The Sakya School of Tibetan Buddhism

A Powerful History

Sakya Monks
Sakya monks at the Sakya monastery in Tibet. The monastery was established in 1073 by Konchok Gyalpo. © Luca Galuzzi , Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license

The history of Sakya (or Sakyapa), one of the major schools of Tibetan Buddhism, is firmly rooted in Tibet's rich mythology. The leaders of Sakya are and have always been from a single aristocratic clan, the Khon. It's said that the first Khon was born after his father defeated a vampire and married the vampire's wife.

Vampires or not, the Khon married into Tibet's imperial family during the time of the Tibetan Empire -- roughly the 7th to 11th centuries.

The prominent clan maintained tantric practices from the imperial period and passed them from father to son.

The Sakya school began with Khon Konchok Gyalpo (1034-1102). Konchok Gyalpo was riding through a marketplace one day and saw tantric songs beings performed in the open, as street theater. Konchok Gyalpo was dismayed; he believed tantra should remain esoteric and uncorrupted by public display.

Konchok Gyalpo went on to study Indian tantra and combined what he learned with his family's tantra practices. Then in 1073 Konchok Gyalpo built a retreat center at Sakya, in the Tsang region of central Tibet. This would be the seat of the Sakya school until its residents fled the Chinese in the 1950s.

Development of Sakyapa

Konchok Gyalpo's son Sachen Kunga Nyingpo (1092-1158) further developed the teachings of the Sakya school. One of his teachings -- said to have come from the Bodhisattva Manjusri in a vision -- is "letting go of the four attachments." The four attachments are this life, future lives, personal welfare, and any fixed concept of reality.

Sachen had a translation of a tantric text called Lamdre, "the path and its result." Lamdre is a systematically structured meditation path of high tantra Vajrayana.

Sachen wished to receive empowerments and teachings in Lamdre from a living master. Although he had the texts, the texts unconnected to one who had realized the teachings were a mere book.

Sanchen eventually found such a teacher, and received the teachings. Lamdre became a foundational practice of Sakya.

Sachen and the next four Sakya patriarchs came to be called the Five Venerable Supreme Masters. The remaining four are Sachen Kunga Nyingpo (1092-1158); Sonam Tsemo (1142-1182); Drakpa Gyaltsen (1147-1216); Sakya Pandita (1182-1251); and Chogyal Papga (1235-1280).

In addition to texts common to other schools of Tibetan Buddhism, the writing of the Five Venerable Supreme Masters serve as a canon of scripture important to Sakyapa. Two other scholars are worthy of mention -- Gorampa Sonam Senge (1429-1489) and Panchen Shakya Chokden (1428-1507). Their commentaries on the sutras and tantras are studied by scholars of all Tibetan schools.

Read More: The Tibetan Canon of Buddhist Scriptures

Sakya in Tibetan Politics

At the time Sakya was founded, the Tibetan Empire was fragmented. Then came a period of Mongol conquest. Under Genghis Khan (1162? - 1227) the Monglians became a formidable military power. In 1240 Genghis Khan's grandson Godan Khan ordered a new invasion, sending a Mongolian general and 30,000 troops into Tibet.

In time, Tibet was absorbed into the Mongolian Empire, and the abbot of Sakya was summoned to the court of Godan Khan to be his spiritual adviser and representative of central Tibet.

This abbot was Pandita Kunga Gyeltsen, one of the Five Venerable Supreme Masters listed above. Pandita spent the rest of his life among the Mongols, never returning to Sakya. In 1252 the last of the Venerable Supreme Masters, Drogon Chogyal Pagpa, took over Sakya Pandita position at the Mongol court.

By now another grandson of Genghis Khan was gaining prominence among the Mongols -- Kublai Khan (1215-1294). Kublai became interested in Buddhism and received empowerments and teachings from Pagpa. This linked the two men as disciple and guru, an unbreakable relationship.

In time, Kublai Khan would rule much of Asia, including China. Through his influence Papga, with a small army, returned to Tibet as "state preceptor." Papga and the Sakyas became the highest political and spiritual authority in much of Tibet, and the Sakya school ruled Tibet on behalf of the Mongols for about a century.

Then Jangchub Gyaltsen of the Pagmodru clan overthrew the Sakyas in 1353, and Mongolian influence diminished.

For more on Tibetan Buddhist history, see How Buddhism Came to Tibet.

The Three Sakya Schools

The main Sakya school to this day is under the leadership of the Khon clan. The head of Sakyapa is the "Sakya Trizin" ("the holder of the Sakya throne").

From the main Sakya school, two distinctive sub-schools emerged.

Ngorpa. Founded by Ngorchen Kunga Zangpo (1382-1457), Ngorpa emphasizes monastic discipline.

Tsarpa, Founded by Tsarchen Losal Gyatso (1502-56), known for teachings preserved in the Thirteen Golden Texts of Tsar.

Sakya Today

The present head of Sakyapa is His Holiness the Sakya Trizin, Ngakwang Kunga Thekchen Palbar Samphel Ganggi Gyalpo. His Holiness was born in 1945 in Tsedong, Tibet, and is the 41st throne holder. He lives in Raipur, India, with his wife Dakmo Tashi Lhakyi. They have two sons.