The Schools of Tibetan Buddhism

The place to start in any survey of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism is with the Nyingma school. This is the only one which traces its origin back before the later diffusion of the dharma, back to the time of Padmasambhava. The word Nyingma means “the old school”. The name refers to the early phase in the history of Tibetan Buddhism.

Because of the gap between the first diffusion of the dharma and the later diffusion, the connection between Padmasambhava and this later Nyingma tradition has always been pretty problematic. To establish the continuity with Padmasambhava, the members of the Nyingma school claim to have discovered secret texts that Padmasambhava left behind in Tibet written in the rocks, hidden in the mountains or sometimes buried in the mind of his disciples. They have attempted to discover these texts, interpret them and promulgate them in the present era.

Termas and Tertons

These texts are known as termas, a word that simply means treasure. Some of the most important authorities in the Nyingma history are people who discovered these termas and have been able in some way to disseminate them.

To look at the development of the Nyingma tradition it would be helpful to look at the lives of the Tertons, the people who discovered termas and made them available to others in their community.

A good example of the practice of the discovery and interpretation of the termas is a figure by the name of Jigme Lingpa. He claimed to be the reincarnation of Trisong Detsen. Like many Nyingma lamas and like many Indian Tantric saints, Jigme Lingpa spent many years meditating in the mountains. He had the experience of being visited by many of the important figures in the history of the tradition, including Padmasambhava and Trisong Detsen.

One of his most important revelations came to him in a dream. In the dream he was transported out of Tibet, across the Himalayas into the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal, where he visited the Swayambhunath Stupa. When he was there a heavenly messenger came to him and revealed a text in a form of writing that it was impossible for him to understand. The heavenly messenger gave him the key to the code that he could use to unlock and interpret that text. As he translated and recorded these revelations, he created the nucleus for a new scriptural tradition in his community.

This story about Jigme Lingpa is not by any means an isolated story. There are other important revealers of Termas in the Nyingma tradition.

Nyingma is Founded on Direct Experience

The Nyingma school is a tradition founded on meditative experience. Jigme Lingpa was meditating in the mountains and while he was there he had powerful experiences that affirmed not only the depth of his own meditation but also his connection to this long lineage of teaching that took him all the way back to Padmasambhava and the ancient Buddhas of the Indian tradition.

In this sense, Nyingma is the Tibetan tradition that comes closest to the pure transmission of the Tantric impulse. Jigme Lingpa didn’t study or at least didn’t study in a sophisticated monastery. He wasn’t a great student of philosophy. His charisma and his power were established by the vividness of his own personal vision.

The Nyingma tradition still maintains this character today. It appeals to people because it puts its feet down on direct personal experience.

The Nyingma tradition and the story of Jigme Lingpa also convey the ancient Buddhist respect for scriptural transmission. Jigme’s Lingpa may have been founded on personal experience, but it was expressed and it was spread in a body of texts. Even in its most esoteric and personal form, Tibetan Buddhism is a strongly scriptural tradition. These aren’t just old texts that come back from the time of the Buddha, but texts that are generated by authoritative figures who manifest themselves from time to time in the history of Tibet.

Tibetan Buddhism has a canon of scripture. It is big and widely disseminated. It was settled in the 13th century and contains within it what you might call the authoritative Tibetan definition of the teaching that came to Tibet from India. In a broader sense, the Buddhist canon in Tibet still remains open. New texts can be generated or discovered to respond to all sorts of new situations.

The Nyingma tradition that is represented by Jigme Lingpa has come to North America. You can encounter it in various Tibetan communities. Interestingly enough, it is popular among scholars who study the tradition intellectually but have some kind of hunger for personal experience. They often study with Nyingma teachers to make that direct personal encounter with the dharma.

The Kagyu School

The word Kagyu means “teaching lineage”. This school traces its origin to the lama Marpa, who lived between the years 1012 and 1096. He was a Tibetan by birth but he traveled to India and studied with Tantric teachers. He brought their texts back to Tibet to serve as the foundation of a new lineage.

Marpa’s most important disciple and the person who carried his teaching was a man by the name of Milarepa. He is one of Tibet’s most beloved saints. The biography of Milarepa is one of the best ways to become familiar with the typical life of the Tibetan saint.

He starts out as a rather weak-willed and not very organized young man. It turns out that Milarepa’s father died when he was a young man and the relatives stole the family’s property. Milarepa’s mother was deeply angered by this and wanted to seek revenge. He took his malleable young son and sent him to study with one of the black magicians in Tibet to learn the black arts. He learned how to use the mantras that would help him bring storms on the relatives’ fields and even kill some of them through natural phenomena.

He did this and worked. However, Milarepa got worried about this because he realized that what he was doing created enormous bad karma, and unless he could find some way to remove this karma he would end up in one of the lowest hells. He began to wonder where he could find a teacher that would help him achieve enlightenment in this life.

He studied with a couple of different teachers and it didn’t work out well for him. He finally was advised to go and find a man by the name of Marpa, who would give him the teaching that he needed.

Milarepa seeks and meets Marpa. They have a difficult relationship. Marpa really puts Milarepa through intense trials. Milarepa finds himself in a state of complete despair. Once he tries to run away and realizes that running away from Marpa wouldn’t solve the problem. He comes back and begs for Marpa’s forgiveness.

One of the most interesting points in the life of Milarepa is when he finished his studies with Marpa and went to meditate by himself. He didn’t go to a cave to find solitude back he returned to his home with his mother. The relationship between Buddhist monks and their mother usually is pretty important. Unfortunately her mother had died and the house had fallen into ruin. Milarepa used it simply as a meditation on impermanence.

Milarepa went on from this experience to become a great ascetic and the founder of a great lineage.

The Sakya and Gelug School

There are two other schools that are worth mentioning. One of these is the Sakya school, that emerged in the 11th century under the leadership of a lama named Drokmi. Drokmi was the teacher of Konchok Gyelpo, who in 1073 founded a monastery at Sakya, a place that gave the school its name.

This school played an important role in the negotiations between the Tibetans and the Mongols. Eventually, the Mongols converted to Tibetan Buddhism and became important protectors of Tibetan Buddhism not just in Tibet but also in other parts of Asia. The 13th century, when the Mongols first appeared, was a crucial century in Tibet for a couple of reasons. First of all it gave rise to this incipient political allegiance between Tibetan monks and Mongols. This became an important theme in later Tibetan history.

It also was the first century after the death of Indian Buddhism. Indian Buddhism ended around the year 1200. We could say that the 13th century marks the beginning of a truly independent Tibetan religious tradition.

Today the old allegiance between Tibetan lamas and the Mongols is a difficult theme in Tibetan history because it is translated into this troubled relationship with the Chinese. China has always viewed itself as being the heirs of the Mongols. Chinese political leaders visualize Tibet as a part of the large Chinese empire.

The fourth school that I want to mention just briefly is the Gelug or “way of virtue” school. It emerged in the 14th century under the leadership of the scholar Tsongkhapa. Tsongkhapa followed the example of the Indian scholarly tradition and tried to establish a pure form of monastic practice. This involved an intense effort to codify the Tibetan approach to Buddhist philosophy and the stages of Tantric practice. Tsongkhapa is one of the great systematizers of the Tibetan tradition. He wrote extesively.

Tsongkhapa founded some major monasteries in central Tibet. These have been some of the most influential religious institutions in the history of Tibet and have been actively restored in recent years. Tsongkhapa is not only reveered by scholars and monks but also by common people as a great saint.

After the death of Tsongkhapa, the leadership of the Gelug school passed to the lineage of the Dalai Lamas.

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