Tibetan Buddhism

This page offers an introduction to Tibetan Buddhism by Pema Khandro.

Tibetan Buddhism in a Nutshell

by Pema Khandro

Buddhism is one of the greatest resources in the world, containing some of history’s greatest philosophers and leaders, offering two thousand years of humanity’s greatest insights into the nature of thought emotions and the sub-conscious mind. The world has turned to Buddhism for its great reservoir of contemplative technologies, for understanding the connection of body and mind, how to confront suffering and how to live a life built on compassion, inspiration and clarity. Within the Buddhist teachings the world has found a wealth of much needed wisdom from creating harmonious relationships to conducting ethical business.

Buddhism provides an extraordinary a support for the individual and cultural journey towards greater wisdom, wellness and sanity. In the age of information overload, it provides a simple context to vigorously cultivate a deeper intelligence, a more authentic presence and a harmonious way of life. In the daily grind of responsibilities, challenges and aspirations, Buddhism provides a source to recharge and tune into to that greater energy that comes from peace of mind.

As the world continues to draw from Buddhism’s vast resources, there is a need for quality education that helps to make sense of the immense diversity and complexity of Buddhism and allows for in-depth engagement with its practices and perspectives. My mission is to make Buddhist education available to a modern audience, while preserving and sharing one of Buddhism’s most rare traditions – that of the Buddhist Yogis, the non-celibate, life embracing path of Buddhist Yogis of the Nyingma tradition. These thought leaders, philosophers and teachers believed that every person has the potential to wake up to authentic presence, right where they are. In order to support this aim, we study Buddhist philosophy and practice its meditations, cultivating a deeper kind of “higher education.”

While there are many resources to learn beginning level Buddhist teachings, since most of my teachings cultivate towards a more advanced audience, this is an introductory level description of Buddhism.

One of the unique elements of my approach is that I deliberately include ‘traditional’ histories as well as current scholarly knowledge. It is interesting for Buddhist practitioners to draw from both perspectives on Buddhist history because it provides an opportunity for new perspectives on Buddhism in our post-modern landscape. This is one of the exciting aspects of Buddhism today, its dialogue with science, psychology, history and philosophy.

Also, it seems particularly valuable for students to note when there are multiple, even contradictory perspectives on Buddhist philosophical issues. So, this is not a ‘one truth’ based or ‘faith’ based approach to education. Instead it is a matter of presenting resources to support every person’s own personal exploration of the big questions. Buddhism has a rich intellectual tradition, with vigorous debate and systematic thinking. In the traditional context, meditation, philosophy and ethics were all taught together. But there is a deficit of teachings based on that intellectual tradition today.

To introduce Buddhism requires covering several topics at once. Tibetan Buddhism is well known for its celebration of compassion, for its philosophy and colorful ritual. However its history and diversity are equally fascinating.

5 Key Principles of Buddhism

  1. Goodness – The core teachings of Buddhism are that human beings, at their core, are good by nature. This is known as the doctrine of Buddha-nature. This is a goodness in every person that we can rest into and find our clarity and simplicity. Life is most satisfying when we come to know this goodness, to act on it and express it through kindness and compassion. Although we can become disconnected from this natural wisdom, it is possible to reconnect with it. We can do this by learn to let go of the habitual patterns that block us from living in tune with it.
  2. Presence – It is the nature of every human being to have awareness. This sense of sheer experience, knowing and intelligence is the true nature of mind. In tibetan language this is refered to as “rigpa,” awareness or “yeshe” our innate wakefulness. In other words, we have within us a capacity for natural, authentic presence. This presence also is the capacity to ‘show up’ to the full scope of life experiences without resorting to shutting down or aggression. Because human beings have this capacity for self-reflexive knowing, we can look at our own minds, to be aware of our own interpretations of the world, and  contemplate the nature of reality. The Buddhist path is ‘awakening’ which means to allow our awareness, understanding and presence to manifest.
  3. Compassion – Buddhism recognizes the interconnectedness of all of life. Although we may develop habitual tendencies to live cut off from others and from our world, intrinsic responsiveness is our nature. To tap into this is to be aware of the suffering of the world, the joys and wishes of others and to extend ourselves with benevolent intention towards others. The two modalities of understanding our own mind and seeing the world from other’s perspectives is intertwined. In the beginning, compassion and kindness can be a practice. However, actions based on kindness and compassion will also reveal to us our natural mind. As we advance in the path, we discover kindness is an authentic expression of what we are at our core.
  4. Impermanence – The key ingredient of life is impermanence and our relationship to it.  Buddhism discusses impermanence in terms of the notion of ’emptiness,’ the idea that there no underlying reality which is eternally fixed and solid. Instead reality is underscored by ceaseless change. When we live with attention to impermanence then this allows us to pay attention to the most important things in life, to let go of petty distractions. The impermanence of life is also the capacity for renewal, change and freedom from previous patterns.
  5. Way of Living – Buddhism is a way of living, a way of being in simplicity, presence and kindness. It is not a matter of dogmatic beliefs, in fact Buddhist philosophy has a wide variety of views and paths. Instead, Buddhism is basing one’s life around the principle of wakefulness – the willingness to look at one’s mind and ask questions about the nature of reality. Instead of going through life habitually or governed by conditioned scripts, Buddhists seek to live wakefully, to develop understand, cultivate insight and cultivate the clarity to see things as they are.

Where It Came From

Buddhism in India

Buddhism began with a prince in India, named Siddhartha. He had an awakening after an intense search for the answer to human suffering. Practicing within the ethos of his time, the Buddha initial trained in India yoga systems. However he found that each practice he encountered fell to some extreme. Instead he established a “middle way,” between asceticism and hedonism.

His teaching was also distinct from his religious context in the fifth century b.c.e. due to his deliberate dismissal of the caste system. Although current cultural restrictions limited who could participate fully in religious life, he had a more progressive approach. He taught that every person could access spiritual wisdom through training. He accepted students without regard to caste and even more radically, eventually admitted women to the order.

A major emphasis in Buddhist thought is the notion of liberation, realization or awakening, also known as nirvana. Observing that human beings live lives plagued with dissatisfaction, confusion and suffering, the Buddha presented a path of liberation from that turmoil. In the Buddha’s teaching known as the four noble truths, the Buddha observed that human suffering had a cause. It was generated by ignorance of one’s true nature. This ignorance leads to actions which further perpetuate that ignorance in cycles of conditioning and karma. When one awakens from this ignorance, then that dissatisfaction is no longer generated. Therefore one is liberated from conditioned existence (Skt. Samsara). The key to this awakening is clear perception of the nature of mind and the nature of reality.


Who are you really? What underlies all persons? What is the true nature of mind?
The Buddha’s teaching was also distinct at the time for its ontological assertions. The core teaching involved the notion that within each person there is no true “self,” and that instead, person’s are composed of interconnected components. In other words, persons are interdependently originated. The sense of self that is separate from its world and the sense of fixed, eternal self were declared to be mistaken concepts. The way this teaching has been explained over Buddhism’s two thousand year history. Some schools of thought such as middle way philosophy, (Skt. Madhyamaka) emphasized the understand of the person and the world in terms of emptiness (Skt Sunyata). In other words, proclaiming what the person is not. Other schools of thought such as the Great Perfection (Tib. rDzogs chen) emphasized the person and the world in terms of both emptiness and presence – the idea that persons’s true nature is a lucid presence known as ‘Buddha-nature.’ These knew ways of talking about the person defined Buddhist thought. The emphasis of Buddhism to to truly see oneself and reality for what it is.

Buddha founded a religious community and travelled and taught throughout his life. Though he taught in India in the fifth century before the common era, his teachings continued after his life, carried on by a successive chain of students and their students. This lineage spread throughout the world. Today Buddhism is practiced by roughly five hundred million people around the world. (1)

The Buddha’s life is known to us through traditional accounts and early textual records. However it is noteworthy that none of the Buddha’s teachings, including the sayings of the Buddha were written until several hundred years after his life. This was due in part to a rigorous oral tradition in India that involved memorization of texts. But this also leaves numerous dimensions of the Buddha’s thought and life details as subject to interpretations. The most authoritative sources for Buddha’s life are found in the Pali Canon which present earliest textual tradition. However Buddhism remained a living tradition through the passing on of Buddhist teachings through successions of teachers and disciples. Even though the Buddha passed away, the students he had trained continued his teachings. They passed those teachings to their students, who likewise passed them on. The Buddhist tradition since the time of the Buddha has been carried on by practitioners and scholars who sought to continue to understand the core meaning of the Buddha’s teaching, apply it in their lives and share them with others.

Buddhism has not had a closed and fixed canon and underwent major changes throughout its history. This is probably a relief to anyone who is averse to religious dogma and fundamentalism! Yet, Buddhism is also called ‘Buddhadharma,’ or just ‘dharma’ and is said to be a changeless and an unbroken tradition. These two facts don’t need to be presumed to be contradictory. Because ‘dharma’ is a sanskrit term which means the nature of reality itself, it is true that the nature of reality is changeless in a sense that its qualities of impermanence and so forth have remained consistent. And simultaneously, textual evidence shows major change in Buddhist philosophical trends and developments in Buddhist communities throughout its 2500 year history. From Abhidharma philosophy which claimed that there were ‘real’ things to Perfection of Wisdom teachings which asserted that everything was empty, it is clear that Buddhism has been a lively, dynamic tradition which evolved and adapted to changing contexts. Simultaneously, through lineage, tradition and Buddhist culture,  the core assertions of Buddhism have endured.

Tantric Buddhism

Long after the Buddha’s life, Buddhist tantric thought developed in India. While early Buddhist thought emphasized renunciation, Buddhist teachings known as the “Great Vehicle,” (Skt. Mahayana) began to emphasize the importance of compassionate action to help others. While early Buddhist formulations of awakening tended towards envisioning enlightenment as extinguishment, a cessation of the ordinary world, Mahayana envisioned enlightenment as a state where one could be active in the world to help others.

Mahayana was more inclusive of lay people and introduced the notion that anyone could be fully awakened. While earlier formulations required rebirth as a male and a monastic in order to achieve the goal of the path, Mahayana teachings did not.  Even lay people, women or any person (not just monks) could realize the goal of the path.

From this Mahayana philosophy another stream of Buddhist philosophy developed known as Tantra. Buddhist Tantra emphasized themes of direct engagement with power, body and emotion. Yet it also maintained the primary teachings of early Buddhism and Mahayana. These themes were reinterpreted and employed within a symbol and ritual system which became the hallmark of Buddhist Tantra. When this Buddhist Tantra came to Tibet, it became known as Vajrayana. Vajrayana and Tibetan Buddhism are synonymous terms describing Buddhist developments in Tibet.

Buddhism in Tibet

Developed under the influence of Buddhist India and great indigenous teachers, Tibetan Buddhism’s earliest traces appeared from the sixth to eight century c.e.. Two Buddhist queens, one from Nepal and one from China, are credited with initiating the building of the first Buddhist temples on record.

The Tantric Buddha

In the eight century, legends tell of a great Indian Yogi, named Padmasambhava. He travelled to Tibet bringing Indian Buddhist Tantra with him. The stories of Padmasambhava underscore his charismatic power and skillful means. Through his skillful engagement with local indigenous religious elements, Tibet became a Buddhist country. He did not seek to wipe out local traditions, but instead, incorporated their deities and customs into Buddhist worldview. Therefore Tibet’s form of Buddhism presents a distinct blend of indigenous and international influence.

Padmasambhava is known as the second Buddha or Tantric Buddha. He is widely considered the second incarnation of the founder of Buddhism. However, in contrast to Shakyamuni Buddha, Padmasambhava was not celibate and he did not renounce the world. His life story includes his involvement with female heroines who shaped Tibetan Buddhism’s history. In particular, his primary consort and student was a woman known as Yeshe Tsogyal (Tib. Yeshes mtsho rgyal).

Yeshe Tsogyal became a teacher in her own right and is credited with retaining and spreading Padmasambhava’s teachings. Though women’s involvement in Tibetan Buddhism has not equalled men’s in terms of institutional authority and power, women have played important roles in Tibetan Buddhist history. There have also been numerous exceptions in which women rose to high ranking leadership positions. Women also played important roles in Buddhist communities as patrons, students and consorts. Current scholarship is uncovering more and more of women’s history in Tibetan Buddhism, though there is still a great deal of work to be done in this area. One of the most exciting developments in modern Buddhism is the rapidly growing involvement of women in Buddhist communities and leadership.

Women in Buddhism

The current inclusion of female practitioners within the full scope of Buddhist roles is due in part to Tibetan Buddhism’s positive representation of enlightenment in female form – female Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and Dakinis. Buddhist philosophical theory in terms of Vajrayana and Great Perfection teachings foster the inclusion of women. This potential runs throughout Buddhist theory.

Because of the paradigm of the emptiness of forms, the notion of ‘maleness’ or ‘femaleness’ is found to be another ’empty’ construct. A famous legend illustrating this point in the Vimalakirti sutra takes place when a female bodhisattva exchanges places with the Buddha’s disciple, Shariputra.  She transforms him into a woman and transforms herself into his body. Then she asks him, (while he is in this female form) what is the difference between you and I? These stories appear through Tibetan Buddhist history reflecting varying views on the role of gender in Buddhist practice.

Although there have been androcentric elements in Indian and Tibetan Buddhist history, there have also been Buddhist thought leaders who argued for the full inclusion of women. Today, one of the most important efforts of modern Buddhists is to give voice to the inclusionary aspects of Buddhism. The world’s history has been marred by messages of female inferiority and misogyny. Therefore it is important for Buddhist leaders to share Buddhist philosophical resources for understanding the equality and dignity of all people regardless of race and gender (and sexual orientation!). This includes a sober look at Asian history while also identifying its wisdom and potential.

The Tantric Buddha Continued

Back to the Tantric Buddha. Another distinctive aspect of the Tantric Buddha, Padmasambhava, was that unlike early Buddhist community which favored forest dwelling renunciates, monastics and lay people, Padmsambhava also founded an order of non-celibate clergy, Tibet’s Buddhist yogis, the ‘ngakpas’ and ‘naljorpas,’ (Tib. sngags pa, rnal ‘byor pa). Though Tibetan Buddhism came to be dominated by the celibate monastic institutions, monks and nuns, it also has a long history of non-celibate clergy. Though they are less well known, these ngakpas played major roles throughout Tibetan Buddhist history.

As far as Padmasambhava’s historicity goes, there is still little historical evidence known of his life apart from traditional narratives. Though his legend seems to have crystallized between the eight and twelfth century, early textual evidence of his life reflects an narrative character rather than the tones of historical ‘factual,’ records. However since that time, the development of the stories of Padmasambhava’s life have been encoded with the major themes of Buddhist tantra and great perfection, ‘dzogchen,’ (Tib. rdzogs chen) teachings. Therefore, Padmsambhava’s life is a source for a rich tradition of Buddhist philosophy. For the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism, which is the ‘ancient school,’ Padmasambhava is the symbol of transformational power as well as inherent Buddha-nature. The most memorable image from his legend is that he was born on a lotus as an eight year old child – an image of being already fully developed. This is the central assertion of esoteric Buddhism, that every person has a full blown Buddha-nature already as the basis of what they are.


Throughout the world there are various types of Buddhism. Each one offers distinct customs. However most Buddhists agree on foundational principles. They may interpret these principles in highly nuanced ways, but the general ideas orbit around ideas of non-self, emptiness of phenomena, the law of karma and the possibility of liberation.

Who Are You Really?

As mentioned previously during the time of the origin of Buddhist teachings, the foundational teaching was quite radical. Buddha taught  that human beings do not have an eternal self. Indian religion at the time was oriented around the very opposite idea, the notion of  “atman” that indeed every person had a true and eternal self. Buddha’s message was, there is no such self. Instead, underscoring every person was non-self, emptiness. It was not that persons do not exist. However their existence takes place through interdependence and is characterized by impermanence. Through the coming together of many factors, a person lives. It is the same way that wheat, flour, butter, salt, water, sugar and yeast make up ‘bread.’ There is not underlying ‘bread’ without all these ingredients. So too, every person is interdependently originated. Every person is made of component parts and these change and shift. So the person is dynamic rather than static and unchanging. How all these parts interact is generally governed by karma, habitual forces, conditioning, and the ripening of results from past actions. However, another force governs person besides karma, which is the force of primordial awareness. By awakening to this deeper level of one’s true nature, a transformation can take place in how the person manifests.

Buddhist theories have examined the notions of personhood in diverse ways. The emptiness of the self was sometimes interpreted to be nothingness and sometimes interpreted to still have an ontological substrata. In other words, what underlies the person? nothing? (emptiness as nihilism) or everything else? (emptiness as interdependence) presence and emptiness (awareness as the fabric of reality). In Tibet’s great perfection (Tib. rDzogs chen) teaching, personhood is composed of an underlying fresh wakeful presence, (Tib. rang byung ye shes). Every person is said to have an underlying wakefulness, a consciousness or knowing. It is primordially pure by nature, wise and good. Therefore persons are both emptiness and presence, according to the Great Perfection. Persons are ’empty’ in terms of not being fixed or existing in a way that concepts can capture. They are presence in terms of mind’s beginning-less nature as that which knows itself and perceives the world.

Buddhist thought’s central paradigm is this emptiness of all phenomena. (Skt sunyata; Tib stong pa  nyid). It is not just person’s who have no eternal static essence, nothing in reality does. Everything is interdependently arising. Therefore reality can appear one way, but ultimately can actually be another way.

How we perceive reality is another core feature of Buddhism. In general, our perceptions are limited and conditioned. We usually can’t tell the difference between interpretation, misperception, confusion, projections and pure perception. The Buddhist path of awakening is to see reality more clearly, to see things as they really are. This includes seeing our own mind’s true nature, understanding how mind works and understanding the nature of reality. To expand our perception in this way is to tune into the manner in which sometimes thins ‘appear’ one way, but actually are another way. This is the doctrine of the two truths. There is a truth of conventional appearance and then there are how things ultimately are, ontologically speaking. There is also the matter of confused appearances. In the same way that a diseased eye can cause things to appear as other than they actually are, ignorance can cause things to appear in distorted ways. By assuming these distorted interpretations of reality are really real, the person acts on ignorance and generates karma. These questions of clarifying our perception, becoming aware of its limits and also looking to see beyond those limits is what drives Buddhist philosophy.

Karma: What Its Not

The law of karma is that actions have results. In other words, karma can said to be the law of cause of effect. Effects of one’s actions can take place immediately. However, the results of our actions can also linger in a kind of subconscious substrata, waiting to ripen later. In this since they are actions not only have external, observable results, but they also have the power to condition or habituate our minds. For example, by acting on aggression we not only harm others, but strengthen the habit of anger.

This force of karma is one that is both short term and long-term. Therefore every person’s karma is not only the karma of this life time but also can said to come from previous lifetimes. In this way the law of karma describes a range of meanings, forces of habituation, momentum which was set in motion from the past, ripening of the fruits of previous actions and subconscious mental and emotional scripts.

The law of karma is anything but fatalistic. The individual is in charge of their karma. If they want good results they only need to initiate good actions. Positive actions lead to positive results. Negative results come from negative or ignorant actions. To live entirely bound by karma, limited by karma is to live in what is called “cyclic existence” (Skt. Samsara). In cyclic existence, one’s entire life is spent like a ping pong ball, bouncing from situation to another, guided by scripted, habitual, unconscious actions and reactions. The path of the Buddhist is to wake up and recognize the chain of cause and effect, to become conscious of habits and be deliberately aware in one’s choices. This waking up makes life beyond cyclic existence possible.

“In the Great Perfection (Tib. rdzogs chen)
the goal of the path is presence and awareness.
This is not a matter of supernatural abilities or mystical powers.
Instead it is a matter of discovering the peace of mind
which arises from knowing one’s innate nature.”

Buddha’s goal was to discover a path of freedom from dissatisfaction and suffering. He discovered this path through direct experience of meditative contemplation and inquiry. Buddhism teaches that every person can also make such a discovery. This is often called Buddha’s enlightenment. However, a more useful term could be the notion of awakening. One awakens from the sleep of ignorance. One awakens from the sleep of unconscious, unquestioned existence. One awakens from the mental trips that preoccupy one’s mind and obscure the present moment. One awakens from lifetimes of compulsive enslavement to mental habits into the freedom of choice-ful, wakeful living. This goal of the Buddhist path is understood in different ways by the different schools of Buddhism. In the Great Perfection (Tib. rdzogs chen) the goal of the path is presence and awareness. This is not a matter of supernatural abilities or mystical powers. Instead it is a matter of discovering the peace of mind which arises from knowing one’s innate nature.

How to Live a Buddhist Life

Buddhist ethics emphasize the key principles of compassion and self-reflexive awareness. In a monastic context, Buddhist ethics include celibacy, avoidance of alcohol and other vows which express renunciation of the material world. However in Buddhist tantra, non-celibacy, drinking alcohol are accepted practices. Despite these differences, Buddhist values across monastic and non-monastic settings share a focus on kindness, helping others and avoiding harming others.

Tibetan Buddhism maintains that compassion and benevolent intentions are the key principles for guiding conduct. Human beings are interdependent with others and their world. This is the implication of saying that everything is ’empty.’ This means that everything exists based on interconnectedness with everything else. From this point of view, compassion is a natural response. There is no such thing as being personally free of suffering as long as someone we love is suffering. Likewise, the welfare of the individual is interconnected with the welfare of others. Therefore compassion is both pragmatic and realistic – the consequence of our actual condition of interdependence is that other people matter.

To live as a Buddhist is to attempt to use one’s life to relieve the suffering of others, help others and understand reality. While not everyone in today’s busy world feels they have time for extensive meditation and ritual practice – everyone has time for the central Buddhist practice – kindness.

To live as a buddhist is to cultivate four values – loving-kindness, joy and equanimity. Equanimity refers to a state of stability in the face of loss and gain, changes and difficulties. It also refers to having an open-heart towards both friends and enemies. This equanimity comes from the recognition of impermanence. Because things are always changing it is always premature to suffer psychologically in the face of difficult circumstances or difficult people. From this equanimity comes loving-kindness. Loving kindness is the wish for others to be happy, for them to be relieved from suffering. When we have a wish to help others, this is an expression of our most fundamental nature. Our natural nirvana manifests as the wish to help others. As for joy, this is a meditation on the happiness that exists. Even if we are feeling gloomy one day, there is always someone who is happy. Buddhists cultivate immeasurable joy by meditating on the happiness of others, praying that it will increase and never end. The capacity for joy is undiminished by hard times or negative states. We always have this capacity due to our Buddha-nature, the basic goodness which is our core. Compassion comes from allowing ourselves to feel others – to let them in, to be aware of their suffering, hardship, wishes, dreams and goals. Compassion is a two way street, by cultivating compassion towards others we have greater compassion for ourselves. When we have that gentleness in our own mind then we tap into our innate confidence which gives way to further gentleness and compassion. These four states – loving-kindness, joy, equanimity and compassion are the focus of a Buddhist way of being.

Intention is the defining factor

To live with a compassionate mindset is not always easy or even clear. Sometimes compassion means saying ‘no,’ or being strict. It is important to realize that intention is the key element guiding Buddhist conduct. One cannot always control the outcome of their actions. Even good actions can some times turn out in expected ways. However one can discern what their intentions are, and act on good intentions. This is the key element behind karma theory as well. What creates positive or negative karma is one’s intention, not the action itself.

The emphasis on intention is the way that Buddhism resolves ethically ambiguous situations. For example, the most extreme example used is the story of the ship-captain.A ship captain had to kill a murderer to prevent the deaths of five hundred people. Because this was driven by compassionate, benevolent motivations, it was considered to be ‘right’ action. However, this was not without negative karmic consequences entirely. Killing is still considered a negative action with negative results. Therefore Buddhism makes some room for ethical ambiguity and yet at the same time offers the clarifying point that intention is the governing principle. In general the Buddhist teachings advocate avoiding harming others and instead working to help others. This is why it is widely regarded as a non-violent tradition.

The primary principles of Buddhist ethics for lay people are known as the five precepts. These are the five principles which govern a Buddhist’s life. They are avoiding harming, avoiding stealing, avoiding lying, avoiding sexual misconduct and avoiding loss of awareness (through intoxicants).


Buddhist conduct is governed by a series of vows. For monks, this involves monastic vows. For Vajrayana practitioners there are also what are known as the fourteen vows. These are primarily social in character, prescribing a relationship of devotion, respect, loyalty and trust between the student and teacher and between the student and other students.  This reflects a defining feature of Vajrayana Buddhism from Tibet – the sense of close personal relationship between teachers and students and among the community of practitioners.

The most common vow is the ‘refuge vow.’ This is the vow in which one officially becomes a Buddhist. The vow is recited in front of a Tibetan Lama as an acknowledgement of commitment to the Buddhist path of practice. It is known as a ‘refuge’ vow because to become Buddhist is to find refuge from the turmoil and confusion of ignorance and instead acknowledge that awareness and understanding are the greatest comfort and protection. The vow is simply, “I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and Sangha.” This refers to an appreciation of the founder of Buddhism, the teachings that stemmed from him and the ordained clergy that sustained the teachings throughout history. A refuge ceremony is a simple ritual in which this vow is recited and the person officially becomes a Buddhist. Usually a Buddhist name is given to the person at this time as well. This is part of Buddhist tradition that is unusual for North American’s who usually only change their names in marriage. However not all Buddhists assume their ‘refuge name.’ Some of them use them as nicknames and others do not use them at all. So this varies from individual to individual.

Controversial Issues

Teacher Student Dynamics

Probably the most controversial issue in the cross cultural encounter with Tibetan Buddhism and North America is the relationship between teacher and student. Along with this are questions about the general principles of religious hierarchy and power structures in Tibetan Buddhism. There are many arguments for and against traditional dynamics or new modern reformulations. However, how these dynamics actually play out in Buddhist centers varies greatly from teacher to teacher and from one community to another. The only way to understand how these dynamics manifest in particular communities is to get to know that particular teacher and community directly and ask questions of long-time students active in that community.

The main characteristic of Tibetan Buddhist student teacher relationships is heartfelt appreciation and respect. The culture of appreciation for the kindness of teachers and Buddhist leaders is based on a recognition of the generosity, wisdom and compassion that great teachers manifest.

In order to create learning environments for the study of Buddhism which are educational in nature,  students and teachers share an environment of mutual respect. This is the genuine spirit of Buddhist tradition at its best, where the kindness of teachers and the sincerity of students facilitates mutual learning. Where there is knowledge and education, there is genuine empowerment. When students learn Vajrayana principles and Buddhist philosophy they are supported to develop their own intelligence, make their own decisions, navigate ethical ambiguities and consult teachers in ways that are productive. The study of Buddhism should foster independence and maturity. And it should also be a warm and supportive environment. Generally this is the character of Tibetan Buddhist student teacher dynamics – compassion, education and mutual support.

Intelligence and respect are both key ingredients of Tibetan Buddhist student-teacher relationships. Students with common sense can also have close and even devoted relationships with their teachers while still thinking for themselves. Not everyone who practices Vajrayana is sycophantic. Not everyone who teaches Vajrayana expects blind-cultic faith. These are stereotypes that do not apply to the practitioners and teachers that I have known and respected. Buddhist practice must be based on taking personal responsibility for one’s own life, one’s own mind and one’s own decisions. This is the fundamental teaching behind karma, each one of its is responsible for our own lives. (And also that we must do our best to be kind and compassionate towards others).

Traditional Vajrayana stories describe relationships between teachers and students which exhibit high levels of devotion and even extreme devotion. The meaning behind these stories is the importance of maintaining discipline despite the hardship inevitable in any kind of learning. They also hint at the kind of deep mutual respect, love and trust that can sometimes take place between a teacher and student. There are many Buddhist teachers whose kindness and compassion is exemplary and this often creates an environment of warm-hearted appreciation. Like any field, Buddhist teachers vary greatly, which is why Buddhism advocates taking time to examine one’s teacher before entering into any commitments or long-term study.

Buddhism highly values intelligent thinking, reasoning, question and examining the teachings directly for oneself. This is why education in Buddhist philosophy is protection from cultish behavior and extremist attitudes – because a well developed intellect facilitates a capacity for students and teachers to think for themselves. It also expands authority from single personality figures to principles, from contemporary figures to historical texts – therefore it creates broader resources for questioning tradition and dealing with contradictions. In this way it is possible to adopt a ‘critical and constructive’ approach (a useful phrase coined by Rita Gross), where genuine learning can take place.

A useful book to read on the issues around teachers and students is: Wise Teacher Wise Student: Tibetan Approaches To A Healthy Relationship Paperback by Alexander Berzin

Non-Dogmatic Enthusiasm

Buddhist communities have a great potential to facilitate non-fundamentalist and non-dogmatic beliefs because of Buddhism’s value of reasoning, open-mindedness and intellectual inquiry. Learning Buddhist history is a great support for this because in its ultimate form Buddhism promotes open-mindedness and embraces diversity. History shows that Buddhism at many periods was not sectarian. To maintain a puritanical and righteous view is not compatible with Buddhist practice.

The concept of the “nine yanas” the nine philosophical vehicles of Buddhism is an inspiring support for developing a strong relationship with Buddhist thought without fundamentalist mindsets. This framework points out that differences in philosophical vehicles are necessary due to the different dispositions of Buddhist practitioners. Contradictions are useful and important because they facilitate different types of views, training and practice for different kinds of people and stages.

This is why basic Buddhist concepts like emptiness, enlightenment and methods of practice are regarded in varying ways in each lineage. In a sense, each tradition specializes in particular approaches. For example – Madhyamaka philosophy lends itself well to epistemological approaches – pointing to the limits of conceptual knowledge. Madhyamaka may also be approached as an ontological assertion – pointing towards the illusory nature of existence. Vajrayana practices are oriented in a direction we could call psychological – working with themes of identity, emotion, subconscious mind and conditioned perception. Dzogchen teachings are phenomenological in nature – suggesting the nature of experience, the dynamic of experience. They also make an ontological assertion – that underlying all of reality is intelligent presence, a knowing which is pristine cognition.  And the boundaries between all these approaches is porous, each lineage includes many elements.

As a beginner, it is impossible and not necessarily useful to sort all these differences out.Keeping Buddhist diversity in mind helps to prevent becoming too rigid. However, learning happens in a step by step manner. So the best way to start is to get to know the teachers and traditions which are actually accessible to you. Attend teachings, study related texts, engage in the practices and ask questions.

Ordinary Wisdom

A controversial Vajrayana concept is the idea of ‘crazy wisdom,’ which is a sense in which persons who have high levels of understanding are not subject to ordinary standards of behavior and ethics. In a traditional context this describes antinomian behaviors such as drinking alcohol, living an itinerate lifestyle or exhibiting spicy personality traits. There are some documented modern accounts of how the idea of ‘crazy wisdom’ has been used to justify unethical behavior. However, it is important when studying Tibetan Buddhism or any philosophical or religious tradition to recognize that there have always been extreme examples and that these do not necessarily represent the whole tradition. It is positive that Buddhism acknowledges that it is difficult to speak in moral absolutes and universals. There are at times exceptional figures who are ‘outside the box.’ However, exemplary ethics are possible and this is the primary goal of Buddhism – to cultivate ethics in a straightforward way. As a result, the norm is that Buddhist teachers have impeccable ethics.

How to make sense of the concept of crazy wisdom then? It varies from context to context. My advice to students is to have a thorough going education in Buddhist philosophy so that you can have a basis for voicing good questions to your teachers if ever faced with ethically ambiguous situations. A combination of intelligence, common sense and openness is the greatest protection in any learning situation.

Buddhist vows and traditional education is designed to produce students and teachers whose ethics are straightforward and exemplary in terms of ordinary standards. Buddhism has elaborate guidelines for conduct and vows in order to promote this. Everyone is expected to have ‘ordinary wisdom,’ which means following the vows in a straightforward way. This is what is meant by the Buddhist saying that says “Your view should be as vast as the sky, but your conduct should be as fine as flour.”  This is the goal for me and my own students and the instructors I have authorized – to be ethical in the most straightforward sense.


Historically, issues of secular power and religious power were interwoven in Tibetan Buddhism. It was not a “separation of church and state.” Each sect, except the Nyingmas, at one time held political power. However the longest running rule by one of the orders of Tibetan Buddhism was the Gelukpa sect’s government the Ganden Phodrang. This began when central Tibet was united under the leadership of the fifth Dalai Lama in the seventeenth century.  Tibetan Buddhism’s early period of establishment in Tibet was known as the Imperial Period, which was the time of the 6th to 8th centuries,  when under patronage of the Tibetan emperors Buddhism was spread throughout the country. In the traditional histories, kings from that time are regarded as being semi-divine figures, they were not just humans but also are regarded as emanations of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Therefore, there has been a long history of the intermingling of religious authority, temporal and political power in Tibet. This makes for very interesting history because it conveys stories of power, negotiating, diplomacy, wars and so forth – but situated within a Buddhist context. So this history offers a fascinating exploration of how Buddhists attempted to understand and relate to very practical social issues. How issues of hierarchy and power play out in the context of modern Tibetan Buddhist practice communities varies considerably from context to context.

Within Tibetan Buddhism and even Indian Buddhist Tantra are hierarchical frameworks in which the teacher or the head of a lineage has authority over religious matters for their communities. This also includes a culture of veneration and respect for teachers, along with customs of decorum – a kind of Vajrayana etiquette. These hierarchies infuse Tibetan Buddhist monastic structures. For example, when the Dalai Lama visits, the monks sit in order of the rank according to how long they have been monks or what degrees or titles they have been awarded. In Tibetan communities in North America, structures of organization and leadership vary considerably. However veneration of the Lamas is fairly consistent. The practical implications of this may generally be that the Lamas sit on a higher seat, are addressed by honorific titles and are treated with respect and deference by their students. The Lamas themselves offer generosity and kindness to the students, devoting their lives to serving the students and benefiting beings through the sharing of Buddhism. The format and dynamics vary from one circumstance to another. Some Lamas are more informal and some are more formal. So the best way to understand the social etiquette is to get to know particular communities and when there are questions – to ask the long-time students.

Probably two areas of very noticeable issues of hierarchy which are distinctive to westerners are the notion of prostrations and ‘guru yoga.’ First, prostrations warrant some explanation due to being a cross-cultural issue. Prostrations are a practice of bowing that are part of Asian religions and even social culture, but in the western context it is not always understood. For more serious students who will undertake training in the preliminary practices (Ngondro) one of the main practices – this involves prostrations. This is a practice of physically imbibing humility, egoless-ness and open-heartedness. While doing prostrations one visualizes that the entire field of all the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and Buddhist masters is in front of oneself. Prostrations may also be performed when entering shrine rooms or when the teachers enter. In this and every cross-cultural encounter, it is best to ask questions of others to learn what the etiquette is and what the reasoning behind it is. Dharma centers are set up as resources for learning about Buddhism, so questions are a productive way to benefit from those resources. In my own dharma centers, we pause when entering the shrine room and beyond that prostrations are reserved for guest Lamas, ritual empowerments and ngondro practice.

The other area of noticeable hierarchy is the practice of ‘guru yoga’ where one visualizes oneself merging with the mind of the Buddha who is the union of one’s teacher and all previous Buddhist masters. The result of this practice is that one transforms their own mind and body image to be imbued with the sense of personal integration with the principle of the teacher within – which is one’s very own Buddha nature. Probably the title of ‘guru yoga’ is a bit misleading because the result of the practice is that one is undifferentiated from the teacher – so its spirit is an empowering one – not one of establishing subordination.

The Great Perfection teachings are an equalizing factor, every person is considered to have the same amount of Buddha nature. Therefore ultimately, students and teachers are all equal. Does this obliterate the need for hierarchy all together? In every learning scenario, some degree of hierarchy is inevitable. To train as a mechanic is to learn from a more experienced mechanic and be subject to their authority to some extent. To train as a painter is to enter a hierarchical relationship. Leadership, power and authority cannot be obliterated altogether but they can be infused with virtues such as loving kindness, compassion, respect for others, generosity and ethical discipline.

How leadership, power and authority will manifest in terms of modern Buddhist contexts is a question being answered in a variety of ways. There are many issues to be explored by modern communities, how can Buddhist communities manifest in a way that is true to Buddhist principles, affirmative of the goodness and dignity of human beings and attentive to the context of a new culture? This is why getting to know Tibetan Buddhist communities directly is so important. Every community varies considerably in how these questions are answered.


Another controversial issue is the issue of secrecy in Tibetan Buddhism. The tradition has maintained the importance of only revealing particular teachings to students who are ready for them. In other words, these are students who have done the necessary preparations, have fulfilled commitments and are ripe for the teaching being given. It is the job of Tibetan teachers (Lamas) to decide when students are ripe and to guide them at the appropriate pace and sequence.

In reality almost all of these ‘secret’ practices have already been published in books in english so perhaps instead of calling this a matter of ‘secrecy’ it is more a matter of sequence of initiations. For example in some Vajrayana communities, this sequence will be preliminary practices (ngondro) followed by deity yoga practices for “Lama, Yidam and Khandro,” followed by inner yoga practices (rtsa rlung practices) and then Dzogchen meditation practices. But this order may vary from lineage to lineage. In the context of Vajrayana Buddhism, the vows of secrecy in Vajrayana refers to not telling other people the details of practices to other people. This is similar to the idea of proprietary formulas in recipes. Those special ingredients that make momma’s pie taste so delicious may have been a family ‘secret’ for many generations. The ingredients themselves are not secret, coriander, fennel, butter, sugar – but the formulation of their quantity and when to use them is reserved as a special knowledge that is shared and transmitted in the family tradition. In the same way, Vajrayana ‘secrecy’ refers to the particular details of meditation practices wherein the recipe for such practices and mantras which are considered best given to students at the right time, in a sequence which is appropriate to their learning and preparation.

There are two great challenges to this situation of Vajrayana secrets in the modern context. The first is that different schools of Tibetan Buddhism have contradicting views about which teachings are secret, about what sequence they should be practiced in and so forth. Some practices which are taboo or secret in one lineage may be a publicly shared practice in other. Secondly,  different types of practitioners are governed by different mandates. For example – monks and nuns who have vows of celibacy have particular restrictions that ‘householder’ practitioners, lay people and yogis would not. So there are not ‘universal truths’ which govern the right and true way to practice Tibetan Buddhism. Each lineage has its own sequence, specialities and rules. For the Nyingma lineage, historically, Vajrayana is the speciality and not reserved for later but instead the mainstay of the path. Other traditions reserve Vajrayana for much later. For some lineages Dzogchen practices are reserved for only highly accomplished students. For other lineages Dzogchen may infuse every stage of the path. Another example are initiations. These “Empowerments” are Tibetan Buddhist ritual initiations into Vajrayana practices. Many Nyingma Lamas freely give Vajrayana teachings and empowerments to the public, but other sect’s Lamas may be more conservative. Diversity is a key mark of Tibetan Buddhism, so coming up with one right, true answer to these issues would be a fundamentalist and dogmatic approach as well as historically inaccurate.

The second great challenge to the issues of secrecy is that the secret is out. Books and the internet have made available the full scope of Buddhist teachings. University courses cover esoteric topics. Scientists study all kinds of meditation methods. Meditation practices are taught in corporations, classrooms and rock concerts. The reality is – most people interested in Buddhism have unprecedented access to information which would have been reserved for initiates previously. Also empowerments are also widely available to the public. However it is not necessarily easy for modern students to make sense of all these things. Many misunderstandings prevail and are repeated. (There is a lot of good information out there too). In the situation where the ‘secret is out’ it is more damaging for there to be a lack of education and understanding with all this access to information. If highly trained Lamas can step in and help students, scientists and scholars to properly understand these frameworks, then this will help the ‘secrets’ to be properly contextualized and respected.

It is not an all or nothing situation. Raising the level of education made available can be done in ways that respect tradition and commitments around what to share and what not share. Every Tibetan Buddhist teacher is trained to watch out for this issue, to avoid crossing the line of sharing too much or too little. There are many diverse and different “right” answers which depend on that teacher, that lineage and the practice in question.

5 Schools of
Tibetan Buddhism

As Tibetan Buddhism grew and spread it developed into five major schools of thought, each presenting diverse expressions of the Buddha’s path to enlightenment. These schools are known as the Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, Geluk and Bon. They were not the only expressions of Buddhist tradition, many other schools and sub-schools also flourished. Tibetan Buddhism’s great diversity was accentuated by its landscape, with local traditions and micro-cultures developing distinct specialties and customs. However Tibetan Buddhists throughout history have generally been friendly towards a non-sectarian character. Many Buddhist teachers would receive training and empowerments from multiple lineages, or had family ties to multiple lineages. Likewise, I myself (Pema Khandro) am also  a teacher in the lineage of both Nyingma and Kagyu. The courses I teach within Ngakpa International specialize primarily in the tradition of Nyingma Ngagkpas, (Tib. sngags pa and rnal byor pa) The Buddhist Yogis of Tibet and the great perfection philosophy (Tib. rdzogs chen). However, it seems important to me that student’s appreciate Buddhist diversity and the contributions that all the schools of have made. Each school has its own particular specialities and lineages.

The Nyingma tradition literally means the “old school,” referring to the earliest developments of Tibetan Buddhism. This group traces their origins back to the imperial period in eight century Tibet. The founder of the Nyingma lineage is Padmasambahva, whose story is summarized briefly above. As mentioned before, Padmasambhava was said to have ordained two divisions of Buddhist clergy; the monks and the Yogis, (Tib. sngags pa and rnal byor pa).

The Tibetan Buddhist Yogis were influential individuals in all periods of Tibetan Buddhism. However in recent centuries large scale buddhism has been institutional and monastic in character. Because of this the world often assumes that Buddhists are all celibate monks. Yet, the Buddhist Yogis were non-celibate, held family lineages and were active in local practice groups. They emphasized body-positive practices, such as inner yogas. Their communities were inclusive of families and women. Their rituals were simple or elaborate, depending on the particular yogi and their lineage. Scholars and stereotypes often regard Buddhist Yogis as ritual specialists only. However, if we take a survey of historical figures, t is clear that Buddhist Yogis have been philosophers, institutional leaders, scholars, contemplative practitioners or also others were ritual specialists. Some Tibetan Yogis were head of major lineages, some were contemplative specialists living apart from society in caves, others were mediators and some were doctors. Buddhist Yogis of Tibet embraced both spiritual and practical goal. Many of them emphasized great perfection philosophy, the notion that every person has within them, innate wisdom, goodness and compassion.


You will find answers to frequently asked questions about practice and study with Pema Khandro here.


(1) Harvey, Peter (2013). An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices (2nd ed.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. p. 5. ISBN 9780521676748. Retrieved 2 September 2013.