Tibetan Buddhism draws upon the teaching, meditation techniques and ordination vows of the Theravada, and the philosophy and cosmology of Mahayana. But it was in Tibet that many of the Vajrayana teachings were preserved and most of the distinctive qualities of Tibetan Buddhism can be found in its Vajrayana heritage.

The vajrayana path largely follows the Mahayana philosophical teachings, but there are some variations in attitude. whereas Mahayana seeks to destroy the poins of craving, aggression and ignorance, Vajrayana places an emphasis on transmuting them directly into wisdom. This is based in the Tibetan Buddhist belief that the mundane world is inseparable from enlightenment.

Tibetan Buddhism is distinguished by its many methods and techniques of spiritual development and for its great acceleration of the spiritual journey. Theoretically, the path of the Mahayana practitioner takes three incalculable eons to reach full awakening; by contrast, the path of the Vajrajana practitioner can be as short as one lifetime.

In order to accelerate the process of enlightenment, Vajrayana uses advanced yoga techniques in combination with elaborate meditations. The meditations incorporate visualizations of personified archetypes of enlightenment, frequently referred to as meditational deities. These archetypes are often represented in Tibetan religious art in the form of bronze sculptures, or in painted portable scroll icons, known as thangkas. The scripture containing the esoteric teachings for yogis practices are called tantras and are part of a larger body of Buddhist sacred texts, based on the public teachings of Buddha, called sutras. Mantras, mudras and mandalas are all used as part of Tibetan Buddhist meditational practices.