Schools of Tibetan Buddhism

Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, Gelug, Jonang, and Bonpo

Buddhism first reached Tibet in the 7th century. By the 8th-century teachers such as Padmasambhava were traveling to Tibet to teach the dharma. In time Tibetans developed their own perspectives and approaches to the Buddhist path.

The list below is of the major distinctive traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. This is only a brief glimpse of rich traditions that have branched into many sub-schools and lineages. 

01
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Nyingmapa Monk Dancing
A monk performs a sacred dance at Shechen, a major Nyingmapa monastery in Sichuan Provinc, China. © Heather Elton / Design Pics / Getty Images

Nyingmapa is the oldest school of Tibetan Buddhism. It claims as its founder Padmasambhava, also called Guru Rinpoche, "Beloved Master," which places its beginning in the late 8th century. Padmasambhava is credited with building Samye, the first monastery in Tibet, in about 779 CE.

Along with tantric practices, Nyingmapa emphasizes revealed teachings attributed to Padmasambhava plus the "great perfection" or Dzogchen doctrines. More »

02
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Wall Paintings, Kagyu
Colorful paintings decorate the walls of Drikung Kagyu Rinchenling monastery, Kathmandu, Nepal. © Danita Delimont / Getty Images

The Kagyu school emerged from the teachings of Marpa "The Translator" (1012-1099) and his student, Milarepa. Milarepa's student Gampopa is the main founder of Kagyu. Kagyu is best known for its system of meditation and practice called Mahamudra.

The head of the Kagyu school is called the Karmapa. The current head is the Seventeenth Gyalwa Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, who was born in 1985 in the Lhathok region of Tibet. More »

03
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Girl With Prayer Wheels, Sakya
A visitor to the main Sakya Monastery in Tibet poses in front of prayer wheels. © Dennis Walton / Getty Images

In 1073, Khon Konchok Gyelpo (1034-l102) built Sakya Monastery in southern Tibet. His son and successor, Sakya Kunga Nyingpo, founded the Sakya sect. Sakya teachers converted the Mongol leaders Godan Khan and Kublai Khan to Buddhism. Over time, Sakyapa expanded to two subsects called the Ngor lineage and the Tsar lineage. Sakya, Ngor and Tsar constitute the three schools (Sa-Ngor-Tsar-gsum) of the Sakyapa tradition.

The central teaching and practice of Sakyapa is called Lamdrey (Lam-'bras), or "the Path and Its Fruit." The headquarters of the Sakya sect today are at Rajpur in Uttar Pradesh, India. The current head is the Sakya Trizin, Ngakwang Kunga Thekchen Palbar Samphel Ganggi Gyalpo. More »

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Gelugpa Monks With Yellow Hats
Gelug monks wear the yellow hats of their order during a formal ceremony. © Jeff Hutchens / Getty Images

The Gelugpa or Gelukpa school, sometimes called the "yellow hat" sect of Tibetan Buddhism, was founded by Je Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), one of Tibet's greatest scholars. The first Gelug monastery, Ganden, was built by Tsongkhapa in 1409.

The Dalai Lamas, who have been spiritual leaders of the Tibetan people since the 17th century, come from the Gelug school. The nominal head of Gelugpa is the Ganden Tripa, an appointed official. The current Ganden Tripa is Thubten Nyima Lungtok Tenzin Norbu.

The Gelug school places great emphasis on monastic discipline and sound scholarship. More »

05
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Jonangpa

Tibetan monks work on creating an intricate sand drawing, known as a mandala, at the Broward County Main Library February 6, 2007 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Joe Raedle / Staff / Getty Images

Jonangpa was founded in the late 13th century by a monk named Kunpang Tukje Tsondru. Jonangpa is distinguished chiefly by kalachakra, its approach to tantra yoga.

In the 17th-century the 5th Dalai Lama forcibly converted the Jonangs into his school, Gelug. Jonangpa was thought to be extinct as an independent school. However, in time it was learned that a few Jonang monasteries had maintained independence from Gelug.

Jonangpa is now officially recognized as an independent tradition once again.

06
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Bonpo

Bon Dancers
Bon dancers wait to perform at the Masked dancers at Wachuk Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Sichuan, China. © Peter Adams / Getty Images

When Buddhism arrived in Tibet it competed with indigenous traditions for the loyalty of Tibetans. These indigenous traditions combined elements of ​animism and shamanism. Some of the shaman priests of Tibet were called "bon," and in time "Bon" became the name of the non-Buddhist religious traditions that lingered in Tibetan culture.

In time elements of Bon were absorbed into Buddhism. At the same time, Bon traditions absorbed elements of Buddhism, until Bonpo seemed more Buddhist than not. Many adherents of Bon consider their tradition to be separate from Buddhism. However, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama has recognized Bonpo as a school of Tibetan Buddhism.

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O'Brien, Barbara. "Schools of Tibetan Buddhism." ThoughtCo, Jul. 11, 2017, thoughtco.com/schools-of-tibetan-buddhism-450186. O'Brien, Barbara. (2017, July 11). Schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/schools-of-tibetan-buddhism-450186 O'Brien, Barbara. "Schools of Tibetan Buddhism." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/schools-of-tibetan-buddhism-450186 (accessed November 18, 2017).