The arrival of Buddhist Scriptures

History of Tibetan Buddhism can be traced back to the latter half of the 2nd century. When Thothori Nyantsen was the king of Tibet. During his time, some Buddhist scriptures arrived in southern Tibet from India. The 3rd century saw the spread of scriptures in the northern part of Tibet. At this point of time, Buddhism was not a dominant religion in Tibet. But, it was actually beginning to take shape. The tantric text was yet in the process of being written in India.

King Songtsen Gampo

The first major event in the history of Tibetan Buddhism occurred during the reigns of King Songtsen Gampo in 641. During his rule, Tibet was unified and he also married two Buddhist, Princess Wencheng from China and Princess Bhrikuti Devi from Nepal. This was followed by Buddhism being declared as the State Religion. A network of 108 Buddhist temples was constructed. And, to facilitate the installation of the Buddha statues his wives had brought from their homes. However, along with all this, conflict with the existing national religion, Bon, too continued for long.

The arrival of Padmasambhava & Master Atisha

The most important event in the history of Tibetan Buddhism was the arrival of sage Padmasambhava. He was invited over to Tibet by King Trisong Detsen in the year 774. Padmasambhava translated numerous Buddhist texts into Tibetan language and combined tantric Buddhism with the local Bön religion. It created what is today widely known as the Tibetan Buddhism. Apart from these, Padmasambhava also laid down the foundation of the first Tibetan Buddhist School, Nyingma. Subsequently, in the coming years, all the other schools of Tibetan Buddhism arose from this School itself.

By the middle of the 9th century, Buddhism suffered a major opposition from the locals. Furthermore, the government withdrew its support. It took the arrival of another great Indian scholar, Atisha to restore Buddhism in Tibet. His disciple, Dromton laid down the foundation of yet another old School of Buddhism, Kadampa.

With the advent of the 11th century, Tibetan Buddhism became dominant in Central Asia. Especially in countries like Mongolia and Manchuria. In both these countries, it was adopted as the State Religion. From the 11th century onwards, the other Schools of Tibetan Buddhism, Sakya, Kagyu, and Gelug, also started emerging. In the successive centuries, each of these Schools established itself in different parts of Tibet.


Four Schools of Tibetan Buddhism

Nyingmapa School of Tibetan Buddhism

Nyingma (The Ancient Ones’) Nyingma implies ancient and old in the Tibetan language. This School is the oldest amongst the four school. It is also the largest one after the Gelukpa School. Because the Nyingma lamas wear red robes and caps. There is another name of the school is the Red Hat Sect in the history of Tibetan Buddhism.

History of Nyingmapa Tradition

The School traces its origin to the 8th century when Guru Padmasambhava and the Nalanda University abbot Shantarakshita came to Tibet. King Trisong Deutsan (742-797) invited them to spread Buddhism there. Guru Padmasambhava and Shantarakshitas arrived along with 108 translators and 25 of Padmasambhava’s trusted disciples.

At this point in time, Bon religion was prevalent in Tibet. King Trisong Deutsan entrusted the task of translating the Buddhist Dharma Texts into the Tibetan language. He also entrusted to both these men and their translators and disciples. Padmasambhava looked after the translation work of tantric while Shantarakshita paid attention to the Sutra-teachings. These laid the foundation of the Tantric history of Tibetan Buddhism.

From the 8th century to 11th century, the Nyingma was the sole school of Buddhism in Tibet. It was a period when Buddhism was severely suppressed by the ruling kings. It was only after the 11th century that Nyingma recognized itself as a separate School due to the emergence of other Schools. The followers of this School called themselves Nyingmapa. Nyingma happens to be the only one amongst the four schools whose supporters have never been in charge of political power.

Characteristics of Nyingmapa Tradition

Unlike other Schools, where tantric teachings involve four levels, Nyingma School has 6 levels. The Outer Tantra comprises Kriya, Carya or Ubhaya, and Yogatantra while the Inner Tantra includes Mahayoga, Anuyoga and Atiyoga/Dzogchen (The “Great Perfection”).

The Termas (Hidden Treasures) and the Tertons (treasure revealers) are of special mention. It is believed that during the reign of king Langdarma when Buddhism was on a decline. Padmasambhava, along with his disciples, hid numerous scriptures, ritual objects, and relics in concealed places to protect Buddhism. This gave rise to the practice wherein two methods of dharma transmission was adopted. The first one involved “long” oral transmission from Teacher to a student in unbroken lineages. While the other one was basically a “short” transmission of “hidden treasures”. This discovery could either be physical, from the rocks and caves or directly to the minds of Terton.

Six Mother Monasteries of Nyingmapa Tradition in Tibet

Six Monasteries have been considered mother monasteries in the Nyingma tradition. Initially, these monasteries included Dorje Drag, Mindrolling and Palri monastery in Upper Tibet. Kathok, Palyul and Dzogchen monasteries in Lower Tibet. However, the decline of Palri Monastery and subsequent growth of Shechen Monastery led to Dorje Drag and Mindroling in Tsetang becoming the mother monasteries in the upper Tibet. In the central and lower Tibet, Shechen and Dzogchen and Kathok and Palyul Monasteries occupied the position of Mother Monasteries respectively. Quite often, the Dodrubchen replaces Kathok in the list. Samye monastery, the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet belongs to this tradition. From these mother monasteries, several other monasteries were developed not only in Tibet but also in Bhutan and Nepal.

Kagyupa (Oral Lineage) School of Tibetan Buddhism

The another name of Kagyu School is  the Oral Lineage” and “the Spotless Practice Lineage” school.

History of Kagyupa

The Kagyu School owes its origin in Tibet to the great Translator Marpa (1012-1097). Marpa spent 17 years in India. During this period, he received teachings from the renowned Indian sages Tilopa and Naropa. Marpa spread these teachings in Tibet. Amongst his disciples, Milerepa was the most important one. Milerepa, in turn, had a disciple Gampopa (1079-1153). He established the distinct Kagyu School. Further, Gampopa’s teaching also led to the foundation of ‘Four Major School’ and ‘Eight Minor’ sub Schools of Kagyu.

Characteristics of Kagyupa

The doctrine lays emphasis on four principal stages of meditative practice. The Four Yogas of Mahamudra through which the follower achieves the perfect realization of Mahamudra. The four stages include –

  1. The development of single-pointedness of mind,
  2. The transcendence of all conceptual elaboration,
  3. The cultivation of the perspective that all phenomena are of a “single taste”,
  4. The fruition of the path, which is beyond any contrived acts of meditation.

Four Major Schools of Kagyupa

Kagyu School comprises one major and one minor subsect. The major subsect, Dagpo Kagyu that includes all those Schools dating back to the times of Gampopa. It is further subdivided into four major sub-sects: the Karma Kagyu, the Tsalpa Kagyu, the Barom Kagyu, and Pagtru Kagyu. The Pagtru Kagyu (minor subsect) gave birth to eight subsects – Drukpa Kagyu, Drikung Kagyu, Mar Kagyu, Shugseb Kagyu, Taklung Kagyu, Trophu Kagyu, Yamzang Kagyu and Yelpa Kagyu.

Kagyupa Monasteries in Tibet

In the history of Tibetan, Kham, and eastern Tibet is the center of the BuddhismImportant Kagyu Monasteries. Some of the important Buddhist Monasteries of Tibet include Palpung Monastery, Ralung Monastery, Surmang Monastery and Tsurphu Monastery.

Sakyapa (Grey Earth) School of Tibetan Buddhism

History of Sakyapa

During the late 11th century, Sakya Schools of Tibetan Buddhism emerged when the Buddhist scripts were being translated from Sanskrit to the Tibetan language in the second round of translation. “Five Venerable Supreme Masters” – Sachen Kunga Nyingpo, Sonam Tsemo, Drakpa Gyaltsen, Sakya Pandita and Chogyal Pakpa founded the school. The first monastery of this sect was established by Tibetan lama, Khon Konchog Gyalpo. The monastery was erected at a unique grey landscape of Ponpori Hills near Shigatse in southern Tibet. It is from here that Sakya that translates into ‘Pale Earth’ draws its name.

Characteristics of Sakyapa

The most important teaching of the Sakya sect in the history of Tibetan Buddhism is the system of Lambdre or the “Path and its Fruit”. This is drawn from the Siddha Virupa (Birwapa/Birupa) and rests upon the Hevajra Tantra. The esoteric Vajrayogini lineage known as “Naro Khachoma” and tantric practices also forms part of the Sakya School.

Unlike other Schools, Sakya has two different forms of teachings. The first one is for the generic audience and has sutra as its basis. On the other hand, the second is private education with tantric as its base.

Sub-schools of Sakyapa Sect

Two sub-schools of Sakya sect spring from the main lineage. The Ngor was established by Ngorchen Kunga Zangpo and Tshar was founded by Tsarchen Losal Gyamtso.

Important Sakyapa Monasteries in Tibet

Important Monasteries in the history of Tibetan Buddhism associated with Sakya sect include the Sakya Monastery, Gonggar Monastery, and the Erer Monastery. The location of the Gonggar Monastery is in Gonggar County of Shannan Prefecture. And, the Ngor Monastery stands near Shigatse.

 

Gelugpa (Way of Virtue)School of Tibetan Buddhism

The most recent, nonetheless the largest of all the Schools, the Gelug is the School of the Virtuous.

History of Gelugpa Tradition

It was founded by Gyalwa Tsongkhapa (1357-1419) as a reform movement within the Tibetan Buddhism. Gyalwa Tsongkhapa was a philosopher and a Tibetan religious teacher who was greatly influenced by the Kadam School of Tibetan Buddhism (11th century). The Kadampa had three lineages and Tsongkhapa combined all the three along with Sakya, Kagyu and other teachings to present his doctrine.

The first monastery of the Gelug School was founded by Tsongkhapa at Ganden. This monastery, till present date, is the nominal head of the school, however, its temporal head and most influential figure are the Dalai Lama. The first Dalai Lama, Gyalwa Gedun Drupa, was the disciple of Tsongkhapa. The current Dalai Lama is Tenzin Gyatso.

By the time, 16th century drew to its end, the Gelug School had established itself as the most important School in Tibetan Buddhism. From the 17th century onwards to the mid of the 19th century, the Dalai Lama held the political power over central Tibet.

Characteristics of Gelugpa Tradition

The primary teachings of the Gelug School are Lamrim, or the “Stages of the Path” and the systematic cultivation of the view of emptiness. The first teaching rests upon the teachings of Atisha, an 11th-century Indian master. This is united with the deity yogas of Highest Yoga Tantra deities where the central focus is the realization of the indivisible union of bliss and emptiness.

Each Gelug Monastery has its own set of texts, however, the texts written by the Gelug School founder are considered most important. These texts are – The Great Exposition of the Stages of the Path, The Great Exposition of Tantras, The Essence of Eloquence on the Interpretive and Definitive Teachings, The Praise of Relativity, The Clear Exposition of the Five Stages of Guhyasamaja and The Clear Exposition of the Five Stages of Guhyasamaja.

Important Gelugpa Monasteries in the history of Tibetan Buddhism

Important Gelug Monasteries include Ganden Monastery, Sera Monastery, Drepung Monastery,  and Tashi Luhnpo Monastery. The monks of this monastery wear yellow hats which is why they are also called the Yellow Hat Sect.

Tibet Universal Tours and Travel offers in-depth thematic tour services, predominately focusing on Tibetan Bon religion and the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism, for more information please link to THEMATIC TOURS    

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