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Denominations of Tibetan Buddhism

Several Tibetan Buddhist traditions once existed, but the popularity of the various groups rose, fell or disappeared as they became allied with different rulers.  They were also absorbed one by another, and some lineages' transmission of specialized teachings faded.  There are generally considered to be four main ones: Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu and Kadam (widely called Gelug.) 

Official recognition is also given the Jonang lineage, once though to have been entirely absorbed by the Kadampa. 

Also, since the ancient pre-Buddhist Bon (pron. beun) tradition has been greatly influenced by Buddhism over several hundreds of years, it is sometimes included as a fifth "school."

Family Ties

In Buddhism generally, people do not actively engage in trying to convince others to abandon one denomination for another.  Also, it is considered a serious breach of ethics to disparage another's affiliations.  

There are also strong ties linking the various denominations.  For example, Je Tsongkhapa, the great reformer of Kadampa who founded the Gelugpa denomination, had many connections with the Kagyu lineage.  He took layman's vows of renunciation from the 4th Karmapa, who prophesied that Tsongkhapa  would glorify the Buddha's teachings.  

When he first began his quest for Dharma, he stopped at the Drikung Kagyu Monastery where he studied the works of Kyobpa Jigten Samgon.

  ~ courtesy  


The Nyingmapa (the elders, -pa means man or person) are the oldest denomination whose tradition is said to be unbroken having originated with Padma-sambhava, called Guru Rinpoche. The Book of the Dead, called in Tibetan, Bardo Teudol is a Nyingma text.  

These lamas may be celibate or married. One well-known Nyingma lama was the late Dilgo Kyentse.  Another was Dudjom Rinpoche.  He was succeeded by Chagdud Tulku.

The Nyingmapa, Sogyal Rinpoche, is the lama whose teachings are found in the popular Book of Living and Dying, and who founded the Rigpa organization.

In the 21st century, we are fortunate to have access to the teachings of Her Eminence, the Mindroling Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche


The Sakya, and also the Kagyu, date from the early 11th century.  That was a time of renewal when the Bengali teacher, Atisha arrived to help Buddhist Tibetans who had suffered a period of repression.

Sometimes people distinguish among the denominations with reference to the lamas' hats.  The headdress of prominent Sakya lamas superficially resembles a kind of turban.  In celibate Sakya lineages the tradition descends from uncle to nephew, but that practice is also found in some the other groups. 


The reformer Tsongkhapa established the Gelugpa order from the Kadampa, a Nyingma sect. He imposed celibacy as one of this denominationís requirements. 

The Dalai Lama is the leading public figure of this denomination.  He is not the head of the order (the abbot of Ganden occupies that position) but he is certainly the most widely recognized Tibetan public figure.  

The Panchen Lama is another pre-eminent Gelugpa leader.  Chokyi Nyima is currently being concealed or held in detention by the government of the People's Republic of China, which has designated its own Panchen.

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso holds a view on an essential matter that is in contradiction with that of both the Ganden Tripa, who is the actual traditional head of the Gelug denomination, and the Dalai Lama, who is the most famous and beloved.  He has established a New Kadampa sect but it cannot be called a tradition.


The Tibetan syllable that we write as Ka means oral transmission (here, of the words of Buddha.)  It means that the teachings of Buddha are transmitted directly from one person to another by word of mouth.  Gyu means lineage.  Therefore the main characteristic of this denomination is that it is an unbroken oral transmission of Buddha's teaching. 

The Tibetan word can also appear as Kar.gyud.  Then it signifies  "white lineage," and that is how Chinese people refer to it, but this is not the original sense.  

The Kagyu denomination is the lineage of Gampopa, the student of the Tibetan yogi, Milarepa, who is venerated by all Tibetan sects. His teacher Marpa, was one of the intrepid voyagers who, in the 11th century, traveled a number of times to India to receive authentic teachings from Naropa and other great masters. 

It is the Kagyu denomination that established the custom of searching for reincarnations of deceased masters based upon the predictions of the established teacher, his or herself.  Those people, usually children when they are found, are called tulkus.

The Kagyu are also famous for the Black Hat ceremony performed by the head of the order, the Karmapa, and for their reputation as masters of so-called magical arts such as long distance striding and the generation of internal heat (tummo), as well as the manufacture of special pills with unusually beneficial qualities. 

Since the Karma Kagyu is in the direct line of oral and written transmission from Gampopa, whose name refers to his native province, Kham, in East Tibet, many Kagyu lamas are from this region and so the pronunciation of the liturgy is with this Tibetan accent. 

The designation, Karma, refers to the fact that this is a practice lineage, and also that the Karmapa is a bodhisattva who is active in the world.  

The Rimay Movement

In the 19th century, there was a trend popularized by the Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye (1813-1899) a Kagyu leader.  Ecumenical in nature, it allows people to follow more than one tradition. Rimay (ris-med, following the Tibetan spelling) has broadened perspectives and probably contributes much to the solidarity of Tibetans and of Buddhists in general.

Another great rime leader was Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo.  Chojor Lingpa is also considered one.

Many lamas teach and practice more than one denomination, and some also hold Bon traditions at the same time. Also, many Western teachers are holders of the teachings of more than one Buddhist path.  What is considered important is not to mix and confuse lineages in the minds of students.



man: Women play an important role in Buddhism, particularly in its Tibetan expression. -mo added to a name indicates a female, so it is possible to use it as a suffix instead of -pa, but like most other languages, Tibetan generally uses the male term as all-inclusive.

Tibetan Book of the Dead: Like ancient Egyptian funerary texts, there is not really one single ancient book, but many different oral traditions that were later written down. However, they are all variants of some fundamental views, beliefs and descriptions.

Tripa: The current Ganden abbot or Tripa is 100th in the line of the supreme spiritual authorities of the Gelugpas.  He is 74 years old and his seat, outside Tibet, is at the Drepung Monastery in South India.
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