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Nyingma (literally 'old school') is the oldest of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism. It is also often referred to as Ngangyur (IPA: [ŋaɲɟuː], Tibetan: སྔ་འགྱུར་རྙིང་མ།, Wylie: snga 'gyur rnying ma), "order of the ancient translations". The Nyingma school is founded on the first lineages and translations of Buddhist scriptures from Sanskrit into Tibetan in the eighth century, during the reign of King Trisong Detsen (r. 710–755).
Nyingma traditional histories consider their teachings to trace back to the first Buddha Samantabhadra (Güntu Sangpo) and Indian mahasiddhas such as Garab Dorjé, Śrī Siṃha and Jñānasūtra. Traditional sources trace the origin of the Nyingma order in Tibet to figures associated with the initial introduction of Buddhism in the 8th century, such as Padmasambhava, Yeshe Tsogyal, Vimalamitra, Vairotsana, Buddhaguhya and Shantaraksita. The Nyingma tradition is also seen having been founded at Samyé, the first monastery in Tibet. Nyingma teachings are also known for having been passed down through networks of lay practitioners or ngagpas (Skt. mantrī).
While the Nyingma contains most of the major elements of Tibetan Buddhism as do the other Tibetan schools, they also have some unique features and teachings. Nyingma teachings include a distinctive classification of Buddhist vehicles to liberation, called the nine vehicles. This schema places the Nyingma teachings of the "Great Perfection" (Dzogchen) as the highest of all Buddhist teachings. As such, the Nyingmas consider the Dzogchen teachings to be the most direct, profound and subtle path to Buddhahood. The main Dzogchen sources (like the Seventeen tantras) are seen as communicating a path that goes beyond the methods of Highest Yoga Tantra (which are seen as supreme in other schools of Tibetan Buddhism). The most influential Nyingma scholar yogi of the Great Perfection is Longchenpa (1308–1364), and his voluminous works mark a turning point in the scholastic systematization and refinement of the Nyingma Dzogchen system.
The Nyingma school also has an important tradition of discovering and revealing "hidden treasure texts" called Termas, which allows the treasure discoverers or tertöns to reveal new timely scriptures. Many Nyingma lineages are based on particular termas. For example, Mindroling Monastery focuses on the revelations of Nyangrel Nyima Özer, while Dorjé Drak is based on the Northern Treasures of Rigdzin Gödem.
The Nyingma school recognizes Samantabhadra (Küntu Sangpo), the "primordial buddha" (Adi Buddha) as an embodiment of the Dharmakāya, the "truth body" of all buddhas. The Nyingma school sees the Dharmakaya as inseparable from both the Sambhogakaya and the Nirmanakaya.
The Vajrayana or Tantra of the Nyingma school traces its origins to an emanation of Amitaba and of Avalokitesvara, Guru Padmasambhava, whose coming and activities are believed to have been predicted by Buddha Shakyamuni. Nyingma origins are also traced to Garab Dorje and to Yeshe Tsogyal.
Nyingma also sees Vajradhara (an emanation of Samantabhadra) and other buddhas as teachers of their many doctrines. Samantabhadra's wisdom and compassion spontaneously radiates myriad teachings, all appropriate to the capacities of different beings and entrusts them to "knowledge holders" (vidyadharas), the chief of which is Dorjé Chörap, who gives them to Vajrasattva and the dakini Légi Wangmoché, who in turn disseminate them among human siddhas. The first human teacher of the tradition was said to be Garab Dorje (b. 55 c.e.), who had visions of Vajrasattva. Padmasambhava is the most famous and revered figure of the early human teachers and there are many legends about him, making it difficult to separate history from myth. Other early teachers include Vimalamitra, Jambel Shé Nyen, Sri Simha, and Jñanasutra. Most of these figures are associated with the Indian region of Oddiyana.
Buddhism existed in Tibet at least from the time of king Thothori Nyantsen (fl.173?-300? CE), especially in the eastern regions. The reign of Songtsen Gampo (ca.617-649/50) saw an expansion of Tibetan power, the adoption of a writing system and promotion of Buddhism.
Around 760, Trisong Detsen invited Padmasambhava and the Nalanda abbot Śāntarakṣita to Tibet to introduce Buddhism to the "Land of Snows." Trisong Detsen ordered the translation of all Buddhist texts into Tibetan. Padmasambhava, Śāntarakṣita, 108 translators, and 25 of Padmasambhava's nearest disciples worked for many years in a gigantic translation-project. The translations from this period formed the base for the large scriptural transmission of Dharma teachings into Tibet and are known as the "Old Translations" and as the "Early Translation School". Padmasambhava supervised mainly the translation of tantras; Śāntarakṣita concentrated on the sutras. Padmasambhava and Śāntarakṣita also founded the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet: Samye. However, this situation would not last:
The explosive developments were interrupted in the mid-ninth century as the Empire began to disintegrate, leading to a century-long interim of civil war and decentralization about which we know relatively little.
The early Vajrayana that was transmitted from India to Tibet may be differentiated by the specific term "Mantrayana" (Wylie: sngags kyi theg pa). "Mantrayana" is the Sanskrit of what became rendered in Tibetan as "Secret Mantra" (Wylie: gsang sngags): this is the self-identifying term employed in the earliest literature.
From this basis, Vajrayana was established in its entirety in Tibet. From the eighth until the eleventh century, this textual tradition (which was later identified as 'Nyingma') was the only form of Buddhism in Tibet. With the reign of King Langdarma (836–842), the brother of King Ralpachen, a time of political instability ensued which continued over the next 300 years, during which time Buddhism was persecuted and largely forced underground because the King saw it as a threat to the indigenous Bön tradition. Langdarma persecuted monks and nuns, and attempted to wipe out Buddhism. His efforts, however, were not successful. A few monks escaped to Amdo in the northeast of Tibet, where they preserved the lineage of monastic ordination.
The period of the 9-10th centuries also saw increasing popularity of a new class of texts which would later be classified as the Dzogchen "Mind series" (Semde). Some of these texts present themselves as translations of Indian works, though according to David Germano, most are original Tibetan compositions. These texts promote the view that true nature of the mind is empty and luminous and seem to reject traditional forms of practice. An emphasis on the Dzogchen textual tradition is a central feature of the Nyingma school.
Second dissemination and New translations
From the eleventh century onward, there was an attempt to reintroduce Vajrayana Buddhism to Tibet. This saw new translation efforts which led to the foundation of new Vajrayana schools which are collectively known as the Sarma "New translation" schools because they reject the old translations of the Nyingma canon. It was at that time that Nyingmapas began to see themselves as a distinct group and the term "Nyingma" came into usage to refer to those who continued to use the "Old" or "Ancient" translations. Nyingma writers such as Rongzom (ca. 11th century) and Nyangrel were instrumental in defending the old texts from the critiques of the Sarma translators and in establishing a foundation for the mythology and philosophy of the Nyingma tradition.
Rongzom Chokyi Zangpo was the most influential of the 11th century Nyingma authors, writing "extensive exoteric and esoteric commentaries." He upheld the view that sutra teachings such as Madhyamaka were ultimately inferior to the teachings found in the Buddhist Tantras and Dzogchen. Rongzom also wrote a commentary on the Guhyagarbha tantra, which is the main tantra in the Nyingma tradition.
The period of the new dissemination of Buddhism which saw the rise of the Sarma schools also saw the proliferation of fresh Nyingma Dzogchen texts with fresh doctrines and meditative practices, mainly the 'Space class' (Longdé) and the 'Instruction class' (Menngagde) (11th-14th century), particularly important were the seventeen tantras. To vitalize the legitimacy of these new texts against the criticism of the Sarma schools, the Nyingma school expanded the tradition of the "Terma", which are said to be revealed treasure texts by ancient masters, usually Padmasambhava, which had been hidden away and then discovered by tertons (treasure revealers). The first tertons dating to the 11th century were Sangyé Lama and Drapa Ngönshé. Another important terton, Nyangrel Nyima Özer (1136-1204), was the principal promulgator of the Padmasambhava mythos, according to Janet Gyatso. Guru Chöwang (1212–70) was also influential in developing the myths of Padmasambhava. Nyangrel and Chögi Wangchuk (1212–1270) are known as the "sun and moon" of tertons, and along with Rikdsin Gödem (1337–1409), are called the "three grand tertons".
By this period we see the establishment of three major classes of Nyingma literature; those translated and transmitted without interruption from the beginning of the Buddhist dissemination are called "transmitted precepts" (bka' ma), the hidden "treasures" are called gter ma and lastly there are those collected works (gsung 'bum) of individual Tibetan authors.
Systematization and growth
Longchen Rabjampa, Drimé Özer (Longchenpa, 1308–1364, possibly 1369) is a central thinker and poet in Nyingma thought and Tibetan Buddhist philosophy. He is mainly known for his systematized integration and exposition of the major textual cycles such as the Menngagde in his various writings, which by his time had become central texts in the Nyingma tradition. His main writings include the Seven Treasuries (mdzod bdun), the "Trilogy of Natural Freedom" (rang grol skor gsum), the "Trilogy that Clears Darkness" ("mun sel skor gsum"), and the Trilogy of Natural Ease (ngal gso skor gsum).
The 14th and 15th centuries saw the work of many tertons such as Orgyen Lingpa (1323–1360), Pema Lingpa (1346–1405), Sangye Lingpa (1340–1396) and Ratna Lingpa (1403–1479). Another key figure was Karma Lingpa (1326–1386), who wrote down an important work called "Profound Dharma of Self-Liberation through the Intention of the Peaceful and Wrathful Ones" which includes the two texts of the bar-do thos-grol, the "Tibetan Book of the Dead".
Lochen Dharmaśrī (1654–1717) wrote important commentaries on the Guhyagarbha tantra and his brother Terdak Lingpa (1646–1714) was the founder of the Mindrolling Monastery in 1670, one of the six major Nyingma monasteries.
A later seminal figure in the development of the Nyingma system was Jigme Lingpa (1730-1798) "the greatest treasure finder of the eighteenth century", whose Longchen Nyingthig ("The Heart-essence of the Vast Expanse") is a systematization of the path which is one of the most widely used Nyingma Dzogchen teachings today.
Rime and the rise of scholasticism
In 1848, the Nyingma monastic college of Dzogchen Shri Sengha (rdzogs chen srwi sengha), was founded in Kham by a charismatic teacher, Zhanphan Thaye (gzhan phan mtha' yas, 1800-), in association with the active participation of Do Kyentse (rndo mkhyen rtse). According to Georges Dreyfus, the Nyingma school had traditionally "relied on non-ordained tantric practitioners to transmit its teachings through authorized lineages." The foundation of this monastic school was a major shift in the Nyingma tradition, and is seen as a response to the growth of the Gelug school's hegemony which was based on a well organized system of monastic scholasticism and education. The sort of study and learning in this monastery was mostly based on exegetical commentary, a contrast to the more debate based Gelug education. In this way, the Nyingma school revitalized itself and presented itself as a legitimate rival to the Gelug school.
The 19th century also saw the rise of the non-sectarian 'Rime' movement, led by Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820-1892) and Jamgön Kongtrül (1813-1899) which sought to collect and print the teachings of the Sakya, Kagyu and Nyingma schools in response to the hegemonic influence of the Gelug school.
Jamgon Ju Mipham Gyatso ("Mipham the Great", 1846–1912) was born into an aristocratic family in 1846 in Kham, a province of eastern Tibet. Mipham was a student of Rime scholars like Kongtrül. Mipham composed authoritative works on both the Sutra and Vajrayana teachings as understood in the Nyingma tradition, writing extensively on Dzogchen and Madhyamaka. According to Karma Phuntsho, Mipham's work "completely revolutionised rNying ma pa scholasticism in the late nineteenth century, raising its status after many centuries as a comparative intellectual backwater, to arguably the most dynamic and expansive of philosophical traditions in all of Tibetan Buddhism, with an influence and impact far beyond the rNying ma pa themselves."
Mipham's works have become the foundation of study for not only the Nyingma lineage, but the Kagyu lineage as well. They hold a central position in all Nyingma monasteries and monastic colleges.
Following in the footsteps of Mipham, Khenpo Shenga was also an important figure in the revitalization of Nyingma monastic education by establishing the study of exoteric philosophy at Dzogchen Shri Sengha through the use of classic Indian texts, which include the major works of Asanga, Nagarjuna and Aryadeva. Khenpo Shenga composed commentaries on these key texts and scholastic textbooks. He focused on the study of these texts as a way to avoid sectarian disputes by appealing to classic Indian material.
The 19th century also saw the production of new Terma texts, particularly by Orgyen Chokgyur Lingpa (1829-1870), Péma Ösel Dongak Lingpa (1820–1892), and Dudjom Lingpa (1835–1904). Another important figure is Patrul Rinpoche (b. 1808), who wrote The Words of My Perfect Teacher, a key text on Nyingma preliminaries.
Dzogchen ("Great Perfection") is the central distinctive practice and view which is the focus of Nyingma and it is seen by this school as the supreme practice. It is seen as the ultimate understanding of the nature of mind, which is known as rigpa. Dzogchen seeks to understand the nature of mind without the subtle body practices and visualizations of other tantric forms, and Dzogchen tantras state that visualization practices are inferior to Dzogchen, which directly works with the nature of the mind itself. A main feature of Dzogchen is the practice of "cutting through" (khregs chod) the everyday mind and its obscurations to reach the primordial nature of mind or rigpa, which is essential purity (ka dag) and spontaneity (lhun grub), and is associated with emptiness (shunyata). The second form of Dzogchen practice is referred to as "direct approach" (thod rgal) and involves making an effort at recognizing spontaneity through the use of visions or appearances. This is said to be associated with skillful means (upaya).
Unlike Mipham, Rongzom did not attempt to harmonize the view of Mantra or Dzogchen with Madhyamaka.
Like in other schools of Tibetan Buddhism, Nyingma teaches various forms of ngöndro, or preliminary practices which help prepare the mind for later meditations. These include the cultivation of "bodhicitta", the "four thoughts that turn the mind", and Vajrasattva purification practice.
Yidam practice and protectors
Deity Yoga is also a feature of Nyingma. The foremost deities (yidam) practiced by the Nyingma masters are Vajrakīla (Tib. Dorje Phurba) and Vajra Heruka (also Vishuddha Heruka; Tib. Yangdak Tratung, Wylie: yang dag khrag 'thung), the third of the Eight Herukas who closely resembles Śrī Heruka of the Chakrasamvara tantra. The three principle protectors of the Nyingma lineage are said to be Ekajaṭī (Wylie: e ka dza ti), Rāhula (Wylie: gza' ra hu la) and Dorje Legpa (Wylie: rdo rje legs pa, Sanskrit: Vajrasādhu).
The doxography employed by the Nyingma tradition to categorize the whole of the Buddhist path is unique. Nyingmapas divide the Buddhist path into nine yanas, as follows:
- Śrāvakayāna, the Vehicle of the Listeners or disciples.
- Pratyekabuddhayāna (Hinayana) the Vehicle of the Solitary Buddhas, the way of solitary meditation.
- Bodhisattvayāna (Mahayana) the Great or Causal Vehicle, the Vehicle of Enlightened Beings, is the way of those who seek or attain enlightenment for the sake or intention of liberating not just oneself, but all sentient beings from Saṃsāra.
- Kriyā (Wylie: bya ba'i rgyud) Tantra of Action which involves ritual, mantra repetition and visualization.
- Carya or Ubhaya (Wylie: u pa'i rgyud or spyod pa'i rgyud) Tantra of Conduct — equal amounts of meditation and symbolic rituals.
- Yogatantra (Wylie: rnal 'byor gyi rgyud) Tantra of Union
- Mahayoga (Wylie: chen po'i rnal 'byor) Great Yoga
- Anuyoga (Wylie: rjes su rnal 'byor) Subsequent Yoga — controlling breathing and energy (nervous and sexual).
- Atiyoga (Dzogchen) (Wylie: lhag pa'i rnal 'byor or rdzogs chen) Ultimate Yoga; The Great Perfection — often practised in monasteries kept specially for this purpose.
In the later schools the inner tantric teachings are known as Anuttarayoga Tantra, which corresponds to Mahayoga in the Nyingma system, while the Mahamudra teachings of the later schools are said to lead to similar results as the Dzogchen teachings. The first two of the nine vehicles are seen as Hinayana, the third as Mahayana and the remaining six as specifically Vajrayana.
Dudjom Jigdral Yeshe Dorje emphasized the eight lower vehicles are intellectually fabricated and contrived:
The eight lower levels have intellectually fabricated and contrived that which is changeless solely due to fleeting thoughts that never experience what truly is. They apply antidotes to and reject that which is not to be rejected. They refer to as flawed that in which there is nothing to be purified, with a mind that desires purification. They have created division with respect to that which cannot be obtained by their hopes and fears that it can be obtained elsewhere. And they have obscured wisdom, which is naturally present, by their efforts in respect to that which is free from effort and free from needing to be accomplished. Therefore, they have had no chance to make contact with genuine, ultimate reality as it is (rnal ma'i de kho na nyid).
Rongzom held that the views of sutra such as Madhyamaka were inferior to that of tantra, as Koppl notes:
By now we have seen that Rongzom regards the views of the Sutrayana as inferior to those of Mantra, and he underscores his commitment to the purity of all phenomena by criticizing the Madhyamaka objectification of the authentic relative truth.
With the advent of the transmission of Sarma traditions into Tibet, various proponents of the new systems cast aspersions on the Indic origins of much of the Nyingma esoteric corpus. Indic origin was an important component of perceived legitimacy at the time. As a result, much of the Nyingma esoteric corpus was excluded from the Tengyur, a compilation of texts by Buton Rinchen Drub that became the established canon for the Sarma traditions. This means that while Nyingma accept the Tengyur scriptures they also include writings that other schools reject as not being authentic for having no Indic sources—though Sanskrit originals of some have been discovered in Nepal.
The Nyingma school has a Kama or oral lineage and a Terma lineage. The Kama lineage is the oral transmission lineage, and is called the "source of Nyingma tradition" by Nyingma scholar Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche. It is further stated by Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche that,
From the time of Guru Padmasambhava and for at least three centuries afterwards, everyone who attained enlightenment in Tibet did so by practicing the kama lineage teachings of the Nyingma School.
The Kama lineage remained predominant from the 8th to 11th century, and Kama masters taught from the lineage's teachings.
The Terma lineage is the revealed transmission lineage where Tertons, or treasure revealers, realize the teachings. The arising of the Terma lineage began in the 11th century, and by the 14th century Tertons were more sought as teachers than Kama masters. The Terma lineage was established by Guru Padmasambhava and Yeshe Tsogyal, through the hiding of teachings for the purpose of future discovery. The Kama is the basis of the Terma.
The Nyingmapas organized their esoteric corpus, comprising mostly Mahayoga, Atiyoga (Dzogchen) Mind class Semde and Space Class (Longdé) texts, into an alternate collection, called the Nyingma Gyubum (the Hundred Thousand Tantras of the Ancient School, Wylie: rnying ma rgyud ‘bum). Generally, the Gyubum contains Kahma (Wylie: bka' ma) and very little terma (Wylie: gter ma). The third class of Atiyoga, the Secret Oral Instructions (Menngagde), are mostly terma texts.
Various editions of the Gyubum are extant, but one typical version is the thirty-six Tibetan-language folio volumes published by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche in New Delhi, 1974. It contains:
- 10 volumes of Ati Yoga (Dzogchen)
- 3 volumes of Anu Yoga
- 6 volumes of the tantra Section of Mahayoga
- 13 volumes of the sadhana Section of Mahayoga
- 1 volume of protector tantras
- 3 volumes of catalogues and historical background
There are 'eighteen great tantras' (Wylie: bshad pa dang cha mthun gyi rgyud tantra sde bco brgyad) at the heart of the 'Mahayoga' (Wylie: rnal 'byor chen po) tradition, grouped into 'five root tantras' (Wylie: rtsa ba sku gsung thugs yon tan phrin las kyi rgyud chen po lnga), 'five practice tantras' (Wylie: sgrub pa lag len du bstan pa rol pa' rgyud chen po lnga), and 'five activity tantras' (Wylie: spyod pa'i yan lag tu 'gro ba'i rgyud chen po lnga), and the 'two supplementary tantras' (Wylie: ma tshang kha bskong ba'i rgyud chen po gnyis). Together they are known as the Māyājāla. The Guhyagarbha Tantra (Wylie: rDo rje sems dpa' sgyu 'phrul drwa ba gSang ba snying po) is the foremost of all of these and it abridges the content of the seventeen others.
Dzogchen literature is usually divided into three categories, which more or less reflect the historical development of Dzogchen:
- Semde (Wylie: sems sde; Skt: cittavarga), the "Mind Series"; this category contains the earliest Dzogchen teachings from the 9th century and later. It includes texts like the Harbinger of Awareness and the Kunjed Gyalpo (Sanskrit: Kulayarāja Tantra; The Great Leveler) Tantra, the most significant of the 'mind' tantras. Twenty-one main tantras are listed, though the Great Leveler contains five of them and other similar texts are included in different recensions of the Mind Section.
- Longdé (Wylie: klong sde; Skt: abhyantaravarga), the series of Space; dating from the 11th-14th centuries. These texts emphasize emptiness (shunyata) or spaciousness. The most important text in this division is "Samantabhadra’s Royal Tantra of All-Inclusive Vastness" (Sanskrit: Mahāvarntaprasaranirajatantranāma).
- Menngagde (Wylie: man ngag sde, Skt: upadeshavarga), the series of secret Oral Instructions, 11th-14th centuries. This division, including the important "Seventeen tantras", focuses on two major forms of practice, kadag trekchö, "the cutting through of primordial purity", and lhündrub tögal, "the direct crossing of spontaneous presence."
According to the Nyingma-tradition, Padmasambhava and his main disciples hid hundreds of scriptures, ritual objects and relics in secret places to protect Buddhism during the time of decline, under King Langdarma, and for when the dharma would need revitalizing in the future. These termas were later rediscovered. The Rinchen Terdzod (Tibetan: རིན་ཆེན་གཏེར་མཛོད།, Wylie: rin chen gter mdzod) is the most important collection of terma treasure to Nyingmapas today. This collection is the assemblage of thousands of the most important terma texts from all across Tibet made by Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye, at the behest of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo in the nineteenth century.
Hierarchy and teachers
The Nyingma school considers itself non-political. In contrast to the other three main Tibetan schools, the Nyingma tradition has never been the dominant political power in Tibet. As is common, practitioners were not completely removed from the political machinations of Tibet, and also of neighboring Bhutan.
Unlike the other three schools, the Nyingma school does not incorporate a spiritual leader of the school, but rather organizes itself with autonomous monasteries which coordinate activities when necessary.
The Nyingma traditionally had no centralized authority or Nyingma-wide hierarchy. There was never a single "head of the lineage" in the manner of either the Ganden Tripa of the Gelug, the Karmapa of the Karma Kagyu or the Sakya Trizin of the Sakya.
After the Tibetan diaspora following the Chinese invasion of Tibet, the Nyingma temporarily had a head of the school, at the request of the 14th Dalai Lama, and of Dudjom Rinpoche whom lead efforts to stabilize the exile community and gather Tibetan Buddhist texts. (The Central Tibetan Administration represents the Tibetan diaspora's political positions, and does not administer Tibetan Buddhism). The position was largely administrative, but the Rinpoches who have served in this role are among the most universally highly regarded. They include:
- Dudjom Jigdral Yeshe Dorje Rinpoche (c. 1904–1987), served from the 1960s until his death.
- Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (c. 1910–1991), served from 1987 until his death.
- Penor Rinpoche (1932–2009) served from 1991 until retirement in 2003.
- Mindrolling Trichen Rinpoche (c. 1930–2008), served from 2003 until his death.
- Trulshik Rinpoche (1923–2011), served from 2010 until his death on September 2, 2011. Selected after Chatral Rinpoche declined the position.
- Taklung Tsetrul Rinpoche (1926-2015), served from 2012 until his death.
Afterwards, it was unanimously decided that the internal administration would revolve between the head lamas of the six principle Nyingma monasteries - Kathok, Zogchen, Shechen, Mindrolling, Dorje Drak and Palyul. The representatives were appointed for three-year terms at the annual Nyingma Monlam. They include:
- Katok Getse Rinpoche (1954-2018), appointed during the 29th Nyingma Monlam in Bodh Gaya in January 2018, served until his death in November 2018.
- Dzogchen Rinpoche (born 1964) appointed during the 30th Nyingma Monlam in Bodh Gaya, India on 15 January 2019. Rinpoche declined the position, owing to his health concerns.
The internal administration is changing. During the 31st Nyingma Monlam in 2020, Shechen Rabjam Rinpoche was requested to accept the position. Rinpoche did not accept, and expressed his concerns about how the continued appointment of a "head of the tradition" would be problematic. Upon his suggestion, the representatives of major Nyingma monasteries decided that the position of "head of Nyingma tradition" would thenceforth not be selected. Instead, representatives would be selected for the Nyingma Monlam Committee, which would look after the welfare of the tradition.
The Nyingma tradition is therefore decentralized and often individual monastery administration decisions are made by the community of the lamas together with senior sangha members. Nyingmapa are also historically characterized and distinguished by this decentralization and by their general wider political disinterest. Their monasteries and sanghas, and wider communities, consist of a blend of monastic vow holders, of vow holding ngagpa householders, and of yogins.
The appearance of terma ("hidden treasures") is of particular significance to the Nyingma tradition. Although there have been a few Kagyupa "tertons" (treasure revealers) and the practice is endemic to the Bönpo as well, the vast majority of Tibetan Buddhist tertons have been Nyingmapas. It is held that past masters, principally Padmasambhava and Yeshe Tsogyal, secreted objects and hid teachings for discovery by later tertons at appropriate and auspicious times such that the teaching would be beneficial. These teachings may be physically discovered, often in rocks and caves, or they may be "mind terma," appearing directly within the mindstream of the terton.
Special terma lineages were established throughout Tibet. Out of this activity developed, especially within the Nyingma tradition, two ways of dharma transmission: the so-called "long" oral transmission from teacher to student in unbroken lineages and the "short" transmission of "hidden treasures". The foremost revealers of these termas were the five terton kings and the eight Lingpas.
The terma tradition had antecedents in India; Nagarjuna, for example, rediscovered the last part of the "Prajnaparamita-Sutra in one hundred thousand verses" in the realm of the Nāgas, where it had been kept since the time of Buddha Shakyamuni.
According to Nyingma tradition, tertons are often mindstream emanations of the 25 main disciples of Padmasambhava. A vast system of transmission lineages developed through the ages. Nyingma scriptures were updated when the time was appropriate. Terma teachings guided many Buddhist practitioners to realisation and enlightenment.
The rediscovering of terma began with the first terton, Sangye Lama (1000–1080). Tertons of outstanding importance were Nyangral Nyima Oser (1124–1192), Guru Chowang (1212–1270), Rigdzin Godem (1307–1408), Pema Lingpa (1450–1521), Migyur Dorje (1645–1667), Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820–1892) and Orgyen Chokyur Lingpa (1829–1870). In the nineteenth century some of the most famous were the Khen Kong Chok Sum referring to Jamyang Khyentse, Jamgon Kongtrul and Chokgyur Lingpa.
Recent and contemporary lineage teachers
Contemporary Nyingma lineages include ethnic Tibetan and other Himalayan teachers as well as Western lamas, and their students. Geoffrey Samuel notes that some of these organizations are international networks of dharma centers and monasteries in the West and in Asia.
Some of the largest international Nyingma organizations are Namkhai Norbu's Dzogchen community and Sogyal Rinpoche's Rigpa organization. Other Nyingma organizations include Tarthang Tulku's various projects such as the Tibetan Aid Project, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche's Tergar Meditation Community and Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche's Nalandabodhi.
Besides the major monasteries in Tibet, there are also now various Nyingma institutions of the Tibetan exile community in India including Thekchok Namdrol Shedrub Dargye Ling, in Bylakuppe, Karnataka State; Ngedon Gatsal Ling, in Clementown, Dehradun; Palyul Chokhor Ling, E-Vam Gyurmed Ling, Nechung Drayang Ling, and Thubten E-vam Dorjey Drag in Himachal Pradesh.
Other living Nyingma teachers include Taklung Tsetrul Rinpoche, Thinley Norbu, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, Lama Gonpo Tseten, Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche, Khenpo Sherab Sangpo, Khentrul Lodro Thaye Rinpoche, Khandro Rinpoche, Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche, Togdan Rinpoche.
Six Mother Monasteries
Of great importance to the Nyingma lineage is Samye monastery, (787), the first Tibetan and Nyingma monastery, which was founded by Śāntarakṣita. In addition, the Nyingma tradition has held that there were also "Six Mother Monasteries" out of which developed a large number of branch monasteries throughout Tibet, Bhutan and Nepal. Of these six, Katok Monastery is credited with being the original monastery, after which the five grew.
The Nyingma's Six Mother Monasteries are located across Tibet while institutions have been centered in Kham. Many monasteries were destroyed before and after the Cultural Revolution, and most recently demolished at Larung Gar and Yarchen Gar while nuns and monks face arrests and re-education camps. Nyingma monasteries have been rebuilt in Nepal and throughout India, while the Tibetan diaspora has also spread Nyingma Vajrayana masters to the west and in Europe and the Americas. It has also been associated with the Rimé movement.
There have been slightly different formulations of the six. At one time they included Dorje Drak Monastery, (14th century, relocated 1632), and Mindrolling Monastery, (1676), and Palri Monastery (1571; formal name Chonggye Pelri Thekchen Ling) in Upper Tibet; and Katok Monastery, (1159), and Palyul Monastery, (1665), and Dzogchen Monastery, (1684), in Lower Tibet.
After the decline of Palri and the flourishing of Shechen Monastery, (1695), the Six Mother Monasteries were Dorje Drak and Mindrolling in the upper region, Shechen and Dzogchen in the center, and Kathok and Palyul in the lower part of Tibet. The last four monasteries were all located in Kham while Shechen Monastery was rebuilt in Nepal in 1985, after the Chinese destroyed the monastery in Tibet during the 1950s.
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