A Brief History of Buddhism and the Nyingma School

Twenty-five hundred years ago, the fourth of the thousand Buddhas of this fortunate aeon took birth in the family of the king of the Sakyas as the prince Siddhartha. Abandoning life in the palace to seek an end to suffering, he tested and rejected all paths claiming to lead to liberation and proceeded to the diamond seat (vajrasana) beneath the bodhi tree in Bodhgaya, where he reached complete and perfect enlightenment.

The Buddha turned the wheel of the Dharma three times: First, in Sarnath, the Buddha taught the four noble truths: suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the path leading to the cessation of suffering. This is the basis of the Hinayana tradition of Buddhism. Second, at Vulture’s Peak in Rajgir, he taught the perfection of wisdom (the Prajna Paramita or “The Heart Sutra”). These are teachings on characteristiclessness or “emptiness,” such as, “Form is emptiness and emptiness is form.” He taught this to a mixed audience of men, women, bhiksus, bhiksunis, and bodhisatvas (including Manjushri, Avalokitsvara, Vajrapani and Maitreya). Finally, he taught the doctrine of absolute truth to supernatural beings, gods, bodhisattvas, nagas, raksas, yakshas, and human beings.

The Buddha imparted 84,000 kinds of teachings. There are appropriate teachings for every kind of mind. These teachings can be classified into nine yanas, or vehicles. Buddha Sakyamuni first taught Vajrayana (Diamond Vehicle) in private at the request of King Indrabodhi of Oddiyana (Orgyen). He taught chosen disciples of high merit how to transform phenomenal appearance into a pure mandala. In order to teach this, he emanated the Guhyasamaja mandala, gave the empowerments, and then gave the tantric teachings. Thus, it was taught apart from the three turnings of the wheel of Dharma. He also prophesied in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra that he would be reborn in a lake in order to teach the Vajrayana. This prophecy was fulfilled by the birth of Padmasambhava, the “Lotus-Born” (Pema Jungney), who is also known as the Second Buddha, and as Guru Rinpoche (“Precious Guru”).

Hinayana, or Theravada, Teaching

The Hinayana view is that Buddha Shakyamuni transmitted his teachings to seven accomplished disciples. In Tibetan, they are known as Ösung, Kungawo, Shane Göchen, Nyerbe, Phagpa Dhidhika, Nagpopa and Legthong; in Sanskrit, they are Kasyapa, Ananda, Sanavisika, Upagupta, etc. Shortly after the parinirvana of the Buddha, at the first council in Rajagriha, the Arhats recited the teachings and classified them into the Tripitaka. The Tripitika includes the Vinaya to promote shila, the training in ethics and karma; the Sutras to promote samadhi, the training in concentration and contemplation; and the Abhidharma to promote prajna, the training in penetrating wisdom. From the sravaka sanghas arose four schools, which, by the time of King Ashoka in the 3rd century B.C.E., developed into 18 schools. They are known collectively as the Hinayana. Today, this tradition is known as the Theravada, the “Way of the Elders.”

Mahayana Teaching

The Mahayana was transmitted through the Bodhisattvas, including Maitreya, Manjushri, etc., as intermediaries to Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, Asanga, Vasubandhu, etc. Nagarjuna formed the basis for the Madhyamika (“Middle Way”) school, while the treatises of Asanga laid the foundation for the Yogacara (“Mind Only”) school. Hundreds of learned works were composed on the subjects of vinaya, abhidharma, prajnaparamita, madhyamaka, cittamatra, logic, and the worldly arts and sciences.

Vajrayana Teaching

The tantric Vajrayana teachings were transmitted through the bodhisattva Vajrapani, and the eighty-four mahasiddhas. The Vajrayana is classified within Nyingma into the outer and inner tantras. The outer tantras are the Kriya, Upaya, and Yoga tantras. The inner tantras, which were transmitted through the vidyadaras Kukkuraja, Lilavajra, Buddhaguhya, Padmasambhava, and others, include Mahayoga, Anuyoga and Atiyoga. It was the first two of these inner tantras that were passed on to King Indrabodhi.

Twenty-eight years after the parinirvana of the Buddha, King Indrabodhi of Sahor, also known as King Dza, received the transmission of the Mahayoga and Anuyoga tantras from Vajrapani. He began a long lineage of Vidyadharas (“Knowledge Holders”) who realized and transmitted these teachings for many centuries in India.

One hundred sixty-six years after the Buddha’s parinirvana, Garab Dorje was born in Oddiyana, in northwest India. He was an incarnation of Vajrasattva. Garab Dorje was the first human to teach the Atiyoga, the Great Perfection, tantras. He transmitted the Atiyoga to Manjushrimitra between the 1st and 3rd century C.E., and he, in turn, passed them on to Sri Singha. From Sri Singha, they were transmitted to Jnanasutra, Buddhaguhya, and to the masters who brought them to Tibet, including Padmasambhava, Vimalamitra, and Vairotsana.

Dharma in Tibet

Some of these teachings possibly reached Tibet by the 5th century C.E. But it was not until the 8th century that Buddhism began to be established in a systematic and general way. King Trisong Deutsen (742 C.E.) invited Shantarakshita to Tibet to establish a great monastery. After encountering difficulties, Shantarakshita asked the King to invite Padmasambhava, telling him the story of their past life. They had been born as siblings, built the great stupa in Boudha, Nepal, and had made aspirations to come together in one place to benefit each other’s activity in establishing the Buddhadharma in Tibet.

Realizing that they had the connection of their previous aspirations, the King invited Padmasambhava to Tibet. Padmasambhava subdued all the harmful spirits in Tibet and bound them by oath to bring and maintain good conditions in the land. By creating this auspicious condition, Padmasambhava blessed the whole land of Tibet, and the monastery, named Samye, was eventually completed. Then Padmasambhava introduced Tibet to the sixty-four hundred thousand teachings of the Dzogpachenpo, the Great Perfection, obtained from Bodhgaya in India and elsewhere.

Shantarakshita ordained seven Tibetan lay people as monks for the first time in Tibet. Thus all the sutric teachings, particularly the Vinayana teachings and practices, were established. Under the guidance of Padmasambhava, Vimalamitra, and Vairotsana, more than 108 Indian panditas (scholars and accomplished masters) and 108 Tibetan translators translated most of the Buddha’s teachings that were available in India into Tibetan. Thus the teachings of the Buddhadharma illuminated the civilization of Tibet.

Kama and Terma

The Vajrayana teachings were transmitted from generation to generation in two ways:

The kama (long) transmission derives from the 8th century, when the three leading fathers of Buddhadharma in Tibet (Shantarakshita, Padmasambhava, and King Trisong Deutsen) gathered together and gave innumerable oral transmissions. These transmissions, from realized master to disciple, are an unbroken chain through a long period of time, continuing up to the present. They are known as the kama, all of which was collected and compiled by Orgyen Terdag Lingpa and Lochen Dharmashri in 17th century.

The terma (short) transmission, derives from teachings concealed by Padmasambhava and his spiritual consort, Yeshe Tsogyal, with the intention that they were to be discovered at some future date by treasure finders (tertöns) when circumstances were right. These terma, or treasures, were later revealed through the enlightened minds and meditative visions of Nyingma masters. Hundreds of masters have appeared who have revealed these treasures. Among them, Nyangral Nyima Özer (1124-92), Guru Chowang (1212-70), Dorje Lingpa (1346-1405), Pema Lingpa (b.1405) and Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820-1892) are renowned as the Five Kings of the Treasure Masters. Their revealed treasures concern, among others, the cycle of teachings and meditations related to Avalokiteshvara, the sadhanas of Guru Rinpoche, and the Dzogchen teachings. During the 19th century, Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, Kongtrül Lodro Thaye, and Chogyur Dechen Lingpa assembled thousands of terma treasure texts from throughout Tibet, creating a collection in over 60 volumes known as the Rinchen Terdzöd.

Consequently, the standard Buddhist canon, the Buddha’s word (Kangyur), consists of over 100 volumes. The Tangyur, commentaries by Indian panditas, consist of over 200 volumes. Many further teachings may be found in the Collection of a Hundred Thousand Nyingma Tantras, compiled in the 13th century by Tertön Ratna Lingpa. Besides this, many hundreds of great masters, such as Longchen Rabjam, Jigme Lingpa, Mipham Rinpoche, and so on, have added to the rich collection of Nyingma literature.

The Second Transmission, or Sarma

The traditions that later evolved (after the Nyingmapa) are collectively known as the Sarma. Led by Rinchen Zangpo (957-1055 C.E.), who had studied in Kashmir in the 10th and 11th centuries, a second wave of translation and interpretation occurred, resulting in the new translation period of the sarma.

The Kadampa tradition is based on the lineages that Atisha transmitted through his disciple, Dromtonpa. The Gelug school, established in the 15th century, is based on this lineage. The Kagyu tradition traces its lineage to Tilopa and Naropa through Marpa and his disciple, Milarepa. The Sakya tradition traces its lineage to Drogmi and Khon Konchog Gyalpo, who transmitted the teachings of the siddha, Virupa.

The Six Major Nyingma Universities

Kathok Monastery was founded in Kham, eastern Tibet, by Ka Dampa Desheg (1112-92) in 1159 CE. From the 15th century onwards, the other great Nyingma monastic universities were built: Mindroling, in central Tibet, founded in 1676 by Rigzin Terdag Lingpa, also known as Minling Terchen Gyurme Dorje (1646-1714); Dorje Drag, central Tibet, founded in 1659 by Rigzin Ngagi Wangpo; Palyul, in eastern Tibet, established by Rigzin Kunsang Sherab in 1665; Dzogchen Monastery, eastern Tibet, built by Dzogchen Pema Rigzin in 1685; and Zhechen, eastern Tibet, established by Zhechen Rabjampa in 1735.

Thus the land of Snow became a great treasury of enlightened teachings. In the 1950s, as Tibetans fled their homeland, they carried with them the most precious texts and art they could rescue. Today the major monastic institutions have been re-established in exile in India, and numerous temples and centers have been built throughout the world.

May the lotus feet of the Guru who glorifies the Teachings be firm. May the Noble Ones who hold the Teachings encompass the earth. May the prosperity and dominion of the patrons of the Teachings increase, (and) may the Teachings auspiciously remain for a long time.