Orientation: My goal for this blog is to share my experiences in trying to learn more about Tibetan Buddhism. It assumes you are interested in Tibetan Buddhism and are alone in your search; no friends or family who are also Buddhists. Take my comments as they are, just comments; one person’s experience. And if it helps you on your way, I am very glad for that.
When you do find a large Tibetan Center to visit and you walk into the shrine, you will notice a few things. One is how elaborate it is. There is artwork everywhere, ritual bowls and objects, flowers, incense, butter lamps, statues, brightly colored chairs and on and on. Each of these things has a purpose and a detailed story behind them. It will take a lot of time to become familiar with all of this stuff. So just take a big deep breath and try not to worry if you do not understand all that is going on around you. I can’t really show you any photographs, as it is a bit disrespectful to take images.
But the thing I wanted to tell you about here, that struck me as really odd at first, is the presence of a myriad of photographs or images of actual people. Usually 8 x 10 in size, all placed in chronological order some place high, like near the ceiling of a shrine room. To me, it was strange to have all this gorgeous Tibetan art in the form of wall hangings, gold plated carvings and objects etc, and then have these kinda crappy photographs lying around. I could not get my head around what that was about.
Well, what it is about is the heavy emphasis on oral tradition. And it is about the relationship between student and teacher. These images are showing you how you got to where you are teachings wise. Usually, the images to the left are of teachers from 400 years ago or more. They are likely Buddhas. These images show the actual personalities who gave the teachings to the next person and so on until you see a modern photograph of the most recent “main guy/gal” in this lineage. If you are familiar with the book of Genesis in the Bible, it is similar to that part that lists pages and pages of So and So begat _______ who in turn begat _______.
This existence of lineage in Tibetan Buddhism is truly amazing. It is amazing because, as you will see, if you move around the globe from center to center of a particular lineage, it will be identical. The translations of the prayers will be virtually the same, the teachings, the deities used and so on. It is remarkable how ordained lamas have played the most accurate game of “Pass It On” lasting hundreds of years. It is not that you cannot participate in different lineages, you can. But you do need to know when you are doing so and what differences to expect.
So how do you know what lineage to follow? Well, in my experience, it pretty much depends on what Tibetan Buddhist retreat center is near you. Obviously, if a place is too far away, you can’t really participate. So as you look around in your area for Tibetan Buddhism, see if you can find the name of the lineage. There are many variants and kind of “sub lineages”, but the main ones are Kagyu, Gelug, Sakya and Nyingma.