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The Schools of Tibetan Buddhism

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by Sangharakshita

... Bodhisattva.

And its ritual and its esoteric meditation are taken from the Vajrayana or Tantra. In this way, all the schools of Tibetan Buddhism are composite in character.

Furthermore, Tibetan Buddhism regards the three yanas not just as three successive stages in the historical development of Buddhism, but as constituting successive stages of the spiritual path for each individual Buddhist. This idea is especially associated with Atisa, who went from India to Tibet and taught there in the eleventh century. Though a late development in Indian Buddhism, it plays a prominent part in the structure of all schools of Tibetan Buddhism.

Hence we cannot distinguish schools of Tibetan Buddhism as being either Tantric or non-Tantric, as some early Western writers on Tibetan Buddhism tried to do. All schools accept this threefold structure both in terms of the historical development of Buddhism and within the spiritual life of the individual. All accept all three yanas, and all regard the Tantra as the highest flowering, the culmination, of Buddhism. In the West the Tantra has been widely misunderstood and is often thought rather shocking. But for Tibetan Buddhists the Tantra represents the highest and most sacred stage in the development of Buddhism.

The second characteristic common to all Tibetan Buddhist schools is that they accept the same scriptures as their canonical basis - though, as we shall see, the Nyingmapas have certain extra texts. These scriptures comprise the Kangyur, which is in 100, or in some editions 108, xylograph volumes, and the Tangyur, which is in 225 volumes. The Kangyur comprises translations into Tibetan of the sutras and tantras, in other words all those works which are traditionally believed to be the utterance of the Buddha himself or of one of his Enlightened disciples speaking under his inspiration and guidance. These include texts such as the Perfection of Wisdom literature, the Saddharma-pundarika, and the Lankavatara, in Tibetan translation. The Tangyur consists of translations of commentaries and other expository works by the great Indian Buddhist sages and philosophers - Nagarjuna, Dharmakirti, Dignaga, and others.

A volume of one of these texts consists, like all Tibetan books, of oblong pages of tough hand-made paper, usually made from bamboo and very thick and crisp; they make quite a sound as you turn them over. The pages are stacked between wooden covers, not bound together but loose, and you just turn them over one by one as you read them. They are quite massive, so that to speak of a `small Tibetan library' would be something of a contradiction in terms. Usually libraries contain hundreds of these enormous and heavy volumes. Once when I was studying a Tibetan painting of the Wheel of Life, I noticed that the sphere which we would call hell - that is, the realm of torment and punishment - showed people being crushed by these enormous volumes of the sacred texts. (When I asked a Tibetan friend what this meant, he said that these were people who had not shown respect for the scriptures.) The third common characteristic of all schools is that those of their followers who happen to be monks all follow the same vinaya, the same pattern of monastic life and observance. Thus the four schools have a lot in common; in fact, the similarities are greater than the differences.

Nevertheless differences do exist, each school having distinctive features which are of great significance.

THE NYINGMA SCHOOL The name Nyingma means `Old School', and it is so called because it follows the old translations of the tantras, those which were made before the time of King Ralpachen. It's rather as though there were in this country a Christian church which insisted on following only the Authorized Version of the Bible, ignoring the Revised Version and other modern translations.

The Nyingmapas regard the great Indian teacher Padmasambhava, the Lotus-born One, as their founder, and such is their respect for him and devotion to him that they sometimes refer to him as the second Buddha. According to the Nyingma tradition, Padmasambhava has eight principal forms in which he manifests in eight different regions of the world, and Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha, is regarded as being simply one of these.

You can see this emphasis in Nyingma temples. These are usually three-storied. As you enter, you find on the ground floor an enormous image, usually many times larger than life, of the great guru Padmasambhava. He is dressed in royal robes with the lotus cap, seated with the khatvanga in the crook of his arm, a skull cup containing blood or nectar in one hand, and a vajra or diamond-thunderbolt in the other, and with his characteristic `wrathfully smiling' expression.

Usually images of his two consorts, the Indian princess Mandarava and the Tibetan yogini Yeshe Tsogyal, are placed on either side of him. All around there are different frescoes and images, and you generally find Gautama the Buddha in a corner somewhere, a very minor figure in this pantheon. For the Nyingmapas, Padmasambhava is everything. He has become the embodiment of the ideal of Buddhahood, more so than even Sakyamuni himself.

By all the accounts that have come down to us, Padmasambhava was a many-sided character. He was a brilliant scholar and dialectician, and often worsted the Brahmin scholars in debate. He was a respected sage and teacher, a prolific author, and also a renowned yogi and ascetic, spending much of his time in meditation. Furthermore he was a magician. According to legend he could perform all sorts of wonderful feats. He was, it would seem, one of the greatest masters of the occult that the world has ever seen. And according to some accounts he was also an accomplished dancer. In Tibet he is always referred to as Guru Rimpoche, which means `the great precious teacher', rather than as Padmasambhava, it being considered disrespectful to use someone's personal name.

The Nyingma tradition reflects the many-sidedness of its legendary founder, and in my own opinion, after considerable contact with this school, I would say that it is the richest form of Tibetan Buddhism. It is therefore very difficult to generalize about it. Nyingma teaching of course accepts the triyana framework, but it is a distinctive feature of this tradition that it subdivides the three yanas into nine, a division which is the basis of their system of practice.

First in this enumeration is the sravakayana, the path of the disciple. Sravaka or disciple here means someone who does not find out the Truth by himself but hears it from an Enlightened teacher, a Buddha, and then directs his efforts towards his own individual emancipation. So while he (or she) makes a genuine effort to attain liberation from samsara, that effort is made solely for his own benefit, no thought being given to the spiritual welfare of others.

Secondly there is the yana of the pratyekabuddha. Pratyeka means private or solitary, so the pratyekabuddha is one who finds out the Truth by his own efforts. He has no teacher, but also no disciples because he does not care to pass on what one has discovered, being concerned only with his own spiritual emancipation. The pratyekabuddha, like the sravaka, is a kind of spiritual individualist.

The third yana is the bodhisattvayana. The Bodhisattva has a teacher and also aspires to have disciples, because the aim of the Bodhisattva is to gain Enlightenment not just for his or her own sake but for the benefit of all living beings. He makes the effort to develop spiritually so that he can help and guide other beings; and he does this by practising the six (or ten) paramitas or perfect virtues. Thus the bodhisattvayana is the path of unmitigated spiritual altruism.

Fourthly there is the kriyayoga tantrayana. Kriya literally means `ritual', and this yana involves a certain amount of external symbolical ritual together with repetition of the mantra and visualization of a particular Buddha (this is described in more detail in Chapter 7). Fifthly there is the upayayoga tantrayana. Upaya means `both sides' or `equally', so this is the yana in which ritual and meditation are practised equally. The sixth yana is called the yoga tantrayana and comprises various practices for developing the union of Wisdom and Compassion, so that neither exceeds the other. These second three yanas are collectively called the `Exoteric Tantra' or the mantrayana.

The last three yanas of the Nyingmapas' ninefold scheme comprise the Vajrayana proper, the Esoteric or `Inner' Tantra. The seventh is the mahayogayana, consisting mainly of the practices known as the `growing' yoga and the `perfect' yoga (which will be explained later). The eighth is the anuyogayana, which comprises all meditation exercises connected with the control of the breath, the nervous system and psychic centres, and sexual energy. Its aim is the sublimation of all the different gross and subtle forces of the personality of the individual in the direction of Enlightenment. Ninthly there is the atiyogayana. This is the direct practice and realization of the highest truth without any intermediaries at all, and corresponds very roughly to Ch'an or Zen in the fullest sense. There are several different traditions of atiyogayana practice, the most important being dzogchen or the `Great Perfection'. The Nyingmapas maintain special monasteries for this practice.

The way in which the three yanas are divided into nine is very significant. The first two yanas are seen as Hinayana, the third comprises the Mahayana, and the remaining six cover the Vajrayana.

This reflects the emphasis of the Nyingma School which, while it accepts the triyana, in practice depends almost entirely on the Vajrayana or Tantra. Generalizing broadly, when you get a Tantric initiation in the Nyingma tradition, they start ...

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