Tibetan Buddhism unveiled: part one

An investigation of the origins and development of Tibetan Buddhism


In response to the many questions we receive about Tibetan Buddhism, we have decided to investigate the subject thoroughly in this three-part investigation. Although we have touched on this topic before, notably in our article on the so-called '2012' phenomenon, we have not done so in any depth. We aim to remedy that omission by presenting you with the origins, history, facts and potential pitfalls of Tibetan Buddhism, as well as an account of the life and teachings of the Buddha.

In doing so we hope to demonstrate three things. Firstly, the ways in which Tibetan Buddhism differs from the teachings of the Buddha and how it has distorted his message to humanity. Secondly, the potential pitfalls and dangers this poses for the inexperienced and impressionable seeker. Thirdly, that what is of real value in Tibetan Buddhism is not derived from any one creed or philosophy, but from the once universal Wisdom Religion of Occult Science, which belongs to all humanity and is as old as Man.

If you know little or nothing about the Buddha, we suggest that you read our commentary in the sidebar before continuing. For it is only by familiarising ourselves with the life and teachings of this great religious reformer that the many differences between the pure Buddhism he taught and the distorted version of it that is Tibetan Buddhism can be recognised and thoroughly understood.

In the first part of this investigation we shall consider the implications of the permanent schism which divided primitive Buddhism into two separate schools, and how this led to the origins of Tibetan Buddhism and Lamaism. These subjects will be developed further in the second and third parts of this investigation, leading to some remarkable and illuminating conclusions.


Nicholas Roerich — Tibet — tempera on canvas, 1933

Mahayana and Hinayana Buddhism

Tibet was once the great land of mystery about which little was known but much speculated, and is still regarded as such by many people today. Many weird tales reached Europe about this magical country, spread and often grossly exaggerated by the few Europeans who succeeded in entering it. Most of the information gained by these early explorers was almost entirely geographical, leaving the customs of this forbidden land as subjects for fiction and romance. Little was known of its religion and almost nothing of the inner secrets of the Tibetan Lamas, despite the claims of some travellers and the many books written about the 'search in secret places' by certain occult writers!

This applies especially to the tall stories about the 'Mahatmas' who are supposed to dwell in secret fastnesses in Tibet, and whose 'astral bodies', according to some writers, have been preserved for millennia in some sort of suspended animation, except on those rare occasions when they condescend to work some petty 'miracle' in the outer world. If you have read our Astral Conversations article about Tibetan Lamas you will know what these tall tales really are; colourful fictions designed to pander to the insatiable appetite of the curious seeker after magical 'thrills' and 'mystery'.

Tibet, at the beginning of the seventh century, though now largely bordered on the South by Buddhist countries, knew nothing of that religion, and was still buried in the darkness of barbarism. It was not until about the year 640 A.D., that Buddhism was introduced into the land, and through it some beginnings of civilisation among its people, as we shall see later. But before we reach that point it is necessary to say something about the split that occurred within Buddhism some 500 years after the Buddha's death.

Towards the end of the first century A.D., under the auspices of the Scythian King Kanishka, there was established a permanent schism into what some European writers have termed the 'Northern' and 'Southern' Schools of Buddhism: the Southern being represented by Ceylon, Burma and Thailand; and the Northern by Tibet, Sikkim, Bhutan, Nepal, Ladakh, Mongolia and Japan and China. It is important to learn and remember this distinction in order to distinguish the primitive form of Buddhism taught by the Buddha from the mixed forms which developed from it and their present day distribution throughout the world.

The point of divergence of these two Schools was the theistic Mahayana doctrine, which substituted a speculative theistic system for the pure idealism and simple morality of the Buddha. For then as now, the masses were incapable of understanding the Sacred Laws the Buddha gave forth to a world steeped in superstition and sophistic nihilism. Thus Primitive Buddhism practically confined its Salvation to a select few; but the Mahayana extended Salvation to the entire Universe.

Those of you who have read and understood the laws and principles discussed in our occult studies course will realize that Primitive Buddhism was nearer to the Truth than the Mahayana System; though it is true to say that eventually there will be Salvation (or rather Liberation and Emancipation) for all. But this is for a future so far removed from the present Kali Yuga or Black Age, that it does not bear thinking of the millions of years that must elapse before this Liberation can become an established fact for the majority of humanity.

Mahayana means 'the Great Vehicle', carrying the multitudes across the sea of illusory life to 'Nirvana', and the adherents of this dogma contemptuously called the system of Primitive Buddhism the Hinayana or 'Smaller Vehicle', which could carry so few to Nirvana that it was fit only for those of low intellects! The reality, of course, is that those truly in search of liberation and enlightenment were, are, and always will constitute a tiny minority of human beings. Need we quote the Bible here? "Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it" (Matthew 7:14). We shall discuss the misunderstood concept of 'Nirvana' in part two of this investigation.

However, the doctrinal division into the Mahayana and Hinayana does not quite coincide with the separation into the so-called Northern and Southern Schools of Buddhism; for the Southern School shows a considerable admixture of Mahayana principles, and Indian Buddhism during its most popular period was very largely of the Mahayana type. Between 400 and 500 A.D., the next great development arose in Indian Buddhism with the importation into it of the pantheistic cult of Yoga, or the ecstatic union of the individual with the Universal Spirit, a cult which had been introduced into Hinduism by Patanjali about 150 B.C. Gautama Buddha himself had attached much importance to the practise of abstract meditation amongst his followers; and such practises under the mystical and later theistic developments of his system readily led to the adoption of the Brahmanical cult of 'Yoga', which was grafted on to the theistic Mahayana by Asanga, a Buddhist monk of Gandhara (present day Peshawar), in Northern India. Those who mastered this system were called Yogacarya Buddhists.

Yogacarya mysticism permeated the majority of the Mahayana followers and even some of the Hinayana; for distinct traces of Yoga are to be found in modern Burmese and Ceylonese Buddhism. This Yoga import, containing within itself the germs of Tantrism, seized strong hold of its host and soon developed innumerable tentacles, which crushed and distorted what little remained of the pure teachings of the Buddha still left in the Mahayana.

About the end of the sixth century A.D., Tantrism, or Shivaic Mysticism, with its worship of female energies—spouses of the Hindu God Shiva—began to tinge both Buddhism and Hinduism. Consorts were allotted to the several Celestial Bodhisats and most of the other gods and demons, many of whom were given terrible and often monstrous forms, according to the supposed moods of each divinity at different times. And as these goddesses and fiendesses were bestowers of supernatural power, and were especially malignant, they were especially worshipped.

By the middle of the seventh century A.D., India contained many images of Divine Buddhas and Bodhisats with their female energies and other Buddhist gods and demons, as we still see today in the remains of the ancient shrines and temples devoted to them. Such was the distorted form of Buddhism introduced into Tibet about 640 A.D., and during the three or four succeeding centuries Indian Buddhism became still more debased. Its mysticism became a silly mummery of meaningless jargon and 'magical' training, dignified by the title of Mantrayana or "The Spell' Vehicle." This so-called 'esoteric', but properly speaking 'exoteric', cult was given a respectable antiquity by alleging that its real founder was Nagarjuna, who had received it from the celestial Buddha Vairocana through the divine Bodhisat Vajrasattva in Southern India.

About 965 A.D. the Tantric phase in Northern India, Kashmir, and Nepal developed into the monstrous and poly-demonolatrous doctrine, the Kalachakra, with its demoniacal Buddhas, and called itself the Vajrayana or "The Thunderbolt Vehicle", and its followers were named Vajracarya, or the "followers of the Thunderbolt." Some readers may recall that we briefly alluded to this cult and its present-day followers in the afterword to our article on visionary art. It was this, rather than the Primitive Buddhism of Siddhartha Gautama, which was imported into Tibet in the 7th century. We shall have more to say about this cult in parts two and three of this investigation.

Origins of Tibetan Buddhism and Lamaism

Tibetan history, such as there is, shows us that previous to King Sron Tsan Gampo's marriage in 638-641 A.D., Buddhism was quite unknown in Tibet. It is fairly clear that Lamaism did not arise till a century after this epoch for until the seventh century Tibet was inaccessible even to the Chinese. The few glimpses we have of Tibet from Chinese history before the seventh century A.D. shows us a land of rapacious savages and reputed cannibals, without a written language who followed an animistic and devil-dancing Shamanist religion, the Bön, resembling in many ways the Taoism of China.

Sron Tsan Gampo, (also transliterated as Songtsän Gampo and Songtsen Gampo) being one of the greatest kings of Tibet and the first patron of learning and civilisation in that country, and having with the aid of his wives first planted the germ of Buddhism in Tibetan soil, is justly the most famous and popular king of that country, and he was later canonised as an incarnation of the most popular of the celestial Bodhisats, Avalokita. Bodhisat is a Sanskrit word meaning one who has attained the highest degree of sainthood, so that in his next incarnation he will be a Buddha, or saviour of the world.

Sron Tsan Gampo's two wives were canonised as incarnations of Avalokita's consort, Tārā, "The Saviouress", or Goddess of Mercy; and the fact that they bore him no children is cited as evidence of their divine nature. The only issue he had proceeded from two or four Tibetan wives. The Chinese Princess Wencheng (one of his principal wives) was deified as "The white Tārā", while his other principal wife, the Nepalese Princess Bhrikuti Devi was apotheosed as "The green Tārā."

But Sron Tsan Gampo was not the saintly person the grateful Lamas depict, for he is seen from reliable Chinese history to have been engaged all his life in bloody wars, and was more at home on the battlefield than in the Temple. And he certainly did little in the way of Buddhist propaganda, beyond translating a few tracts into Tibetan, and building very much fewer than the 5,000 temples he promised the father of the Chinese Princess he would build! The one hundred and eight Temples which are popularly accredited to him are probably legendary, for not even their sites are known to the Lamas themselves. To shrine the images of Akshobhya and the Chinese Sàkya he built a temple at Ramoch'e and another at Ràsa. The name of its site, Ràsa, is said to have suggested the name by which it later became more widely known, namely as Lhasa, or "God's place." He built no monasteries at all.

After his death in about 650 A.D., Buddhism made little headway against the prevailing Shamanist superstitions in Tibet, and seems to have been resisted by the people until about a century later in the reign of his powerful descendant Thi-Srong Detsan, who extended his rule over the greater part of Yunnan and Sichuan, and even took Changan (modern Xi'an) the then capital of China. He succeeded to the throne when only thirteen years old, and a few years later he sent to India for a celebrated Buddhist priest to establish an order in Tibet. It is said he was advised by his family priest, the Indian monk Sāntarakshita, to secure if possible the services of his brother-in-law, Guru Padmasambhava, a clever member of the then popular Tantric Yogacarya school, and at that time, we are told, a resident of the great college of Nalanda, in present day Bihar, which was the Oxford of Buddhist India in those days.

The Buddhist wizard lost no time in responding to the invitation of the Tibetan king, and accompanied the messengers back to Tibet in 746 A.D. It was Guru Padmasambhava who was the founder of Lamaism, and is now deified and as celebrated in Lamaism as the Buddha himself, if not more so. He is called Saint Padmasambhava, or "the Lotus-born one", or "the precious Guru." How far his person and acts were justified by these honorific titles we shall see later in this investigation. . .

Udyàna, his native land (thought to be the present day Swat Valley, in Pakistan), was famed for the proficiency of its priests in sorcery, exorcism and magic. Hiuen Tsiang, writing a century previously, says regarding Udyàna: "The people are in disposition somewhat sly and crafty. They practise the art of using charms. The employment of magical mantras is with them an art and a study." Marco Polo, who visited Udyàna a few centuries later, says: "They have an astonishing acquaintance with the devilries of enchantment, inasmuch as they can make their idols speak. They can also by their sorceries bring on changes of weather, and produce darkness, and do a number of things so extraordinary that no one without seeing them would believe them."

The Tibetans, steeped in superstition which beset them on every side in the form of malignant devils, warmly welcomed the Guru as he brought them deliverance from their terrible tormentors. As soon as he arrived in Tibet he vanquished all the chief devils of the land, sparing most of them on their consenting to become defenders of his religion, while he on his part guaranteed that in return for such services they would be duly worshipped and fed. Thus, just as the Buddhists in India, in order to secure the support of the semi-aborigines of Bengal, admitted into their system the bloody Durga and other aboriginal demons, so on extending their doctrines throughout Asia they pandered to the popular taste by admitting within the pale of Buddhism the pantheon of those new nations they sought to convert.

The Guru's most powerful weapons in warring with the demons were the Vajra (Tibetan dor-je), symbolic of the thunderbolt of Indra, and spells extracted from the Mahayana gospels, by which he shattered his supernatural adversaries. In 749 A.D. he built the first Tibetan monastery. This was the Sàm-yas which it is believed is based on immovable foundations laid by the Guru. There, assisted by the Indian monk Sāntarakshita, he instituted the Order of the Lamas. The monk was made the first abbot and laboured there for thirteen years. He is now called Acàrya Bodhisat.

The rise of Lamaism

Lama is a Tibetan word meaning the "Superior One", and corresponds to the Sanskrit Uttara. It was restricted to the head of the monastery, and is still strictly applicable only to abbots and the highest monks; though out of courtesy the title is now given to almost all Lamaist monks and priests. The Lamas have no special term for their form of Buddhism. They simply call it "The religion" or "Buddha's religion", and its professors are "Insiders" or "within the fold" (nan-pa), in contradistinction to the non-Buddhists, or "Outsiders" (chi-pa or pyi-lin), the so-called "pe-ling" or 'foreigners' adopted by English writers to describe Westerners in the 19th and 20th centuries. Consequently the European term "Lamaism" finds no counterpart in Tibetan.

The first Lama may be said to be Pal-bans, who succeeded the Indian abbot Sāntarakshita; though the first ordained member of this Tibetan order of monks was Bya-Khri-gzigs. Seven novices formed the first nucleus of the order. The most learned of these young Lamas was Vairocana, who translated many Sanskrit works into Tibetan, though his usefulness was interrupted for a while by the Tibetan wife of Thi-Srong Detsan; who in her bitter opposition to the king's reforms, and instigated by the Bön-pa priests, secured the banishment of Vairocana by a stratagem similar to that practised by Potiphar's wife who, you will recall from your Bible, furious at Joseph for resisting her attempts to seduce him, falsely accused him of rape!

The Tibetan parallel to this age-old deception was somewhat different, for Thi-Srong Detsan's wife was forthwith afflicted with leprosy, whereupon she relented and the young Lama was recalled and effected her cure! She is still, however, handed down to history as the "Red Rahula the she-devil", while Vairocana is made an incarnation of Buddha's faithful attendant and cousin Ananda; and on account of his having translated many orthodox scriptures, he is credited with the composition or translation and hiding away of many of the fictitious scriptures of the unreformed Lamas, which were afterwards 'discovered' as revelations.

It is no longer easy to ascertain the exact details of the creed of primitive Lamaism taught by the Guru, for all the extant works attributed to him were composed several centuries later by the followers of his twenty-five Tibetan disciples. But judging from the intimate association of his name with the essentials of Lamaist sorcery, and the special creeds of the old unreformed section of the Lamas—the Nin-ma-pa—who profess and are acknowledged to be his immediate followers, and whose older scriptures date back to within two centuries of the Guru's time, it is evident that his teaching was of that extremely Tantric and magical type of Mahayana Buddhism which was then prevalent in his native country of Udyàna. And to this highly impure form of Buddhism, already covered by so many foreign accretions and saturated with so much demonolatry, was added a portion of the ritual and most of the demons of the indigenous Bön-pa religion, and each of the demons was assigned its proper place in the Lamaist pantheon.

We may therefore define Primitive Lamaism as a priestly mixture of Sivaite mysticism, magic and Indo-Tibetan demonolatry, overlaid by a thin varnish of Mahayana Buddhism. Even today Lamaism still retains this essential character. In this form, as shaped by the Guru, Buddhism proved more attractive to the people, and soon became popular. Its doctrine of Karma, or ethical retribution, appealed to the fatalism which the Tibetans share with most Eastern Races. Thereafter, the zealous King, Thi-Srong Detsan, founded other monasteries and initiated a period of great literary activity by procuring many talented Indian and Kashmiri scholars for the work of translating the Indian canonical works and commentaries into Tibetan.

The new religion was actively opposed by the priests of the native religion, called Bön, which as we said earlier, has much in common with the Taoism of China. It is especially associated with the worship of dragons, or nagas, and its reputed founder is gs'en-rabs Mi-bo. As it is practised today it is deeply impregnated by Buddhism. Some of the so-called devils which are traditionally alleged to have been overcome by the Guru were probably human adversaries, such as the Bön priests and some of the more powerful ministers of state who supported that religion. It is also stated that the Bön-pa were now prohibited from making human and animal sacrifices as was their wont; and hence is said to have arisen the practise of offering images of men and animals made of dough.

Lamaism was also opposed by some Chinese Buddhists, one of whom—the Mahayana Hwa-shang—protested against the kind of Buddhism which Sāntarakshita and Padmasambhava were teaching. But he was defeated in argument and expelled from the country by the Indian monk Kamalasala, who, like Sāntarakshita, is alleged to be of the Sva-tantra Madhyamaka school, and the author of many treatises still extant in the great Tibetan commentary called the Tän-gyur. The excellent Sanskrit-Tibetan dictionaries also date from this literary epoch.

Padmasambhava had twenty-five disciples, each of whom is credited with great magical powers and the working of miracles. All these disciples were instructed by their master in the way of making magic circles for summoning the demons to do their bidding, much as modern sorcerers attempt to do today, as we discuss in the penultimate part of our Astral Conversations.

Making due allowance for the colourful imagination of the Lamas and the time-honoured custom of concealing occult truths under the cloak of metaphor and allegory, the 'miracles' the Guru's disciples performed make a very interesting catalogue of the magical practises employed by the primitive Lamaists. Although they can be explained in diverse ways, we will confine ourselves to a few simple explanations in order to obtain some idea of the actual work of the modern Lamaists, or at least a certain division of them; for there are many different grades of magical and religious rituals practised in Tibet.

If we do so we find that these 'miracles' can be divided into feats of hypnotism, ceremonial magic, evocation, necromancy, astral projection, levitation, alchemy, mind-reading, telepathy, control of the lower self, healing and illumination. All these subjects come under the heading of White or Black Magic, Alchemy, Mysticism, the Occult Arts and so on and so forth. In fact, the whole catalogue is very much like the wish-list of some modern 'Chaos Magicians' who would very much like to be able to do all these things but seldom can!

The departure of Guru Padmasambhava from Tibet was as miraculous in character as his life, and in keeping with the divine attributes with which he has been invested as "Saviour of a suffering world". He is deified and worshipped as the "second Buddha" and his image, in his own likeness, under the title of "The eight worshipful Forms", is found in every Temple of the old sect.

The Chronicles state that after he had resided in Tibet for about fifty years and founded Lamaism securely, in 802 A.D., the Guru, much to the grief of the Tibetans, announced his departure for fresh religious triumphs in other lands. Our more discerning readers will have noted that this 'departure' meant nothing else but the Guru's death and his adventures in the afterlife in other realms of being. That this is the correct interpretation we learn from the many descriptions of his battles and victories connected with several demon kings, and how the Tibetans saw him and his entourage flying through the skies, and the assembled multitudes were distracted with grief and remained transfixed as if dead.

At the end of his travels, and after many miraculous events, he reached the Raksha Country of Na-yab-glin, and instantly took the life of its Demon-King, and entering his astral body, the Guru reigns there supreme over all the blood-drinking demons up till the present day, preaching the doctrine of Lamaism in Paradise. Thus say the ancient Chronicles. Those of you who have read Bombast and Flitterflop's encounter with the Tibetan Lama in their fifth Astral Conversation will recognise that the mythological and magical account of Padmasambhava's travels conceals the occult truth that it is possible for any Ego to enter into that part of the astral world with which he is most attuned and remain there after bodily death.

Although Bombast and Flitterflop's excursion into the lower astral world is fictional, it is based on fact, for we ourselves have seen the conditions in which the astral bodies of such Lamas of the past as Padmasambhava dwell, and it is not a pleasant sight! And this is the 'Buddha' whom millions of deluded seekers are exhorted to 'worship' in the mistaken belief that this will lead to their enlightenment and liberation from the cycle of birth and death!


In the second part of this investigation we consider the further development of Tibetan Buddhism and Lamaism and also examine some extracts from the Tibetan Book of the Dead to see what truths and untruths we may discover within it.

© Copyright occult-mysteries.org. Article published 12 February 2017. Updated 29 October 2022.

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