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Tibetan Buddhism


Admission requirements



I’ve been to Nepal, but I’d like to go to Tibet. It must be a wonderful place to go.
I don’t think there’s anything there, but it would be a nice place to visit.
Sir David Attenborough (1926–; broadcaster and naturalist)
Beyond these are the Tebet, a people in the habit of eating their dead parents, so that for piety’s sake they should not give their parents any other sepulcher than their bowels. They have given this practice up, however, as they were held an abomination among all nations. They still, however, make handsome cups out of the heads of their parents, so that when drinking out of them they may have them in mind in the midst of their merry-making. This was told to me by one who had seen it.
Friar William of Rubruck (c. 1220 – c. 1293; Flemish Franciscan missionary and explorer)
Quote from The Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the World 1253–55, edited by W.W. Rockhill (1900:151f)

According to recent statistics, Tibetan varieties of Buddhism presently are the most popular brands of Buddhism in the Netherlands (TNS NIPO, 2009). The Buddhist book mentioned most often by the respondents is the Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama. Indeed, who hasn’t heard about His Holiness or seen him on TV, all smiles and friendliness, the embodiment of compassion? Quite a few people even know his birthday by heart (it’s June 15th, by the way).

For almost a century, the so-called Tibetan Book of the Dead sits close to the top of the religious bestselling lists. It may in fact be more popular here than it ever was in Tibet (which should give one reason to pause and think). For many the first introduction to the practice of meditation, at times even very esoteric ones, was through teachings by Tibetan Lamas or readings in translated Tibetan teaching texts on the topic.

But what do these Tibetan traditions look like in their regions of origin, in Tibet and the Himalayas (but also in China and Mongolia)? What is their history and context? How can we appreciate the introduction and development of Buddhism in Tibet?
In this seminar we take as our point of departure concrete religious content of Tibetan religious texts in translation. Our readings moreover are broadly thematic: we study a if not the most central notion in Tibetan Buddhism: the nature of the mind. In further readings we also engage the social-historical backgrounds of these teachings, to be able properly to contextualize their doctrinal content. You will receive a brief introduction to the history of ideas of the main teaching systems in Tibet. In the essays there is ample opportunity to dig deeper into the complex history of the different schools or sects and their relationships.

We will also look into the reception history of Tibet and things Tibetans in the West and our (changing) perceptions of Tibet. How could the culture of a Diaspora of relatively few down-and-out refugees capture the imagination of so many?

Needless to say, the study of Buddhism in all its various forms and cultural ramifications is a knowledge-intensive and complex field of study. We cannot realistically expect to get to the bottom of this in an introductory course; we have no option but to highlight selected topics and leave many details untouched. As mentioned before, doctrinally we will focus on a central theme in all Tibetan Buddhist schools: Tibetan practices and reflections concerning the mind and the nature of the mind. We will explore how a two major clusters of related concepts and ideas, one (mind) pertaining to saṃsāra and the other (nature of the mind) to nirvāṇa, possibly drive discourse in the tantric approaches and framings, which very much determine the particular outlook of Buddhism in Tibet. We shall lay the foundation for a better appreciation of the great diversity of religious schools and traditions in Tibet and their social historical moorings. The point of departure, however, will be readings of translated samples of Tibetan religious literature that are relevant to the social historical development and embedding Tibetan Buddhism. We will not be able to enter deeply into the study of ritual, iconography, folklore, lay practice, ethnography, sociology, political entanglements, geography, wild-life and the like (per se); even though many of those will be touched upon—there is only so much one can cover in an introductory course on Tibetan Buddhism after all.

Course objectives

  • Being able to offer, in oral presentation and written form, reliable information and appropriate summary, and also to demonstrate critical appreciation of the main forms of Tibetan Buddhism, its major sects & teaching lineages, doctrinal systems and their individual characteristics and differences.

  • To demonstrate on all levels (writing, presentation and discussion) analytical insight into the historical, political, sociological and economical backgrounds of extant differences in doctrine and in ritual practice.

  • To demonstrate insight into cultural processes and (the history of) ideas that underlie various western constructions of ‘Tibetan Buddhism’ (and ‘Tibet’).

  • Acquiring and demonstrating the skills to manage and verify on-line information by critical reflection, reference to extant academic sources, and peer-discussion, and to distill reliable information from sources of varying quality.

  • Actively to engage dissemination and valorisation of (academic) knowledge.

  • To demonstrate appreciation of sociological aspects of the growth, dissemination, and selection or abbreviation of knowledge, as management of important cultural capital, and an appreciation of its economical aspects.

  • To develop and demonstrate the necessary skills of selectively reading in voluminous and varied primary and secondary sources; for instance, the ability to extract relevant data from chapters and articles that are written from a variety of perspectives and theoretical framings.

  • To demonstrate the ability to discriminate between on the one hand primary doctrinal and narrative sources and on the other theoretical, analytical and critical reflection on the former, in secondary sources, and to utilise both, as needed, when forwarding theses and building arguments.

  • To acquire and demonstrate basic academic skills, such as asking properly academic questions, critically appraising information, and effectively presenting data and academic arguments, both in writing and verbally, and demonstrating awareness of the target audience while doing so.



Mode of instruction

  • Workgroup

Course Load

  • Attendance at seminar: 26h

  • Oral presentation: 10h (is also preparation for essay)

  • Readings and weekly summaries 70 h (readings partly used for presentation and essay)

  • Essay 1.500 – 2.500 words: 34h

Assessment method

  • Weekly summaries of the reading materials and participation in discussion: 20% of grade

  • Oral presentation: 20% of grade

  • Essay: 60% of grade

In order to pass the course, students must obtain an an overall mark of “6” (=5.45) or higher. No re-sits are possible.

The course is an integrated whole. The final examination and the assignments must be completed in the same academic year. No partial marks can be carried over into following years.


Students are requested to register on Blackboard for this course.

Reading list

  • Blezer, H.W.A. (2003), Tibet Hoofdstuk, in Vijfentwintig Eeuwen Oosterse Filosofie, geredigeerd door Jan Bor en Karel van der Leeuw, pp.191–271, Amsterdam 2003. [Or English-language equivalent, t.b.a.]

  • Cozort, D. (1995), The Sand Mandala of Vajrabhairava, Ithaka, New York 1995.

  • Dorje, Gyurme (2006), trsl., The Tibetan Book of the Dead: First Complete Translation, New York 2006.

  • Dreyfus, George B.J. (2003), The Sound of Two Hands Clapping, The Education of a Tibetan Buddhist Monk, Berkely 2003.

  • Kværne, P. (1984), “Tibetan Buddhism: The Rise and Fall of a Monastic Tradition”, in The World of Buddhism, edited by Heinz Bechert and Richard Gombrich, pp.232–270, London 2002 (1984).

  • Kværne, P. (2004), entry: “Bon”, in the Encycopedia of Religion, edited by L. Jones, 15 volumes, pp.1007–10, second edition, Detroit 2004.

  • Lopez, D.S. Jr. (1996), “The Image of Tibet of the Great Mystifiers”, in Imagining Tibet, Perceptions, Projections, and Fantasies, edited by Thierry Dodin and Heinz Räther, pp.183–200, Boston 1996.

  • Lopez, D.S. Jr. (1998), Prisoners of Shangri-La, Tibetan Buddhism and the West, Chicago 1998.

  • Marquès-Rivière, J. (1930), In de Schaduw der Tibetaanse Kloosters, Deventer no date (Franse editie: Paris 1930). [Or English-language equivalent, t.b.a.]

  • Powers, J. (2007), Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, Ithaca New York 1995 (revised edition 2007).

  • Rampa, Lobsang/Cyril Hoskin (1956), The Third Eye, The Autobiography of a Tibetan Lama, 1956 (1974).

  • Smith, E. Gene (2001), Among Tibetan Texts, History and Literature of the Himalayan Plateau, in Studies in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism, edited by Kurtis Schaefer, Boston 2001.

  • Tucci, G. (1970), The Religions of Tibet, first published as: Die Religionen Tibets, in: Die Religionen Tibets und der Mongolei by Giuseppe Tucci and Walther Heissig, Stuttgart-Berlin-Köln-Mainz 1970, translated from the German and Italian by Geoffrey Samuel, London 1980.

Wikipedia articles are from the English-language portal, copied on December 24th, 2010.


Students are requested to register through uSis, the registration system of Leiden University for this course. General information about uSis is available in English and Dutch.

Registration Contractonderwijs



Dhr. D. H.W.A. Blezer