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Tibetan Buddhist Orders

The Fifth Dalai Lama, 1800-1900

The Fifth Dalai Lama, 1800-1900. Tibet. Thangka; Colors on cotton. Transfer from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Gift of Carlotta Mabury, B76D9.

The Abbot Tsong Khapa, founder of the Gelug order, approx. 1700-1780

The Abbot Tsong Khapa, founder of the Gelug order, approx. 1700-1780. China; Qing dynasty. Gilded bronze. The Avery Brundage Collection, B60B145.

The Great mystic Virupa, approx. 1400-1450

The Great mystic Virupa, approx. 1400-1450. China, Beijing; Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Gilded bronze. The Avery Brundage Collection, B62B20.

The Fifth Dalai Lama, 1800-1900
The Abbot Tsong Khapa, founder of the Gelug order, approx. 1700-1780
The Great mystic Virupa, approx. 1400-1450

Over the centuries four religious movements in Tibet evolved into the four religious orders of Tibetan Buddhism. These orders are all based on Buddhism from India, but they have different founders and lineages of teachers, prefer different sacred texts, and practice different methods of reaching their goals.

Nyingma Order
The Nyingma, or “ancient ones,” based their teachings on those of Padma Sambhava (the Precious Guru born from a lotus). An Indian who was invited to come to Tibet in the eighth century to build the Samye Monastery, Padma Sambhava is said to have subjugated local demons and made them take an oath to protect Buddhism. He also started the tradition of hiding religious objects and texts for future generations.

Religious art from the Nyingma Order favors images of Padma Sambhava and his eight incarnations, along with images relating to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, such as winged guardians.

The Nyingma Order has many spiritual masters. It does not have an equivalent to the Dalai Lamas of the Gelug Order. When King Langdarma came to the throne in 836, he persecuted Buddhism and its followers. Buddhism disappeared from Tibet for two centuries. It reappeared in western Tibet when local kings invited teachers there from India. This second transmission of Buddhism paved the way for the development of the three subsequent orders of Tibetan Buddhism: Sakya, Kagyu, and Gelug.

Sakya Order The Sakya Order was founded in 1073 by a member of the aristocratic Khon family. The site of their first monastery had grayish topsoil, thus the monastery was named Sakya, meaning “gray earth.” The Sakya Order based its practice on the teachings of the great adept Virupa. The Sakyas were great scholars. The monastery was on the trade route linking Nepal with the rich agricultural area around Shigatse, and the Sakyas were also good at business. The wealth and fame of Sakya grew rapidly with local patronage and the keen organizing powers of their lamas. During the Yuan dynasty, the Mongols made them the overlords of Tibet. Their wealth enabled the Sakyas to become great patrons of art. They were able to get the best Nepalese artisans to decorate their monasteries; one famous example was an artisan named Anige, who later on went off to work for Kublai Khan in Beijing.

The Sakya lineage is a family lineage, passed on not by reincarnation but by inheritance. The head position of the order has been passed from father to son, or from uncle to nephew.

Kagyu Order
Marpa the Translator (1012–1098), his student the great yogin and poet Milarepa (1040–1123), and Milarepa’s student Gampopa (1079–1153) were the founders of the Kagyu Order. Their teaching was based on the works of the Indian adepts Tilopa and Naropa. It placed an emphasis on oral transmission.

There are many subschools within the Kagyu Order, each having a slightly different approach to the fundamental teachings and each with its own leader. The Karmapa is the leader of the Karma-Kagyu school.

Gelug Order
The Gelug Order was founded by Tsong Khapa (1357–1419). It was based upon the eleventh-century Kadampa Order and on the Indian monastic system. Tsong Khapa stressed celibacy and scholarship. Realizing the importance of the monastic assembly, Tsong Khapa and his students built the Gandan, Drepung and Sera monasteries. 

The leaders of the Gelug Order are the Dalai and Panchen Lamas. The Fifth Dalai Lama consolidated the old buildings and built the Potala Palace. He was the first Dalai Lama to hold both political and religious power over Tibet. The Mongols and the Manchu emperors of China were followers of this order.