In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Buddhism in Tibet

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Reference Works
  • Religious Histories
  • Traditional Tibetan Histories
  • The Jonang Tradition
  • The Kadam Tradition
  • The Sakya Tradition
  • Tibetan Buddhism and Globalization
  • Women and Gender in Tibetan Buddhism

Buddhism Buddhism in Tibet
David Gray
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 September 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0166


Buddhism reached Tibet relatively late, around the 7th century, and within a few centuries it became the dominant religion on the Tibetan plateau. Tibet continued to receive transmissions of texts and practices from India until approximately 1500 CE, and thus received the full flowering of Indian Buddhism, particularly the tantric or Vajrayāna form of Buddhism that developed in India around the 7th century. The first transmission of Buddhism to Tibet took place with the support of the imperial government, and it continued until disrupted in the mid-9th century by the collapse of the Tibetan empire. This first transmission constitutes the basis of all of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions, as a number of exoteric Buddhist works such as sutras were translated into Tibetan at this time. The “Ancient” Nyingma (rnying ma) school of Buddhism also claims that its secret Tantric teachings were also transmitted to Tibet at this time. The process resumed with the second or “latter” transmission (phyi dar) of Buddhism to Tibet, which resulted in the formation of the “New” (gsar ma) schools of Tibetan Buddhism, the Geluk, Kadam, Kagyü, Jonang, and Sakya traditions. With the rise of the Mongol Empire in the 13th century, Tibetan Buddhism began to spread in Central Asia and China. With the diaspora of Tibetan lamas following the Chinese occupation of Tibet in the 1950s, Tibetan Buddhism has spread throughout the world and has become one of the most influential forms of Buddhism on the global stage.

General Overviews

A number of useful introductions to Tibetan Buddhist culture and history have been composed over the past fifty years. Stein1972 and Tucci1980 are classic works that still provide useful introductions. Snellgrove 2002 is worth reading as an introduction to Indian and Tibetan Buddhism, and Snellgrove and Richardson 1986 provides a short, readable, but somewhat outdated introduction to Tibetan culture and religious traditions. Kapstein 2006 provides one of the best introductions to Tibetan culture and religious history. Samuel 1993 is an exhaustive and thought-provoking study of Tibetan religious history.

  • Kapstein, Matthew T.The Tibetans. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006.

    Provides an excellent overall introduction to Tibet. Particular emphasis is given to Tibetan history and religious traditions.

  • Samuel, Geoffrey. Civilized Shamans: Buddhism in Tibetan Societies. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institute Press, 1993.

    An extensive introduction to Tibetan Buddhist traditions, this work is notable for its thesis that Tibetan Buddhist traditions evolved via the interplay of “clerical” and “shamanic” religious impulses.

  • Snellgrove, David L.Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. Boston: Shambhala, 2002.

    Provides a solid introduction to Indian and Tibetan Buddhist traditions. Focuses on Tantric Buddhism and also provides an introduction to the Tibetan traditions.

  • Snellgrove, David L., and Hugh Richardson. A Cultural History of Tibet. Boston: Shambhala, 1986.

    Surveys Tibetan civilization from prehistoric times up to the Chinese occupation of Tibet in the 1950s. Although somewhat outdated, this can still serve as a useful reference work.

  • Stein, R. A. Tibetan Civilization. Translated by J. E.Stapleton Driver. London: Faber and Faber, 1972.

    As the title suggests, this volume presents a comprehensive introduction to Tibetan civilization. It emphasizes religious practice rather than doctrine and presupposes a basic understanding of Buddhism.

  • Tucci, Giuseppe. The Religions of Tibet. Translated by Geoffrey Samuel. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1980.

    Provides a thorough introduction to Tibetan Buddhist traditions. It covers the history of Buddhism in Tibet, the key doctrines and practices, and the major schools of Tibetan Buddhism.

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