Origins of Tibetan Buddhism
by Rebecca McClen Novick
Whether a Buddha appears or does not appear,
the true nature of things remains forever.
The origins of Tibetan Buddhism are found in India. The historical Buddha was the son of a Hindu king who ruled a region of Nepal around the sixth century b.c.e. He was not the first Buddha, nor will he be the last. According to tradition, he is the fourth Buddha of this eon, and there are still 996 to come. The Buddha is known by a number of different names: Gautama, Siddhartha, and Shakyamuni. Gautama was his family name, and this was the title that most
people of the time would have used, whereas the name his parents gave him was Siddhartha, which means “one who reaches his goal.” Shakya was the clan to which the Buddha’s family belonged. Muni means “sage,” and in Tibetan Buddhism the Buddha is most often referred to as Shakyamuni, or “the Sage of the Shakyas.” The Buddha before his Enlightenment is usually referred to as Siddhartha, and after his Enlightenment as the Buddha, a term that he used to describe himself that simply means “awake.”
As a young prince, Siddhartha enjoyed a life of endless luxury. His father was so protective of him that he arranged life at the palace so that his son would never have to lay eyes on anyone who was not young, healthy, and beautiful. Thus, Siddhartha grew up knowing nothing of sickness, old age, or even of
death. When he accidentally discovered these realities of life at the age of twenty-nine, he realized how little he understood about life and resolved to leave the palace and become a Saddhu, a homeless seeker of truth. Siddhartha studied with a number of
great meditation masters and gained high levels of spiritual realization, but he always felt that he had more to learn. For many years, he lived as an ascetic, surviving on a few grains of rice a day. When, in spite of these extreme practices, he found that he was no closer to realization, he decided to stop denying his body and find a more balanced path to Enlightenment, a Middle Way.
Siddhartha sat down under a pipal tree (known as the Bodhi —“Enlightenment”—tree) and there he meditated for three days and three nights. He underwent all manner of spiritual trials and endured the doubts and mockery of his ego, but eventually he attained complete Enlightenment and became a Buddha. At first,
he was reluctant to teach, thinking that the path to realization could not be communicated so that ordinary people could understand it. The texts say that the gods Indra and Brahma came down to plead with him to turn the Wheel of Dharma, to teach what he had learned, and finally he acquiesced.
The Buddha expounded a total of eighty-four thousand different sections of teachings, to offer many different kinds of individuals the means for attaining Enlightenment. As much ink as an elephant can carry on its back is said to have been used to write the texts contained within each section. The three great
teachings that the Buddha expounded are referred to as the “three turnings of the wheel of Dharma.” The first “turning,” or teaching, that the Buddha gave occurred at Varanasi (formerly Benares) in Northern India. Here he gave instructions on the Four Noble Truths, common to both the Hinayana and Mahayana schools of Buddhism. The second turning of the wheel of Dharma took place at Rajagriha, where the Buddha gave his teachings on emptiness: The Prajnaparamita (“perfection of wisdom”) Sutra, which is a central document of Mahayana Buddhism, records these teachings. The third turning was given at
Shravasti and covers teachings concerning the qualities of Buddhas. These three teachings are collectively called the Sutras and refer to the discourses that the Buddha gave directly to his disciples after his Enlightenment.
Around 200 b.c.e., texts appeared claiming to be the word of the Buddha. They were separated into three divisions and became known as the Tripitaka, or the “three baskets,” and they make up the entire Buddhist canon. The Sutras were guides to meditation practices. The Vinaya were teachings that the Buddha gave regarding ethics and
monastic discipline, and the Abhidharma texts deal principally with wisdom and with the nature of reality. Practitioners committed spiritual teachings to memory, as this was thought to inspire a more profound understanding than learning from written texts. Thus, everything in Buddhism is taught in sets of numbers: the Four Noble Truths, the Six Perfections, and so on.
After the Buddha’s death at the age of eighty, Buddhism began gradually to spread throughout Asia. The great Indian emperor, Ashoka, widely encouraged it’s dissemination, and, due to the seminomadic nature of Buddhist monastics, the Buddha’s teaching soon found its way to new lands. The origins of Mahayana
(the school to which Tibetan Buddhism belongs) are very obscure, but scholars agree that the Mahayana scriptures date from approximately 100 b.c.e—500 c.e. It was the great Indian philosopher, Nagarjuna, who founded the Madhyamaka, or Middle Way, school of Buddhism and established a framework for the Mahayana teachings of emptiness and the path of the Bodhisattva—a person who is traveling the path to full Buddhahood.