Although Buddhist practices and scriptures were present in early Tibetan centuries, Buddhism became more widespread in the 7th century CE when King Songtsen Gampo unified Tibet and took two Buddhist wives. However, it did not become the official religion of Tibet until the latter part of the 8th century CE, when it was brought from India at the invitation of King Trisong Detsen. The king invited famous Buddhist masters to Tibet and in particular, Shantarakshita and Padmasambhava, who built the first Buddhist monasteries. Padmasambhava, more commonly referred to as “Guru Rinpoche” played a major role in merging tantric Buddhism with the local Bön religion to form the early schools of Tibetan Buddhism.
Tibetan Buddhism is a very complete form of Buddhism incorporating Hinayana (“the Lesser Vehicle”), Mahayana (“the Greater Vehicle”) and Vajrayana (“the Diamond Vehicle”), the three major traditions. The teachings and practices include the study of the sutras, the scriptures that are records of the oral teachings of the Buddha, the study of meditation and the practice of tantric or esoteric meditations and rituals.
The Principal Schools Within Tibetan Buddhism:
Nyingma (“Old Order”) is the oldest of the Tibetan Buddhist schools and is based primarily on the teachings of Samantabhadra, or the “primordial Buddha” and Padmasambhava, who is revered by the Nyingma school as the “second Buddha.” Nyingma places crucial importance of the “teaching” tradition of doctrines, texts, practices and rituals, passed down from master to disciple. The distinctive doctrine of the Nyingma school is Dzogchen (“great perfection”), a view of reality based on a profound understanding of the nature of mind.
Kagyu (“Oral Transmission School”) traces its lineage back to the Indian tantric sage, Tilopa, who is said to have received a direct transmission from the primordial Buddha Vajradhara. Tilopa passed the teachings to Marpa, the first Tibetan lineage holder, after he traveled to India to study and gather Buddhist scriptures in the 11th century. Marpa’s most important student was Milarepa, to whom Marpa passed on his teachings only after subjecting him to trials of the utmost difficulty. In the 12th century, the physician Gampopa synthesized the teachings of Marpa and Milarepa into an independent school. Visit the Martsang Kagyu Lineage page for more details. As its name indicates, the school places particular value on the oral transmission of teachings from teacher to disciple. The central teaching is the “great seal” (mahamudra), which involves directly realizing the luminous nature of mind, which leads to instantaneous self-realisation. Also central to the Kagyu school are the Six Dharmas of Naropa which are a collection of tantric meditation techniques.
Sakya is named after the Sakya (“Gray Earth”) monastery in southern Tibet, which was founded in 1073 by Gönchok Gyelpo, a descendant of the Khön family, who it is said arrived on earth from a heavenly race. For generations the Khön family was associated with the Nyingma lineage, before separating to form the Sakya school and eschewing the old tantras in favour of the transmission of a cycle of Vajrayana teachings called “path and result” (lamdre), the systemization of Tantric teachings and Buddhist logic. The Sakya school had great political influence in the 13th and 14th centuries.
Geluk (“School of the Virtuous”) was founded in the late 14th century by Tsong Khapa, a renowned scholar, meditator and philosopher, and established through the founding of Ganden Monastery in 1410. One of the goals of the school was to reform Buddhism by a focus on monastic discipline, philosophical debate and high-level tantric practice. The school follows a graduated path to overcome afflictions, remove mental defilements and to attain final awakening. The Gelugpa school held political leadership of Tibet since the Dalai Lamas were made heads of state in 1642.