The first ever official appearance of Buddhism in Tibet is believed to have occurred during the reign of the King of the Yarlung dynasty named Lha-Tho-Tho-Ri-Nyentsen (born ca. 173 C.E.). According to Tibetan religious history, one day a Buddhist text and relics were found by the King from the roof of his palace, but texts were written in Sanskrit, and no one at the court could read and understand the significance of the scriptures thus it remained an isolated event. Tibetan accounts indicate that these texts actually were brought from India, and the King hid their origin after having a dream indicating that in four generations a King would be able to read and understand the texts. The arrival of this text is considered to be the first introduction of Buddhism to Tibet. But generally, when we talk about dissemination of Buddhism into Tibet, there are two periods of diffusion known as the ‘early diffusion’ and the ‘later diffusion’. The first occurred in the 7th to 9th centuries during the height of its empire, when Tibet dominated vast tracts of central Asia.
The first successful transmission of Buddhism into Tibet occurred during the reign of the king Songtsen Gampo (ca. 618-650). Under his military guidance, Tibet became a major power in Central Asia and China. During his reign, he moved his capital from Yarlung to Lhasa. In order to make political alliances, the King married with Bhirkuti (daughter of Nepal’s King Amshuvarman), and in order to further political alliances he married with Chinese emperor T’ai-tsung’s daughter Wen-ch’eng. The king sent his minister Thonmi Sambhota and some students to India to develop the Tibetan script and to codify the language. Thonmi Sambhota discovered the Tibetan script based on the ancient Indian Dev-Nagric script as commissioned by the King. The Buddhist Sanskrit texts and other Indian dialectical literature began to be translated into Tibetan from the 7th century onwards. The first ever translator of Tibet was Thonmi-Sambhota, and he translated more than 21 texts of both Sutra and Tantra. In addition, he composed grammatical texts for Tibetans.
The next great Dharma King was Trisong Deutsen (ca. 740-798), who by all accounts was a devout Buddhist who took a personal interest in propagating the Buddha-dharma. In order to accomplish this, he invited the Indian scholar Shantarakshita to Tibet and later he was well known as the ‘Boddhisattava Abbot’. Unfortunately, during his mission, a series of natural disasters occurred at this time. Shantarakshita advised the King to invite the tantric adept Padmasambhava, who could defeat the spirits, demonic forces, and natural disasters. Thus, the King invited Guru Padmasambhava to Tibet. In 755 king Trisong Deutsen, Guru Padmasambhava, and Khenpo Boddhisattva (well known as Khen-Lob-Choe-Sum in Tibetan), celebrated the successful establishment of Buddhism in Tibet by founding its first monastery, which was called Samye. It was built in three stories, each in a different architectural style, one Indian, one Chinese, and one Tibetan. After the monastery was finished, seven Tibetans received monastic vows and from then on their ordination was considered to be the inauguration of monastic Buddhism in Tibet. After this the King turned his attention to the translation of Buddhist scriptures, realizing that Buddhism would never flourish in Tibet as long as its scriptures remained in a foreign language. The King began inviting translators from India, Kashmir, and China, and he also began sending young Tibetans to India for training. Therefore, the King presided over a massive translation effort in order to render the corpus of Buddha’s teachings into Tibetan. Since that time, enormous volumes of Buddhist texts were deliberately translated into the native Tibetan language. The translations of the Buddha’s teachings, commentaries, and other exegetical works by Indian scholars and adepts took place in an accurate way by using a systematic methodology formulated under the luminary Indian Paditas (translators) such as Acharya Shantarakshita, Daanashila, Surendraboddhi, who collaborated with the Tibetan Lotsawas (translators) such as Kawa Peltsek, Chogro Lugyaltsen, Shang Yeshe De, and so on.
The third religious King of Tibet was Tri-Ralpa-Chen (who reigned from 815-836). By all accounts he was deeply committed to Buddhism, and spent lavish amounts of money on the construction of temples and monasteries, and also supported the visits by Indian Buddhist scholars to Tibet, as well as trips to India by Tibetan scholars. One of the major contributions of his reign was his sponsorship of a project to standardize translation equivalents for Buddhist texts. The translations produced during this period continue to be favored by the Nyingma school, which considers them to be more faithful to the original spirit of the texts than the later translations, prepared during the period of the ‘second dissemination’ of Buddhism. After the death of King Tri-Ralpa-Chen, he was succeeded by King Lang Darma (who reigned from 838-842), who is reported to have vigorously persecuted Buddhist monastic establishments, however, for accomplished Mahasiddhas, Tantric Yogins who practiced in the solitude and wilderness, the inner Tantric teachings and practices remained intact. After the collapse of his empire, came the dark period of political and cultural fragmentation in Tibet. Towards the end of 10th century, Tibetans once again made the intrepid journey across the Himalayas to seek out Buddhist texts and spiritual techniques in India. Some visited the renowned Buddhist universities such as Nalanda and Vikramashila, to study philosophy and the arts.
The second dissemination of Buddhism took place near the end of the 10th century, led by Yeshe-Woe (King of the western Kingdom of Guge), and Jangchub Woe (his great-nephew). The inauguration of the second dissemination of Buddhism was marked by the event when Lotsawa Rinchen Sangpo and Lekpe Sherab returned to Tibet in 978 C.E, along with some Indian scholars. During the period of ‘Sarma’ or the second dissemination of Buddhism into Tibet, the monastic based Sutra teachings were destroyed and needed to be revived, however the Nyingma Tantras remained secured. The most important event of this period, however, was the translation, correction and restoration of Buddhism, and particularly the arrival of the great Indian scholar and adept Atisha Dipamkarshrijnana (982-1054). Atisha composed several works on Buddhism for the benefit of Tibetans, most notably his ‘Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment’, which is a summary of the Buddhist path to enlightenment. Atisha died in Tibet in 1054 and many of his disciples became important figures in the development of Tibetan Buddhism. His instructions and influence led to the founding of the Kadampa order, primarily, due to the efforts put by his main disciple Dromtonpa Gyalwe Jungney (1008-1064). He later founded the Reting Monastery in 1057, which became the main seat of the Kadampa Order.
Tibetan Buddhist Characteristics and Major Schools
Tibetan Buddhism is unique in its synthesis of all three approaches or vehicles of Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana as progressive stages on a comprehensive path of practice and study. Some practitioners wandered to remote and desolate places to seek out oral instructions from accomplished meditation masters. Out of this, distinctive traditions of scholasticism and meditation developed in Tibet. There are now four major main schools of Tibetan Buddhism: the old school of ‘Nyingma’, trace their origin to the first period of Buddhism in Tibet and the New school ‘Sarma’, which includes Sakya, Kagyu, and Geluk – developed the second or later period of Buddhism in Tibet. As far as the diffusion of the early and later periods of Buddhism in Tibet is concerned, there is no difference from the viewpoint of the Sutra part of the Buddha’s teachings but the difference occurs from the Tantric point of view. The former, or early translation school, includes the translation of works carried out before the Tibet’s King Lang Darma’s persecution of Buddhism. This period is called the ‘early diffusion of Buddhism or early period of Translation’ Nga-gyur-Nyingma. The works carried out after the revival of Buddhism in Tibet are known as the ‘later diffusion of Buddhism or era of new translation’ Chi-gyur-Sarma. Each of these four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism, developed over time and the tantric transmissions and practices were passed on from master to disciple over subsequent generations through a succession of unbroken lineages, with each lineage placing a different emphasis on approach, either by focusing on an intellectual approach to the Buddha’s teachings, or by focusing on the practice of meditation, and the latter is thus often referred to as being a ‘Practice Lineage’. Within this practice lineage tradition is the Nyingma school ‘Ripa Lineage’ of Tibetan Buddhism.
The ‘Nyingma’ or ancient School of Tibetan Buddhism primarily relies on the old translations or ‘Nga-Gyur’, therefore, it is known by the name ‘Nga-Gyur-Nyingma’. The principal practices of the Nyingma School relies on these Tantric texts, and its Tibetan origins are traced to Buddhist pioneers of the time of Dharma King Trisong Deutsen, Acharya Padmasambhava and Abbot Bodhisattva or Shankarashita. The original teacher of this lineage that comes to be associated with the Nyingma school was Samantabhadra (Kun-Tu-Sangpo’), who is the ‘Primordial Buddha’ and who embodies the truth body or Dharmakaya of all Buddhas. The Nyingma tradition contains numerous lineages of ‘Transmission of: Vinaya Teachings and Practices, Sutras, Tantras, hidden Treasures (Terma), and of crucial importance, is the Kama, or the ‘Canonical Teaching’ tradition, which begins with Samantabhadra and consists of doctrines, texts, practices, rituals, and realizations that have been passed on from master to disciple in an unbroken chain. According to the transmission of the Kama teaching tradition (Kama), Vajrasattva (Dorje-Sempa), who transmitted the teaching tradition to Garab Dojre, or Prahevajra, (b. 55 C.E), who was the first human teacher of the tradition. Garab Dorje passed these teachings on to Jampal Sheynyen Manjushrimitra, Jampal SheyNyen taught them to his student Shri Simha (b. 289 C.E), who in turn passed them on to Vimalamitra, Padmasambhva, and Janasutra.
The Nyingma School also has a distinctive system of classifying Buddhist teachings into ‘Nine Vehicles’ Yana (Theg-Pa). Among which the final three vehicles of Maha, Anu, and Ati are called the ‘Inner Tantras’ (Nang-Jud). The pinnacle of all nine vehicles is Dzogchen Atiyoga, which is the fundamental view of the Nying School. These inner tantras have eighteen divisions, which were brought into Tibet by Acharya Padmasambhava and Vimalamitra and which were later translated by them. In the Nyingma tradition, there are a number of transmission lineages such as the three types of lineages – the distant lineage, the close lineage, and the pure vision lineage. The Nyingma transmission lineages include: the transmission of the ‘Royal Thought’ (Gyal-Wa-Gong-Jud) which is transmitted by the truth body Dharmakaya of the enlightened wisdom of the Buddhas, the ‘Symbolic Lineage of Awareness-holders’ (Rigzin-Dha’i-Jud), which is an emanation from the complete enjoyment body, or Sambhogakaya, involving the transmission of non-verbal signs, and the ‘Hearing Transmission or Personal Instruction’ (Gang-Zag-Nyen-Jud) which is the oral traditions passed on from master to disciple through the use of words.
The ‘Sarma’ or New School of Tibetan Buddhism includes: The Kagyu school, which traces its lineage back to the great Indian tantric sage Tilopa (988-1069), who is said to have received instructions directly from Vajradhara (Dorje-Chang). The name Kagyu literally meaning the ‘teaching lineage’, its doctrines and practices are passed down through a succession of enlightened teachers to students. In the Kagyu School, there are such important Indian figures as Nagarjuna, Saraha, Shavari, and Maitripa. The great Indian adept Tilopa, for example, transmitted the teachings to his student Naropa (1016-1100), who first underwent a series of trials that tested his determination and purified his mind. Naropa was renowned for his mastery of the teachings of Sutras, Trantras, Vinaya, and eventually he rose to the position of Abbot of Nalanda University, the greatest seat of Buddhist studies in the world at the time. The main disciple of Naropa was Marpa Choekyi Lodoe (1012-1097), and his main disciple was the great Yogin of Tibet Milarepa (1040-1123). Milarepa is renowned throughout the Tibetan cultural area as one of the greatest figures of Tibetan Buddhism. He had a number of famous disciples, among which, two main disciples were known as the Sun-like Je-Gampopa Sonam Rinchen (1079-1153), and the Moon-like Rechung Dorje Drakpa (1088-1158). The Dhagpo Kagyu tradition took its name from Dagpo Lhaje or Je Gampopa. Physician, scholar-practitioner, and monk, Gampopa combined the Kadam tradition, stemming from the teachings of Atisha, with Milarepa’s oral instructions, and wrote the renowned text on the gradual path known as ‘The Jewel Ornament of Liberation’. The Kagyu School is traditionally divided into the ‘Four Great and Eight Lesser schools’. The transmission of this lineage continues today as its vibrancy is attested to by the number of widely acclaimed masters it has produced, and later, it spread its lineage in the West. All Kagyu Schools emphasize the primacy of Mahamudra (Chag-Ja-Chen-Po), which literally means the ‘Great Seal’. The essence of this teaching lies not in the texts or doctrines of Buddhism, but rather in direct, personal realization of truth, which is epitomized in the practice of Mahamudra. Like the practice of Dzogchen in Nyingma, the path of Mahamudra involves directly realizing the luminous nature of mind, which leads to instantaneous self-realization.
The Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism traces its origins to India, particularly to the great adept Virupa, who is the first human to disseminate the most distinctive of its teachings, the practice of the Path and its Fruit (Lamdre). The name Sakya literally means ‘Grey Earth’; the great scholar-practitioner Khon Konchok Gyalpo (1034-1102) founded the Sakya Monastery in 1073. Khon Konchok Gyalpo was a disciple of Drokmi Lotsawa, who had travelled to India, where he studied Sanskrit with the Indian Adept Mahasiddha-Shantipa, one of the great masters of his day. Drokmi was the author of a commentary on the Hevajra-Tantra and he brought the Tantra to Tibet and translated it, and this later became the basic text of Sakya tantric practice. The Sakya lineage has been preserved and disseminated by his succeeding son the ‘Great Sakyapa’ Sachen Kunga Nyingpo (1092-1158), who spread the basic teachings of the Sakya tradition called the Separation from the Four Attachments (Zhenpa-Zhie-Dral). Among Sakya masters who wrote commentaries on these teachings were Jetsun Drakpa Gyaltsen, Sakya Pandita, Ngorchen Kunga Sangpo, and Gorampa Sonam Senge. Later came Sachen Kunga Nyingpo’s son Lobpon Sonam Tsemo (1141-1182) and Jetsun Drakpa Gyaltsen (1147-1216), who both continued the tradition of scholarship and tantric lineage. One of the greatest figures in the early Sakya lineage was Sakya Pandita Kunga Gyaltsen Pel Sangpo (1182-1251). The Sakya School is generally divided into two main sub-sects, the Ngorpa (founded by Ngorchen Kunga Sangpo (1382-1457)) and the Tsarpa (founded by Tsarchen Losel Gyatso (1502-1566). The Ngorpa tradition has been noted for its many great scholars, most notably Gorampa Sonam Senge, who was a student of Ngorchen and Muchen Konchok Gyaltsen (1388-1469). The Tsarpa tradition is particularly noted for its transmission of the ‘Thirteen Golden Doctrines’ (Serchoe-Cusum), and teachings on the Greater and Lesser Mahakala.
The Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism was founded by Je-Tsongkhapa Lobsang Drakpa (1357-1419). He is one of the great figures of Tibetan religious history and a renowned scholar, meditator, and philosopher. His written work contains a comprehensive view of Buddhist philosophy and practice that integrates Sutra and Tantra, analytical reasoning, and Yogic meditation. The beginning of his school can be traced to his founding of Ganden Monastery in 1410. The Gelugpa is also known as ‘Gedhenpa,’ which refers to the Monastery, and ‘Gelukpa,’ which means ‘system of Virtues’. The lineage was continuously preserved and disseminated by Je Tsongkhapa’s two greatest fellow disciples, Gyaltsab Je (1364-1432), and Khedrub Je (1385-1438). Perhaps the greatest legacy of Je-Tsongkhapa was his brilliant synthesis of Buddhist doctrine and practice outlined in his two seminal treatises, The Great Exposition of the Stages of Path (Lam-Rim) and The Great Exposition of Secret Mantra (Ngak-Rim). The Lam-Rim system is also summarized by Je-Tsongkhapa in several shorter texts, the most important of which is his The Three Principal Aspects of the Path (Lam-Tso-Nam-Sum).