Denominations of Tibetan Buddhism
Several Tibetan Buddhist traditions once existed, but the popularity of the
various groups rose, fell or disappeared as they became allied with different
rulers. They were also absorbed one by another, and some lineages transmission of
specialized teachings faded. Nowadays there are four main ones: Nyingma,
Sakya, Kagyu and Kadam (widely called Gelug.)
The ancient pre-Buddhist Bon (pron. beun) tradition was also
influenced by Buddhism and therefore it is sometimes included as a fifth
In Buddhism generally, people do not actively engage in trying to convince
others to abandon one denomination for another. Also, it is considered a
serious breach of ethics to disparage another's affiliations.
There are also strong ties linking the various denominations. For
Tsongkhapa, the great reformer of Kadampa who founded the Gelugpa denomination,
had many connections with the Kagyu lineage. He took layman's vows of
from the 4th Karmapa, who prophesied that Tsongkhapa would glorify the
When he first
began his quest for Dharma, he stopped at the Drikung Kagyu Monastery where
he studied the works of Kyobpa Jigten Samgon.
The Nyingmapa (the elders, -pa means man or person) are
the oldest denomination whose tradition is said to be unbroken having originated
with Padma-sambhava, called Guru Rinpoche. The Book of the Dead, called
in Tibetan, Bardo Teudol is a Nyingma text.
These lamas may be celibate or married. One well-known Nyingma lama was the
late Dilgo Kyentse. Another was Dudjom
Rinpoche. He was succeeded by Chagdud Tulku.
The Nyingmapa, Sogyal Rinpoche, is the
lama whose teachings are found in the popular Book of
Living and Dying, and who founded the Rigpa
In the 21st century, we are fortunate to have access to the teachings of Her
Eminence, the Mindroling Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche,
The Sakya, and also the Kagyu, date from the early 11th century. That
was a time of renewal when the Bengali teacher, Atisha arrived to help
Buddhist Tibetans who had suffered a period of repression.
Sometimes people distinguish among the denominations with reference to the
lamas' hats. The headdress of prominent Sakya
lamas superficially resembles a kind of turban. In celibate Sakya lineages
the tradition descends from uncle to nephew, but that practice is also found in
some the other groups.
The reformer Tsongkhapa established the Gelugpa
order from the Kadampa, a Nyingma sect. He imposed celibacy as one of this denominationís
The Dalai Lama is the leading
public figure of this denomination. He is not the head of the order (the
abbot of Ganden occupies that position) but he is certainly the most widely
recognized Tibetan public figure.
The Panchen Lama is
another pre-eminent Gelugpa leader. Chokyi Nyima is currently being
concealed or held in
detention by the government of the People's Republic of China, which has
designated its own Panchen.
Gyatso holds a view on an essential matter that is in contradiction with that of both the Ganden Tripa, who is the actual traditional head of
the Gelug denomination, and the Dalai Lama, who is the most famous and beloved. He has established a New
Kadampa sect but it cannot be called a tradition.
The Tibetan syllable that we write as Ka means oral transmission (here, of the words of Buddha.) It means
that the teachings of Buddha are transmitted directly from one person to another
by word of mouth. Gyu means lineage. Therefore the
main characteristic of this denomination is that it is an unbroken oral
transmission of Buddha's teaching.
The Tibetan word can also appear as Kar.gyud.
Then it signifies "white lineage," and that is how Chinese people
refer to it, but this is not the original sense.
The Kagyu denomination is the
lineage of Gampopa, the student of the Tibetan yogi, Milarepa, who
is venerated by all Tibetan sects. His teacher Marpa, was one of the
intrepid voyagers who, in the 11th century, traveled a number of times to India
to receive authentic teachings from Naropa and other great masters.
It is the Kagyu denomination that
established the custom of searching for reincarnations of deceased masters based
upon the predictions of the established teacher, his or herself. Those
people, usually children when they are found, are called tulkus.
The Kagyu are also famous for the Black Hat ceremony performed by the head of
the order, the Karmapa, and for their
reputation as masters of so-called magical arts such as long distance striding
and the generation of internal heat (tummo), as well as the manufacture
of special pills with unusually beneficial
Since the Karma Kagyu is
in the direct line of oral and written transmission from Gampopa, whose
name refers to his native province, Kham, in East Tibet, many Kagyu lamas are
from this region and so the pronunciation of the liturgy is with this Tibetan
The designation, Karma, refers to the fact that this is a
practice lineage, and also that the Karmapa is a
bodhisattva who is active in the world.
The Rimay Movement
In the 19th century, there was a trend popularized by the Jamgon Kongtrul
Lodro Thaye (1813-1899) a Kagyu leader. Ecumenical in nature, it allows
people to follow more than one tradition. Rimay (ris-med, following the
Tibetan spelling) has broadened perspectives and probably contributes much to
the solidarity of Tibetans and of Buddhists in general.
Another great rime leader was
Khyentse Wangpo. Chojor Lingpa is also considered one.
Many lamas teach and practice more than one denomination, and some also hold
Bon traditions at the same time. Also, many Western teachers are holders of
the teachings of more than one Buddhist path. What is considered important is not to mix and confuse lineages in the minds of
man: Women play an important role in Buddhism,
particularly in its Tibetan expression. -mo added to a name
indicates a female, so it is possible to use it as a suffix instead of -pa,
but like most other languages, Tibetan generally uses the male term as all-inclusive.
Tibetan Book of the Dead: Like ancient
Egyptian funerary texts, there is not really one single ancient book, but many
different oral traditions that were later written down. However, they are all
variants of some fundamental views, beliefs and descriptions.
Tripa: The current Ganden
abbot or Tripa is 100th in the line of the supreme spiritual
authorities of the Gelugpas. He is 74 years old and his seat, outside
Tibet, is at the Drepung Monastery in South India.