Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism

Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism

by John Powers

Paperback(Revised Edition)

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This is the most comprehensive and authoritative introduction to Tibetan Buddhism available to date, covering a wide range of topics, including history, doctrines, meditation, practices, schools, religious festivals, and major figures. The revised edition contains expanded discussions of recent Tibetan history and tantra and incorporates important new publications in the field. Beginning with a summary of the Indian origins of Tibetan Buddhism and how it eventually was brought to Tibet, it explores Tibetan Mahayana philosophy and tantric methods for personal transformation. The four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism, as well as Bön, are explored in depth from a nonsectarian point of view. This new and expanded edition is a systematic and wonderfully clear presentation of Tibetan Buddhist views and practices.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781559392822
Publisher: Shambhala
Publication date: 11/09/2007
Edition description: Revised Edition
Pages: 592
Sales rank: 719,238
Product dimensions: 6.02(w) x 8.98(h) x 1.45(d)

About the Author

John Powers has published twelve books, including Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. He received his PhD from the University of Virginia and specializes in Indian and Tibetan intellectual history. He is currently Professor of Asian Studies at Australian National University.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Buddhism in India


The passing of the founder of a religious tradition often leaves a voidin the community because there is no longer the possibility of dailyguidance and personal inspiration. A common response is to developand regularly recount the paradigmatic deeds of the founder, whoselife story is presented as a model for emulation by the faithful. In thecase of the early Buddhist community, the memory of the founderwas preserved by his disciples, who passed on their recollections ofhis words and deeds to others who had never met him. After theBuddha's death, his followers began recounting his story in order toinspire others. As time passed, the legend was embellished and augmented,with the result that a rich and detailed mythology developed.This has become a shared cultural legacy for Buddhists. The story highlightsimportant aspects of their tradition and serves as a paradigmfor devout Buddhists.

    By the time Buddhism reached Tibet, the historical Buddha hadfaded into the mists of the distant past, and the Buddha mainly functionedas an important shared symbol for Buddhists. This symbol wasunderstood and interpreted differently by different schools of Buddhism,each of which appropriated the symbol in accordance with itsown ideas, presuppositions, and practices. For each school, the symbolwas represented in a way that validated and corroborated its ownideas and its own understanding of the methods and goals of Buddhistthought and practice.

    Theravada Buddhists, for example, developed the idea of a Buddhawho was very much a human teacher, with humanlimitationsand with abilities within the range of human comprehension, and whodied a human death at the end of a human lifespan. The Mahayanaschools, by contrast, viewed the Buddha as a transcendent and cosmicfigure. Mahayanists agree that the Buddha appeared among humansas a mere human being, but in reality he had surpassed even thegreat gods of India in his wisdom and power. Like all buddhas, heattained a state of omniscience, was not bound by time or the laws ofphysics, and, contrary to appearances, he did not really die, but insteadonly appeared to do so, and in fact he continues on today, appearingwhen needed to those who require his help.

    As the historical Buddha faded from memory, his followers beganto embellish his story and to recast the shared legend of their founderin ways that reflected changing assumptions about the tradition. As istrue of all religious traditions, Buddhism was never fixed or static,but instead has continued to evolve and adapt to changing attitudesand circumstances, while its adherents strive to retain a perceived connectionwith the origins of the tradition. In addition, each communitywithin the larger tradition of Buddhism has modified the image ofBuddha in ways that reflect its own assumptions, doctrines, and practices,with the result that the Buddha is represented quite differentlyin different parts of the world.

    For these reasons, a quest to discover the "historical Buddha" isnot to be the goal of the present section. Others have attempted tolocate the historical Buddha, with varying degrees of success, but sincethe aim of this book is to present the worldview of Tibetan Buddhism,the life of the Buddha will be presented from the perspective of how itwas inherited, developed, and embellished by Tibetan Buddhists. Thus,I will not attempt to sort through mythological accounts of his life todetermine which elements of his life stories reflect historical "truth."Whatever the facts of his life may have been, they are largely irrelevantto the task of explaining how the figure of Buddha appears toTibetan Buddhists. Tibetan Buddhists inherited the Buddha throughstories, and so in Tibetan Buddhism he is more important as a powerfulshared symbol than as a historical personage.

    This is how he will be presented in this section. The account of hislife that follows is drawn from standard sources that continue to bepopular throughout the cultural area influenced by Tibetan Buddhism.Taken together, they encapsulate the aspects of this shared paradigmthat reflect the core assumptions, values, and goals of Tibetan Buddhists.Who or what the "real" historical Buddha was or what he didwill be left for others to discover.

The Date of the Buddha

Among Buddhist historians, there is a wide range of opinions concerningwhen Buddha lived and died. These generally focus on thedate of his death, referred to by traditional Buddhists as the "finalnirvana" (yongs su mya ngan las 'das pa, parinirvana). It is believed thatat the end of his life he completely transcended all mundane limitationsand entered a state of perfect bliss and freedom from suffering,or "nirvana," which is the result of successful meditative training. Asa buddha, or "awakened one," he is thought to have awakened fromthe sleep of ignorance in which most beings spend their lives, andafter his awakening he remained in the world in order to share hisinsights with others who were still mired in ignorance and were sufferingas a result. After becoming a buddha, he realized that all ordinarybeings are caught up in a continual round of birth, death, andrebirth, and that each successive birth is conditioned and determinedby the actions of previous lives. Since ordinary beings tend to act selfishly,thinking of short-term personal gains rather than consideringthe future consequences of actions, their deeds create the causes offuture suffering for themselves. After breaking this vicious cycle inhis own life, the Buddha was so moved by compassion for others thathe decided to remain in the world in order to help them to find thetruth for themselves. Those who did so could also become buddhas,or they could at least find a way to break the cycle of ignorance andattain nirvana.

    According to traditional accounts, the man who would become theBuddha was born a prince in what is today southern Nepal. Traditionalhistorians differ on the time of his birth and death. The earliestdating is by Suresamati, who states that Buddha's final nirvana occurredin 2420 B.C.E. Atisa, an Indian scholar who was instrumentalin the transmission of Buddhism to Tibet, placed the final nirvana at2136 B.C.E. There are numerous other proposed dates, but contemporaryscholars tend to place the Buddha around the fifth century B.C.E.The wide discrepancy in dates indicates one of the greatest difficultiesfacing historically inclined scholars of Buddhism: traditional Indiansources exhibit little concern with history as understood in contemporaryWestern circles, and often great figures are assigned to distantantiquity in order to enhance their status. Sometimes the stories oftheir lives become intertwined with those of other important figures,and stories of meetings between luminaries of the past become a partof the shared narrative of people in various traditions. Even more problematicfrom the point of view of a modern historian, the lives of greatfigures in India are generally remembered for how they personifiedcore myths and symbols. Thus, the sages of the past are venerated notprimarily for their uniqueness and their innovative ideas and practices,but rather for how well their lives reflected shared paradigms inIndian culture.


The term "buddha," as we have seen, is a title that means "awakenedone" and is given to people who have overcome ignorance and transcendedsuffering, who have attained the highest level of enlightenment,and who then teach what they have realized to others. All schoolsof Buddhism recognize numerous beings who have attained the stateof buddhahood, and all are said to have attained the same level ofawareness. Thus the term "buddha" is used to refer to many differentenlightened beings, but when I discuss "the Buddha," I refer to thehistorical founder of the Buddhist tradition, a man who was born insouthern Nepal, probably around the fifth century B.C.E. and whowas named Siddhartha Gautama at birth. He was born into a ksatriyafamily of the Sakya clan, and so when he became a great sage he waswidely known as "Sakyamuni," or "Sage of the Sakyas." His fatherwas the ruler of a small kingdom in the foothills of the Himalayas,and as an only child Siddhartha was expected to inherit his father'sthrone.

    According to traditional accounts of his life, his incarnation asSiddhartha Gautama was the culmination of a long series of rebirthsin which he had progressively advanced toward the state ofbuddhahood. Stories of his former births are very popular amongBuddhists in Tibet, and they indicate how he diligently applied himselfto meditative practice, moral training, and the development ofcompassion, all the time motivated by a deep desire to help others.These stories of Siddhartha's previous births, or "Jatakas," provide aparadigm of the gradual path to enlightenment. In each life, the futureBuddha demonstrated his mastery of one of the attributes thatwould someday constitute the matrix of qualities of his enlightenedand compassionate personality.

    An example is his previous life as the world-renouncing asceticKsantivadin, or "Teacher of Patience." As his name indicates, in thislife he was committed to developing unshakable patience. One day,as he was sitting in a forest glade deeply immersed in meditation, atest of his patience came to him in the form of the king who ruled thearea. The king had entered the forest with his many mistresses, andthey were cavorting together until the king decided to take a rest. Thestory indicates that the king was drunk, and as he fell asleep, his lustfulconcubines looked around for other entertainment. The story portraysthem as superficially devoted to fleeting sensuous pleasures andas heedless of the consequences of their actions, but when they cameupon Ksantivadin they were immediately impressed with his saintlydemeanor. Approaching him with the reverence due to a holy man,they asked him to instruct them, and he agreed, describing to themthe dangers of sensual pleasures, the joys of the ascetic lifestyle, andthe importance of patience. The women were entranced by his profoundteachings and listened intently.

    Meanwhile, the king awoke and looked around for his concubines.When informed that they had gone elsewhere in search of diversions,he became angry, and his anger increased when he found them in thecompany of a holy man who was advising them to renounce sensualpleasures. Striding angrily through the crowd gathered aroundKsantivadin, he asked the holy man his name; the calm reply was, "Iam Ksantivadin."

    The king, a man of violent nature, flew into a rage and accusedKsantivadin of being a fraud. He told Ksantivadin that he lacked truepatience and that his appearance of sanctity was merely a facade.Ksantivadin was unmoved and remained totally calm, but this onlymade the king angrier. Grabbing a sword, the king strode towardKsantivadin, again accusing him of lacking true patience, and asKsantivadin raised a hand to calm him, the king cut it off. In a blindrage, the king screamed at him, accusing him of deceit. The king thenhacked off Ksantivadin's other hand, and then both feet, followed byhis ears and nose. Throughout all of this, Ksantivadin was completelyequanimical and never lost his patience. Instead, he felt only compassionfor the violent being whose actions would create suffering forhimself in the future.

    The king, realizing that Ksantivadin's patience was unshakable,lurched away from the scene of carnage, still overcome with angerand hatred. As he left the grove, the earth itself opened and swallowedhim, drawing him down to the depths of hell, where he wouldsuffer horribly for inflicting grave injuries on such a holy man. Theking's subjects were concerned that Ksantivadin might hold them responsiblefor the king's actions, but Ksantivadin reassured them thathe bore no ill-will either toward them or the king. He then taughtthem about the value of patience, and this teaching ends the story.

    This fairly grisly tale contains a number of themes that are typicalof the Jataka tales. They are morality plays that provide Buddhistswith paradigms of the highest level of development of the good qualitiestoward which devout Buddhists should strive, such as altruism,ethics, patience, generosity, and compassion. In many of these stories,the future Buddha is placed in a situation that tests him to the utmost,and in each he is portrayed as performing acts of kindness that areextraordinary. For the devout Buddhists who read the Jatakas, the storiesprovide models that they should strive to emulate. The storiesalso indicate how far most readers are from approaching the level ofgoodness exhibited by the future Buddha (who is referred to as a"bodhisattva," or "buddha in training"). This does not mean that Buddhistsare encouraged to seek self-mutilation or extreme hardship, butrather that they are given a standard that is almost impossibly high,and they are encouraged to work toward attaining the degree of compassion,patience, love, etc. that the Buddha embodied in his previousincarnations.

    The difficulty of living up to this paradigm is indicated in a story ofone of the Buddha's past incarnations in which he was born in a hell.The story makes it clear that he had fallen to the hell as a result of evildeeds, but even in this horrible place his compassion was manifested.At one time, he and another wretched hell-being were being forced topull a heavy cart, but as the future Buddha saw the suffering of hiscompanion he felt compassion for him and decided to pull the carthimself, even though he knew that this act of kindness would enragethe demons that torture the denizens of hell. Despite the pain inflictedon him, the future Buddha persevered, and this act of genuine compassionserved to define the course of his future lives. It is said thatthe generation of true compassion is extremely difficult in our world,but it is unimaginably rare in the hells, in which beings are constantlybeset with horrible sufferings and are so consumed by their owntroubles that they are very unlikely even to think of others. Becausehe was able to overcome these obstacles and help another being toalleviate his sufferings, this act had tremendous power and served toestablish him on the road to buddhahood.

Attainment of Buddhahood

After cultivating patience, compassion, and other good qualities totheir highest degree, having overcome all mental afflictions, the futureBuddha was reborn as the bodhisattva Svetaketu in Tusita heaven(the final training ground for buddhas-to-be). In this celestial realmconditions are optimal for the attainment of perfect enlightenment,and those who are born there progress steadily toward the final goalof buddhahood. After his training in Tusita was complete, the futureBuddha began looking for the ideal life situation for his decisive incarnationas Sakyamuni. It is believed by Buddhists that those whohave reached a high level of development can choose their own births,including their parents and the time and place of birth. According tothe Extensive Sport Sutra (a traditional account of Buddha's life), thesedecisions were not taken lightly, and the future Buddha searched farand wide for the best situation.

    Because of his exalted spiritual development, ordinary parents wereunsuitable, and so he had to choose people of exceptional moral qualities.He eventually decided on a royal couple who possessed all thegood qualities required for the parents of a buddha. His father was aking named Suddhodana, and his mother was named Mayadevi, andas he decided to take rebirth as their son, the man who would becomeknown as Sakyamuni Buddha brought up the final curtain on his journeytoward full enlightenment.

The Twelve Great Deeds of the Buddha

Traditional accounts of the Buddha's life agree that his exceptionaldeeds are innumerable, but the defining moments of his life are generallydivided into twelve "great acts. These are:

1. existence in Tusita heaven
2. descent from Tusita
3. entering the womb of his mother
4. birth as a prince
5. proficiency in the worldly arts
6. life in the palace
7. departure from home
8. practice of austerities
9. defeat of Mara
10. enlightenment
11. turning the wheel of doctrine
12. final nirvana.

    These twelve deeds are not unique to Sakyamuni, but rather constitutethe paradigmatic career followed by all buddhas in their finallifetimes. Many Buddhist sources even state that Sakyamuni was actuallyenlightened prior to his final birth and that he manifested thesetwelve deeds as a way of instructing others. Together they provide amodel for others to follow, beginning with the development of an attitudeof renunciation toward worldly attachments, continuing throughthe practice of meditation, and ending with the result of successfulmeditative practice: complete eradication of all negative mental statesand the development of perfect wisdom and compassion. TheBuddha's qualities of wisdom and compassion are manifested in hisdecision to teach others and in the final teaching of his death, whichserves to remind others of their mortality and the importance of dedicationto religious practice.


Excerpted from Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism by John Powers. Copyright © 1995 by John Powers. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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"The vitality of Tibetan Buddhism in exile has exceeded anything anyone could have predicted; hence the need of a book that presents its history, doctrines, lineages, practices, and tantric essence in a comprehensive and cogent way. John Powers' Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism does this!"—Huston Smith, Thomas J. Watson Professor of Religion and Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Philosophy, Syracuse University

"Presents the wide spectrum of Tibetan Buddhism in clear, concise form with Western methodology and critical appreciation. This work beautifully elucidates the nature of the complex religious and philosophical disciplines of Tibet."—Lobsang Lhalungpa, author of The Life of Milarepa

"Every Buddhist Studies major worth his or her salt is most likely familiar with John Powers' Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, an essential text in college classrooms throughout the country. The revised edition is now updated to reflect political developments, fresh resources, and shifting theoretical perspectives. . . . Comprehensive, yet succinct, . . . with a jargon-free, straightforward style that makes learning a pleasurable pursuit."—Tricycle

"The work remains one of the best single-volume introductions available."—Ashe Journal

"A comprehensive and eminently comprehensible overview. . . . Powers' substantial Introduction to Tibetan able to discuss even the most complex aspects of Tibetan Buddhism in a straightforward and engaging manner. . . . He conveys the drama of the history of this multifaceted tradition, . . . while his descriptions of Tibetan geography architecture give us a vivid picture of life in Tibet."—Booklist

"The best single-volume introduction to Tibetan Buddhist practice and culture."—Library Journal

"Articulate, superbly organized and presented, Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism is thoroughly reader-friendly and an excellent, highly recommended addition to personal, academic, and community library collections."—Wisconsin Bookwatch

"This book is an excellent entry-level approach to the subject."—Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries

"With the current crisis in Tibet, John Powers' book . . . offers a timely chronicle of Tibetan history geography, culture, religion, politics, and Buddhist orders. . . . Encompasses a broad scope, including beautiful descriptions and details on the uniqueness of the Tibetan people."—Reviewer’s Bookwatch

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