibet into a large empire. As was the custom to make alliances through marriage, he had several wives, with at least one from China, one from Nepal, and one from Zhangzhung. Each of these wives brought with them texts from their own traditions to Central Tibet, and the beginnings of Buddhism in Tibet are usually traced to this. There also exists the mythical account of texts falling from the sky in the 1st century BCE, but either way, at this early period there was very little to no influence from Buddhism on Tibetan society.

Songtsen-gampo wanted to develop a written language, and so he sent his minister Thonmi Sambhota to Khotan, a strong Buddhist kingdom on the Silk Route to the north-west of Tibet where the dramatic Tibetan mountain range drops all the way down to below sea level from the Tibetan plateau. Beyond this lies the beautiful, but formidable Taklamakan desert – a Turkic word meaning “go in and not come out.” Today, this area is Xinjiang province in China, but during the time of Songtsen Gampo, the land at the base of the mountains just before the desert begins was Khotan.

This region was strongly Buddhist and had mainly been influenced by Iranian culture. Its language was related to Iranian languages, which had a large influence on Tibet not usually emphasized in the written histories. For example, the Tibetan alphabet actually derives from the Khotan script, which was their own adaptation of the Sanskrit alphabet. It just so happened that the Khotanese teachers Thonmi Sambhota was going to meet were in Kashmir at the time, and one needed to go through Kashmir to reach Khotan. For this reason, it is often said that the Tibetan script comes from Kashmir, but upon detailed historical analysis, we see that it doesn’t. Further, the system of translating into Tibetan was heavily influenced by the Khotanese style of breaking up words and giving meaning to individual syllables.

At this time, there was still not much development of Buddhism in Tibet. Historical accounts say that Tibet was conceived as a demoness lying flat on the ground, and in order to subdue her harmful forces, temples had to be built on certain acupuncture points of her body. So, thirteen temples were built over a very large geographical area in order to tame the wild spirit of Tibet. These temples along with the texts and statues the queens brought with them were the beginnings of Buddhism in Tibet.

Later on, further contact with China and Khotan developed, and then with India. The Zhangzhung princess brought a lot of Bon rituals for the state, although they were very different from what we would call Bon today.

Emperor Tri Songdetsen

About 140 years later in the middle of the 8th century CE, Emperor Tri Songdetsen focused on expanding the empire and engaged in wars with China and various Turkic kingdoms. Due to a prophecy, he invited the great abbot of Nalanda, Shantarakshita, to come from India to teach in Tibet.

At the time, there were several political factions within the government, one of which was a conservative, anti-foreign faction that didn’t at all like the fact that the Emperor had invited Shantarakshita. Unfortunately, the arrival of Shantarakshita coincided with a smallpox epidemic, and he was blamed as a scapegoat and kicked out of Tibet.

Shantarakshita returned to India and through the influence of the Emperor, managed to have Guru Rinpoche, Padmasambhava, invited to Tibet. The story is that he came to tame the demons, but really it was to get rid of the smallpox epidemic or the demons causing it. All of this has historical references so it’s not merely a story. Guru Rinpoche arrived and the epidemic passed, and after this, Shantarakshita was re-invited to Tibet. Along with these two, Emperor Tri Songdetsen built Samye, the first monastery in Tibet.

Before this, there were temples, but no monasteries with ordained monks. Guru Rinpoche found the people not at all receptive or ripe for the more advanced teachings, and so he buried within the walls and pillars of Samye, and in various other places around Tibet and Bhutan, texts about dzogchen, the highest class of tantra teachings from his tradition. It is the Nyingma tradition that derives from him.

At first there were three groups at Samye – scholars from China, India, and Zhangzhung. They each worked on translating material either into or out of their languages. Buddhism was made the state religion, and the Chinese Emperor Dezong sent two Chinese monks every other year to Samye. Shantarakshita predicted that conflicts would arise over this and advised that in the future, Tibet should invite his student Kamalashila to help resolve conflicts and controversies.

More teachers were sent to study in India, and other teachers came from India to teach in Tibet. The conservative faction within the government became very upset about these developments, which they saw as persecution of Bon. It doesn’t really refer to religious persecution, but rather “Bon” here refers to a group of people involved with state affairs, so it was more of an Zhangzhung faction. The state rituals at the time continued to be the old Bon rituals, and so it was clearly a political, rather than religious issue. However, many Bonpos buried their texts for safekeeping as well, so they obviously felt that their tradition was threatened. I was once in Tuva, Siberia, where they follow the Mongolian tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. The people there had buried all of their texts in mountain caves during the time of Stalin. From this recent historical event we can see that burying texts and the need to do so is sometimes very real, and not just a myth.

Eventually, the Zhangzhung faction was kicked out, and people were also suspicious of the Chinese. They decided to hold a large debate between an Indian monk and a Chinese monk, to see which tradition the Tibetans should adopt. The best debater of the Indian tradition – Kamalashila, whom Shantarakshita had recommended - was pitted against a Zen monk who had no training in debate, and so it was clear from the start who would win. On top of this, the Tibetans were already keen on kicking the Chinese out, and so the Indians were declared the winners. The Chinese left, and the Indian tradition was adopted in Tibet.

Standardizing Terms and Styles

Texts continued to be translated, some from Chinese, but mainly from Sanskrit. In the early 9th century, they formed a dictionary and standardized the terms and styles under the rule of another great king, Emperor Tri Ralpachen. In this early dictionary, he decreed that no tantric material should be included, because it was open to a lot of misunderstanding.

In the mid-9th century, Tri Ralpachen decreed that seven households were to be responsible for supporting each monk – objectively, we might say that he was a religious fanatic. Instead of taxes going to the government, all the money went into supporting monks and the monasteries, which ended up devastating the country and government economically. He had also appointed monk ministers, and the monasteries gained more and more power.

The next king, Emperor Langdarma, is known as the real bogeyman of Tibet for his persecution of Buddhism. If we look at the situation, he actually just shut down the monasteries because they were too powerful, and kicked the monk ministers off the government counsel. He didn’t destroy any of the monastery libraries – when Atisha arrived 150 years later, he was very impressed with the established libraries. This suggests that there wasn’t the type of severe religious persecution that the histories would make it out to be.

However, closing all the monasteries did create huge obstacles for Buddhism. The country became fragmented, and as all monks were forced to become laypeople, the monastic lineage was broken and had to be renewed. With no monastic institution to support the basic teachings and practices, everything continued to some degree underground or privately. A lot of misunderstanding and abuse arose, especially concerning tantra, with people taking it literally – particularly the sexual aspect and the idea of liberation of consciousness. Through extreme misunderstanding, people started to become involved in sacrifices and assassination.

New Translation Period

At the end of the 10th century, an organized kingdom arose once more in western Tibet, and there was interest in clarifying the teachings. There was so much misunderstanding in the Nyingma tradition, so more translators were sent to India and Nepal, marking the beginning of the new translation period. Actually, it’s more of a new “transmission” period. From this wave we have the Kadam, Sakya and Kagyu traditions. If we see “pa” at the end of a word, like Kagyupa, it refers to someone who follows that tradition, although non-Tibetans nowadays don’t make that distinction.

Kadam and Gelug

The Kadam tradition comes from Atisha, a great master from Bengal. It emphasized the lojong mind training teachings. The tradition split into three lineages that were later reunified by Tsongkhapa in the 14th and early 15th century to become the Gelug tradition.

The Nyingma, Sakya and Kagyu traditions for the most part follow one style of interpretation with minor variations. Tsongkhapa was really radical, and basically re-did the interpretation of almost everything in Buddhist philosophy. Tsongkhapa studied from a very early age and examined all of the different translations of texts to see what bits were incorrectly interpreted. He’d prove it all by backing it up with logic and various scriptural sources.

Because of this, there was a deep re-examination of the Tibetan translations of some of the more difficult Indian texts. Unlike many previous authors, he didn’t simply skip over obscure pieces. Those difficult passages were the ones that Tsongkhapa delighted in trying to figure out and explain. In this way, he arrived to a radically different interpretation of almost everything. In fact, Tsongkhapa was a great revolutionary. Among his many disciples are included the monk who would later become known as the First Dalai Lama. The name was given to him posthumously at the time of the Third Dalai Lama. “Dalai” is a Mongol name meaning “ocean.”

There was a terrible civil war for about 150 years, and the Mongols came and put an end to it. At that time, the Mongols made the Fifth Dalai Lama the joint political ruler and spiritual leader of Tibet, and his teacher came to be known as the Fourth Panchen Lama. In 2011, the 14th Dalai Lama ended the tradition of the Dalai Lamas holding any political position.


The second tradition to arise from the new transmission period at the end of the 10th century was the Sakya tradition, with its lineage deriving from Virupa and some other translators. Their main teaching from Virupa is known as “lamdre”lam is path and dre is result. This “path and its results” system is a combination of lam-rim type material conjoined with the tantric practice of Hevajra.

The Sakya masters actually form a family lineage, and the Sakya line is always inherited. After the reunification of Tibet under the Mongols in the 13th century, the Sakya family ruled Tibet politically for about a century. It came about because the Sakya Pandita, probably the most well-known of the Sakya masters, had developed close links to the Mongols, and along with his nephew Phagpa, became the tutor of Kublai Khan.

The Tibetans and the Uighurs – a Turkic people in Xinjiang to the northwest of Tibet – were the only ones not to fight Chinggis Khan, and so they were left pretty much alone. The Uighurs gave the Mongols their first taste of Buddhism with their writing system and administrative formulations on how to organize a state, while the Tibetans provided a more organized form of Buddhism. It is within this set of circumstances that Phagpa and the following Sakya lamas were given political rule over Tibet for about a century.

The Sakya lineage also contains the sub-lineages of Ngor, Tsar and Jonang, with the Jonang school sometimes considered a fifth school of Tibetan Buddhism. Each of these sub-lineages has its own masters.


Within the Kagyu tradition there are two main lineages, the Shangpa Kagyu and the Dagpo Kagyu. Shangpa Kagyu comes from the Tibetan teacher Kyungpo Naljor, who held all three sets of advanced six yoga practices. These yogas should actually be called “dharmas” or “teachings,” but the term “yoga” here has become commonplace. One set is from Naropa, the “six yogas of Naropa”, but the other two are from great female practitioners – Niguma and Sukhasiddhi. The Shangpa Kagyu lineage transmits these three sets of six teachings. The late Kalu Rinpoche, who was well-known in the West, came from this tradition.

The Dagpo Kagyu tradition comes from the line Tilopa, Naropa, Marpa, Milarepa and Gampopa. Gampopa combined mahamudra teachings from the various Indian mahasiddhas (highly accomplished tantric masters) with the Kadampa lojong teachings. From Gampopa developed the twelve lines of Dagpo Kagyu – twelve Kagyu traditions from his students and the students of one of his students, Phagmodrupa. The most widespread of these is the Karma Kagyu, of which the Karmapa is a major figure. There are also the Drugpa Kagyu and Drigung Kagyu traditions, found also in the West today.


As mentioned before, masters of the old Nyingma tradition had buried dzogchen texts, but other texts were still being transmitted the whole time, still with a lot of misunderstanding. They began to uncover their texts in the early 11th century, about a century after the Bonpos began to unearth theirs. This coincided with a new wave of teachers arriving from India.

Lots of texts were discovered, and it was bewildering to understand how they should all fit together. They were standardized and clarified in the 13th century by the great Nyingma master Longchenpa, who is really the father of the Nyingma tradition we find today. There is a division into a Northern Treasure Lineage and a Southern Treasure Lineage. The Nyingma tradition is more fragmented than the others, and is not formed into one particular style.

The Rime Movement

Another major factor in the history of Buddhism in Tibet is the Rime (nonsectarian) movement that was started in the 19th century by several figures, the most outstanding of whom was Kongtrul Rinpoche. It was intended to preserve obscure lineages that were dying out and weren’t readily available from within any of the four traditions.

The Rime movement revived and emphasized the Jonang lineage that had, from a historical point of view, been persecuted and suppressed for its doctrinal view. Again, there are also political factors involved, as it was associated with a certain faction within the civil war of the time. In some ways, the Rime movement also arose, particularly in Kham, as a reaction to the growing influence of the Gelug lineage in the central government.


Deriving primarily from India over several centuries through the efforts of a large number of teachers and translators, Tibetan Buddhism gradually evolved into four main traditions. Nyingma derives from the Old Translation Period, while Sakya, Kagyu and Kadam, which later became Gelug, developed during the New Translation Period. Although at present Buddhism is severely restricted in Tibet, it is flourishing in India, Nepal and throughout the Himalayan region, and is slowly spreading to the rest of the world.