Religion is very important to the Tibetans, with everything from education to cultural practices being based on religious belief. Buddhism is the predominant religion, as it has been for centuries, but there are still many followers of the ancient Bon religion that existed in Tibet before Buddhism’s introduction.
The oldest religion in Tibet is Bon. Sometimes called shamanism, it involved secret rituals and sometimes sacrifices to appease local spirits, deities, guardians and gods. After the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet, Bon religion adapted and adopted some elements of Buddhism, just as Buddhism did the same in return. Because of this exchange of practices, these days it can be difficult to tell Bon from Buddhism for the casual observer.
Both share popular religious practices such as chanting mantra, making offerings, and spinning prayer wheels. Prayer flags are said to have come from Bon originally, as well as many protector deities that are now worshipped in Tibetan Buddhism. Bon monks still serve laypeople by performing rituals in their homes for holy days, illnesses, and deaths.
Apparently Buddhism was first introduced to Tibet in 173 A.D. during the region of the 28th Yarlung King Thothori, but little initial impact of the new religion is reported in historical documents. However, since that time, Buddhism slowly grew and flourished on the plateau thanks to sponsorship from Tibetan Kings and inspirational teachings from Indian masters. Over the years Buddhism adapted to local Tibetan customs and beliefs, integrating some aspects of the native Bon religion, and developed into multiple schools of Tibetan Buddhism.
The Buddhist religion suffered greatly during China’s cultural revolution, which led to many hundreds of monasteries and temples being destroyed. These day many of these have been rebuilt, although on a smaller scale, and Buddhism is once again practiced in Tibet.
Early explorers to Tibet often called Tibetan Buddhism “Lamaism”, because of the important role of Lamas in the country. Lamas are the teachers of Buddhism, they are responsible for teaching all the monks, nuns, and laypeople, and ensuring that Buddhist systems of practice remain in place.
In 1578 the Lama Sonam Gyatso received the title of Dalai from the Mongolian ruler Altan Khan. Because he was already recognised as the third in his line of reincarnations, he thus became the third Dalai Lama.