Statue of Buddha Shakyamuni at Sakya Monastery, Tibet
Buddha Shakyamuni, commonly known as Prince Siddhartha, manifested spiritual enlightenment over twenty-five centuries ago in ancient India, following his diligent efforts to solve the suffering of living beings. Out of compassion and to suit the abilities of different students, the Buddha gave extensive and varied teachings. Among the Buddha’s teachings are the sutras and tantras. The sutras primarily contain the explanation of 1) the four noble truths on suffering, its cause, the cessation of suffering, and the path to cessation; 2) the perfection of wisdom on the true nature of self and phenomena; and 3) finally, the definitive principle that every sentient being has the same inherent nature as the Buddha. Based on this definitive principle, the tantras describe spiritual practices that can lead to enlightenment in one lifetime. The Buddha’s advanced teachings, and especially the tantras, were not conferred in an ordinary way to the public. Rather, they were conferred to students of superior qualities and, at appropriate times, introduced to human beings, such as the eighty-four mahasiddhas of India and Nepal.
Statues of Bodhisattva Manjushri and Choje Sakya Pandita at Sakya Monastery, Tibet
The Sakya lineage is one of the main Tibetan Buddhist traditions and upholds the teachings of both sutra and tantra. It is led by an unbroken hereditary line of spiritual masters. This family is known by three names: Lha Rig, Khon, and Sakya. The family was first known as Lha Rig, meaning celestial race, because its ancestors descended from the clear light heavens to the high mountains of Tibet. The family later became known as Khon, meaning dispute or strife, after a family member defeated a harmful being in a dispute and then had a son with his opponent’s former wife. The inner meaning of Khon is defeating ignorance. The Khon family thus has this special quality of spiritual wisdom.
Centuries later, in 1073 C.E., Khon Konchog Gyalpo founded Sakya Monastery in central Tibet. Sakya, meaning pale earth, was given its name due to the color of the ground by the monastery. Guru Padmasambhava and Atisha foretold this location as a holy center where the Buddha Dharma would flourish. In accordance with Atisha’s prophecy, the Sakya family lamas are regarded as emanations of Avalokiteshvara (the embodiment of Buddha’s compassion), Vajrapani (the embodiment of Buddha’s power), or especially Manjushri (the embodiment of Buddha’s wisdom).
Sachen Kunga Nyingpo
In the eighth century, the Khon family became students of Guru Padmasambhava, the master who facilitated Buddhism’s establishment in Tibet. Guru Padmasambhava primarily oversaw the translation of tantras from Sanskrit to Tibetan, and the abbot Shantarakshita primarily oversaw the translation of sutras. At this time, a Khon family member was ordained as one of the first seven monks in all of Tibet. For the next several generations, the Khon family upheld practices of the old translation school.
In the eleventh century, Khon Konchog Gyalpo sought to revitalize the Buddha Dharma after witnessing public laxity in spiritual practice. He therefore requested newly translated tantras from Drogmi Lotsawa, who had studied Sanskrit and received authentic teachings from masters of India and Nepal. Having received these new teachings and founded Sakya Monastery, Khon Konchog Gyalpo established the Sakya order as its own Buddhist tradition.
Lopon Sonam Tsemo (l) and Jetsun Dragpa Gyaltsen (r)
Khon Konchog Gyalpo’s son Sachen Kunga Nyingpo studied with the greatest masters of his day and received many sutra and tantra teachings. The Sakya lineage was then held under the successive leadership of Lopon Sonam Tsemo, Jetsun Dragpa Gyaltsen, Choje Sakya Pandita, and Drogon Chogyal Phagpa. Together with Sachen Kunga Nyingpo, these subsequent masters are known as the five founding fathers of the Sakya lineage. Each was renowned for his exceptional qualities, authored many treatises, and achieved success in both spiritual and temporal affairs. Sakya Pandita and Chogyal Phagpa tutored the Mongol Khans and were granted political rule over Tibet. From the thirteenth to fourteenth century, the Sakya clan oversaw Tibet’s temporal affairs and worked to ensure a peaceful era.
Similar to other Buddhist schools, sub-traditions of the Sakya emerged in Tibet. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the sub-traditions established outside of Sakya Monastery were the Ngor by the abbot Ngorchen Kunga Zangpo, the Tsar by Tsarchen Losal Gyatso, and the Dzongpa by Dorjedenpa Thumi Kunga Namgyal.
Choje Sakya Pandita (l) and Drogon Chogyal Phagpa (r)
Over the centuries, many other Sakya practitioners illuminated Tibet. Buton Rinchen Drub, for example, was one of Tibet’s notable scholars and historians. Also, the masters known as the six ornaments of Tibet were renowned Sakya practitioners: Yagton Sangye Pal and Rongton Sheja Kunrig were reputed for their mastery of the sutras. Ngorchen Kunga Zangpo and Dzongpa Kunga Namgyal were highly learned in the tantras and, as already mentioned, established sub-traditions of Sakya. Gorampa Sonam Senge and Shakya Chogden were highly learned in both the sutras and tantras and known for their philosophical expositions.
In the nineteenth century, the celebrated master of Dzongsar monastery, Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, co-founded Tibet’s nonsectarian movement. He collected, systemized, and authored numerous teachings that are practiced in Sakya monasteries and other Buddhist schools.