Buddhism, Vajrayana and Lineages

Buddha’s Search for Truth

Before attaining enlightenment, Buddha Shakyamuni was known as Prince Siddhartha. He grew  up sheltered from the outside world and all signs of suffering. As royalty, he was constantly surrounded by the pleasures of his time but, despite this privilege, contentment evaded his heart. When he grew older he secretly travelled beyond the palace walls and experienced his first exposure to the sufferings of sickness, old age and death. Back within palace walls he could not forget what he saw, discontent continued to grow and he developed a deep renunciation for worldly life. At the age of 29, still yearning for an answer that would take him beyond suffering, he crept away from the palace and left behind everything he had known, even his son, Rahula, and beloved wife, Yasodhara. 

Prince Siddhartha’s quest led him to study with different Masters from the many traditions of his time. Though he learnt much, none provided the lasting solution he was seeking. As his questions continued to burn inside him, he tried the practice of asceticism, submitting himself to such extreme deprivations that his body was reduced to a skeleton. In this depleted state, he was offered a milk and rice pudding by a milkmaid named Sujata. He accepted the nourishment and in this act turned his back on asceticism as a path to lasting happiness.

Siddhartha next internalised the focus of his quest. He made a seat of kusha grass under the Bodhi Tree, near present day Bodhgaya in India, vowing to remain there until he unveiled the answer he sought. Entering into deep meditation, he saw clearly the workings of the mind and noticed a deep truth. He found that the solution to the suffering of life relies on the mind itself and not any external creator or god nor on changing any phenomena itself. All night he used his stable and profound insight to allow the workings of the mind to ebb and flow without reaction. Clarity, bliss and compassion grew as he rested in mind’s natural state rather than engaging and attaching or rejecting the turbulence. In this way the various patterns, or maras, that invade mind’s natural state, were subdued. At dawn, the earth shook as he became the Buddha, the Awakened One.

I have found a Dharma like ambrosia, deep, peaceful, simple, uncompounded, radiant. If I explain it no-one will understand, So I shall stay here silent in the forest.

Shakyamuni Buddha

A note from Khandro Thrinlay Chodon:

Buddha did not try to explain his realisation because he had gone beyond all conceptualisation. His awakened understanding was simple and vast — utterly beyond the grasp of an ordinary intellectual, dualistic mind. Afflictions take the mind away from this deep inner truth, and once they are overcome, all is beyond disturbance. Emotions and conceptual thoughts constantly overtake and trap us, keeping us from our innate stability and spaciousness. Usually we are not resting in the nature of mind – rather we rely on fabricated appearance, we become complicated and trapped in our karmic patterning and remain ignorant of our true uncontrived child-like natural state.

Turning the Wheel of Dharma

For seven weeks Shakyamuni Buddha remained silent until, at the fervent request of the gods Indra and Bhrama, he gave his first teaching on the truth he had learnt. This teaching, which is known as ‘the first turning of the wheel of dharma’, was given in Deer Park, near Varanasi, India, to a small audience of his former ascetic companions who then became his first five disciples. This first turning of the wheel of dharma resulted in the Hinayana (Lesser Vehicle) school of teachings. These are the foundational teachings of Buddhism, and they focus on how individual practitioners may awaken from this trap of ignorance and save themselves from the endless suffering of cyclic existence (also known as Samsara).

The Buddha turned the wheel of dharma for a second time on Vulture Peak in Rajagriha, Bihar, India. These teachings resulted in the Mahayana (Greater Vehicle). The emphasis of these teachings is the seeking of liberation for the benefit of all beings. These practices, known also as the path of the Bodhisattva, skilfully cut the falsity of self cherishing by focusing on the interconnectedness of all. One develops the truth of compassion thus placing interconnectedness at the fore of every intention and action.

Vajrayana Buddhism

The third turning of the wheel of dharma resulted in the Vajrayana (Diamond Vehicle). This was an oral tradition practiced in secret because of alchemical-like transformations that occur when Guru and disciple connect their heart-minds in deep devotion, surrendering to the ultimate nature of reality. Within this context, Vajrayana uses a variety of skilful, tantric practices related to  the ultimate nature of reality to transform the everyday world view.

It has at its base the path of Hinayana and Mahayana, however for certain devoted students it adds a transformational, very direct path to become free from suffering. Easily misunderstood, this path does seems to be popular in this era due to its directness, yet as Buddha showed, the simple direct truth is not easily known or taught. It is to Vajrayana Buddhism that the tradition of Togden Shakya Shri belongs. 

The 84 Mahasiddhas

In the 8th century Vajrayana Buddhism was spreading quickly in India. It represented a fresh approach to the Buddhist path, characterised by a simple life of devoted practice rather than institutional discipline and intellectual studies. Its practitioners were called siddhas and the greatest of them were known as the 84 Mahasiddhas. They came from all walks of life – only one of the 84 Mahasiddas was an ordained practitioner, the rest were lay – ranging from persons of high status, to vagabonds, cigarette sellers and fishermen. For some, their practice was hidden while others expressed their realisation by behaving in very unconventional ways. The Mahasiddhas were not only renowned for their accomplishment but as teachers who led others to enlightenment and established lineages of practice.

One such Indian Mahasiddha, Padmasambhava (also known to devotees as Guru Rinpoche), introduced Vajrayana to the Himalayan Kingdom of Tibet in the 8th century where it became the predominant strain of Buddhism. In common with many of the Mahasiddhas, stories of his life are filled with miraculous acts and the ability to pacify beings from other realms. 

The Mahasiddha tradition continued to flourish in India until the 12th century. Vajrayana practitioners from Tibet sought to study from them. In the 11th century one such Tibetan, named Marpa travelled to India many times for this purpose. Marpa studied for years with one of the 84 Indian Mahasiddhas, Naropa. This connection is the root of the Kagyu lineage. This lineage continues in its purity through Milarepa and subsequent lineage Masters. The tradition of Togden Shakya Shri continues from this same root through to his grandson, Kyabje Apho Rinpoche and today’s Masters of this tradition.

Nyingma and Drukpa Lineages 

The lineages that were established in the Himalayas by Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche) are collectively known as Nyingma, which translates as the ‘Early’ or ‘Ancient’ School. The ‘Sarma’ or ‘New Schools’ were founded on later transmissions and these became known as Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug. Together these are the four main lineages of Himalayan Vajrayana Buddhism.

Indian Mahasiddha Padmasambhava came to Tibet at the invitation of King Trisong Detsen on the advice of the monk Shantarakshita, who had himself been invited from India by the King to help subdue malevolent forces and establish Buddhism in Tibet. 

Facing numerous obstacles, Shantarakshita enlisted the help of Padmasambhava and together they subdued all negative forces, established the first monastery known as Samye, facilitated translations and firmly established the oral transmission tradition taught mostly by lay practitioners and continuing as the principal method for three centuries. Padmasambhava travelled through Tibet for 50 years, teaching, practicing and continuing to pacify the gross and subtle forces which were preventing the dharma from taking root. He hid teachings for future discovery and this became the root of the Nyingma tradition known as terma. He remains a figure who inspires devotion in millions to this day and is always revered especially in the Nyingma lineage.

The Drukpa lineage is one of the ‘Sarma’ or ‘New Schools’ that originated in the Himalayas in the 11th century through the whispered transmissions received from the Indian Mahasiddha Naropa. Naropa’s student Marpa taught Milarepa who passed it down to his most distinguished students, Rechungpa and Gampopa. All Kagyu lineages, including Drukpa, originate from this same line of transmission. The Drukpa lineage was founded in 1206 by Tsangpa Gyare, whose own Guru, Lingchen Repa, was taught by Rechungpa and Gampopa.

“Druk” in Tibetan means dragon. It also refers to the sound of thunder. The name of the lineage became Drukpa after Tsangpa Gyare witnessed nine dragons burst from the earth and soar into the skies at Namdruk. He became known as the First Gyalwang Drukpa. To this day in India the lineage continues and His Holiness the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa is Jigme Pema Wangchuk.

The Kingdom of Bhutan takes the name of Druk or Druk Yul, meaning “the Land of the Thunder Dragons”. Its history, past and present, is inextricably tied to the Drukpa lineage and its people are for this reason, called Drukpas. This came about in the 17th century, when Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (1594-1651), also an unmistaken incarnation of Tsangpa Gyare, travelled to Bhutan and united its warring regions into one unified country. He brought peace to Bhutan and become its revered spiritual and temporal leader, the First Shabdrung. The 9th Shabdrung of Bhutan who lived in exile in India was husband to the great grand daughter of Togden Shakya Shri and passed away in 2003. The lineage of Togden Shakya Shri strongly continues in Bhutan and all the sacred practices are held intact. The First King of Bhutan was a student of Togden Shakya Shri and it is to him we owe thanks for the only photo ever taken of this Master.

Khandro Thrinlay Chodon, being from the Shakya Shri family lineage and married to the 9th Shabdrung of Bhutan in exile, holds a very significant place from which to serve the Drukpas. Through marriage and family she is a link between its two prominent lines.

The contribution of Drubwang Shakya Shri’s life and teachings (1853-1919) makes him indispensable to the Drukpa lineage, in particular to its yogic tradition. He inspired people to continue and deepen the practice at a very critical time, and thus the lineage of Togden (Yogi) and Togdenma (Yogini) whether in Bhutan, Tibet, or the Indian Himalayas, can always be traced back to him.

Togden Shakya Shri trained and mastered both Nyingma and Kagyu paths of realisation. He discovered many termas (hidden treasures) rich in profound essential points of dharma. He is well known for his support of the Rime or non-sectarian approach – a movement brought together by he and his contemporaries. In particular Togden Shakya Shri is known for uniting the views of Mahamudra and Dzogchen. The respect offered him by many authentic Masters is characterised in this quote from one of the foremost Sakyapa Masters of that time.

The precious Togden of Drugu monastery is certainly a Master whose practice of the inner sense of the teaching is unmatched by those that these days call themselves Togden. He is a Master far superior to others.”

Jamyang Loter Wangpo

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