The creation of the Tibetan language corresponds to the spread of Buddhism from India into Tibet. In the seventh century, the Tibetan King Srong-btsan-sgam-po systematically prepared the foundation for the transmission of Buddhism to Tibet. Foreseeing the need for a written language suitable for translating Buddhist texts from Sanskrit, Srong-btsan-sgam-po appointed a scholar, Thon-mi Sambhota, to travel to India and develop the Tibetan system of writing.
The first writing to use the Tibetan alphabet delineated rules of conduct for all Tibetans to follow. These sixteen rules (link to sixteen rules) were based on moral virtues from the Buddhadharma.
In the eighth century, Tibet’s thirty-eighth king, Trisong Detsen, invited the foremost Buddhist scholars from India to come to Tibet and formally establish the Dharma. He also selected 108 young scholars to be trained as translators in India. Within a single generation, the Vinaya, Sutras, and Abhidharma, as well as many treatises by Mahayana masters and the entire body of Tantras, had been translated.
Tibetan Buddhists regard the Tibetan script as sacred, since it was formed from Sanskrit, a sacred language in India. Accordingly, texts are never put on the ground or stepped over, and damaged pages containing Tibetan script are never thrown away, but are instead burned in a special way.
Since the classical Tibetan language was specifically created for Dharma translation, it contains many specialized words to express Buddhist concepts. For example, there are several different terms that describe “mind,” each with a slightly different meaning. For anyone engaged in the serious study of Tibetan Buddhism, it is important to learn the classical Tibetan language. By understanding the subtlety of Tibetan terms, one can gain a deeper understanding of the texts.