This is the kind of Buddhism predominant in the Himalayan nations of Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, and also Mongolia. It is known as Vajrayana because of the ritual use of the vajra, a symbol of imperishable diamond, of thunder and lightning. At the center of Tibetan Buddhism is the religious figure called the lama, Tibetan for “guru”,” source of another of its names, Lamaism. Several major lineages of lamas developed, beginning in the ninth century with the Nyingma-pa. Two centuries later, Sarma-pa divided into the Sakya-pa and the Kagyu-pa. Three hundred years later, one of Tibet’s revered lamas, Tsong-kha-pa, founded the reforming Gelug-pa..


Tibetan Buddhist Lineages

• Nyingma-pa Tracing its origin to the Indian adept, Guru Padma-sambhava, who came to Tibet in 817 C.E. at the invitation of King Trisong Detsen (742-797) in order to subdue the evil forces then impeding the spread of Buddhism. This lineage of Buddhism is uniquely Tibetan in that many aspects of the traditional Bon religion are mixed together with more properly Buddhist beliefs and practices to form a unique expression of Buddhist piety. This lineage emphasizes the move towards more advance stages of enlightenment through “preliminary practice” that comprises the beliefs and practices of Buddhism before the advent of Tantra, and through the “higher practices,” which involve the attainment of enlightenment through the chanting of magical spells, special hand gestures and mystical diagrams.

• Sakya-pa The lineage has descended intact up to the present time from Khon Könchok Gyelpo(1034-1102), founder of the Sakya tradition. From the doctrinal point of view the tradition traces its origins to the Indian Yogin Virupa through Gayadhara. His disciple Drogmi Shakya Yeshe (992-1074) travelled to India where he received teachings on the Kalachakra, the Path and its Fruit, and others from many Indian masters and returned to Tibet. Later, Khon Könchok Gyelpo, one of his main disciples, built a monastery in the Tsang province of central Tibet and named it Sakya, or Grey Earth monastery. So the school took its name, Sakya, from the location of the monastery. Succession to the position of head of the Sakya tradition has been hereditary since the time of Khon Könchok Gyelpo. The present incumbent is the 4lst occupant of the Sakya Throne. The central teaching and practice of the Sakya-pa, called Lam-dre (Lam-bras), the Path and Its Fruit, ultimately leads a practitioner to the state of Hevajra. The Path and Its Fruit is a synthesis of the entire paths and fruits of both the exoteric and esoteric classes of teachings.

• Kagyu-pa The lineages of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism derive primarily from two sources: Marpa Chökyi Lodro (1012-1099) and Khyungpo Nyaljor (978-1079). Marpa received the lineage of tantric teachings called the Four Commissioned Lineages – concerning the Illusory Body and Consciousness Transference, Dreams, Clear Light, and Inner Heat directly from Naropa (1016-1100), who had been given them by his teacher Tilopa (988-1069). Mahamudra, the unique feature of Kagyu tradition, can be explained according to interpretations of sutra and tantra. Both aspects of the teachings are aimed at direct understanding of the real nature of the mind. The approach to Mahamudra, which differs slightly within each Kagyu school, generally follows through the stages of foundation, path and fruit. Tantric practices unique to Kagyu tradition are the Six Yogas of Naropa, Chakrasambhava and Mahakala. In the context of tantric practice, the application of Mahamudra becomes much more profound and sophisticated.

• Gelug-pa Founded by Tsong-kha-pa (1357-1419) as a reform movement within Tibetan Buddhism, followers acclaimed the third teacher as an incarnation of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, thus inaugurating the line of the Dalai Lama, the fourteenth and most recent of whom was born in 1935. Emphasis in this lineage is on a strict monastic discipline and on the conviction that the bodhisattva, a Buddha who has foregone final nirvana out of compassion for all sentient beings, is continually present. This tradition remains dynamic even after coming into exile. The major Gelug monasteries, Sera, Drepung, Ganden, and Tashi Lhunpo monasteries and Gyumey Tantric College have been re-established in various Tibetan settlements in Karnataka, and Gyutö Tantric College has been re-established in Bomdila, Arunachal Pradesh, all in India.


Vajrayana is also found in Japan, where it is represented by the Shingon and Tendai traditions. Both were established around the end of the eighth century/beginning of the ninth, a period known as the Heian era (794–1185). Shingon is focused on Vajrayana practice, while Tendai divides its practice between Vajrayana and Lotus sutra.

Shingon: Established by Kukai (774–835) following his study of the rituals and texts of the two mandalas, Vajra world and Matrix world. The two mandalas represent the two bodhisattva qualities of wisdom and compassion. Upon completion of his studies under Huiguo in China, he returned to Japan. He was given the responsibility to oversee one of the most important temples in Kyoto, Toji Temple, which remains important for the Shingon tradition. He also established a training center on Mt. Koya, which flourishes today as the main center of Shingon in the world.  (Our thanks to Dean Richard Payne of the Institute of Buddhist Studies for this information.)  

Tendai: Established by Saicho (767–822), who during his trip to China in pursuit of the Tiantai teachings also received tantric initiation. Upon his return, the emperor directed him to create a dual tradition, that is one that incorporates both exoteric, Lotus sutra based teachings, and esoteric, Vajrayana teachings. The main center of Tendai is Mt. Hiei, located just outside of Kyoto, which was established by Saicho as the main training center for Tendai. Later Tendai priests, particularly Ennin, Enchin and Annen, further developed the Vajrayana dimensions of Tendai in Japan.