The Nyingma or Ancient Lineage is the oldest of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions. Though historically Buddhism had been introduced into Tibet in the seventh century, during the reign of King Songtsen Gampo (617-698), it was only fully established during the reign of King Trisong Detsen (790-858). While the great Buddhist traditions were flourishing in India, King Trisong Detsen invited the great Indian Abbot Shantarakshita to assist him in establishing Buddhism in Tibet. Due to the hindrances to their work and at Shantarakshita’s suggestion, the King invited Padmasambhava (Pema Jungne in Tibetan) to Tibet, requesting him to pacify the negative and obstructing forces. Together with Shantarakshita, Padmasambhava built the renowned Samye monastery in Southern Tibet, which became a principal centre of learning and where most of the Sanskrit texts and literature from India were first translated into Tibetan. Under the direction of Padmasambhava and the scholar-adepts Vimalamitra and Vairotsana, and through the efforts of more than one hundred Tibetan and Indian panditas, the Mahayoga, Anuyoga, and Atiyoga Tantras were translated into Tibetan, along with most of the then known Buddhist teachings. Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche (Precious Master), is of particular importance to the Nyingma Lineage and to Tibetan Buddhists in general, who view him as the founding father of Buddhism in Tibet. He is also considered by Nyingmapas to be the Second Buddha.
The Nyingma lineage categorises the Buddhist teachings and complete Buddhist path into Nine Yanas or Vehicles. The first three of these are the Three Common Vehicles: the Shravaka Yana, the Pratyekabuddha Yana and the Bodhisattva Yana. This is followed by the Three Outer Tantras: Kriya Tantra, Upa (or Charya) Tantra and Yoga Tantra. Lastly, there are the Three Inner Tantras: Mahayoga, Anuyoga and Atiyoga.
The first six of these nine Yanas are common to all schools of Tibetan Buddhism; whereas the last three, the Inner Tantras, are unique to the Nyingma lineage (other schools have a slightly different presentation of higher Tantra, in the form of Anuttarayoga Tantra).
Kama, Terma and Pure Vision Lines of transmission
There are two main sources of transmission of the nine vehicles of the Nyingma lineage: Kama and Terma (the ‘Distant Oral’ and the ‘Short Treasure’ lineages). Another, and sometimes seen as a third form of transmission, is that of Dag Nang or ‘Pure Visions’. The first, Kama, encompasses all nine vehicles, while the latter two, Terma and Dag Nang, are concerned primarily with the transmission of the Inner Tantras.
The Kama or ‘distant oral transmission’ lineage generally refers to the continuous, unbroken transmission of teachings brought to Tibet from India by Indian and Tibetan masters and transmitted directly through an unbroken line of disciples. More specifically, ‘Nyingma Kama’ is a collection of teachings from the three Inner Tantras that are considered to have been translated into Tibetan during the early translation period. Padmasambhava was a Vajrayana master, and he taught extensively from the highest classes of Tantra. In particular, he transmitted these teachings to his twenty-five principal disciples. These first Tibetan masters became renowned for their spiritual accomplishments, in turn passing on their knowledge to their own students and thus nurturing the seeds of a tradition that would continue, master to disciple down through the centuries.
Padmasambhava also saw that certain teachings would be particularly beneficial to future generations. He therefore entrusted many teachings to King Trisong Detsen, Yeshe Tsogyal and others of his twenty-five main disciples, ‘sealing’ the instructions within their awareness. With their assistance (especially that of his disciple and consort, Yeshe Tsogyal) he then also concealed these teachings as treasures in various places – rocks, lakes, temples, ritual objects and even in the sky. Padmasambhava left precise instructions on how to discover these treasures and prophesied that, in the future, these disciples would reincarnate, reveal the treasures from their place of concealment and awaken the ‘real treasure’ of Padmasambhava’s intent within their minds. They would thus be empowered to disseminate the teachings for the sake of beings. Such treasures are called ‘ter’ or ‘terma’ and are said to possess unique power, introducing fresh and authentic instructions in times when they may be particularly helpful, and when other teachings and texts may have been corrupted over the centuries. Terma teachings are considered to be the condensed quintessence of the Kama teachings, upon which they are based.
A reincarnate master who is destined to reveal such a treasure is known as a tertön (treasure-revealer). This transmission from Guru Rinpoche through the tertöns is called the Terma or ‘Near Treasure’ lineage. It is considered ‘near’ because instead of the long lineal transmission down through the centuries, the terma are a direct link between Padmasambhava, the tertöns and the times in which such teachings are discovered and disseminated.
Since the first tertön, Sangye Lama (1000–1080), right up until the present day there have been over a thousand tertöns. Among these, the ‘Five Sovereign Tertöns’ are Nyang Ral Nyima Öser (1124–1192), Guru Chöwang (1212-1270), Dorje Lingpa (1346-1405), Pema Lingpa (1450-1521) and Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820-1892).
The ‘One Hundred Great Tertöns’ include Orgyen Lingpa (1323–c.1360), Rigdzin Gödem (1337–1403), Sangye Lingpa (1340–1396), Karma Lingpa (14th. century), Ratna Lingpa (1403–1478), Thangtong Gyalpo (1385–1510), Jatsön Nyingpo (1585–1656), Lhatsün Namkha Jigme (1597–c.1650), Ngawang Lobsang Gyamtso (Great Fifth Dalai Lama 1617–1682); Terdak Lingpa (1646-1714), Rigdzin Jigme Lingpa (1729–1798) and Chokgyur Lingpa (1829-1870).
The Profound Lineage of Pure Visions, or Dag Nang, is comprised of teachings and instructions received in the form of visions of Buddhas, deities or lineage masters. The pure vision mode of transmission is sometimes considered to be a form of terma and therefore part of the (above) Terma Lineage. However, this is only the case when the recipient is a tertön, actually receiving a terma through a pure vision.
Transmission of the Inner Tantras and Dzogchen
According to Nyingma history, the three inner classes of Tantra – Mahayoga, Anuyoga and Atiyoga – all derive ultimately from Samantabhadra, the Primordial Buddha who is none other than the reality of buddha mind itself. From the perspective of the Inner Tantras, the three kayas – dharmakaya, sambhogakaya, and nirmanakaya – are identical in essence. One cannot have sambhogakaya or nirmanakaya without their source, which is dharmakaya. This means that the nirmanakaya Buddha Shakyamuni and the dharmakaya Buddha Samantabhadra are not two separate buddhas but manifestations of a single state of buddhahood. Differences lie in the perceptions, capacities and needs of different disciples. Bodhisattvas of the first bhumi, while they are not able to directly encounter the dharmakaya Buddha Samantabhadra, are able to encounter it through the sambhogakaya. And so it is that they receive the Vajrayana teachings through the appearance of sambhogakaya buddhas. For those who are unable to directly perceive the sambhogakaya, then the awakened state appears and teaches according to their level of understanding and perception in the nirmanakaya form, as in the case of Buddha Shakyamuni. Nevertheless, Samantabhadra and Shakyamuni are both aspects of a single state of buddhahood.
The Inner Tantras have been transmitted from the dharmakaya Buddha Samantabhadra, down to the present day in three distinctive phases: The Enlightened Intention (or Mind) Lineage of the Buddhas, The Symbolic Gesture Lineage of the Awareness Holders or Vidyadharas, and The Oral Lineage of Exalted Human Individuals. It is through these three transmissions that the Inner Tantras entered our world, and found their first human (in appearance at least) recipient in Prahevajra, or Garab Dorje.
The Inner Tantras were then transmitted by Prahevajra to Manjushrimitra and from him to Shri Simha. These lineage holders bequeathed the teachings to Padmasambhava, Jnanasutra, and Vimalamitra who, together with the Tibetan-born teacher Vairotsana, brought the lineage and teachings to Tibet. The lineages of the Inner Tantras and Dzogchen continue down to the present day through the unbroken succession of the Kama and Terma, and have produced a great number of realised meditators, scholars and teachers who have held the lineage and brought the teachings to fruition. As well as the aforementioned early lineage founders, such masters include Padmasambhava’s twenty-five disciples, the tertöns, Longchen Rabjam (Longchenpa 1308–1364), Patrül Rinpoche (1808–1887), the Dodrubchen Rinpoches and Ju Mipham (1846-1912).
Longchenpa is of particular significance to the Nyingmapas, especially within the Dzogchen tradition. He united and compiled teachings concerning the two main Dzogchen Nyingthig (Heart Essence) lineages, adding three commentaries of his own to the teachings of Guru Rinpoche and Vimalamitra. He also wrote the famed Dzödün (Seven Treasures), texts that present various aspects of the view, meditation, and conduct of the Nyingma nine vehicles. He left over two hundred and fifty treatises behind, many of which are still regarded as the most comprehensive and authoritative works yet written concerning the view and practice of Dzogchen. It was after his visions of Longchenpa and Padmasambhava that the tertön Rigdzin Jigme Lingpa began to transmit his terma, the Longchen Nyingthig (Heart Essence of the Vast Expanse, or Heart Drop of Longchenpa) cycle of teachings. Since it was revealed to Jigme Lingpa as a mind terma, the Longchen Nyingthig has become one of the most widely practised of all Dzogchen traditions. It is seen as being the synthesis of the two Dzogchen traditions that came through Padmasambhava (Khandro Nyingthig) and Vimalamitra (Vima Nyingthig), and that flowed together in Longchenpa. As it is the Longchen Nyingthig lineage of teachings that Drupon Rinpoche Karma Lhabu received from his Lamas, it is masters of this lineage that are featured in this section.
Nyingma Institutions and Spiritual Heads
Unlike the Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug lineages, the Nyingma were for a long time based less on centralised institutional structures than on individual lines of transmission. Apart from Samye, no major monasteries were built until the founding of Kathok in 1159, and it wasn’t until the 15th century that Nyingma teachers really began to build the great Nyingma monastic centres. The most important monasteries are known as the Six Great Seats or the Six Great Mothers of the Nyingma lineage: Kathok (above), Mindrolling, founded in 1676; Dorje Drak, founded in 1632; Dzogchen, founded in 1685; Shechen, founded in 1735; and Palyul, founded in 1665.
After many of these were destroyed during the changes of the mid-twentieth century, they have now been either fully or partially rebuilt. At the same time, the heads and masters of these monasteries have also established their seats outside of Tibet, in India, Nepal, and Bhutan.
Due to its lack of institutionalisation and decentralised character, the Nyingma, unlike the other lineages, remained without an overall spiritual head until the around the 1960s. In order to find cohesion and unity within exile and to ensure the preservation of their traditions, it became especially important for all lineages to organise themselves around their leaders. This was particularly the case for the Nyingmapas who had so far been without such a representative. For this reason Kyabje Dudjom Rinpoche (c. 1904–1987), was the first Nyingma teacher to be accorded the title of Supreme Head of the Nyingma school, a position which he held from the 1960s until his death. After Dudjom Rinpoche, the leaders of the Nyingma school have been as follows: Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (c. 1910–1991), served from 1987 until his death; Penor (Pema Norbu) Rinpoche (1932–2009), who served from 1991 until retirement in 2003; Mindrolling Trichen Rinpoche (c. 1930–2008), who served from 2003 until his death; Trulshik Rinpoche (1923–2011), who served from 2010 until his death in 2011 (he was selected after Chatral Rinpoche declined the position; and Taklung Tsetrul Rinpoche (b.1926) accepted this position on 22 March, 2012.