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Rnying ma pa (Nyingmapa) School


RNYING MA PA (NYINGMAPA) SCHOOL . The expression "Rnying ma (Nyingma) pa school" may be used to refer to the Rnying ma (Nyingma) pa order of Tibetan Buddhism, as well as to the broad range of lineages claiming to derive their authority from the early transmission of Buddhism in Tibet during the seventh through ninth centuries. A common mytho-historical view of the origins of their tradition, as well as adherence to similar doctrinal and ritual foundations, serve to distinguish the Rnying ma pa from the other major trends in Tibetan Buddhism. At the same time, elements of Rnying ma pa ritual and contemplative practice play a role, sometimes an important one, within the non-Rnying ma pa orders.

The Rnying ma pa stand in a distinctive relationship to all other traditions of Tibetan religion. As their name, which literally means the "ancients," suggests, the school maintains that it uniquely represents the ancient Buddhism of Tibet, introduced during the reigns of the great kings of Tibet's imperial age. Fundamental to the distinctions informing Tibetan views of religious adherence is a broad division between the "ancient translation tradition" (snga 'gyur rnying ma ) and the "new mantra traditions" (gsang sngags gsar ma ), where mantra refers to Buddhist esotericism, or Tantrism, as it is called in the West, in general. The former includes all of those lines of teaching that eventually came to be grouped together under the rubric Rnying ma pa. Their identity, however, was formed only after the tenth century, when the proponents of the newly introduced esoteric systems began to attack the older traditions as corrupt, or as outright Tibetan fabrications. In response, the adherents of the earlier traditions argued that their esoteric teachings and practices were derived from the texts and instructions transmitted during the time of the Tibetan monarchs of the seventh through ninth centuries, Khri Srong lde btsan (Trisong detsen, r. 755c. 797) above all. The post tenth-century Rnying ma pa came to hold that the Buddhist cultural heroes of that agein particular, the Indian masters Padmasambhava and Vimalamitra and the Tibetan translator Vairocana, but many others as wellhad introduced a purer, more refined and elevated form of esotericism than that which characterized the teaching transmitted in Tibet from the late-tenth century on. During this period in which a distinctive Rnying ma pa identity took form, the lineages involved were often familial lines of lay priests, not monks, and it is impossible to think of them as yet forming a cohesive order. In later times, the Rnying ma pa tended to rely on the renewed revelation of texts and teachings that were held to be spiritual "treasures" (gter ma ) inspired by, but not derived in a direct line from, the traditions of the early masters. The proliferation of large numbers of new gter ma lineages further undercut the unity of the Rnying ma pa.

In contradistinction to the organized Bon religion, the Rnying ma pa identify themselves as purely Buddhist, whereas, over and against the other Tibetan Buddhist schools and in harmony with the Bon, they insist upon the value of an autochthonous Tibetan religious tradition, expressed and exalted within a unique and continuing revelation of the Buddha's doctrine in Tibet in the form of "treasures" (gter ). The following features of Rnying ma pa Buddhism are particularly noteworthy: The primordial Buddha Samantabhadra (Tib., Kun tu bzang po [Küntuzangpo], the "Omnibeneficent"), iconographically most often depicted as a naked Buddha of celestial blue-color in embrace with his consort, is regarded as the supreme embodiment of buddhahood (shared with Bon). The highest expression of and vehicle for attaining that Buddha's enlightenment (which is equivalent to the enlightenment of all buddhas) is the teaching of the "Great Perfection" (Rdzogs chen [Dzogchen], also shared with Bon). The paradigmatic exponent of this teaching, and indeed of all matters bearing on the spiritual and temporal well-being of the Tibetan people, is the immortal Guru Padmasambhava, the apotheosis of the Indian Tantric master remembered for playing a leading role in Tibet's conversion to Buddhism during the eighth century, and who is always present to intercede on behalf of his devotees. Moreover, the teachings of the latter are continually renewed in forms suitable to the devotee's time, place, and circumstances, the agents for such renewal being "discoverers of spiritual treasure" (gter ston/bton ), thought to be embodiments of, or regents acting on behalf of, Padmasambhava.

While the Rnying ma pa adhere, as do other Tibetan Buddhists, to Tantric forms of ritual and contemplative practice, their Tantric canon is altogether distinctive, incorporating a great quantity of literature whose "authenticity" is challenged by some adherents of the other Tibetan Buddhist schools, as is the authenticity of their special teaching of the Great Perfection. Hence, from relatively early times, their unique standpoint created for the Rnying ma pa a remarkable justificatory problem, which has generated an elaborate apologetical literature, much of which is historical in character.

In their thinking about the history of their own tradition, the Rnying ma pa have come to identify three phases in the lineage through which their special doctrines have been transmitted: the "lineage of the conquerors' intention" (rgyal ba dgongs brgyud) ; the "symbolic lineage of the awareness-holders" (rig 'dzin brda brgyud) ; and the "aural lineage of human individuals" (gang zag snyan brgyud). The first of the "three lineages" is related to the primordial origination and disclosure, in the domain of the Buddha's enlightenment, of the doctrine, especially that of the Great Perfection. The third concerns the successive transmission of that doctrine through a line of human individuals, related each to the next as master to disciple, and always thought to be placeable, datable persons, though the specifics may be sometimes debated. The second lineage explains the beginnings of the transmission in the human world, the stages whereby a doctrine belonging to the timeless inexpressible realm of awakening came to be expressed in time.

Historical Development

Although a clear Rnying ma pa identity was formed only in reaction to the criticisms of early Tibetan Tantrism that became current from the late tenth century on, certain of the characteristic features of later Rnying ma pa teaching are already evident in documents from Dunhuang dating to the ninth to tenth centuries, as well as in the works of relatively early writers such as Bsnubs chen Sangs rgyas ye shes (Nupchen Sangye Yeshe, late ninth to early tenth centuries). These works make it clear that two of the key elements of the Rnying ma pa ritual and contemplative tradition were already emerging: the Mahāyoga (Great Yoga) system of Tantric ritual, and the Rdzogs chen (Great Perfection) approach to meditation, emphasizing abstract contemplation. By the eleventh century some adherents of the old lineages began to defend their tradition against its detractors and at the same time to elaborate its doctrine and codify its ritual. The prolific scholar and translator Rong zom Chos kyi bzang po (Rongzom Chözang) and the ritual masters of the Zur lineage exemplify these trends.

In 1159 the monastery of Ka thog was founded in far Eastern Tibet by Dam pa Bde gshegs (Dampa Deshek, 11221192). This soon emerged as an important center of scholarship, where a distinctively Rnying ma pa exegetical tradition based on the system of nine progressive vehicles (theg pa rim pa dgu ) was elaborated. The influence of Ka thog was widely felt throughout southeastern Tibet, penetrating even neighboring areas in Yunnan. During the same period, Rnying ma pa traditions were reinvigorated by the discoveries of treasure-doctrines (gter chos ). Some of the foremost promulgators of the newly revealed teachings included Nyang ral Nyi ma 'od zer (Nyangrel Nyima Özer, 11241192) and Guru Chos dbang (Guru Chöwang, 12121270), and, sometime later, the discoverer of the so-called Tibetan Book of the Dead, Karma gling pa (Karma Lingpa, fourteenth century), as well as Rig 'dzin Rgod ldem can (Rikdzin Gödemcen, 13371408), whose Northern Treasure (Byang gter) spread throughout the Tibetan world.

The contemplative teachings of the Great Perfection, too, were greatly refined, syncretically absorbing and reinterpreting elements of the new Tantric traditions. The Seminal Essence (Snying thig) system, in particular, which placed great emphasis on visionary experience, developed through a series of revelations spanning some two centuries and came to be regarded as the culminating synthesis of Rnying ma pa teaching. Klong chen pa Rab 'byams pa (Longcen Rabjampa, 13081363), a poet and philosopher of unusual depth and refinement, codified the textual corpus of the Seminal Essence in four parts (snying thig ya bzhi ), and in his own expansive writingsthe Mdzod bdun (Seven treasuries), Ngal gso skor gsum (Trilogy of rest), and Mun sel skor gsum (Trilogy removing darkness), among othershe set forth an encyclopedic summation of the entire Buddhist path, which has remained the definitive Rnying ma pa doctrinal formulation. He was later believed to have been reborn as Padma gling pa (Pema Lingpa, 14501521), a treasure-discoverer whose revelations played a special role in the emergence of the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.

During the seventeenth century, a period of intensive civil war and sectarian conflict, the Rnying ma pa were fortunate to find a patron in the person of the fifth Dalai Lama (16171682), himself a revealer of treasures. With the encouragement of the "Great Fifth," a renewed monastic movement emerged among the Rnying ma pa, which had formerly been situated primarily in lay lineages, local temples, and individual adepts. Six preeminent monastic centers eventually came to be recognized: Rdo rje brag (representing the Northern Treasure tradition) and Smin grol gling in Central Tibet; and Ka thog, Dpal yul, Rdzogs chen and, somewhat later, Zhe chen, all in far Eastern Tibet. Smin grol gling, in particular, enjoyed very close ties with the fifth Dalai Lama, so that its hierarchs were recognized as the official heads of Rnying ma pa order. The writings of its two great luminaries, the brothers Gter bdag gling pa (Terdak Lingpa, 16461714) and Lo chen Dharmaśrī (16541717), offer a uniquely influential synthesis of Rnying ma pa ritual traditions. Their efforts, however, were impeded by the 1717 invasion of Central Tibet by the Dzungar Mongols, which was accompanied by grievous sectarian persecution. Rnying ma pa establishments and adherents were among the Dzungar's victims, and Dharmaśrī and many other leading teachers perished in the onslaught. Smin grol gling was later revived by the efforts of Gter bdag gling pa's daughter, Mi 'gyur dpal sgron (Mingyur Paldrön, 16991769), whose career marks the beginning of a notable succession of female teachers.

Rnying ma pa resurgence in Central Tibet continued with the revelation by 'Jigs med gling pa (Jikme Lingpa, 17301798) of a new cycle of treasures, the Seminal Essence of the Great Expanse (Klong chen snying thig), inspired in part by the writings of Klong chen Rab 'byams pa. These teachings enjoyed a remarkable success and were soon studied and practiced throughout Tibet. They remain perhaps the most widely practiced Rnying ma pa Tantric ritual system at the present time. His successors came to play a notable role in the eclectic or universalist movement (ris med ) in nineteenth-century Khams. 'Jam dbyangs Mkhyen brtse'i dbang po (Jamyang Khyentse, 18201892), thought to be his incarnation, was a particularly prominent exponent of the nonpartisan perspective and encouraged one of his most talented disciples, Mi pham rgya mtsho (Mipham Gyatso, 18461912) to extend the insights of characteristically Rnying ma pa teaching to the interpretation of Buddhist doctrine generally. The copious commentarial writings of Mi pham on all aspects of Buddhist thought and practice have enjoyed considerable prestige and are regarded as second only to the writings of Klong chen Rab 'byams pa as definitive expressions of Rnying ma pa thought. During the twentieth century the leading exponents of the Rnying ma pa order have mostly represented Mi pham's outlook, though some dissenters have criticized him for laying too much stress on the cataphatic doctrines of buddha-nature and pure awareness, and so perhaps compromising the radical emptiness associated with Madhyamaka thought.

Following the exile of large numbers of Tibetans in 1959, a number of leading Rnying ma pa teachers became established in South Asia and began to attract Western students. Two heads of the order, Bdud 'joms Rin po che 'Jigs bral ye shes rdo rje (Dudjom Rinpoche, 19041987) and Dil mgo Mkhyen brtse Rin po che (Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, 19101991), particularly inspired the spread of Rnying ma pa instruction in the West.

Characteristic Doctrines

The Rnying ma pa adhere to the same canon of Kanjur and Tanjur as do other Tibetan Buddhists, but they supplement these with uniquely Rnying ma pa textual collections to which they accord a similar canonical status. Foremost in this regard is the Rnying ma rgyud 'bum (Collection of the ancient Tantras), which exists in many differing versions, but is always held to represent the body of Tantras translated into Tibetan prior to the tenth century. The Tantric rites of the Rnying ma pa, those for which a continuous lineage extending back to the imperial period is claimed, are gathered in the Rnying ma bka' ma (Oral tradition of the ancients). Though each particular lineage among the Rnying ma pa adheres to its own favored treasure-doctrines, during the nineteenth century a master of the universalist movement, 'Jam mgon Kong sprul Blo gros mtha' yas (Jamgön Kongtrül, 18131899), assembled a grand anthology of treasure-texts in over sixty large volumes, which has been widely promulgated since.

The Rnying ma pa teaching is generally organized according to the progression of nine sequential vehicles (theg pa rim pa dgu ): those of (1) śrāvakas, (2) pratyekabuddhas, and (3) bodhisattvas, which are the three "causal vehicles" (rgyu'i theg pa ); followed by (4) Kriyā Tantra, (5) Caryā Tantra, and (6) Yoga Tantra, which are the three outer vehicles among the "fruitional vehicles" of mantra ('bras bu'i theg pa sngags phyi pa ); and culminating with (7) Mahāyoga, (8) Anuyoga, and (9) Atiyoga, which are the inner mantras (sngags nang pa ). Atiyoga is also called Rdzogs chen, the Great Perfection. The first six vehicles are shared with the other traditions of Tibetan Buddhism and so require no special treatment here. The last three, though finding parallels in the Tantric teachings of the "new" schools, are, in their precise formulation, distinctively Rnying ma pa.

Mahāyoga ("Great Yoga") emphasizes the creative visualization of the divine maala and the elaborate rites, including collective feast assemblies (tshogs 'khor ; Skt. gaacakra ) and ritual dance-drama ('cham ), that are associated with it. The feast assembly, in particular, plays an important role in Rnying ma pa ritual life, and in most communities, whether monastic or lay, assemblies are held on the tenth day of the lunar month, consecrated to the guru (i.e., Padmasambhava), and on the twenty-fifth, consecrated to the ākinī (Tib., Mkha' 'gro ma), the goddess embodying enlightenment. As a subject of study and reflection, the focal point of the Mahāyoga is the Guhyagarbha Tantra, which has generated an enormous commentarial literature.

Anuyoga ("Subsequent Yoga") is explained generally as emphasizing the internal manipulation of the energies (rlung ; Skt., vāyu ) and seminal essences (thig le ; Skt., bindu ) that flow through the channels (rtsa ; Skt., nāī ) of the subtle body. However, it is at the same time a complete system, which in its most elaborate forms embraces the entire teaching of the nine vehicles. In this respect, it is primarily associated with a vast Tantric compendium, the Mdo dgongs pa 'dus pa (The sūtra that gathers the [Buddha's] intentions), said to have been translated into Tibetan from the Burushaski language during the tenth century. It is possible that this work reflects developments in the Śaiva traditions of Kashmir during the period of its composition.

The highest pinnacle among the nine vehicles is the Atiyoga ("Highest Yoga"), or Rdzogs chen (Great Perfection). Kong sprul explains it as follows:

"Great Perfection" is derived from the term mahā-sandhi : it is "great concentration," [mahāsamādhi ], or "great absorption" [mahādhyāna ]. It therefore has the significance of "unsurpassed pristine cognition," in which all the phenomena of sasāra and nirvāa naturally arise in the expanse of the unique abiding nature of reality, surpassing the intellectualized doctrinal systems of the eight lower vehicles.The Great Perfection has three classes according to their relative degrees of profundity whereby the naturally emergent pristine cognition itself functions as the path. Among them, the exoteric Mental Class [sems sde ] is liberated from the extreme of renunciation, for one has realized that all phenomena have transcended causal and conditional effort and attainment in the play of mind-as-such alone.The esoteric Spatial Class [klong sde ], free from activity, is liberated from the extreme of antidotes, for one has realized that, because all phenomenal manifestations neither arrive in nor depart from the space of Omnibeneficent Mother [Kun tu bzang mo], there is no getting away from the expanse of the naturally present three bodies [sku gsum ; Skt., trikāya ].The secret and profound esoteric Instructional Class [man ngag sde ] is free from the extremes of both renunciation and antidote, for one has realized that particularly characterized mode of being wherein the significance of all phenomenaground, path, and resultis the indivisible union of primordial purity and spontaneous presence.So it is that the objects adhered to in the sūtras and in the inner and outer mantras, up to and including Anuyoga, are all merely tenets grasped by the intellect. For this reason, [the Great Perfection] clearly teaches the particular ways whereby one falls into the error of not seeing the original abiding nature of reality just as it is. The pristine cognition of the Great Perfection transcends the eight aggregates of consciousness, including thought and speech, cause and result. It is that great freedom from elaboration, in which all mind and mental events attain to peace in the expanse of reality. Because the naturally emergent reality of awareness, free from activity, the natural disposition of the great transcendence of intellect, itself abides in its self-possession and is otherwise uncontrived, the appearance of its expressive power as ephemeral taint passes away, naturally dissolving into the natural expanse. For these reasons, this way is particularly superior to all of the lower philosophical and spiritual systems.

The adepts who have mastered this path, realizing its highest goals in the progressive disclosure of visions emerging from the revelation of the innermost nature of mind, are believed to transcend the boundaries of ordinary human mortality, and so pass away by vanishing into light in the attainment of a rainbow body ('ja' lus ).

See Also

Buddhism, article on Buddhism in Tibet; Buddhism, Schools of, article on Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhism.


Achard, Jean-Luc. L'essence perlée du secret: Recherches philologiques et historiques sur l'origine de la Grande Perfection dans la tradition rNying ma pa. Turnhout, Belgium, 1999. On the development of the Great Perfection during the early second millennium.

Blezer, Henk. Kar gliæ źi khro: A Tantric Buddhist Concept. Leiden, 1997. Study of the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Boord, Martin J. The Cult of the Deity Vajrakīla. Tring, U.K., 1993. On the "vajra-spike," a principle divinity of the Rnying ma pa tradition.

Cuevas, Bryan J. The Hidden History of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. New York, 2003. On the spread and reception in Tibet of the famous book.

Dudjom Rinpoche, Jikdrel Yeshe Dorje. The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism: Its Fundamentals and History. Translated by Gyurme Dorje and Matthew Kapstein. 2 vols. Boston, 1991. Compendium of Rnying ma pa historical and doctrinal traditions.

Ehrhard, Franz-Karl. "Flügelschäge des Garua ": Literar- und ideengeschichtliche Bemerkungen zu einer Liedersammlung des rDzogs chen. Stuttgart, Germany, 1990. Study and translation of a popular Great Perfection manual by Zhabs dkar, a major nineteenth-century master.

Germano, David. "Architecture and Absence in the Secret Tantric History of rDzogs Chen." Journal of the International Association for Buddhist Studies 17, no. 2 (1994): 203335. On the evolution of the Great Perfection systems of teaching.

Guenther, Herbert V. Kindly Bent to Ease Us: From the Trilogy of Finding Comfort and Ease. 3 vols. Emeryville, Calif., 19751976. Translation of Klong chen pa's Trilogy of Rest.

Gyatso, Janet. Apparitions of the Self: The Secret Autobiographies of a Tibetan Visionary. Princeton, 1998. Study of 'Jigs med gling pa's autobiographies, and of the Rnying ma pa tradition of "treasures."

Kapstein, Matthew T. The Tibetan Assimilation of Buddhism: Conversion, Contestation, and Memory. New York, 2000. Includes studies of some key Rnying ma pa myths.

Kapstein, Matthew T. "The Strange Death of Pema the Demon-Tamer." In The Presence of Light: Divine Radiance and Religious Experience, edited by Matthew T. Kapstein. Chicago, 2004. On the "rainbow body."

Karmay, Samten Gyaltsen. The Great Perfection: A Philosophical and Meditative Teaching of Tibetan Buddhism. Leiden and New York, 1988. Provides the early documents of the Great Perfection as known from Dunhuang.

Karmay, Samten Gyaltsen. Secret Visions of the Fifth Dalai Lama: The Gold Manuscript in the Fournier Collection. London, 1988. The revealed treasures of the fifth Dalai Lama.

Kohn, Richard. Lord of the Dance: The Mani Rimdu Festival in Nepal and Tibet. Albany, N.Y., 2001. Detailed documentation of a major Rnying ma pa ritual dance-drama.

Padmakara Translation Committee. The Words of My Perfect Teacher. San Francisco, 1994; 2d ed., Boston, 1998. Lucid translation of the most widely studied introductory manual of Rnying ma pa practice.

Pettit, John. Mipham's Beacon of Certainty: Illuminating the View of Dzogehen, the Great Perfection. Boston, 1999. On Mi pham's approach to Madhyamaka philosophy.

Ricard, Matthieu, et al., trans. The Life of Shabkar: The Autobiography of a Tibetan Yogin. Albany, N.Y., 1994. Memoirs of a leading nineteenth-century Rnying ma pa master.

Thondup Rinpoche, Tulku. Hidden Teachings of Tibet: An Explanation of the Terma Tradition of the Nyingma School of Buddhism, edited by Harold Talbott. London, 1986. A Rnying ma pa view of the "treasure" traditions.

Williams, Paul. The Reflexive Nature of Awareness: A Tibetan Madhyamaka Defence. Surrey, U.K., 1998. Focuses on Mi pham's reflections on reflexivity.

Matthew T. Kapstein (2005)

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