Buddhist scriptures were believed to have first arrived in Tibet in the 5th century BCE during the reign of King Thothori Nyantsen. Later, King Songtsan Gampo (618-649) took two Buddhist wives, Princess Wencheng of China and Princess Bhrikuti of Nepal. However Buddhism only truly took root in Tibet in the 8th century BCE when the Indian tantric master Padmasambhava came to Tibet at the invitation of King Trisong Detsen and subdued opposition from the native Bon practitioners. Buddhism became the official religion of Tibet and this gave rise to the distinctive brand of Buddhism distinguished by esoteric tantric practices and a pantheon of buddhas, bodhisattvas, meditational deities and dharma protectors that defines Tibetan Buddhism today.

the Nyingma Lineage

Buddhism arrived officially in Tibet during the 8th century upon the invitation of King Trisong Detsen. Initially, the King requested Shantarakshita, a great exponent of the Yogachara-Svantantrika-Madhyamika
school from Nalanda University in India to anchor the Dharma in Tibet. Upon his arrival, Shantarakshita ordained the first seven Tibetan monks. However, the expansion of Buddhism faced much opposition from the ministers, politicians and the indigenous Bon practitioners who didn’t want to accept the new teachings that eradicated the practice of offerings and sacrifices to the local gods and land deities. As a result of this, Shantarakshita suggested for King Trisong Detsen to invite Padamasambava, a Buddhist mystic and tantric master to Tibet.

Photo Credit:
Photo of Silk Thangka of Guru Rinpoche by Zhouyan Sino Art Lane via ebay

Perhaps because Buddhism is syncretic by nature, whereby it is able to absorb and integrate the local and folk beliefs into its core features without contaminating its essence that Guru Rinpoche or Padmasambava managed to subdue the angry native spirits, gods and deities who later became dharma protectors and Buddhist disciples. Hence, the first monastery was successfully built at Samye in 779 CE. It is a much celebrated fact that Guru Rinpoche is helmed as the founder of Vajrayana Buddhism in Tibet transmitting a complete discourse of both sutra and tantra with an underlying Mahayana-motivation of leading all sentient beings to enlightenment (Buddhahood).

The remembrance of our own Buddha nature is the sincere wish to guide all sentient beings away from the suffering of cyclic existence (Samsara), which is also the arising of a genuine sense of bodhicitta. This inspiration is reflected by accepting and following the Bodhisattva vows on top of taking refuge in the Three Jewels. The main practices of a Mahayana adherent are in the 6 perfections (Paramita): the perfection of generosity, discipline, patience, diligence, meditation and wisdom.

Through the kindness and compassion of Guru Rinpoche who is known to be the Second Buddha whose arrival in Tibet has long been predicted by the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, Buddhism flourished in Tibet.

The activity of all the victorious ones of the ten directions,
Will gather into a single form,
A Buddha son, who will attain marvelous accomplishment,
A master who will embody Buddha activity,
Will appear to the northwest of Uddiyana.

–Immaculate Goddess Sutra

I will pass away to eradicate
the view of permanence.
But twelve years from now,
to clear away the view of nihilism,
I shall appear from a lotus
in the immaculate Lake Kosha,
As a noble son to delight the king,
And turn the Dharma wheel of the unexcelled essential meaning.

–Sutra of Predictions in Magadha

Guru Rinpoche or the Lotus-Born is said to have hailed from Uddiyana, an area that roughly corresponds to the Swat Valley in modern Pakistan. Many feats that defy logic have been ascribed to Guru Rinpoche as if he is more of an inter-dimensional being rather than one from the human realm having stayed three thousand and six hundred years in India to uphold the Buddha’s teachings for the sake of all sentient beings. The question remains, who is Guru Rinpoche? To a Tibetan or one who has faith in Vajrayana Buddhism be it an Eastern or a Western practitioner, Padmasambava will appear to our mind depending on our karma and openness to transcend our inner afflictions and limitations. There are eight manifestations of Guru Rinpoche that facilitated the accomplishments of a myriad of enlightened activities, which propagated the dharma including the attainment of liberation by his twenty-five disciples and eighty other disciples who achieved a rainbow body.

But to the rest of the worlds both seen and unseen, Guru Rinpoche sprouted the dharmic seeds in Tibet that cumulated in the establishment of four Vajrayana traditions that have found roots in all continents globally today.

Nyingma, which means “the ancient ones” is the oldest school of Tibetan Buddhism and Guru Rinpoche is said to be the founder. Its teachings are said to be conveyed directly through an unbroken lineage from the primordial Buddha, Samantabhadra.

While all Buddhist traditions transmit the teachings of the Buddha verbally from teacher to student, this is known to the Nyingmapas as kama, as the words of the Awakened One were only written down after his passing into parinirvana. However, the Nyingma tradition has a more unique and direct transmission called terma.

To safeguard the Dharma against corruption, misinterpretation and keeping in abeyance teachings that are suited for certain time periods in the future, Guru Rinpoche and his consort Lady Tsogyal concealed these treasures known as terma. These hidden treasures are discovered only when the revealer, who is known as a terton is ready and the situation ripened. And within the two sets of teachings of kama and terma, the highest instruction is known as Dzogchen, the Great Perfection whereby it is a practice that brings us back to our natural primordial state, which is that of a Buddha and thus, enlightened.

It is known until this day that the Nyingma teachings of sutra and tantra are based on the first diffusion or the old translation school of the sacred Dharma before the persecution that happened in the 11th century by one Lang Dharma, the anti-Buddhism king who destroyed scriptures and monasteries during his rule of six-years. When he was eventually murdered, Buddhism was revived again that gave rise to the new translation schools known today as Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug.

Literally translated as “lineage of the (Buddha’s) word.” This is an oral tradition that is most concerned with the experiential dimension of meditation. Its most famous exponent was Milarepa in the 11th century.

Literally translated as “grey earth”, it is derived from the unique grey landscape of Ponpori Hills in southern Tibet near Shigatse, where Sakya Monastery, the first monastery of this tradition is located. This tradition was founded by Khon Konchok Gyalpo.

Gelug is the newest of the schools of Tibetan Buddhism. It was founded by Je Tsongkhapa (1357–1419), a philosopher and Tibetan religious leader. Gelug literally means the Spiritual Lineage of Ganden.

Although there are generally four schools of Vajrayana Buddhism in Tibet, we are constantly reminded by many learned masters that we must respect and not have any sectarian attitude towards the other traditions that we do not belong to. As Kyabje Dudjom Rinpoche, the first spiritual leader of the Nyingmapas said in Counsels from My Heart, “… all the different schools whether they derive from the earlier or later periods of translation such as Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya or Gelug are really different only in name. In their essence they are all a single doctrine: the word of the Buddha. This means that although we should follow the tradition to which we feel drawn, we should never presume to criticize other schools. If we train in our own tradition with faith and devotion, it is certain that we are following the unmistaken path of the Buddha-Dharma. If, by contrast, we practice with partiality and a sense of sectarian difference, believing that our own practice is the only right one, and if we denigrate the other teachings, we are committing a very serious fault.”

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