One aspect of the notion of "Buddhist Modernism" is that in modern history (ancient times aside) even the Theravada monkhood, let alone the laity, did not generally meditate, until the Burmese/Thai revival due to Mahasi Sayadaw and a few others in the 19th and early 20th century. (http://meaningness.wordpress.com/2011/07/07/theravada-reinvents-meditation/)

Yet, there is still the question of Tibetan monks, given the vigor of that tradition back to its introduction into Tibet. McMahan suggests (without any references!) that very few of them meditated:

Tibetan forms of meditation have gone rather abruptly from being the province of a small number of specialist monks in Himalayan hermitages to being offered widely to the public in countries all over the globe. (McMahan, David L. (2008-10-17). The Making of Buddhist Modernism (p. 187). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.)

But my impression is that in "old Tibet", that is pre-1950's, a fairly large fraction of the (very numerous) monkhood did practice meditation, via tantric sadhana and/or mahamudra.

Does anybody have actual references bearing on this? I realize there will be no quantified data, but how about biographies, reminiscences and other historical literature?

  • Thanks David thats a fascinating link for anyone interested in history although many of the points are highly debated.
    – MFS
    Oct 4, 2014 at 14:21
  • Which link -- McMahan or Chapman? There's a lot of material behind both. I selected Chapman's as a succinct summary of the meditation issue in Buddhist Modernism, though it is not a scholarly piece with references. Oct 4, 2014 at 17:10
  • The Chapman link, I understand is not necessarily a scholarly piece but still a good read.
    – MFS
    Oct 4, 2014 at 17:32
  • Post 1950s, this CBC article says that meditation is an important practice of (at least) modern lamas: The monks, we believe, are the Olympic athletes of certain kinds of mental training," Davidson says. "These are individuals who have spent years in practice. To recruit individuals who have undergone more than 10,000 hours of training of their mind is not an easy task and there aren't that many of these individuals on the planet."
    – ChrisW
    Oct 5, 2014 at 3:11

2 Answers 2


Only just pre-1950s, the current Dalai Lama was born in 1935.

Starting half-way through this page, At Home With the Dalai Lama, is an account of his learning to meditate (and probably of being forced to learn to meditate), at age 8.

I also know that he wasn't a particularly good student when he was young. He had a mercurial temper and was impulsive. Monastic disciplines like meditation and scriptural study did not come naturally to him.

"Around seven or eight," the Dalai Lama told me in an earlier meeting, a mischievous gleam in his eyes, "I had no interest in study. Only play. But one thing: my mind since young, quite sharp, can learn easily. This brings laziness. So my tutor always keep one whip, a yellow whip, by his side. When I saw the yellow whip, the holy whip for holy student the Dalai Lama, I studied. Out of fear. Even at that age I know, if I study, no holy pain."

Despite his reluctance to study when he was a child, the Dalai Lama applied himself every morning. With perseverance and self-control, he learned to sit still for long periods. Gradually he was better able to control his errant impulses. Meditation and study came before play; delayed gratification became a matter of course.

Reading this gives me the impression that the curriculum which the Dalai Lama learned was passed down through successive generations/incarnations.

The Speech Delivered by His Holiness 14th Dalai Lama to the Second Gelug Conference (Dharamsala, June 12th 2000) says,

Now it is about six hundred years since Lama Tsong Khapa lived in Tibet. About three hundred years earlier, Dipamkara Atisha founded the great Kadam tradition. It was this school that Lama Tsong Khapa used as his foundation. He started a tradition that emphasised tantric study that concentrated on practices of the three deities, Guhyasamaja, Heruka Chakrasamvara and Yamantaka.

“May this tradition of the Conqueror, Losang Dragpa,
That teaches the outward, calm and controlled demeanour of the hearer,
And the internal poise associated with the two stages of the yogic practitioner,
And adopts both Sutra and Tantra as mutually complementary paths flourish.”

And as to what is achieved through the adoption of such a practice, we have the words:

“May this tradition of the Conqueror, Losang Dragpa
That takes the emptiness explained in the Causal Vehicle (sutra),
And the great bliss that is achieved through the Resultant Means (tantra),
Conjoined with the essence of the collection of eighty-four thousand teachings flourish.”4

Having all of these features then, this doctrine is a consummate one. It incorporates study, contemplation and meditation in balanced, equal measure and this is what makes it so remarkable. When it comes to detailed study of the great texts, it is the Sakya and Gelug systems which are the most developed.

  • That's right, Sakya and Gelug emphasize study and philosophical analysis, while Kagyu emphasizes practice, including the practice of meditation, which would make it the most meditating of Tibetan schools.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Oct 4, 2014 at 4:09
  • This is a bit of a misconception. Gelug and Sakya practitioners do meditate quite a lot, and they also study and debate texts and philosophical matters. But so do Kagyu and Nyingma monks. Relatively speaking, the Gulugpa and Sakyapa do "emphasize" study, but it's more a matter of the importance than the time spent. Also, their study and debate are arguably a form of meditation and also feed into sitting meditation as topics to contemplate. In any case, they are as resolutely aimed at enlightenment as the Nyingma and Kagyu. Oct 4, 2014 at 17:06

I just ran across this recent quote by His Holiness The Dalai Lama which hints that meditation is considered a core activity and skill for Tibetan monks, rather than McMahan's "the province of a small number of specialist monks in Himalayan hermitages" . (Emphasis added.)


Dalai Lama:

We have trained some monks here in India who have returned to Tibet. But this is rare. The danger is that religion becomes a mere ritual. It’s not sufficient to ring a bell, you know. Monks have to master the doctrine and the meditation. They need to be good in both. This requires thorough training.

Of course, this may be interpreted as a critique of "old Tibet" as too reliant on "mere ritual", with the emphasis on meditation a post-diaspora reform. I am still inclined to believe that many if not most monks in Tibet did meditate seriously, that is, the culture of enlightenment remained vigorous in Tibet in a way that it was apparently lost in Theravada societies prior to its modern reinvigoration.

BTW, this is a fascinating interview for other reasons, most notably...


So the Tibetans do not need a Dalai Lama anymore?

Dalai Lama:

No, I don’t think so. Twenty-six hundred years of Buddhist tradition cannot be maintained by one person. And sometimes I make a tough joke: We had a Dalai Lama for almost five centuries. The 14th Dalai Lama now is very popular. Let us then finish with a popular Dalai Lama. If a weak Dalai Lama comes along, then it will just disgrace the Dalai Lama. (The Dalai Lama laughs.)

  • I don't think we can easily generalize like "Tibetans have preserved true meditation" or "Theravadins did". I believe, there have been pockets of true practice and true realization at all places at all times, and there were lots of superficial imitators, as with any other human activity.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Oct 5, 2014 at 5:00
  • I was trying not to impute "true" to anybody's meditation -- apologies if I failed to convey that. I do think, however, that modern scholarship has firmly established that anything like what we call meditation today -- pursuit of insight and hence enlightenment -- was not practiced by a significant number of the Theravada monkhood in centuries prior to the "revival" of the 19-20th centuries. Oct 5, 2014 at 19:27
  • Of course, there is the question whether some practices judged "mere ritual" by scholars, most notably Tibetan sadhana practice, was indeed a form of meditation in pursuit of higher insight and hence enlightenment. I do think that with the Tibetans emerging into the west since the 1950's we now understand such practice to indeed be systematic pursuit of insight, despite its ritual appearance. I think McMahan accepts that and still doubts that many Tibetans practiced it -- a doubt I am disputing. Oct 5, 2014 at 19:31

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