More than two and a half millennia ago in India, a prince named Siddhartha Gautama set out on a quest for truth and freedom. When he reached his goal of full and final awakening, he became known as the Buddha, the fully awakened one.
He began teaching a small group of fellow contemplatives, summarising his discovery in four truths that formed the bedrock of his vast and profound teaching:
There is suffering;
There is a source of suffering;
There is a cessation of suffering;
There is a path to the cessation of suffering.
With this first “turning of the Wheel of Dharma,” the Buddha encouraged individual investigation into the nature of reality rather than an abstract faith, directing a pragmatic trust in the individual potential to reach the same understanding and freedom that he had discovered. The cultivation of this path can be categorized into development of view, meditation and conduct, which is why Buddhism encompasses study, contemplative practice and ethics.
The Buddha called what he realised and the teachings that point to its realisation “the Dharma,” and the order of realised and representative practitioners that came after him “the Sangha”. A Buddhist is one who goes for refuge to these three - the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha - and in so doing aims to live in accord with the law of karma (intentional actions that produce related effects) by committing to non-violence.
With the Buddha’s second and third turnings of the Wheel of Dharma, the great vehicle of the Mahayana emerged in which the goal is expanded from that of individual liberation to universal enlightenment. In recognizing that afflictive emotions and even the subtlest mental obscurations are not inherent to the mind and so can be purified, the aspiring Bodhisattva practices to ripen the seed of the Buddha-nature that all being possess, optimizing the greatest human potential for the benefit of all. For that reason, the Mahayana tradition is built on Buddhism’s foundations of non-violence with a greater emphasis on actively benefiting others.
From its early origins in India and Nepal, Buddhism spread through Asia and took root in Tibet, where the esoteric tradition of the Mahayana became prevalent, known as the Vajrayana or tantric Buddhism. Motivated by altruism, a Vajrayana practitioner uses sophisticated meditation processes learnt from a qualified Guru to quicken the development of the merit and wisdom necessary for full awakening.
In Tibet, several traditions of Buddhism emerged that uphold the monastic order of the Sangha, the “Middle Way” philosophy and education system of India’s Nalanda University, the special mind-training teachings for awakening great compassion, and the tantric teachings of the Vajrayana. The Sakya is one such tradition that preserves some of the earliest teachings to have been transmitted to Tibet by pioneers like Padmasambhava as well as those of the Buddhist renaissance that began in the eleventh century.