Buddhism: Tibet: Early Masters & Teachings
On this page you can find the best resources for exploring scholarly perspectives on the most important early masters and teachings in the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism. Each book listed below is linked to WorldCat, where you can discover library holdings for that item in your region. Resources within the gallery box are arranged from the newest to the oldest publications, left to right. The area below the gallery highlights a few recent or especially notable works selected from the gallery above.
Above: Stakna Monastery or Stakna Gompa is a Tibetan Buddhist monastery of the Drugpa sect in Stakna, Leh district, Ladakh, northern India. It is located roughly 25 kilometres from Leh on the left bank of the Indus River, visible in the foreground of this photo. It was founded in the late 16th century by a Bhutanese scholar and saint, Chosje Jamyang Palkar. The name Stakna, literally meaning 'tiger's nose,' was given because it was built on a hill shaped like a tiger's nose.
Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Image source: Flickr. Image author: Prabhu B Doss. Image license: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic.
Padmasambhava (aka Guru Rinpoche, 8th century CE)
Padmasambhava (Sanskrit, lit. "lotus-born"), also known as Guru Rinpoche, was an 8th-century Buddhist master from the Indian subcontinent. Although there was a historical Padmasambhava, little is known of him apart from the aid he offered in the construction of the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet at Samye, at the behest of Trisong Detsen, and shortly thereafter leaving Tibet due to court intrigues. A number of legends have grown around Padmasambhava's life and deeds, and he is widely venerated as a "second Buddha" by adherents of Tibetan Buddhism in Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, the Himalayan states of India, and elsewhere. According to tradition, Padmasambhava was incarnated as an eight-year-old child appearing in a lotus blossom floating in Lake Dhanakosha, in the kingdom of Oddiyana. Padmasambhava's special nature was recognized by the childless local king of Oddiyana and was chosen to take over the kingdom, but he left Oddiyana for northern parts of India. In Tibetan Buddhism, he appears as a character in a genre of literature called terma, where he manifests as an emanation of Amitābha in the context of visionary encounters.
Left: Wreathed in mist, a 123-foot tall statue of Padmasambhava overlooks Rewalsar Lake in Himachal Pradesh, India. Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Image source: Wikimedia Commons. Image author: John Hill. Image license: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported. Image has been cropped.
Milarepa (1028/40 – 1111/23)
Jetsun Milarepa was a Tibetan siddha, who famously was a murderer as a young man then turned to Buddhism to become an accomplished buddha despite his past. He is generally considered as one of Tibet's most famous yogis and poets, serving as an example for the Buddhist life. Milarepa's life-story is famous and often retold in Tibetan culture; the best-known biography, The Life of Milarepa by Tsangnyön Heruka (1452–1507), is still very popular. Most of the present-day stories on Milarepa come from this single source. While "very little [is known] about him as a historical person at all," Milarepa is venerated by all Tibetan schools "as an exemplar of religious dedication and mastery," and his lifestory established the lineage of the Kagyu sect and its key figures (Andrew Quintman). According to Heruka's narrative, Milarepa was born in western Tibet to a prosperous family. When his father died, his family was deprived of their wealth by his aunt and uncle. At his mother's request, Milarepa left home and studied sorcery to take revenge, killing many people. Later he felt sorrow about his deeds, and became a student of Marpa the Translator. Before Marpa would teach Milarepa, he had him undergo abuse and trials. Eventually, Marpa accepted him, explaining that the trials were a means to purify Milarepa's negative karma. After many years of solitary meditation practice, Milarepa achieved "a deep experiential realization about the true nature of reality." Thereafter he lived as a fully realized yogi, and eventually even forgave his aunt, who had caused the misfortune of his family.
Left: Bhutanese painted thangka of Milarepa (1052-1135), late 19th/early 20th c., Dhodeydrag Gonpa, Thimphu, Bhutan. Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Image source: Wikimedia Commons. Image author: Unknown. Image license: Public domain.
Longchenpa (1308 – 1364)
Longchen Rabjampa, Drimé Özer, commonly abbreviated to Longchenpa, was a major teacher in the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism. Along with Sakya Pandita and Je Tsongkhapa, he is commonly recognized as one of the three main manifestations of Manjushri to have taught in Central Tibet. Longchenpa was a critical link in the exoteric and esoteric transmission of the Dzogchen teachings. He was abbot of Samye, one of Tibet's most important monasteries and the first Buddhist monastery established in the Himalaya, but spent most of his life travelling or in retreat. Longchenpa is widely considered the single most important writer on Dzogchen teachings. He is credited with more than 250 works, both as author and compiler, among which are the famous Seven Treasuries - his chief work, which encapsulates the previous 600 years of Buddhist thought in Tibet - the Trilogy of Natural Freedom, the Trilogy of Natural Ease, his Trilogy of Dispelling Darkness, and his compilation, with commentaries, of the Nyingtig Yabshi.
Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. All books in the gallery immediately below are by Longchenpa unless otherwise noted.
Je Tsongkhapa (1357 – 1419)
Tsongkhapa ("the man from Tsongkha"), usually taken to mean "the Man from Onion Valley", was a famous teacher of Tibetan Buddhism whose activities led to the formation of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. In his two main treatises, the Lamrim Chenmo and the Ngakrim Chenmo, Tsongkhapa meticulously sets forth a graduated way and how one establishes oneself in the paths of sutra and tantra. Tsongkhapa was acquainted with all Tibetan Buddhist traditions of his time, and received lineages transmitted in the major schools. His main source of inspiration was the Kadam school, the legacy of Atiśa, but he also received two of the three main Kadampa lineages - the Lam-Rim lineage, and the oral guideline lineage - from the Nyingma Lama, Lhodrag Namka-gyeltsen; and the third main Kadampa lineage, the lineage of textual transmission, from the Kagyu teacher Lama Umapa. Tsongkhapa's teachings drew upon these Kadampa teachings of Atiśa, emphasizing the study of Vinaya, the Tripiṭaka, and the Shastras. Atiśa's Lamrim inspired Tsongkhapa's Lamrim Chenmo, which became a main text among his followers. He also practised and taught extensively the Vajrayana, and especially how to bring the Sutra and Tantra teachings together, wrote works that summarized the root teachings of the Buddhist philosophical schools, as well as commentaries on the Prātimokṣa, Prajnaparamita, Candrakirti's Madhyamakavatara, logic, Pure Land and the Sarma tantras.
Left: A Tibetan thangka depicting the life of Tsongkhapa in the collections of the Sichuan University, Chengdu, China. Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Image source: Wikimedia Commons. Image author: Daderot. Image license: Public domain. All books in the gallery immediately below are by Tsongkhapa unless otherwise noted.
Above: Prayer wheels in Kathmandu, Nepal. These are cylindrical wheels set on a spindle and traditionally inscribed on the outside with the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum in the Newari language of Nepal. At the core of the cylinder is a "Life Tree," often made of wood or metal with certain mantras written on or wrapped around it. Many thousands (or in the case of larger prayer wheels, millions) of mantras are then wrapped around this life tree. According to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, spinning such a wheel will have much the same meritorious effect as orally reciting the prayers.
Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Image source: Flickr. Image author: brando. Image license: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.
In 1838, Choying Tobden Dorje (1787-1848), a Buddhist yogi-scholar of eastern Tibet, completed a multivolume masterwork that traces the entire path of the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism from beginning to end. Written by a lay practitioner for laypeople, it was intended to be accessible, informative, inspirational, and above all, practical. Its twenty-five books, or topical divisions, offer a comprehensive and detailed view of the Buddhist path according to the early translation school of Tibetan Buddhism, spanning the vast range of Buddhist teachings from the initial steps to the highest esoteric teachings of great perfection. In Foundations of the Buddhist Path, which covers the first ten of the treatise’s twenty-five books, the author surveys the scope of the entire work and then begins with the topics that set the cornerstones for all subsequent Buddhist practice: what constitutes proper spiritual apprenticeship, how to receive the teachings, how to make the best use of this life, and how to motivate ourselves to generate effort on the spiritual path. He then describes refuge and the vows that define the path of individual liberation before turning to the bodhisattva’s way—buddha nature, how to uplift the mind to supreme awakening, the bodhisattva’s training, and the attainments of the paths leading to supreme awakening. Book 13, Philosophical Systems and Lines of Transmission, presents the philosophical systems of India and Tibet, according to the writings of Longchen Rabjam and the revelations of Orgyan Lingpa. First, it discusses the views attributed to classical Hinduism, Jainism, materialism, and nihilism. Second, it describes the standpoints of the Vaibhashika and Sautrantika exponents of the lesser vehicle, exemplified by pious attendants and hermit buddhas, and the Cittamatra (“mind only”) and Madhyamaka (“middle way”) commentators of the great vehicle, exemplified by great bodhisattva beings. Third, it analyzes the inner and outer vehicles of the Buddhist tantras, with an emphasis on the three classes of the great perfection. Fourth, it documents the lines of philosophical transmission within Tibet, including Bon, Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, Kadampa, and Geluk. It concludes with an extract from a well-known treatise of the Fifth Dalai Lama, applying the techniques of consequential reasoning to the first chapter of Vasubandhu’s Treasury of Phenomenology. Book 14, An Overview of Buddhist Tantra, is the first in the series to focus on tantra. Whereas previous volumes presented the general exoteric teachings of Buddhism, this work outlines the esoteric practice of tantra according to the Nyingma system. The author defines the parameters of tantra by dividing the work into outer and inner tantras, and concludes with explaining the result of the tantric path—enlightenment itself. Designed to be a companion for dedicated practitioners who receive direct instructions from a qualified teacher, this work is a comprehensive manual that provides the foundation for understanding the genuine and profound teachings of Buddhist tantra. Books 15 to 17, The Essential Tantras of Mahayoga, are presented in two volumes and concern the first of the three classes of inner tantra. It presents the entire text of the Guhyagarbha Tantra, in Tibetan and English, together with the interlinear sections of one of its most important commentaries, Dispelling the Darkness of the Ten Directions, by the outstanding fourteenth-century master Longchen Rabjam. Also included is Choying Tobden Dorje’s rewriting of Candragomin’s inspirational Extensive Commentary on the Sublime Litany of the Names of Manjushri.
Text source: Shambhala Publications website (edited).
Jamgön Kongtrül (1813 – 1899)
Jamgön Kongtrül Lodrö Thayé, also known as Jamgön Kongtrül the Great, was a Tibetan Buddhist scholar, poet, artist, physician, tertön and polymath. He was one of the most prominent Tibetan Buddhists of the 19th century and he is credited as one of the founders of the Rimé movement (non-sectarian), compiling what is known as the "Five Great Treasuries". He achieved great renown as a scholar and writer, especially among the Nyingma and Kagyu lineages and composed over 90 volumes of Buddhist writing, including his magnum opus, The Treasury of Knowledge. Kongtrül was born in Rongyab, Kham, then part of the Derge Kingdom. He was first tonsured at a Bon monastery, and then at 20 became a monk at Shechen, a major Nyingma monastery in the region. He studied many fields at Palpung, including Buddhist philosophy, tantra, medicine, architecture, poetics and Sanskrit. By thirty he had received teachings and empowerments from more than sixty masters from the different schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Kongtrül studied and practiced mainly in the Kagyu and Nyingma traditions, including Mahamudra and Dzogchen, but also studied and taught Jonang Kalachakra. He became an influential figure in Kham and eastern Tibet, in matters of religion as well as in secular administration and diplomacy. Kongtrül and his colleagues worked together to compile, exchange, and revive the teachings of the Sakya, Kagyu and Nyingma, including many near-extinct teachings. This movement came to be named Rimé, “nonsectarian,” or “impartial,” because it held that there was value in all Buddhist traditions, and all were worthy of study and preservation.
Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. All books in the gallery immediately below are by Kongtrül unless otherwise noted.
Jamgön Ju Mipham (1846 – 1912)
Jamgön Ju Mipham, also known as "Mipham the Great", was an influential philosopher and polymath of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism. He wrote over 32 volumes on topics such as painting, poetics, sculpture, alchemy, medicine, logic, philosophy and tantra. Mipham's works are still central to the scholastic curriculum in Nyingma monasteries today. Mipham is also considered one of the leading figures in the Ri-me (non-sectarian) movement in Tibet. A key theme in Mipham's philosophical work is the unity of seemingly disparate ideas such as duality and nonduality, conceptual and nonconceptual (nirvikalpa) wisdom, rational analysis and uncontrived meditation, presence and absence, immanence and transcendence, emptiness and Buddha nature. Mimicking the Sarma schools, Mipham attempted to reconcile the view of tantra, especially Dzogchen, with sutric Madhyamaka. This departed from the teaching of the Nyingma school, which generally positioned the view of tantra as superior to the view of Madhyamaka. For Mipham, the unity of philosophical views is ultimately resolved in the principle of coalescence (Sanskrit: yuganaddha, Tib: zung 'jug), which is the nonduality of conventional and ultimate realities, of samsara and nirvana. Unlike Tsongkhapa, who held that emptiness, as an absolute negation, was the definitive reality and view, Mipham sees the coalescence of gnosis and emptiness as "the ultimate hermeneutical cornerstone of his interpretations" (John W. Pettit). In his many texts Mipham explores the tension and dialectic that arises between philosophical reasoning of the ordinary mind (rnam shes), represented by the Madhyamaka philosophy, and luminous nonconceptual wisdom (ye shes), which is the focus of the teachings of Dzogchen. He attempts a synthesis of them to show that they are not incompatible perspectives and that the teachings of Dzogchen are in line with reason.
Left: A portrait of Mipham. Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Image source: Wikimedia Commons. Image author: Adam [?]. Image license: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported. All books in the gallery immediately below are by Mipham unless otherwise noted.
Above: Tibetan pilgrims circumambulate the Sershul Monastery, located in the Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Sichuan Province, near where the borders of the Tibet Autonomous Region and Qinghai Province meet.
Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Image source: Flickr. Image author: Francois de Halleux. Image license: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic.