In the Tibet Autonomous Region, the predominant faith is Tibetan Buddhism, embraced by the vast majority of residents. Introduced to Tibet from India and mainland China in the 7th century, Tibetan Buddhism gradually took shape with distinctive local characteristics under specific historical circumstances. It assimilated elements of the original religion of the Tibetan Plateau, blending Sutra and Esoteric traditions from Indian Buddhism and Han Buddhism from mainland China.
Tibetan Buddhism is characterized by its national and mass appeal and has spread not only throughout Tibetan areas but also to some other minority regions.
The Bon religion, an indigenous and ancient faith in Tibet, held a dominant position before the widespread adoption of Buddhism. Despite the growth of Tibetan Buddhism, many people in Tibet still adhere to the Bon religion.
Islam and Catholicism have relatively smaller followings in Tibet, mainly concentrated in specific local areas. Most of the Islamic adherents are descendants of Hui people who migrated from regions such as Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan, and some from Central Asia during the Qing Dynasty. Catholicism was introduced in 1626 but has very few followers.
The religious landscape in the Tibet Autonomous Region includes over 1,700 Tibetan Buddhist temples with approximately 46,000 monks and nuns residing in them. Additionally, there are 88 Bon religion temples with over 3,000 monks, 93 living Buddhas, and more than 130,000 believers. The region is home to four mosques catering to over 3,000 followers of Islam, and one Catholic church with more than 700 parishioners.
Tibetan Buddhism is a rich tapestry woven from a myriad of influences, evolving over time to create a distinctive form of Buddhism unique to the region. Its origins can be traced back to the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet, which encountered various influences, notably from the indigenous Bon religion. The resultant amalgamation of these diverse influences shaped present-day Tibetan Buddhism.
Elements such as prayer flags and burning incense are believed to have been adopted from the Bon tradition, indicating the interplay and integration between the two belief systems. The synergy between Bon and Buddhism laid the groundwork for the development of Tibetan Buddhism, with elements of both traditions becoming integral to its practice.
Furthermore, the internal growth of Tibetan Buddhism was greatly influenced by the emergence of Buddhist scholars within Tibet. These scholars made substantial contributions to the development of Buddhism, leading to the establishment of distinct sects. Over time, Tibetan Buddhism evolved into four major sects:
The Kadam tradition, initially founded by the Indian master Atisha and later continued by his Tibetan disciple Dromtonpa, eventually evolved into the Gelug sect. Gelug is known for emphasising scholarly study, logic, and rigorous monastic discipline.
The development of these sects within Tibetan Buddhism illustrates the diverse influences and the internal growth that have led to the distinctive and multifaceted nature of Tibetan Buddhist practice and philosophy.