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Main topics covered
• The path to liberation
• Theravāda, Hinayāna, Mahāyāna
• Sūtra and Tantra (Vajrayāna)
• Regional varieties of Buddhism in the contemporary world
• Buddhist deities and the Three Bodies of the Buddha
• Emptiness (śūnyatā)
• The ‘gradual path’
• Refuge and bodhicitta
• The path of the bodhisattva
Key points 1
• The ‘central story’ of Tibetan Buddhism is that Buddhism is
a path to liberation from the suffering of life in the everyday
world (saṃsāra), through the attainment of a superior state or
condition of being that was attained and taught by the
historical Buddha. This state (Buddhahood) may be difficult to
attain, but in principle it is accessible to everyone. It is
fundamentally characterized by love and compassion, and its
achievement comes about through bodhicitta, the intense
desire to relieve all beings from their suffering.
Key points 2
• The teachings on the attainment of Buddhahood are
transmitted from lama (guru) to student, so creating teaching
lineages that continue through the ages. They were brought to
Tibet by a series of great teachers, including Padmasambhava
who is thought of as taming the spirits of the land and creating
a reservoir of spiritual power that can still be accessed. Those
actively engaged on the path to Buddhahood, the lamas,
monks and yogins, are supported by the lay population in
return for their ritual and magical services as well as for their
Key points 3
• Different Buddhist traditions both within and outside Tibet
emphasize different aspects of the teachings, and also vary in
whether they favour unity and consistency, or breadth and
variety. Labels such as Theravāda, Hinayāna and Mahāyāna
derive from internal polemics between schools and can be
misleading. Tibetan Buddhism is, however, notable for its
breadth and variety; the multiplicity of teachings, schools and
lamas is valued, since different paths may be appropriate for
different people.
Regional varieties of Buddhism
Key points 4
• The distinction between Sūtra and Tantra teachings developed
in India and is important for the Tibetans. The Vajrayāna
(Buddhist Tantric) teachings are seen as difficult practices that
are suitable for advanced practitioners, and that also enable them
to assist lay people in practical and this-worldly matters. Lamas
are expected to have mastered these teachings.
•The three kāyas, or ‘bodies’, of the Buddha distinguish between
different aspects or levels of Buddhahood. Buddhist deities,
including bodhisattvas such as Tārā or Avalokiteśvara, may be
treated by lay people as external deities, but are also understood
to be manifestations of a universal Buddha-nature present within
all beings and all experience.
The Future Buddha Maitreya
Image in Sera Moanstery, Tibet, photo from 1991
Key points 5
• The overcoming of dualistic thought, particularly the
division between self and others, and between self and the
external world, is a key issue in Tibetan Buddhism. Apparent
phenomena, including the self, are really ‘empty’ or ‘void’ of
independent existence. This ‘emptiness’ (śūnyatā) can be
described both in negative and positive terms.
• The Sūtra teachings provide the basic foundation necessary
before one can practise Tantra properly and safely. They are
generally presented in schemes of progressive teachings, and
each of the main Buddhist traditions has its own versions of
Monastic debating
Monks deating at sera monastery, Tibet, photo from 1987