Nyingma (Wylie: rnying ma) (meaning "Ancient Teaching") is one of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Members of the Nyingma school (called Nyingmapas) are renowned in Tibet for their powerful meditation techniques (most importantly Dzogchen), and for their commitment to the path of the yogi, who spends his or her life in material poverty, meditating in isolated caves and wandering from place to place. They were also crucial to the nineteenth century ecumenical Rimé ("non-sectarian," also spelt Ri-me) movement that sought to preserve endangered traditions while reducing the sectarian tensions between members of all schools of Tibetan Buddhism. They continue to thrive in both the Tibetan exile community, as well as in western nations, where they have established numerous monasteries and temples.



Nyingma traces its lineage back to the Indian yogi Garab Dorje (eighth century C.E.), who was the son of a Buddhist nun, who abandoned him to the elements at birth. When she returned days later and found him to still be alive, she believed that he must be a special child and decided to raise him. He went into retreat at a young age for 32 years, during which time it is said that Samantabhadra (the “primordial Buddha” in the Nyingma tradition) initiated him into various tantras and Dzogchen. Garab Dorje would pass these teachings on to Manjushrimitra (c. eighth century C.E.), who would in turn pass them on to Buddhajnanapada, who would initiate the legendary Padmasambhava, with whom they were carried into Tibet (Ray, Indestructible Truth, 105-106).

The teachings and practices that would become the Nyingma (Ancient Teaching) school came to Tibet during the “first dissemination” (seventh-ninth century C.E.), but did not solidify into a school until several hundred years later. Before pressure from other schools caused them to create a group identity, they simply referred to themselves as nang-pa (insiders), meaning that they were followers of the Buddha-dharma (Ray, Indestructible Truth, 103).

In Tibet, the chögyel (religious king) Trisong Detsen (c. 742-798 C.E.) invited the renowned monk-scholar Sāntarakshita (c. 705-788) to Tibet in 763 C.E. to teach the dharma and supervise the building of Samyé, the first monastery in Tibet (located near Lhasa). Tibetan history records that a number of natural disasters occurred, preventing any progress on construction. Many Tibetans at the time interpreted these as signs from the local deities that they were not in favor of Buddhism, and local priests of the Bön tradition argued that the construction of the monastery be stopped. Sāntarakshita advised the king to invite a renowned tantric practitioner, Padmasambhava (c. eighth century C.E.) to come to Tibet to pacify the deities. He was successful and he, Trisong Detsen, and Santarakshita oversaw the ordination of the first seven Tibetan monks when the monastery was completed in 775 (Mitchell, 152).

Padmasambhava would come to be seen by Nyingmapas as a “second Buddha” and their root guru, affectionately referring to him as “Guru Rinpoche” (precious teacher). Followers believe that he still interacts with the world in numerous sambhoga-kāya and nirmāna-kāya forms, most notably by the continual revealing of teachings in the form of Terma treasures (see below).

Under the religious kings, Buddhism subsequently flourished in Tibet, until Relbachen (reigned 815-836 C.E.) was assassinated by two of his ministers, and was replaced by Lang Darma (reigned 838-842 C.E.). The new king began a period of harsh repression of Buddhism and brought to an end to the first dissemination period. The Nyingma canon is distinctive among the four Tibetan schools, consisting predominantly of texts translated prior to the persecution, although they accept and study texts of the later spreading as well.

The nang-pas would remain an amorphous group until Longchen Rapjampa (1308-1363 C.E.) (also known as Longchenpa) brought them together into a unified whole as a response to pressure from second dissemination schools who were arguing their superiority as fresh transmissions from the motherland of Buddhism. They also argued that their new translations were of higher technical quality than the first dissemination teachings that comprised the Nyingma canon. However, Longchenpa, a prolific scholar, countered that the first dissemination texts were in fact superior because, while not as technically correct, they derived from realized masters who had done a better job of transmitting the inner meaning of the canon. Longchenpa was also an accomplished yogi, spending years of his life in retreat, wandering throughout eastern Tibet, and he eschewed institutionalizing the tradition. This stance was maintained until the seventeenth century, when persecution from the Geluk school would lead them to begin building monasteries. Longchenpa embodied what would become the defining characteristics of the tradition: an intense devotion to Padmasambhava and other root gurus, a desire to receive instructions from realized masters of any school, an emphasis on Dzogchen as the heart of ones practice, and the importance of retreat practice removed from any comforts of society (Ray, Indestructible Truth, 112).

Nyingma masters would be key in the founding of the nineteenth century Rimé (non sectarian) movement. Most notable was Jamgön Mipham Rinpoche (1848-1912 C.E.), who was renowned as a master of the sciences, arts, and religious texts, and whose commentaries on these subjects are prized by members of all schools to the present day.

Since the Chinese invasion of 1949, Nyingma has continued to survive in both India and the west. A famous recent practitioner was Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (1910-1991 C.E.) who was one of the principal teachers of the fourteenth Dalai Lama.

Distinctive Practices

Terma and tertöns

The Nyingma school has a tradition unique among the world’s religions in which Terma (hidden treasures) that adherents claim were hidden by Padmasambhava in the earth, water, rock, or space (consciousness) in order to be found in later time periods, are discovered by tertöns at a time when they are required. These treasures can be valuable objects (which are meant to be sold for various activities, such as building monasteries), ritual objects, or texts written in the language of the dakinis. One well known example of a Terma text is the Bardo Thödol (Liberation Through Hearing During the In-between State), popularly known in the west as ''The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which was discovered by the Tertön Karma Lingpa in the fourteenth century C.E.

Tertöns are believed to be the emanations of bodhisattvas who manifested themselves as human beings in order to discover specific treasures. The tradition lists over one thousand tertöns, the most important of whom are considered to be the reincarnations of the 25 great disciples of Padmasambhava (Ray, Indestructible Truth, 114).

Nyingma has two distinct lineages: those tracing their roots back to the time of Padmasambhava, known as Kama (Wylie: bka’ma, “oral lineage”), and the Terma tradition. Students are typically initiated into both during the course of their practice.

Through the discovery of new texts, Nyingmapas believe their connection with their root guru, Padmasambhava, is continually renewed. This process of continuous revelation maintains the vitality of the school, as tertöns continue to find hidden treasures up to the present day.

The three lineages

In the Nyingma school, practices and teachings are divided into three lineages denoting their origins:

The first is the Hearing Lineage, which are derived from nirmāna-kāya (emanation body) teachers, such as the historical Buddha. It is the most commonly taught of the three, and is taught through the transmission of written texts (typically from the Nyingma Gyübum, a thirty three volume collection of tantric texts from the first dissemination) from teacher to student.

The second is the Sign Lineage, denotes those which originated with sambhoga-kāya teachers, such as celestial buddhas and bodhisattvas, and departed masters. These are passed from guru to disciple in the form of “nonverbal gestures and symbols” (Ibid, 118).

The third is the Thought Lineage, which has its source in teachings given by formless dharma-kāya buddhas, typically Samantabhadra in the Nyingma tradition. These are passed down through direct mind-to-mind transmission, and are the rarest of the three.

The nine yānas

The path to enlightenment is divided into nine yānas (vehicles), all of which are suited to students of diverse personalities and capacities. The first three are explained in detail to laypeople, while the latter six are only explained in depth to those initiated into their practices.

The first two vehicles refer to what Mahayāna practitioners typically refer to as the Hinayāna path – that of the shravakas (hearers) and pratyekabuddhas (solitary realizers) – who seek the individual liberation of nirvana. The third is the bodhisattva-yāna (also known as Mahāyāna, the gradual path of perfections (paramita) and stages (bhumi) in which one seeks enlightenment for the sake of others. These three are typically grouped together under the label of “Outer Yānas of Cause.”

The next three vehicles, kriyayoga-yāna, upayoga-yāna, and yoga-yāna, are Vajrayāna practices grouped together as “Outer Yānas of Result.” They introduce yidam (deity) practices that are intended to vastly reduce the number of lifetimes required to attain full buddhahood. These correspond directly to the Vajrayāna practices of action, performance, and yoga tantra respectively (Powers, 327).

The final three vehicles belong to the “Inner Yoga” set of practices, and are unique to the Nyingma tradition (although the first two are very similar to the mantra mahamudra of Kagyü).

The first, Mahayoga-yāna (Great Yoga Vehicle), focuses on the masculine principal, and is typically prescribed to advanced practitioners whose primary affliction is aggression. In this vehicle the student is taught to visualize themselves as a wrathful deity who embodies the crazy wisdom that cuts through all delusions with ferocity. As the Dzogchen Ponlop explains, in Mahayoga

... we cut through our basic duality of good and bad, our basic sense of ego-centered, discriminating mind. We get rid of all of our beautiful ornaments and clothes. Instead of wearing a beautiful silk blouse, at this point we wear something like animal skins… we wear a wild variety of clothing and ornaments and makeup… we reach this level where we can completely abandon all conceptual clinging and enter into a certain stage of Vajrayāna craziness. (Dzogchen Ponlop, 250)

Through the process of visualizing themselves as the deity and their environment as the sacred palace (mandala), a realization that all of our experience is simply a visualization (i.e. a projection of mind, see Yogacara) is believed to occur. Through this experience, they attain a deep insight into the empty (shunyata) nature of all phenomena, and thoroughly undermine grasping at the notion of a separate self.

The second, Anuyoga-yāna (After Yoga Vehicle), represents the feminine principal, and is directed at those most afflicted by passion. In this practice, visualization is no longer needed, and the practitioner works directly with the subtle energies of consciousness (the chakras, pranna, nadis, and bindu). The external appearances they took on in Mahayoga have served their purpose (undermining clinging to conventions), and are given up. Through the practices of Anu-yoga, passion is transmuted into selfless love, and becomes “the literal ‘fire’ of life and an utmost and completely egoless expression of the awakened state” (Ray, Indestructible Truth, 125).


The final and highest practice of the Nyingma school is Atiyoga-yāna (Primordial Yoga Vehicle), more commonly known as Dzogchen (Great Perfection). At this stage, those who are most afflicted by delusion can abandon the practices of the previous stages and directly experience rigpa (sometimes spelt “rikpa”), the primordial mind. Rigpa is said to have three qualities: emptiness, luminosity, and creativity (in the Kagyü school, the mind is said to have the first two characteristics). The Nyingmapas add on creativity (tsal) because “everything in the experience of samsara and nirvana comes from the creative aspect of the mind, in the sense of the mind being the producer of all kinds of experiences, both good and bad” (Traleg Kyabgon, 171-172). Students are introduced to rigpa through “pointing out” instructions, in which their teacher makes them aware of this mind that has, in fact, always been present, but up until that moment obscured by delusion.

The primary instructions for dzogchen practice, contained in the Three words that Strike to the Heart attributed to Garab Dorje, divide up the method into three parts, path, practice, and result:

  1. Recognize your essential nature (rigpa),
  2. Decide on one point (meditation, or resting of the mind in rigpa)
  3. Gain confidence in liberation (through resting in rigpa, thoughts are “self liberated”)
(Ray, Secret of the Vajra World, 308-312)

Dzogchen has two distinct phases to it. The first, trekchö, aims to bring about the ability to rest in emptiness, and the realization of the basic purity of all things (meaning they are free of any conceptualization, such as clean and unclean, good and bad, etc.). Sogyal Rinpoche explains that “Trekchö means cutting through delusion with fierce, direct thoroughness” (quoted in Ibid, 317). This practice is said to be the same as essence mahamudra (see Kagyü) in almost every way.

The second stage is thögal (leap-over), and is almost universally said by members of all schools of Tibetan Buddhism to be “the ultimate path within Buddhism and, indeed, the highest attainment that is possible to human beings” (Ibid, 318), as it beings about full buddhahood in one lifetime. Again, little is said about these practices because “there is a great danger of misunderstanding the path, the methods and the invitation [from the guru to awaken]” (Dzogchen Ponlop, 253).

Related topics


  • Dzogchen Ponlop. 2003. Wild Awakening: The Heart of Mahamudra and Dzogchen. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications. ISBN 1590300963
  • Mitchell, Donald W. 2002. Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195139526
  • Powers, John. 1995. Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications. ISBN 1559390263
  • Ray, Reginald. 2002. Indestructible Truth: the Living Spirituality of Tibetan Buddhism. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications. ISBN 1570629102
  • Ray, Reginald. 2002. Secret of the Vajra World: the Tantric Buddhism of Tibet. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications. ISBN 157062917X
  • Traleg Kyabgon. 2001. The Essence of Buddhism: An Introduction to its Philosophy and Practice. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications. ISBN 1570624682


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