The founder of the Buddhist religion, or Dharma, was Buddha Shakyamuni. ‘Shakya’ is the name of the royal family into which he was born, and ‘Muni’ means ‘Able One’. He was born a royal prince in northern India in the 7th century BCe, and given the name Siddhartha. At the age of 29 Prince Siddhartha renounced his kingdom and, turning to the life of a forest monk, meditated for six years until he achieved full enlightenment, or Buddhahood.
For forty years after his enlightenment, Buddha travelled throughout India and, motivated by great compassion, taught the meaning of what he had achieved and how to achieve it. It is said that during this period he gave 84,000 different teachings according to the different mental and spiritual capacity and inclination of those attending his teachings.
Buddhadharma then gradually flourished throughout much of Asia, and was first introduced into Tibet during the reign of King Songtsen Gampo (ca. 616-650 Ce), although it was not until the reign of King Trisong Detsen (ca. 754-798 Ce) that it flourished through the activities of Shantarakshita, Padmasambhava and other Indian Buddhist teachers. King Trisong Detsen first invited the renowned Buddhist teacher Shantarakshita to Tibet, but Shantarakshita soon met with opposition from many of the King’s ministers who were followers of the Bön religion, and he was forced to leave for a while. Before he left he advised the king to invite another famous Indian master, the great Tantric practitioner Padmasambhava. Padmasambhava was able to pacify the non-Buddhist spirits of Tibet, thus removing the obstacles to the spread of Buddha’s Mahayana and Vajrayana teachings throughout the country. The tradition that developed from this first dissemination of Buddhism in Tibet and which traces its origins to translations of scriptures produced at this time is called the ‘Nyingma’ or ‘Old Tradition’.
The work of King Trisong Detsen, Padmasambhava and Shantarakshita, however, was soon undone by the anti-Buddhist King Lang Darma, who reigned from 838 to 842. Lang Darma destroyed Buddhist temples, closed monasteries and forced monks and nuns to disrobe, executing those who refused. In this way he eradicated all forms of organised Buddhist practice from Tibet. Lang Darma’s persecutions eventually led to his own death; while watching a theatrical performance he was killed by an arrow shot by a Buddhist monk pretending to be one of the actors.
Although Buddhism gradually returned to Tibet, it was not until over a hundred years later that it began to flourish again there. One of the key figures in this second dissemination was Atisha (ca. 982- 1054), another famous Indian Buddhist scholar and meditation master. Atisha was largely responsible for the re-establishment of Buddhism in Tibet, and his special presentation of Buddhist teachings, called the ‘stages of the path to enlightenment’ (Lamrim in Tibetan), attracted such interest and devotion that the dominance of Buddhism in Tibetan society was never threatened again. His tradition later became known as the ‘Kadampa Tradition’. The followers of Atisha, known as Kadampa Geshes, were not only great scholars but also spiritual practitioners of immense purity and sincerity.
At the same time, through the extraordinary works of other great Tibetan masters, including Marpa the Translator (1012-1097); his disciple the famous Yogi Milarepa (1052-1135); and Milarepa’s disciple Gampopa (1079-1153), also a practitioner of Kadam Dharma, the Kagyu Tradition was established.
The Sakya Tradition was established by Gonchok Gyelpo (1034- 1102) who founded Sakya Monastery in 1073. One of the greatest masters of this lineage, Sakya Pandita (1182-1251), was invited to Mongolia in 1244 by the Mongolian Prince Godan, grandson of Genghis Khan. Sakya Pandita was able to spread Buddhism throughout Mongolia, and Prince Godan in turn established the Sakya lineage as the dominant political force in Tibet at that time. The Sakya, Kagyu, Kadam and later Gelug traditions all follow the translations of Tantric scriptures made during this second dissemination of Buddhism into Tibet, and are thus referred to in Tibetan as ‘Sarma’ or ‘New Traditions’.
The institution of the Dalai Lama belongs to the Gelug (or Ganden) Tradition, which was founded by Je Tsongkhapa (1357-1419). The Gelug Tradition arose as a reformation of the original or ‘old’ Kadampa Tradition founded by Atisha; the Gelug practitioners (‘Gelugpas’) sometimes being called ‘New Kadampas’. Je Tsongkhapa’s legacy to Tibet is a very pure and special way of practising Buddha’s teachings. Its source is the Kadam Emanation Scripture, which was transmitted directly to Je Tsongkhapa by the Wisdom Buddha Manjushri. The tradition that developed from this is known as the Ganden Oral Lineage.
The early masters who upheld this tradition, including the first four Dalai Lamas, led exemplary lives of pure practice and selfless devotion to the welfare of others.