The Four Major Lineages

Traditionally within Tibet there are many groupings of schools. However, the most well-known grouping in modern times is into the four major schools: Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu and Gelugpa. Nalandabodhi’s founder, Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, is a lineage holder in both the Kagyu and Nyingma schools of Tibetan Buddhism.

1. The Nyingma School 

The Nyingma, or “old school,” traces its founding back to the initial phase of Buddhism in the 7th to 9th century, and is thus called the old school. Of the main teachers who established the Nyingma lineage, the leading figure is Padmasambhava.



2. The Kagyu School 

The Kagyu school primarily traces itself to the Indian mahasiddha Tilopa and his disciple Naropa. Naropa in turn taught Marpa Lotsawa, a great translator who journeyed from Tibet to India three separate times to study with Naropa. Marpa’s main disciple was Milarepa, whose main disciple was Gampopa. One of Gampopa’s main disciples was the first Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa. One of the meanings of Kagyu is “command lineage” which emphasizes the oral instructions passed down from teacher to student.

 3. The Sakya School

Sakya -PanditaThe Sakya school traces itself to the Indian mahasiddha Virupa, who transmitted the Buddhist teachings to his student Drogmi Sakya Yeshe, who in turn taught Khon Konchog Gyalpo. The latter built a monastery in Tibet near land named “Sakya,” and from this the lineage got its name.


4. The Gelug School

TsongkhapaThe Gelug, or Gandenpa, school traces itself to its founder Tsong Khapa, who revitalized the Kadampa teachings of Atisha, and combined them with teachings from texts transmitted during the second wave of Buddhism’s transmission to Tibet. The Dalai Lamas are members of the Gelugpa school.

The Sakya, Kagyu and Gelugpa are “new schools,” established during the second wave of Buddhism’s transmission from India to Tibet in the 11th and 12th centuries.

Rime Movement

In general, the lineage traditions are supported by different, independent Tibetan institutions. Each of these major schools were predominant in Tibet during different periods of Tibetan history, and each have geographical areas where they are more popular. There are also innumerable subschools and divisions within each of these four major schools, a tendency which is heightened by the individual nature of lineage transmission. Still, many unifying movements have informed Tibetan institutions over the centuries. In particular, in the Nineteenth Century, the Rime movement led by Jamgon Kongtrul the Great and the great Jamyang Khyentse, revitalized many Sakya, Nyingma and Kagyu institutions by promoting respect and knowledge by each of the other.

Lineage is a conduit carrying the primordial wisdom of Buddha, discovered more than 2,600 years ago, all the way to his present heirs — the lineage masters who hold the realization of the heart of enlightenment and transmit it to their students in dharma centers across the globe.