Tibetan Religions: An Overview

To the Western mind, Tibet has traditionally appeared as a remote yet uniquely fascinating country. Profoundly Buddhist in all aspects of its social, cultural, and religious life, it was, until 1959, dominated by a monastic hierarchy. In the imagination of some, the so-called Land of Snow (as the Tibetans style their country) has also been regarded as the home of mysterious, superhuman beings, mahatma s, who, from their secret abodes in the Himalayas, give mystic guidance to the rest of humanity.

As sources become more abundant, a more realistic and complex view of Tibetan history and religion is gaining ground. The following points, which make this clear, should be kept in mind.

First, Buddhism in Tibet is represented by several traditions, monastic “orders,” or schools, which have certain basic traits in common but also differ in significant respects. This must be taken into account when reading written sources, since traditional Tibetan historiography (which invariably is religious historiography) tends to reflect the more or less partisan views of the authors.

Second, Buddhism is not the only religion that must be taken into account. Buddhism penetrated into Tibet relatively late—perhaps not before the eighth century ce—and only gradually succeeded in supplanting a well-established indigenous religion that is still only fragmentarily known. Furthermore, from the tenth or eleventh century onward, the various Buddhist orders have existed alongside a religion known as Bon, which, while claiming, certainly not without some justification, continuity with the pre-Buddhist religion, is nevertheless almost indistinguishable from Buddhism in many respects. Bon has retained its own identity to this day. In addition, there remains a vast area of rites and beliefs that are neither specifically Buddhist nor Bon but may be styled “popular religion” or “the religion without a name.” There is also a small minority of Tibetan Muslims (who will, however, not be treated in this article).

Third, it should be recognized that Tibet is a somewhat ambiguous term. In the present context it can only be used in a meaningful way to refer to an ethnically defined area—including parts of India and Nepal—that shares a common culture and language, common religious traditions, and, to a large extent, a common history. The so-called Tibetan Autonomous Region of China only comprises the western and central parts of Tibet, including the capital, Lhasa. The vast expanses of eastern and north-eastern Tibet (Kham and Amdo) have since the 1950s been incorporated into Chinese provinces, but are ethnically and historically entirely Tibetan. Beyond Tibet (thus defined), Tibetan Buddhism is the official religion of Bhutan; until the early years of the twentieth century it reigned supreme in Mongolia; and it is still found among the Buriats, Tuvin, and Kalmuks in Russia. Its spread in the West will be discussed at the end of this article.

The term Lamaism is frequently used to refer to Tibetan religion. Tibetans often object to this term, as it could be taken to imply that Buddhism in Tibet is somehow basically different from Buddhism in other parts of Asia. To the extent that the term Lamaism points to the important role of the lama (Tib, bla ma), or religious guide and expert in Tibetan religion, it can be said to refer equally to Buddhism and Bon, and thus it retains a certain usefulness. However, as a term intended to describe Tibetan religion as a whole, it remains one-sided and hence misleading.

The Pre-Buddhist Religion

When Buddhism was introduced into Tibet in the eighth century, it did not enter a religious vacuum. At present, however, it is not possible to arrive at an adequate understanding of the pre-Buddhist religion because of the incompleteness of the sources.

These sources fall into two categories: ancient and later. Ancient sources are those that predate the collapse of the royal dynasty in the middle of the ninth century. Archaeological sources are practically non-existent, since only sporadic excavations have been undertaken to date. The royal tombs at ʾPhyong rgyas in central Tibet are still prominently visible but were plundered at an early date. The vast majority of the written sources are later than the introduction of Buddhism and thus often show traces of syncretic beliefs. These sources include inscriptions on pillars and bells, manuscripts containing fragments of rituals and myths or of divinatory practices, Buddhist texts that refute the ancient religion, and Chinese chronicles from the Tang dynasty (618-907). The language of these Tibetan texts, however, is archaic and all too often obscure, and the manuscripts themselves are not infrequently in a fragmentary condition.

The later sources date from the twelfth century onward and are found mainly in the historical writings of Buddhism and the Bon religion, which, between them, had by this time been completely successful in an institutional sense at least in replacing the ancient religion. Many indigenous beliefs and practices have persisted until today in the popular, nonmonastic religion, but as they are usually closely intermixed with elements of Buddhism (or, as the case may be, with Bon), it is an exceptionally delicate task to use folk religion as a basis for reconstructing the pre-Buddhist religion.

Thus the picture of pre-Buddhist religion that emerges on the basis of the ancient sources is, unfortunately, fragmentary. Certain rituals, beliefs, and parts of myths may be discerned, but the overall feeling of coherency is lacking, those elements that are known focus largely on the person of the king. It is safe to assert that the Tibetans, at least from the sixth century onward, if not earlier, had a sacral kingship. The welfare of the country depended on the welfare of the king. Accordingly, rites of divination and sacrifice were performed to protect his life, guarantee his victory in battle, and ensure his supremacy in all things. It is said in the ancient sources that “his helmet is mighty” and his rule “great, firm, supreme,” and “eternal.” The king “does not change”; he is endowed with “long life.”

The king was regarded not only as a vitally important personage but above all as a sacred being. According to a frequently encountered myth, the first king of Tibet descended from heaven (“the sky”) and alighted on the summit of a mountain (according to later sources, he made the descent by means of a supernatural rope or ladder). At the foot of the mountain he was received by his subjects. The earliest kings were believed to have ascended bodily to heaven by the same means, thus leaving no corpse behind. Furthermore, the king was assimilated to the sacred mountain itself, just as in later popular religion the distinction between a sacred mountain and the deity residing on it was often blurred.

The myth relates that when the seventh king was killed, funerary rites had to be performed for the first time, In fact, in historical times (i.e., from the sixth century ce onward) huge funerary mounds were erected, assimilated both to the sacred mountains and to the kings, the tombs being given names that consisted of the same elements as those found in the names of the kings themselves. The death of a king was surrounded by elaborate rituals: processions, sacrifices, and the depositing on a lavish scale of all sorts of precious objects in the burial chamber. The officiating priests were known generically as bon po s, but apparently there were numerous specialized subgroups. Animals were sacrificed: in particular, sheep, horses, and yaks. The sacrificial sheep seem to have had an important role as guides for the deceased along the difficult road leading to the land of the dead—a land apparently conceived of in terms analogous to that of the living, Servants and officials, perhaps also members of the family, were assigned to the dead king as his “companions”; it is uncertain, however, whether they, too, actually accompanied him to the grave, or, as certain later sources suggest, only lived within the precincts of the tomb for a specified period.

A surviving early text outlines an eschatological cosmology that embodies a cyclical view of time. In a “golden age” plants and animals are transposed from their celestial home to the earth for the benefit of humanity. Virtue and “good religion” reign supreme. However, a demon breaks loose from his subterranean abode and causes a general decline in morals as well as in the physical world. Those who nevertheless follow the path of virtue and honor the gods are led after death to a land of bliss. In the meantime, the world rapidly reaches a point at which everything is destroyed, whereupon a new golden age begins in which the virtuous dead are reborn. Thus the cycle presumably—the text is not explicit—repeats itself.

Little is known of the pantheon of the pre-Buddhist religion. The universe was conceived of as having three levels: the world above (the sky), inhabited by gods (lha ); the middle world (the earth), the abode of human beings; and the world below (the subterranean world, conceived of as aquatic), inhabited by a class of beings known as klu (and later assimilated to the Indian nāga s).

According to some sources, the heavenly world above had thirteen levels, inhabited by a hierarchy of male and female deities. Both Chinese sources and epigraphic evidence speak of the sun, the moon, and the stars being invoked as guardians and guarantors of treaties. Sacrifices in the form of various animals were made at the conclusion of the treaty of 822 between China and Tibet. By this time, however, Buddhism had appeared on the scene and the Three Jewels of Buddhism (i.e., Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha) were also invoked. A Buddhist monk with the rank of minister was at the head of the Tibetan delegation.

The subterranean beings, the klu, posed a constant danger to humanity, since they were particularly prone to be annoyed by activities that interfered with the surface of the land, such as ploughing and digging. The klu could cause the eruption of diseases, especially leprosy and dropsy that could only be cured through rites of atonement and propitiation. However, in determining the details of these rites and in obtaining specific information about the host of demons presumably populating the supernatural world of the ancient Tibetans we are to a large extent reduced to speculation on the basis of later, popular religious practices. Likewise, we meet with the names of various types of deities that are of great importance in later, popular religion: warrior god (dgra bla ), god of the fireplace (thab lha ), life god (srog lha ), god of the land (yul lha ), and so on.

It is difficult to establish which elements in the pre-Buddhist religion are truly indigenous, The later sources insist that many of the Bon priests came from countries bordering Tibet, in particular, areas to the west. After Buddhism had triumphed, the Tibetans themselves speculated whether the Bonpos were Śaiva adepts from Kashmir. Possible influences emanating from the Iranian world have also been the subject of speculation by Western scholars, so far without conclusive evidence. On the other hand, the importance of the Chinese influence, long ignored, has now been firmly established. The royal tombs have obvious Chinese prototypes, as does the sacredness of the king: he is “god son” (lha sras ), corresponding to the Chinese emperor, the “Son of Heaven”; he is “sacred and divine” (ʾphrul gyi lha ), corresponding to the Chinese sheng-shen. This sacredness is manifested in a supernormal intelligence and in the power to act, politically as well as militarily.

It has been suggested that the pre-Buddhist religion was transformed into a coherent political ideology in the seventh century, modeled on the Chinese cult of the emperor. This royal religion was, according to this view, referred to as gtsug or gtsug lag, a word that was defined as “the law of the gods.” However, the later sources, Buddhist and Bonpo, unanimously refer to the ancient religion as Bon, a claim that is supported by recent research. In any case, the cult of the divine kings disappeared together with the organized priesthood.


Buddhism was established in Tibet under royal patronage in the eighth century. In the preceding century, Tibet had become a unified state and embarked upon a policy of military conquest resulting in the brief appearance of a powerful Central Asian empire. The introduction of Buddhism was certainly due to the need to provide this empire with a religion that enjoyed high prestige because of its well-established status in the mighty neighboring countries of India and China. The first Buddhist temple was built at Bsam yas (Samyé) in approximately 779; soon afterward the first monks were ordained. From the very start, the Buddhist monks were given economic and social privileges.

When Buddhism was introduced, the Tibetans had a choice as to whether the new religion should be brought from India or China. Modern scholarship has established the important role that China played as a source of Buddhism in the early stages of its history in Tibet. Nevertheless, it was the Indian form of Buddhism that eventually predominated. According to later sources, the Tibetan kings were guided by spiritual considerations and the proponents of Indian Buddhism emerged victorious from a doctrinal debate with Chinese monks representing a form of Chan Buddhism. However, hard political motives were surely equally important: in military and political terms China was Tibet’s main rival, and China’s influence at the Tibetan court would be unduly increased if it gained control of the powerful Buddhist hierarchy.

In any case, Tibet turned to India for its sacred texts, philosophical ideas, and rituals, in the same way as it had adopted, in the seventh century, an Indian alphabet. Once set on its course, Buddhism rapidly became the dominant religion, suffering only a temporary setback after the collapse of the royal dynasty in 842. In several important respects, Buddhism in Tibet remained faithful to its Indian prototype. It must, of course, be kept in mind that this prototype was, by the seventh and eighth centuries, a form of Mahāyāna Buddhism that was, on the one hand, increasingly dependent on large monastic institutions, and on the other, permeated by Tantric rites and ideas. Both these features—vast monasteries and a pervasive Tantric influence—have remained characteristic of Buddhism in Tibet. Similarly, there has been little development in the realm of philosophical ideas; the Tibetans have, on the whole, been content to play the role of exegetes, commentators, and compilers. However, the political domination that the monasteries gradually obtained was without precedent. A uniquely Tibetan feature of monastic rule was succession by incarnation—the head of an order, or of a monastery, being regarded as the reincarnation (motivated by compassion for all beings) of his predecessor. In other cases, a religious figure might be regarded as the manifestation of a deity (or a particular aspect of a deity). In the person of the fifth Dalai Lama (1617–1682) both ideas were combined. Each Dalai Lama was already regarded as the incarnation of his predecessor; the fifth, who established himself as head of the Tibetan state, also came to be regarded as the emanation or manifestation of the great bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara (Tib., Spyanrasgzigs), as have all subsequent Dalai Lamas down to the present, the fourteenth.

The choice of Avalokiteśvara was not made at random. As early as the twelfth or thirteenth century, Avalokiteśvara had come to be regarded in a double respect as the divine protector of Tibet. In the form of an ape he had, in ancient times, assumed the role of progenitor of the Tibetan people in order that the teachings of the Buddha might flourish in Tibet in due course; in the form of the great Tibetan king Srong bstan sgam po, who created the Tibetan empire in the seventh century, Avalokiteśvara had established Buddhism—according to this retrospective view—in the Land of Snow. The Potala Palace in Lhasa, the ancient capital, was built in its present form by the fifth Dalai Lama and made his residence; situated on a hill, it symbolically reestablished the pre-Buddhist connection between the divine king and the sacred mountain.

Popular Religion

It would be illusory to draw a sharp line of demarcation between popular and monastic religion. Nevertheless, while the study of the Mahāyāna philosophical systems and the performance of elaborate Tantric rites take place within the confines of the monasteries, monks actively participate in a wide range of ritual activities outside the monasteries, and beliefs that do not derive from Buddhism are shared by monks and laypeople alike.

These rites and beliefs may be styled “popular religion,” a term that only signifies that it is nonmonastic, traditional, and related to the concerns of laypeople. It does not imply a system representing an alternative to Buddhism (or the Bon religion). For the last thousand years, Buddhist ideas have provided a general cosmological and metaphysical framework for popular religion. In many cases one may also assume that there is continuity with the pre-Buddhist religion, but it is often a delicate task to determine this continuity in precise terms.

Turning, first of all, to elements inspired by Buddhism, the most important—and conspicuous—are undoubtedly the varied and ceaseless efforts to accumulate merit. The law of moral causality (karman ) easily turns into a sort of balance in which the effect of evil deeds in this life or in former lives may be annulled by multiplying wholesome deeds. While an act of compassion, such as ransoming a sheep destined to be slaughtered, theoretically constitutes the ideal act of virtue, the accumulation of merit generally takes a more mechanical form. Hence the incessant murmuring of sacred formulas (in particular the mantra of Avalokiteśvara, “Om mani padme hum”), the spinning of prayer wheels (ranging in size from hand-held wheels to enormous cylinders housed in special buildings), the carving of mantras on stones (which may eventually grow into walls several miles in length, so-called mani -walls), and the hoisting of banners and strings of flags on which prayers are printed (“prayer flags”). Ritual circumambulation of holy places, objects, and persons is also a distinctly Buddhist, as well as truly popular, practice. Showing generosity toward monks and observing—lightly or scrupulously, as the case may be—the universal precepts of Buddhism (particularly the prohibition against taking the life of any living being, however small) are ethical norms that Tibetans share with all Buddhists.

Pilgrimages constitute an important religious activity: above all to the holy city of Lhasa—sanctified by its ancient temples and (since the seventeenth century) the presence of the Dalai Lama—but also to innumerable monasteries, shrines, and caves in which relics of holy men and women may be seen, honoured, and worshiped. Sacred mountains, such as Mount Kailash in western Tibet, attract a stream of pilgrims who circumambulate, perhaps for weeks or months, the holy abode of the chosen deity. The supreme pilgrimage is the long journey to the sacred sites of Buddhism in India and Nepal (Bodh Gayā, Rājagṛha, Lumbinī, Sārnāth); although the flow of pilgrims to India virtually ceased after the thirteenth century, it again became possible in the twentieth century.

Ritual practices, while generally having an overall Buddhist conceptual framework, often contain elements that point back to the pre-Buddhist religion. One such element, frequently met with, is the “ransom” (glud) in the form of a small human figurine that is offered as a gesture of propitiation to demons. In the New Year rituals as traditionally practiced in Lhasa, the glud was in fact a human scapegoat who was driven out of the city and who, in earlier times, was symbolically killed.

As in other Buddhist countries, regional and local deities have remained objects of worship, generally performed by laypeople. In particular, the deities connected with (or even identified with) sacred mountains, powerful gods of the land (yul lha ), are worshiped during seasonal festivals with the burning of juniper branches that emit clouds of fragrant smoke; horse races; archery contests; drinking bouts; and songs extolling the might of the deity, the beauty of the land, the fleetness of its horses, and the valor of its heroes. These gods have a martial nature and are accordingly known as enemy gods (dgra bla ); they are also known as kings (rgyal po ), Usually they are depicted as mounted warriors, dressed in archaic mail and armor and wearing plumed helmets.

The house ideally reproduces the outside world, and it has its own guardian deities, such as the god of the fireplace (thab lha ). Care must be taken to avoid polluting the fireplace in any way, as this angers the god. On the flat rooftops are altars dedicated to the “male god” (pho lha ) and the “female god” (mo lha ) and a banner representing the enemy god. The “male” and “female” gods are tutelary deities of the household, supervising the activities of its male and female members, respectively. The “enemy god” is—in spite of its name—a deity who protects the entire household or, as a member of the retinue of the local “god of the land,” the district. The worship of these gods on the rooftops corresponds to that performed in their honor on mountaintops and in passes: spears and arrows dedicated to them are stacked by the altar and juniper twigs are burned amid fierce cries of victory and good luck.

The person, too, possesses a number of tutelary deities residing in different parts of the body. Every person is also accompanied, from the moment of birth, by a “white” god and a “black” demon whose task it is, after death, to place the white and the black pebbles—representing the good and evil deeds one has done in this life—on the scales of the judge of the dead. The basic opposition between “white” and “black,” good and evil, is a fundamental concept in Tibetan popular religion and figures prominently in pre-Buddhist traditions as well. Iranian influences have been suggested, but it seems likely that the Chinese conceptual dichotomy of yin and yang lies closer at hand.

The ancient cosmological scheme of sky, earth, and underworld remains fundamental in popular religion. In particular, the cult of the klu —subterranean or aquatic beings easily irritated by activities such as house building or plowing, which provoke them to afflict people as well as animals with various diseases—remains widespread and provides a direct link to the pre-Buddhist religion.

An important aspect of popular religion (and, indeed, of the pre-Buddhist religion) is the emphasis on knowing the origins not only of the world but of all features of the landscape, as well as of elements of culture and society that are important to man. Tibetans have a vast number of myths centering on this theme of origins; while some of them have a purely narrative function, others serve to legitimate a particular ritual and must be recited in order that the ritual may become effective.

Rites of divination and of healing in which deities “descend” into a male or female medium (lha pa, “god-possessed,” or dpaʾ bo, “hero”) and speak through it are an important part of religious life, and such mediums are frequently consulted. Other, simpler means of divination are also extremely widespread.

A special kind of medium is the sgrun pa, the bard who in a state of trance can recite for days on end the exploits of the great hero Gesar. Regarded as an emanation of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, Gesar has been approved by the Buddhist hierarchy; but essentially he is a popular, epic hero, a mighty king and warrior. His epic is a storehouse of myths, folklore, and pan-Eurasian narrative motifs, and is widespread outside Tibet in the Hindu Kush and, above all, among the Mongolians. Other visionaries (ʾdas log ) travel in trance to the Buddhist purgatories, their bodies lying as if dead; on awakening, they give detailed accounts of the punishment awaiting sinners beyond the grave. Still others find hidden “treasures” (gter ma ) consisting of texts or sacred objects; indeed, this has remained until today an important way of adding to the body of authoritative texts translated from Sanskrit (and, to a lesser extent, from Chinese), for the “treasure-discoverers” (gter ston ) claim to bring to light texts that have been hidden away (especially by the eighth-century Tantric master Padmasambhava) during times of persecution of Buddhism, to be rediscovered, usually with the assistance of supernatural beings, for the benefit of humanity when the time is ripe. Finally, ecstatics and visionaries point the way to earthly paradises such as the mythical kingdom of Shambhala or to hidden valleys, untouched by man, in the secret recesses of the Himalayas.

Summing up, Tibetan popular religion may perhaps be characterized as an infinitely varied attempt to circumvent, or at least mitigate, the mechanism of the law of moral causality. According to orthodox Buddhist doctrine, this law is inexorable and its justice cannot be avoided; however, since one cannot know what acts one has committed in the past for which one may have to suffer in the future, the intolerable rigor of the law of cause and effect is in practice modified by a religious worldview in which the destiny of the individual also depends on ritual acts and on spiritual beings—benevolent as well as malevolent—who may at least be approached and at best be manipulated.


It has already been noted that a class of ritual experts in the pre-Buddhist religion were known as bon pos and that certain early sources indicate that their religion was known as Bon. In any case, the later sources all agree that the pre-Buddhist religion was in fact known as Bon, and these sources tend to describe the struggle between Bon and Buddhism in dramatic terms. This is true not only of the later Buddhist sources but also of texts emanating from a religious tradition, explicitly styling itself Bon, that emerged in the eleventh century, if not before.

While virtually indistinguishable from Buddhism in such aspects as philosophy, monastic life, ritual, and iconographical conventions, this “later” Bon has always insisted that it represents the religion that prevailed in Tibet before the coming of Buddhism. In spite of occasional syncretic efforts on both sides, the Buddhists have tended to regard Bon as heretical, and not infrequently the term bonpo has been used in the sense of “heretic,” “black magician,” and so forth.

Two points about Bon must be made. First, the historical background of the Bon religion that emerged in the eleventh century is far from clear. There is a significant element of continuity with the pre-Buddhist religion, but nothing approaching identity. Second, it is seriously misleading to identify Bon with popular religion in general. On the level of popular religion, followers of Bon and Buddhism alike share the same beliefs and perform, to a very large extent, the same rituals, although details may differ (for example, the Bonpos spin their prayer wheels and perform circumambulations in the opposite direction than the Buddhists do, i.e., counterclockwise; they worship different deities and hence use other mantra s, and so forth). These correspondences do not represent a case of “perversion,” “contradiction,” or the like (as has been too hastily suggested), for Bon and Buddhism share the same religious ideals and goals, and they approach them by essentially similar means.

Tibetan Religion Today

An overview of Tibetan religion would be incomplete without an attempt to take stock of the situation in the early years of the twenty-first century. The most significant single fact is the downfall of monastic religion. Starting in the 1950s and culminating in the period of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, the Chinese unleashed a violent antireligious campaign in Tibet that resulted in the total destruction of monastic life. A large number of monks were killed, and the rest were, without exception, defrocked. Most monasteries were razed to the ground, and others were converted into secular buildings such as granaries or army barracks. Vast libraries were destroyed, and ritual objects, Buddha images, and relics were systematically profaned. At the height of the campaign, even the most insignificant expression of religious faith would be severely punished by Chinese soldiers or Red Guards.

The new and more pragmatic policy in China began to take effect in Tibet around 1980. A number of buildings, officially regarded as historical monuments, were carefully restored; a limited number of monks were installed in a number of the largest monasteries: ʿDrepung near Lhasa, Tashilhunpo outside Shigatse, and Labrang and Kumbum in eastern Tibet; a few temples were reopened for worship; and hundreds of other monasteries were reconstructed on a voluntary basis by the Tibetans themselves. On the whole, religious activity seems to be tolerated as long as it does not interfere with government policies. Tibet has in fact seen a remarkable resurgence of religious fervour that finds outlet, among other things, in the reconstruction of monasteries and the traditional practices of the popular religion, including extended pilgrimages to sacred mountains and other sites throughout Tibet. Within the limits set by the political and economic conditions imposed on Tibet, it is clear that religious belief and practice remain a fundamental factor in the overall situation in the Land of Snow.

Among the Tibetan refugees in India and Nepal, religious life flourishes, to a large extent along traditional lines. There is a tendency to emphasize monastic life together with those aspects of Buddhism that are common to all Buddhists. In the West, many Tibetan lamas have become highly successful “gurus,” and numerous Tibetan Buddhist centers have been established, generally focusing on the teachings of one particular order and emphasizing meditation and ritual rather than conventional, scholastic studies. In exile, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, Bstan ʾdzin rgya mtsho (Tenzin Gyatsho; b. 1935), has become an internationally respected Buddhist figure, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate in 1989 and a guide to the Buddhist way to human happiness and world peace through the development of insight and compassion.

Source- Encylopedia.com