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Tibetan Buddhism Schools

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Part of the article on Tibetan Buddhism
Lamas Rumtek

Tibetan Buddhist monks at Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim

Tibetan Buddhism comprises a number of distinct monastic traditions, which are commonly reduced to four: Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, and Gelug. The list is sometimes expanded to eight, mainly by distinguishing among Kagyu subdivisions.

Such groupings have evolved over time. For example, Tsongkhapa's Gelug order combined Drontonpa's Kadam lineage with Kagyu and Sakya elements, while Gampopa's Kagyu tradition unified Kadam and Mahamudra lineages.

A "fifth" tradition,Jonang, was suppressed by the Gelug and long thought to have disappeared; it survives in Kham. Alternatively, Bon is sometimes listed as the "fifth" tradition, despite its lack of Buddhist identity.

The Rimé.[1] ("non-sectarian") movement originated as a Khampa anti-Gelug alliance among representatives of several other traditions, but later attracted Gelug supporters.

Note on orthography: The Tibetan adjectival suffix -pa (or -ba)is translatable as "-ist" in English. English renderings may either include or omit it.


rNying Ma
"Old" (being the oldest of the four "schools")
Other exemplary figures
Yeshe Tsogyal, Longchen Rabjam, Jigme Lingpa, Mipham
Favorite tantras
Vajrakilaya, Heruka, Guhyagarbha, many terma texts
Major monasteries
Dorje Drak, Dzogchen Monastery, Kathok, Mindroling, Palyul, Shechen

The Nyingma tradition shares several important features with the (non-Buddhist) Bon religion, most notably the division of teachings into nine yanas ("vehicles") culminating in Dzogchen ("Great Perfection").

The Nyingma ("Old") school is often contrasted with the other three, which are collectively referred to as Sarma ("New"). The reference is to the period of key Buddhist translations into Tibetan.

Nyingma is most prevalent in Kham (Eastern Tibet), and also predominates among the Sherpa people of Solu Khumbu, Nepal.


bKa' brGyud
"Oral Transmission"
Gampopa (a twelth-century physician)
Other exemplary figures
A guru-disciple lineage including Tilopa, Naropa, Marpa, and Milarepa (teacher of Gampopa)
Favorite tantras
Chakrasamvara, Vajrayogini (Cf. Six Yogas of Naropa)
A. Dagpo sect—encompasses four major and eight minor Kagyu schools that trace back to Gampopa:
    1. Karma Kagyu (headed by a Karmapa)
    2. Tsalpa Kagyu
    3. Barom Kagyu
    4. Pagtru Kagyu. Eight minor sub-sects have arisen from Pagtru Kagyu. Of these, the most notable would be the Drikung Kagyu and the Drukpa Kagyu.
B. Shangpa Kagyu--a lineage which includes Niguma (sister of Naropa and consort of Tilopa), Milarepa, and in the 20th century, Kalu Rinpoche.
Major monasteries

The now-familiar Tibetan practice of discovering tulkus originated within the Karma Kagyu order, resulting in the line of Karmapas. The purpose was to adapt the principle of hereditary succession to a celibate monastic system.

Mahamudra, the Sarma counterpart to Dzogchen, originated within the Kagyu tradition.

The Drukpa Kagyu subsect is the major form of Buddhism in Ladakh and Bhutan.


Sa sKya
"Grey Earth" (after its original monastery)
Khon Konchog Gyalpo, a disciple of Drokmi Lotsawa.
Other exemplary figures
Sakya Pandita, Phagpa
Favorite tantras
Spiritual head
Sakya Trizin

Sakya hierarchs ruled Tibet on behalf of the Mongol Empire during the 13th and 14th centuries. Leadership of the order succeeded from uncle to nephew, thereby combining a traditional inheritance system with the strictures of monastic celibacy.

Phagpa is known for his invention of a Mongolian script.

Outside of the Tibetan town of Sakya, the Sakya sect also dominates in Lo Manthang, Nepal.


dGe Lugs
"Way of Virtue"
Tsongkhapa (14th to 15th century monastic scholar)
Other exemplary figures
Tsongkhapa's disciples Gyaltsab Je and Khedrup Je, various Dalai Lamas
Favorite tantras
Guhyasamaja, Chakrasamvara, Yamantaka
Spiritual head
The Ganden Tripa
Major monasteries
(In Lhasa)
(Outside of Lhasa)

The Gelug order, through its lineage of Dalai Lamas, ruled central Tibet from the mid-17th to the mid-20th century. It is sometimes known as the "Yellow Hat Sect," in contrast to the other three schools which are the "Red Hat Sects."

Nearly all Mongolian Buddhist monks belong to the Gelug order.


Jo Nang
Named for Jomonang, the site of an early monastery
Yumo Mikyo Dorje
Other exemplary figures
Dolpopa, Taranatha
Favorite tantras
Kalachakra (Dro lineage)
Major monasteries
nearly 40, of which the major one is Tsangwa (in Dzamthang County, Sichuan)

The zhentong / rangtong debate was an important episode in Tibetan intellectual history. The Jonang view (called "Great Madhyamaka"), which championed zhentong, was declared to be heretical by the fifth Dalai Lama and suppressed in the 17th century.

  1. Wylie: ris-med

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