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There are four principal schools within modern Tibetan Buddhism: Nyingmapa founded by Padmasambhava, Kagyupa founded by Tilopa (988-1069), Sakyapa created by Gonchok Gyelpo (1034-1102) and his son Gunga Nyingpo (1092-1158), Gelugpa (The Virtuous School) founded by Tsong Khapa Lobsang Drakpa (also called Je Rinpoche) (1357 - 1419).
Over the centuries, the Buddhism of Tibet developed into four main streams or lineages known as the "Four Major Schools of Tibetan Buddhism." All of them follow the core beliefs of Buddha Sakyamuni's Four Noble Truths and other teachings. Meanwhile, each school traces its founding in Tibet to a particular person, who in turn is connected to a particular tradition in India. In addition, the colours of hats lamas wear are different among the schools.
Nyingmapa (The Red Hats)
Nyingmapa (or Nyingma) is the oldest of the Tibetan Buddhist schools and the second largest school of Tibetan Buddhism. The Nyingma school is based primarily on the teachings of Padmasambhava, called Guru Rinpoche, "Beloved Master," who is the founder of Nyingmapa and revered by the Nyingma school as the "second Buddha." Padmascambhava's system of Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism was synthesized by Longchenpa in the 14th century. Along with tantric practices, Nyingma emphasizes revealed teachings attributed to Padmasambhava plus the "great completion" or Dzogchen doctrines, also known as ati-yoga (extraordinary yoga). It also makes wide use of shamanistic practices and local divinities borrowed from the indigenous, pre-Buddhist Bon religion. Nyingma monks are not generally required to be celibate. The most recent head of the Nyingma tradition was Mindrolling Trichen, who died in 2008. A successor has not been named.
Featured monasteries of Nyingmapa in Tibet: Samye Monastery, Mindroling Monastery, Dorje Drak Monastery.
Kagyupa (The White Hats)
Kagyupa is the third largest school of Tibetan Buddhism. Its teachings were brought to Tibet by Marpa the Translator, an 11th century Tibetan householder who traveled to India to study under the master yogin Naropa and gather Buddhist scriptures. Marpa's most important student was Milarepa, to whom Marpa passed on his teachings only after subjecting him to trials of the utmost difficulty. In the 12th century, the physician Gampopa synthesized the teachings of Marpa and Milarepa into an independent school. As its name indicates, this school of Tibetan Buddhism places particular value on the transmission of teachings from teacher to disciple. It also stresses the more severe practices of hatha yoga. The central teaching is the "great seal" (mahamudra), which is a realization of emptiness, freedom from samsara and the inspearability of these two. The basic practice of mahamudra is "dwelling in peace," and it has thus been called the "Tibetan Zen." Also central to the Kagyupa schools are the Six Doctrines of Naropa (Naro Chödrug), which are meditation techniques that partially coincide with the teachings of the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
The Kagyupa tradition is headed by the Karmapa Lama. The current head is the Seventeenth Gyalwa Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, who was born in 1985 in the Lhathok region of Tibet. Important Kagyupa teachers include Naropa, Marpa, and Milarepa. Some accounts name Marpa "The Translator" (1012-1099) as the founder of the Kagyu school, while other accounts name as the founder Gampopa (1084-1161), also known as Dagpo Lhaje, who was a student of Marpa's disciple Milarepa. Kagyu is best known for its system of meditation and practice called Mahamudra.
Featured monasteries of Kagyupa in Tibet: Tsurphu Monastery, Drigung Til Monastery
Sakyapa is today the smallest of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism. It is named for the Sakya ("Gray Earth") monastery in sourthern Tibet. In 1073, Khon Konchok Gyelpo (1034-l102) built Sakya Monastery in southern Tibet. His son and successor, Sakya Kunga Nyingpo, founded the Sakya sect. The abbots in the Sakya Monastery were devoted to the transmission of a cycle of Vajrayana central teaching and practice called Lamdrey, or "path and goal", the systemization of Tantric teachings, and Buddhist logic.
The Sakya school had great political influence in the 13th and 14th centuries. Sakya teachers converted the Mongol leaders Godan Khan and Kublai Khan to Buddhism. Over time, the Sakya school gave rise 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 Sakya tradition.
The headquarters of the Sakya sect today are at Rajpur in Uttar Pradesh, India. The current head is Ngawang Kunga Theckchen Rimpoche (b. 1945).
Featured monasteries of Sakyapa in Tibet: Sakya Monastery
Gelugpa (The Yellow Hats)
Gelugpa was founded in the late 14th century by Je Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), one of Tibet's greatest scholars, who "enforced strict monastic discipline, restored celibacy and the prohibition of alcohol and meat, established a higher standard of learning for monks, and, while continuing to respect the Vajrayana tradition of esotericism that was prevalent in Tibet, allowed Tantric and magical rites only in moderation." The first Gelug monastery, Ganden, was also built by Tsongkhapa in 1409.
Gelugpa is the youngest school of Tibetan Buddhism, but is today the largest and the most important. Its tradition is headed by the Dalai Lama. Practices are centered on achieving concentration through meditation and arousing the bodhisattva within. Three large monasteries were quickly established near Lhasa: at Dga'ldan (Ganden) in 1409, 'Bras-spungs (Drepung) in 1416, and Se-ra in 1419. The abbots of the 'Bras-spungs monastery first received the title Dalai Lama in 1578. The Gelugpa school has held political leadership of Tibet since the Dalai Lamas were made heads of state by the Mongol leader Güüshi Khan in 1642.
Featured monasteries of Gelugpa in Tibet: Drepung Monastery, Sera Monastery, Ganden Monastery, Tashilunpo Monastery.