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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.]
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.
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.
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.)
*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
Karma, the Mind and the View: The 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.