Between the 11th and 14th centuries, the Tibetans translated every available Buddhist text into Tibetan. Today, many Buddhist works that have been lost in their original Sanskrit survive only in Tibetan translation.
The Tibetan Buddhist canon is a loosely defined list of sacred texts recognized by various sects of Tibetan Buddhism, consisting of more than 300 volumes and many thousands of individual texts. In addition to earlier foundational Buddhist texts from early Buddhist schools, mostly the Sarvastivada, and mahayana texts, the Tibetan canon includes Tantric texts.
The Tibetan Canon underwent a final compilation in 14th Century by Bu-ston (1290-1364). It is divided into two parts:
- The Bka'-'gyur or Kanjyur ("Translated Word"), consists of canonical texts. The Kanjyur is made up of 98 volumes containing some 600 texts. The first printing of the Kanjur occurred not in Tibet, but in China (Beijing), and was completed in 1411. The first Tibetan edition of the Kanjur was at sNar-tang in 1731.
- The Bstan-'gyur or Tenjyur ("Transmitted Word"), consists of semi-canonical commentaries and treatises by Buddhist masters. The Tenjyur contains 3626 texts in 224 volumes, divided as follows:
- Sutras: 1 volume; 64 texts.
- Commentaries on the Tantras: 86 volumes; 3055 texts.
- Commentaries on Sutras; 137 volumes; 567 texts.
The most famous Tibetan Buddhist text is the Bardo Thodol ("liberation through hearing in the intermediate state"), popularly known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The Bardo Thodol is a funerary text that describes the experiences of the soul during the interval between death and rebirth called bardo. It is recited by lamas over a dying or recently deceased person, or sometimes over an effigy of the deceased. It has been suggested that it is a sign of the influence of shamanism on Tibetan Buddhism.
The Bardo Thodol actually differentiates the intermediate states between lives into three bardos (themselves further subdivided). The chikhai bardo ("bardo of the moment of death") features the experience of the "clear light of reality," or at least the nearest approximation to it of which one is spiritually capable. The chonyid bardo ("bardo of the experiencing of reality") features the experience of visions of various Buddha forms (or, again, the nearest approximations of which one is capable). The sidpa bardo ("bardo of rebirth") features karmically impelled hallucinations which eventually result in rebirth.
The Bardo Thodol also mentions three other bardos: those of "life" (or ordinary waking consciousness), of "dhyana" (meditation), and of "dream." The "six bardos" together form a classification of states of consciousness into six broad types, and any state of consciousness forms a type of "intermediate state" - intermediate between other states of consciousness.