The Four Lineages of Tibetan Buddhism

Home » The Four Lineages of Tibetan Buddhism


The four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism are:

Nyingma – is the oldest school of Tibetan Buddhism. It was established in Tibet during the reign of the Emperor Trisong Detsen (742-797 CE) who brought the tantric masters Shantarakshita and Padmasambhava to Tibet to teach and to found the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet.

Nyingmapa classifies all Buddhist teachings into nine yanas, or vehicles. Dzogchen, or “great perfection”, is the highest yana and the central teaching of the Nyingma school. According to Dzogchen teaching, the essence of all beings is a pure awareness. This purity (ka dog) correlates to the Mahayana doctrine of sunyata. Ka dog combined with natural formation – lhun sgrub, which corresponds to dependent origination – brings about rigpa, awakened awareness.

The path of Dzogchen cultivates rigpa through meditation so that rigpa flows through our actions in everyday life. Dzogchen is an esoteric path, and authentic practice must be learned from a Dzogchen master. It is a Vajrayana tradition, meaning that it combines use of symbols, ritual, and tantric practices to enable the flow of rigpa. One unique aspect of Nyingmapa is the “white sangha”, ordained masters and practitioners who are not celibate. Those who live a more traditionally monastic, and celibate, life are said to be in the “red sangha”.

Kagyu – school of Tibetan Buddhism traces its origins to Tilopa (968-1069), a tantric master of India. Tilopa is credited with developing a meditation method called Mahamudra that would become a foundational practice of Kagyu One of Tilopa’s disciples was named Naropa (956-1041).

By this time Buddhism had become firmly established in Tibet, and Tibetans were traveling to India to seek out teachers. One of Milarepa’s students, Gampopa Sonam Rinchen (1079-1153), is generally credited with founding the Dakpo Kagyu school, which is the main Kagyu tradition and usually just called “Kagyu”.

Gampopa had mastered another tantric system called Kadampa, and his synthesis of Kadampa and Mahamudra became the basis of Kagyu practice. Mahamudra is a combination of practices, including meditation and tantra yoga, focusing on the nature of mind. The practices taught by the kadampas were calibrated to replace selfish desires with selfless compassion. The four disciples of Gampopa founded the four major transmission lineages of Kagyu are Barom Kagyu, Phaktru Kagyu, Karma Kagyu, and Tsalpa Kagyu. These lineages have many active sub-lineages.

Sakyapa – is firmly rooted in Tibet’s rich mythology. The leaders of Sakya are and have always been from a single aristocratic clan, the Khon. The Sakya school began with Khon Konchok Gyalpo (1034-1102).

Konchok Gyalpo was riding through a marketplace one day and saw tantric songs beings performed in the open, as street theater. Konchok Gyalpo was dismayed; he believed tantra should remain esoteric and uncorrupted by public display. Konchok Gyalpo went on to study Indian tantra and combined what he learned with his family’s tantra practices.

Then in 1073 Konchok Gyalpo built a retreat center at Sakya, in the Tsang region of central Tibet. This would be the seat of the Sakya school until its residents fled the Chinese in the 1950s. One of his teachings – said to have come from the Bodhisattva Manjushri in a vision – is “letting go of the four attachments”.

The four attachments are this life, future lives, personal welfare, and any fixed concept of reality. The main Sakya school to this day is under the leadership of the Khon clan. The head of Sakyapa is the “Sakya Trizin” From the main Sakya school, two distinctive sub-schools emerged into Ngorpa, founded by Ngorchen Kunga Zangpo (1382-1457), Ngorpa emphasizes monastic discipline and Tsarpa, founded by Tsarchen Losal Gyatso (1502-56), known for teachings preserved in the Thirteen Golden Texts of Tsar.

Gelug – is best known in the West as the school of Tibetan Buddhism associated with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The story of Gelugpa begins with Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), a man from Amdo Province who began studying with a local Sakya lama at a very young age.

At 16 he traveled to central Tibet, where the most renowned teachers and monasteries were located, to further his education. Tsongkhapa did not study in any one place. He stayed in Kagyu monasteries learning Tibetan medicine, the practices of Mahamudra and the tantra yoga of Atisha. He studied philosophy in Sakya monasteries. He sought independent teachers with fresh ideas. He was particularly interested in the Madhyamika teachings of Nagarjuna.

In time, Tsongkhapa combined these teachings into a new approach to Buddhism. He explained his approach in two major works, Great Exposition of the Stages of the Path and Great Exposition of the Secret Mantra. Other of his teachings were collected in several volumes, 18 in all. Through most of his adult life Tsongkhapa traveled around Tibet, often living in camps with dozens of students.

By the time Tsongkhapa had reached his 50s the rugged lifestyle had taken a toll on his health. His admirers built him a new monastery on a mountain near Lhasa. The monastery was named “Ganden”, which means “joyful”. Tsongkhapa lived there only briefly before he died, however. At the time of his death, Tsongkhapa and his students were considered to be part of the Sakya school. Then his disciples stepped up and built a new school of Tibetan Buddhism on Tsongkhapa’s teachings. They called the school “Gelug”, which means “the virtuous tradition”.