Among the contemplative systems and instruction lineages transmitted from Indian Buddhist masters onto their Tibetan successors, there are two basic categories that define the Tibetan Buddhist traditions historically: the Nyingma (“ancient”) and the Sarma (“new”).
The Nyingma sustain the knowledge transmitted during the Tibetan imperial period, from the 8th to the 9th centuries. This era is known as the “early dissemination” (snga dar), or the initial period when tantras were translated from Sanskrit into Tibetan. During this time, the ancient tantras (rnying rgyud) were brought to Tibet, arranged and translated under the direction of King Trisong Deutsen, the Indian Abbot Shantarakshita, and the Kashmiri Master Padmasambhava. This early translation tradition of Buddhism in Tibet was interrupted in the 10th century by the persecutions instituted by King Langdharma.
The Sarma traditions of Tibetan Buddhism originated during the late 10th century. The various cycles of tantras, commentaries, and meditation guidance texts that were translated from Sanskrit into Tibetan during this later dissemination (phyi dar) of Buddhism in Tibet are known as the “New” traditions:
- Sakya (1073 CE)
- Kagyu (1121 CE)
- Jonang (1294 CE)
- Geluk (1407 CE)
Sakya Monastery was established in the year 1073 by Kontan Konchok Gyalpo, making it the earliest of the four Sarma traditions. Milarepa’s close disciple Gampopa later founded Gampo Mountain Monastery, commencing the Kagyu tradition in the year 1121. In 1294, Kunpang Thukje Tsondru arrived in Jomonang, giving rise to the Jonang tradition. More than a century later, in 1407, Tsongkhapa Losang Drakpa founded Ganden Monastery in the highlands of Central Tibet, initiating what is today known as the Geluk, the most recent order of Tibetan Buddhism.
A non-sectarian movement known as Rimé was founded during the late 19th century by Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo and Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye, largely based on the writings and activities of Jetsun Taranatha, the 23rd Throne Holder of Jonang. The Rimé movement does not constitute a separate lineage, but rather is dedicated to the preservation of —and intercommunication between— the Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu, Jonang, and Geluk. However, its members historically have evinced greater affinity for the teachings of the Nyingma, Kagyu, and Jonang.