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Tibetan Buddhism

Category: Mystic groups and systems

Source NEH Institute - approximate spread only, smaller communities not shown.  Tibet's
boundaries as a country are not shown as they are in dispute with China

Tibetan Buddhism is essentially a religion, but it has a 'mystic arm', as it were, which means it has a place on this website.  As a religion it can be found in Tibet, Mongolia, Tuva, Bhutan, Kalmykia and certain regions of the Himalayas, including northern Nepal, and northern India (particularly in Arunachal Pradesh, Ladakh, Dharamsala, Lahaul and Spiti in Himachal Pradesh, and Sikkim). It is the state religion of Bhutan. It is also practiced in Mongolia and parts of Russia (Kalmykia, Buryatia, and Tuva) and Northeast China.

The religion

Tibetan Buddhism as a religion, was influenced by both Chinese Buddhism and Indian Buddhism.  One very influential Indian Buddhist, for example, was the famous, or maybe even infamous, Tantric mystic Padmasambhava.   His influence was that much greater because he preached extensively.  Other scholars came and went and left texts, but they had little real influence on the ground.  Their texts found their way into the Tibetan Buddhist canon, but that may have been about all. 

The 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet is the official head of the religious system.  Early schools of the religion are known as red hats, the new school as the yellow hats.

It is noticeable that detailed religious  beliefs and understanding differ enormously across this region, principally because much of the teaching surrounding Tibetan Buddhism was and is by word of mouth from teachers to pupils.  I noticed that in Nepal, the people I spoke to there had very different interpretations from those in Bhutan.  In Nepal we saw animal sacrifice and stupas.  In Bhutan we saw gentleness towards animals and monasteries filled with deities and demons painted on the walls and ceilings.

copyright Professor Rod Smallwood - Nether Moor images

There is a long explanation about the importance of oral transmission on Wikipedia to 'maintain the line of teaching', but the people I asked said simply that it was oral teaching because no one could read.  The Buddhists helped here, because young children are now taught to read even in very remote places with no road access [we trekked in Bhutan and met them], so there are now written texts that are used.

Tibetan Buddhism as a religion can appear to be almost totally unfathomable, a sort of Glass Bead Game of meaninglessness, for example:

Yogacarins base their views on texts from Maitreya, Asaga and Vasubandhu, Madhyamakas on Nagarjuna and Aryadeva. There is a further classification of Madhyamaka into Svatantrika-Madhyamaka and Prasagika-Madhyamaka. The former stems from Bhavaviveka, Santarakaita and Kamalasila, and the latter from Buddhapalita and Candrakirti.

copyright Professor Rod Smallwood - Nether Moor images

But the mystic system is nowhere near as complex and what exists and works on the ground is hugely different [as it often is] from the theoretical stuff you read about and which appear to be taught in the religious schools.  Thus true mystic Tibetan Buddhism differs almost entirely from the theological religious descriptions. 

If one can compare, it is like the difference between Islam and  Sufism.  Whereas Buddhism and Islam are religions and have developed along moral and legal lines, Tibetan Buddhism at its mystic core and Sufism have a lot in common because their objective is the same, and of course there is only one spiritual world.

The mystic system

What follows on the mystic system is partly derived from Wikipedia, but the description on Wikipedia is about the religion rather than the mystic system, so I have had to turn elsewhere for information.  As I have been to Bhutan and Nepal I have been able to use my own findings, but one of the best sources on this area is Alexandra David-Neel's books, which  provide fascinating insights into the true nature of the mystic system.  Her books were written at the turn of the last century, but from what I could see travelling as I did in the 1980s and 1990s, little has changed.

Tibetan Mystic Buddhism is a fascinating amalgam of core Buddhism as taught by Buddha, with the original shamanic religions.  Buddhism, unlike Christianity, did not wipe out indigenous practises, principally I suspect because Buddhists abhor violence, as such there are 'deities', demons, magic practises and spiritual practises incorporated into the resulting mystic system which owe nothing to Buddhism and all to shamanism.  Behind the scenes there are still lamas capable of 'magic' - environmental influence [rain, hail, wind, snow,], healing, out of body experiences, even I am sorry to say the death prayer,  as opposed to the Buddhist emphasis upon inspiration and wisdom as input.

Bhutan - copyright Professor Rod Smallwood - Nether Moor images

Initially Buddhism was vehemently opposed by the native shamanistic Bön religion, which had the support of the aristocracy, but what is clear is that the later kings saw an advantage in the amalgamation of the ideas.  The Mongols, in particular adopted the hybrid quite quickly but on closer inspection we find

 they  may have  responded the way they did due to the Lamaist's superficial cultural similarities with the Mongol's shamanist culture. Even with this attraction, however, the Mongols paid little attention to the fine points of Buddhist doctrine.

copyright Professor Rod Smallwood - Nether Moor images

And indeed this is the impression one still gets if one travels in this region, they are a gentle  essentially shamanistic people with little interest or even knowledge of enlightenment but a great deal of knowledge about healing and visions , dreams and hallucinations and rebirth experiences. There is the sort of emphasis on dream interpretation you find in for example the Native American Indian culture.

The part of the system that is Buddhist states that

“the  goal of spiritual development is to achieve the enlightenment of Buddhahood in order to most efficiently help all other sentient beings attain this state”

copyright Professor Rod Smallwood - Nether Moor images

So if we put this simply, the aim is to attain any one of the possible types of enlightenment with the objective of helping others on the spiritual path.  The techniques employed tend to be those of suppression and relate to the latter stages of the spiritual path.

In contrast, the shamanic traditions are almost entirely based on overload and relate to the first stages of the spiritual path. As such there is an interesting complementary system in operation here.

There is a belief in reincarnation and karma, although there are some differing interpretations of karma.  The ones I found of interest were those that indicated that according to how successful you were at achieving your destiny in one life, you were given better and perhaps more difficult challenges in the next.  This is a significant  deviation away from the more traditional religious  view of karma, which appears to revolve around a definition of 'good' and 'bad' and is thus not terribly helpful given that good and bad are religious concepts, not spiritual ones.

copyright Professor Rod Smallwood - Nether Moor images

There is also a significant belief in not just the spirit world but spirits in general.  In some cases the beliefs tie in, via the shamanic roots, to those of Shinto and there is acceptance  that everything has a spirit and is spirit because everything is animated.

One of the imports from shamanic times are the 'demons'.  Demons are not the demons of my definition, they are spirit beingsSpirit beings are often not nice.  If you read the description of William Shakespeare, you will see that in his time, spirit beings in the form of gnomes, elves  and so on were feared.  They still need to be feared.  Meet the spirit of a fungus, virus  or bacteria, or particularly nasty pharmaceutical and your life will not be the same.  Tibetan Buddhism has absorbed the concept of spirit beings by creating  the concept of the Wrathful (or Terrifying) bodhisattvas. They are painted all over the walls of many monasteries in Bhutan.  I can only assume that via illness and shamanic overload techniques, spirit beings were about the only beings early shamans ever met.

copyright Professor Rod Smallwood - Nether Moor images

With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet – Alexandra David-Neel
There is hardly any country which can vie with Tibet as to the riches, variety and picturesqueness of its folklore regarding ghosts and demons. If we were to rely on popular beliefs, we should  conclude that spirits greatly outnumber the human population of the "Land of Snow."
Assuming thousands of different shapes, these [often] malignant beings are said to dwell in trees, rocks, valleys, lakes, springs, and many other places. Always bent on mischief they hunt men and animals to steal their vital breath and feed upon it. They wander for pure pleasure across forests and high barren hills and every traveller risks being confronted by one of them at any turning of the road.
Official lamaist magicians undertake to convert, or to subdue, these dangerous neighbours in order to stop their undesirable activity and transform them into useful obedient servants. Sorcerers compete with them in this art, but, nearly always, practise it with a view to using the power of the malevolent beings which they have tamed for their own, no less evil, purposes.

The kapala: a half skull filled with blood is symbolically a shamanic import – the cup or chalice and symbolic blood – spiritual input.

In contrast, the angel equivalents in Tibetan Buddhism are represented as Buddhas, whose size depicts their importance.  They have no wings, but are benign gentle figures equivalent to Intelligences

Within mystic Tibetan Buddhism there is also an Intelligence hierarchy. 

What differs from a system like the Greek system is that there is no personification of the Intelligences, they all look much the same.  They are often lavishly decorated in gold. 

Bhutanese thangkas [paintings] show Buddhas on clouds and lotus, with numerous symbolic objects surrounding them – mountains, trees of life and so on.  There is recognition of the symbolism of the Three Worlds.  So we have some common symbolism here within this system, with other mystic systems.


copyright Professor Rod Smallwood - Nether Moor images

There are some quite severe overload techniques employed in Tibetan Buddhism – fasting, isolation, exposure to cold [hypothermia] , the use of high mountains [and lack of oxygen hypoxia], a lot of fear based techniques [vast numbers of demons], considerable use of  frenetic activity including dancing all of which appear to have shamanic roots.  Milarepa for example fasted against all the doctrines of the Buddhist he said he was.  Some of the initiation techniques are extremely frightening and involve caves, isolation, cold, sleeping on graves and overwhelming fear and terror.  They are almost identical to those used in many other initiation rites – the so called fast path – for example that of the Australian aboriginal.

copyright Professor Rod Smallwood - Nether Moor images

The gentler largely Buddhist techniques involve listening to sound and music of various sorts especially bells and gongs and so called 'meditation', which involves contemplation and detachment.  There are a lot of techniques to suppress learning, the principle ones all involving endless pointless repetition of chants and phrases, which indeed do numb the mind most effectively.    There is the customary use of controlled breathing and there are a lot of techniques to squash the big I am [the ego] , as well as a large number designed to eradicate erroneous beliefs [everyone is taught how to question everything they are told] – suppress memory.  There is also from Buddhism the abiding rule of DON'T HURT. 

copyright Professor Rod Smallwood - Nether Moor images

It is also worth adding that the ‘great silence’ in which the country is bathed is also extraordinarily helpful.  There is an interesting aspect to this as it is not just sensory deprivation.  The absence of loads of people is an absolute blessing, for this means that as David-Neel put it, ‘there is an absence of the mental activity that creates whirlpools of psychic energy which trouble the ether’.  Furthermore ‘perhaps the placidity of Tibetans whose minds are not filled, like ours, with cares and cogitations is another of these favourable conditions

Relaxation is used in both the shamanic and Buddhist approaches.  There is also ample evidence of sexual practices - sex magick, sexual stimulation, peaking and so on, but it is almost impossible to get anyone to talk about them.  But some do involve 'men with men' and it is intended to be love based. 

Phallus on shop front Bhutan - copyright Professor Rod Smallwood
- Nether Moor images

Some sexual stimulation techniques seem  to have shamanic roots [our guide gave us detailed information about the wall paintings which were essentially shamanic in origin], but some also seem Buddhist and derive from early Hindu practises.  Kundalini energy is recognised and methods for controlling it.

In Bhutan, the remnants of the Tantric teaching of the mystic Padmasambhava, can be seen on almost every building; his teachings being extremely popular all over the country.  He is associated with the famous Paro Taktsang or "Tiger's Nest" monastery built on a sheer cliff wall about 500m above the floor of Paro valley. It was built around the Taktsang Senge Samdup cave where he is said to have meditated in the 8th Century.

Tiger's nest

He flew there from Tibet on the back of Yeshe Tsogyal, whom he transformed into a flying tigress for the purpose of the trip. Later he travelled to Bumthang district to subdue a powerful deity offended by a local king.

There appear to have been some practises introduced which we can summarise as power religion and not mystic system, which serve no useful purpose whatsoever:

shopfront Bhutan

....an attitude of reverence for the teacher, or guru, is  highly prized. At the beginning of a public teaching, a lama will do prostrations to the throne on which he will teach due to its symbolism, or to an image of the Buddha behind that throne, then students will do prostrations to the lama after he is seated. Merit accrues when one's interactions with the teacher are imbued with such reverence in the form of guru devotion, a code of practices governing them that derives from Indian sources.

It may help you get brownie points with the lama, but if it does he is the wrong lama and you are not going to get anywhere with your spiritual search.  Respect and politeness yes, prostrations, no. 

The teachers

Like all systems you can get good teachers and bad teachers.  Any Tibetan Buddhist teacher is called a lama and lamas can range from the extraordinary magician, to the charlatan, to the good and genuine.  Sometimes the good, genuine and well-meaning are ineffective, which is why as a system it is a difficult one to use.


The following is truly hilarious, [and wrong] but it does show how very bad some of the lamas can be:

In Vajrayana Buddhism both "good" and "evil" aspects are mixed together, and people and lamas work and study with all of them. The most important consequence from this; is that from now and then many lamas are involved in scandals, corruption or crimes, because they just act as Wrathful bodhisattvas.

Some lamas are almost entirely shamanic with little Buddhist in them, and you do get both black and white shamans as well as sorcerers.

The people of these regions have a very pragmatic attitude to Tibetan Buddhism that seems almost in contrast to the ramblings of their theologians.  According to Wikipedia the “theoretical” forms of Buddhism include “Sautrantika, Vaibhasika, Madhyamika, Yogacara, Hua Yen, Tien Tai, etc.” 

Most people we met there simply said they were Buddhists, and it was also clear there was also a very generous helping of shamanism thrown in.

Tibetan buddhism today

Tibetan buddhism only operates these days, outside Tibet - in Bhutan, Nepal, Sikkim etc

Although the homeland of Tibetan Buddhism is Tibet, you would be hard pressed to find any vestige of the mystic side in this region today.  The conflict with China has resulted in the destruction of the vast majority of the monasteries and the loss of most texts.

 At one time there were over 6,000 monasteries in Tibet, however nearly all of these were ransacked and destroyed by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. Most of the major monasteries have been at least partially re-established - mostly as tourist attractions -  while many other ones remain in ruins.

In Mongolia during the 1920s, approximately one third of the male population were monks, though many lived outside monasteries. By the beginning of the 20th century about 750 monasteries were functioning in Mongolia. These monasteries were largely dismantled during Communist rule.

Tibetan empire greatest extent 780s-790s CE

Buddhism has as a consequence suffered.  But I have little idea whether shamanism suffered in the same way.  The shaman does not need a monastery and does not teach religion.  Buddhism was dismantled by the Communists because it is an alternative political system – a set of rules by which one lives.  All 'isms' are in competition with one another.  But there is the possibility that the old shamanic practises live on in these regions.

For those who believe that Tibet is a part of China and also believe the Chinese claim on it, the following may be helpful. 

It is not commonly realised today that for hundreds of years Tibet was an independent [and large] empire, and it was with the protection given by its Kings that Tibetan Buddhism flourished.  By the seventh century, for example, Tibet had developed into a great empire under the reign of King Song-tsen Gampo.

Diana N Rowan March 1993 Journey to Lhasa [David-Neel] - Introduction

With his nation strategically located between Tibet's ancestral enemy, China, to the north and east and India to the south, Song-tsen Gampo was quintessentially astute when he married a Chinese princess, an alliance much underlined by the present People's Republic of China. In fact, the Tibetan king also married two other princesses for good measure- one Tibetan and one Nepalese.


Song-tsen Gampo also promulgated the first comprehensive system of laws in Tibet, based on the Buddhist moral laws of India, with no relation to the Confucian canon of Chinese tradition. As Tibet scholar Robert Thurman points out [in "An Outline of Tibetan Culture," Cultural Survival Quarterly, vol. 12, no. 1 (1988)], only a Western-educated Tibetan has ever even heard of Confucius. The Tibetan national sense of history draws from the wellspring of Buddhist spiritual and ethical values, and every Tibetan government since the Yarlung dynasty in the seventh century has received its legitimacy through its active connection to the "Buddha dharma."


Still warlike, however, the early Tibetan empire was viewed as a great threat to the Chinese and a major reason for building the Great Wall. Tibet conquered the T'ang capital at Chang-an (Sian) in AD 763 and was considered a formidable presence by Mongol emperors, Kublai Khan among them, and by Manchu emperors, who regarded good relations with the Tibetans as beneficial in dealing with the ferocious Mongols. Numerous wars and stone-carved treaties between Tibet and China attest to the distinctness of the empires. Both fell under the Mongol yoke in the thirteenth century. Though proudly denying being conquered, Tibet submitted in 1207 to the famous "priest-patron" relationship between its Sakyapa lamas and the Mongol emperors. China was overrun about 1280. Tibetans regained their freedom almost a century later, establishing a new lineage in 1358, while the Chinese drove out the Mongols a decade after that, establishing the native Ming dynasty.


Present Chinese claims to Tibet stem from this era, prompting acerbic scholarly retorts that under similar argument, India could claim Burma as its own, since both were once part of the British Empire! Ming and Ching dynasty claims that Tibet was a "vassal state" should be examined, advises the Tibetologist H. E. Richardson, in light of similar assertions by the Chinese that Holland, Portugal, Russia, Britain, and the Papacy were also tributaries!

As summarized in a report to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Tibet suffered further intervention by a Central Asian (not Chinese) emperor, K'ang Hsi, in the early eighteenth century. At that time it lost control of the eastern and northern provinces of Kham and Amdo, inhabited almost entirely by ethnic Tibetans, thus establishing some two centuries of what the Chinese see as their suzerainty over Tibet. Largely recaptured by the Tibetans in 1855, the territories were again briefly lost to Chinese control during 1911-12. …. But the bitter fighting that year led to yet another expulsion of the Chinese, whose military strength had been weakened by the fall of the Manchu dynasty in 1911.


Tibet, meanwhile, also had to deal with interference by the British, whose colonial influence was increasingly felt along the Himalayan border in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Though border relations were generally peaceful, the expedition of Captain Younghusband, whose British troops shot their way into Lhasa in 1904, was aimed primarily at blocking any potential Russian influence; unfortunately, it also had a severe destabilizing impact and severely increased hostilities between Tibet and China. Eastern Tibet had to fight off Chinese forces again in 1918 and in the 1930s, although Tibet's independence was confirmed at the Treaty of Simla (1914). Though China repudiated the treaty, the U.N. human rights report notes,
"the two remaining signatories [Tibet and British India] . . . then abrogated the rights and privileges claimed by the Chinese in Tibet. For the next thirty-eight years Tibet was entirely independent of China."



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