The Nyingma tradition is the oldest of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism (the other three being the Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug). "Nyingma" literally means "ancient," and is often referred to as the "school of the ancient translations" or the "old school" because it is founded on the first translations of Buddhist scriptures from Sanskrit into Tibetan, in the eighth century. The Tibetan script and grammar was actually created for this endeavour. In modern times the Nyingma lineage has been centered in Kham in eastern Tibet.
The Nyingma tradition actually comprises several distinct lineages that all trace their origins to the Indian master Padmasambhava, who is lauded in the popular canon as the founder of Tibetan Buddhism and is still propitiated in the discipline of reciprocity that is guru yoga sadhana, the staple of the tradition(s).
Historically, Nyingmapa are categorised into Red Sangha and White Sangha. Red Sangha denotes a celibate, monastic practitioner; whereas White Sangha denotes a non-celibate practitioner who abstains from vows of celibacy. At different times in ones life due to changing circumstances and proclivities, individuals historically moved between these two Sanghas. Rarely was either determination of Red or White for the duration of one's life.
Nyingma maintains the earliest tantric teachings which have been given the popular nomenclature of Vajrayana. Early Vajrayana that was transmitted from India to Tibet may be differentiated by the specific term 'Mantrayana' (Wylie: sngags kyi theg pa) . 'Mantrayana' is the Sanskrit of what became rendered in Tibetan as "Secret Mantra" (Wylie: gsang sngags): gsang sngags is the self-identifying term employed in the earliest literature, whereas Nyingma became associated in differentiation from the "New Schools" Sarma.
Dargyay (1998: p.5) provides a sound case that:
...at least in Eastern Tibet, there existed during and after the time of Lha-tho-tho-ri [Fl.173(?)-300(?) CE] a solid knowledge of Buddhism and that the upper classes of the people were faithfully devoted to it. But the border regions in the north and west probably had also come into contact with Buddhism long before the time of Srong-btsan-sgam-po. Buddhist teachings reached China via a route along the western and northern borders of the Tibetan culture and language zone; the same route was travelled by Indian Pandits and Chinese pilgrims in their endeavour to bring this Indian religion to China. There used to be contacts with the Tibetan population in these border regions. It is possible that the knowledge gained from these encounters was spread by merchants over large areas of Tibet. Thus, when Srong-btsan-sgam-po succeeded to the throne of Tibet in the year 627, the country was ready for a systematic missionary drive under royal patronage.
Germano (2002: unpaginated) states:
While Buddhist figures and movements surely were active on the Tibetan plateau long before, Tibetan religious histories concentrate on events in the latter half of the eighth century as marking a watershed during which Buddhism definitively established itself within Tibetan culture. With the official sponsorship of the emperor Trisong Detsen (khri srong lde btsan), the first major monastery was established at Samye (bsam yas), a broad scale translation project of the Buddhist canon into a newly minted Tibetan literary language was initiated, and a variety of lineages began to take hold. The explosive developments were interrupted in the mid-ninth century as the Empire began to disintegrate, leading to a century-long interim of civil war and decentralization about which we know relatively little.
Around 760, King Trisong Detsen invited Padmasambhava and the Nalanda University abbot Shantarakshita (Tibetan Shiwatso) to Tibet to introduce Buddhism in the "Land of Snows." King Trisong Detsen ordered the translation of all Buddhist Dharma Texts into Tibetan. Padmasambhava, Shantarakshita, 108 translators, and 25 of Padmasambhava's nearest disciples worked for many years in a gigantic translation-project. The translations from this period formed the base for the large scriptural transmission of Dharma teachings into Tibet. Padmasambhava supervised mainly the translation of Tantra; Shantarakshita concentrated on the Sutra-teachings. Padmasambhava and Shantarakshita also founded the first Buddhist monastery Samye on Tibetan ground. It was the main center for dharma transmission in Tibet during this age.
The miracle-powers of the 25 disciples of Padmasambhava are widely accepted among Tibetan Buddhists. These disciples were: King Trisong Detsen, Namkhai Nyingpo, Nub Chen Sangye Yeshe, Gyalwa Choyang, the princess of Karchen Khandro Yeshe Tsogyal, Palgyi Yeshe, Palgyi Senge, the great translator Vairotsana, Nyak Jnanakumara, Gyalmo Yudra Nyingpo, Nanam Dorje Dudjom, Yeshe Yang, Sokpo Lhapal, Nanam Zhang Yeshe De, Palgyi Wangchuk, Denma Tsémang, Kawa Paltsek, Shupu Palgyi Senge, Dré Gyalwe Lodro, Drokben Khyenchung Lotsawa, Otren Palgyi Wangchuk, Ma Rinchen Chok, Lhalung Palgyi Dorje, Langdro Konchog Jungné and Lasum Gyalwa Changchup.
From this basis, Tantric Buddhism was established in its entirety in Tibet. From the 8th until the 11th century, the Nyingma was the only school of Buddhism in Tibet. With the reign of King Langdarma (836 - 842) a time of political instability ensued which continued over the next 300 years, during which time Buddhism was persecuted and largely forced underground. From the 11th century onwards, the Nyingma tradition flourished along with the newer Sarma schools, and it was at that time that Nyingmapas began to see themselves as a distinct group and the term "Nyingma" came into usage.
Historically, the Nyingma tradition is unique amongst the four schools in that its supporters never held political power, and therefore it stood at a greater remove from the political machinations of Tibet. Indeed, the Nyingma traditionally had no centralized authority and drew significant power from not having one. Only since the Tibetan diaspora following the Chinese annexure of Tibet have the Nyingma had a head of the Tradition and this seat was only invested at the polite request of the Dalai Lama. Even so, the Nyingma tradition is still politically decentralized and often decisions are made in an oligarchy or community of the senior sangha within a given jurisdiction or locale. Nyingmapa are also historically characterized and distinguished by decentralization and by their general wider political disinterest, with a lesser emphasis on monasticism relative to the other schools, with a correspondingly greater preponderance of ngakpas, uncelibate householders and yogins.
There was never a single "head of the lineage" in the manner of the Ganden Tripa (or Dalai Lama) of the Gelugpa, the Karmapa of the Karma Kagyu, and the Sakya Trizin of the Sakya. It was only recently in exile in India that this role was created at the request of the Tibetan Government in Exile, and it is largely administrative. Nevertheless, the lamas who have served in this role are among the most universally highly regarded. They are:
Capriles (2003: p.100) elucidates the Nyingma Dzogchenpa view which qualifies the doctrinal position of the Madhyamaka Rangtongpa (Prasangika and Swatantrika) in relation to the 'absence of self-nature' (Sanskrit: swabhava shunyata):
Though the teachings of the Nyingmapa agree that all phenomena lack a self-nature and a substance, according to many Nyingma teachings reducing voidness to a mere absence would be an instance of nihilism, and identifying absolute truth with such an absence would imply that this truth cannot account for the manifestation of Awakening, or even for the manifestation of phenomena; therefore, they explain voidness as lying in the recognition of the absence of mental constructs that is inherent in the essence of mind in which space and awareness are indivisible, and define absolute truth as consisting in the indivisibility of emptiness and appearances, or of emptiness and awareness.
The structure of tantric teachings of Nyingma is significant aside from the terma-tradition. Nyingma-Schools distinguish 6 levels of tantric teachings; in other schools, 4 levels are common.
In the later schools the inner tantric teachings are known as Anuttarayogatantra, which corresponds to Mahayoga in the Nyingma system, while the Mahamudra teachings of the later schools are said to lead to similar results as the Dzogchen teachings.
Dzogchen Rinpoche (2007: p.89) holds that:
When we study and practice the so-called lower and higher yanas, we might hear that the most sublime, or the pinnacle of all teachings are those of dzogchen, and this is true. The "lower" yanas of the shravaka and bodhisattva paths, the "higher" paths of the tantras, and the "pinnacle" path of dzogchen are distinguished from one another in this way. This gradation shows the various ways in which it is appropriate for beings of differing propensities to proceed upon the path. Ideally, a practitioner proceeds from the lower levels of practice to the higher levels, and then to the summit. This does not mean that the lower levels of practice are to be disparaged or ignored. We should not focus on the higher paths at the expense of the lower paths...".
With the advent of the transmission of Sarma traditions into Tibet, various proponents of the new systems cast aspersions on the Indic origins of much of the Nyingma esoteric corpus. Indic origin was an important component of perceived legitimacy at the time. As a result, much of the Nyingma esoteric corpus was excluded from the Tengyur, a compilation of texts by Buton Rinchen Drub that became the established canon for the Sarma traditions.
In response, the Nyingmapas organized their esoteric corpus, comprising mostly Mahayoga, Atiyoga (Dzogchen) Mind class Semde and Space Class (Longde) texts, into an alternate collection, called the Nyingma Gyubum (the Hundred Thousand Tantras of the Ancient School, Wylie: rnying ma rgyud ‘bum).http://www.rangjung.com/gl/Nyingma_Gyubum.htm Generally, the Gyubum contains Kahma (Wylie: (bka' ma) and very little terma (Wylie: gter ma). The third class of Atiyoga, the Secret Oral Instructions (Menngagde), are mostly terma texts.
Various editions of the Gyubum are extant, but one typical version is the thirty-six Tibetan-language folio volumes published by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche in New Delhi, 1974. It contains:
There are 'eighteen great tantras' (Wylie: bshad pa dang cha mthun gyi rgyud tantra sde bco brgyad) at the heart of the Mantrayana 'Mahayoga' (Wylie: rnal 'byor chen po) tradition, grouped into 'five root tantras' (Wylie: rtsa ba sku gsung thugs yon tan phrin las kyi rgyud chen po lnga), 'five practice tantras' (Wylie: sgrub pa lag len du bstan pa rol pa' rgyud chen po lnga), and 'five activity tantras' (Wylie: spyod pa'i yan lag tu 'gro ba'i rgyud chen po lnga), and the 'two supplementary tantras' (Wylie: ma tshang kha bskong ba'i rgyud chen po gnyis). Together they are known as the Māyājāla. They are as follows:
The "Guhyagarbha Tantra" (Wylie: rDo rje sems dpa' sgyu 'phrul drwa ba; gSang ba snying po) is the foremost of all of these and it abridges the content of the seventeen others as follows:
The mind class (semde) of Dzogchen was also said to comprise eighteen tantras, although the formulation eventually came to include slightly more. Tantras belonging to the Mind Division include:
Of these, the first five are the "Five Earlier Translated Tantras", translated by Vairotsana. The next thirteen were translated primarily by Vimalamitra. Of the remaining three, the Kunjed Gyalpo is taken to be the primary or root tantra of the Mind Series.
The appearance of terma ("hidden treasures") is of particular significance to the Nyingma tradition. Although there have been a few Kagyupa "tertons" (treasure revealers) and the practice is endemic to the Bönpo as well, the vast majority of Tibetan Buddhist tertons have been Nyingmapas. It is held that past masters, principally Padmasambhava, secreted objects and hid teachings for discovery by later tertons at appropriate and auspicious times such that the teaching would be beneficial. These teachings may be physically discovered, often in rocks and caves, or they may be "mind terma," appearing directly within the mindstream of the terton.
See main article: Terma. Padmasambhava and his main disciples hid hundreds of scriptures, ritual objects and relics in secret places to protect Buddhism during the time of decline under King Langdarma. These termas were later rediscovered and special terma lineages were established throughout Tibet. Out of this activity developed, especially within the Nyingma tradition, two ways of dharma transmission: the so called "long" oral transmission from teacher to student in unbroken lineages and the "short" transmission or "whispered transmission" of "hidden treasures". The foremost revealers of these termas were the five terton kings and the eight Lingpas.
The terma tradition had antecedents in India; Nagarjuna, for example, rediscovered the last part of the "Prajnaparamita-Sutra in one hundred thousand verses" in the realm of Naga, where it had been kept since the time of Buddha Shakyamuni.
According to Nyingma tradition, tertons are often incarnations of the 25 main disciples of Padmasambhava. A vast system of transmission lineages developed through the ages. Nyingma scriptures were updated when the time was appropriate. Terma teachings guided many Buddhist practitioners to realisation and enlightenment.
The rediscovering of terma began with the first terton, Sangye Lama (1000 - 1080). Tertons of outstanding importance were Nyangral Nyima Oser (1124 - 1192), Guru Chowang (1212 - 1270), Rigdzin Godem (1307 - 1408), Pema Lingpa (1450 - 1521), Migyur Dorje (1645 - 1667), Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820 - 1892) and Orgyen Chokyur Lingpa (1829 - 1870). In the 19th century some of the most famous were the Khen Kong Chok Sum referring to Jamyang Khyentse, Jamgon Kongtrul and Chokgyur Lingpa. Orgyen Kusum Lingpa is a living terton.
It is generally agreed that Longchenpa and Mipham are the two most important scholars to the Nyingma lineage.
During the ages, many great scholars and tantric Masters appeared within the Nyingma lineage. Most famous of all is the master and scholar Longchenpa (Longchen Rabjam), who, along with Rongzom Pandita, and Jigme Lingpa are known as kun kyen or "omniscient ones" - a rare title denoting doctrinal infallibility. He wrote many scriptures on the whole Nyingma-dharma. He is especially known for his presentation of the Nyingma philosophical view, that of Dzogchen in particular. His main works are the "seven treasuries" (Dzö dün), "three cycles of relaxation" (Ngalso Korsum), "three cycles of natural liberation" (Rangdröl Korsum) and the three "inner essences" (Yangtig Namsum). Longchen Rabjam also systematized the transmission of Dzogchen, the Great Perfection, in a collection of texts called "The Four-fold Heart Essence" (Nyingthig Yabzhi).
Jigme Lingpa further condensed the Nyingthig Yabzhi of Longchenpa into a cycle of termas called the Longchen Nyingthig, or "Heart Essence of the Vast Expanse". The Nyingthig Yabshi and the Longchen Nyingthig are known, respectively, as the earlier and later "heart essence." The Longchen Nyingthig became both the foundation of the main Dzogchen teachings in the contemporary period and of the Rime movement. Jigme Lingpa's teaching lineage flourished in Kham (eastern Tibet) around Dege, and after his death three incarnations were recognised as being his emanations: Do Khyentse (1800?-1859?), Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, (1820-1892) and Patrul Rinpoche, (1808-1887), all of whom were central to the Rime movement.
The Rinchen Terdzod is, along with the Longchen Nyingthig, the most important terma treasure to Nyingmapas today. It is the assemblage of thousands of rare terma texts from all across Tibet by Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye, and Chogyur Dechen Lingpa in the 19th century.
Mipham Jamyang Gyatso (“Mipham the Great”) was born into an aristocratic family in 1846 in Kham, a province of eastern Tibet. His name, Mipham Gyatso, means “Unconquerable Ocean,” and as a scholar and meditator he was so accomplished that he was enthroned as an emanation of the Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom. As such, he was asked to compose a definitive articulation of the philosophical outlook of the Nyingma lineage. This had never been systematized in the manner of the other four lineages and, as a result, was vulnerable to attack by hostile scholars.
As requested, Mipham Rinpoche composed authoritative works on both the Sutra and Vajrayana teachings as understood in the Nyingma tradition, writing particularly extensively on dzogchen. He is said to have composed these vast works effortlessly. They reinvigorated and revitalized the Nyingma lineage enormously, and he soon became one of the most renowned lamas in Tibet, attracting disciples from all traditions, many of whom became lineage holders. Mipham's works have become the foundation of study for not only the Nyingma lineage, but the Kagyu lineage as well. They hold a central position in all Nyingma monasteries and monastic colleges. Along with Longchenpa, he is considered the source of the Nyingma doctrine.
Tradition has held that there are six monasteries known as "mother monasteries" of the Nyingma lineage, although there have been slightly different formulations of the six. At one time they included Dorje Drak, Mindroling monastery and Palri monastery in Upper Tibet; and Kathok, Palyul and Dzogchen monasteries in Lower Tibet. After the decline of Chongye Palri Thegchog Ling monastery and the flourishing of Shechen, the mother monasteries became Dorje Drag and Mindroling in the upper region, Shechen and Dzogchen in the center, and Kathok and Palyul in the lower part of Tibet. Dodrubchen is often substituted for Kathok in the list. Out of these "main seats of the Nyingma" developed a large number of Nyingma monasteries throughout Tibet, Bhutan and Nepal.
Authentic contemporary Nyingma teachers include His Holiness Thinley Norbu Rinpoche, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, His Holiness Penor (Pema Norbu) Rinpoche, Chogyal Namkhai Norbu, filmmaker Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche (son of H.H. Thinley Norbu Rinpoche), Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche, Tarthang Tulku Rinpoche, Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo, Terton Orgyen Kusum Lingpa, Sogyal Rinpoche, Palden Sherab Rinpoche, Khenpo Sherab Sangpo, Chamtrul Rinpoche and Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche, among others.