The Six Traditions of Tibetan Spirituality

Historically, there are six traditions, or schools, of Tibetan spirituality. Four of these schools are considered the principal schools. The six traditions are:

  • The Bön tradition

  • The Nyingma Tradition (the Old Ones)

  • The Bound by Command School (Kadam)

  • The Sakya Tradition

  • The Kagyu Tradition (The Transmitted Command School)

  • The Gelug Tradition (The Virtuous School)

The four principal schools are: Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu, and Gelug.

The Bön Tradition

The Bön tradition is alive today and getting stronger after a long period of virtual invisibility in Tibet during the eighth to the eleventh centuries. The Bön community has been successful in establishing monasteries in India and Nepal. It is an integral part of Tibetan culture and history, and the Tibetans strive to preserve Bön customs.

The five other traditions of Tibetan spirituality are all Buddhist and combine elements of all three vehicles of Buddhism — Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana — leaning heavily on tantra practices. They trace back to the different gurus, or lamas, who started the lineages.

The Nyingma Tradition (The Old Ones)

The Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism traces its roots back to Padmasambhava, and is the oldest school of Tibetan Buddhism. Padmasambhava mixed native Bön practices and beliefs with Tantric Buddhism to develop a very unique and mystical form of Tibetan Buddhism.

Atisha wrote Lamp for the Path of Enlightenment for the Tibetan people to answer the questions they had about practice and show them all of the Buddha's teachings — distilled from sutras and tantras — in a short guide that simplified direction for practice. These teachings on the stages of the Path were known as lam-rim. Lamp for the Path of Enlightenment is still used in practice today.

It is believed that Padmasambhava found his disciples unready to experience the full disclosure of his knowledge, so he hid hundreds of teachings from them, to be revealed in the future to teachers more prepared for the knowledge he had to impart. Subsequently, teachers through the years have revealed these hidden treasures, known as terma, to their students to aid in their enlightenment.

There are nine paths to enlightenment in Nyingma, six based on the sutras, and three based on the tantras. Nyingma is based on the practice of Dzogchen — a practice of meditation that presupposes the existence of buddha-nature and strives to allow it to manifest.

Dzogchen has recently become very popular in the United States as a meditation practice.

The Bound by Command School (The Kadam)

The Bound by Command school traces its roots back to Atisha, a monk who taught in Tibet starting in 1040 B.C.E. Atisha was born Chandragarbha to a royal family in Bengal. He was renamed Atisha, which means “peace,” by a Tibetan king.

Atisha brought to Tibet a synthesis of the three major vehicles of Buddhism. His coming initiated the era of the Second Transmission of Buddhism to Tibet, seminal for the Bound by Command School of Tibetan Buddhism, but also for the Virtuous School and Transmitted by Command School.

Atisha was also known as one of the living buddhas among the Tibetan people. He promoted the premise that the teachings of the guru, the lama, should be held above all else as the lama can demonstrate the living nature of the teachings and directly shows the student how to practice. The teacher could choose the specific practices that would benefit the specific student.

The Bound by Command School of Tibetan Buddhism did not last long. It was considered too strict for the Tibetan people, prohibiting intoxicants, money handling, sexual relations, and travel.

The Sakya Tradition

Founded in 1073 by Khön Könchok Gyelpo, the Sakya School took its name from the monastery of the same name in central Tibet. Sakya means “Gray Earth.” The Sakya tradition, which developed out of the earlier Nyingma teachings, has been preserved to the present day through the unbroken succession of the heads of the Khön School. The Khön lineage is hereditary, but does not pass directly from father to son, but rather indirectly from uncle to nephew. The lineage holders of the tradition pass down the transmission of the Path and Fruit (Lam-dre) teachings. The Path and Fruit teachings synthesize the teaching of the sutras and the tantras, and are designed to bring the student to enlightenment in a single lifetime.

The Sakya tradition continues to this day. The current head of the Sakya School is the forty-first in the lineage and practices in exile from Tibet.

The Kagyu Tradition (The Transmitted Command School)

The Transmitted Command School of Tibetan Buddhism can trace its roots back to two Indian masters: Naropa and Tilopa. These masters were skilled in advanced yogic practices. The emphasis in the Transmitted Command School has been and still is on practice and mysticism rather than academics. Kagyu tradition has some of the more familiar names in the history of Tibetan Buddhism. Naropa taught Marpa, and Marpa took the teachings back to Tibet with him where he continued to practice as a layperson.

Marpa in turn passed the teachings on to his most famous student, Milarepa (1052–1135 C.E.), one of the most popular figures of all time in Tibetan Buddhism. Milarepa started out as a dark figure in history — he was a black magician bent on revenging his widowed mother and sister who were being mistreated by relatives — but became a poet and a supremely powerful yogi who mastered self-knowledge and achieved liberation. He was legendary for his mystical powers.

Among Milarepa's disciples was Gampopa, who wrote The Jewel Ornament of Liberation. Gampopa received the Six Yogas of Naropa from Milarepa as well as the practice of Mahamudra (“Great Seal” and one of the most important practices in Vajrayana focused on realization of emptiness), and then combined them into one lineage — Dakpo Kagyu. The Dakpo Kagyu School then gave rise to four additional schools. One of the most successful of these schools, the Karma Kagyu School, is still going strong today and is passed down through the reincarnations of the Karma Kagyu teachers.

The Six Yogas of Naropa is one of the tantric practices unique to the Transmission by Command School. It is a system of advanced tantric meditation passed down by Naropa that represents the completion stage teachings. Mahamudra practice is explained according to interpretations of sutra and tantra — with the goal being direct understanding of buddha-nature. Mahamudra was an effort to get back to the basics of meditation practice much like Chan did in China. Each of the schools within Kagyu tradition approach Mahamudra differently.

The Gelug Tradition (The Virtuous School)

The Virtuous School could be called the reform movement of Tibetan Buddhism. Started by Tsongkhapa in the fifteenth century, Gelug can be traced back to the Bound by Command School and was greatly influenced by the teachings of Atisha. Tsongkhapa reiterated the emphasis that Atisha had made on the monastic traditions and the importance of the guru. Tsongkhapa was extremely well educated in various schools of Buddhism and engaged in extensive meditation practices as well. Tsongkhapa was a renaissance man undertaking prostrations, meditation, incantations, scriptures, monastic study, ethics, and more. He founded the Ganden Monastery in 1409, which was later divided into two colleges. He died at the age of sixty and left behind a legacy that has lasted to this day. The emphasis in the Gelug tradition is on monastic and academic study. Few masters, if any, are laypeople. Monks who train in the Gelug tradition receive advanced degrees in Buddhist philosophy and thought. These monks are known as geshes.

A geshe has the equivalent of a PhD in Tibetan philosophy. They be-come experts in a spirited form of discourse called ritualized dialectical debate. The curriculum includes topics such as the Abidharma, Madhyamaka, and the Prajna Paramita, and can last between twelve and twenty years.

The Dalai Lamas come from the Virtuous School of Tibetan Buddhism and have been the spiritual and secular leaders of Tibet ever since. However, the Dalai Lamas are not the heads of the Virtuous school itself. The Dalai Lamas receive training in many if not all the Tibetan schools of Buddhism, and the leader of the Virtuous school is the abbot of the Ganden monastery.

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