The History of Nyingma Buddhism



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.



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:




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.