den Hoet M. (Hamburg) History Of The Vajrayana Tradition In Asia And The West. A Survey
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Generally speaking, Buddhism has a good reputation in the West. Of all the different traditions, the Vajrayana schools are the most popular among western practitioners — in Central Europe as well as in America, where they became later known than in Russia. When we want to find out where Vajrayana Buddhism can benefit us in modern life it is very helpful to take a look at the past. This report deals with the following questions:

  1. How in history did the spreading of Vajrayana Buddhism take place — both in Asia in former times and in the West nowadays?
  2. What about the authenticity of the tradition?
  3. In how far is Vajrayana Buddhism compatible with our modern societies — and why this?

Three Ways

Often the Buddhist compendium is divided into the 3 teaching cycles of Hinayana (Small Way or vehicle), Mahayana (Great Way) and Vajrayana (Diamond Way).

The basic teachings of Hinayana were meant for a wide public. The emphasis lies upon the link between cause and effect (karma) and how to avoid actions that lead to suffering. Mindfulness and outer limitations are supports on the way to liberation (Sanskrit: Nirvana).

Mahayana aims to master difficulties, not to avoid them. Not outer rules, but the inner attitude stands central: The development of wisdom and compassion. All composed things and phenomena are «void» (skt. śūnyata), i.e. they don’t have an independent existence in itself. Consequently, one does not need to attach to anything or take things personal and has extra capacities in order to take responsibility for the happiness of others. Everyone has the Buddha nature (skt. buddhatva) as a perfect potential. By overcoming disturbing emotions, difficult habits and veiled perception any one of us can become an enlightened Buddha.

Vajrayana builds upon Mahayana. Based on the confidence in one’s own Buddha nature the practitioner constantly tries to keep the mind on
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a high level of functioning and to use every life situation for one’s own development. The means of Vajrayana include the vast sub-consciousness and point to experience, not to book knowledge. Thus a qualified teacher (skt. Guru / tib. Lama) is important on the way to perfection.

Today there exist 3 Buddhist main traditions world-wide: The old Theravada Schools of Southern Buddhism embrace Hinayana and partly Mahayana. The Chan / Zen Schools in China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam have a Mahayana background. Tibetan Buddhism preserved the complete Vajrayana. Among Buddhists, there exists a certain disagreement concerning the authenticity of the traditions. More about that later.

Buddhism In Ancient India

The era of Indian Buddhism can be divided it into 3 periods of approx. 500 to 600 years each.

1. After the passing away of the historic Buddha it takes several centuries until his teachings spreads in India and neighbouring countries. During this process, Buddhism does not make efforts to supersede existing religions, ideologies and cults. In Central Asia, where people of Greek origin live since the time of Alexander the Great, Buddhism comes in contact with antique Hellenistic culture [1].

At this time, it is mainly the institutional monastic Sangha that preserves Buddhism. The community is kept together by the Vinaya codex of rules.

[1] For parallels between Buddhism and ancient Greek philosophy see e.g. [Przybysławski, 2007] Artur, Kann ein Buddhist im Fluss baden? Buddhistische Ideen und der Ursprung der europäischen Kultur. In: Pzrybysławski. A. (ed.): Form und Leerheit. Buddhismus und Wissenschaft. Wuppertal 2007, p. 47–59.
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It is sponsored by generous lay people and sometimes by kings. Especially Ashoka — ruler of the big Maurya Empire from ca. 270 until 232 BC — is remembered as a sponsor of the teachings. At times there are eighteen different schools; Hinayana is dominant. Between the passing away of the Buddha and the 1st century AD four councils take place where monks collect Buddha’s teachings and recite them [2]. The oral tradition is highly developed, but hardly anything seems to have been written down. Theravadins of today refer to the Ceylonese pali Canon, the oldest known written collection of the Buddha’s teachings (1st century BC).

2. From approx. the time of the Central Asian-Indian king Kanishka (1st or 2nd century AD) we talk about the Mahayana era of Indian Buddhism. Sutra texts emerge which question elements of the Hinayana interpretation. The Saddharmapundarīka-Sutra («Lotussutra», ca. 200 AD), LankavataraSutra, and Daśabhūmika-Sutra claim the Hinayana definition of Nirvana to be incomplete and selfish [3]. The first records about the teachings on the Buddha nature appear from approx. 200 AD in the Tathāgarbha-Sutra and in other texts following soon [4]. Other classical books from this period are the Mādhyamaka («Great middle way», 3rd century AD) written by Nagarjuna, the Yogāchāra by Maitreya-Asanga and the Bodhicaryavatara by Shantideva (7th or 8th century).

At this time, a focal point of tradition lies west of India. The academy of the Greek-built town Taxila (today: Pakistan) is a vital center of Buddhist knowledge. Important teachings and transmissions exist here — perhaps even some that were not passed on in India for centuries [5].

When Buddhism reaches China via the Silk Road from the 1st century AD on it meets a culture where written records are highly appreciated. An intensive translation work starts. The invention of printing methods results in a mass production of Buddhist books. Chinese pilgrims like

[2] There exist different interpretations about the number of councils. All Buddhist Schools recognize the first two councils (the first some months after the passing away of the Buddha in Rajgir, the second about 110 years later in Vaishālī). During the third council during the reign of king Ashoka there was a split in the Sangha between the Mahāsāmghikas and the more orthodox Staviravāda, the predeccessors of the Theravadins), while the fourth council (probably in Kashmir during the reign of Kanishka) is only considered by the Schools of northern Buddhism. Scherer, B.: Buddhismus — Alles, was man wissen muss. Gütersloh 2005, p. 83f. resp. Prebish, Charles, Buddhist Councils and Divisions in the Order. In: Prebish, Ch. (ed.): Buddhism — a modern perspective, p. 21–26.
[3] Cook, F., Nirvana. In: Prebish (ed.): Buddhism — a modern perspective. 5th ed., pennsylvania State University 1994, Рp. 135f.
[4] Scherer, Burkhard: Māhāyana-Philosophie und Māhāmudra. Ein historischer Überblick. In: Przybysławski. A. (ed.): Form und Leerheit. Buddhismus und Wissenschaft. Wuppertal 2007, Рp. 40.
[5] Hinüber, O. von: Buddhistische Kultur in Zentralasien und Afghanistan. In: Bechert / Gombrich: Der Buddhismus. Geschichte und Gegenwart. München 2000, Рp. 108–122.
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Chu Shih-Sing (3rd century), Fa-Hsien (5th century) and Hsüan-Tsang (7th century) travel to Central Asia, India and Indonesia where they «hunt» for Buddhist scriptures. When later Tantric Buddhist texts appear in India, it does not take long until they are written down in China as well [6].

3. From the 8th century on Buddhism in India gets under pressure both by militant Hindus and by Muslim invaders, whose ancestors already brought Buddhist high cultures in Central Asia to an end. But where the Buddhist teaching still exists, it flourishes, especially in Kashmir and the Pala-Empire in the Northeast. Vajrayana doctrines and methods are now taught publicly at big universities like Nalanda, Vikramashila, Odantapuri, Somapuri, Jagaddala, Vallabhi. These academies are not run by monks and nuns only. From this period of Indian Buddhism the «Histories of the 84 Mahasiddhas» are handed down: Historical persons, who often worked with Buddhism in an unconventional way but reached great results in their practice [7].

At this time, influences of both Tantric Buddhism and Hinduism exist in other countries of the region as well. In Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia monuments and statues show emanations of the Buddha like we know them from Vajrayana: Forms like Vajrapani, Avalokiteshvara, Tara, Prajnaparamita etc. A prominent academy exists in the Indonesian trade centre Shrivijaya (today: Palembang). The biography of the great master Atisha (982–1054) tells us that he spends several years there in order to receive transmissions which he would bring to Tibet years later.

With the overthrow of the pala Empire by Central Asian Muslims in 1193 Buddhism ceases to exist in India. Eventually, Nalanda is conquered and destroyed. A downright genocide against the Buddhist population takes place; libraries are burnt down, temples and pilgrims’ places demolished. Indonesia and the Maldives, too, become Muslim states; other countries east of India change to Theravada Buddhism.

[6] Zürcher, E., Buddhismus in China, Korea und vietnam. In: Bechert / Gombrich, Рp. 215–251.
[7] Dowman, K.: Masters of Mahamudra. Songs and histories of the Eighty-four Buddhist Siddhas. New York 1986.
[8] Warder: Indian Buddhism, Рp. 506–516, describes the last phase of the process of destruction of Indian Buddhism (including Muslim sources).
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Sources: How «authentic» is Vajrayana?

For the Schools of Tibetan Buddhism it is important that they can trace their transmissions back into the past as far as possible. They can name the Tibetan lineage holders and various Indian teachers. Representatives of the Vajrayana say that the historic Buddha taught the means of the Diamond Way to Indrabhuti (Indrabodhi), the king of Ujjain (Urgyen) in West India, who passed them on to following generations [9].

But what about «hard» proofs for the unbroken Vajrayana lineage? Indrabhuti is not mentioned in the Theravada texts. Besides, it happened several times that, in the process of transference of the teachings into other countries, Buddhism adopted external characteristics of new cultures. Often new Schools were founded which emphasized certain elements or methods of the teachings. When Buddhism flourished between Central Asia and Indonesia, it existed parallel to Hinduism. External influences are obvious, e. g. in arts and language. Western scientists took this as a hint that parts of Mahayana and the Vajrayana may have originated from Hinduism. At close glance, however, it is apparent that big differences exist between Hindu and Buddhist Tantra [10].

It is said that in the course of many generations vajrayana was only passed on to few qualified students. As far as experiences beyond words are concerned, empowerments (skt. abisheka / tib. wang) or other, «informal» means were given in order to plant the seed for enlightenment into the mind of the student. The Buddha was not dogmatic; thus he allowed his students to learn meditation techniques from other spiritual traditions [11]. In the course of time, for sure, some teachings were developed further; but they still had their roots in the Buddha’s original teachings on mind.

[9] This is generally told in teachings of Tibetan lamas, e.g. in detail in the talk of the Chogye Trichen Rinpoche, An Introduction to Buddhism in Barcelona May 18, 2000. Chogye Trichen Rinpoche (1920–2007), member of the Sakya tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, was a most revered lama and teacher to prominent lamas like H. H. the Dalai lama and H. H. the 17th Karmapa Thaye Dorje.
[10] Lama Ole Nydahl: The Way Things are: A living Approach to Buddhism for Today’s World. Nevada City 1996.
[11] Beyer, St. v., The Doctrine of Meditation in the Hīnayāna and The Doctrine of Meditation in the Mahāyāna. In: prebish (ed.), p. 137–158.
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n order to find out whether doctrines and methods of Vajrayana really work one must investigate — as in empiric science — on the basis of common sense and life experience. The Buddha himself says this in the Kalama Sutra:

«Rely not on the teacher, but on the teaching. Rely not on the words of the teaching, but on the spirit of the words. Rely not on theory, but on experience. […] Do not believe in traditions [or] in anything because it is written in your religious books. […] But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and the benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it» [12].

So: The goals of «permanent overcoming of suffering» and «full development of our perfect, inherent qualities» have been taught by the Buddha. If experience proves that the given way leads to the goal, it is authentic!

Buddhism in Tibet

Tibet’s first contact with Buddhism takes place during the 7th century, when King Songtsen Gampo marries a Nepalese and a Chinese princess successively. A few decades later, the Tantric master Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche) from Kashmir is invited to Tibet. By the power of his meditation he removes spiritual obstacles against the spreading of the teachings. In the south of the country the first monastery is founded in 779 [13].

Spread over the big country, four independent Schools develop with roots in Indian Buddhism. Including their sub-schools they represent different styles and approaches to the teachings. The Nyingmas refer to Guru Rinpoche. The Sakya tradition is founded during the 11th century by lama Drogmi and his student Koenchog Gyalpo. At approx. the same time Marpa Lotsawa lays the basis for the Kagyu School. With the foundation of the Ganden Monastery in 1409 by Tsong Khapa the Gelugpa lineage emerges. Behind the cultural façade Tibet continues the traditions of the big Indian universities. Monastic colleges fulfill highest standards concerning

[12] Kalama Sutra
[13] For the early history of Buddhism in Tibet see: Shakabpa, Tsepon W.D.: Tibet — A political History. New Haven 1967, Рp. 23–53.
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completeness and precision. For the translation work an alphabet is created that is based on Sanskrit. Isolated from the outside world, the biggest Buddhist literature of the world emerges in Tibet. The complete teachings of the Buddha are edited as Kangyur in 108 volumes; commentaries and treatises to the teachings, written by great masters, are published as Tengyur in 225 volumes. learning by doing in Tibetan Buddhism often includes the practice of longer meditation retreats. There are non-monastic practitioners, too: The Yogis (nalgyorpa), Tantrics (ngagpa) and hermits (gomchen). The most famous example of an extraordinary master who spends years in caves is the great yogi Milarepa (1040–1123). He describes his enlightenment in poetic songs, which are considered to be the jewels of Tibetan literature.

Later, Tibetan lamas become teachers at the court of Mongolian and Chinese emperors. via Mongolia Tibetan Buddhism reaches the Buryat, Kalmyk and Tuvinian people and Russia.

Western Culture Meets Buddhism

Already during the Antique period there existed connections between Europe and the Indian subcontinent. probably there was a certain, indirect influence upon both Greek philosophy and early Christianity [14]. During the 16th century Europeans discover the sea trading route to Asia and get in touch with Buddhist countries. The interest in foreign cultures increases after European colonial countries start to conquer the hinterland of their Asian harbours. Especially British scholars — linguists, ethnologists, historians, archaeologists — make a great effort to reconstruct the history of Indian Buddhism and to find old pilgrims’ sites [15]. In Russia and at some universities in Western Europe academic research on Buddhism gets under way. But a lot of Tibetan Buddhism remains unknown to the world.

During the second half of the 19th century, European intellectuals start to open up to Buddhism, but for a long time their interest is limited to the theoretical side. The first international organization with Tibetan-Buddhist background is Arya Maitreya Mandala, founded by the German lama

[14] Batchelor, Stephen. The Awakening of the West: The Encounter of Buddhism and Western Culture. London 1994, Рp. 27–35.
[15] Allen, Charles: The Buddha and the Sahibs. The men who discovered India’s lost religion. London 2003.
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Govinda (Ernst l. Hoffmann) in 1933 [16]. After the conquest of Tibet by China in the 1950ies and strong repressions against Buddhist dignitaries and institutions tens of thousands of Tibetans flee to India and other countries. When lamas in exile realize that their precious culture is in danger of perishing they start to share their knowledge with Westerners who are open for it. Tibetan lamas take professorships in Western universities. The first of them in Europe is Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche who goes to Italy in 1960. Switzerland invites 1000 Tibetans to their country who establish a Cultural Center in Rikon near Zurich. In the beginning many Western Buddhists, due to their respect towards the lamas, idealize Tibetan culture and copy rituals without understanding the deeper meaning of them.

However, there are authorized Western teachers who present the timeless methods of Vajrayana Buddhism in a form that fits our culture. Probably the most successful of them is the Danish lama Ole Nydahl (born 1941) who — together with his unforgotten wife Hannah — starts teaching in 1972 and, until today, has established a network of almost 600 Buddhist centers world-wide [17]. Other Buddhist organizations with Tibetan background have also established centers and retreat places run by idealistic volunteers [18].


Vajrayana has proved its worth in different cultures at different times. It has a «red thread» that can be traced back to the origins of Buddhism. Today it is often presented in the context of Tibetan culture, but it is not about folklore. It is about the attainment of happiness on the basis of development of mind. It is about human maturity and common sense, about inner peace, about the sharing of love, joy and mindfulness with others and about taking responsibility for people. Our Western societies (including Russia) are built upon values and traditions which point into the same direction: The emphasis on reason we know from the Greek antique period and the age

[16] The organization was founded in lama Govinda (1898–1985) in Darjeeling, India. In 1952 it started its work in Europe. At times, there was remarkable activity in Germany and Hungary.
[17 ] More information at URL:
[18] Rawlinson, Andrew: The Book of Enlightened Masters: Western Teachers in Eastern Traditions. Chicago and la Salle 1997.
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of enlightenment. Ethics is one of the central elements of Christianity. The ideals of freedom and solidarity were important during reform movements and revolutions. Traditions in literature and arts appeal to our innermost being.

Thus it is not surprising that there is such a remarkable interest in Buddhism in modern Western societies. Since Buddhism is a practical science of mind other religions need not consider it as a rival. The direct methods of Vajrayana are compatible with life circumstances of modern times. They avoid unnecessary limitations and enable us to take unpopular decisions, if they are necessary for the long-term benefit of others. As Western Buddhists, we owe a lot both to our spiritual teachers and to our countries. It would therefore be desirable if — by means of Vajrayana methods — we could give something in return for the enrichment of our societies.


  1. Allen Charles. The Buddha and the Sahibs. The men who discovered India’s lost religion. London, 2003.
  2. Batchelor Stephen. The Awakening of the West: The Encounter of Buddhism and Western Culture. London, 1994.
  3. Beyer V. St. The Doctrine of Meditation in the Hīnayāna and The Doctrine of Meditation in the Mahāyāna // Buddhism : A Modern perspective / edited by Ch. S. Prebish. Delhi: Satguru, 1995.
  4. Cook F. Nirvana // Buddhism: A Modern perspective / edited by Ch. S. Prebish. 5th ed. Pennsylvania State University, 1994.
  5. Dowman K. Masters of Mahamudra. Songs and Histories of the Eightyfour Buddhist Siddhas. New York, 1986.
  6. Hinüber O. von. Buddhistische Kultur in Zentralasien und Afghanistan // Der Buddhismus. Geschichte und Gegenwart. München, 2000.
  7. Kalama Sutra.
  8. Lama Ole Nydahl. The Way Things are: A Lliving Approach to Buddhism for Today’s World. Nevada City, 1996.
  9. Prebish Charles. Buddhist councils and divisions in the order // Buddhism: A Modern perspective / edited by Ch. S. Prebish. Delhi: Satguru, 1995.
  10. Przybysławski Artur. Kann ein Buddhist im Fluss baden? Buddhistische Ideen und der Ursprung der europäischen Kultur / Pzrybysławski, A. (ed.) // Form und leerheit. Buddhismus und Wissenschaft. Wuppertal, 2007.
  11. Rawlinson Andrew. The Book of Enlightened Masters: Western Teachers in Eastern Traditions. Chicago and la Salle, 1997.
  12. Shakabpa Tsepon W. D. Tibet — A political History. New Haven, 1967.
  13. Scherer Burkhard. Buddhismus — Alles, Was Man Wissen Muss. Gütersloh, 2005.
  14. Scherer Burkhard. Māhāyana-philosophie und Māhāmudra. Ein historischer Überblick / przybysławski. A. (ed.) // Form und Leerheit. Buddhismus und Wissenschaft. Wuppertal, 2007.
  15. Warder. Indian Buddhism. Motilal Banarsidass publ., 2000.
  16. Zürcher E. Buddhismus in China, Korea und Vietnam // Der Buddhismus. Geschichte und Gegenwart. München, 2000.
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