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Buddhism, Schools of: Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhism


In introducing the "schools" of Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhism, several different phenomena in the formation of religious traditions must be distinguished. One may speak, for instance, of distinct orders or sects (chos lugs, or more specifically rang rkang btsugs pa'i chos brgyud), religious traditions that are set apart from others by virtue of their institutional independence, that is to say, whose unique character is embodied outwardly in the form of an independent hierarchy and administration, independent properties, and an identifiable membership of some sort. Such corporate religious bodies are of great importance in the Tibetan religious world, but they must not be confounded with lineages (brgyud pa ), continuous successions of spiritual teachers who have transmitted a given body of knowledge over a period of generations but who need not be affiliated with a common order. Lineages may be highly specific, for instance, the line of teachers through which the study of a particular text or ritual method has been transmitted, or they may be of broader reach, as is the case when one speaks of the "lineages of practice" (sgrub brgyud), which have conserved significant bodies of religious tradition, including textual learning, liturgy, practical disciplines, iconographical knowledge, and so on. In this latter sense, lineages have often been the basis for the formation of the distinct orders. Finally, orders and lineages must both be differentiated from schools of thought, grub mtha' ("philosophical systems," equivalent to siddhānta in Sanskrit). The adherent of a given Tibetan Buddhist order will, in the course of his career, usually receive instruction in (or at least derived from) a number of differing lineages and be exposed to several schools of thought. It should be noted, however, that the terminology introduced here is not used in Tibetan with perfect regularity. At least one major author, Thu'u bkwan Chos kyi nyi ma (17371802), adopts the expression grub mtha' to refer to the major orders and lineages of Tibetan Buddhism. Nevertheless, even in this case, the term is chosen precisely because Thu'u bkwan's primary interest is the doctrinal and philosophical orientation of each of the religious traditions he considers.

These apparent complexities of usage had their origins in the very beginnings of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition under the Tibetan Empire of the seventh to ninth centuries. At that time, there was only one Buddhist order active in Tibet, that of the Mūlasarvāstivāda (Tibetan, gzhi thams cad yod par smra ba), one of the eighteen orders of early Indian Buddhism, whose monastic code, or Vinaya, was uniquely adopted by the Tibetans. At the same time, Tibetan Buddhists became familiar with several Indian Buddhist schools of thought, though the Madhyamaka, and in particular the Yogācāra Madhyamaka of the philosopher Śāntarakita (fl. c. 775), appears to have quickly become predominant. In this period too, lineages of instruction in contemplative practice, including some representing Chinese Chan and others associated with Tantric esotericism, began to disseminate their teachings among Tibetans.

Institutional, lineage-based, and philosophical or doctrinal ways of thinking about religious adherence in Tibet were thus from the beginning complementary, and in time they began increasingly to intersect with or to diverge from one another. Hence, the exact classification of the schools of Tibetan Buddhism has posed something of a problem, not only for modern researchers but for traditional Tibetan authorities as well. Thus, for example, Thu'u bkwan (Thuken, 17371802) recognizes eighteen distinct Buddhist traditions in Tibetin this he is no doubt numerologically influenced by the stereotypical division of early Indian Buddhism into eighteen ordersbut nevertheless he considers only seven of these as meriting treatment in depth. By contrast, the renowned fifteenth-century historian 'Gos lo tsā ba Gzhon nu dpal (Gö Lotsawa) organizes his great work, the Deb ther sngon po (Blue annals) on the principle of lineage, of which he treats about a dozen as particularly important but discusses many others inter alia. The eclectic master of the nineteenth century, 'Jam mgon kong sprul Blo gros Mtha' yas (Jamgön Kongtrül, 18131899), arranges his encyclopedia of the major lines of teaching, the Gdams ngag mdzod (Treasury of instructions), according to the scheme of the "eight great lineages of practice," following the enumeration proposed by 'Phreng po gter ston Shes rab 'od zer (Trhengpo tertön, 15171584). Finally, in the system best known in the West, the Tibetan government of the Dalai Lamas from the seventeenth century through 1959 recognized four major orders, though in fact several others continued to be active, even if not granted the status of independent orders by the central Tibetan government.

The Eight Major "Lineages of Practice"

For present purposes, this article considers the major lineages and their roles in the formation of the orders following the scheme of the "eight lineages of practice." Mongolian Buddhist orders have generally been derived directly from their Tibetan antecedents. Accordingly, this article refers to Buddhism among the Mongols where appropriate, to indicate the lines of Tibetan Buddhist transmission to them that were most influential. One must note too that the Tibetan Bon religion, which in its institutional dimensions must be considered a Buddhist order, is generally left out of the classificatory schemes mentioned here, though some writersThu'u bkwan is perhaps the best-known examplehave also considered it in this context. As Bon is treated in the present work in a separate article, it will not be discussed here.

The "Ancient Translation Tradition"

(Snga 'gyur rnying ma pa) includes all of those lines of teaching that maintain that their esoteric and Tantric traditions were derived from the texts and instructions transmitted during the time of the Tibetan monarchs of the eighth to ninth centuries, Khri Srong lde'u btsan (Trhi Songdetsen, 742c. 797) above all. By the late tenth century such lineages were continued primarily by a lay priesthood that increasingly came to be attacked by proponents of the "new mantra traditions" (gsang sngags gsar ma ) for adhering to esoteric teachings that, so the critics declared, had been corrupted. The formation of a distinctive Rnying ma pa (Nyingmapa) tradition was in some respects a reaction to such charges and involved both the elaboration of historical apologetics and the codification of the older Tantric transmissions, their special doctrines, and the rites connected with them.

Historically, the Rnying ma pa asserted the preeminence of the Indian Tantric master Padmasambhava, who came to be effectively deified. Other Indian and Tibetan masters of the eighth to ninth centuries, notably Vimalamitra and the translator Vairocana, were also claimed as forebearers. The teaching of these figures was considered to emphasize the organization of the whole gamut of Buddhist doctrine and practice into nine sequential vehicles (theg pa rim pa dgu ), of which the last three, comprising the esoteric instructions of the highest Tantras, represented the distinctive heritage of the Rnying ma pa. The pinnacle of the system was taken to be the abstract and visionary approach to contemplation known as the Great Perfection (rdzogs chen [dzogchen]), the authenticity of which was sometimes contested by adherents of the newer schools. From the twelfth century onward, the Rnying ma pa came to rely increasingly on a tradition of renewed revelation, mostly of Padmasambhava's teachings, referred to as "treasure doctrines" (gter chos ). Though widely contested, these came to play a major role in the formation of Tibetan religious culture generally.

The Rnying ma pa have always had an important following among lay Tantric adepts (sngags pa ), sometimes organized in village-based communities. Though identifiable Rnying ma pa monastic institutions existed during the twelfth century and perhaps earlier, the organization of the Rnying ma pa as a distinct monastic order seems largely to have emerged during the seventeenth century and reflects in part the political reforms of Tibetan religious organization under the government of the fifth Dalai Lama (16171682). At the same time, important lines of Rnying ma pa teaching have been preserved among the nonRnying ma pa orders, including, for instance, the rites of the Tantric deities Vajrakīla and Yang dag Heruka among the Sa skya pa (Sakyapa), the "exceptionally secret" form of the deity Hayagrīva (Rta mgrin yang gsang ) among the Dge lugs pa (Gelukpa), and the traditions of the Tibetan Book of the Dead and many other teachings derived from the treasure doctrines among the Bka' brgyud pa (Kagyupa).

Despite its emphasis on the practice of Tantric esotericism and though it has relied during much of its history on familial lineages of lay priests, the Rnying ma pa traditions have sometimes given rise to masters of the monastic traditions of Buddhist scholarship who have formulated distinctive doctrinal syntheses inspired by the special features of the Rnying ma pa teaching. Among the foremost are the lay adept Bsnubs Sangs rgyas ye shes (Nup Sangye Yeshe, c. tenth century), Rong zom Chos kyi bzang po (Rongzom Chözang, eleventh century), Klong chen Rab 'byams pa (Longchen Rabjampa, 13081363), Lo chen Dharmaśrī (16541717), 'Jigs med gling pa (Jikme Lingpa, 17301798), and Mi pham rgya mtsho (Mipham Gyatso, b18461912).

The "Tradition of [the Buddha's] Transmitted Precepts and Instructions"

(Bka' gdams pa [Kadampa]) is traced to the activity of the Bengali master Atīśa (9821054) and his leading Tibetan disciples, notably 'Brom ston Rgyal ba'i 'byung gnas (Dromtön, 11041163). As the first of the new orders formed beginning in the eleventh century, it had its immediate antecedents in the late-tenth-century Buddhist revival in the Gu ge kingdom of western Tibet, spearheaded by the monk-king of Gu ge, Ye shes 'od (Yeshe-ö), and the celebrated translator Rin chen bzang po (Rinchen Zangpo, 9581055). By 1042, when Atīśa accepted the invitation of the former's successor, Byang chub 'od (Changcup-ö), to proceed to Tibet from the Vikramaśīla monastery in northeastern India, the renewal of Buddhism had been an ongoing concern in Gu ge for almost a century. After three years in residence there, where he composed his famous treatise on the Mahāyāna path, the Byang chub lam gyi sgron ma (Lamp for the path of enlightenment), Atīśa traveled to central Tibet and remained there for the last decade of his life. The Bka' gdams pa, as a distinctive order embodying his tradition of teaching, received institutional form after his lay disciple, 'Brom ston, founded the monastery of Rwa sgreng (Reting) in 1057.

The Bka' gdams pa were distinguished by a marked concern for moral rigor in the pursuit of the bodhisattva 's path. In some branches of the tradition, this resulted in an extreme emphasis on spiritual cultivation to the exclusion of the pursuit of learning. At the same time, Atīśa's own scholarly proclivities meant that some of his successors tended by contrast to emphasize study, so that the Bka' gdams pa were equally associated with the development of scholasticism at Gsang phu (Sangphu, founded 1071) and other monastic colleges. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the Bka' gdams pa monastery of Snar thang (Narthang) emerged as a prominent scholastic center, renowned in particular for its traditions of learning in the abhidharma and other fields of Buddhist philosophy.

Owing to Atīśa's association with the Gu ge kings, who were suspicious of the moral excesses attributed to certain adherents of the Tantras, and owing to certain cautions expressed in Atīśa's own writings, the Bka' gdams pa are sometimes regarded as a non-Tantric lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. Atīśa himself, however, was a Tantric adept and, despite the concerns expressed by some among his more puritanical Tibetan disciples, he did teach aspects of Tantrism in Tibet. His role in the promotion of the cults of Avalokiteśvara and Tārā was particularly great, and he is widely associated as well with an important tradition of instruction in the Guhyasamāja Tantra. Nevertheless, the characteristic emphasis of his teaching was upon the exoteric Mahāyāna doctrine of "emptiness imbued with compassion" (stong nyid snying rje'i snying po can ; Sanskrit, śunyatā karuāgarbhā ), his insistence on which came to be emulated by all Tibetan Buddhist traditions. His Bka' gdams pa successors created a remarkable corpus of literature concerning spiritual exercise, called "training (or purification) of the mind" (blo sbyong ), in which such common acts as eating and drinking, walking, going to sleep, and even breathing serve as focal points for the cultivation of spiritual love and a keen sense of the relativity of transient things.

The Bka' gdams pa tradition was therefore diverse in its nature, embodying elements of Mahāyāna ethical teaching, Tantrism, and formal Buddhist scholasticism. Its legacy was very widespread, and all of the later Tibetan orders, including the post-eleventh-century Rnying ma pa, reflect this to a great degree. Nevertheless, it was the Dge lugs pa order, whose foundation was inspired by Rje Tsong kha pa during the fifteenth century, that most self-consciously took up the Bka' gdams pa mantle, even adopting "new Bka' gdams pa" as a proper designation.

The "Tradition of the Path with Its Fruit"

(Lam 'bras bu dang bcas pa) was derived ultimately from the teachings of the Indian mahāsiddha Virūpa as introduced into Tibet by 'Brog mi Lo tsā ba Śākya Ye shes (Drokmi, 9921072) on the basis of the instructions of the paita Gayadhara. This way of esoteric practice was based primarily upon the Hevajra Tantra, and though it enjoyed a very wide diffusion, giving rise to a great many lines of transmission, it became from early on a special concern of the Sa skya pa order, which, with its suborders, has remained the particular guardians of the "Path and Fruit." In its fundamentals, the teaching of the Path and Fruit emphasizes as foundational an understanding of the "three visions" (snang gsum ): the impure vision of ordinary beings immersed in sasāra, the vision of spiritual experience that characterizes the bodhisattva progressing on the path, and the pure vision of enlightenment. On this basis, one may embark upon the actual practice of the Hevajra Tantra, conceived in terms of "three continua" (rgyud gsum ): the continuum of the ground, the nature of mind as forming a basis for spiritual progress; the continuum of the methodical path of yoga; and the continuum of the result, that is, the attainment of the gnosis of buddhahood.

The founding figure of the Sa skya pa was 'Khon Dkon mchog rgyal po (Khön Könchog Gyalpo, 10341102), who abandoned his clan's hereditary Rnying ma pa affiliations to become a disciple of 'Brog mi and in 1073 established the temple of Go rum at Sa skya, henceforth the family seat of the 'Khon clan. His family line produced, during the generations that followed, a succession of masters, the "five forebearers" (gong ma lnga ), of capital importance for the entire later history of Tibetan Buddhism. Sa chen Kun dga' snying po (Sachen Kunga Nyingpo, 10921158), Dkon mchog rgyal po's son, did much to impart a distinctive character to the early Sa skya tradition, that of an aristocratic household that patronized the Buddhist religion generally, valued the refinement of learning, and maintained a special proficiency in Tantric ritual and yoga. One of 'Brog mi's chief successors, Zhang ston Chos 'bar (Zhangdön Chöbar, 10531135) became Sa chen's tutor, nurturing his charge to be a preeminent exponent of the system of the "Path and Fruit." Two of Sa chen's sons, Bsod nams rtse mo (Sönam Tsemo, 11421182) and Grags pa rgyal mtshan (Trakpa Gyaltsen, 11471216), while following their father in remaining laymen, exclusively dedicated themselves to the family's religious and ritual tradition. It is in the writings of Grags pa rgyal mtshan that the Path and Fruit was definitively codified. He also was tutor to his nephew, Sa skya Paita Kun dga' rgyal mtshan (Sakya Paita Kunga Gyaltsen, 11821251), a monk who came to be recognized as one of the leading scholars of his day. Besides his numerous contributions to many branches of Tibetan learning, it was under his leadership that the Sa skya pa emerged as a major monastic order. His famous journey in 1246 to meet the ruler of the Mongol Empire, Godan Khan, came to be seen as the precedent for the Mongols' adoption of Buddhism, and his nephew, Chos rgyal 'Phags pa (Chögyal Phakpa, 12351280), the last of the five forebearers, became the spiritual preceptor of the Mongol ruler of China, Kublai Khan.

As a monastic order, the Sa skya pa have continued to emphasize training in refined textual scholarship, balanced with the practice of the esotericism of the Hevajra Tantra as taught in the Path and Fruit tradition. Of their two leading suborders, the Ngor pa (Ngorpa), founded by Ngor chen Kun dga' bzang po (Ngorchen Kunga Zangpo, 13821456), and Tshar pa (Tsarpa), the former has enjoyed an extensive following, particularly in far eastern Tibet. The Sa skya pa produced a long line of outstanding doctrinal writers, who may be counted among the leading contributors to the development of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy. Noteworthy are Red mda' ba Gzhon nu blo gros (Remdawa, 13491412), Rong ston Shes bya kun gzigs (Rongtön, 13671449), Gser mdog Pachen Śākya mchog ldan (Serdok Panchen, 14281507), and Go rams pa Bsod nams seng ge (Gorampa, 14291489). Far from representing a unitary school dogma, these figures show considerable diversity in their approaches to the interpretation of Buddhist philosophical perspectives.

The "Succession of the Transmitted Precepts of Mar pa"

(Mar pa bka' brgyud), most often referred to as Bka' brgyud pa, had as its particular domain the teachings of the Indian masters Tilopa (c. 9881069), Nāropa (10161100), and Maitrīpa (10071085) as transmitted to Mar pa Chos kyi blo gros (Marpa, 1002/10121097). His tradition stressed the six doctrines (chos drug ) of yogic practice and the culminating meditations of the great seal (phyag rgya chen po ; Sanskrit, mahāmudrā ), whereby the limits of all phenomena of sasāra and nirvāa are determined (hence, "sealed") in the realization of the ultimate nature of mind. The six yogas are:

  1. Inner Heat (gtum mo ), whereby the adept learns to master the subtle physical energies of the body;
  2. Body of Apparition (sgyu lus ), through which the illusion-like nature of ordinary experience becomes known;
  3. Dream (rmi lam ), in which one achieves the ability to consciously explore and to transform the possibilities that are revealed during dreams;
  4. Radiant Light ('od gsal), referring to the luminous dimension of the mind;
  5. Transference ('pho ba ), the means to cause one's consciousness to leave the body abruptly at the moment of death and to seek rebirth in a pure realm;
  6. Intermediate State (bar do ), which here refers primarily to the state of consciousness in the course of migration between death and rebirth.

The first four enable one to attain enlightenment swiftly during this very lifetime, the last two to achieve it at death.

The proliferation of lineages adhering to the teachings of Mar pa was extensive, and the many lines of instruction that arose among his followers and their successors almost all created their own distinctive formulations of the Bka' brgyud teaching. As Mar pa and his major disciples were laymen, these were initially transmitted primarily within familial lineages. Of these, the line of the Rngog (Ngok) clan enjoyed a particular eminence for their mastery of the esoteric lore of the maala, while the Mes specialized in the exegetical traditions of the Guhyasamāja Tantra.

Mar pa's foremost disciple was the yogin Mi la ras pa (Milarepa, 1028/10401111/1123), who came to be regarded as Tibet's greatest poet and as a cultural hero exemplifying the ideal of the Tantric adept. His many students, such as Ras chung pa Rdo rje grags (Rechungpa Dorje Drak, 10841161), mostly adhered to his model, but one, Sgam po pa Bsod nams rin chen (Gampopa Sonam Rinchen, 10791153), was a former physician who had been ordained as a monk in the Bka' gdams pa order following his young wife's tragic passing. It was Sgam po pa who formed the Bka' brgyud pa into a monastic order, and by stressing the path of gradual ethical self-cultivation as taught by the Bka' gdams pa, he created a unique synthesis of that teaching with the properly Bka' brgyud pa systems of yoga. Known as the "blending of the two streams" (chu bo gnyis 'dres ), this synthesis has remained the normative teaching of all of the Bka' brgyud pa suborders. These are usually referred to as the "four great Bka' brgyud orders" (bka' brgyud che bzhi ) founded by Sgam po pa's immediate disciples, among whom the leading disciples of Phag mo gru pa Rdo rje rgyal po (Phakmotrupa, 11101170) founded eight "lesser" orders (chung brgyad ). (The terms great and lesser refer solely to their relative proximity to Sgam po pa and imply neither a quantitative nor a qualitative judgment.) The first Karma pa hierarch, Dus gsum mkhyen pa (Dusum Khyenpa, 11101193), is numbered among the four "greats," whereas 'Bri gung Skyob pa 'Jig rten gsum mgon (Drigung Kyopa, 11431217) was prominent among the founders of the eight "lesser" orders. Among the eight is also counted Gling rje ras pa Padma rdo rje (Lingje Repa, 11281188), whose disciple Gtsang pa Rgya ras (Tsangpa Gyare, 11611211) founded the 'Brug pa (Drukpa) Bka' brgyud pa order, which in turn gave rise to several major suborders of its own. (The 'Brug pa later established itself as the religion of the state in Bhutan, a position it retains in the early twenty-first century.)

Some branches of the Bka' brgyud pa began to "internationalize" with patronage from the Xixia (or Tangut) Kingdom during the twelfth to thirteenth centuries, resulting in their competing with the Sa skya pa for Mongol support after the fall of Xixia in 1227. The second and third Karma pa hierarchs, Karma Pakshi (12041283) and Rang byung rdo rje (Rangjung Dorje, 12841339), both charismatic teachers and prolific writers, were among those who received imperial honors in China, whereas the 'Bri gung pa branch of the Bka' brgyud pa allied itself with the Mongol dynasty of Iran. Following the decline of Mongol power in Tibet during the mid-fourteenth century, given the loss of patronage this entailed for the Sa skya pa, it was the Phag mo gru pa Bka' brgyud pa order that came to dominate Tibetan affairs. The formal institution of Bka' brgyud pa colleges, emphasizing Buddhist scholastic study, dates from this time. For the next two centuries, Bka' brgyud pa masters made considerable contributions to the ongoing development of Tibetan philosophy, literature, and art. Examples include the seventh and eighth Karma pa hierarchs, Chos grags rgya mtsho (Chodrak Gyatso, 1450/14541506) and Mi bskyod rdo rje (Mikyo Dorje, 15071554), and theorists of the Tantras, Dwags po Bkra shis rnam rgyal (Dakpo Tashi Namgyal, 15121587) and the fourth 'Brug chen hierarch, Padma dkar po (Pemakarpo, 15271592). Later luminaries of the Bka' brgyud traditions include Karma Chags med (Karma Chakme, d. 1678), who elaborated an original synthesis of the mahāmudrā and Great Perfection approaches to contemplation, and Ta'i Si tu Chos kyi 'byung gnas (Situ Chöki Jungne, 16991774), editor of the famed Sde dge edition of the Kanjur and a renowned scholar of linguistics. Mar pa Bka' brgyud pa teachings have been widely transmitted among nonBka' brgyud pa orders, for instance among the Dge lugs pa, a considerable portion of whose esoteric traditions originated in Mar pa's lineage.

The "Succession of the Transmitted Precepts of Shangs"

(Shangs pa bka' brgyud) took its name from the Shangs Valley, where the early-twelfth-century master Khyung po Rnal 'byor, "the yogin of the Eagle clan," founded his community. Though there is considerable uncertainty about his precise dates and traditional chronologies generally assign his birth to the year 990, he appears in fact to have been born half a century or so later. Originally an adherent of the Bon religion, he converted to Buddhism and became at first a follower of the Rnying ma pa tradition. Like many others of his generation, however, he regarded India as the source of uniquely authoritative Buddhist teachings and so left Tibet to pursue his path in the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal and in India proper.

During his travels in India Khyung po Rnal 'byor is supposed to have met numerous Tantric masters, including some who were at that time famed throughout the Tibetan Buddhist world. His foremost teachers, however, were two remarkable women, Niguma and Sukhasiddhi, the first of whom is referred to in his biography as Nāropa's "lady," a term that in this context is usually taken to mean "elder sister," though some say that Niguma had been Nāropa's wife. From Niguma, Khyung po learned a system of six yogas resembling the system taught by Nāropa as transmitted by Mar pa but differing primarily in its notable emphasis upon the topics of apparition and dream. The "six doctrines of Niguma" (ni gu chos drug ), as they are known, continue to be practiced by Tibetan Buddhist adepts in the early twenty-first century. Khyung po's teaching as a whole was analogized to a tree, with the six doctrines as its roots, the "great seal" for its truck, the "three means for integrating ordinary experience with the path" as branches, the red and white forms of the sky-faring goddess, Khecarī, for flowers, and as the fruit, the realization that body and mind are deathless and without deviation.

The line of Khyung po Rnal 'byor's disciplesRmog lcog pa (Mokcokpa), Dbon ston Skyer sgang pa (Öntön Kyergangpa), Gnyan ston (Nyentön), down to Sangs rgyas ston pa (Sangye Tönpa, 12191290)uniquely transmitted the entire body of these precepts in a strictly secret lineage until the last mentioned began to disseminate them among practitioners of Tantric yoga. The early secrecy of the lineage contributes to considerable historical obscurity, though hagiographies of Khyung po and his successors do exist. Though there were a small number of properly Shangs pa hermitages at times, the Shangs pa were never established as an independent order and their doctrinal lineage was transmitted in later times among the Karma Bka' brgyud, Dge lugs pa, Sa skya pa, Jo nang pa, Rnying ma pa, and Zhwa lu pa orders. More recently, the Shangs pa teachings have aroused considerable interest among Buddhists in the West owing to the widespread activity of their leading twentieth-century representative, Kalu Rinpoche Rang byung kun khyab (19051989).

Zhi byed and Gcod

The related lineages of Zhi byed (zhije) ("Pacification") and Gcod (cö) ("Severance") originated respectively with the enigmatic Indian yogin Pha Dam pa Sangs rgyas (Phadampa Sangye, d. 1117) and his remarkable Tibetan successor, the yoginī Ma gcig lab sgron (Machig Labdron, c. 10551149). Although schools specializing in Pacificationas exemplified by the lineages of Rma Chos kyi shes rab (Ma Chöki Sherab, b. 1055), So chung Dge 'dun 'bar (Sochung Gendünbar, 10621128), and Ka Ye shes rgyal mtshan (Kam Yeshe Gyaltsen, d. 1119)were very widespread during the twelfth to fourteenth centuries, the teaching all but disappeared in later times. Pha Dam pa continued to be revered as a cultural hero, and the verse aphorisms attributed to himDing ri brgya rtsa (Century for the people of Ding ri)is a popular classic of Tibetan gnomic literature. Severance, by contrast, permeated the entire Tibetan Buddhist tradition and is in the early twenty-first century preserved by all orders. Both of these systems of instruction seek to bring about realization as it is understood in the "Perfection of Wisdom" (Sanskrit, Prajñāpāramitā ) sūtras by means inspired by esoteric Buddhist practice. This takes particularly dramatic form in the traditions of Severance, whose exquisite liturgies involve the adept's symbolic offering of his or her own body as food for all beings throughout the universe.

The "Yoga of Indestructible Reality"

(Rdo rje'i rnal 'byor) designates the system of yoga associated with the Kālacakra Tantra, the "Wheel of Time," which was transmitted in Tibet initially by Gyi jo Lo tsā ba Zla ba'i 'od zer during the early eleventh century. A great many other lineages specializing in this Tantra also arose, so that it became one of the dominant esoteric traditions of the early second millennium.

The Kālacakra proposes in effect a system of universal knowledge, including astronomical calculation, medical tradition, and above all mastery of the internal disciplines of yoga. Indeed, these three domainsthat of the universe without, the body within, and the esoteric realm of yogaare treated homologously here, mapped onto one and the same divine maala. The Kālacakra became the basis for the Tibetan calendrical system among other branches of learning.

As a system of Tantric contemplative practice, the Kālacakra stresses a system of six yogas (sbyor drug ): "withdrawal" and "absorption" are the yogas of body, whereby the purification of the subtle, central channel is achieved; "breath-control" and "restraint" are the yogas of speech, whereby the vital energies are caused to enter the central channel and to be stabilized; "recollection" is the yoga of mind, whereby the incorruptibility of the enlightened mind is attained; and finally, "concentration" is the refinement of gnosis, whereby the coalescence of bliss and emptiness is realized.

During the fourteenth century, two approaches to the interpretation and practice of the Kālacakra became predominant. The first was that of Zhwa lu Monastery, which was given its decisive formulation in the writings of the celebrated scholar and editor of the canon, Bu ston Rin chen grub (Butön Rinchendrub, 12901364). Though Bu ston's background was in the Bka' brgyud tradition, Zhwa lu was a clan-based monastery tied to the Lce family, so that it was regarded as representing a small but independent order. The second major Kālacakra tradition emerged at the monastery of Jo nang, which in its origins was in essence a Kālacakra hermitage. Its chief representative was the philosophically controversial master Dol po pa Shes rab rgyal mtshan (Dölpopa, 12921361). While these two contemporaries were both widely revered, they arrived at opposing conclusions regarding the Kālacakra's teaching in relation to Buddhist philosophy. For Dol po pa, the Tantra supported the controversial view that the definitive doctrine of Mahāyāna Buddhism was that of buddha-nature, not emptiness, so that the absolute could be considered not as empty in itself but only as extrinsically empty (gzhan stong ) with respect to relative phenomena. In its own nature it was, rather, a plenitude of the qualities of the highest enlightenment. But, by contrast, Bu ston held that the discourse of buddha-nature was itself a relative way of speaking of the emptiness that stood as the true heart of the doctrine. The latter came to be favored in the Dge lugs pa order, and it is the "Bu ston tradition" (bu lugs ) of the Kālacakra that continues to be transmitted in that order in the early twenty-first century, above all by the fourteenth Dalai Lama (b. 1935). The Jo nang pa order, which was suppressed for political reasons by the government of the fifth Dalai Lama during the seventeenth century, continued nevertheless to thrive in some parts of far eastern Tibet. Its controversial teaching of extrinsic emptiness became an important element in the nineteenth-century eclectic movement in Khams. The greatest of the Jo nang pa masters following Dol po pa was Rje btsun Tāranātha (15751634), a celebrated historian and Tantric commentator, whose later incarnation was recognized within the Dge lugs pa order in Mongolia. Known as the Jebtsundampa Hutukhtu, he was regarded as the "Dalai Lama of the Mongols" in pre-Communist society.

The "Service and Attainment of the Three Indestructible Realities"

(Rdo rje gsum gyi bsnyen sgrub) represents what is in the early twenty-first century an extremely rare lineage of instruction, focusing upon the internal yoga of the subtle energy channels and vital energy and stemming from the teaching of the divine Vajrayoginī, as gathered by the Tibetan adept O rgyan pa Rin chen dpal (Orgyenpa Rinchenpal, 12301309) during his extensive travels in the northwestern quarters of the Indian subcontinent. The teaching was popularized by O rgyan pa's successors during the fourteenth century, when several commentaries on it were composed, but subsequently it seems to have lapsed into obscurity. O rgyan pa also figures prominently as a transmitter of several of the major Bka' brgyud pa lineages, notably the 'Brug pa and Karma pa traditions.

The Emergence of the Dge lugs pa Order

During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the religious life of Tibet was dominated by the Sa skya pa and by the proliferation of Bka' brgyud pa suborders, most of which were, like the Sa skya pa, closely associated with important aristocratic households. The Bka' gdams pa maintained their prominence, whereas several smaller orders, especially the Jo nang pa and the Zhwa lu pa, had achieved considerable renown. Though the other lines of teaching discussed aboveShangs pa, Zhi byed, and Gcodwere also widely transmitted at this time, it is less clear that well-defined monastic orders had been formed on their basis. In addition, there were some monasteriesfor example, Gnas rnying not far from Rgyal rtse (modern Gyantse)which must be considered as representing unique orders in their own right and as sometimes enjoying considerable local influence. A further example along these lines is offered by the monastery of Bo dong, near the Yam 'brog lake, whose great master Phyogs las rnam rgyal (Chokle Namgyal, 13761451) created his own vast synthesis of Buddhist learning comprising over 130 volumes.

The most important development, however, was the emergence of an altogether new order, the Dga' ldan pa (Gandenpa), later best known as Dge lugs pa, the "Virtuous Ones." The founder of the Dge lugs pa was the great scholar Rje Tsong kha pa Blo bzang grags pa (Je Tsongkhapa, 13571419), who, however, certainly had no intention to create a new order. He saw himself, rather, as a custodian and rectifier of received tradition. Born in the far northeastern Tibetan province of Amdo (modern Qinghai), he came to central Tibet as a teenager and pursued rigorous studies with all the foremost luminaries of the age, including teachers of the Bka' gdams pa, Sa skya pa, Bka' brgyud pa, Zhwa lu pa, and Jo nang pa traditions. His dedication to the Bka' gdams pa teaching of the progressive path of the bodhisattva was such that he and his successors often came to be thought of as "new Bka' gdams pa" (Bka' gdams gsar ma), and his treatise Lam rim chen mo (Great progression of the path) is renowned as a definitive expression of this approach. From his main Sa skya pa teacher, Red mda' ba Gzhon nu blo gros (13491412), he acquired a special concern for the interpretation of the Prāsagika-Mādhyamika philosophy of the Indian master Candrakīrti (c. 600650) as well as an orientation to Tantrism that emphasized the primacy of the Guhyasamāja Tantra.

Moreover, it was in collaboration with Red mda' ba that Tsong kha pa undertook his celebrated reform of the practice of the monastic code, or Vinaya. In his Tantric teachings, Tsong kha pa to a great extent continued Bka' brgyud pa traditions as well as the yoga of the Kālacakra Tantra as taught in the Jo nang pa and Zhwa lu pa orders. Nevertheless, he thoroughly rejected the "extrinsic emptiness" doctrine of Dol po pa, regarding it as an extreme representative of persistent Tibetan misunderstandings of the Yogācāra philosophy of India, and though accepting the authority of the Prāsagika-Mādhyamika, he developed his own distinctive interpretation thereof, which in many respects was not anticipated in the work of Red mda' ba. In short, though drawing on earlier tradition, Tsong kha pa formulated a novel synthesis of the Indian Buddhist legacy, strongly emphasizing careful textual study and the demands of logic.

Tsong kha pa attracted large numbers of talented disciples, who began at some point to refer to themselves after the name of the monastery their master had founded in 1409, Dga' ldan. This was soon replaced by the near-homonym Dge ldan pa ("virtuous"), which in turn gave way to the synonym Dge lugs pa. Because Tsong kha pa had followed the tradition of Bu ston in adopting a yellow ceremonial hat, in contrast to the red that was widely favored, his successors became known popularly as "yellow hats" (zhwa ser ).

Tsong kha pa's followers appear to have shared a strong sense of corporate identity, reflected doctrinally in the writings of his leading students, including Rgyal tshab rje Dar ma rin chen (Gyaltsapje, 13641432), Mkhas grub rje Dge legs dpal bzang (Khedrupje, 13851438), and Dge 'dun grub pa (Gendün Drupa, 13911474), posthumously considered to be the first Dalai Lama. At the same time, a large number of new monastic centers emphasizing adherence to the Vinaya and rigorous programs of study based on the sustained practice of debate were established to promulgate his teaching. Examples include Se ra (1419) and 'Bras spungs (1416), in the vicinity of Lhasa. The latter, with as many as ten thousand monks, was, prior to 1959, considered to be the largest monastic community in the world. With the conversion by Bsod nams rgya mtsho (Sonam Gyatso, the third Dalai Lama) of the Mongol leader Altan Khan in 1578, the Dge lugs pa order became the predominant Tibetan Buddhist tradition among the Mongols, a position it continued to enjoy in the early twenty-first century.

Mongol intervention in Tibetan affairs brought about the consolidation of political power by the fifth Dalai Lama in 1642, so that the Dge lugs pa became, from this point on, the effective masters of Tibet. Coming in the wake of the preceding decades of civil strife, in which warring factions were generally allied with different orders, the Dalai Lama's regime sought to consolidate their control in part by a reorganization of religion. Numerous new Dge lugs pa monasteries were established throughout the country. Some older centers, particularly those of orders, such as the Karma pa and 'Brug pa Bka' brgyud pa, that had been allied with the Dge lugs pa's rivals, were forcibly converted. The Jo nang pa were altogether suppressed except for one nunnery within the Dalai Lama's domains. (The Bka' gdams pa by this time had been mostly absorbed into the Dge lugs pa order and so no longer had an independent existence.) Despite these politically impelled changes and despite the insistence by some of the more extreme sectarian proponents that only one order need be recognized, it was generally agreed that some degree of plurality was nevertheless desirable. This came to be expressed in the notion that there were but four Tibetan Buddhist ordersRnying ma pa, Sa skya pa, Bka' brgyud pa, and Dge lugs paa conception formalized by the official ranks and titles conferred by the government upon the hierarchs of these traditions.

See Also

Bon; Buddhism, articles on Buddhism in Mongolia, Buddhism in Tibet; Dge lugs pa; Mādhyamika; Tibetan Religions, overview article; Yogācāra.


Aziz, Barbara Nimri. "Indian Philosopher as Tibetan Folk Hero." Central Asiatic Journal 23, nos. 12 (1979): 1937. On Pha dam pa Sangs rgyas, founder of the Zhi byed lineage, as known in the folklore of the Ding ri region.

Batchelor, Stephen, ed. The Jewel in the Lotus: A Guide to the Buddhist Traditions of Tibet. Boston and London, 1987. Useful introductory anthology of readings from the major traditions.

Chang, Garma Chen Chi. The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa. 2 vols. New Hyde Park, N.Y., 1962. Translation of a key text of the Bka' brgyud pa tradition.

Chattopadhyaya, Alaka. Atiśa and Tibet: Life and Works of Dīpamkara Śrījñāna in Relation to the History and Religion of Tibet. 2d ed. Delhi, 1981. Study of the life, works, and legacy of the eleventh-century Bengali master.

Dreyfus, Georges. The Sound of Two Hands Clapping. Berkeley, Calif., 2003. Invaluable exploration of Tibetan monastic education in the Dge lugs pa order.

Dudjom Rinpoche, Jigdrel Yeshe Dorje. The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism: Its Fundamentals and History. Translated by Gyurme Dorje and Matthew Kapstein. Boston, 1991. A leading twentieth-century master's summation of the traditions of his order.

Edou, Jérôme. Machig Labdrön and the Foundations of Chöd. Ithaca, N.Y., 1996. Accessible introduction to the teachings of the Gcod lineage.

Kapstein, Matthew. "The Shangs-pa bKa'-brgyud: An Unknown Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism." In Tibetan Studies in Honour of Hugh Richardson, edited by Michael Aris and Aung San Suu Kyi, pp. 136143. Warminster, U.K., 1979. Historical introduction to the Shangs pa Bka' brgyud pa.

Kapstein, Matthew. "The Illusion of Spiritual Progress." In Paths to Liberation: The Marga and Its Transformations in Buddhist Thought, edited by Robert Buswell and Robert Gimello, pp. 193224. Honolulu, 1991. Study of the Shangs pa founder Khyung po rnal 'byor's revelations in India.

Kapstein, Matthew T. "gDams-ngag: Tibetan Technologies of the Self." In Tibetan Literature: Studies in Genre, edited by José Ignacio Cabezón and Roger R. Jackson. Ithaca, N.Y., 1996. Introduction to the eight major lineages.

Kapstein, Matthew T. The Tibetan Assimilation of Buddhism: Conversion, Contestation, and Memory. Oxford, 2000. Includes studies of the formation of some of the major lineages.

Karma Thinlay (Karma phrin las). The History of the Sixteen Karmapas of Tibet. Boulder, Colo., 1978. Lives of the hierarchs of the Karma Bka' brgyud pa.

Khenpo Rinpoche Könchog Gyaltsen, with Katherine Rogers. The Garland of Mahamudra Practices. Ithaca, N.Y., 1986; 2d ed., 2002.

Lhalungpa, Lobsang, trans. The Life of Milarepa. New York, 1977; reprint, Boulder, Colo., 1984. Translation of Gtsang smyon's influential biography of the great Bka' brgyud pa saint.

Lhalungpa, Lobsang, trans. and ed. Mahāmudrā: The Quintessence of Mind and Meditation. Boston and London, 1985. Translation of an important treatise on the key Bka' brgyud pa contemplative teaching.

Nālandā Translation Committee. The Life of Marpa the Translator. Boulder, Colo., 1982; reprint, 1995. Translation of Gtsang smyon's biography of the Bka' brgyud pa founder.

Nālandā Translation Committee. The Rain of Wisdom. Boulder, Colo., 1980; reprint, 1999. Translation of a noted anthology of Bka' brgyud pa religious poems.

Orofino, Giacomella. Contributo allo studio dell'insegnamento di Ma gcig lab sgron. Naples, Italy, 1987. On the teachings attributed to Ma gcig lab sgron, founder of the Gcod tradition.

Riggs, Nicole. Like an Illusion: Lives of the Shangpa Kagyu Masters. Eugene, Ore., 2001. Abridged translation of the hagiographies of the Shangs pa bka' brgyud pa.

Roerich, George, trans. The Blue Annals. 2d ed. Delhi, 1976. Translation of 'Gos lo tsā ba's magisterial record of Tibetan Buddhist lineage histories.

Ruegg, David S. "The Jo-na-pas: A School of Buddhist Ontologists according to the Grub-mtha' sel-gyi-me-lon." Journal of the American Oriental Society 83 (1963): 7391. The Jo nang pa philosophy as seen by its Dge lugs pa opponents.

Ruegg, David S. The Life of Bu ston Rin po che. Rome, 1966. Translation of the biography of the leading representative of the Zhwa lu pa order.

Sherburne, Richard, trans. A Lamp for the Path and Commentary of Atīśa. London, 1983. Translation of Atīśa's fundamental treatise on the path of the bodhisattva.

Smith, E. Gene. Among Tibetan Texts. Boston, 2001. See pp. 5357. Collected studies by the leading authority on the general history of Tibetan religious literature.

Snellgrove, David L. Indo-Tibetan Buddhism: Indian Buddhists and Their Tibetan Successors. Boston, 1987. Far-ranging overview of the history of esoteric Buddhism.

Sopa, Geshe Lhundub, Roger Jackson, and John Newman. The Wheel of Time: The Kalachakra in Context. Madison, Wis., 1985; reprint, Ithaca, N.Y., 1991. Useful introduction to the Kālacakra system.

Stearns, Cyrus. Buddha from Dolpo. Albany, N.Y., 1999. Biographical study of the leading Jo nang pa master, Dol po pa, with extracts from his writings.

Thurman, Robert A. F. Tsong Khapa's Speech of Gold in the Essence of True Eloquence. Princeton, N.J., 1984. Study and translation of one of Tsong kha pa's major philosophical contributions.

Matthew T. Kapstein (2005)

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