Eight Chariots and Four Lineages



The ‘Eight Chariots’ were the original eight major streams of vajray~na transmission flowing from India to Tibet. Each stream was, in itself, a confluence of tantras taught and translated by the great Indian and Tibetan masters of the eighth to twelfth centuries CE. Since then, historical, geographical and political factors have crystallised the Buddhism of Tibet into four major lineages: those of  Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug. All incorporate the fundamental teachings of the Buddha (hinayana). Equally, but with slight variations of interpretation or of style of presentation, they all preach his special teachings of the bodhisattva path (mahayana). Their real differences lie in the vajrayana traditions they perpetuate.


1.         Nyingma


Its name means 'ancient', as it was the first Buddhist tradition to take root in Tibet, as described in some detail in the preceding pages. Established in magnificence in the eighth century, through the royal patronage of King Trisong Detsen, the wisdom of India's greatest scholar of the time, Santaraksita, and the might of its most powerful guru, Padmasambhava, it brought Buddhism to Tibet in a very dynamic and magnificent way. Padmasambhava taught many tantras, from the wealth of his knowledge of Indian vajrayana, and concealed many treasure-texts (terma) to be unearthed in later years. He established three major practice centres of Samye, Yerpa and Chuwori and had twenty-five outstanding disciples among his hundreds of gifted followers. Masters Vimalamitra and Vairocana also taught tantra in that seminal time.

The early glory of this tradition lasted for some sixty years, until the hostile (and probably insane) monarch Langdarma destroyed the majority of its vestiges. Although it did gradually re-establish its monasteries and sangha, it had to vie at first with the animist Bön religion for influence and then later with the new lineages (sarma) arising from the work of AtiÑa, Marpa and other eleventh century renovators. It was during that period that it became referred to as the ‘ancient’ (rnying.ma) school.

The Nyingma tradition views Buddhism as a whole as falling into nine distinctive trends and sees itself as the result of three streams of spiritual transmission:

           the ‘remote’ canonical lineage, transmitted by an uninterrupted line of humans

           the ‘close’ lineage of hidden spiritual treasures and

          the ‘profound’ lineage of pure vision.

The first of these is the traditional guru-to-disciple transmission of teachings, by empowerment, word of mouth and example, as found in other schools. The tantric speciality of the Nyingma focusses, in its formal stages of training, on primordial Buddha Samantabhadra, on the form of Guru Rinpoche and on the wrathful winged Vajrakila, among others. Beyond these, the formless zenith of its training is known as the Great Perfection. As these teachings date back to the Buddha, they are known as those of ‘remote’ origin.

The ‘close’ teachings are those hidden, along with sacred objects, by Padmasambhava and his consort, Yeshe Tsogyal, in rocks, caves, lakes, images, temple pillars and other extraordinary places, to be discovered and given to the world when the time was ripe. These are known as ‘treasures’ (terma) and the masters who find them are known as 'treasure-revealers’ (tertön). Most are considered reincarnations of one or another of the twenty-five main disciples, who had been initiated into the meaning of each teaching in their seminal life with Padmasambhava. Not all terma are physical. Sometimes they simply arise in the mind of the master. The third type of transmission comes through the pure vision of a tertön, who actually sees Guru Padmasambhava come to him and give teaching.

The Nyingma tradition fosters an inbuilt love of going as quickly as possible to the heart of the matter. Offering, for those who are ready, some of the deepest teachings on the nature of reality, it still maintains that ring of majesty and magic of its unique origins and has found a considerable following in the West.


The nine levels of Buddhism

1.         Basic Buddhism for freeing the mind (sravakayana)

2.         A special form of the above followed by solitary hermits (pratyekabuddhayana)

3.         The way of the bodhisattva (bodhisattvayana)

4.         The mantrayana practices based on positive and purifying acts of the kriya tantra

5.         The mantrayana practices based on skilful means of the carya tantra

6.         The vajrayana practices of inner yoga of the yoga tantra

7.         The vajrayana practices of the 'greater' (maha) branch of higher yoga tantra

8.         The vajrayana practices of the 'higher' (anu) branch of higher yoga tantra

9.         The vajrayana practices of the ‘primordial’ branch (ati) of higher yoga tantra


Some of the most famous Nyingma monasteries were those of Katok, Dorjé Drak, Palyul, Mindroling, Dzogchen and Secchen. Among its greatest masters were Longchenpa (1308-1363), who made the first systematic compilation of their doctrine, Mingling Gyurdo (1646-1714), who preserved their canon, Jigme Lingpa (1729-17980, Patrul Rinpoche (1808-1887), Lama Mipham (1846-1912), Jamyang Chentse (1820-1892) and Jamgon Kongtrul (1813-1899).



2          Khadampa

A tremendous wave of Buddhist rejuvenation and renewal swept through Tibet in the eleventh century. One of its most important figures was AtiÑa Dipamkara , who taught for thirteen years in western and central Tibet. His teaching placed great emphasis on a careful presentation of Middle Way (madhyamaka) philosophy, a comprehensive knowledge of Buddhism and a vigorous restoration of pure monastic conduct, which had somewhat deteriorated in Tibet by his time. Onto this firm foundation were planted vajrayana teachings, such as those of the Kalachakra and Guhyasamaja tantras.

Throughout Atisa's stay, Dromtönpa studied at his feet and became, of his six main students, the main spiritual heir. Dromtönpa himself had three main disciples. Of these Potowa received complete transmission of 'Six Treatises' concerning the bodhisattva path. Chen-Nga Tsultim received many teachings about the Four Noble Truths. Lama Pu-Chung received detailed teachings on the 'Sixteen Quintessences' of vajrayana practice.

In general these teachings, handed down through generation after generation of masters, eventually divided into two distinct streams. One was integrated into the Kagyu tradition, through Pawo Tsulak Trengwa (1440-15030, who received them from Sakya Pandita. The other went to Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), from whose illustrious disciples arose the Gelug lineage. Since this latter is not doctrinally different from the Khadampa, it is not treated as a separate 'chariot' and is known by some as the Later Khadampa (not to be confused with the controversial late twentieth-century sect, the New Khadampa).

The Gelug school places great emphasis on tantra being practised upon a firm basis of renunciation, altruism and a correct undersanding of Nagarjuna and Chandrakirti’s view of voidness. To this end, monastic discipline, study and logic in the form of stylised religious debate are held in great esteem. Not surprisingly, this school associates itself with Manjusri, Bodhisattva of wisdom. It is also a  tradition which has given rise to the largest monastic universities the world has ever known, the most important being founded in Central Tibet by disciples of Tsongkhapa.

In 1416, Tashi Palden founded Drepung monastery which, at its height, had over 10,000 thousand monks and an influence felt as far away as Mongolia. In 1419, Sakya Yeshe founded Sera, which grew to house over 5,000 monks. In 1447, another disciple, Gendun Drup, later to become the first Dalai Lama, founded Tashilhunpo in Zhigatse. This later became the seat of the reincarnations of Tsongkhapa’s disciple Khedrup Je, who became known as Panchen Lamas. Tsongkhapa himself founded Ganden monastery in 1409. This grew to house some 3,000 monks and whoever is its  Abbot — the Ganden Trichen — has traditionally presided over the Gelug tradition, although its most famous personage is without doubt the Dalai Lama.

Of the Dalai Lamas to date, the fifth was the most renowned. It was he who, in 1645, undertook the rebuilding of the Potala palace, one of the world’s first skyscrapers. The original eleven-storey royal palace had been built on Mt Marpori in Lhasa in 637. During the nine centuries between its destruction by lightning in the eighth century and the reign of the ‘illustrious fifth’, the Tibetan capital had been located successively at Sakya, Tsetang, Rinpung and Zhigatse. This was the result of various religious factions wooing the support of Mongol armies and establishing the Tibetan capital at their own stronghold. The violent backing of the Qosot Mongols not only established Lhasa as the capital but made the Dalai Lama temporal king as well as spiritual luminary, giving him more power and a larger kingdom than Tibet had known for many centuries.

While the Gelug spiritual tradition flourished in its giant monasteries of Central Tibet, the fate of subsequent Dalai Lamas was less illustrious. The Manchu Emperors put a stop to the Mongol influence and imposed their own stamp on Tibet, ensuring that Dalai Lama incarnations either died young or never exercised real power, the latter lying in the hands of their regents. This continued until the Thirteenth Dalai Lama (1876-1933), who had real authority. The present fourteenth Dalai Lama is undoubtedly the world’s best known Buddhist and Nobel champion of peace. The Kagyu is one of the four main schools of Tibet and one which has greatly influenced Eastern Tibet, China, Mongolia and the Himalayan kingdoms of Bhutan, Ladakh and Nepal.


3.         Marpa Kagyu

The Kagyu is one of the four main schools of Tibet and one which has greatly influenced Eastern Tibet, China, Mongolia and the Himalayan kingdoms of Bhutan, Ladakh and Nepal. It is sometimes known as the Marpa Kagyu, in honour of Marpa the Translator(1012-1097), its first Tibetan patriarch. It is also known as the Dagpo Kagyu through the powerful way it was established as a monastic tradition by Dagpo Rinpoché (Gampopa 1079-1153). Through the latter's disciples arose its four main and eight minor lineages.

The name Kagyu has often been poorly translated as 'oral transmission'. It really means lineage of transmission of (four) masteries, because of the way in which, for almost a millennium, it has perpetuated an impeccable mastery of the most profound Buddhist yoga practices. These were originally taught by two of India's greatest Buddhists, Tilopa and Naropa, as the quintessence of the scores of vajrayana tantras being practised at the time. Tilopa had received spiritual transmissions from more than one hundred of the finest gurus of his time and, after attaining enlightenment, had reviewed them all in a global perspective, considering the areas in which they overlapped or differed. The result was his teaching a series of practices which help the adept methodically bring each aspect of his or her existence into the light of ultimate truth. Only at such time as the disciple has completely mastered them can he or she transmit them to others, thus ensuring that the original meaning and purpose is preserved through the ages. Tilopa's main disciple, Naropa, taught these as the Six Yogas:

            Candali or Heat Yoga, bringing ultimate reality into the biological and neurological functions of the body, thereby purifying karma,

            Illusory Body, bringing it into the experiences of daily life

            Dream Yoga, bringing lucidity and control into dream experience

            Clear Light, the recognition of mind’s innate lucidity, voidness and bliss,

            Intermediate State, bringing lucidity and control to the after-death and between-lives experience and

            Transference, bringing control of consciousness at the moment it leaves the dying body.

The component of ultimate truth, with its natural lucidity and spontaneous mastery over phenomena, is assured by the teachings of mahamudra: the be all and end all of the Buddha's teachings. These point out the nature of the human mind and of all its possibilities, from the most sublime to the most gross, detailing how the ultimate truth of voidness is inextricably linked with the relative web of manifestation through voidness' innate compassion.

Marpa received mahamudra and the Six Yogas from his guru Naropa (see  previous pages) and from Maitripa (also known as Avadhutipa), who held a special lineage of their transmission from Nagarjuna and Saraha. All these teachings make four main areas of mastery, for which the Kagyu is renowned. They are:

1.         Mahamudra

2.         Candali Yoga

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