Propagation of Buddhism from India to Tibet

Tibet, often known as the ‘Roof of the World’ was introduced to Buddhism in the 7th century A.D.  Historically, Tibet in order to propagate and preserve the Buddha Dharma sent many of its people to India to study Buddhism and simultaneously invited many learned Indian Buddhist masters to Tibet and became successful in translating and preserving a complete form of Buddha’s canonical texts including the vast literature from India before it vanishes from its own land.

The advent of Buddhism in Tibet has entirely transformed the Tibetans identity and culture who otherwise were the followers of Shamanistic Bon religion, the aboriginal religion of Tibet. Shakabpa, Tibetan historian in his book ‘Tibet: A Political History’ mentioned that Buddhism first came into Tibet in the 7th century from India and Nepal; but the actual active propagation began in the 8th century with the arrival of Guru Padmasambhava and Acharya Shantarakshita. Buddhism was not introduced into Tibet all at once, but at different stages by different teachers. Therefore, the advent of Buddhism in Tibet can be understood in two phases: The first dissemination which began in the 7th century and the later in the 11th century. In both the propagations, the Indian masters had played a vital role which cannot be overlooked.

However, the Tibetan history also records that the arrival of Buddhism in Tibet can be traced back as early to the 3rd century at the time of 28th Tibetan Royal line Lha Tho Thori Nyentsen. During his reign, he received a book of Buddhist scriptures written in Sanskrit but unfortunately, the people of that generation could not deciphered the language of that book. The King called the book Nyenpo Sangwa in Tibetan which means ‘The Secret’ and it remained as secret for many years. An early Tibetan Historian Nel-pa Pandita mentions that the book was received from a certain Pandita Losemtso of India. Thus, here it can be said that the seed of Buddhism in Tibet was planted in the 3rd century but was able to proliferate only after the 7th century.

Early Propagation of Buddhism in Tibet

In the early propagation, three kings namely king Songtsen Gampo, Trisong Detsen and king Tri Ralpachen with the assistance of Indian Buddhist Panditas played a significant role and due to their immense contribution these three kings were known the three Dharma Rajas in the history of Tibet. In the second propagation, Lha Lama Yeshe Od and Indian master Atisha Dipankara’s contribution were noteworthy.

Songtsen Gampo: The First Dharma Raja

The first of the three Dharma Rajas was Songtsen Gampo, the 33rd King. This King united the small principalities into one kingdom and ruled over the vast area of Tibet and neighbouring countries. He, in order to stabilise the political alliance with his neighbours, married to the princess of Nepal, Bhrikuti Devi and princess of China, Weng Cheng. Being a Buddhist, these two princesses brought with themselves the statue of Buddha Aksobhaya and Buddha Shakyamuni at the time of their marriage. Later, on the advice of the princesses a temple for the placement of respective Buddha statues were built. These two temples were known as Ramoche Tsukla khang and Rasa Trulnang Tsukla khang. 

During his kingship, Songtsen Gampo with the motive of introducing Buddhism and Tibetan script in his country sent one of his wisest ministers Thonmi Sambota with other sixteen companions to learn Sanskrit language and Buddhist literature in India. But unfortunately, some of the companions could not bear the extreme heat and died on the way while some went back. During his stay in India, Thonmi Sambota learnt Sanskrit from his tutor Lipikara and Devavidyasimha and returned back to Tibet. Later, he devised the Tibetan script taking the model of Brahmi and Gupta script and is known as the father of Tibetan language and literature. He had translated many Sanskrit texts into Tibetan including the book ‘The Secret’ that appeared during the period of King Lha Thothori Nyentsen.

Trisong Detsen: The Second Dharma Raja

The second Dharma Raja was King Trisong Detsen, the 38th royal line. After coming to the throne, the King found himself opposed by many of his ministers, who were devoted to Bon religion. So, the first task before the king was to eradicate all the hurdles that are coming in the way of development of Buddhism. Therefore, the King sent his minister Ba Salnang to Nepal to invite Shantarakshita (Indian Buddhist Master) to teach the basic doctrine of Buddhism. As, the Bon spirits of the country were not happy with the introduction of new religion, they created hindrances in the form of storm, lightning and floods, making it difficult for him to preach Buddhism properly. Hence, Shantarakshita in order to tame these spirits, recommended the King to invite Guru Padmasambhava, the great Indian tantric master to Tibet.

With his arrival, Padmasambhava through the means of his powerful tantric tactics, was able to subdue the Bon spirits and also made them to take an oath to defend the new religion i.e., Buddha Dharma. In fact, Tibetan history records that many of these spirits were later taken into the Buddhist pantheon as a Dharma protector. Their contribution in the Tibetan history cannot be measured and are known as the Khanlob Chosum: the Acharya (Shantarakshita), the abbot (Padmasambhava) and the Dharmaraja (Trisong Detsen). On the model of Odantapuri (a Buddhist learning centre in India) they constructed the Samye monastery in Tibet where a school for the Sanskrit study was also established and a large number of Buddhist Sanskrit texts were translated into the Tibetan language. Besides, Trisong Detsen during his reign sent the young Tibetans to India for training and study Indian Buddhism. Under the guidance of Shantarakshita, the king also introduced the system of monkhood in Tibet. Also, during his reign, a philosophical debate was held between the Indian master Kamalashila (disciple of Acharya Shantarakshita) and Chinese monk Hoshang where Kamalashila got the victory and consequently the king proclaimed Buddhism as an official religion of the land. Thus, during Trisong Detsen’s reign Tibet as country reached the heights of glory in every domain.

Tri Ralpachen: The Third Dharma Raja

The 41st royal line was King Tri Ralpachen, the third Dharma Raja. He invested huge amount of money in the construction of temples and monasteries and also supported visits by Indian scholars to Tibet as well as trips to India by Tibetan scholars. He invited many Indian scholars like Upadhaya Jyanamitra, Ratnarakshita to retranslate the scriptures and commentaries which was not translated according to the standard terminology during the reign of the earlier kings. King Ralpachen encouraged the lay people to become monk and decided to give assistance of seven households for each monk. He was remembered by his countrymen as the third royal protector of religion in the golden age of Tibetan Buddhism.

But unfortunately this period which came to be known as the Era of Tibet’s Religious Kings could not sustain its authority and soon came to an end with the assassination of king Ralpachan by the supporters of his elder brother Lang-darma. He was opposed to the Buddhist religion and did every bit to destroy the teachings of Buddhism in Tibet. Under his reign, Buddhism suffered a terrible set back, the monks were forced to either stripped off their robe or marry or to declare themselves to be the followers of Bon religion. Many monasteries and scriptures were destroyed and burnt to the ashes. The height of atrocity was such that it was regarded as the “Dark Age of Tibetan Buddhism.”

Gradually, his atrocities became so intense that a pro Buddhist monk named Lalung Palgye Dorje assassinated Lang-darma in 842. Thus, with this the long lineage of royalty came to an end that ultimately led to the collapse of the great Tibetan Kingdom. 

Later Propagation of Buddhism in Tibet 

With the assassination of Lang-darma the Tibetan Kingdom was fragmented into small principalities that were warring among each other for almost four hundred years. Though, Buddhism in Central Tibet was wiped out but it was kept alive in eastern and western Tibet. Therefore, the spark for second phase of Buddhism arose from the western Tibet where the King of Guge, Tsenpo Khore gave his throne in the hand of his younger brother Songe and himself became a monk and ordained as Lha Lama Yeshe Od. Their forefathers can be traced back to the lineage of King Lang-darma.

On witnessing the decline of Buddhism in western Tibet and before it gets completely disappear from the land, Yeshe Od sent twenty-one of his young men to India to learn Sanskrit and Buddhist doctrine. And among them only Rinchen Zangpo and Lochung Lekpe Sherab could survive and came back to Tibet, accompanied by some of the Indian Pandits. They both later became prominent scholars and translators. They established monasteries, translated the scripts and presented teachings which successfully led to the wide spread of the doctrine throughout the region of Tibet. And their return from India was regarded as the inauguration of the second dissemination of Buddhism in Tibet.

 As Yeshe Od was getting older, he at the cost of his own life directed his nephew, Changchub Od to invite the great Indian Pandita, Atisha Dipankarajnana to Tibet. Changchub Od in order to fulfil his uncle’s wish accordingly sent his messenger with the present of gold to invite Atisha who was then living at the great monastic university of Vikramasila in Bihar, India. Having received the invitation, Atisha along with his companion set off his journey towards Tibet via Nepal route. Upon his arrival in 1042, he was given a warm welcome by Changchub Od and his people. Atisha emphasized on the revival of pure Mahayana doctrine by dispelling many misconceptions that continued earlier. While his stay at Tholing in Tibet, Atisha wrote several works among which Bodhipatha Pradipa called Changchub Lamgye Donme in Tibetan is pre-eminent and delivered one hundred discourses on the Mahayana Buddhism. Atisha’sfamous disciple Dromtonpa, later consolidated Atisha’s teachings and practiced into the Kadampa tradition. The Reting monastery which was established by Dromtonpa at Sangphu became a centre of learning which stressed and inspired the development of Tibetan Buddhism.

Thus, the second dissemination of Buddhism in Tibet marked the development of major schools in Tibetan Buddhism. Individuals from Tibet went to India to learn Buddhist doctrine from different Indian masters and later when they came back the influence of different masters led to a diversity of teaching lineages that resulted into the development of four different schools or sects of Tibetan Buddhism namely Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug. Of which the last three are referred to as “Sarmapa” means the New Schools and “Nyingma” which means Old School traced its origin from the period of Guru Padmasambhava.  Though all the four schools have its root in the teachings of Buddha Shakyamuni, the ground on which they vary is their path to Enlightenment.


Hence, with painstaking effort of the Indian Buddhist masters and pious kings, the Buddha Dharma in Tibet not only prospered within but also disseminated thereafter to other countries like Mongolia, Nepal and Bhutan. Today, it is popularly known as Tibetan Buddhism and is being followed and practiced all over the Trans-Himalayan regions of India, Nepal, Bhutan, Mogolia and Western countries as well.

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