Cutting the Cake

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Many Streams 

Buddhism is essentially a quest for Awareness of the true nature of existence in order to put an end to suffering. Though generally considered to have begun with the experiences of Buddha Shakyamuni (ca. 500 BCE,) the tradition maintains that there have been a series of buddhas.  This should not at all be surprising when we consider that there is reasonable physical evidence showing that human beings have existed for much longer than one million years, and therefore it would be naive to suppose that the search for truth only originated in the last 4 or 5 thousand years. 

Recent archaeological evidence shows that people have inhabited the Tibetan plateau for at least 15, 000 years, and that the region was not covered by glaciation during the Ice Ages that affected much of the northern hemisphere.  However, there is linguistic and other cultural evidence to show that an important ancestral component of today's Tibetans came from fairly far to the west of that plateau.  Also, history tells us that over the centuries environmental factors and armed conflict periodically caused Tibetans to seek temporary shelter among various peoples of the region -- Turkic, Mongolian, Kashmiri, Chinese and others.   All this is to say that, though the essential doctrine of Buddhism remains at the core, there have been and are still, various teachings and a wide variety of methods that comprise the approach that is known as Tibetan Buddhism.

The collection of ancient wisdom teachings that was present in Tibet (and continues there) at the time of the first dissemination of Shakyamuni's teachings is known as Bonpo.  The streams of Buddhism dating from before the 11th century are collectively called Nyingma (elders, or "ancient translation.")  The streams that are a product of the Buddhist revival following a period of repression under Langdarma, the ruler who had sought to put an end to influential Buddhist institutions, are known as the Sarma (new translation.)

Cutting the Cake 

Older than Aristotle is the inclination to consider the classification and enumeration of concepts essential to the understanding of them.   Therefore some scholars describe Tibetan Buddhism as consisting of:  

Sects, Denominations, Labrangs, Schools and Lineages 

 There are currently four main institutional lineages in contemporary Tibetan Buddhism with many subdivisions.  They are the  Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu and Gelug sects or  "denominations."  Related to this is the Tibetan word labrang which denotes an "order" that is, the institution, its organization including any holdings such as land, schools, nunneries, and the word is also used to refer to its hierarchy.  However, a practice lineage (tantric tradition) is different from an institutional lineage. 

Each sect or denomination may employ one or more of the Eight Chariots (Skt. yana) in their Buddhist practice. Every one of them stresses the key role played by the root (tseway) lama, and since each teacher may have had different teachers and life experiences, it is possible to say that each lama maintains her or his lineage(s) in his or her practice which can combine elements from any or all of the Chariots or Methods.

Some lineages have a tradition of passing teachings down within a family; when the lineage is a celibate one, the instructional teachings generally go from lama to nephew.

There is no doubt that trying to explain the practice lineages and institutional lineages by intermingling them can cause some key distinctions to be overlooked, however this article is intended as an overview.  Readers are enjoined to consult scholars of the various denominations or "schools" for more detailed explanations. 

The Eight Chariots 

 1. Nyingmapa (The Ancients) consist of a collection of many related but distinct lineages tracing descent from Padmasambhava and likely, even before.  The institutional element is rather less famous than the practices and resultant accomplishments. They are best known for the Three Yogas, including Dzogchen.  

A variety of those traditions are upheld by Karma Kagyu lamas, as well as those of other institutions; in particular, Chogyur Lingpa's terma teachings, Karma Lingpa's termas, the Shitro, and besides Longchen Nyingthig, the Rinchen Terdzo; also the Minling, Dorsem and many more.

2. Kadampa (Precious Words, Discourses [sutras] of the Lord) is famous for its renewal of commitment to Vinaya (ethics and monastic rule) including the practice of bodhicharya (celibacy.)  Besides  the Lam Rim (Stages of the Path) teachings, they are known for the simple, down-to-earth yet extremely profound practices of Tonglen (sending and receiving) and Lojong (mind training) that were introduced from Bengal by the founder of the lineage, Lord Atisha.  Those practical and beneficial teachings were absorbed into the others.  Today, it is mainly succeeded by the Gelugpas who are famous also for the propagation of and accomplishments in Father Tantras such as the Guhyasamaja.  

Though there is the opinion that the Jonangpas and Kadampas are really not related, the distinct lineage within the Gelugpa tradition of the Kalachakra tantric teaching that is attributed to Taranatha (Jonangpa) is undeniable.

Lojong {Mindfulness] training is vital to the Karma Kagyu lineage. Gampopa was famous for integrating the Kadampa system with the Yogas of Naropa and later the Shangpas also did, to an extent.  And the exchange is reciprocal; the Gelukpa also maintain the Naropa and Niguma yoga traditions via Marpa, just as we [Kagyu] do.

 3.  The Sakyapas get their name meaning grey- or pale-earth from the site of their monastery founded in 1073 at Sakya, south-western Tibet by Khon Konchog Gyalpo. Formerly adherents of the Nyingma, and intense practitioners of the Vajrakilaya Tantra, they are best known today for Lam Dre (Path and Fruition, or Path Including Results.)  This, their crowning practice, is attributed to Mahasiddha Virupa.   

The Lam Dre cycle of teachings presents a view of "Clarity and Emptiness free from apprehension" and teaches the "non-differentiation of samsara and nirvana."   It comprises a progressive series of teachings and practices divided into the Three Visions and the Three Tantras.  Hevajra, Naro Khachodma [a form of Vajrayogini] and Vajrakilaya are the most widely practiced tantras in the Sakya tradition.  

Some have suggested that the Hevajra tantra is really a Sarma (New) translation of the Yangtag Heruka Tantras of the Old (Nyingma) Schools, which also was the source of some of the Dzogrim practices of Lam Dre.

Konchog Gyalpo, the founder of Sakya Monastery and thus the Order, got the Lam Dre from Drogmi Lotsawa, who taught Sanskrit to Chokyi Lodro of Mar (known as Marpa.)  As the first Tibetan to bring the Lam Dre cycle of teachings back from India, he features prominently on the Lam Dre lineage tree. 

The Khon family is the backbone of the Sakyapas, but there are many other contributors.  Though the Lam Dre passes mainly through the Khons,  it is not particular to that family since most of the lineage-holders are not actually members. That family carry, besides Lam Dre,  the Yangdak and Phurba [Vajrakilaya] tantras of Padmasambhava.   And though those are Khon family specialties, they are not considered especially Sakyapa.

The doctrinal or sutric aspect of the Sakya is based upon the Madhyamaka views of Nagarjuna and Maitrinatha.  The meditation practice focuses on recognizing the nature of ordinary mind, and then on the union of clarity and emptiness.  The Sakya realization is called Saltong Zungjug or Khorde Yerme (cf.  Dzogchen of the Nyingma, Mahamudra of the Kagyu, or Uma Chenpo of the Gelugpa.)   

The system was transmitted in an unbroken line to the current and 41st throne holder, His Holiness Sakya Trizin (b. 1945), widely considered an incarnation of Manjushri.  There are two major lineages:  Ngorpa headed by Luding Khen Rinpoche and Tsharpa, led by Chogay Trichen Rinpoche (b. 1920).  They are known collectively as the Sa-Ngor-Tsar-Sum. 

4. Marpa Kagyupa (Oral Tradition of Marpa) consists mainly of the practice of Essence Mahamudra, with additional sutric [founded in scripture] and tantric practices.  The technique of highest realization is known as Mahamudra. There are 4 main lines and 8 minor lines of Marpa Kagyus, at least 6 of which are represented outside Tibet. 

This is the basis for the essential teachings of the Karma Kagyu tradition as well as that of the Drikung, and others.  In essence, it is the "path of means" employing yidam practices of Vajrayogini/Vajravarahi, Chakrasamvara, Gyalwa Gyamtso and Hevajra.  It also includes the Six Yogas of Naropa and the path of liberation, Mahamudra, of Saraha, Tilopa and other so-called mystics and yogis.

Marpa held many lineages both sutric and tantric which he passed on to several disciples the most famous of whom was Milarepa. His influence has been felt by all the denominations and it is possible that his Ngok lineage is currently held by the Sakyas.  

Milarepa's student, Gampopa, was the founder of the monastic institution in the institutional lineage of Marpa Kagyu.

5. Shang Kagyu (Oral Tradition of the Shangpa) is similar to Marpa Kagyu both in style and history.  Marpa's guru was Naropa whose life-companion Niguma, is the important lineage founder.  Her system, the Six Dharmas of Niguma, plays a greater role here, as do other Marpa Kagyu sources such as his association with the above-mentioned  Naro Kachoma form of Vajrayogini.  In general, the Shangpas practice mainly  Chakrasamvara in the Kyerim, and the Six Dharmas of Niguma in the Dzogrim. 

Kyungpo Naljor ( Garuda Yogi), founder of the Shangpa Kagyu, was a contemporary of Drogmi (see #3 Sakya.)  Eventually Shangpa Kagyu practices such as the Six-Armed White Mahakala were later also adopted by the Sakyapas.

Taranatha  Jonang (b. 1575, see #6) scholar, historian, philosopher and composer of many guides to practice is also important to the Shangpas.  Their methods have been among the "heart practices" of many famous lamas of other lineages, such as Dilgo Khyentse and Jamyang Choki Lodro.

It no longer has a distinct institutional lineage, but through the influence of the late Khyabje Kalu Rinpoche, its teachings flourish in all the denominations but especially the Karma Kagyupa.  

The Jonang lineage, now nearly extinct as an institution, practiced the Shangpa specialties  as well as the Jor Druk, or Vajra Yoga (#6).  This lineage combined the Shangpa and JorDruk chariots, and was absorbed in spirit by Nyingma, Kagyu, and some Sakyapas.  The sadhanas of some Jonang yidams (e.g. Kyergangpa's Tamsin) were incorporated into the Gelukpa systems.  

The particular Jonang view has importance for many famous rimay [ecumenical] masters such as Kyabje Kalu Rinpoche, Kyabje Dudjom Rinpoche and Kyabje Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche to name three great teachers known outside Tibet.   However, the metaphysical view is not considered entirely correct by some Gelugpas.

6. Jok Druk ( Six Unions, ie. Yogas) is the lineage that has brought us the famous Kalachakra and its Six Yogas, or Unions, in the Dzogrim.  These six body, speech and mind trainings consist of: individual gathering, mind stabilization, control, heat, retention and samadhi.  

Jok Druk promotes the shentong view of Madhyamika (Middle Way "free of the four extremes" and hence, radical ) philosophy.  It used to exist as part of the separate Jonangpa institutional lineage but was absorbed into the Gelugpa following political issues after the death of Taranatha. 

Winding among these superb cars of the Great Vehicle company, Mahayana, is the golden Chariot of Chod.  

 7.  The Shije or Ziji - Chod lineage is made of two related lineages with some differences in practice.  Padampa Sangye (who some believe is the same individual as Bodhidharma, the Zen Patriarch) brought the  Shije (pacifying) to Tibet, and Sonam Lama and Machig Labdron added the Chod (cheu: cutting) elements.  Though there is evidence that there were some Indian traditions for it also, as it derives directly from the Prajnaparamita teaching ("Form is Emptiness") nevertheless it has the distinction of being called the only important practice where  the "son" returned to teach "the mother" [India, parent of Buddhism.] 

There are other lesser-known practices related to this lineage and it may be that the Yamantaka tantras were brought to Tibet by them.   

Chod does not consist of a separate institutional lineage partly because it does not lend itself to various subtle interpretive distinctions, and many of its foremost practitioners were solitary/itinerant practitioners.

The Karma Kagyu uphold this tradition as do others, and an abridged daily practice is part of most Kagyu retreats.  In current three-year retreats, a month or two is devoted to the intensive practice of Chod.

Some of the Chod ritual is also used as an adjunct to ngondro [foundational or preliminary practices], especially the mandala offering.  Also, Nyingma  lineages often include it in various forms, along with P'howa, as part of their ngondro, but it may be that their practices such as those of  the deity, Troma, stem from ancient ritual. 

8. Urgyen Nyengpa (Superior, ie.  Intensive Practices of Urgyenpa) is the last meditative system to have made its way to Tibet from India, though Buddhism was in decline in India by the time Urgyenpa went there to learn.  It is also known as the Three-Vajra Lineage, an allusion to its practices involving body, speech and mind, as well as the three branches of approach,  accomplishment and great accomplishment of Dzogrim. 

As Urgyenpa was the disciple of Karma Pakshi, the second of the Karmapas, and the teacher of the next Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje, no separate institutional lineage resulted.  This lineage holder of the Karma Kagyu, is considered to have received the Chod Chariot directly from Vajrayogini. 

May all lineages of the Buddha's teaching survive and flourish!  But as we know, even such a great practitioner as Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye (called The Great) who did his best to uphold all traditions without bias [a movement called rimay] could not practice everything at once.   And he was able to spend much of his time in retreat, even during his years as a teacher.

For us, the wisest course is to follow a teacher who is generous enough to guide us along all the stages of whatever path we choose, and who can help us according to our capacities (and our needs.)

~  from contributions by BB, CB, AD and others to the Kagyu e-Mail List.  Indented material indicates it may be of particular interest to Karma Kagyu. 

*NB Some words are in quotations to indicate that they resemble to some degree, the Western model, but it is important to realize that there are fundamental distinctions. 


Training in the Four Mindfulnesses of Body, Speech, Mind, and Phenomena.  One school says 

"... not to lose the awareness of, and observe what, one's body is doing, where all the limbs are, and so on.  In other words, not to go about doing things mindlessly in total ignorance. The other school says one really has to always remember such "facts" that the body is impermanent and but a collection of the Five Heaps [Skt: skandhas], without a Self, and so on.  I think it is not really an either-or, but a both-and thing." ~ BB

Karma, the Mind and the ViewThe Two Truths

Maudgalyana, the most "supernaturally capable" disciple of Lord Buddha, once went  to visit his deceased mother in the realm of Hungry Ghosts where she was suffering greatly.  Though he offered her food and water, this naturally increased her suffering -- that is the reason for the name of that realm of existence.

That Mahamaudgalyana [Maudgalyana the Great] was able to visit the Hungry Ghost Realm and offer food is his Karma; that his mother perceived and experienced it as burning lava was due to her Karma.

BBW thinks that:

Karma can be understood as habitual tendencies.  The more you do certain acts, say getting angry at people, [the more] you are conditioned to habitually think and behave in a hateful manner.  On one hand, since a pre-conception of hate is carried around, you [tend to] react always with suspicion and anger toward others, even when others' intention and behaviors are totally pure and benevolent. Therefore, to you, no matter what others do, it is always perceived as harmful to you. Not only that, it becomes almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy: since you react in a hateful manner, eventually others will start treating you badly as well.  Then you react with more hate and the cycle just keeps going. 

In the end, it does not really matter [if] there is a physical Hell or not (the Paramitayana would say it is all your mind) -- you would nonetheless perceive everything as manifestation of the Hell Realm, filled with hate, anger and sufferings simply due to your mental and habitual tendency to perceive things that way.

These Karmic tendencies shape how the Relative Truth would appear to us, whereas the Absolute Truth must of course be free from such -- otherwise, since we all have different tendencies, the Absolute Truth would be different to everyone, and therefore not all that "absolute" any more. According to the Yogacarins (the so-called "Mind-Only" School), which in my opinion offers a perspective most useful in understanding Karma and how things generally work in day-to-day life, we have 8 consciousnesses. 

The first 5 correspond to our five senses, which is where the appearance of the "outside world" is formed in us; the other three consciousness are our conscious mind, the ego mind (mana) and the storehouse/all-ground mind (alaya).  Our karmic imprints are stored in alaya, which is what gets passed from one rebirth to another. Although  Buddhism would not call it so, but this alaya is probably as close to a Self or Soul as far as Buddhist ideas go.  Yet, far away from the conscious mind (the Sixth Consciousness), we are really not all that aware of this alaya; in fact, our access to it is through the filtering of the Seventh Consciousness, the ego-mind.

What the ego-mind does is that it would interpret everything from the standpoint of oneself: Is this in my own interest? What's in it for me? How does this look from my angle? It then would pass on information and intentions to the conscious mind, which is what we are aware of. One could say that all our sufferings are really the product of these last three consciousnesses working in concert: The alaya supplying the experience that shape our perception; The ego-mind blocks out possibilities that from a wider perspective how things could have actually be good for us; The conscious mind receiving these messages of suffering and actually sending out intentions that eventually create more suffering through further imprints in the alaya -- again filtered through the ego-mind and its interpretation from a self perspective. So all these sufferings and so on are the Relative Truth, the basis on which we operate day to day. It is the truth that our conscious mind knows.

The Enlightened Ones, including Lord Shakyamuni, pointed out that it does not have to be that way though. They put the spotlight on the ego-mind: If not for the ego-mind to interpret an appearance (that shows up in the first 5 consciousnesses) as being harmful or joyful to one's Self, all imprints, if there remains to be any, that are passed on to the Alaya would really be neutral. 

In other words, when Mahamaudgalyana offered his mother a bowl of sweet water, it would not have registered in her Alaya as, "A bowl of molten lava just received. Burned my throat.  Note to myself: liquid burns -- don't take it any more!" In other words, Karmic imprints would not have gotten re-created and reinforced, if not for the ego-mind. 

Similarly, if not for the ego-mind's interpretation of previously stored imprints, we would not form intentions and commit actions that  accumulate more imprints, particularly the negative ones. When our boss comes around to our cubicle, we would not form the thought that he must be up to no good and I really hate him and I should probably get myself in the mode of fighting whatever dumb idea he is going to force on me and I wonder if I could get him fired somehow so that I don't have to do this everyday and maybe I should go spread some rumors about him and... . All the while when he really was coming over to tell you what a good job you have done on your last project!

So, the ego-mind is part of the problem -- there are of course, some  problems with the Alaya itself as well, which is why it is the Alaya-Vijnana and not right away the Dharmakaya, which it does get ripened into when we attain Buddhahood, but that's another discussion. 

Queen, Victorious

One metaphor that might illustrate the point is that of the Queen, her Regent,  the courtiers and the subjects. The subjects (i.e., the first 5 consciousnesses and the appearances therein) are really nice, hard-working, mostly earnest normal people. Yet, the young Queen (i.e., the Alaya) really does not know them all that well, for she lives in the big palace, away from their lives. So, whatever that she knows, she gets it from her Regent (i.e., the ego-mind), who supposedly work for the interest of the Nation but really more for himself. But somehow, due to the way the Regent advises the Queen and in turns communicates as edicts to the Courtiers (i.e., the conscious mind), the way the country is run is utterly harsh and unpleasant for the subjects: heavy taxes and so on. The subjects are not all that happy, neither are the courtiers. 

But as time passes, some of the indications that the Nation is not happy must eventually make their way to the Queen's ears. Though a bit older now, the Queen really does not know all that much about the affairs of the court, but she would like to find out what the heck is going on.  Some of the courtiers and loyal subjects would also like to be ruled by the  rightful Queen and not by the Regent, so, when there is a chance, they ... work with the Queen.  But to lead a revolution that puts the Queen back on the ruling throne, they have to somehow get the chance to see the Queen.  Eventually, by either turning the Regent around or kicking him out altogether, the Queen eventually rules on her own and benefits all. When that happens, it is the state of Absolute Truth. When that happens, the Queen knows it and the whole nation knows it.

A lot of what Buddhism is about is this last step: how to turn the Regent around or stage a ... coup so that the Queen is put back in charge [and no longer] rules through the Regent.  For example, mindfulness and calm-abiding are aimed at getting the attention and full co-operation of all the courtiers and subjects to gang up against the Regent.  The practice of Giving and the other Paramitas [Perfections] ...  get the good name of the Queen out to all the subjects, and even beyond, that the Queen is a good Queen thus making sure that the Regent gets no support.  One might even get the CIA from friendly nations involved -- in the form of empowerments and heart-instructions from the Guru -- to ripen the young Queen so that she is able to rule over the influence of the Regent.

In the Mahamudra tradition, it is sometimes taught that in the break  between two thoughts, there is a glimpse of Enlightenment -- so, sure, the Absolute Truth could be glimpsed at and eventually grown to full ripening. Eventually, the Queen is with her courtiers and subjects, all without separation and differentiation. That's showtime for the Queen!

~ BB at The Kagyu Mailing List

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