There are four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism:
- Nyingma (founded 8th century A.D.)
- Kagyu (founded in the early 11th century)
- Sakya (founded in 1073 A.D.)
- Gelug (founded in 1409 A.D.)
The word “Nyingma” means “ancient,” referring to the school’s characteristic of being the oldest among all of Tibet’s Buddhist traditions. Often called the “ancient translation school,” the Nyingma lineage began in the latter part of the 8th c. when the Tibetan King Trisong Detsen invited both the renowned Indian guru Shantarakshita, abbot of the great Buddhist Nalanda University, and the tantric master Padmasambhava, to come to Tibet and introduce Buddhism to his people. Under the king’s order, Shantarakshita, Padmasambhava, the Indian master Vimalamitra, the Tibetan translator Vairochana, along with 108 translators and 25 of Padmasambhava’s closest students, undertook this monumental task of rendering all of the extant Buddhist scriptures into Tibetan from Sanskrit, and accomplished it in one generation. In addition to the translation of the tantras (the esoteric teachings of the Buddha), supervised mainly by Padmasambhava, and the sutras (oral teachings of the Buddha) supervised mainly by Shantarakshita, these two also founded Tibet’s first Buddhist monastery, Samye, which became the main center for Buddhist teaching in Tibet for the next 300 years.
These events formed the basis of the early dissemination of Buddhism in Tibet up to the 11th century, which did not all proceed smoothly. Political instability followed the succession of the anti-Buddhist king Langdarma (836–842) and his subsequent assassination. The persecution of Buddhism under Langdarma and later local leaders was such that most Buddhist practice was forced underground. When in the 11th century the persecution abated, new lineage transmissions from Indian to Tibetan masters caused new schools of Buddhism to rise, including the Kagyu, Sakya, and much later, the Gelug, mentioned above. When this began to happen, members of the existing school began to see themselves as a distinct group, identifying themselves as followers of the “ancient” or “Nyingma” tradition, as contrasted to the “Sarma” or” new” traditions.
The four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism differ in their size, political ethos, emphasized practices, and of course, lineage. Unlike the other three major schools, supporters of the Nyingma tradition rarely held political power in Tibet, generally preferring to remain at a distance from Tibetan political concerns. Traditionally, the Nyingma had no centralized authority. It is only since the Chinese invasion of Tibet that the Dalai Lama politely requested that the Nyingma followers recognize someone to represent them within the Tibetan government-in-exile. Other then that, the Nyingma tradition remains politically decentralized. Decisions are often made by a community of the senior practitioners within a given locale. Nyingma followers are historically distinguished from other schools of Buddhism by their categorization of the spiritual path into nine progressively more subtle yanas, or vehicles, and the unique ninth vehicle called Dzogchen, or the “Great Perfection.” Within the Nyingma are also two distinct communities of monastics and lay tantric practitioners (Tib. ngakpa).
While the other three major schools have traditionally recognized spiritual and political heads:
- The Dalai Lama of the Gelug school (the newest school, having the largest population)
- The Karmapa of the Kagyu school
- The Sakya Trizin of the Sakya school
- Dudjom Rinpoche (c. 1904–1987), served from the 1960s until his death.
- Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (c. 1910–1991), served from 1987 until his death.
- Penor (Pema Norbu) Rinpoche (1932–2009) served from 1991 until retirement in 2003.
- Mindroling Trichen Rinpoche (c. 1930–2008), served from 2003 until his death.
- Trulshik Rinpoche (1923–2011). Selected after Chatral Rinpoche declined the position.
Palyul MonasteryThere were six major monasteries upholding the Nyingma tradition in Tibet. Among them was Palyul Monastery, established in 1665 in eastern Tibet. A lineage of Nyingma teachers arose from this monastery, known as the Palyul Lineage. Like other schools of Tibetan Buddhism, the Palyul Lineage of the Nyingma tradition is sustained by teachers and centres around the world. The recognized head of the Palyul tradition is currently His Holiness Karma Kuchen Rinpoche, who succeeded his teacher, His Holiness Penor Rinpoche.
Like all schools of Tibetan Buddhism, the Nyingma school recognizes those who make significant and precious contributions to the teachings of the Buddha. Among those so recognized by the Nyingma school are:
The most famous of all great scholars and tantric masters of the Nyingma lineage, besides Padmasambhava himself, is Longchenpa (Longchen Rabjam). Along with Rongzom Pandita and Jigme Lingpa, Longchenpa is known as one of the “omniscient ones,” a rare title recognizing the infallibility of their wisdom, knowledge and accomplishment in the teachings of the Buddha. Longchenpa wrote many commentaries on the whole body of Nyingma teachings. He is especially known for his presentation of Dzogchen, which is the most precious and highly regarded practice in the Nyingma school. One of his most notable contributions was the systematization of the teaching and induction into the practice of Dzogchen.