A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE NYINGMA TRADITION
by H. H. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche
Although the dawn of Buddhism in Tibet might be said to have occurred in the seventh century during the reign of King Songtsen Gampo (617-650), it was just 100 years later that the teachings of the Bud&a began to flourish in the Land of Snow. This was due to three remarkable figures: King Trisong Detsen, the abbot Shantarakshita, and, above all, Guru Padmasambhava, the Lotus Born Guru, also known as the 'Second Buddha'.
The king Trisong Detsen had invited Shantarakshita, the abbot of Nalanda Monastery in India, to build a large monastery at Samye. However, the work done by men in the day-time was destroyed by malevolent spirits during the night. The abbot then predicted that the only solution was to invite the powerful siddha Guru Padmasambhava, who alone would be capable of building this, the first monastery in Tibet. Guru Padmasambhava came, subjugating along the way all the malevolent forces adverse to the Dharma, and built Samye with the help of both human and non-human beings.
Then, Guru Padmasambhava inspired the translation of most of the Buddhist canon, by outstanding Indian pandits and Tibetan translators. He also taught the whole corpus of Buddhist teachings, especially those of the esoteric tradition of the Vairayana, the Adamantine Vehicle, and bestowed empowerments and pith instructions on countless followers, especially those renowned as his 'twenty-five disciples'. For the sake of future generations, he and the wisdom Dakini Yeshe Tsogyal, concealed countless teachings in the form of spiritual treasures, or termas, travelling miraculously throughout Tibet and blessing all its mountains, caves and lakes. Finally, he left Tibet, riding his horse through the sky, and flew to the land of Camara in the south-west. There he is said to remain in the 'immortal rainbow-body of great transference'.
It is through the generosity of King Trisong Detsen, the monastic ordinations given by the abbot Shantarakshita, and the spiritual transmissions given by Guru Padmasambhava, that the Buddhist tradition was able to spread and flourish in Tibet from early times up to the present. The tradition they thus established is called the 'Nga-gyur Nyingma', the Ancient Tradition of the Early Translation. It is the oldest Buddhist school in Tibet.
The Nyingma tradition has three main streams of transmission: the distant canonical lineage, kama (bka'-ma); the close lineage of spiritual treasures, terma (gter-ma); and the profound pure visions, dagnang (dag-snang).
The first one is the 'distant' lineage of the canonical scriptures, which has been transmitted without interruption from master to disciple, from the primordial Buddha, Samantabhadra, through Guru Padmasambhava and other great masters. The second is the 'close', or direct lineage of the revealed treasures, concealed by Guru Padmasambhava for the sake of future generations, which represents the quintessence of the kama lineage. After bestowing the ripening empowerments and the liberating instructions on his disciples, Guru Pad-masambhava entrusted particular teachings to each of them and miraculously concealed these as spiritual treasures in various places: temples, images, the sky, rocks and lakes. He prophesied that, in the future, these disciples would reincarnate, take these teachings from their place of concealment, and propagate them far and wide for the sake of beings. Such reincarnate lamas are called 'treasure masters' or Tertons. In due time, a terton has visions or signs indicating how and where to discover the treasure. In the case of 'mind treasures', the teachings are not physically unearthed but arise in the Terton's mind. Many such masters have appeared, throughout the centuries, down to the present day. In the third case, that of Pure Vision, Guru Padmasambhava appears to the Terton and actually speaks to him in person.
Many great luminaries have appeared in the Nyingma lineage, among them Gyalwa Longchen Rabjampa (1308-1363), who was the first to write down and systematically compile the teachings of the Great Perfection or Dzogchen, the ultimate teachings of the Tantras on the nature of mind and phenomena. Minling Terchen Gyurme Dorje (1646-1714) also played a major role in preserving and collecting the whole Nyingma Canon or Kama lineage. Rigdzin Jigme Lingpa (1729-1798), Patrul Rinpoche (1808-1887), Lama Mipham (1846-1912), Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820-1892) and Jamgon Kongtrul (1813-1899) appeared in the world at crucial moments to ensure that this precious lineage would endure through the troubles of our present age.
H.H. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche