The Nyingma sect of Tibetan Buddhism is the oldest amongst the four schools and the second largest after Gelugpa sect. Nyingma in Tibetan means “ancient” and has roots going back to the 8th century when the indigenous Bon religion was strongly adhered to by Tibetans. The Nyingma sect is also known as the Red Hat sect because its Lamas wear red robes and hats. Its teachings are mainly based on those of Padmasambhava, called Guru Rinpoche and Shantarakshita who were brought to Tibet through the rule of the Emperor Trisong Detsen from 742 to 797 CE.
History of Nyingma School
In the 7th century, Buddhism found its way to Tibet when the Tibetan King, Songtsen Gampo, married the Chinese Princess, Wen Cheng. The Princess had brought along her Buddha statue which is today preserved at Jokhang Temple in Lhasa. Later on in the 8th century, when Tibetans preferred their Bon religion, the King, on advice of the scholar-monk Master Shantarakshita, brought the great Padmasambhava to drive away the demons hampering the introduction of Buddhism in Tibet. By the middle of the 9th century, Buddhism was widely spread in the region. A large collection of Buddhist scriptures were translated into Tibetan and the Samye Monastery was built around 779 CE. Up to the 11th century, Nyingma was the sole sect of Buddhism in Tibet. It is the only sect In Tibetan Buddhism that did not assume political power.
Six Mother Monasteries of Nyingma
Between the 9th and 11th centuries, many Nyingma monasteries were built across Tibet. The six mother monasteries include Ugyen Mindrolling Monastery, Thupten Dorje Drak Monastery, and Zhechen Tenyi Dhargye Ling Monastery in Upper Tibet and Palyul Namgyal Jangchup Ling Monastery, Kathok Monastery, and Dzogchen Ugyen Samten Chooling Monastery in Lower Tibet. Many subsidiary monasteries were also built from these main temples across Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan.
Teachings of the Nyingma Sect
Buddhist teachings are classified into nine yanas with ‘Dzogchen’ being most important. Dzogchen (Great Perfection) philosophy revolves around pure awareness which can be achieved through meditation and learned from a Dzogchen master. This Vajrayana tradition involves use of ritual, symbols and tantric practices to achieve nirvana. Therefore Nyingma stresses on teachings attributed to Padmasambhava, the Dzogchen doctrines as well as Tantric practices.
The Nyingma School is also associated with Termas (hidden treasures). When Buddhism was declining during the rule of king Langdarma, Padmasambhava and his disciples hid numerous scriptures, ritual objects and relics in caves and rocks on mountains. Over time, when they were discovered by Tertons (treasure revealers) either physically or revealed to their mind (Mind Terma), the teachings were compiled into Rinchen Terdzo, a multi-volume book.