Tibetan Buddhism unveiled: part two

An investigation of Lamaism and parts of the Tibetan Book of the Dead


In the first part of this investigation we considered the schism that led to the division into the 'Northern' and 'Southern' Schools of Mahayana and Hinayana Buddhism, the introduction of the Mahayana School into Tibet and the rise of Lamaism. In this second part we continue our investigation of the history and development of Buddhism in Tibet and examine some extracts from the Tibetan Book of the Dead to see what truths and untruths we may discover within it. If you have not read the first part of this investigation and the commentary to it, we suggest that you do so before continuing, otherwise you will not obtain a complete understanding of the subjects under discussion.

The development of Lamaism and Tibetan Buddhism

The eras of Lamaism may be divided into three. Firstly, the primitive era from King Thi-Srong Detsan's reign to the persecution of the primitive Lamaism of the Bön-pa priesthood. Secondly, the medieval, including the reformation discussed in part one of our investigation, and finally modern Lamaism which began with the priest-kingship of the Dalai Lama in the seventeenth century.

In the latter half of the ninth century King Tri Ralpa Chen (815-838), the grandson of Thi-Srong Detsan, continued the work of translating the scriptures and the Commentaries of Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, Vasubandhu and others. He also endowed most of the monasteries with state lands and the right to collect tithes and taxes. He seems to have been the first Tibetan sovereign who started a regular record of the annals of his country, for which purpose he adopted the Chinese system of chronology.

His devotion to Buddhism appears to have led to his murder in 838, at the instigation of his younger brother Lang Darma, the so-called Julian of Lamaism, who then ascended the throne, and at once commenced to persecute the Lamas, doing his utmost to uproot the religion. He desecrated the temples and several monasteries, burned many of their books, and treated the Lamas with the grossest indignity, forcing many to become butchers, which, given the bloody rites many of them practised, was probably not undeserved! But Lang Darma's religious persecution was both mild and very short-lived. He was assassinated in the third year of his reign by a Lama of Llaluri, named Pal-dorje who has since been canonised by his grateful church, and this murderous incident forms a part of the modern Lamaist masquerade.

After the assassination of Lang Darma the Lamas were not long in regaining their lost ground. Their party assumed the regency during the minority of Lang Larma's sons, and although Tibet now became divided into petty principalities, the persecution seems to have imparted fresh vigour to the movement, for from this time onward the Lamaist church grew steadily in size and influence until it reached its present vast dimensions, culminating in the priest-kings at Lhasa. By the beginning of the eleventh century A.D., numerous Indian monks were again frequenting Tibet. And in 1038 A.D., Atisha, the great reformer of Lamaism, arrived from Bengal.

In the second half of the thirteenth century, Lamaism received a mighty accession of strength at the hands of the great Chinese Emperor, Kublai Khan. Tibet had been conquered by his ancestor Genghis Khan in about 1206 A.D., and Kublai was thus brought into contact with Lamaism. From the accounts of Marco Polo and others, we know that this Emperor was a most enlightened ruler; and in searching about for a religion to weld together the more uncivilised portions of his mighty empire he called to his court the most powerful of the Lamaist hierarchs, namely, the Sakya Grand Lama, as well as representatives of the Christian and several other faiths, and he ultimately fixed upon Lamaism, as having more in common with the Shamanist faiths already prevalent in China and Mongolia than had Confucianism, Islam or Christianity.

His conversion to Buddhism is made miraculous. He is said to have demanded a miracle from the Christian missionaries who had been sent to him by the Pope as proof of the superiority of the Christian religion, while if they failed and the Lamas succeeded in showing him a miracle, then he would adopt Buddhism. In the presence of the missionaries, who were unable to comply with Kublai's demands, the Lamas caused the emperor's wine cup to rise miraculously to his lips, whereat he adopted Buddhism. The discomforted missionaries declared that the cup had been lifted by the devil himself, into whose clutches the king had now fallen! Just as Charlemagne created the first Christian Pope, so the emperor Kublai recognised the Sakya Grand Lama as head of the Lamaist church, and conferred upon him temporal power as the tributary ruler of Tibet, in return for which favour he was required to consecrate the Chinese emperors.

Kublai Khan went on to actively promote Lamaism and built many monasteries in Mongolia, and a large one at Peking. The Sakya Pope, assisted by a staff of scholars, achieved the great work of translating the bulky Lamaist canon (Kangyur) into Mongolian after its revision and collation with the Chinese texts. At the beginning of the fifteenth century a Lama named Tsongkhapa reorganised Atisha's reformed sect, and altered its title to "The Virtuous Order", or Gelug-pa. This sect soon eclipsed all the others; and in five generations it obtained the priest-kingship of Tibet, which it still retains to this day in the person of the present 14th Dalai Lama, even though he doesn't live in Tibet. The Gelug-pas' first Grand Lama was Tsongkhapa's nephew, Gendun-Drup (1394-1474), whose succession was based on the idea of reincarnation.

In 1640, the Gelug-pa leapt into temporary power under the fifth Grand Lama, the crafty Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso (1617-1682). At the request of this ambitious man, a Mongol prince, Gushi Khan, conquered Tibet, and made a present of it to this Grand Lama, who in 1650 was confirmed in his sovereignty by the Chinese Emperor, and given the Mongol title of Dalai, or "vast as the Ocean." On account of this title he and his successors are called the "Dalai Lama" by Westerners though this title is almost unknown to Tibetans, who call these Grand Lamas "the great germ of majesty" (Gyalwa Rinpoche).

This daring Dalai Lama, high-handed and resourceful, lost no time in consolidating his rule as priest-king and the extension of his sect by the forcible appropriation of many monasteries belonging to the other sects, and by inventing legends magnifying the powers of the Bodhisat Avalokita and claiming to be the incarnation of this divinity. Posing in this way as God-incarnate, he built himself the huge palace-temple on the hill near Lhasa, which he called Potala, after the mythic Indian residence of his divine prototype Avalokita, whose symbols he now invested himself with. He also tampered unscrupulously with Tibetan history in order to lend verisimilitude to his divine pretensions, and succeeded so perfectly that all the other sects of Lamas acknowledged him and his successors to be of divine descent, the veritable Avalokita in the flesh. And they also adopted the plan of succession by reincarnate Lamas. As for the credulous populace, they recognised the Dalai Lama to be the rightful ruler and the existing government as a theocracy, for it flattered their vanity to have a deity incarnate as their king, though nowadays this pretension is somewhat downplayed!


Nicholas Roerich — Nagarjuna, the Conqueror of the Serpent — tempera on canvas, 1924

The sects of Lamaism

All this is a condensed history of Lamaism, its establishment, growth and present-day condition. But there are, and were, quite a number of different Lamaist sects, but we have neither the time nor the desire to discuss the full details of their history and methodology; you can find this information yourself if the subject sufficiently interests you. What we can say is that these sectarian distinctions are of a creedal character, involving different ritualistic and other practises, and also expressed by a difference in dress and symbolism. These differences may be broadly classified as follows:

  1. The personality of the primordial deity or adi‒Buddha.
  2. Special source of inspiration.
  3. The saintly transmitters of this inspiration.
  4. Meditative doctrine or system of mystical insight.
  5. Special Tantra revelation.
  6. Personal Tutelary—a Tantric demoniacal Buddha of the Sivaist type.
  7. Religious 'Guardian'‒demon, usually of the Tibetan type.

The special sectarian distinctions of the Gelug-pa sect are that it has the mythical Vajradhara as its adi‒Buddha; and derives its special inspiration from Maitreya—"the coming Buddha", through the Indian saints ranging from Asanga down to Atisha, and through the Tibetan saints from his disciple Brom-ton to Tsongkhapa. The Gelug-pa mystical insight is called the Lam-rim or "the Graded Path", and their Tantra is the "Vast Doer". Its tutelary demoniacal Buddha is Vajrabhairava, supported by Samvara and Guhya-kala. And its Guardian demons are "the six-armed Gonpo or Lord" and the great horse-necked Hayagriva, or the Red Tiger-Devil.

The Kagyupa (or Kagyu) sect are followers of the "Middle Path", whence they derive their mystic insight. Their tutelary demon is Samvara; their Guardian deity; "The Lord with the Black Cloak." They are affiliated with a number of sub-sects, among which the main difference is that each has adopted a different revelation as a code of demoniacal worship.

Another great sub-sect is the Dugpa (or Drukpa) which arose with a pupil of Milarepa's disciple, Dvagpo-Lharje. Its founder was Pag-Sam-Wang-po, and it originated in the gNam province of Tibet about the middle of the twelfth century, at the Ralung monastery, located in the Tsang region of western Tibet. Much confusion has been caused in European books by misusing the name Dugpa, employing it as a synonym for the "Red-Hat" sect, which properly is the Nin-ma-pa.

The last great reformed sect is the Sakya, taking its name from the yellow colour of the scanty soil at the site of its first monastery near Shigatse, in Western Tibet, founded in 1071 A.D. Shigatse has since achieved notoriety, if not immortal fame, as the secret 'etheric' retreat of the 'ascended masters' invented by certain members of the Theosophical Society. Needless to add, there is as much truth in this claim as there is in the equally fictitious fairy-tales about the colourful 'Mahatmas' who are supposed to dwell in Tibet, which we mentioned in the first part of this investigation. The Sakya grew into a most powerful hierarchy, and attained for a time the temporal sovereignty over the greater part of Tibet before it was eclipsed by its Gelug-pa rival.

One sect which was highly esteemed (although now almost extinct) is the Z'i-jed-pa ("the mild doer") or passionless Ascetic. All its members are regarded as saints, who in their next birth must certainly attain Nirvana. They carry thighbone trumpets, skull-drums, etc., and in the preparations of these instruments from human bones, they are required to eat a morsel of the bone or a shred of the corpse's skin.

From the foregoing it will be clear to you that Lamaism is a complex mixture of genuine occult truths, primitive superstitions, abhorrent ritual practises and demonolatry.

tibetan book of the dead

The Tibetan Book of the Dead

One of the most important doctrines of Lamaism is that which deals with the after-death experiences of the Higher Self on the 'Bardo' Plane, or Astral World. It is impossible to discuss the whole of this doctrine in a short article such as this, but we can summarise the principal teachings upon which it is based as recorded in the Bardo Thödol, or Tibetan Book of the Dead. The full title of this book (reproduced at left) is "Liberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate State" which comprises a series of texts taken from a larger corpus of teachings entitled "The Profound Dharma of Self-Liberation through the Intention of the Peaceful and Wrathful Ones" as set down by the Lama Karma Lingpa (1326-1386). It was first translated into English by the Lama Kazi Dawa Samdup (1868-1922), edited by W. Y. Evans-Wenz, and published by Oxford University Press, in England in 1927. Although several other translations have since been published which are more in keeping with contemporary ideas about Tibetan Buddhism, Evans-Wentz's translation remains the most accurate and this is the edition we have taken the following quotations from.

  1. "That all possible conditions, or states, or realms of existence, heavens, hells and worlds, are entirely dependent upon phenomena." This is true and we say the same in many of our articles, notably in parts 4, 5, 7, 9 and 12 of our Astral Conversations.
  2. "That all phenomena are transitory, are illusionary, are unreal and non-existent save in the mind perceiving them." This bears out the first statement and is in complete accord with the teachings of all the great spiritual teachers.
  3. "That in reality there are no such beings anywhere as gods, demons, spirits, or sentient creatures as all of them are phenomena dependent upon a cause." This too is perfectly true as you can read in the final part of our Astral Conversations as well as in the Books of Hermes and The Secret Doctrine.
  4. "That this cause is yearning or thirsting after sensation, after the unstable illusory existence."
  5. "That so long as this cause is not overcome by enlightenment death follows birth and birth death, unceasingly."
  6. "That the after-death existence is but a continuation, under changed conditions, of the phenomena-born existence of the human world." There is a great deal of truth in this, but it is not the complete truth as you can read in our article about Life after Death as well as in the fourth part of our Astral Conversations.
  7. "That the nature of the existence intervening between death and rebirth in this or any other world is determined by antecedent actions." True again, and we say the same in our occult studies course articles on reincarnation and evolution.
  8. "That, psychologically speaking, it is a prolonged dream-like state, filled with hallucinatory visions directly resultant from the mental content of the percipient." Again, in the main this is quite correct and many great Poets such as Shakespeare have said the same in different words.
  9. "That unless Enlightenment be won, rebirth in the human world, directly from the Astral World (Bardo-world in Tibetan) or from any other world or from any Paradise or Hell is inevitable."
  10. "That Enlightenment results from realising the unreality of existence."
  11. "That such realisation is possible in the human world, or at the important moment of death in the human world, or during the whole of the after-death or Bardo-state, or in certain of the non-human realms." This, too, is quite correct.
  12. "That training in Yoga, i.e. in control of the thinking processes so as to be able to concentrate the mind in an effort to reach Right Knowledge, or Wisdom, is essential."
  13. "That such training can be had under a human teacher."
  14. "That the Greatest of Gurus known to mankind in this cycle of time is Gautama the Buddha."
  15. "That His doctrine is not unique, but is the same Doctrine which has been proclaimed in the human world for the gaining of Salvation, for the Deliverance from the Circle of Rebirth and Death, for the realisation of Nirvana, since time immemorial by a long and illustrious Dynasty of Buddhas, who were Gautama's predecessors." This is in complete agreement with the teachings of the many Messiahs and Messengers mentioned in other religions.
  16. "That lesser spiritually enlightened beings, Bodhisattvas and gurus, in this world or in other worlds, though still not freed from the Net of Illusion, can, nevertheless, bestow divine grace and power upon the disciple, who is less advanced upon the Path than themselves." No sincere seeker after Truth will quarrel with this tenet.
  17. "That the Goal is and can only be Emancipation from Illusion."
  18. "That such Emancipation comes from the Realisation of Nirvana." This is also true enough; but how many modern Tibetan Buddhists know what is really meant by 'Nirvana'?
  19. "That Nirvana is freedom from illusion, being beyond all Paradises, Heavens, Hells and Worlds." This is quite true too. But it is utterly impossible to reach 'Nirvana' directly from this Earth plane, as J Michaud makes clear in Vision Six of The Golden Star. We shall come back to this important stumbling block later.
  20. "That Nirvana is the Ending of Sorrow." This is quite true also and the Buddha taught the same.
  21. "That Nirvana is Reality." As 'Nirvana' is beyond all realms, worlds, heavens and hells as stated in the 19th proposition, this is correct also.

The experienced Mystics, Philosophers and Occultists among our readers will see that there is not much wrong with this doctrine; though, as is inevitable in a book intended for public consumption, there is a great deal that is not revealed. But it provides us with a good general idea of what the main Tibetan Doctrines are, especially if we combine them with what we have discussed in our occult studies course and many articles.

bardo demon

Would that the rest of the Tibetan Book of the Dead contained nothing but such elevated (and mostly correct) occult scientific teachings, but sadly it does not! For later on in the book the 'Nobly Born'—meaning the just deceased Higher Self, is said to be confronted by the most malignant demons it is possible to imagine, who will attempt to distract his attention from the "Clear Light" he now beholds (if he should be so fortunate as to recognise it!) and drag him down to the lower regions of the Bardo, or astral world. The truth is that whilst those who have devoted their lives (or several lives) to attunement with all that is evil, may very well behold such horrific, blood-drinking beings, this is not true of the majority of humanity who are neither particularly 'good' nor particularly 'evil'.

To suggest, as the Tibetan Lamas do in this book, that such grisly visions are the norm we may all expect to behold after death is the most pernicious 'teaching' ever invented and completely untrue. It is in just such ways that the truths the book does contain have been distorted and perverted by the wily Tibetan Lamas, who, of course, are gathered about the poor unfortunate who is passing over and bawling all this nonsense into their ears! That is, if the soon to be departed can even hear their instructions and incantations, which in most cases they mercifully can't. Not that this incommodes the Lamas in the least, for in the case of wealthy patrons, these vultures in priestly garb make a jolly good living out of the rites undertaken for the benefit of the deceased!!

For you should know that one of the principal Tibetan Teachings is that if at the moment of death the Higher Self is set "face to face" with the fundamental "Clear Light", it will obtain freedom from rebirth by means of the "Great Perpendicular Path." This is true, but again it is not the whole truth, for as we point out in so many of our articles, emancipation from reincarnation on earth depends upon the inner state of evolution and true knowledge of the Higher Self, and this, as the Buddha himself discovered and taught, is not obtained easily or quickly, but is the work of many thousands of lifetimes of earnest striving and suffering.

We said earlier that 'Nirvana' (however we may conceive of this state of bliss and perfection) cannot be attained directly from this physical world. The reason for this is that there is an intermediate realm or 'Paradise' which J Michaud calls the 'World of the Astral Fire' which lies between the Earth plane and the highest spiritual realms. In Vision Six of The Golden Star we find this realm described as follows:

"This is the Prince-dom of the Rulers in the World of Astral Fire. Sacred and inviolable in its Purity it lies between the lower Astral Worlds and the Heavenly Realms. A Holy Barrier that none but Holy Souls of Purity and Wisdom ever pass.

"It is cut off from earth and all the spheres below it and above, by walls of leaping flames that sear the Minds of those not qualified to enter and blind their sight, so that, perforce, they must return to those abodes for which they are equipped by the nature of their attributes of spiritual modulation.

"This is ordeal by Fire in the truest sense; for if a single speck of earthly dross remains within their Minds, the fiery glow will seize upon that mote and burn it up. They shall not pass when so disqualified."

A little further on in the same chapter we are introduced to some of the new arrivals in this Paradise, who, we are told, "have just crossed the flames, after spending thousands of incarnations upon earth, learning their lessons of material experience. They rest here for a while before passing on to the higher Realms and the Mysteries of the Unknown." Just how long the process of preparation to become worthy to enter the glories of this Heaven-world actually is, the next paragraph makes clear: "Those who penetrate here have had millions of mortal and Astral years of experience and life."

Yes—millions! This puts the presumptuous claims of those who teach that 'Nirvana' may be obtained in a few short months or years of desultory 'studies' and the haphazard practise of some Tibetan Tantric rituals into perspective, does it not? Not that this will convince those who are fatally attracted by the doctrines of the cunning Tibetan Lamas, which as we have seen in this and the previous part of our investigation, promise a quick and easy shortcut to enlightenment. But, as the wise author of the mythic masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings—J. R. R. Tolkien—tells us, "Short cuts make long delays."

The Tibetan Teachings further tell us that if the dying person experiences the clear Light in its Primitive Purity unobscured, and, if unable to hold fast to that experience, next sees the Secondary Clear Light, he has fallen to a lower state of the Bardo. In other words, he has not passed into the World of Astral Fire discussed earlier, and must therefore be born again on Earth. But as we have all done this so many times already without coming to any greater harm than paying another visit to this world, there is very little to worry about—better luck next time! If the Will and Desire are strong enough, and we have earned the Reward, nothing can stop us from attaining to the World of Astral Fire described so beautifully and truly in The Golden Star. lamaism

Tuco Amalfi — Beyond the Clouds — undated

"Bathed in the golden radiance, several beautiful white marble Temples rose up in all directions and in the distance a circle of fairy-like castles was silhouetted on the horizon, floating, as it were, in golden transparent clouds of aureate haze.

"Bright yellow flashes shone forth when a ray of light struck the golden ornaments with which the buildings were decorated in exquisite and choice designs, and green, blue and red flames leaped from the thousands of blazing jewels which covered the fabric of the wondrous structures; a carnival of pyrotechnical delight.

"Terraces, and lovely gardens full of flowers bewitched the eyes; and softly splashing fountains murmured mystic songs and rose up golden in the air, to fall like sprays of shining gems within their basins.

"Singing birds did chant their songs of jubilation and of joy; and peacocks, birds of paradise, and butterflies bedecked with shining greens and blues and reds deluged the senses with rapture."

But—as we may read in the same chapter, the paradise described above "is but a foretaste of Heaven." But read the book for yourself, and so discover what awaits those who sincerely long for Light and Liberation. What awaits those who cling to the illusory 'pleasures' of this world and swallow the bait of the cunning Tibetan Lamas and their promises of material power and 'magical' abilities you can find in the Tibetan Book of the Dead as well as in Dante's Inferno, which we discuss in our article about the wisdom concealed in sublime poetry.


In the final part of this investigation we explore the attractions, perils and dangers of modern Tibetan Buddhism in greater depth, as well as concluding our review of the life of the Buddha with a brief summary of his principal teachings


If you have not read the first part of this investigation we recommend you do so before continuing, or you will not reap the full benefits of this series of articles.

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

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