Introductory History of the Five Tibetan Traditions of Buddhism and Bon

Alexander Berzin
Berlin, Germany, January 10, 2000

This evening I was asked to speak about the history of the five Tibetan traditions of Buddhism and Bon. The four Buddhist traditions are Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, and Gelug, while the pre-Buddhist Tibetan tradition of Bon makes the fifth. Often we hear the syllable "pa" at the end of these names. It means a follower of that tradition; for instance, Gelug pa means someone who follows the Gelug tradition.

Introduction of Buddhism by Emperor Songtsen-gampo

To survey the history, we need to go back to the seventh century of the Common Era. At the beginning of that century, a king from Central Tibet named Songtsen-gampo conquered the Western Tibetan kingdom of Zhang-zhung and created the first unified Tibetan Empire. The custom in those days to unify an empire was for the king to marry princesses from nearby kingdoms - neighboring kings were less likely to attack the palaces where their daughters lived. Emperor Songtsen-gampo married princesses from China, Nepal, and Zhang-zhung. These princesses brought with them the religions of their native countries. The Chinese and Nepali princesses brought Buddhist texts and the Zhang-zhung princess brought her Bon beliefs. Bon was the Zhang-zhung native religion.

If we look from a Western historical viewpoint, Buddhism did not have much of an impact in this earliest period. The main development was that this first emperor built thirteen Buddhism temples in his domain. The map of Tibet was seen as a female demon lying on the earth. Choosing thirteen spots on the body of the demoness, like acupuncture points, the emperor commissioned temples built on each of them to subdue and control the energy of the demoness of Tibet. That is how Buddhism came to the Land of Snows.

To unify his empire further, Songtsen-gampo wished to have an alphabet for writing the Tibetan language. Thus, he sent his minister, Togmey-sambhota, to obtain the alphabet from Khotan - not from India, as is often explained in the traditional Tibetan histories. Khotan was a Buddhist kingdom north of Western Tibet in Central Asia. The route to Khotan that the minister took passed through Kashmir. When he arrived there, he discovered that the master he was going to meet in Khotan happened to be in Kashmir at the time. This is how the story evolved that the Tibetan writing system came from Kashmir. Orthographic analysis reveals that the Tibetan alphabet actually follows features distinctive only to the Khotanese script. Afterwards, there was much more contact with Buddhism in China and Khotan then there was with Indian Buddhism. The Bon religion, however, remained stronger in Tibet than Buddhism during this earliest period. It provided the ceremonies used in state rituals.

The Old Transmission Period (Nyingma)

In the mid-eighth century, another great emperor, Tri Songdetsen, ascended to the throne. He received a prophecy about future Buddhist teachings in Tibet and, in accord with this prophecy, he invited a great Buddhist teacher from India, Shantarakshita. Soon after the arrival of the Indian Abbot, a smallpox epidemic broke out. The court ministers, who were against all foreign influences in Tibet, blamed the smallpox on Shantarakshita and expelled him from Tibet. Before leaving, Shantarakshita advised the Emperor to invite Guru Rinpoche, Padmasambhava, to come and subdue the adverse conditions and problems. Tri Songdetsen followed this advice, and Padmasambhava came and rid Tibet of the interferences. The Emperor then invited Shantarakshita to return. There were already several Buddhist temples in the land, but now they built the first monastery in Tibet, at Samyay, just south of Lhasa. The Indian Abbot ordained the first monks.

Guru Rinpoche taught a little, but actually did not teach very much in Tibet. He mostly buried texts, thinking that the Tibetans at that time were not yet receptive. These texts were of the highest tantra teachings called dzogchen, the great completeness.

After this, many Chinese, Indian, and Zhang-zhung scholars worked together harmoniously at Samyay monastery, mostly compiling and translating texts from their own traditions. Soon, Buddhism was made the state religion. The Chinese had the largest influence at this time. Every second year, the Chinese emperor sent two monks to Samyay. The form of Buddhism the Chinese monks followed was Chan, the Chinese predecessor of Japanese Zen.

Shantarakshita predicted some conflict with the Chinese. Please keep in mind that the religious history did not happen in a vacuum; it happened in connection with the political history and there were a lot of wars between China and Tibet at this time. Shantarakshita said that they should invite his disciple, Kamalashila, to settle whatever problems might arise.

Meanwhile, Emperor Tri Songdetsen sent more Tibetans to India to bring back teachings and invite more Indians to his land. More texts were buried. Because there were so many wars with China and Central Asia and because the ministers were against any foreign influence in Tibet, it makes sense that there was a persecution of the Bonpos in Samyay and at the court. After all, the Bonpo faction was primarily from Zhang-zhung.

There was also a Dharma debate between Kamalashila, representing the Indians, and the Chinese representative. The Chinese lost. Of course, there was no way that a Chan master could defeat, in logical debate, a master in logic from India. It was no contest: Chan practitioners have no training in logic. For many reasons, one could postulate that the debate was a political move taken to provide an excuse for expelling the Chinese and for adopting Indian Buddhism as the main form of Buddhism in Tibet. Of all the kingdoms and empires neighboring Tibet, the Indians posed the least military threat.

I like to present history not from the standard devotional Tibetan point of view but a little bit more from a Western, scientific viewpoint, since I do have that training. I think it indicates a little more clearly what happened. It makes more sense.

Many more translations took place after this. In the early ninth century, under imperial sponsorship, the scholars compiled a Sanskrit-Tibetan dictionary and standardized the translation terms and style. It is quite interesting that the scholars did not include any tantra terms in the dictionary; tantra was already quite controversial.

In the mid-ninth century, the infamous persecution of Buddhism by the Emperor Langdarma took place. Rather than making Langdarma into the devil, as devotional histories tend to do, it may be more objective to see this persecution as a reaction to the abbots and monks at Samyay who were trying to assert too much influence on the government. Too much of the taxes raised by the state went for supporting the monasteries, and the economic burden had become untenable.

Actually, what Langdarma did was shut down the monasteries; it was not that he destroyed Buddhism. He did not destroy the Buddhist libraries, because Atisha found them when he came to Tibet a century later. Buddhism continued outside the monasteries. What had started before and continued during this so-called "old transmission period" (old translation period) later became known as "the old tradition," the Nyingma tradition.

The New Transmission Period

As already mentioned, a persecution of Bon had taken place many years before the persecution of Buddhism. Like Guru Rinpoche and other Buddhist masters at that time, several Bon masters had also buried texts for safekeeping. In the early tenth century, the Bonpos started to recover their texts, which were not only about tantra, but about sutra as well. The Bon teachings are very similar to those found in Buddhism. It is quite interesting that Bon started the tradition of revealing treasure texts before the Buddhists began the custom.

Later in the tenth century, there was a lot of misunderstanding about tantra in Tibet - this was in the Nyingma tradition, as it had survived outside the monasteries. People were taking the teachings too literally - particularly the parts that seemed to be about sex and violence. The fascination with sex and violence is not something new in society; they certainly had it at those times as well.

As before, the king at that time sent scholars to India to bring back the teachings once more and to try to correct the misunderstanding. The misunderstanding came about primarily because there were no monasteries anymore to standardize the study and training. Now, we get what is called the "new transmission period" (Sarma, new translation period). At this time, the Buddhist traditions called Kadam, Sakya, and Kagyu began. These names did not exist in India. They came about because many different translators went to India and Nepal and returned with different sets of texts, teachings, and tantric empowerments (initiations). Various Indian, Nepali, and Kashmiri teachers also came to Tibet. The different Tibetan lineages derive from these different teachers.

This phenomenon is quite similar to what we find today. A large number of Tibetan lamas come to the West. Hardly any seem to cooperate with each other and most of them start their own Dharma centers. Many Westerners go to India and Nepal to study with the Tibetans in exile there, and many of them also start their own Dharma centers when they return to their homelands. Now we have things like a Kalu Rinpoche lineage, a Shamar Rinpoche lineage, a Sogyal Rinpoche lineage, a Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche lineage, a Lama Yeshe lineage, a Geshe Thubten Ngawang lineage, a Geshe Rabten lineage, a Trungpa Rinpoche lineage: it goes on and on. None of them existed in Tibet. There are Western people saying, "I am a Kalu Rinpoche follower," "I am a Namkhai Norbu follower" - we identify ourselves with a teacher. The lineages in Tibet formed in the same manner as they seem to be forming now in the West. They were completely new; they did not exist before.

Just as, today, many people have studied with numerous teachers, so it was at that time. The lineages crossed; people studied several lineages and they intermixed in some way. Instead of starting Dharma centers, they founded monasteries. What happened then - and will hopefully happen in the West - is that several of these lineages with their distinct teachings and teachers combined to form a sustainable number of schools. It is impossible for two hundred different flavors of Buddhism to survive. The transmission lines of various practices, texts, and tantric empowerments came together and congealed into the Kadam, Kagyu, and Sakya schools during this new period. The various lines that were in Tibet before this new phase congealed into the Nyingma and the Bonpo schools. Prior to this period, there had been only scattered monasteries, not joined into any organized schools.

The five Tibetan traditions do not have inherent identities. They are just conventions, bringing together different lines from different teachers - lines of teachings and empowerments that visiting teachers transmitted in Tibet. This is how the five Tibetan traditions of Buddhism and Bon came about, starting at the end of the tenth century.

Kadam and Gelug

The Kadam lineage derives from the Indian master Atisha. One of the outstanding features of this tradition was the lojong teachings. Lojong is usually translated as "mind training," but I prefer "cleansing of attitudes." This lineage split into three, then was reunified and reformed by Tsongkhapa in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries to become the Gelug tradition.

One of Tsongkhapa's most remarkable achievements was that he read almost the entire Buddhist literature available in his day. Many texts had several versions in Tibetan. Most had been translated three or four times and had a wide assortment of commentaries. Tsongkhapa read nearly all of them - sutra and tantra - and compared everything. He went through and wrote, "Concerning this passage, this version translates it like this and that version like that, and this commentary explains it like this and that one like that. But, this translation or this explanation is illogical and makes no sense, because it contradicts this and that…"

In this way, Tsongkhapa reached a conclusion as to the correct translation and understanding of ALL the major texts. He did not just state his findings as "This is what this passage means, because I say so," he supported everything with logic and reasoning. Moreover, he especially focused on the most difficult passages of each text, the ones that everybody else tended to skip over. His works became the foundation of the Gelug school.

Tsongkhapa had many disciples. One of them was later called "The First Dalai Lama," although the name "Dalai Lama" did not come to that line until the third incarnation. The Third Dalai Lama was given the name by the Mongols. It was the Fifth Dalai Lama, in the middle of the seventeenth century, who gained political rule of Tibet, given to him also by the Mongols. The Mongols did this primarily to end the 150-year-long Tibetan civil war and to foster unity and stability in the land. The Dalai Lamas then became the protectors of all traditions in Tibet, not just Gelug, although the Dalai Lama line had come originally from within the Gelug school. The Fifth Dalai Lama's main teacher became known as "The First Panchen Lama."


The Sakya lineage came primarily from the Indian master Virupa. From him, derives the teachings known as Lamdray, "the paths and their results," the main Sakya teaching combining sutra and tantra. The Sakya school developed through a line of five early masters, all belonging to the same noble family. One of them, Chogyal Pagpa, was given the political regency of Tibet in the thirteenth century by the Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan. This step reestablished political unity in Tibet for the first time during the new translation period.


The Kagyu tradition has two major lines. One is Shangpa Kagyu, the lineage that the late Kalu Rinpoche headed. It came from the Tibetan master Kyungpo Neljor, who went to India at the beginning of the eleventh century and brought back teachings, primarily from Naropa and two great female masters, the yoginis Niguma and Sukhasiddhi.

The other main Kagyu line is Dagpo Kagyu. This is the line that passed from Tilopa to Naropa and then to the Tibetans Marpa, Milarepa, and Gampopa. After Gampopa, the line divided into twelve lineages among his students and then the next generation of students. Of the twelve, only three are widespread today and known in the West. The Karma Kagyu school was started by the first Karmapa, a direct student of Gampopa. The other two are Drugpa and Drigung Kagyu.

Traditionally, each Kagyu school was independent, without there being a general head of all the Kagyu lines. When the present Tibetan refugee community fled to India at the time of the Lhasa uprising in 1959, the most eminent of the Kagyu lineage heads that escaped was the Sixteenth Karmapa. To help with the resettlement process, he was provisionally chosen as the leader for all the Kagyu lineages. Nowadays, the various Kagyu traditions have resumed their individual paths.

During the early eleventh century when the new translation schools were emerging, Nyingma masters started to uncover the texts that were buried earlier. Longchenpa put them together in the thirteenth century to form the textual basis for the Nyingma school. The Nyingma tradition is probably the least uniform of the various Tibetan schools; each of its monasteries is quite independent.

The Rimey Nonsectarian Movement

One more movement needs mention, the Rimey or "nonsectarian movement." This began in the early nineteenth century in Kham, Southeastern Tibet. The founding masters all came from the Kagyu, Sakya, and Nyingma lineages. Among them, perhaps the most well known was the First Kongtrul Rinpoche, Jamgon Kongtrul. The main reason for starting the Rimey movement was to preserve lineages and texts from all traditions, including Gelug, that had become rare at that time.

Some Western scholars speculate an additional hidden political agenda behind the establishment of the Rimey movement. The Gelug school had become extremely strong and was the main tradition in Central and Northeastern Tibet (Amdo). Moreover, followers of that school dominated the Central Tibetan Government. The other traditions perhaps felt threatened and, by working together, they might have felt that they could not only preserve their identities, but could also present an alternative unifying force for Tibet. Thus, we get the Rimey movement.

This is perhaps enough of an introduction to the history of the five Tibetan traditions. Although there are many names, it is helpful to have some idea of the history and who the main figures are, such as the Dalai Lamas, Panchen Lamas, and Karmapas. This, in turn, can help us to avoid the pitfalls of sectarianism so that we can develop respect for all the traditions of Tibet.

Thank you.