'Eight Chariots' were the original eight major streams of vajrayana
transmission flowing from India to Tibet. Each stream was, in itself,
a confluence of tantras taught and translated by the great Indian
and Tibetan masters of the eighth to twelfth centuries CE. Since
then, historical, geographical and political factors have crystallised
the Buddhism of Tibet into four major lineages: those of Nyingma,
Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug. All incorporate the fundamental teachings
of the Buddha (hinayana). Equally, but with slight variations of
interpretation or of style of presentation, they all preach his
special teachings of the bodhisattva path (mahayana). Their real
differences lie in the vajrayana traditions they perpetuate.
Its name means 'ancient', as it was the first Buddhist tradition
to take root in Tibet. Established in magnificence in the eighth
century, through the royal patronage of King Trisong Detsen, the
wisdom of India's greatest scholar of the time, Santaraksita, and
the might of its most powerful guru, Padmasambhava, it brought Buddhism
to Tibet in a very dynamic and magnificent way. Padmasambhava taught
many tantras, from the wealth of his knowledge of Indian vajrayana,
and concealed many treasure-texts (terma) to be unearthed in later
years. He established three major practice centres of Samye, Yerpa
and Chuwori and had twenty-five outstanding disciples among his
hundreds of gifted followers. Masters Vimalamitra and Vairocana
also taught tantra in that seminal time.
early glory of this tradition lasted for some sixty years, until
the hostile (and probably insane) monarch Langdarma destroyed the
majority of its vestiges. Although it did gradually re-establish
its monasteries and sangha, it had to vie at first with the animist
Bön religion for influence and then later with the new lineages
(sarma) arising from the work of Atisha, Marpa and other eleventh
century renovators. It was during that period that it became referred
to as the 'ancient' (rnying.ma) school.
The Nyingma tradition views Buddhism as a whole as falling into
nine distinctive trends and sees itself as the result of three streams
of spiritual transmission:
'remote' canonical lineage, transmitted by an uninterrupted line
the 'close' lineage of hidden spiritual treasures and
the 'profound' lineage of pure vision.
first of these is the traditional guru-to-disciple transmission
of teachings, by empowerment, word of mouth and example, as found
in other schools. The tantric speciality of the Nyingma focuses,
in its formal stages of training, on primordial Buddha Samantabhadra,
on the form of Guru Rinpoche and on the wrathful winged Vajrakila,
among others. Beyond these, the formless zenith of its training
is known as the Great Perfection. As these teachings date back to
the Buddha, they are known as those of 'remote' origin.
'close' teachings are those hidden, along with sacred objects, by
Padmasambhava and his consort, Yeshe Tsogyal, in rocks, caves, lakes,
images, temple pillars and other extraordinary places, to be discovered
and given to the world when the time was ripe. These are known as
'treasures' (terma) and the masters who find them are known as 'treasure-revealers'
(tertön). Most are considered reincarnations of one or another
of the twenty-five main disciples, who had been initiated into the
meaning of each teaching in their seminal life with Padmasambhava.
Not all terma are physical. Sometimes they simply arise in the mind
of the master.
third type of transmission comes through the pure vision of a tertön,
who actually sees Guru Padmasambhava come to him and give teaching.
The Nyingma tradition fosters an inbuilt love of going as quickly
as possible to the heart of the matter. Offering, for those who
are ready, some of the deepest teachings on the nature of reality,
it still maintains that ring of majesty and magic of its unique
origins and has found a considerable following in the West.
The nine levels of Buddhism
1. Basic Buddhism for freeing the mind (sravakayana)
2. A special form of the above followed by solitary hermits (pratyekabuddhayana)
3. The way of the bodhisattva (bodhisattvayana)
4. The mantrayana practices based on positive and purifying acts
of the kriya tantra
5. The mantrayana practices based on skilful means of the carya
6. The vajrayana practices of inner yoga of the yoga tantra
7. The vajrayana practices of the 'greater' (maha) branch of higher
8. The vajrayana practices of the 'higher' (anu) branch of higher
9. The vajrayana practices of the 'primordial' branch (ati) of higher
of the most famous Nyingma monasteries were those of Katok, Dorjé
Drak, Palyul, Mindroling, Dzogchen and Secchen. Among its greatest
masters were Longchenpa (1308-1363), who made the first systematic
compilation of their doctrine, Mingling Gyurdo (1646-1714), who
preserved their canon, Jigme Lingpa (1729-17980, Patrul Rinpoche
(1808-1887), Lama Mipham (1846-1912), Jamyang Chentse (1820-1892)
and Jamgon Kongtrul (1813-1899).
tremendous wave of Buddhist rejuvenation and renewal swept through
Tibet in the eleventh century. One of its most important figures
was Atisha Dipamkara , who taught for thirteen years in western
and central Tibet. His teaching placed great emphasis on a careful
presentation of Middle Way (madhyamaka) philosophy, a comprehensive
knowledge of Buddhism and a vigorous restoration of pure monastic
conduct, which had somewhat deteriorated in Tibet by his time. Onto
this firm foundation were planted vajrayana teachings, such as those
of the Kalachakra and Guhyasamaja tantras.
Throughout Atisha's stay, Dromtönpa studied at his feet and
became, of his six main students, the main spiritual heir. Dromtönpa
himself had three main disciples. Of these Potowa received complete
transmission of 'Six Treatises' concerning the bodhisattva path.
Chen-Nga Tsultim received many teachings about the Four Noble Truths.
Lama Pu-Chung received detailed teachings on the 'Sixteen Quintessences'
of vajrayana practice.
general these teachings, handed down through generation after generation
of masters, eventually divided into two distinct streams. One was
integrated into the Kagyu tradition, through Pawo Tsulak Trengwa
(1440-15030, who received them from Sakya Pandita. The other went
to Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), from whose illustrious disciples arose
the Gelug lineage. Since this latter is not doctrinally different
from the Khadampa, it is not treated as a separate 'chariot' and
is known by some as the Later Khadampa (not to be confused with
the controversial late twentieth-century sect, the New Khadampa).
The Gelug school places great emphasis on tantra being practised
upon a firm basis of renunciation, altruism and a correct understanding
of Nagarjuna and Chandrakirti's view of voidness. To this end, monastic
discipline, study and logic in the form of stylised religious debate
are held in great esteem. Not surprisingly, this school associates
itself with Manjushri, Bodhisattva of wisdom. It is also a tradition
which has given rise to the largest monastic universities the world
has ever known, the most important being founded in Central Tibet
by disciples of Tsongkhapa.
1416, Tashi Palden founded Drepung monastery which, at its height,
had over 10,000 thousand monks and an influence felt as far away
as Mongolia. In 1419, Sakya Yeshe founded Sera, which grew to house
over 5,000 monks. In 1447, another disciple, Gendun Drup, later
to become the first Dalai Lama, founded Tashilhunpo in Zhigatse.
This later became the seat of the reincarnations of Tsongkhapa's
disciple Khedrup Je, who became known as Panchen Lamas. Tsongkhapa
himself founded Ganden monastery in 1409. This grew to house some
3,000 monks and whoever is its Abbot - the Ganden Trichen - has
traditionally presided over the Gelug tradition, although its most
famous personage is without doubt the Dalai Lama.
the Dalai Lamas to date, the fifth was the most renowned. It was
he who, in 1645, undertook the rebuilding of the Potala palace,
one of the world's first skyscrapers. The original eleven-storey
royal palace had been built on Mt Marpori in Lhasa in 637. During
the nine centuries between its destruction by lightning in the eighth
century and the reign of the 'illustrious fifth', the Tibetan capital
had been located successively at Sakya, Tsetang, Rinpung and Zhigatse.
This was the result of various religious factions wooing the support
of Mongol armies and establishing the Tibetan capital at their own
stronghold. The violent backing of the Qosot Mongols not only established
Lhasa as the capital but made the Dalai Lama temporal king as well
as spiritual luminary, giving him more power and a larger kingdom
than Tibet had known for many centuries.
the Gelug spiritual tradition flourished in its giant monasteries
of Central Tibet, the fate of subsequent Dalai Lamas was less illustrious.
The Manchu Emperors put a stop to the Mongol influence and imposed
their own stamp on Tibet, ensuring that Dalai Lama incarnations
either died young or never exercised real power, the latter lying
in the hands of their regents. This continued until the Thirteenth
Dalai Lama (1876-1933), who had real authority. The present fourteenth
Dalai Lama is undoubtedly the world's best known Buddhist and Nobel
champion of peace.
3. Marpa Kagyu
Kagyu is one of the four main schools of Tibet and one which has
greatly influenced Eastern Tibet, China, Mongolia and the Himalayan
kingdoms of Bhutan, Ladakh and Nepal. It is sometimes known as the
Marpa Kagyu, in honour of Marpa the Translator(1012-1097), its first
Tibetan patriarch. It is also known as the Dagpo Kagyu through the
powerful way it was established as a monastic tradition by Dagpo
Rinpoché (Gampopa 1079-1153). Through the latter's disciples
arose its four main and eight minor lineages.
name Kagyu has often been poorly translated as 'oral transmission'.
It really means lineage of transmission of (four) masteries, because
of the way in which, for almost a millennium, it has perpetuated
an impeccable mastery of the most profound Buddhist yoga practices.
These were originally taught by two of India's greatest Buddhists,
Tilopa and Naropa, as the quintessence of the scores of vajrayana
tantras being practised at the time. Tilopa had received spiritual
transmissions from more than one hundred of the finest gurus of
his time and, after attaining enlightenment, had reviewed them all
in a global perspective, considering the areas in which they overlapped
or differed. The result was his teaching a series of practices which
help the adept methodically bring each aspect of his or her existence
into the light of ultimate truth. Only at such time as the disciple
has completely mastered them can he or she transmit them to others,
thus ensuring that the original meaning and purpose is preserved
through the ages. Tilopa's main disciple, Naropa, taught these as
the Six Yogas:
or Heat Yoga, bringing ultimate reality into the biological and
neurological functions of the body, thereby purifying karma,
Body, bringing it into the experiences of daily life
Yoga, bringing lucidity and control into dream experience
Light, the recognition of mind's innate lucidity, voidness and bliss,
State, bringing lucidity and control into the after-death and between-lives
bringing control of consciousness at the moment it leaves the dying
component of ultimate truth, with its natural lucidity and spontaneous
mastery over phenomena, is assured by the teachings of mahamudra:
the be all and end all of the Buddha's teachings. These point out
the nature of the human mind and of all its possibilities, from
the most sublime to the most gross, detailing how the ultimate truth
of voidness is inextricably linked with the relative web of manifestation
through voidness' innate compassion.
received mahamudra and the Six Yogas from his guru Naropa and from
Maitripa (also known as Avadhutipa), who held a special lineage
of their transmission from Nagarjuna and Saraha. All these teachings
make four main areas of mastery, for which the Kagyu is renowned.
Clear Light - a general term for the last five of the six yogas
Karma Mudra - the reconciling of all subjective and objective aspects
The entirety of what Marpa had brought from India was passed on
to the great yogi Milarépa , who had a sun-like disciple
(Gampopa), a moon-like disciple (Réchungpa) and twenty-five
others, like stars. Gampopa had also been heir to the Khadampa teachings
of Atisha. Blending these two streams together as one, he established
the basis for the Kagyu lineage as it exists today. All disciples
are given instruction in the Khadampa teachings, known as sutra
mahamudra, and the gifted ones among them go on to receive the vajrayana
mahamudra, practising the Six Yogas on a basis of tantras of the
anuttara yoga tantra class, usually those of Hévajra, Chakrasamvara
and Vajra Varahi. The Kagyu tradition does not use the nine yana
template of the Nyingma but instead classifies the fourth level
of tantra, i.e. anuttara yoga tantra, into three sections: mother
tantras, father tantras, and non-dual tantras. The illustrious ninth
Karmapa explained this, writing:
the way they express things, there is some difference between the
father and mother tantras of the anuttarayogatantra. Very generally,
one can say that mother tantras such as Chakrasamvara place more
emphasis on the wisdom aspect and stress voidness, the ultimate
stage, the six yogas etc., whereas the father tantra [in particular
Guhyasamaja place more emphasis on skilful means, and in particular
the creative stage of meditation.
what is being expressed is at all times non-dual, and although,
for good practical reasons, the mother and father tantras emphasis
one or another aspect, these aspects are equal aspects of a non-dual
fusion. Were this not the case, they could not merit their name
annutara yoga tantra, the word yoga signifying complete inseparability.
first Karmapa was Gampopa's main spiritual heir. In general, the
Karmapas are viewed as being at one and the same time the presence
of Avalokitesvara (the compassion of all the Buddhas) and emanations
of he who will be the sixth Buddha of our age: the Lion Buddha.
It is often said that the Karmapas are reincarnations of the great
mahasiddha Saraha. Seventeen generations of Karmapas have guided
the Kagyu tradition with the light of their wisdom. Some have been
gurus to Chinese Emperors, Mongol Khans and Tibetan and Himalayan
kings. All have established monasteries and brought the Buddha's
teaching to tens of thousands of people. The current Karmapa, Urgyen
Tinley Dorjé, resides at present in Gyuto monastery, in northern
famous lamas of the Kagyu tradition have been the Tai Situpas, considered
to be emanations of the bodhisattva who will become the fifth Buddha,
Maitreya, and equally regarded as reincarnations of Marpa the Translator
and mahasiddha Dombipa. Their main seat is in Palpung monastery.
The Shamarpas have been another important series of lineage lamas.
In more recent centuries, the Gyaltsabpas and Jamgon Kongtruls have
also played important roles.
4. The Sakya Lineage
named after its first monastery, built at Sakya in the west of central
Tibet in 1073. However, it started in the eighth century with teachings
from Padmasambhava (especially those on Vajrakila tantra) which
were perpetuated over four difficult centuries by the Khön
family dynasty. Khön Koncho Gyalpo complemented them with new
tantras, such as Hevajra and Chakrasamvara, received from a great
master of the eleventh century renaissance, Translator Drokmi, and
established Sakya monastery. Around the same time, lineages from
the Indian mahasiddha Naropa were also integrated into the lineage.
The Sakya line prides itself in striking a wise balance between
study and meditation. Its tantras are practised only after a thorough
training in the general hinayana and mahayana foundations, presented
in a special way associated with the Hévajra tantra and known
as 'the path and its results' (lam dre). The more profound teachings
speak much of non-differentiation between worldliness and voidness,
as well as of ultimate truth being a total fusion of luminosity
succession of great masters, such as Sachen Kunga Nyingpo (1092-1158)
and Sakya Pandita (1182-1251) further developed this tradition.
The latter was probably the most famous Sakya patriarch. Fame of
his erudition spread as far afield as Mongolia and China and he
was invited to the imperial court. Being celibate, his dynasty passed
on to his nephew Chöjal Pakpa (1235-1280). Mongol emperor Kublai
Khan gave Chöjal dominion over thirteen small kingdoms, thus
uniting much of the Tibetan plateau under one spiritual and temporal
ruler, much as the Chinese did later with the Dalai Lamas. A network
of Sakya monasteries was established across central and eastern
Tibet. This power waned by the early fourteenth century and the
single family dynasty which had dominated it effectively split into
two. Ever since the tradition has been ruled on a rotational basis
by the leaders of each. HH Sakya Trizin is the present head.
The 'Peacemaking' or Chö Lineage
With beautiful, haunting tunes, the rhythmic banging of large hand
drums and the singing harmonics of bells made from seven metals,
the Chö ritual has captured the hearts and imagination of many
Westerners. Those who practise it find it takes them to the heart
of the Buddha's teaching: a complete letting-go of everything personal
so as to be at the service of all beings, without any distinction.
But this series of practices (written gChod in Tibetan but pronounced
Chö) is only part of the Shiché (Peacemaking) lineage,
from Dampa Sangyé. Many Tibetans had trained under him and
established small lineages of his teachings in Tibet but it was
really through his own five journeys to that land that the coherent
wealth of his teachings took root there.
His instruction involved a fusion of mahamudra alongside a tantra
known as the Great River of Consonants and Vowels. He taught that
the correct foundation was to observe the three levels of Buddhist
commitments (precepts, bodhisattva vow and tantric commitments).
On this firm basis, the path to follow is that of strict asceticism,
living in desolate places, such as funeral grounds. There, one practices
severing the very root of suffering by annihilating the mind-poisons,
such as desire and anger, and making sure not to be distracted from
the essential point of Buddhism by involvement with its superficial
trappings. This results in a threefold activity which greatly benefits
beings. Dampa's disciple, Lapji Dröma, a female yogi, greatly
furthered these teachings in Tibet. At one point, Dampa Sangyé's
lineage almost disappeared. It was restored by the vigorous activity
of Mingling Lochen Chöpel Zangpo and continues until this day.
There are many different types of Chö practice, often with
specific purposes such as healing the sick or erasing the shadow
of death cast by proximity and attachment to the dying. They all
involve 'killing demons' but one should understand that the demons
are the four Mara: the four main existential problems that cause
composed of the five aggregates which together form body and mind
mind being polluted by selfish desire, animosity, jealousy and the
other mind poisons (klesa mara)
attached to the details of one's existence and existence in general
(deva's son mara)
unable to accept change (lord of death mara).
actual practice of Chö embodies all six perfections (paramita)
but emphasises two in particular. The total letting-go of physical
attachment, through compassionate asceticism, represents a special
aspect of generosity and the main meditation is the very expression
of primordial wisdom (prajñaparamita), severing the chattering
delusions of ego.
Chö lineage was integrated into the Kagyu lineage at the time
of the third Karmapa (1284-1339), who held its practice in great
esteem. Since then, its has perpetuated by the Kagyu school, with
distinct Chö styles emerging from the Surmang, Nédo
amd Japché monasteries. Chö is part of the daily practice
in the famous three-year meditation retreats of this Lineage.
tradition has two specialities. In its general teachings on Buddhism,
it propounds the 'devoid of other' (Shengtong) view of Middle Way
philosophy. Its tantric teachings centre on a meticulous and thorough
presentation of the Kalachakra (Wheel of Time) Tantra. This very
important tantra, showing all the levels of relationship between
the human microcosm and the macrocosmic universe, had entered Tibet
through many doors in the hands of many masters. Altogether, the
teaching and translation activity that occurred through them gave
rise to seventeen distinct Kalachakra lineages. Master Kunpang Tukjé
gathered these seventeen into one authoritative teaching and established
a vihara dedicated to this within Jomo monastery, hence the name
of this tradition Jo (Jomo monastery) nang (within). The residence
of Master Dolpopa in the Jomo vihara caused this philosophical view
and the Kalachakra tantra to become quite widespread. Master Taranatha
also furthered them greatly.
all the Jonang monasteries in the central areas of the Tibetan plateau,
including Takten Puntsok Ling, the seat of Taranatha, were destroyed
by followers of the fifth Dalai Lama, driven by misplaced religious
zeal. However, the lineage continued until this century in eastern
Tibet, with its two main monasteries being Dzamtang Chöjé
and Dzamtang Tsangpa. The shengtong stance of Middle Way philosophy
has also been very healthily preserved within the Kagyu tradition.
lineage arose from the mahasiddha Khyungpo Naljor of Shang, in west-central
Tibet. It propagates five tantras of the anuttara yoga class, each
being considered the zenith of expression of a certain practice:
Hévajra tantra is the zenith of candali (heat) yoga
Chakrasamvara tantra is the zenith of consort yoga (karma mudra)
Guhyasamaja tantra is the zenith of illusory body and clear light
tantra is the zenith of dream yoga
Jigdzé is the zenith of enlightened action.
tantras are communicated through the teachings of five early Indian
masters: Niguma, Sukhasiddhi, Dorjé Denpa, Maitripa and Rahula.
The Shangpa Kagyu tradition almost died out this century. It was
preserved and restored through the vigorous activity of Kalu Rinpoché
towards the end of his life.
The Three Vajras tradition
lineage comes from mahasiddha Orgyenpa, who is said to have received
its teachings directly from the celestial being Vajrayogini. It
stresses the primordial purity of the three vajras: those of body,
speech and mind. This is present within the illusory bodies, speech
and minds of beings. The illusions are purified by a threefold application:
that of precepts, meditation and ritual. The result is to make manifest
the three bodies (kaya) of the Buddha, in this very lifetime. These
teachings reached the third Karmapa and have, since that time, been
preserved in his Kagyu tradition. They no longer exist as a separate
evolution of the Eight Chariots into the Four Great Traditions
This is a simplified version of a tremendous and complicated cross-fertilisation
occurring over the centuries. The resulting Kagyu tradition is the
greater Kagyu, including its four major and eight minor lineages