Rnying Ma (Nyingma)

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The Rnying ma (ancient) school is one of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism, the other three being the Bka' brgyud (Kagyu), the Sa skya (Sakya), and the Dge lugs (Geluk). According to the Tibetan historical tradition, Buddhism arrived into Tibet in two waves. The "early spread" (snga dar) arrived over the seventh to the ninth centuries, during the height of the Tibetan empire, and the "later spread" (phyi dar) came after the late tenth century. Adherents of the Rnying ma school trace their roots back to Buddhism's early spread, while followers of the three newer (gsar ma) schools adhere to those traditions that arrived during the later spread. In this way, the Rnying ma school is defined in juxtaposition to the other schools of Tibetan Buddhism; Rnying ma as a term only began to be used in the eleventh century, after the later spread had begun.

From an early date, criticisms were leveled against the tantric traditions of the Rnying ma pa (adherents of the Rnying ma school). The period that separated the two waves of Buddhism (roughly 842–978 c.e.) witnessed the collapse of the Tibetan empire and a subsequent breakdown of any centralized authority. Buddhist monasteries throughout Tibet lost their official patronage and were closed down. Traditional Tibetan histories unanimously portray these years as a "dark period," a time of degeneration for Buddhism when, freed from the watchful eye of authoritative Buddhist institutions, the scattered local communities went astray. The response among the new schools was to reimport Buddhism from India, while the Rnying ma pa claimed that their Buddhism was a pure strand that had survived intact since the glory days of the Tibetan empire and Buddhism's earlier spread. In the competitive atmosphere of Buddhism's later spread, a tantra's legitimacy depended on its being a translation from an Indian original. Many Rnying ma tantras came under suspicion for being Tibetan apocrypha. A fair number of new works were certainly composed in Tibet, particularly during the creative disorder of the dark period.

Perhaps the most successful of the post-tenth-century Rnying ma pa responses to these accusations was their development of the "treasure" (gter ma) revelation system. Received in visionary encounters or discovered hidden in the physical landscape, these revelations were timely teachings attributed to the legendary (usually Indian) masters of the early imperial period. In this way, new Rnying ma works could surface under the protection of a canonical Indian origin. The Rnying ma school shares the system of treasure revelation with the non-Buddhist Bon religion of Tibet, but generally speaking, none of the other schools made use of this strategy.

Also unique to the Rnying ma school and Bon is their highest category of Rnying ma teachings, called Atiyoga or Rdzogs chen (Great Perfection). This was the highest of the Rnying ma school's nine vehicles (theg pa dgu), a hierarchical schema for organizing Buddhist teachings according to the sophistication of the view each advocated. After the eleventh century, the Rnying ma pa focused increasingly on the Atiyoga class of teachings, and the writings from this period are some of the most creative in Rnying ma literature. The development of Rdzogs chen culminated in the systematizing works by Klong chen pa (Longchenpa) (1308–1363). This fourteenth-century master was also instrumental in sealing a new relationship between Rdzogs chen and Padmasambhava, the eighth-century tantric master who was instrumental in bringing Buddhism to Tibet. Since the eleventh century, the Rnying ma pa had looked to Padmasambhava as their principal founding father, but this master does not appear to have enjoyed a particularly close association with Rdzogs chen until the fourteenth century. Before that, the most influential Rdzogs chen works were usually attributed to two other masters of Tibet's early imperial period, Vairocana or Vimalamitra. By the end of the fourteenth century, however, Padmasambhava reigned supreme in the minds of the Rnying ma pa, over almost all aspects of their school.

In the seventeenth century the Rnying ma school became embroiled in the political turmoil that led to the fifth Dalai Lama's takeover of Tibet. The family of the fifth Dalai Lama (1617–1682) had maintained close contacts with the Rnying ma pa, particularly with the followers of the Northern Treasures (byang gter). As the Dalai Lama rose to power in the mid-seventeenth century, he brought his Rnying ma pa associates with him. Under his patronage, the period witnessed a sudden surge in large, new Rnying ma monasteries being founded throughout central and eastern Tibet.

This proliferation of monasteries engendered a shift in the character of the Rnying ma school toward large-scale monastic institutions and elaborate public festivals. The changes were spearheaded by a close associate of the Dalai Lama, Gter bdag gling pa (1646–1714), the founder of Smin grol gling Monastery. This master, together with his brother, Lochen Dharmaśrī (1654–1717), conducted extensive historical research into the Rnying ma school's past; on the basis of his findings he formulated a new ritual tradition that could be shared by all of the new monasteries.

With the death of the fifth Dalai Lama and his regent, the Rnying ma pa lost their protection, and in 1717 the Mongolian Dzungars, themselves dogmatic supporters of the Dalai Lama's own Dge lugs school, invaded central Tibet. During their short time there, the Dzungars looted the new Rnying ma monasteries of Rdo rje brag and Smin grol gling, executing the head lamas. But the work accomplished at Smin grol gling survived this blow, and the Rnying ma pas' resolve to consolidate their school only strengthened over the next two centuries. An important element in this trend came with the late-eighteenth-century revelation of the Klong chen snying thig treasure cycle by 'Jigs med gling pa (1730–1798). 'Jigs med gling pa came from Khams in eastern Tibet, and his teachings were quickly adopted by all of the large new monasteries throughout this region.

The Klong chen snying thig (Seminal Heart of the Great Expanse) also inspired many of the great nineteenth-century lamas of eastern Tibet who were involved in the new nonsectarian (ris med) movement. This movement was based in Sde dge, the cultural capital of the region. In reaction to the growing sectarianism throughout Tibet, those involved sought out common ground between the schools and developed massive new literary collections that could be shared by all the schools of Tibetan Buddhism. The Rnying ma philosophy of Rdzogs chen played a particularly important role in this movement. The shape of today's Rnying ma school derives directly from the efforts of these nonsectarian masters of the nineteenth century.

See also:Tibet


Germano, David. "Architecture and Absence in the Secret Tantric History of the Great Perfection (rdzogs chen)." Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 17, no. 2 (1994): 203–335.

Rinpoche, Dudjom. The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism: Its Fundamentals and History, tr. Gyurme Dorje and Matthew Kapstein. Boston: Wisdom, 1991.

Smith, E. Gene. Among Tibetan Texts: History and Literature of the Himalayan Plateau. Boston: Wisdom, 2001.

Thondup, Tulku. Masters of Miracles and Meditation: The Longchen Nyingthig Lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. Boston: Shambala, 1996.

Jacob P. Dalton