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The Schools of Tibetan Buddhism

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 56: the Schools of Tibetan Buddhism (Edited)

Tibetan Buddhism is Divided, broadly speaking, into four major schools, but as the term `school' could be misleading we need to be clear about what it means in this context. I have chosen to use the word `school' in preference to `sect', which has a rather negative connotation. We might equally speak of the four major `traditions' of Tibetan Buddhism. None of these English words, however, is completely satisfactory. We usually think of the sects or schools of any religion as being mutually exclusive in membership and doctrine; if you belong to one, you cannot belong to another, and what one of them teaches may even contradict the teaching of another. But it is not like that in Buddhism, not in Tibetan Buddhism, nor in Indian Buddhism, which provided the pattern for the Tibetan tradition.

To trace the rise and fall, the development and the flowering, of the different schools of the Indian Buddhist tradition is very difficult. The lines of transmission continually overlap and flow into one another, so that you can never identify any particular school very clearly or definitively.

It keeps shading off into another school - or even into several. In the Western religious context we are accustomed to sharp divisions. If we look at the history of the Christian churches down the centuries, we can say quite definitely that someone was either, say, Roman Catholic or Methodist or Baptist. These are all clear-cut divisions. But Indian Buddhism is not sectarian.

Schools exist, but they are not very sharply defined, so that in the case of certain great teachers, they cannot be definitely identified with one particular school more than with another. There is a dispute, for example, as to whether Maitreyanatha, the great author of the Five Treatises, was a Madhyamika or a Yogacarin. It is very difficult to say, because his works strike such a beautiful balance between these two viewpoints.

Tibetan Buddhism follows this Indian non-sectarian pattern. So if we ask ourselves what is meant by a `school' of Tibetan Buddhism, all we can say is that it is a particular lineage of teachers and disciples. A certain teacher teaches Buddhism to his disciples, they teach their disciples, and so on. This succession from master to pupils, who become masters in their turn and teach their own pupils, is what we call the school. The line of transmission may have its own angle on the Dharma, it may stress a particular aspect of the doctrine or a particular practice, but the emphasis is no more than an emphasis. Rarely, if ever, is it exclusive.

Sometimes a certain line of teachers and pupils may be associated with a particular monastery.

This is usually quite fortuitous; the teacher happens to live in a certain monastery to which his disciples come, and when the original teacher dies his pupils stay on and teach there. Thus the monastery comes to be associated with a certain line of transmission and may become the `headquarters' of that school.

Sometimes too a certain school, or line of teachers, may be associated with a particular group of texts. The Buddhist scriptures are voluminous, and it is not easy - indeed not possible - for one person to study them all even in a cursory manner. We therefore find in the history of Buddhism a sort of division of labour whereby a particular line of teachers and disciples concentrates on the study, the explication, and even the propagation, of a specific group of texts. Again, this is one of the ways in which a school arises. It is as if a particular group of Christians were to take up, say, the study of St John's Gospel and were to concentrate on studying, teaching, and writing commentaries only on that text, thus becoming a school of teachers and pupils devoted exclusively to it - though without detriment to their respect for the rest of the Bible. This has never happened in the case of Christianity, but it is the sort of thing that happens very often in Buddhism. Chinese Buddhist schools, especially, tend to be associated with a particular scriptural text or group of texts; the T'ien T'ai School, for instance, concentrates on the Saddharma-pundarika Sutra, the `Sutra of the White Lotus of the Good Law'.

Then again, schools sometimes arise because a certain line of teachers and pupils is associated with a particular type of spiritual practice, especially a particular type of meditation. The teacher has practised a certain kind of meditation, he teaches it to his pupils, and in this way a line is established which may become the nucleus of a school.

The birth of a school may involve several such factors combined together. Over time, each school assumes a more and more distinctive character, but eithout ever becoming exclusive. In keeping with the tolerant spirit of Buddhism, no school of Tibetan Buddhism claims to teach the one true version of the Dharma. Differences are recognized, they are not glossed over, but no school would go so far as to maintain that it had a monopoly of Buddhist truth.

In chronological order, the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism are: the Nyingma School, the Kagyu School, the Sakya School, and the Gelug School. The first three are known as the old schools, and the Gelug is called the new school. Sometimes the first three are called the unreformed schools and the Gelug the reformed school, but some Tibetan Buddhists contend that this distinction is not quite fair. I once discussed this with a very eminent Nyingmapa lama (the suffix -pa means simply `man' or `person'). I asked him, `What is the basis for this classification? How is it that you and the Kagyupas and Sakyapas are called unreformed whereas the Gelugpas are known as reformed?' He just smiled and said, `We didn't need to be reformed.' Western scholars tend to regard the three old schools as unreformed much as they regard the Roman Catholic Church as unreformed compared to the Protestant churches, but this analogy is not very helpful. In fact, the major difference between them is that the three old schools are of directly Indian origin, having been founded either by Indians or by Tibetans who had studied in India. But the Gelug School, the new school, is indigenous in the sense that Tsongkhapa, its founder, never went outside Tibet. The school which he founded is of purely Tibetan origin.

Before we look at the four schools individually, we should note some of their common characteristics. Firstly, the Buddhism of all these schools is triyana in character. To understand this term, one needs to understand something of the history of Indian Buddhism. Buddhism lasted for about 1,500 years in India, from about 500BCE to 1000CE, and passed through three clearly marked stages during each of which particular aspects were predominant.

The first stage, which lasted for some 500 years, was marked by a predominantly ethical and psychological emphasis in the way the Dharma was expounded. There was a great deal of close study and analysis of the mind, especially in connection with meditation and higher states of consciousness. There was also a strong emphasis on ethical discipline and monastic rules. This first stage in the development of Indian Buddhism is therefore often described as the ethico-psychological phase.

The second stage developed and emphasized two additional elements: the metaphysical and the devotional. There was no rejection of the ethical and psychological, but while that tradition was continued, the nature of Reality was explored more deeply in conceptual terms. At the same time much more stress was placed on the importance of the devotional element in Buddhism, the importance of the worship of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and of the emotions of reverence, love, and respect. This metaphysical-devotional phase in the development of Indian Buddhism also lasted about 500 years.

During the third stage, from approximately 500CE to 1000CE, the ethico-psychological and the metaphysical-devotional traditions were continued, but the emphasis again shifted. It came to be placed more and more on the performance of ritual acts and procedures with certain archetypal meanings and values, and also on what we can only describe as `esoteric meditation'. This is not ordinary concentration of mind, but advanced meditation which may be practised only under the personal guidance of a guru after the proper initiation or empowerment, about which more is said in Chapter 7.

In traditional Buddhist language each of these three stages of development is called a yana, which means `path' or `way', and is also sometimes translated as `vehicle', in the sense of a vehicle for spiritual practice and progress. So the Sanskrit term triyana refers to these three phases of Indian Buddhism: the Hinayana or `little way' (the ethico-psychological), the Mahayana or `great way' (the metaphysical-devotional), and the Vajrayana or `adamantine way' (the ritualistic-yogic).

From the time of Trisong Detsen the Buddhism of all schools was of this triyana character.

So although Tibetan Buddhism is described as a branch of the Mahayana, this is not really accurate. All its schools follow the Hinayana in respect both of monastic discipline and organization, as well as all the basic teachings such as the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, and the twelve links of Conditioned Co-production. All these teachings in Tibetan Buddhism are derived from the first, or Hinayana, phase of Indian Buddhism, especially in its Sarvastivadin form. As regards philosophy, all Tibetan schools follow the Mahayana, especially the two great traditions of Indian Buddhist thought, the Madhyamika, the teaching of the middle way between extremes, and the Yogacara, the teaching of yoga (in the sense of meditation). Also from the Mahayana comes Tibetan Buddhism's overall spiritual ideal, that of the ...

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