Tibetan Traditions and Mystics - an overview

In Tibet, due to its natural isolation and inaccessibility, the ancient traditions have been preserved relatively unaffected by outside influences until recently. Like many other Central Asian people, the original inhabitants of the land north of the Himalayas practiced animism and shamanism. By the first Tibetan Buddha, Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche, Tibetan shamanism was transformed into Yungdrung Bön, which is still practiced today. Through Padma Sambhava Buddhism was introduced in Tibet in the 8th century CE. In the following centuries various schools of Vajrayana Buddhism developed in mutual exchange with Yungdrung Bön, sometimes alongside each other and sometimes in tight competition. The main schools are Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu and Gelug.
Within each of those schools there are various subschools and most of them contain various lineages of tulkus and rinpoches, who have been incarnating throughout the centuries. Here is a schematic representation of the origin of the main schools:


Today there are about 500 lineages originating from Bön and Tibetan Buddhism. In relation to the relatively small population an extraordinarily high number of mystics and yogis have emerged from Tibet and adjacent areas like Ladakh, Bhutan, Sikkim, Tuva and Mongolia.

All schools and lineages share the colorful and deeply symbolic style of artwork, which can be found in temples and monasteries and on thangkas. Religious paintings and sculptures represent mostly deities or mandalas.

The Kalachakra Mandala

Due to the Chinese invasion and subsequent occupation of their homeland many of the Tibetan mystics, called Rinpoches or Tulkus, were exiled and started spreading Tibetan mysticism since the 1950s around the world. Many retreat and meditation centers have been established in Europe and North America.
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