Folk Religious Sects

Among the entire population of the Tibet Autonomous Region, most people believe in Tibetan Buddhism; about 4,000 people believe in Islam (mainly living in Lhasa and Shigatse), and about 600 people believe in Catholicism (mainly in Qamdo).

The dominant religion in Tibet comes to be Buddhism since it is outspread in the 8th century AD. Before the arrival of Buddhism, the main religion among Tibetans was an indigenous shamanic and animistic religion, Bon, which now comprises a sizeable minority and which would later influence the formation of Tibetan Buddhism.

A great deal of Buddhist acts appeared after the mid-11th century, covering the Nyingma, Sagya. Gagyu, Gatang, Gelug, Zhigyed, Gyonang, Kodrag, Gyoyul and Xalhu sects. The latter five were rather weak without the political support and were annexed by other sects or forced into other sects. The main five sects are as follows:

1. Nyingma Sect(宁玛派)

“Nyingma” literally means “ancient” and is often referred to as Ngangyur.  because it is founded on the first translations of Buddhist scriptures from Sanskrit into Old Tibetan in the eighth century. The Tibetan alphabet and grammar was created for this endeavour. The sect, founded in the 11th century, is also known as the Red Sect and is the oldest sect of Tibetan Buddhism. The sect paid great attention to absorbing the fine points of the Bon religion(苯教), at the same time, did its best to locate Buddhist sutras secreted away when Darma moved to suppress Buddhism. Monks of the Nyingma Sect wore red hats, hence the name the Red Sect.

2. Gatang Sect(噶当派)

Founded in 1056, Gatang Sect primarily called for the study of exoteric teachings. In the Tibetan language, Ga refers to the teachings of Buddha, with tang meaning instruction. The combination Gatang thus refers to advising people to accept Buddhism on basis of the Buddha teachings. Its doctrines were promoted far and widely and thus exerted great influence on various Tibetan Buddhist sects. However, along with the rise of the Gelug Sect in the 15th century, the Gatang Sect dissolved with its monks and monasteries merging with the former.

3. Sagya Sect(萨迦派)

Sagya means “white land” in the Tibetan language. The Sagya Sect, founded in 1703, derived its name from the fact that the Sagya Monastery, as the most important monastery, is grayish white in color. Enclosures in the  monasteries of the sect are painted with red, white and black stripes, which respectively symbolize the Wisdom Buddha, the Goddess of Mercy and the Diamond Hand Buddha. Hence, the sect is also known as the Stripe Sect

4. Gagyu Sect(噶举派)

Founded in the 11th century, Gagyu Sect stresses the study of Tantrism and advocates that Tantrist tenets be passed down orally from one generation to another. Hence the name Gagyu, which in the Tibetan language means “passing down orally”.  The founders of the Gagyu Sect, Milha Riba and Marba wore white monk robes when practicing Buddhism, resulting in the name White Sect. 

5. Gelug Sect(格鲁派)

Founded in 1409, Gelug Sect was the most famous Buddhist sect in Tibetan history dating to the 15th century. The Gelugpa Sect of Tibetan Buddhism, despite being the youngest, is the largest and most important school of thought.  The sect achieved its peak in the 17th Century with huge support from Mongols and Tibetans inspired by the enigmatic 5th Dalai Lama.

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