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Why is Nyingma Important?

The question may be asked, why is Nyingma worth protecting?  Does this ancient path have any value for those in the West in these modern times?

Lord Buddha Shakyamuni lived over 2,500 years ago in what is now India and Nepal.  Seeing the suffering of the world, he sought out and discovered a way to end this suffering that is endured by all sentient beings, the suffering of continuous death and rebirth since time out of mind with no hope of escape.  He spent the majority of his life teaching this path, and after his life was over, those disciples remembered his teachings and passed them down from generation to generation.  Eventually all the major schools and traditions of Buddhism that we see in the world today were developed.  All trace their roots to the Buddha.

During his lifetime, the Buddha is said to have turned the Wheel of Dharma (the teachings) three times.  First he taught the Four Noble Truths of suffering, the cause of suffering, the ending of suffering, and the path leading to the end of suffering.  These teachings form the basis of the Theravadan schools of Buddhism.  In the second turning of the Wheel he taught the perfection of wisdom, or the Prajña Paramita, which formed the basis of the Mahayana schools of Buddhism.  In the final turning of the Wheel, he taught the doctrine of absolute truth.

The word Nyingma means “The Ancient Ones” in Tibetan.  It belongs to the Vajrayana (Diamond Vehicle) tradition of Buddhism, what Robert Beer called “the ultimate flowering of Indian Buddhist culture.”  It first appeared in India in the 4th Century c.e., but it was taught by the Buddha himself to King Indrabodhi of Oddiyana (located in what is now the Swat Valley of Pakistan).  This profound teaching was kept secret as the Buddha considered that the time was not yet ripe for it to appear in the world.  Ati Yoga, the highest tantra (teachings of the Buddha on Vajrayana), was first taught by Garab Dorje, who was also born in Oddiyana.  He then passed the teachings on to his student, Mañjushrimitra, and down through a series of masters to Padmasambhava.

The Buddha prophesied in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra that there would come a time in the future when he would emanate to teach Vajrayana and that he would be born in a lake.  This prophecy was fulfilled by the birth of Padmasambhava (the Lotus-Born) who is said to have been born from a lotus on Lake Dhanakosha in Oddiyana five years after the passing of the Buddha.

Padmasambhava is considered by all Buddhists who live in the Himalayan regions to be the Second Buddha and is called Guru Rinpoche (Precious Teacher) because it was he who brought Vajrayana to Tibet and surrounding countries in the 7th Century c.e.  After pacifying Tibet, he and Shantarakshita built the first monastery in Tibet, Samye.  Under Padmasambhava, the great translators Vimalamitra and Vairotsana carried out the translations of most Buddhist teachings and tantras.  The inner tantras were transmitted in two ways, either directly from master to student, or in the form of terma, teachings hidden by Padmasambhava and his Tibetan consort, Yeshe Tsogyal, to be revealed at a later time when the circumstances were right.

The Vajrayana tradition flowered in Tibet and surroundings countries, such as Mongolia, Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan, producing many great masters.  The Nyingma School, however, was not formally organized until after the reign of King Langdarma in the 9th Century c.e., who brutally suppressed Buddhism in Tibet.  During his reign, many teachers took off their robes and married so that they would be spared from the repression.  This is where the tradition of lay teachers comes from in the Nyingma School.

Apart from Samye, no Nyingma monasteries were built until the 12th Century c.e.  One of the first monasteries to be built was the Nechung Monastery, home to the Nechung Oracle, who remains the State Oracle of Tibet.  During the next few centuries the six main lineages that make up Nyingma were formed at their respective mother monasteries, Mindroling and Dorje Drak in upper Tibet, Shechen and Dzogchen in central Tibet, and Kathok and Palyul in lower Tibet.

The Nyingma produced some of the greatest scholars of Tibetan Buddhism, including Rongzom Pandita (1022-1088), Longchenpa (1308-1363), Jigme Lingpa (1730-1798), and Ju Mipham (1846-1912).  The tradition survived the diaspora after the Chinese takeover of Tibet in the 1950s and continues to produce such eminent Buddhist scholars and teachers as His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche, His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, His Holiness Chatral Rinpoche, Kyabje Thinley Norbu Rinpoche, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, Sogyal Rinpoche, Tarthang Tulku Rinpoche, His Holiness Penor Rinpoche, Venerable Gyaltrul Rinpoche, and many others, most of whom are well-known in the West.

These latter masters, displaced by the vagaries of politics and karma, have, in their great kindness, utilized their displacement from their homeland as an opportunity to share their precious path with those outside of Tibet who have been so hungry for it.  Perhaps even more importantly, Nyingma tulkus (reincarnate lamas) now being discovered in the West – including the enthronement of the first Western female tulku, Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo – making the precious Dharma available to millions who would have never heard it otherwise and in their own idiom.

Nyingma is a pure tradition extending directly back to Lord Buddha himself that gives each of us the opportunity to discover our own true nature and experience the end of suffering for ourselves.  It is a tradition that accommodates the passage of time and change and that always remains fresh and relevant to our lives.  That is why Nyingma is worth protecting, for without it we would still be wandering lost in the endless cycle of death and rebirth.

References:

A Brief History of the Nyingma, http://www.nyingma.com/nyingma%20History.htm

Tantric Art, Then and Now, by Robert Beer. Tricycle Spring 2005.

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