A Brief Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism
By His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama...

I offer the following concise teachings as a foundation for an understanding of the structure and practice of Tibetan Buddhism. I have nothing to say that has not been said before. Do not look upon these teachings as mere information, but as essential teachings on a path leading to the transformation of your mind. Only then will these teachings be of true benefit. Before Buddhism arrived, the Bon religion was widespread in Tibet. Until recently, Bon study centers still exist- ed in Tibet. Not an effective religion at first, Bon was greatly enriched by Buddhist belief and practice. Around the eighth century CE, King Lha-Tho-Ri Nyen-Tsen introduced Buddhism to Tibet. Since then, Buddhism has spread steadily. Over the course of time, many Indian pandits (scholars) came to Tibet and translated sutras, Tantric texts, and commentaries. During the reign of the irreligious King Lang-Dar-Mar in the l0th century CE, Buddhism suffered a setback, but that eclipse was short-lived. Buddhism soon revived and spread again, starting in the western and eastern parts of Tibet; Indian and Tibetan scholars were again busy translating religious texts. As the number of Tibetan Buddhist scholars grew, the number of visiting Indian scholars gradually declined. Thus, in the later period of Tibetan Buddhism, our religion developed independently of the later school of Indian Buddhism, although it retained the foundations of the Buddha's teachings. In its essentials, Tibetan Buddhism never suffered alterations or additions at the hands of Tibetan lamas. Their commentaries are clearly identifiable as commentaries, and for their authority, they referred to the main teachings of Lord Buddha or the works of the Indian pandits. For this reason, I do not think it is correct to regard Tibetan Buddhism as separate from the original Indian Buddhism, or to refer to it as lamaism.

The Four Noble Truths

Buddha said, "This is true suffering; this is the true cause; this is true cessation; this is the true path." He also said, "Know the nature of suffering; give up the causes of suffering; attain the cessation of suffering; follow the true path." And he said, "Know suffering, although there is nothing to know. Relinquish the causes of misery, although there is nothing to relinquish. Be earnest in pursuit of cessation, although there is nothing to cease. Practice the means of cessation, although there is nothing to practice." These are three views of the intrinsic nature, action, and ultimate result of the Four Noble Truths. In the third century CE, the Indian Nagarjuna expounded the philosophy of the Middle Way, which has become central to all schools of Mahayana Buddhism. The Middle Way teaches that 'true suffering' derives from samsara, the cycle of birth and rebirth that arises from karma, the retribution for actions stemming from ignorance and delusion. 'True cause' means karma and delusion, which are the true causes of suffering. 'True cessation' means the complete disappearance of the two preceding conditions. The 'true path' is the one path by which we arrive at true cessation.


To attain Nirvana, we must follow a prescribed path: the true path, or the Four Noble Truths. Hinayana and Mahayana represent two schools of thought by which we discern this path. According to Hinayana, the so-called Smaller Vehicle, whose practitioners seek Nirvana for their own sake, the mind should be trained to exercise a will strong enough to renounce samsara. The practitioner should pursue religious ethics and simultaneously practice meditative absorption and insight so that delusion and its seeds may be purged, ultimately, never to grow again. Thus, we attain Nirvana. The paths to be followed are the Paths of Preparation, Application, Seeing, Practice, and Fulfillment.


Followers of Mahayana, the so- called Greater Vehicle, aim at attaining the highest stage of Nirvana-Buddhahood. They do this not only for themselves but also for all sentient beings. Motivated by the aspiration of Enlightenment and by compassion for all sentient beings, Mahayanists follow almost the same path as Hinayanists, but they also practice other expedient means such as the Six Perfections. By these methods, they seek to rid themselves of delusion as well as the defilement of karmic imprints, thereby working to attain Buddhahood: Although the five paths are the same for both vehicles - Preparation, Application, Seeing, Practice, and Fulfillment - a qualitative difference is that Mahayana emphasizes the motivation to benefit all beings. It is said that Hinayanists who have achieved Nirvana will eventually adopt methods to attain Buddhahood.


The paths I have mentioned are doctrinal paths that aspirants must follow to provide a sound foundation before practicing Tantrayana, the way of yogic methods. The Tibetan School took great care before introducing any tantric doctrine. Spiritual teachers always investigated whether the doctrine was among those the Buddha preached. Competent pandits submitted it to logical analysis, and tested it in the light of experience, before confirming its authenticity and adopting it. This process was necessary because there were many non-Buddhist tantric doctrines that were apt to be confused with those of Buddhism because of their superficial resemblance. Tantrayana falls into four classes and includes a vast number of treatises that cannot be enumerated here. In the simplest terms, according to this system as already explained, negative karma is considered the cause of the various kinds of misery we suffer. Negative karma results from delusion, which is essentially the product of an undisciplined mind. Therefore, the mind needs to be disciplined and controlled by exercises that stop the flow of harmful and negative thoughts. This flow can be stopped and the wandering or projecting mind brought to rest by concentration on the makeup of one's mind. One can also focus one's mind on external objects to diminish negative thoughts. For this practice, one needs strong contemplative powers. The figures of deities have been found to be the most suitable objects, thus resulting in many images of deities in Tantrayana. In some cases, progress is achieved through strong faith and devo- tion; but generally, progress is achieved through the power of reason. And, if one follows the transcendental path of Tantrayana, reason itself will inspire heartfelt conviction.

An Outline of the Practice Method of Buddhism

The perfection of Buddhist practice is achieved not merely through superficial changes, such as leading a monastic life or recit- ing sacred texts. Whether these activities in themselves should even be called religious is open to question, for religion should be practiced in the mind. If one has the right mental attitude, all activities, bodily action, and speech can be religious. But if one lacks the right attitude - that is, if one does not know how to think properly - one will achieve nothing, even if one's whole life is spent in monasteries reading the scriptures. The first requirement of Buddhist practice, therefore, is transformation of mental attitude. One should take the Three Jewels - Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha - as the final refuge, take into account the laws of karma and its consequences, and cultivate thoughts that will benefit others. Being earnest in renouncing worldly interests, a practitioner will find great joy. Many followers of the Tibetan school have renounced the world in this way; and they possess an indescribable mental and physical satisfaction. How- ever, such renunciation of the world is not possible for everybody, because it requires great sacrifice. What kind of Dharma can we prescribe for ordinary people? Ruling out immoral acts, any activity that is useful and produc- tive in promoting the happiness of others can certainly go together with practicing the Dharma. Salvation can be achieved by merely leading a household life. We have a saying: "People who make no mental effort, even if they remain in mountain retreats, are only accumulating causes for a descent into hell." There is an old Tibetan story:... Long ago, there was a famous lama named Drom. One day, Drom saw a man walking around a stupa. "It is good for you to walk around the stupa," Drom said, "but wouldn't it be better if you practiced religion?" The man said to himself "I had better read a holy book then." And so he started a laborious course of reading. One day; Drom happened to see him again. "Reading from a holy book is, of course, good," Drom said, "but wouldn't it be better if you practiced religion?" The man thought: "It seems even recitation is not good enough. How about meditating?" Not long after, Drom saw him in meditation. He said, "I admit that meditation is good. But wouldn't it really be better if you practiced religion?" The man was bewildered. "What do you mean by practicing religion? Tell me how it is done." "Turn your mind away from the forms of this worldly life," Drom told him, "and turn your life towards religion." Perhaps I may conclude with a brief outline of the Buddhist path in terms of the Three Higher Trainings: Training in Higher Conduct, Training in Higher Meditation, and Training in Higher Wisdom.

Training in Higher Conduct

Training in Higher Conduct, which is the foundation of all the precepts, has many aspects. All are based on the avoidance of the ten non-virtues - three of the body, four of speech, and three of the mind.The three non-virtues pertaining to the body are: 1. Taking the life of any living being, from humans to the smallest insect, whether directly or indirectly. 2. Stealing or taking without consent another's property, directly or indirectly, whatever its value. 3. Committing adultery and indulging in perverted forms of sexual intercourse. The four non-virtues pertaining to speech are: 1. Being guilty of falsehood by giving others false or wrong advice, information, or physical indications. 2. Being guilty of calumny by causing disunity where unity exists and by aggravating disunity where it already exists. 3. Using harsh and abusive language. 4. Indulging in gossip out of sheer lust and passion. The three non-virtues pertaining to functions of the mind are: 1. Concern shortcomings. 2. The earnest desire to meditate and the ability to do so. 3. Perseverance and a joyful frame of mind. 4. Experience of mental and physical pliancy. 5. Conscientious effort to focus on the object of meditation. 6. Awareness of any inclination toward sluggishness or intense agitation. 7. Immediate readiness to counter distraction the moment it is perceived. 8. Relaxation of counter-measures when the objective is already accomplished. The Nine Stages of Concentration are: 1. Fixing the mind on the object of concentration. 2. Endeavoring to prolong the concentration. 3. Perceiving immediately any diversion of the mind and bringing it back to the object of concentration. 4. Maintaining a clear conception of even the minutest detail of the object. 5. Strengthening the effort by realizing its virtues. 6. Dispelling any adverse feeling towards meditation. 7. Maintaining equanimity by dispelling disturbances. 8. Taking concentration to its furthest limit. 9. Abiding in meditative equipoise without assistance or the effort of memory or consciousness.

Training in Higher Wisdom

Training in higher wisdom is concerned with developing two kinds of wisdom: 1. Wisdom that comprehends the relative nature of things, or empirical knowledge. 2. Wisdom that comprehends the absolute nature of things, or transcendental knowledge. I will briefly describe one more type of wisdom here: the wisdom that destroys all moral and mental defilements, and destroys defilements caused by the power of discriminative thought - the wisdom that comprehends shunyata.


Shunyata, the nature of emptiness, is the ultimate reality of all objects, material and phenomenal. Shunyata is neither affected by the powers of the Buddhas, nor dependent on the karmic fruits of sentient beings. Shunyata simply exists, and its nature pervades all elements. Accordingly; by their very nature, all Dharmas are empty. To quote from a sutra: "Whether the Buddhas appear in this world or not, Shunyata, the ultimate nature of all objects, is absolute and eternal." Shunyata is the negation of a permanent self and of independent existence.