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The Schools of Tibetan Buddhism

By Frank Simons

Our job in this lecture is to become familiar with the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism and to understand how they got started and how they have contributed to the shape of Tibetan Buddhism as we know it today. Only one of the schools traces its origin back to the first diffusion of the Dharma in the eighth century CE. This is the Nyingma, or “Old” school, which thinks of itself as the heir of Padmasambhava, the Tantric saint who helped build the first Tibetan monastery at Samye.

Video Presentation
Buddhism, Part 17, The Schools of Tibetan Buddhism
Thu, Apr 7, 5:30pm
Meditation Center
Callejón Blanco 4
Free, donations accepted

The Nyingma tradition is founded on meditative experience. In this sense, it probably is the Tibetan tradition that comes closest to the pure transmission of the Tantric impulse from India. The Nyingma saint Jigme Lingpa did not study in any sophisticated monastery. His charisma, his power, was established by the vividness and the plausibility of personal vision. The Nyingma tradition still maintains this character today. It appeals to people precisely because it puts its feet down on direct, personal experience. But it also conveys the ancient Buddhist respect for scriptural transmission.

The Kagyu or “Teaching Lineage” school traces its origin to Lama Marpa (1012-1096). Marpa traveled to India to study with Indian teachers and brought their teachings and texts to serve as the foundation of a new Tantric lineage. The lama is particularly important in Tantra because of the secrecy and danger of the teachings.

The Sakya school emerged in the 11th century under the leadership of Drogmi (992-1074). He was the teacher of Konchong Gyeltsen who, in 1073, founded the Sakya Monastery that gave the school its name. This school played an important role in negotiations between the Tibetans and the Mongols, who burst out of Mongolia in the 13th century and dominated much of Asia. Eventually the Mongols converted to Tibetan Buddhism. The close relationship between Tibetans and Mongols continues today, bedeviling the relationship between Tibet and China.

The Geluk or “Virtuous Way” school (also known as the “Yellow Hats”) emerged in the early 14th century under the leadership of the scholar Tsongkhapa, who followed the example of the Indian scholar Atisha and tried to establish a pure form of Indian monastic practice. He founded several major monasteries in central Tibet, including his own home monastery, Ganden. These have been some of the most influential religious institutions in the history of Tibet.

The course of 24 lectures is presented by Professor Malcolm David Eckel, professor of religion and director of the core curriculum at Boston University. An expert on Buddhism, comparative religion, and Asian faiths, Eckel has written insightful books on Buddhist philosophy, including Buddhism: Origins, Beliefs, Practices, Holy Texts, Sacred Places.

There will be an opportunity for discussion following the video. Presentations of the Center are offered without charge. Donations are gratefully accepted.


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