Buddhism and the practice of Buddhism has taken on a multitude of methods and rituals reflecting various cultures as it has spread throughout Asia and the world. There are two over-arching schools of Buddhism; one is called Mahayana or "Great Vehicle" and the other is the Hinayana or "Small Vehicle." This latter term is a pejorative and comes from a distinction made by Mahayanists. It is meant to include what is otherwise called the Theravada or the Pali School tradition. In Pali, Theravada means "teaching of the elders of the order." The emphasis in the Theravada school is on liberation of the individual which is achieved through efforts in meditation and in the observance of the rules of moral discipline. (An excellent site which explains Theravada Buddhism and provides many texts and resources is Access to Insight.) It is believed that Mahayana developed from some of the Hinayana schools of Buddhism. Mahayana emphasizes that the motivation of its followers to attain enlightenment is for the sake of all other sentient beings and thereby all delusions are completely removed. Both of these schools are rooted in the basic teachings of the historical Buddha (Shakyamuni), but stress somewhat different aspects of those teachings.
Tibetan Buddhism belongs to the Mahayana School and is somewhat unique because of its richness in imagery, symbolism and ceremony. Currently, there exist four principle teaching lineages of Tibetan Buddhism: Sakya (named after the Sakya or "Gray Earth" Monastery, located in southern Tibet), Nyingma (lit., "old ones" school), Kagyu (lit., "orally transmitted command") and Gelug (lit., "virtuous").
Tsongkhapa (Tibetan block print)
The Gelug teaching tradition (sometimes called the Yellow Hat Order) evolved from the great Tibetan philosopher and teacher Tsongkhapa (Lobsang Dragpa, also know as Je Rinpoche 1357-1419 CE) who is identified as a manifestation of Manjushri, bodhisattva of Wisdom.. Tsongkhapa with the aid of his disciples (Je Darma Rinchen and Je Dulwa Dzin-his) founded Ganden Monastery in 1409 and with the aid of two other disciples (Jamyang Choje Tashi Pelden and Jamchen Choje Shakya Yeshe) founded Drepung in 1416 and Sera in 1419. It is said that Sera and Drepung once housed up to seven thousand, seven hundred monks each.
Tsongkhapa is also credited with having established the Great Prayer Festival (Monlam Chenmo), which is held over a three-week period immediately after the Losar (New Year) celebrations. Tsongkhapa could be considered a reformer of Buddhism in Tibet. He castigated the schools and teachings that he thought held an incorrect view. He also synthesized and energized existing teachings. Tsongkhapa reaffirmed Atisha's emphasis on the monastic virtues and the need to establish a firm knowledge of the sutra before graduating to the practice of tantra. He emphasized a scholastic orientation and encouraged thorough study of the great Indian masters of philosophy and logic, such as Nargarjuna and Asanga. He systematically set out the path to enlightenment in terms of graduated stages and the Madhyamika view or the "middle way." His meditation manuals describe contemplations on the unsatisfactory nature of the cycle of existence and how to arouse the mind of enlightenment. He explains that only after having attained bodhicitta (awakened mind) can insight into the true reality of phenomena be gained. Thus spiritual practice consists of achieving concentration (samadhi). Tsongkhapa demonstrated how this goal may be reached through the differentiated states of equilibrium of dwelling in tranquillity and through special insight. The tantric practices are regarded by the Gelugpas as a special technique for the realization of this state of equilibrium.
Since the installation of the dalai lamas as heads of state in the 17th century, the Gelugpas have held political leadership of Tibet. Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama is head of state in exile and resides in Dharamsala, India.
Flag of Tibet
The Buddhist Handbook, A Complete Guide to Buddhist Schools, Teaching, Practice, and History. John Snelling. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions International. 1991.
The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen. Translated by Michel H. Kohn. Boston: Shambhala. 1991.
A Handbook of Tibetan Culture, A Guide to Tibetan Centres and Resources throughout the World. Edited by Graham Coleman. Boston: Shambahala Publication, Inc. 1994.
Enlightened Beings, Janice Willis
Tibet, A Political History, Shakapba