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Major Mahayana Groups:  Tibetan Buddhism: Vajrayana


 Historical Background

           Although Buddhism was not introduced into Tibet until the Seventh Century C.E., the people of Tibet understand all of their history from a distinctively Buddhist perspective.  In fact, Tibetan Buddhism teaches that the people of Tibet are actually the offspring of the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokitesvara. Moreover, the time before the arrival of Buddhism is known as the time of preparation. During this time of preparation, the kings and people of Tibet were adherents of Bon (pronounced “pern”) “which at that time was not an organized religion, but rather a vaguely defined collection of shamanistic and animistic practices” (124). By the sixth century CE, Tibet had evolved into a sizeable empire.  This expansion brought Tibet into contact with Buddhism and set the stage the arrival and eventual triumph of Buddhism in Tibet. Although there were periods of persecution, especially in the Tenth Century, a distinctive form of Tibetan Buddhism emerged by the 13th century. This distinctive Buddhism was called "vajrayana:" the way of the diamond thunderbolt.

Main Characteristics:

The Buddhism that evolved in Tibet recognized different levels of teaching and practice. The first level, “hinayana” focuses on quieting the mind and turning negative emotions into positive energy. The second state, “Mahayana” centers on the development of compassion. The highest stage is known as vajrayana. At this highest stage, individuals harness all of the energies of body, mind and spirit to achieve enlightenment within a single life time.  In fact, when guided by a spiritual leader (lama) by using the techniques described in the tantras (literally, "instructions", Tibetan scriptures) one can achieve enlightenment in 3 years and 3 months. Thus, rather than simply quieting the mind in meditation, vajrayana ritual focuses on action, sound, sight and movement.  In particular, it makes use of: mantras (chants),  mudras (hand gestures) and mandalas (icons). 

A unique feature of meditation in Vajrayana Buddhism is deity visualization. in which the individual visualizes the deities and seek to merge experientially with them. In other words, they not only visualize deities/bodhisattvas, they imagine themselves becoming that deity. Such visualization

Also notable among Tibetan/Vajrayana Buddhism is the Dalai Lama. In Tibetan Buddhism, the spiritual leader was thought to have the power to choose his reincarnation. The most important of the spiritual leaders who chooses to reincarnate himself is the Dalai Lama. Literally, Dalai Lama means "teacher of the ocean of wisdom." The Dalai Lama, however is more than just a spiritual leader who chooses to return for the sake of his follower; he is also the embodiment of the Buddha of compassion. The Dalai Lama is believed to have incarnated himself 14 times.

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