What Is The Sakya Tradition?
by His Holiness Gongma Trichen Rinpoche
The world in which we live is very vast and has many different cultures, religions, ideas and traditions, and so on. But one thing that everyone has in common is that they are longing to attain happiness and longing to eliminate suffering. Every individual, every organisation, every country is striving to achieve this.
We made so much effort to find happiness during the last century that huge progress was made in terms of technology and science, helping to solve many existing problems. For example, many of the diseases that could not be cured for centuries can now be cured easily; many of the places that we could not reach, we can now reach within hours, in any part of the world, and so on.
But at the same time, we cannot find real happiness; no matter how much material progress we make, we cannot find real happiness. This is because we lack spiritual practice. Spiritual practice and spiritual progress are very important. However, the spiritual progress that we make is not something that happens quickly. It takes time. And the spiritual progress that we make is not something that is visible straight away. On the other hand, the signs of the progress that we make in technology appear very fast, and we can see them very clearly.
It used to be that in many parts of the world, it was thought that spiritual practice was something kind of old fashioned, and that technology and science yielded very fast results, that they were the real thing, and that everyone should put them first. So many people lost their interest in spiritual pursuit and, in fact, in some countries, people are deliberately encouraged not to engage in spiritual practice.
But as time goes on, it is becoming clear that, no matter how much material progress we make, we cannot find real happiness. No matter where we go, whomever we associate with, what we own, how wealthy we are, how famous we become, how powerful we become, we cannot find real happiness. Real happiness we have to find through spiritual practice. Even in the countries whose citizens were discouraged from practising religion, so many people are now interested in doing so. This shows that without spiritual assistance we cannot find real happiness.
There are many spiritual traditions, many different traditions, and I personally believe that every spiritual tradition has its own beauty, its own way to help mankind. I respect every spiritual tradition. Every spiritual tradition is necessary because we are all different and everybody has their own tastes, their own ideas, their own mentalities, their own propensities and so on. So therefore one kind of spiritual tradition is not enough.
In the same way, there is not one single medicine that can cure all diseases, we need different medicines to cure different diseases. Not only that, but we need different protocols, different traditions, to cure different diseases. Similarly, a variety of spiritual practices is very important. For some people Hinduism is more suitable, for some Christianity is more suitable, for others Islam is more suitable, and for yet others, Buddhism is more suitable. We must respect every spiritual tradition, and then choose which one suits us by using our own wisdom, our own intuition. Then whatever spiritual path we practise, we must practise it diligently, according to its teachings.
According to Buddhism, the reason we need to practise Dharma is because in every sentient being, the true nature of the mind is pure. The true nature of the mind is never stained with obscurations and it is what we call Buddha Nature, it is natural purity, it is never stained with obscurations. But at the moment we cannot recognise this, and we cannot see the true nature of the mind because it is completely covered with obscurations. As long as we have obscurations, such as the obscuration of the defilements, and the obscuration of phenomena, as long as our view is obstructed by these obscurations, we are in samsara, which means the cycle of existence. And as long as we are here, we are not free from suffering. So that’s why no matter how much effort we make, how much material progress we make, where we go, whom we associate with, we cannot find real peace, real happiness.
Because the true nature of our minds is completely covered with obscurations, we must engage in spiritual practice. Dharma practice is very important. Although every sentient being has Buddha Nature, every living being has the opportunity to become a fully enlightened Buddha, human beings have the best chance to do so. Because the human mind is very sharp, very intelligent in comparison with that of other living beings, like animals, human beings have the best chance to become enlightened. And so therefore spiritual practice is very important.
Let us speak of spiritual practice from a Buddhist point of view. Buddhism, as we know, originated in India and then spread to many countries. It is through the kindness of the Tibetan Dharma kings, through the great blessing of the Indian masters, and through the hardship of the Tibetan translators that Buddhism was fully brought into Tibet, where we have Mahayana, Theravada, Vajrayana, as well as all the religious sciences. So it is that in Tibet we have the full range of Buddhist teachings and their practice, not only their study but also their practice. And so although the origins of Buddhism were in India, it became as strongly established in Tibet as it had been in India, and it is thanks to this that we are able to have this talk today.
Buddhism came to Tibet in two periods of time. The first one was during the time of Guru Padmasambhava, the great abbot Shantarakshita and the Tibetan Dharma King Trisong Detsen. Thanks to them, Buddhism was fully established in Tibet. When the great abbot Shantarakshita came to Tibet, he started to build temples and establish monasteries. Tibet had a lot of local deities that were very powerful, and they created huge disturbances. During the daytime, the human builders did a tremendous amount of work, but during the night all their work was dismantled, through storms and lightning and all kinds of problems.
The great Shantarakshita was unable to counter the power of the local deities and he resolved that the only way to overcome them was to invite Guru Padmasambhava, who had the power to subdue them. And so they sent messengers to India. In his omniscience, Guru Padmasambhava already knew this and he himself had already set out for Tibet and met the messengers on the road. He eventually arrived in Tibet and destroyed all the evil spirits and converted the helpful ones to Buddhism, exacting from them a pledge to protect the Dharma and to become Dharma protectors. They were then able to build temples and establish monastic institutions.
So it was that at that time no Tibetan had ever received Buddhist ordination. It wasn’t known whether Tibetans would be able to keep Buddhist monks’ vows or not. And so seven persons were chosen to be given the full-fledged Bhikkshu vows by Shantarakshita. Of the seven, three were older men, three were younger and one was middle-aged. Among the younger ones was a member of the Khön family.
The Khöns were originally believed to be the direct descendants of celestial beings from a realm called the Rupadhatu. From the Rupadhatu they came down to the high mountains of Tibet, where they settled. While the rest of them went back to the celestial realms, one of them stayed in Tibet and his hereditary lineage was established in this land. And at that time there was no Buddhism, there was only the Bon religion.
The Khöns were Bonpos. But when Padmasambhava and Shantarakshita came and established Buddhism, they became Buddhists. One of those chosen to take the vows was a Khön family member, Khön Nagendarakshita. And so Buddhism was established in Tibet and all the words of the Buddha and their commentaries were translated. He was also one of the translators. With his younger brother, called Dorje Rinchen, who was not a monk but a householder, they received many important empowerments and teachings from Guru Padmasambhava, and they did a lot of practice and attained very high realisations.
At that time the two main deities were Vajrakilaya and Yandak Heruka. Through these two deities, they had very high realisations as did many generations of Khön after them. Some thirteen generations down the line, there were two brothers called Sherab Zodzem and Konchok Gyalpo. During Sherab Zodzem’s time, one day there was a big gathering, where there was dancing and all kinds of games, and all kinds of shows. His younger brother went there to see and when he came back, the elder brother asked what the gathering was like.
He said there were many people, much dancing, and also all kinds of sports. But the most impressive one was the secret dance that was performed. He felt this was not right because the secret dances are very holy and they should not be displayed in public. They should only be performed in secluded places, with a limited audience. The elder brother said: “Now I’m old and I won’t be able to learn anything new, but you are young, so you can learn the new teachings. The time has come to conceal all our old teachings and find a separate school.
At that time, the most famous lama was Drogmi Sakya Yeshe. He was very famous, so the Khöns sent for him. But he was very strict. He didn’t give teachings to more than one person at a time. At the beginning, Konchok Gyalpo had difficulty learning, but he eventually succeeded.
When Drogmi gave a blessing on top of Konchok Gyalpo’s head, he said: “Touching your head, I can feel that your lineage has a special kind of quality that will benefit the teachings, spread the teachings. And so he gave him the teachings. And with that, Konchok Gyalpo established the Sakya Order.
The first Sakya monastery was built in 1073. This is more than 900 years ago. In Tibet, we have four major schools. The Nyingmapas, who was the original school, the ancient school. The new schools are the Kagyupas, the Sakyapas and the Gelukpas. These were the four major schools.
So now, what is the Sakyapa? What is the meaning of Sakya? Sakya means “Grey Earth”. As the town is called Sakya, the school is also called Sakya. It has a mountain that is in the shape of an elephant. And in the centre of it is a patch of grey earth. And this has three specialities. The first is that long before the school was founded, Guru Padmasambhava came there and predicted that in the future a great monastery would be established on that spot and that it would spread the Dharma in every direction, and also benefit an immense number of sentient beings.
And he erected four stupas, one in each direction, and blessed the earth. So the first monastery’s earth was blessed by Guru Padmasambhava. And that is the number one speciality.
The second speciality is that Palden Atisha once had made prostrations in an empty countryside. His attendants asked why he was doing prostrations and making offerings in that empty space. And he said ‘don’t you see, on this grey earth, there are seven syllables of DHIH, one syllable of HRIH, and one syllable of HUNG. This means there will be seven emanations of Manjushri, the Buddha of Wisdom, one emanation of Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion and one emanation of Vajrapani, the Buddha of Power. And also in the future, there will be many emanations of these Bodhisattvas who will benefit immensely all sentient beings. And so this is why I’m making prostrations. So that is the second speciality.
The third speciality is that Khön Konchok Gyalpo, founder of the school, had a son when he was very young. He was called Sachen Kunga Nyingpo, was trained as a Lama and received many teachings. One day, t his tutor advised him: ‘You are the son of a great Lama, so you need to study. And in order to study, you need wisdom. And to acquire wisdom, you need to practise Manjushri. And so he received the initiations and their related teachings and then practised Manjushri in retreat. One day, in his pure vision he saw many rainbows and flowers, and in the middle of this, was Manjushri sitting on a throne as if sitting on a chair, with two legs down, one Bodhisattva on either side. And Manjushri said “If you have an attachment to this life, you are not a religious person. If you have an attachment to the realm of existence, you do not have the proper renunciation. If you have an attachment to self-purpose, you do not have bodhicitta or enlightenment mind. And if grasping arises, you do not have the View.”
These four lines actually contain the entire Mahayana teaching. He got a very high realisation from this teaching and he passed it on to his sons; it has continued up until now as preliminary teaching of mind training. And not only in the Sakya school, but the other schools also consider this as a very authentic and pure mind-training teaching.
And then Konchok Gyalpo received the Lamdre teaching from his Guru. Lamdre means — Lam means path and Dre means result. That is actually a short way of saying it. But actually, it means ‘base, path and result all together’. If the base and the result are separate, then it is not possible to accomplish (it). They have to be all together. They have to be linked. And so he received this from his Guru for many years and after fully transmitting the teaching to him, the Guru advised him that for 18 years he should not give this teaching to anybody, not to even mention its name.
And then after a few years, he should either teach it to other people or write it down. Previous to this, the Lamdre had no written teachings, it was all oral teachings. But after eighteen years, he should write it down or teach it; in any case, he was now the owner of this teaching. So he practised for eighteen long years. One time, he became very ill and had to take strong medicines, and due to these medicines, he forgot many of the teachings. He became very sad and felt desperate because his teacher was no longer alive, and there were no other Dharma brothers or sisters with whom he could discuss. And even if he did go to India, which meant a very arduous trip, things were kept so secret that he might not be able to find out anything. So what to do? He prayed to his Guru and his Guru appeared in his dream and gave him the teachings. And so he was able to revive many teachings. Then again, he prayed and prayed and prayed. His Guru appeared in person and gave him more teachings, and most of them he could revive. Again he prayed and prayed, and then one day, Mahasiddha Virupa himself appeared.
Mahasiddha Virupa was actually from Nalanda. He was the abbot of Nalanda. He later became a Mahasiddha, and he is the original Guru of Lamdre. Lamdre has 5 Indian Gurus. He was the first one. So five Indian Gurus, then the Tibetan translators. Virupa appeared and covered the mountain, leaning towards the grey earth. The whole mountain was covered with his body and he said: “This earth belongs to me.” So this was the third speciality. The first speciality was that Guru Padmasambhava blessed the land, the second speciality was that Palden Atisha gave the prophecy, and the third speciality was that Mahasiddha Virupa himself appeared and blessed the area and said “This earth belongs to me.” So Sakya has three specialities.
So now, what is Sakyapa? Sakyapa actually means one who holds the lineage of the four great translators. Buddhism first came from India, where it originated, through the translators. So the teachings that came through the translators are considered to be very authentic and very pure. There were four translators. The first one was Bari Lotsawa. Lotsawa means translator. Bari, I think, was his clan. His personal name was Rinchen Drakpa. He went from Tibet through Nepal to India and stayed years studying under the guidance of Indian masters. He received many teachings and collected them all together. There is one book called ‘The Collection of Sadhanas’. He brought that as well as many other teachings. Bari Lotsawa was a teacher to Sachen Kunga Nyingpo.
The second translator was Drogmi Lotsawa. As was just mentioned, Konchok Gyalpo consulted him and, with great difficulty, persuaded him to teach him. His personal name was Sakya Yeshe. He was the first Tibetan Lama to receive the Lamdre teachings. He gave to Sachen Kunga Nyingpo’s father many teachings, especially the Hevajra Tantra but he did not give him the Lamdre teaching. He chose another disciple because he did not give the different types of teachings to a single disciple. Lamdre belongs to what is known as a ‘pith instruction’. So he did not give pith instructions to those to whom he gave Tantra teachings. When he gave Tantra, he did not give pith instructions, and when he gave pith instructions he did not give Tantra.
He introduced his best disciple to the pith instructions, and it is from him that Sachen Kunga Nyingpo received them. In this way, the Lamdre became the main teaching of the Sakyapas. Most importantly, Lamdre means the path and the result, but it has everything. It has the Sutrayana path – the preliminary part is the Sutrayana path — and the main part is the Vajrayana path. It is a complete teaching, starting from the refuge up to enlightenment. And so in this way, it is a complete teaching.
And so this was the second translator. And then the third one was Mal Lotsawa, and his name was Lodoe Drakpa. He also received an enormous amount of teachings, especially Chakrasambara and Mahakala, etc. and gave them to Lama Sakyapa (Sachen Kunga Nyingpo).
The fourth one was Lotsawa Rinchen Sangpo. He was the most important translator during this new translation period. Through him also we got many, many teachings. So Sakyapa teachings all came through these four translators.
The Sakya monastery was first established in 1070 by Khön Konchok Gyalpo and then his son Sachen Kunga Nyingpo, as I said, received teachings directly from Manjushri and also from Virupa, as well as many other teachings during a period of one full month.
Kunga Nyingpo had four sons. The first son was called Kunga Bar. He went to India to study and passed away there. His second son was Loppön Sonam Tsemo, who was a very great scholar. His fame reached as far as the river Ganges. He wrote many books on Sutrayana, as well as Mantrayana and many rituals as well. And then the third son was Jetsun Dragpa Gyaltsen. He was a very great master. Especially for the Lamdre teachings. In terms of the Lamdre teachings, he is the most important Lama because Lamdre is a pith instruction and it has many hidden words, so it needs many explanations, detailed explanations, which he gave readily. He is the real owner of all the secret teachings.
The fourth son was called Pachen Yopo, and he had a son called Sakya Pandita, who is very well known. He was the first Tibetan to receive the full Pandita title. He also wrote many treatises and many commentaries, especially on the Parmana, or Buddhist Logic. Many books have been translated from the Indian text, from Sanskrit into Tibetan, of course, as every teaching had to be translated into Tibetan.
Sakya Pandita was unique in that he was the only Tibetan master whose works were translated into Sanskrit. Sakya Pandita wrote the Parmana in Tibetan, and it was so complete, so authentic, so great that it was translated back from Tibetan into Sanskrit. Sakya Pandita’s younger brother was Sangsar Sonam Gyaltsen. Sonam Gyaltsen had two official sons, one was Drogon Chogyal Phagpa and his brother was Drogon Chana. They became the royal priests of the Mongolian emperors. Drogon Chogyal Phagpa, especially, went twice to Mongolia. At that time, the Mongols had conquered China and so the Mongolian emperors were also the Chinese emperors.
They were invited to China and, for the first time, Vajrayana teachings were spread into China and Mongolia. Moreover, Drogon Chogyal Phagpa is the one who devised the Mongolian script. The Mongolians did not have a script at that time, so he created the Mongolian script.
These were called the Five Great Masters: Sachen Kunga Nyingpo, Loppön Sonam Tsemo, Jetsun Dragpa Gyaltsen, Sakya Pandita and Drogon Chogyal Phagpa. Chogyal Phagpa later became the ruler of Tibet. The Mongols gave all three provinces to Drogon Chogyal Phagpa as an offering. And so he became the first Lama King of Tibet.
And also, the Sakyapas had many very great scholars. There were nine great scholars. Three great scholars were very capable in the explanation of the Sutrayana path. Yangtön Sangyepa. He was actually considered as an emanation of Lord Maitreya, the coming Buddha. He wrote a lot of commentaries on Lord Maitreya’s teachings. The second one was Rongton Sheja Kunrig, another very brilliant scholar who wrote many books. It is said that whenever he gave teachings, fragrance prevailed and there fell a shower of flowers and rainbows appeared. The third one was Rendawa Shönu Lodrö. He was also a great scholar, and his speciality was Madhyamika philosophy, the Middle Way philosophy. He wrote special books explaining the Middle Way school of thought. So these were the three great scholars who explained the Sutrayana. The last one, Rendawa Shönu Lodrö was also the main teacher of Lama Tsongkapa, who is the father of the Geluk tradition. His main teacher was Rendawa Shönu Lodrö. He studied under him for many years. And then there were three great scholars who specialised in the Mantrayana. They were Ngorchen Dorje Chang Kunga Sangpo, who was the founder of the Ngor sub-school of Sakya. Sakya has three sub-schools — one of them is the Ngorpa school, founded by Ngorchen Kunga Sangpo. He was a truly great master. The Buddha himself in many sutras mentions his name very clearly. He says that at one point in time there would be a bhikkshu called Kunga Sangpo who would be able to spread the teachings of the Buddha and that he would have great discipline in keeping the Vinaya rules, etc.
Another great Lama was Tsarchen Losal Gyatso, founder of the Tsarpa sub-school of the Sakya Order. He was also a great master. From a very young age, he had a great speciality, he gave an enormous amount of teachings, wrote many commentaries, and especially the most uncommon teachings, not only Sakyapa but from all the traditions. He was the owner of the most uncommon teachings. So he was a very great master.
And the third one was Dorje Dempa Kunga Namgyal. He was the founder of the Dzongpa sub-school of the Sakya. He was also a very great scholar. The speciality of these three was the Mantrayana tradition.
Then there were three more great masters, and their speciality was both Sutrayana and Mantrayana. One of them was Gorampa Sonam Sangye. He was from a very young age a very great scholar and he wrote many books, and today in most of our philosophical colleges, we use his texts. He was excellent in the very detailed explanation of Sutrayana teachings, as well as Mantrayana teachings.
And then another one was Shakya Chogden. He was also very special, a great master. He wrote a great number of books and had a very special sharp mind in explaining in great detail the most authentic details of the very profound teachings. And the third one was Taksang Lotsawa. He was a great scholar and also a translator. He translated many important texts. He also wrote many important commentaries.
So through these great masters, so many teachings came down to the Sakyapas. And not only is Sakyapa considered great by the Sakyapas themselves, but it is also praised by masters of the other schools. For example, the 5th Dalai Lama wrote a poem that said that Tibet had many great scholars and practitioners, just like the sun and the moon, but the only ones who explained fully the Sutra, Mantra, as well as all the religious sciences, were born in the Khön lineage, such as Sakya Pandita. There are many great scholars who can explain part of the teachings — some can explain Sutrayana, some can explain Mantrayana, some can explain other religious sciences, but there is no one who fully masters complete teachings, apart from the ones born in the Khön lineage, especially Sakya Pandita.
So this was a brief explanation of the Sakya Tradition. But I feel that all the traditions that exist today, in terms of their first motivation of the enlightenment mind, and the main practice of the combination of Sutra and Mantra together, the final accomplishment of complete enlightenment, there is no difference between them. All are exactly the same. The only difference is that the lineage is different. It depends on who the original Guru from India was, how the lineage was passed down through the different translators, how the teachings came down through the lineage, etc. This is the difference. Due to this difference, there is a distinction in emphasis with each school. Some schools emphasise the practice of meditation, some emphasise study, and others emphasise both, and so on, but otherwise, there is no difference. All are the same.
In the same way, for example, all the deities are the same. All the Buddhas are the same, in terms of their compassion, in terms of their wisdom, in terms of their power, there is no difference between them. But due to our own karmic connection, there are certain deities who can help us accomplish more quickly, certain deities who take longer. This is because of our own karmic connection. If we don’t have a karmic connection with a deity, then it will take a longer time to achieve accomplishment.
The deity with whom we have a karmic connection will help us to attain swift accomplishment. So it is all due to our own affinities, our own karmic connections that there is a difference. Buddha also manifested in many different forms. There are many deities, some are very peaceful, some are very wrathful, some are very passionate, some have a consort and so on; some deities are very simple with one face, two hands, some deities are very elaborate with many faces, many hands, and so on. But they are all the same. There is no difference. If there were only one, we could say that one Buddha is enough. But it is not. Because of our own personalities, our own affinities and our own karmic connections, we have different needs. And so therefore there are so many different deities.
Similarly, the variety of different schools is necessary. We have Nyingmapas, Kagyupas, Sakyapas, Gelukpas – for certain people this school is more suitable, for certain people that school is more suitable, for certain people yet another school is more suitable. All are the same but it all depends on our propensities. One might ask ‘If they’re all the same, then why do we need so many of them?’
This is necessary because the approach is different with each school. The final accomplishment is the same, but the approach is different. So when we have different approaches, discrepancies also arise. Sometimes there is debate also. But this is only because the ultimate truth is so subtle and so difficult to comprehend that debate helps to throw light on it. So you have to explain in many ways with many examples, many logical reasons, in many ways. But the final conclusion, the final accomplishment, all are the same, all are the Buddha’s activities, all are the same, but due to our own affinities and so on, we need different schools.
A great master, who lived recently, wrote a book called ‘The Mirror of Jewels”. This book explains the Sakyapas’ view. The author clearly mentions that, although Tibet had many different schools, major schools, minor schools, all different kinds of schools, and although the four major schools use different terms, different approaches, the final approach, the final accomplishment are all the same. These schools debate among themselves, in order to comprehend, to understand better — because ultimate truth is so difficult to comprehend, so difficult to understand, it has to be presented in many ways — one way is through debate.
But he said that the final accomplishment is the same in all the schools. Every school has great masters, not only great scholars but also highly realised masters. If something were faulty in the tenets of their school, then they could not get high realisation.
Since every school produces greatly realised masters, it shows that every school is authentic, and every school is the same in terms of final accomplishment, it is all the same. But as said earlier, our karmic connections are what makes the difference.
Buddha himself said ‘my teachings should not be taken by faith, but by reason.’ You use your own intelligence and you test. Just like if you want to buy gold, you make sure that it is genuine gold. You test, you burn and you cut and you scratch until you are convinced that it is genuine gold. Then similarly, the Buddha said that ‘My teachings you should test, you should analyse’ as when you buy gold. And so Buddha is the only one, I think no other founders of a tradition ever said this. Everyone says I bless you, I save you, but no one says ‘You should test my teachings’. In Buddhism, our own wisdom, our own mind, our own intelligence are important. So we should test ourselves, we should examine ourselves and test ourselves. And when we’re convinced that it is a genuine teaching, then we choose to follow it.
And then we act according to that. At the same time, we respect all the traditions because every they’re all helping mankind.
In our Sakya teachings, the main teaching is the Lamdre. It is the most important teaching. It is taught through the four authenticities. Authentic teacher, authentic text of the Buddha’s words, authentic commentaries/teachings, and authentic experience. It is taught through that. The main way of learning is that we receive the teachings from our teacher, then we study, contemplate, meditate, and through meditation, we gain experience, special experience. When we gain this special experience, we’re convinced that our teacher is authentic. Because if our teacher is not authentic, we cannot have such an experience, such a wonderful experience. So we establish that our teacher is authentic. And the teaching he gave is also authentic because it’s the commentaries that Mahasiddha Virupa and many ancient masters gave, so therefore the commentaries are authentic. And thus we are convinced that the commentaries are authentic. And that also, based on the Buddha’s words. The Buddha’s words are also authentic.
So by gaining authentic experience by ourselves, then we can establish that our Guru is authentic, the teachings are authentic, and the Buddha’s words are authentic. So in this way, the four authenticities are established.
So, whatever we choose, we choose ourselves and then we practise. Once we start, we should not jump here and there. We have to continue until we experience, and as we experience, we gain more and more inspiration, more aspiration to do it more because we gain experience.
In this way, I have tried to present a brief history of the Sakya School and its teachings.