The History of Nyingma Buddhism

Padmasambhava

Padmasambhava

The Nyingma (ancient) school of Tibetan or Vajrayana Buddhism was founded in the eighth century by the great enlightened Indian tantric master Padmasambhava, “the second Buddha,” Its teachings, transmissions and lineage of enlightened masters have continued unbroken to this day. It is the oldest of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism which are:

  • Nyingma (founded 8th century A.D.)
  • Kagyu (founded in the early 11th century)
  • Sakya (founded in 1073 A.D.)
  • Gelug (founded in 1409 A.D.)


Besides these four major schools, there was also an important 19th c. development in Tibetan Buddhism known as the “Rime Movement” (pronounced ree’-mey). ”Rime” means “no sides” or “non-sectarian.” It arose partly in reaction to sectarianism fostered by the domination of the Gelug views in the culture and politics in Tibet, because of which other schools felt their unique character and styles were threatened. In an effort to preserve the comparatively smaller traditions, the Rime movement was founded on the ancient Buddhist idea that it is wrong to ignorantly criticize other traditions or religions. This movement gathers and incorporates teachings from all of the Buddhist schools and the major non-Buddhist Tibetan tradition called Bon, and Rime practitioners follow multiple lineages and practices. Rime is not an effort to unite the various schools, rather an effort to recognize and appreciate their differences, and their unique and valuable contributions.

King Trisong Detsen

King Trisong Detsen

The word “Nyingma” means “ancient,” referring to the school’s characteristic of being the oldest among all of Tibet’s Buddhist traditions.  Often called the “ancient translation school,” the Nyingma lineage began in the latter part of the 8th c. when the Tibetan King Trisong Detsen invited both the renowned Indian guru Shantarakshita, abbot of the great Buddhist Nalanda University, and the tantric master Padmasambhava, to come to Tibet and introduce Buddhism to his people.  Under the king’s order,  Shantarakshita, Padmasambhava, the Indian master Vimalamitra, the Tibetan translator Vairochana, along with 108 translators and 25 of Padmasambhava’s closest students, undertook this monumental task of rendering all of the extant Buddhist scriptures into Tibetan from Sanskrit, and accomplished it in one generation. In addition to the translation of the tantras (the esoteric teachings of the Buddha), supervised mainly by Padmasambhava, and the sutras (oral teachings of the Buddha) supervised mainly by Shantarakshita, these two also founded Tibet’s first Buddhist monastery, Samye, which became the main center for Buddhist teaching in Tibet for the next 300 years.

Shantarakshita

Shantarakshita

These events formed the basis of the early dissemination of Buddhism in Tibet up to the 11th century, which did not all proceed smoothly. Political instability followed the succession of the anti-Buddhist king Langdarma  (836–842) and his subsequent assassination.  The persecution of Buddhism under Langdarma and later local leaders was such that most Buddhist practice was forced underground. When in the 11th century the persecution abated, new lineage transmissions from Indian to Tibetan masters caused new schools of Buddhism to rise, including the Kagyu, Sakya, and much later, the Gelug, mentioned above.  When this began to happen, members of the existing school began to see themselves as a distinct group, identifying themselves as followers of the “ancient” or “Nyingma” tradition, as contrasted to the “Sarma” or” new” traditions.

The four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism differ in their size, political ethos, emphasized practices, and of course, lineage.  Unlike the other three major schools, supporters of the Nyingma tradition rarely held political power in Tibet, generally preferring to remain at a distance from Tibetan political concerns.  Traditionally, the Nyingma had no centralized authority. It is only since the Chinese invasion of Tibet that the Dalai Lama politely requested that the Nyingma followers recognize someone to represent them within the Tibetan government-in-exile.  Other then that, the Nyingma tradition remains politically decentralized.  Decisions are often made by a community of the senior practitioners within a given locale. Nyingma followers are historically distinguished from other schools of Buddhism by their categorization of the spiritual path into nine progressively more subtle yanas, or vehicles, and the unique ninth vehicle called Dzogchen, or the “Great Perfection.” Within the Nyingma are also two distinct communities of monastics and lay tantric practitioners (Tib. ngakpa).

While the other three major schools have traditionally recognized spiritual and political heads:

  • The Dalai Lama of the Gelug school (the newest school, having the largest population)
  • The Karmapa of the Kagyu school
  • The Sakya Trizin of the Sakya school

the Nyingma school has only recognized such spiritual and political representatives since the 1960s after the invasion by the Chinese in 1950:

  • Dudjom Rinpoche (c. 1904–1987), served from the 1960s until his death.
  • Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (c. 1910–1991), served from 1987 until his death.
  • Penor (Pema Norbu) Rinpoche (1932-2009) served from 1991 until retirement in 2003.
  • Mindroling Trichen Rinpoche (c. 1930–2008), served from 2003 until his death.
  • Trulshik Rinpoche (1923-2011). Selected after Chatral Rinpoche declined the position.
  • Taklung Tsetrul Rinpoche (born 1926) accepted this position on March 22, 2012.

Like all schools of Tibetan Buddhism, the Nyingma school recognizes those who make significant and precious contributions to the teachings of the Buddha.  Among those so recognized by the Nyingma school are:

Longchenpa

Longchenpa

Longchenpa

The most famous of all great scholars and tantric masters of the Nyingma lineage, besides Padmasambhava himself, is Longchenpa (Longchen Rabjam).  Along with Rongzom Pandita and Jigme Lingpa, Longchenpa is known as one of the “omniscient ones,” a rare title recognizing the infallibility of their wisdom, knowledge and accomplishment in the teachings of the Buddha.  Longchenpa wrote many commentaries on the whole body of Nyingma teachings.  He is especially known for his presentation of Dzogchen, which is the most precious and highly regarded practice in the Nyingma school.  One of his most notable contributions was the systematization of the teaching and induction into the practice of Dzogchen.

Jigme Lingpa (1730-1798) and the Longchen Nyingthig

Jigme Lingpa

Jigme Lingpa

Jigme Lingpa condensed Longchenpa’s systematization of Dzogchen into a series of specific practices and teachings called the Longchen Nyingthig, or “Heart Essence of the Vast Expanse”.  This condensation became the foundation of the main Dzogchen teachings in the contemporary period, in both the Nyingma tradition and in the Rime (non-sectarian) movement.















Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on Google+