Sa Skya (Sakya)

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The monastery of Sa skya (Sakya) was founded in southern Tibet in 1073 by the master Dkon mchog rgyal po (Könchog Gyalpo, 1034–1102), a member of the ancient 'Khon (Khön) family from which the leaders of the Sa skya tradition have always come. Beginning with Dkon mchog rgyal po's son, Sa chen Kun dga' snying po (Sachen Kunga Nyingpo, 1092–1158), the next five great patriarchs of the 'Khon lineage are known as the Five Early Patriarchs of Sa skya (sa skya gong ma lnga).

Sa chen Kun dga' snying po mastered a huge variety of Buddhist teachings, both in the sūtra-based MahĀyĀna (Great Vehicle) tradition and the Tantra-based VajrayĀna (Adamantine Vehicle). The Sa skya school that developed after his time is distinguished by the teaching and practice of the various transmissions collected by Sa chen. For example, at the age of twelve Sa chen experienced a vision of the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī, from whom he received a teaching known as "Parting from the Four Attachments" (Zhen pa bzhi bral). These instructions became the basis of the practice of "mind training" (blo sbyong) in the Sa skya school, and have continued to be used for meditation on the key points of the Mahāyāna tradition.

The most significant tantric systems of the Sa skya tradition are connected to the Hevajra Tantra and the Cakrasamvara Tantra. From among these, the esoteric instructions of the great Indian adept Virūpa's "Path with the Result" (Lam 'bras) are a complete system of theory and meditation based on the tantric scriptures associated with the Hevajra Tantra. Sa chen received these teachings from the yogin Zhang ston Chos 'bar (Zhangdön Chöbar, 1053–1135), and the "Path with the Result" has continued to be the most important Vajrayana transmission practiced in the Sa skya school. Sa chen wrote the first texts to explain the "Path with the Result," which had previously been an oral tradition in both India and Tibet.

Sa chen was succeeded by two of his sons: Bsod nams rtse mo (Sönam Tsemo, 1142–1182) and then Grags pa rgyal mtshan (Trakpa Gyaltsen, 1147–1216). Bsod nams rtse mo wrote a number of important works, especially in the field of tantric study and practice. Grags pa rgyal mtshan wrote many extremely influential treatises concerning the esoteric instructions of the Sa skya tradition, and his works formed the basis for the development of the Sa skya approach to tantric study and meditation. During the lifetime of Sa chen and his sons, the Sa skya school remained concentrated at Sa skya Monastery, but during the following generations a major expansion occurred.

Sa skya Paṇḍita Kun dga' rgyal mtshan (Sakya Paṇḍita Kunga Gyaltsen, 1182–1251) succeeded his uncle, Grags pa rgyal mtshan, as the head of the Sa skya tradition. Several of Sa skya Paṇḍita's literary compositions became very important for the Sa skya school, including his Sdom gsum rab dbye (Clear Differentiation of the Three Codes). In about 1244 Sa skya Paṇḍita was summoned to the court of the Mongol prince Göden Khan at Liangzhou in China. During the final years of his life, Sa skya Paṇḍita taught Buddhism at the Mongol court, where he also completed an important treatise on Mahāyāna Buddhism entitled Thub pa'i dgongs gsal (Elucidating the Intention of the Sage).

Sa skya Paṇḍita was succeeded by his nephew, 'Phags pa Blo gros rgyal mtshan (Pakpa Lodro Gyaltsen, 1235–1280), the fifth Early Patriarch of Sa skya. In 1253 'Phags pa met Qubilai Khan (1215–1294), who later became the first emperor of the Yuan dynasty in China. Qubilai Khan requested from 'Phags pa the complete Hevajra initiation in 1258, marking the beginning of Vajrayāna Buddhism in Mongolia. Three years later Qubilai Khan granted 'Phags pa the title of national preceptor (guoshi), thereby appointing him the leading Buddhist master in the empire. This precedent for a patron-priest relationship between Chinese emperors and Tibetan Buddhist masters would have great repercussions in subsequent centuries.

Several important subdivisions later developed within the Sa skya tradition. Two of these are most significant: the Ngor pa (Ngorpa) subsect established by Ngor chen Kun dga' bzang po (Ngorchen Kunga Zangpo, 1382–1456) and the Tshar pa (Tsarpa) subsect following the teachings of Tshar chen Blo gsal rgya mtsho (Tsarchen Losel Gyatso, 1502–1566). It is customary to refer to the Sa skya, Ngor pa, and Tshar pa traditions when discussing the entire range of the Sa skya school.

In 1429 Ngor chen established the monastery of E waṃ Chos ldan (Ewam Chöden) at Ngor, where he instituted strict monastic rules. Ngor chen specialized in the tantric systems practiced in the Sa skya school and wrote many treatises based on the definitive works of the early 'Khon masters of Sa skya. His compositions formed the basis for the distinctive interpretations of the Ngor pa school, the first lasting subdivision of the Sa skya tradition. The Ngor pa tradition became extremely influential in the eastern regions of Tibet, where it enjoyed the royal patronage of the ruling house of Sde dge (Derge).

The Tshar pa tradition takes its name from the great yogin Tshar chen Blo gsal rgya mtsho. This tradition is distinguished by its emphasis on a special esoteric transmission of the ancient tantric teachings of Sa skya, which came to be known as the "explication for disciples" (slob bshad), in contrast to the "explication for the assembly" (tshogs bshad). This esoteric transmission had previously been taught only to small groups of students and was seldom written down until the time of Tshar chen and his main disciples, who wrote a number of crucial texts. Some of the specific points of the Tshar pa explication were at first quite controversial, but they were eventually accepted by all Sa skya and Ngor pa teachers and taught more widely than before.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century the Sa skya school is perhaps strongest in the Tibetan communities of India and Nepal, where most of the great teachers of the tradition resettled in the 1960s following the Chinese occupation of Tibet. In the modern establishments of India and Nepal, teaching, study, and meditation continue to be freely practiced according to the ancient traditions of Sa skya. The leader of the Sa skya school, His Holiness Sa skya Khri 'dzin (Sakya Trizin), Ngag dbang kun dga' theg chen dpal 'bar (Ngawang Kunga Tegchen Palbar, b. 1945), is the forty-first patriarch of Sa skya. From his residence in India, he frequently travels in Southeast Asia, Europe, and North America, constantly spreading the traditional Sa skya teachings.

See also:Sa skya Paṇḍita (Sakya Paṇḍita); Tibet


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Cyrus Stearns