Four Main Schools of Tibetan Buddhism
There are four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism: Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyü, and Geluk. All four schools identify themselves as belonging to the Mahayana or “Great Vehicle” tradition, and therefore are proponents of universal enlightenment. Historically the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism spread to China, Japan, Korea, Tibet, Mongolia and all the regions of Tibetan cultural sphere such as Bhutan and the entire Trans-Himalayan areas of India, and the republics of Thuva, Buriat and Kalmykya in the present-day Russian federation.
Philosophically, all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism uphold the Middle Way thought of the Indian Buddhist thinker Nagarjuna (2nd century CE). In the realm of meditative practice, all the schools embrace the complex and profound teachings of Vajrayana Buddhism (Adamatine Vehicle). Differences between the four schools lie primarily in:
1. The individual school’s association with a specific lineage of
2. Emphasis on specific aspects of meditative practices
3. Use of certain vocabulary, and its interpretation of Nagrajuna’s philosophy of emptiness
4. Their interest or lack thereof in various matters of epistemological and philosophical concern.
Nyingma: The Old Translation School
Although the name Nyingma or “Old School” is a retrospective label, the Nyingma historians recognize the Indian mystic Padmasambhava who came to Tibet in the 9th century as the School’s real founder. Central to the Nyingma tradition is a genre of scriptures recognized as terma, or “treasure texts”. These are works believed to be written by Padmasambhava and hidden as spiritual treasures to be discovered by specially blessed masters when the time is most ripe for their reception.
Thus, according to the Nyingma tradition, there are three streams of transmission of spiritual teachings.
1. The distant canonical lineage that traces its origin to the words of the historical Buddha
2. The close lineage of the revealed treasures
3. The profound lineage of pure visions that are said to emerge from spontaneous mystical experiences.
The best known of this school’s teachings are the meditative practices related to Dzokchen, the so-called Great Perfection.
Amongst the great masters of the Nyingma Schools were Longchen Rapjampa (1308-1368), who first systematized the theory and practice of the Great Perfection, Rikzin Jikme Lingpa (1729-1798), the great discover of the treasure texts, Patrul Rinpoche (1808-1887), the great elucidator of the Nyingma meditative practices, and Ju Mipham (1846-1912), the great commentator of the Nyingma perspectives on the Indian Mahayana classics.
Sakya: Upholders of the Chalky Region Monastery
The Sakya School emerged as a distinct tradition in the eleventh century following the founding of the Sakya monastery by Khön Könchok Gyalpo (1034-1102) in 1073. It derives its name Sakya, or “the chalky region”, from the site where the monastery was built.
Khön Könchok Gyalpo studied under the famous translator Drokmi (992-1072) who propagated many of the Indian lineages he had studied and practiced. By the thirteenth century the Sakya School had not only reached great heights in its development, it had effectively assumed political power in Tibet as well.
The central teaching of the Sakya School is lamdre, the “Path and its Fruition” tradition, which is based on the literature of the Hevajra Tantra as revealed by the Indian mystic Virupa (late 10th century CE).
Amongst the great luminaries of this school are the “Five Exalted Masters of Sakya”, each of whom holds unique place in the development of the Sakya tradition. Sachen Kunga Nyingpo (1092-1158) was the first of the five and also the son of Khön Könchok Gyalpo. Lopön Sönam Tsemo (1142-1182) and Jetsün Drakpa Gyaltsen (1147-1216) were both instrumental in systematizing the various teachings of the Path and its Fruition cycle. Sakya Pandita (1182-1251), the most famous of all, was not only a great master of the Sakya School but also a pioneer in the introduction of Sanskrit poetics in the Tibetan language. He was responsible also for developing much of the scholastic disciplines of the Tibetan monastic tradition. Finally, it was during Drogön Chögyal Pakpa (1235-1280)’s patriarchy that Sakya reached its political zenith through its close relation with the Mongol Khan family.
Kagyü: The Sacred Word Lineage
The Kagyü School traces its lineage to the teachings of the Indian mystics Tilopa (circa 988-1089) and Naropa (circa 1016-1100), whose lineage was transmitted in Tibet by the great translator Marpa (1012-1097). Marpa’s principal disciple was Milarepa (1052-1135), arguably Tibet’s best known religious poet and meditator. Amongst Milerapa’s many students was Gampopa (1079-1153), a polymath and great synthesizer, who can be recognized as the real founder of Kagyü as a distinct School of Tibetan Buddhism. Following Gampopa’s teachings, there evolved the so-called “Four Major” and the “Eight Minor” lineages of the Kagyü School.
The central teaching of this School is the doctrine of Mahamudra, or “the Great Seal”, as elucidated by Gampopa in his various works. This doctrine focuses on four principal aspects of meditative stages, namely:
1. The development the single-pointedness of mind
2. The transcendence of all conceptual elaboration
3. The cultivation of the perspective of all things as being of a
4. The application of a path that is beyond any acts of meditation.
It is through these four stages of development that the practitioner is said to attain the perfect realization of Mahamudra.
Amongst its many luminaries are such personalities as the translator Marpa, the poet saint Milarepa, the grand synthesizer Gampopa, the encyclopedist Baram Chökyi Wangchuk, Phakdru Dorje Gyalpo, Shang Tsalpa Tsöndrü and, of course, the successive lineage of the Karmapas.
Geluk: The Virtuous Tradition
The Geluk School was founded by Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), Tibet’s best known religious reformer and arguably its greatest philosopher. A great admirer of the Kadam teachings, Tsongkhapa was an enthusiastic promoter of the Kadam School’s emphasis on the Mahayana principles of universal compassion as a fundamental spiritual orientation. He combined this with a strong emphasis on the cultivation of in-depth insight into the doctrine of emptiness as propounded by the great Indian master Nagarjuna (2nd century CE) and Chandrakirti (7th century CE). Tsongkhapa said that these two aspects of the spiritual path, namely compassion and insight into wisdom, must be rooted in a whole-hearted wish for liberation, all impelled by a genuine sense of renunciation. He called these the “Three Principal Aspects of the Path”, and suggested that it is on the basis of these three that one must embark on the profound path of Vajrayana Buddhism.
The central teachings of the Geluk School are Lamrim, or the “Stages of the path”, based upon the teachings of the Indian master Atisha (circa 11th century) and the systematic cultivation of the view of emptiness. This is combined with the deity yoga meditations of Highest Yoga Tantra deities such as Guhyasamaja, Chakrasamvara, Yamantaka and Kalachakra, where the key focus is the realization of the indivisible union of bliss and emptiness. By the end of 15th century, Geluk had become the most dominant School of Tibetan Buddhism, and from the period of “The Great Fifth” in the 17th century the Dalai Lamas have held political power in Tibet.
Amongst its many luminaries were the master logician Gyaltsap (1364-1432), the great commentator Khedrup (1385-1438), the first Dalai Lama Gendün Drup (1391-1474), Panchen Sönam Drakpa (1478-1554), Künkhyen Jamyang Shepa (1648-1722), Kachen Yeshe Gyaltsen (1713-1793) Changkya Rölpai Dorje (1717-1786) and Ngülchu Dharma Badra (1772-1851). In addition, the successive reincarnations of Tibet’s two best known lama institutions, the Dalai Lamas and the Panchen Lamas, both belong to this School.