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Schools of Tibetan Buddhism

Tibetan Buddhism can be divided into numerous "schools." These schools are all Buddhist and doctrinally very similar, but are distinguished by the different teachers and texts considered authoritative in a particular school.Living Buddhist traditions are transmitted through these teachers and texts and institutions. In Buddhism, this transmission is known as "lineage."

The basic outward mechanism of Buddhist lineage is the teacher-student relationship. A particular teacher teaches his student(s) through oral means, and by selecting and explaining the meaning of certain authoritative Buddhist texts. Such oral teachings, as well as any accompanying textual material, are passed by that student to his own student(s) in turn. Ideally, this outward process of exchange between teacher and student carries with it an inner process whereby the spiritual realization of the teacher is also passed from teacher to student. It is indeed the transmission of this living quality of wisdom which is the essential quality of Tibetan Buddhism today.

Traditionally within Tibet there are many groupings of schools, such as the Eight Chariots of the Practice Lineage. However, the most well-known grouping in modern times is into the four major schools: Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu and Gelugpa.

1. The Nyingma School

The Nyingma, or "old school," traces its founding back to the initial phase of Buddhism in the 7th to 9th century, and is thus called the old school. Some of the main teachers who established the Nyingma lineage are set forth above, the leading figure being Padmasambhava.

2. The Kagyu School

The Kagyu school primarily traces itself to the Indian mahasiddha Tilopa and his disciple Naropa. Naropa in turn taught Marpa Lotsawa, a great translator who journeyed from Tibet to India three separate times to study with Naropa. Marpa's main disciple was Milarepa, who's main disciple was Gampopa. One of Gampopa's main disciples was the first Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa. One of the meanings of Kagyu is "command lineage" which emphasizes the oral instructions passed down from teacher to student.

3. The Sakya School

The Sakya school traces itself to the Indian mahasiddha Virupa, who transmitted the Buddhist teachings to his student Drogmi Sakya Yeshe, who in turn taught Khon Konchog Gyalpo. The latter built a monastery in Tibet near land named "Sakya," and the lineage name derives there from.

4. The Gelug School

The Gelug, or Gandenpa, school traces itself to its founder Tsong Khapa, who revitalized the Kadampa teachings of Atisha, and combined them with teachings from texts transmitted during the second wave of Buddhism's transmission to Tibet. The Dalai Lamas are members of the Gelugpa school.

The Sakya, Kagyu and Gelugpa are "new schools," established during the second wave of Buddhism's transmission from India to Tibet in the 11th and 12th centuries.


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