Buddhism has the characteristics of what would be expected in the cosmic religion for the future: It trancends a personal God, avoids dogma and theology; it covers both the natural and the spiritual, and it is based on a religious sense aspiring from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, as a meaningful unity.
                                                                                                                    —Albert Einstein



Buddha the Conqueror
Nicholas Roerich  (1874-1947)
Courtesy of the Nicholas Roerich Museum in NYC

INTRODUCTION: The usual dates given for the lifetime of the Buddha (Siddhattha Gotama) are c. 563-483 B.C.E. (see Bodhi/Pipal Tree for brief, further data).  This young prince of the ancient, respected Sakya clan was born in Kapilavastu in the Himalayan foothills of northern India (today's Nepal).1 Although he shared concepts and terminology with the Hinduism of his day, he rejected the Vedas, animal sacrifice, and the worship of gods and goddesses (whom he regarded as very powerful mortals but nevertheless subject to death and rebirth). Gotama did, however, accept the Hindu goal of getting off the wheel of karma in order to end the darkness and suffering of earthly lives. He taught that such release could only be attained through one's individual efforts.2

Such an austere, difficult, lonely path would have attracted very few followers. This would not have mattered to Gotama since no evidence suggests that he wished to start a new religion. After his death, however, debates and quarrels arose among his followers as they attempted to codify the true meaning of his teachings. A year later, a council was held but it soon splintered into four major factions. Over the following decade, more than sixteen major factions appeared. In 390 BCE, nearly a century after the Buddha's death, a second council was held in which all the factions divided themselves into two major camps: the minority Hinayana ("exclusive way") for austere conservatives, who considered all the others heretics; and the majority Mahayana ("expansive way") for more open-minded liberals. Today, only Theravada ("tradition of the elders," whose ordination is only available to males) remains of what may have once numbered up to eighteen schools within the conservative Hinayana movement.3 [Note: for useful comparisions between Theravada and Mahayana, see Buddhanet's interesting chart.]

The Mahayana movement continues to embrace large numbers of traditions across Asia, including those of Tibet and Mongolia which, because of their remote locations, developed quite differently and remain unique. Today, it is no longer possible to think of Buddhism as one religion -- it is a family of religions. Common to all Mahayana traditions, however, are several basic assumptions: (1) in addition to the Buddha's public teachings, there were secret teachings that he shared only with a select group; (2) the Buddha is a semi-divine being -- he came to earth out of compassion for mortals; (3) if there is one Buddha, there must be many more scattered throughout the cosmos who are also willing to help those seeking enlightenment; (4) if there are many Buddhas, then indigenous "gods" can be considered Buddha-incarnations, which made Buddhism very appealing to a wide range of people; (5) gradually, another class of compassionate "saviors" came into view as a focus of popular devotion and source of solace -- Bodhisattvas.4

With this brief introduction, we now look
more deeply into Tibetan Buddhism

Interior of a Tibetan Temple
~Len Davis (from a defunct site)


The Buddha (c. 563-483 B.C.E.) entrusts his Sanskrit scriptures and esoteric secrets to the Nagas (sea-dragons).

The Nagas safeguard these until the time arrives for delivery
to the Indian philosopher/sage, Nagarjuna.

Nagarjuna (c. 150-250 C.E.) develops tantric Vajrayana Buddhism and Madhyamaka, a Mahayana school of philosophy which views all phenomena as empty of "substance" or "essence," having no independent reality of their own.

 Padmasambhava ("Lotus-Born" -- 8th century C.E.) takes these Sanskrit scriptures to Tibet, where they are translated and widely disseminated.
...From these translations, four major Tibetan lineages emerge:

8th-11th century: Nyingma: Red Hats (Tibetan Book of the Dead: among their contributions) 5
11th century: Kagyu: Black Hats (their Karmapas are incarnations of Padmasambhava)6
11th century: Sakya: also Red Hats (played important role during Mongol rule) 
14th century: Gelug: Yellow Hats (their Dalai Lamas are incarnations of Avalokiteshwara)7


[Abbreviated, re-arranged, and edited from Wikipedia & Tibetan Buddhism]

Samye Monastery

Samye Monastery was founded by Padmasambhava ("Lotus-Born") as the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet, probably between 775 and 779 C.E. under the patronage of King Trisong Detsen who sought to revitalize Buddhism, which had declined since the 7th century.  The monastery was supposedly modeled on the design of Odantapuri monastery in what is now Bihar, India. From this basis, Tantric Buddhism was established in its entirety in Tibet.

From the 8th until the 11th century C.E. Nyingma was the only school of Buddhism in Tibet. With the reign of King Langdarma (836–842) a time of political instability ensued which continued over the next 300 years, during which time Buddhism was persecuted and largely forced underground. From the 11th century onwards, the Nyingma tradition flourished along with the newer Sarma schools, and it was at that time that Nyingmapas began to see themselves as a distinct group and the term "Nyingma" came into usage.

The Nyingma tradition is the oldest of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism (the other three being the Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug). "Nyingma" literally means "ancient." It is founded on the first translations of Buddhist scriptures from Sanskrit into Tibetan in the eighth century -- Tibetan script and grammar were actually created for this purpose.

The Nyingma-pa, a"Red Hat Sect" of Tibetan Buddhism, incorporates mysticism and local deities shared by the pre-Buddhist Bon religion, which has shamanic elements. The group particularly believes in hidden terma treasures (see below). Traditionally, Nyingma-pa practice was advanced orally among a loose network of lay practitioners. Monasteries with celibate monks and nuns, along with the practice of reincarnated spiritual leaders, are later adaptations.

The Nyingma tradition actually comprises several distinct lineages that all trace their origins to the Indian "Lotus-Born" master Padmasambhava, who is lauded in the popular canon as the founder of Tibetan Buddhism in the 8th century, and is still propitiated in the discipline of reciprocity that is guru yoga sadhana, the staple of the tradition(s). It was the main center for dharma transmission in Tibet during this age. Nyingma also maintains the earliest tantric teachings, derived from Nagarjuna, which have been given the popular nomenclature of Vajrayana.

Historically, Nyingma-pa are categorised into Red Sangha and White Sangha. Red Sangha denotes a celibate, monastic practitioner; whereas White Sangha denotes a non-celibate practitioner who abstains from vows of celibacy. At different times in one's life, due to changing circumstances and proclivities, individuals historically moved between these two Sanghas. Rarely was either determination of Red or White for the duration of one's life.

The Nyingma tradition is unique amongst the four schools in that its supporters never held political power, and therefore its practitioners were mostly removed from the political machinations of Tibet. Indeed, Nyingma traditionally had no centralized authority and drew significant power from not having one. Only since the Tibetan diaspora following the Chinese annexation of Tibet have the Nyingma had a head of the Tradition and this seat was only invested at the polite request of the Dalai Lama. Even so, the Nyingma tradition is still politically decentralized and often decisions are made in an oligarchy or community of the senior sangha within a given jurisdiction or locale. Nyingmapa are also historically characterized and distinguished by decentralization and by their general wider political disinterest, with a lesser emphasis on monasticism relative to the other schools, with a correspondingly greater preponderance of ngakpas, non-celibate  householders and yogins.

[Abbreviated, re-arranged, and edited from Wikipedia & Tibetan Buddhism]

Bhutanese painted thanka of Milarepa (1052-1135),
Late 19th-early 20th Century, Dhodeydrag Gonpa, Thimphu, Bhutan
[Click on link for large version]

Kagyu: “Lineage of the (Buddha's) Word.” This is an oral tradition which is very much concerned with the experiential dimension of meditation. Its most famous and fascinating exponent was Milarepa, a skilled 11th century magician/mystic.

The Kagyu school, also known as the "Oral Lineage" or "Whispered Transmission" school, is today regarded as one of the main schools of Tibetan Buddhism. The Kagyu is also classified as one of the Sarma or "New Transmission" schools since it primarily follows the Vajrayna or Tantric teachings based on the so-called New Tantras, i.e., those translated during the second diffusion of the Buddha Dharma in Tibet.

Like all schools of Tibetan Buddhism, the Kagyu consider their practices and teachings inclusive of the full range of the Buddha's teachings, since they follow the fundamental teachings and vows of individual liberation and monastic discipline. Those teachings in turn accord with the Bodhisattva teachings, vows of universal liberation, philosophy of the Mahayana, and the profound means of the Secret Mantra Vajrayana. What differentiates the Kagyu from the other schools of Himalayan Buddhism are primarily the particular esoteric instructions and tantras they emphasize and the lineages of transmission they follow.

Due to the Kagyu tradition's particularly strong emphasis on guru devotion and guru yoga, and the personal transmission of esoteric instructions from master to disciple, the early Kagyu tradition soon gave rise to a bewildering number of independent sub-schools or sub-sects centered round individual charismatic Kagyu teachers and the hereditary lineages as well as mindstream emanation lineages.

[Abbreviated, re-arranged, and edited from Wikipedia& Tibetan Buddhism]

Sakya Pandita
Sakya: "pale earth." The name is taken from the unique grey clay of the Ponpori Hills in southern Tibet where Sakya Monastery, the first monastery of this tradition and the seat of the Sakya School, was built by Khon Konchog Gyalpo (1034–1102) in 1073. This school very much represents the scholarly tradition.

The Sakya tradition developed during the second period of translation of Buddhist scripture from Sanskrit into Tibetan in the late 11th century C.E. It was founded by Drogmi, a famous scholar and translator who had studied for twelve years at the Vikramashila University [see Bihar]directly under Naropa and other great panditas from India. The tradition was established by the "Five Venerable Supreme Masters," starting with the grandson of Khonchog Gyalpo, Kunga Nyingpo, who became known as Sachen, or "Great Sakyapa." The leadership of the Sakya School is passed down through a hereditary system between the male members of the Sakya branch of the Khon family.

Sachen, the first of the five supreme masters, inherited a wealth of tantric doctrines from numerous Tibetan translators or "lotsawas" who had visited India: most importantly Drokmi Lotsawa, Bari Lotsawa and Mal Lotsawa. From Drokmi comes the supreme teaching of Sakya, the system of Lamdré (lam 'bras) or "Path and its Fruit," deriving from the mahasiddha Virupa, based upon the Hevajra Tantra. Mal Lotsawa introduced to Sakya the esoteric Vajrayogini lineage known as "Naro Khachoma." From Bari Lotsawa came innumerable tantric practices, foremost of which was the cycle of practices known as the One Hundred Sadhanas. Other key transmissions that form part of the Sakya spiritual curriculum include the cycles of Vajrakilaya, Mahakala and Guhyasamaja.
The fourth Sakya patriarch, Sakya Pandita (see illustration above), was notable for his exceptional scholarship. He composed many important and influential texts on sutra and tantra, including, Clarifying the Thought of the Sage and Discriminating the Three Vows. The main Dharma system of the Sakya school is the Path with Its Result [lam dang 'bras bu bcas], which is split into two main lineages, Explanation for the Assembly (tshogs bshad) and the Explanation for Close Disciples (slobs bshad).

Historically, the Sakya lineage played a crucial role when Mongols invaded Tibet after the foundation of their empire in the early 13th century. In 1264 the feudal reign over Tibet was given to the Sakya, Phag-pa, by the Mongolian emperor Kublai Khan. One of Phag-pa's lasting contributions was developing a Mongolian alphabet so that the Mongols could keep their own records and send written communications to leaders elsewhere. Sakya lamas continued to serve as viceroys of Tibet on behalf of Yuan emperors for nearly 75 years after Phag-pa’s death (1280), until the Yuan Dynasty was greatly weakened by the Red Turban Rebellion in the 1350s. A decade later, the Ming Dynasty founded by native Chinese overthrew Mongol rule in China.

[Abbreviated, re-arranged, and edited from Wikipedia,
Tibetan Buddhism & hypertexted names below]

The Founder of the Gelug Tradition: Tsongkhapa
{Note: the title of Dalai Lama came after his lifetime]
Nicholas Roerich:  1924
Courtesy of the Nicholas Roerich Museum in NYC

Gelug: “Way of Virtue.” Originally a reformist movement, this tradition is particularly known for its emphasis on logic and debate. Its spiritual head is the Ganden Tripa and its temporal one the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama is regarded as the embodiment of Avalokiteshvara (Chinese, Kuan-yin), the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Successive Dalai Lamas ruled Tibet from the mid-17th to mid-20th centuries.

The order was founded in the 14th to 15th centuries by philosopher Je Tsongkhapa (1357–1419), renowned both for his scholasticism and his virtue. The first monastery he established was at Ganden, and to this day the Ganden Tripa is the nominal head of the school, though its most influential figure is the Dalai Lama.

Tsongkhapa adhered to the Mahayana principle of universal compassion as the fundamental spiritual orientation. He combined this with a strong emphasis on the cultivation of in-depth insight into the doctrine of emptiness as propounded by the Indian Madhyamaka masters, Nagarjuna (2nd century) and Candrakirti (7th century). Tsongkhapa said that these two aspects of the spiritual path, compassion and insight into wisdom, must be rooted in a wholehearted wish for liberation impelled by a genuine sense of renunciation. He called these the "Three Principal Aspects of the Path," and asserted that it is on the basis of these three that one must embark on the profound path of vajrayana Buddhism. The teachings of Tsongkhapa are seen as a protection against developing misconceptions in the understanding and practice of mahayana and vajrayana Buddhism.

Gyalwa Gendün Drup (1391-1474), the First Dalai Lama
(he and the 2nd Dalai Lama were given this title posthumously
after it was first bestowed upon the 3rd Dalai Lama)

More than a century after Tsongkhapa's time, the 3rd Dalai Lama, Sonam Gyatso, was very active in proselytizing among the Mongols. Because of this, the Gelug tradition became the main spiritual orientation of the Mongols in ensuing centuries as well as the pre-eminent Buddhist school in Tibet. The early Dalai Lamas, however, had no political power. That was in the hands of viceroys such as the Sakyas (see Sakya section above), the prince of Tsang, and the Mongolian Khan. The political role of the Dalai Lamas only began with the reign of the 5th Dalai Lama in the 17th century.

Tibet's sacred "Oracle Lake":  Lhamo La-tso
(Photo from CITS)
GELUG Addendum:

Tradition states that Palden Lhamo, the powerful female guardian spirit of Tibet's sacred glacial lake, Lhamo La-tso, promised the First Dalai Lama in one of his visions:

           ...that she would protect the reincarnation lineage of the Dalai Lamas.

This small, oval lake is considered the most sacred in Tibet. It is also known as "The Life-Spirit-Lake of the Goddess," the goddess being Palden Lhamo, the principal Protectress of Tibet.

..Since the time of the Second Dalai Lama, Gendun Gyatso, who formalized the system, senior monks have gone to the lake to meditate when seeking visions for guidance in finding the next Dalai Lama's reincarnation. It was here that in 1935, the Regent, Reting Rinpoche, received a clear vision of three Tibetan letters and of a monastery with a jade-green and gold roof, and a house with turquoise roof tiles, which led to the discovery of Tenzin Gyatso, the present 14th Dalai Lama.



Cosmic Witness
From  EarthSchool Harmony page
"If you wish to understand the Universe, think of energy, frequency and vibration."
~Nikola Tesla

Buddhist cosmology (i.e., how the universe came to be and what-it-is) can be seen as a psychological, philosophical, metaphorical "virtual" domain. It is not scientific in the usual sense and yet the deeper our current cutting edge scientific theories are explored, the more there seems to be a confluence between 21st century science and ancient Buddhism.

Nagarjuna's concept of Shunyata, or "emptiness," for example, does not mean there is nothing there, for our senses clearly  confirm the reality of the sensate world. So the Buddhist sense of "emptiness" has nothing whatsoever to do with the validity of sense-awareness. Instead, it looks at the essential "suchness" of all phenomena and grasps that none of it exists in its own right, free and clear, unalienable, eternally THERE, requiring nothing else, no one, and no-thing to keep it THERE, since its THERE-ness remains eternally stable. On the contrary, Nagarjuna realized that everything is endlessly changing, shifting, and dependent for its very existence upon a multitude of factors. including intricate timelines and energy-streams. Buddhist philosophers call this "dependent co-arising," by which they mean that nothing is independently "fixed" in its essence or beingness. Everything has to "co-arise" along with countless other "co-arisings" in order to exist in life's cosmic web of interconnectedness.

A farmer's seeds, for example, cannot germinate without crucial minerals deposited on earth eons ago in collisions with meteors and asteroids; nor can seeds come to fruition without the sun's light and warmth. We assume that each sunrise is freshly minted from photons that take only eight minutes to cross the 150 million kilometers separating the sun from earth. In actuality, however, those photons, born in the intense furnace of the sun's core, spent millions of years struggling through thick, viscous plasma-fields before finally reaching the sun's surface. Thus, light spilling forth from each sunrise is old, "used," ancient. Each day's sunlight is a "time-machine," holding unfathomable eons. Buddhist philosophers would explain this interconnectedness as an endless series of "dependent co-arisings," resulting in seeds being nurtured from light that began its journey before earthly plants even existed. In Hinduism, this is known as the Jeweled Web of Indra -- pull one strand and vibrations spread throughout the entire web, effecting everything along its path.

Today, with the advent of string-theory and other aspects of quantum physics, science finds itself inhabiting am unexpectedly Buddhist world. Centuries ago, the Prajnaparamita sutra, or "Heart Sutra," taught that "form is empty and emptiness is form."  That turns out to be accurate. An atom, for example, can be observed as both particle and energy-wave.  As cellular biologist Bruce Lipton comments, "now you see it, now you don't." He explains further:

...Matter can simultaneously be defined as a solid (particle) and as an immaterial force field (wave). When scientists study the physical properties of atoms, such as mass and weight, they look and act like physical matter. However, when the same atoms are described in terms of voltage potentials and wave-lengths, they exhibit the qualities and properties of energy (waves)....  The fact that energy and matter are one and the same is precisely what Einstein recognized when he concluded that E = mc2.  Simply stated, this equation reveals that energy (E) = matter (m, mass) multiplied by the speed of light squared (c2). Einstein revealed that we do not live in a universe with discrete, physical objects separated by dead space. The Universe is one indivisible, dynamic whole in which energy and matter are so deeply entangled it is impossible to consider them as independent elements.

...[T]he quantum perspective reveals that the universe is an integration of interdependent energy fields that are entangled in a meshwork of interactions. Biomedical scientists have been particularly confounded because they often do not recognize the massive complexity of the intercommunication among the physical parts and the energy fields that make up the whole. The reductionist's perception of a linear flow of information is a characteristic of the Newtonian universe. In contrast, the flow of information in a quantum universe is holistic. Cellular constituents are woven into a complex web of crosstalk, feedback, and feedforward communication loops....8

Bottomline: there is nothing solid that quantum physicists can get their hands on because everything is vibrating, changing, shifting. That is what ancient Buddhist philosophers meant by "emptiness." They knew nothing of quantum physics, but they experienced the "reality" of emptiness while deep in meditation. That profound awareness altered their lives.

Again, this is not to imply that the world is an illusion, a game, a trickster's sleight-of-hand. Most of us grew up with an image in our minds of what an atom looks like -- a tiny, whizzing speck with lots of smaller specks spinning around it, much as planets spin around the sun.  But quantum physics says, no, an atom is not just a miniature solar system. Actual atoms have a dual identity. They can appear as specific, localized particles or "specks" at the heart of a tiny theatre of motion ----- and they can equally appear as invisble waves of charged energy, picked up in a nano-second by sensitive machinery only to vanish in the next nano-second: "Now you see it, now you don't."

Is it "real"? -- of course, much as theatre is real.  As Shakespeare wrote in As You Like It (Act 2, scene7):

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
 They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts....
And in MacBeth (Act 5, scene 5):
...Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more; it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
That world of theatre has its own reality and power, whether one is caught up in it as player or observer. But that too is "empty." It is Shunyata, a weird, interconnected "sacred drama" devised for unknown reasons by unknown playwrights for unknown players, producers, and audiences. We may feel wonderfully entertained by it but nothing about it is really "solid." Part of the process itself is to allow us to soar to the heights of bliss, wonder, and love as well as to the depths of horror and despair. It lures us into feeling like a stable, grounded, localized "particle" for one moment (or for a billion lifetimes) and then like a mischievous energy-wave, now here, now there, now everywhere.

....Buddhist philosophers saw through this process by means of in-depth, hard-won meditation techniques (in a simpler, more immediate "Zen" manner, Toto simply barked, yanked at a curtain, and exposed the "great and terrible Wizard of Oz" as a befuddled fraud). For most of us, however, unaware of the implications of "emptiness," life brings pleasure when we win and unhappiness when we do not: c'est la vie.  Both Hinduism and Buddhism understood that such attraction and aversion, desire and disgust, are what keep us trapped, drawing us back into lifetime after lifetime, like New Yorkers, addictively attending each new Broadway opening. We seem hopelessly trapped in this process, this Cosmic Web, which, Nagarjuna taught, exists only because of the zillions of empty "co-dependent arisings" being drawn into it.

As we have seen, Nagarjuna and those who followed him offered ways of "seeing through" the dilemma. But to what end? Although the "prize" is enlightenment and release from rebirth, what do "winners" actually DO with this prize? Ironically, they themselves then go on to become Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, gods, and saints, who commit to helping others achieve the same thing! This may be a beautiful psychological shift, generous and noble, but one could be forgiven for having a niggling suspicion that perhaps "enlightenment" itself is simply playing its own stellar role in this splendidly brilliant "show." Do we ever really get out of this? WHO or WHAT bungled creation so badly that we are trapped in it forever and ever? Like Sartre's No Exit. Or an endless Gong Show. What's the point?

Captive Maid
Nicholas Roerich
Courtesy of the Nicholas Roerich Museum in NYC
Trapped for billions of years? WHY?
A website focused on Lotus-born Padmasambhava offers the following eerie, mind-boggling insights. Initially, they are quite disturbing:
The Dakini Yeshe Tsogyal had a vision in which she saw a manifestation of Guru Rinpoche [Padmasambhava] called Immense Vajra Ocean in the direction to the east. Each of the pores in his body held one billion realms and in each realm there were one billion world systems. In each of these world systems there were one billion Guru Rinpoches who each created one billion emanations. Each of these emanations carried out the activity of taming one billion disciples. She then saw the same display in each of the other directions and in the center....
Underlying the incomprehensible, inhuman vastness of that passage, and going past its hopelessly depressing numbers, the actual focus seems to be on an interconnectedness that starts from a single pore in a Cosmic Being and then begins moving outward, reaching, shifting, unfolding into an immense series of cellular communities, each part of the integrity of the whole. Similarly, all life forms are intricate communities of interconnected cells. This ancient concept of a cosmic-web linking all life forms would seem to be our ground-of-being. It offers no way to opt-out. There are no loopholes. To fight against it would be like whales repudiating the ocean. It is what it is. Escape is futile.

If that is the point, it means we are all in this together, sink or swim, like it or not. It means we are part of a cosmic web spun eons ago by unknown forces or beings -- maybe even by us. What if we are emanations of ancient India's circle of sages (the primal rishis)? Stories are told of these male and female rishis holding hands, dancing out into space, kicking up cosmic dust, turning it into stars, filling whole universes with star-webs, pushing them outwards, further and further.

Buddhism is filled with beings who are on-going emanations of earlier beings. Thus, even a handful of primal beings could by now have billions of emanations, each sharing, at some level, knowledge of how and why the universe was formed by that circle of sages.

Dance of Creation

If we are the emanations of those rishis, we must have known what we were doing. Perhaps that is still our task today: to remember how to trust ourselves, to honor our choices and creativity, to re-activate our mysterious connectedness with all of life. This might be what Einstein understood when he wrote:

Buddhism has the characteristics of what would be expected in the cosmic religion for the future: It trancends a personal God, avoids dogma and theology; it covers both the natural and the spiritual, and it is based on a religious sense aspiring from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, as a meaningful unity.


From  EarthSchool Harmony page

The Tibetan Book of the Dead explores the doctrine of the Bardo. Here are introductory comments from the 1951 work of reknowned Buddhist scholar, Edward Conze, author of Buddhism: its essence and development:
...A particularly fascinating doctrine which the Rnyin-ma-pa [i.e., Nyingma] have preserved is the doctrine of the Bardo. Bardo is the name of the experience a person undergoes in the interval between death and a new rebirth. Many Buddhists assume that a new birth follows instantaneously on death. Others, however, postulate an interval, and the [Nyingma] School give us a most detailed description of the experiences of the "soul" on the Bardo plane, which has been rendered accessible to us by Evans-Wentz's admirable translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Some of the traditions which it contains obviously go back to the Stone Age. The book gives advice to the soul of the dying man by preparing him for the typical experiences to which he will be exposed. In this work a great deal of Egyptian wisdom lives on until to-day. 9
[Note: for an interesting comparision between the Egyptian and Tibetan Books of the Dead, see this website.]
This is a brief 2:41 minute video on the passage from life to death in Tibet.

The following overview is abbreviated from James R. Coffey's useful
12 January 2011 essay, The Tibetan Book of the Dead

The Tibetan Book of the Dead, was passed down orally for centuries before being adapted to written form. According to Tibetan tradition, this funerary text is recited at the time of death to act as a guide for the dead during the state between death and the next rebirth which is known in Tibetan Buddhism as the “bardo.” Composed in the 8th century by the famous spiritual leader Guru Padmasambhava, then written down by his primary student Yeshe Tsogyal, it is said to have been buried in the Gampo hills in central Tibet and then subsequently discovered by a Tibetan “terton” (an individual who discovers something previously hidden) Karma Lingpa in the 12th century.

Today, there are numerous variations of the book among different Buddhist sects. Often compared with the funerary text, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Tibetan Book of the Dead also includes chapters on the signs of death, and rituals to undertake when death is closing in or has already taken place. It is the most internationally famous and widespread work of Tibetan Nyingma literature.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead teaches that awareness, once freed from the physical body, creates its own reality like that of a dream. This dream unfolds in predictable ways, both frightening and beautiful; peaceful and wrathful visions often appear which can be overwhelming. Since this freed awareness is in a state of shock from being disconnected from the physical body, it needs guidance and forewarning so that key decisions can be made that will ultimately lead to enlightenment. The Book teaches how one can attain “heavenly” realms by recognizing the “enlightened” realms from those of “seduction” that pull the spirit into cyclic suffering.

Presented in six parts, the first part of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, called “Chikhai Bardo” (or bardo of moment of death) describes the moment of death; the second part, “Chonyid Bardo” (bardo of experiencing reality) deals with the states which supervene immediately after death; and the third part, “Sidpa Bardo” (the bardo of rebirth) concerns the onset of the birth instinct and of prenatal events.

These first three are followed by three less formally categorized bardos, those of “life” (or ordinary waking consciousness), “dhyana” (meditation), and “dream” (the dream state of normal sleep). Thus, while the Book instructs the living as to how the dying can make the transition from life to the afterlife, it also teaches the larger, enlightened perspective that there are many “intermediate” stages (many bardos) throughout life when enlightenment can be achieved. Indeed, one can consider even a momentary state of consciousness a bardo, since it lies between our past and future existences, providing us with the opportunity to experience reality, which is always present but obscured by the misjudgments we have made in less enlightened states of mind. Accordingly, death, like all these states, is just one state between one consciousness and the next, and one that needs to be purposefully navigated.

“When the breathing is about to cease, it is best if the Transference hath been applied efficiently; if it hath been inefficient, then address the deceased thus: ‘Oh, nobly-born , the time hath now come for thee to seek the Path in reality. Thy breathing is about to cease. Thy guru hath set thee face to face before with the Clear Light; and now thou art about to experience in its Reality in the Bardo state, wherein all things are like the void and cloudless sky, and the naked, spotless intellect is like unto a transparent vacuum without circumference or centre. At this moment, know thou thyself and abide in that state. I, too, at this time, am setting thee face to face.’ Having read this, repeat it many times in the ear of the person dying, even before the expiration hath ceased, so as to impress it on the mind of the dying one. If the expiration is about to cease, turn the dying one over on the right side, which posture is called the ‘Lying Posture of a Lion. The throbbing of the arteries, on the right and left side of the throat is to be pressed.”


 She Who Leads: [the link offers a beautiful large version of this painting]
Nicholas Roerich:  1943
Courtesy of the Nicholas Roerich Museum in NYC

Although many in the West denigrate Tantra because they associate it with erotic sexuality, this is a misunderstanding of Tantra's vibrant, esoteric world.  Here is how Edward Conze introduced the subject in 1951:
...It is impossible at present to indicate the exact time when Tantric practices were first thought of. The Tantrists are habitually inclined to secrecy. Occult and esoteric views must have circulated in small circles of initiates for a long time before they came out into the open. As a more or less public system of thought, the Tantra gathered momentum after 500 or 600 A.D.  Its beginnings do, however, go back to the dawn of human history, when an agricultural society was pervaded by magic and witchcraft, human sacrifice and the cult of the mother goddess, fertility rites and chtonic deities. The Tantra is not really a new creation, but the result of an absorption of primitive beliefs by the literary tradition, and their blending with Buddhist philosophy

...Like the Hindus, the Buddhists distinguish a 'right-handed' and a 'left-handed' Tantra. In Hinduism the two groups are distinguished by the fact that the "right-hand observers" attach greater importance to the male, the "left-hand observers" to the feminine principle in the universe. In Buddhism, the difference between the two lies chiefly in their attitude to sex....10

...The old Buddhism had been a severely masculine system, and only a few quite subordinate feminine deities were admitted. The higher gods are sexless, so are the inhabitants of the Buddha-fields. Femininity was on the whole a bar to the highest spiritual attainment, and on approaching Buddha-hood, the Bodhisattva ceased to be reborn as a woman. A woman cannot possibly become a Buddha.

Green Tara (c.1200-1400 A.D.)  [from Tibet's Three-Tiered Temple at Alchi]    &...White Tara [contemporary Tibetan Thanka]

The Prajnaparamita [below] and Tara [above] were the first autonomous Buddhist deities. The cult of Tara seems to have entered Buddhism around 150 A.D.  Tara, from Sanskrit tarayati, is the saviouress who helps us to 'cross' to the other shore, who removes fear and dread and who grants the fulfilment of all our wishes. Tara was a creation of the popular mind.

Mother Prajnaparamita:
Goddess of "Perfect Wisdom"

The Prajnaparamita, on the other hand, originated among small groups of ascetic metaphysicians. In the Mahayana, the Prajnaparamita was not only a virtue, a book, and a mantra, but also a deity. The personification of transcendental wisdom seems to have started about the beginning of our era. In the Prajnaparamita sutras, she is described as 'The Mother of all the Buddhas.'  What is the meaning of this phrase? Just as the child is born of the mother, so the full enlightenment of a Buddha comes forth from the Perfection of Wisdom. It is she who shows them their way about in the world. In this way a feminine principle was placed side by side with the Buddha, and to some extent even above him. It is interesting to note that the Prajnaparamita texts, with their emphasis on the feminine principle in the world, originated in the south of India, where the Dravidian environment had kept alive many matriarchal ideas, which the more exclusively masculine Brahmanism had suppressed in the North of India. Almost everywhere in ancient thought we find the notion of a principle which represents both wisdom and femininity, and which combined motherhood with virginity....11

On the same Tantric Buddhist topics of magic as well as female-masculine principles, here is Lewis M. Hopfe (1935-1992), author of 1979's often reprinted Religions of the World:
The philosophy of Tibetan Buddhism is much like that found throughout the Mahayana world; but because of the isolation of this nation, many unique features have been developed and maintained. The most important practical feature of Tibetan Buddhism is its concern for magic as a means of coping with the problems of life. Tibetan Buddhism is frequently referred to as Tantric Buddhism because of its heavy reliance on manuals (tantras) that teach the various magical words and spells that help one deal with the unknown and are believed to guide the quest for positive rebirth and eventually enlightenment. Tantric religion is found in several sects of both Hinduism and Buddhism. In original Indian thought, it was believed that within each deity there were two elements: the male and the female. Sometimes these elements were separated in the minds of the devotee into a god and his consort, or wife, as in the case of Shiva and Kali. The awareness of these two divine elements led certain Hindus and, later, Buddhists to seek a mystical union with them through sexual practices.... [Note: this phenomenon is familiar to other spiritual paths as well -- in Catholicism, for example, nuns are considered "brides" of Christ -- intense mystical experiences are not uncommon. A compensatory devotion to the Virgin Mary is often found among Catholic priests and monks.]

Another feature of Tibetan Buddhism is its use of the phrase Om mani padme hum, which means, "Om, the jewel in the lotus, hum" [Note: "hum" has no meaning -- it is a "finishing sound," somewhat like "ya-da, ya-da" to indicate the completion of a phrase or thought]  This expression is used to invoke the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. While Avalokiteshvara is known in many schools of Mahayana Buddhism, he is particularly important in Tibet. He is revered as the patron of the Tibetan people and is worshipped because of his great compassion and ability to rescue his disciples from the perils of the world, as well as to guide them on the path to enlightenment. 12

Buddha of the North
Sculptor: Bradley Burkhart

A brief summation of Tantric Buddhism during the 7th - 11th centuries C.E, from Geoffrey Parrinder:

It was during this period that the spread of Buddhism to Tibet occurred. Its effective founder in that country was Padma-Sambhava, and the form of Buddhist religion which he introduced was predominantly tantric, that is, the form of belief and practice which gave great prominence to mystic symbols, sacred chants and various other esoteric devotional activities. This had an appeal for the Tibetans, a people whose religion until this time had been of a kind in which magical practices had played a large part. After a period of opposition and some persecution, Buddhist religion was re-established at the beginning of the 11th century.... 13


From  EarthSchool Harmony page

[Abbreviated and edited from Wikipedia]

Terma, or "hidden treasure," are key Tibetan Buddhist and Bön teachings, which tradition holds were originally esoterically hidden by various adepts such as Padmasambhava and his consorts in the 8th century for future discovery at auspicious times by other adepts, known as tertöns. As such, they represent a tradition of continuing revelation in Buddhism. The majority of terma teachings are tantric -- i.e, esoteric, magical in nature, although there are notable exceptions. Tradition holds that terma may be a physical object such as a text or ritual implement that is buried in the ground, hidden in a rock or crystal, secreted in an herb or a tree, hidden in a lake (or other source of water), or hidden in the sky. Although a literal understanding of terma is "hidden treasure," the teachings associated with such treasure should be understood as being "concealed within the mind of the guru." That is, the true place of concealment is in the tertön's mindstream. If the concealed or encoded teaching or object is a text, it is often written in dakini script: a non-human type of code or writing.

[Note: unless carved into stone, wood, etc, texts written on paper, parchment, and other relatively smooth surfaces, are two-dimensional.  This is because the letters themselves are two-dimensional, defined only by height and width. Dakini script, however, although it might look "normal" to the untrained, can only be read in the third dimension -- that of depth. It is said that one who can read Daikini script will experience a "3-D effect" in which a 2-dimensional surface will dissolve, so to speak, allowing the reader to see additional letters and words, which recede further and further into the background, revealing the true secrets of that text.]

The tradition of terma and tertön are somewhat analogous to that of inspiration in other religious traditions. Thus they provide a sanctioned cultural process that ensures the continuation of tantric tradition as well as Vajrayana Buddhism's and Bön's continued relevance in an evolving world. The terma tradition is particularly prevalent in the Nyingma lineage. Two of the most famous 20th century tertöns, Dudjom Rinpoche and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, were of the Nyingma school. Tertöns are also prevalent in Bön and a few have been Kagyu, which is the Karmapa's lineage.  [Note: this makes sense because the first Karmapa in the 11th century -- and all reincarnated Karmapas since -- are incarnations of Padmasambhava in the 8th century.]

Padmasambhava and his principal consorts and disciples hid scriptures, ritual objects, and relics to secure and protect Buddhism during the time of decline under King Langdarma. Some of these terma have been rediscovered and special terma lineages established throughout Tibet as a result. Out of this activity developed, especially within the Nyingma tradition, two ways of dharma transmission: The so-called "long oral transmission" from teacher to student in unbroken disciple-lineages and the "short transmission" of terma. The foremost revealers of these terma were the Five Tertön Kings and the Eight Lingpas. In the 19th century some of the most famous were the Khen Kong Chok Sum referring to Jamyang Khyentse, Jamgon Kongtrul and Chokgyur Lingpa.

.......[From Himalayan Art] .................................................................. [From the UK: source unknown]

Terma have been revealed by nagas (sea-dragons or serpents) and dakini, of the underworld and heavens respectively, and have also been hidden by teachers, such as the Buddha and the great translator Longchenpa. The central Mahayana philosopher, Nagarjuna, for example, rediscovered the last part of the Prajnaparamita-Sutra in the realm of the Nagas, where it had been safeguarded for centuries since the time of the Buddha.

The terma tradition of rediscovering hidden teaching is not unique to Tibet. It has antecedents in India and cultural resonances in Hindu Vaishnavism as well. The Vaishnava saint, Chaitanya, for example, is said to have rediscovered a fragment of the Brahma Samhita in a state of devotional ecstacy. Chaitanya also deposited his divine love in the river Padma in Bangladesh to await the reincarnation of the saint Narottama. When the re-born Narottama turned twelve years of age, he collected this treasure after a revelation in a dream.

In 2001, Francesca Fremantle (Luminous Emptiness: Understanding the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Boston, Massachusetts: Shambhala Publications:17), explains that according to tradition:

Termas are of two main kinds: earth treasures and intention (or mind) treasures. A teaching concealed as an intention treasure appears directly within the mind of the tertön in the form of sounds or letters....  Earth treasures include not only texts, but also sacred images, ritual instruments, and medicinal substances, and are found in many places: temples, monuments, statues, mountains, rocks, trees, lakes, and even the sky. In the case of texts, they are not, as one might imagine, ordinary books that can be read straightaway. Occasionally, full-length texts are found, but they are usually fragmentary, sometimes consisting of only a word or two, and they are encoded in symbolic script, which may change mysteriously and often disappears completely once it has been transcribed. They are simply the material supports that act as a trigger to help the tertön reach the subtle level of mind where the teaching has really been concealed. It is the tertön who actually composes and writes down the resulting text, and so may be considered its author.
The earth-terma are physical objects — which may be either an actual text, or physical objects that trigger a recollection of the teaching. The mind-terma are constituted by space and are placed via guru-transmission, or realizations achieved in meditation which connect the practitioner directly with the essential content of the teaching in one simultaneous experience. Once this has occurred, the tertön holds the complete teaching in mind and is required by convention to transcribe the terma twice from memory (if of textual nature) in one uninterrupted session. The transcriptions are then compared and if no discrepancy or inconsistency is evident, the terma is sealed as authentic. The tertön is required to realise the essence of the terma prior to formal transmission.

In one sense, all terma may be considered mind-terma, as the associated teaching is always inserted in the mind of the practitioner as a direct mindstream transmission. The terma may also be held in the mindstream of the tertön and realised in a future incarnation at a beneficent time. A vision of a syllable or symbol may leaven the realisation of the latent terma in the mindstream of the tertön. The process of hiding in the mindstream implies that the practitioner is to gain realisation in that life. At the time of terma concealment, a prophecy is generally made concerning the circumstances in which the teaching will be re-accessed. Especially in the case of an earth-terma, this usually includes a description of locality, and may specify certain ritual tools or objects which are required to be present, and the identities of any assistants and consorts who are required to accompany or assist the tertön.

Though somewhat contentious, the kind of revealed teaching embodied in the terma system is based in solid Mahayana Buddhist traditions. The example of Nagarjuna is often cited; the Prajnaparamita teachings are traditionally said to have been conferred on Nagarjuna by the King of the Nagas, who had been guarding them at the bottom of a lake. Similarly, the Six Treatises of Asanga are considered to have been conferred on him by the Buddha Maitreya, whom he visited in Tushita heaven during a vision.

"Pure visions" are pure teachings received from the vision of deities and are not necessarily terma as they do not require a mindstream transmission in the practitioner experiencing such teachings. The esoteric teachings resulting from pure vision are based on the tantras and are sometimes attributed as terma due to their merit.

A terma tradition also exists in the Bön religion. Most Bön termas were hidden during the period of decline under King Trisong Deutsen and rediscovered around the 11th century. Teachings were hidden by masters such as Lishu Tagring and Drenpa Namkha, often inside Buddhist temples/monasteries, as in Samye (see above under Nyingma) and Lhodrak....

[Abbreviated and edited from Tibetan Prayer Wheels.com]
Finally, one of the most beloved termas is the famous Tibetan prayer wheel. Ancient texts tell us that, after receiving it from the Naga King, the prayer wheel was brought to our world by Nagarjuna. This Indian Buddhist scholar, philosopher, and yogi, is associated with the rise of Mahayana Buddhism during the first century B.C.E. and is well known as the founder of the Middle Way (Madhyamaka) school of Buddhist philosophy -- which all currently existing schools of Tibetan Buddhism accept as the most profound of all philosophical views.

Nagarjuna was filled with great compassion and concern for others. He was an extremely gifted and intelligent teacher who thought continually about how to best benefit others. Nagarjuna’s teachings not only began one of the greatest philosophical traditions of all time, but also contributed immeasurably to a cultural transformation that spread the Mahayana Buddhist vision of universal responsibility and compassion for all life throughout most of Central and East Asia.

The prayer wheel lineage was brought to Tibet by the renowned eight century Indian Buddhist teacher, Padmasambhava, and later practiced by the great Indian tantric Buddhist masters, Tilopa and Naropa. Naropa’s disciple Marpa later renewed the lineage in Tibet and passed it on to Tibet’s most well known yogi, Milarepa. Since that time the prayer wheel has been passed on through a continuous lineage of enlightened teachers.

The heart of Tibet's prayer wheel is what is considered to be one of the most profound and beneficial mantras: OM MANI PADME HUM.  In the translation of a text by the Fourth Panchen Lama, Amitabha Buddha says “Anyone who recites the six syllables while turning the dharma wheel at the same time is equal in fortune to the Thousand Buddhas.”  In the same text, Shakyamuni Buddha says that "turning the prayer wheel once is better than having done one, seven, or nine years of retreat" The prayer wheel is a very powerful merit field; one accumulates extensive merit and purifies obstacles.

It has been well known for over a thousand years by the great Buddhist yogis and teachers as well as the Tibetan people that the prayer wheel practice is an extremely quick, simple and profound method for developing compassion and wisdom. Ancient texts expound the profound benefits of the prayer wheel for its ability to quickly harmonize the environment, increase compassion, encourage a peaceful state of mind, and assist practitioners on their journeys to enlightenment. It is suggested that one recite the six-syllable mantra – Om Mani Padme Hum – while turning the prayer wheel. This is the mantra of Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion, and it is recited continually by many Tibetans. One also finds it carved on rocks, written on prayer flags, embossed on jewelry, and inside of most prayer wheels.

Mantras are strings of syllables empowered by enlightened beings to benefit others. The word mantra means ‘mind-protection’. It protects the mind from ordinary appearances and conceptions that characterize the ongoing cycle of samsaric suffering.  It has been scientifically documented that mantra recitation produces significant psychological and physiological relaxation, and statistical analyses have shown that meditation with traditional mantras produces a greater reduction than other kinds of meditation (including mediation with randomly selected Sanskrit syllables or with personally selected English words).


1 Parrinder, Geoffrey, ed., World Religions / From Ancient History to the Present;
   New York: Facts on File, 1984; pp.262-263.
2 Hopfe, Lewis M. (deceased), revised by Mark R. Woodward, Religions of the World: 11th     Edition;  New York, et al.: Vango Books, 2009; pp.139-140.
3 Ibid:141-142.
4 Ibid:144-146.
5 Ibid:153
6 Parrinder: 300-301.
7 Ibid: 301.
Lipton, Bruce H., Ph.D., The Biology of Belief: Unleashing the Power of Consciousness,    Matter & Miracles: Hay House, Inc., 2011; pp. 71-72.
9 Conze, Edward, Buddhism: its essence and development; New York, et al.: Harper Torchbooks. 1975 (reprinted from 1951); pp. 209-210.
10 Ibid:176-177.
11 Ibid: 192-193.
12 Hopfe:151-152.
13 Parrinder:286.

Tibetan Prayer Wheel

Note: bar-dividers on this page were cropped from 13th century carved and painted wood manuscript-covers from Tibet. More of these may be seen at "Guardians of the Sacred Word," a 1996 exhibition of 12th -15th centuries organized by Anna Maria and Fabio Rossi.
9 July 2012: as a longtime member of the Bodhi Tree Educational Foundation's Board of Directors, it has been a pleasure to be asked to create a number of webpages on Regional and Buddhist topics related to the Foundation. Here is our Site Map with links to the pages I have so far created.  I hope you will enjoy them.
Warm wishes,
Kathleen Jenks, Ph.D.
Myth*ing Links