Sakya literally means “pale earth” and refers to an auspicious plot of land in south-western Tibet that in 1073 became home to an entire tradition of Buddhism. Guided by an unbroken family lineage of revered spiritual leaders, the Sakya tradition integrates a rich system of study and practice.

The advent of Buddhism in Tibet began as early as the 5th century and by the 7th century it was the deemed the state religion. By 827, the first ordination of monks at the newly established Samye monastery in Yarlung valley by the pioneering scholar Shantarakshita took place and among the first seven monks to ordain was Nagendrarakshita, a member of the Khön family. Being distinguished Buddhist scholars and practitioners as well as direct disciples of Padmasambhava, Shantarakshita and Trisong Detsen, the Khön family members emerged as pillars of the early dissemination of Buddhism in Tibet.

By the eleventh century, members of the Khön family were instrumental in the renaissance of Buddhism in Tibet, establishing their base at Sakya, a place marked by a patch of pale earth as foretold by the Padmasambhava and Atisha, and the namesake for the new tradition they founded.

Maintaining several important practices entrusted to the Khön family by Padmasambhava, a new emphasis was given on the later transmission of Buddhist teachings to Tibet in Sakya, particularly the works of four great translators. Of these, the Lam-dre teaching (the Path that Includes the Result) that originated in India with the Mahasiddha Virupa and was first taught compressively in Tibet by Drogmi Lotsawa became the most important.

Drogmi Lotsawa

Of the Khön family members that established the Sakya tradition, Sachen Kunga Nyingpo (1092-158) is regarded as the first of the founding masters. A peerless master of the sutra and tantra teachings, he received the renowned mind-training teaching known as “Parting from the Four Forms of Clinging” from the Bodhisattva Manjushri at the age of twelve. He later received the teachings of the four great translators, such as the vast kriya tantra teachings from Bari Lotsawa Rinchen Dragpa (1040-1111), the Cakrasamvara and Naropa’s Vajrayogini teachings from Mal Lotsawa Lodro Dragpa, and the teachings of Lochen Rinchen Zangpo and others.

Sachen Kunga Nyingpo

Two of Sachen Kunga Nyingpo’s four sons and spiritual heirs, Lobpön Sönam Tsemo (1142-82) and Jetsun Dragpa Gyaltsen (1147-1216) are revered as the second and third founders respectively, having composed celebrated works that became vital in the Sakya tradition.

Lobpön Sönam Tsemo Jetsun Dragpa Gyaltsen

The fourth founder, Sachen Kunga Nyingpo’s grandson Kunga Gyaltsen Pal Zangpo (1182-1251), took full ordination as a monk from the Kashmiri scholar Shakyashribhadra and became the first Tibetan to earn the rank of a Mahapandita for his expertise. He thus became famed as Sakya Pandita, of the most important scholars in the development of Tibetan Buddhism. Through Sakya Pandita, a vigorous school of logic and reasoning took root in Tibet and a number of Indian sciences were introduced. His uncompromising emphasis on discriminative intelligence through rigorous intellectual standards was seminal and established the standard criteria for unbiased critical analysis and the development of knowledge in the whole Tibetan tradition of Buddhist education. Of his many brilliant works, “The Differentiation of the Three Vows”, “Illuminating the Muni’s Intent,” “The Treasury of Elegant Sayings” and “The Treasury of Reasoning and Valid Cognition” are the most well-known, the last of these being the only text of Tibetan origin to have been translated into Sanskrit, his reputation spreading like lightning throughout India as a result.

Sakya Pandita Kunga Gyaltsen

In 1253, the Mongolian emperor of China Kublai Khan (1215-1294) invited Sakya Pandita’s nephew Chögyal Phagpa Lodrö Gyaltsen (1235-1280) to his court. The great Khan not only took the fifth founder of Sakya as his Imperial Preceptor, he gave political rule of the thirteen myriarchies that made up Tibet to him. Although he spent most of his life in China, where he bestowed many teachings and ordinations to people of diverse backgrounds, he returned to Tibet in 1265 and appointed a governor and thirteen ministers to centralise the Tibetan government the model of a spiritual leader overseeing a centralised government with the policy of religious pluralism that lasted until 1949, although it only remained in Sakya for just over a century. During Chögyal Phagpa’s lifetime, the great temple (Lhakhang Chenmo) was built in Sakya and what became the greatest library in Tibet.

Chögyal Phagpa Lodrö Gyaltsen

By the time of Lama Dampa Sönam Gyaltsen (1312-1375), political rule shifted from Sakya but Lama Dampa consolidated all the teachings of the five founders and Sakya’s spiritual influence continued to flourish, most of the greatest masters of his day in all traditions receiving teachings from him. After Lama Dampa, “Six Ornaments” are revered in the development of the Sakya tradition: Yagtön Sangye Pal (1348-1414) and Rongtön Sheja Kunrig (1367-1449), expert in the sutras; Ngorchen Kunga Zangpo (1382-1456) and Dorje Denpa Kunga Namgyal (1432-1496), expert in the tantras; and Kunkhyen Gorampa Sönam Sengge (1429-1489) and Shakya Chogden (1428-1507), expert in both. It is also after Lama Dampa that the Ngorpa and Dzongpa sub-schools of Sakya and later the Tsarpa emerged, with major Sakya monasteries built in the Amdo, Kham, and Ü-Tsang regions of Tibet as well as other Himalayan areas and Mongolia.

Lama Dampa Sönam Gyaltsen

Although the Khön family is continued by the male progeny, the female members of the family, known as Jetsunmas, are also highly respected teachers in the tradition, many of whom have furthered the Sakya teachings.

During the time of the 22nd Sakya Throne Holder, Salo Jampai Dorje (1485-1533), who was a prolific author of Sakya teachings, political turmoil threatened the future of Sakya. However, due to the work initiated by him and carried out by his magnanimous nephew, the 23rd Sakya Throne Holder Ngagchang Kunga Rinchen (1517-1584), Sakya underwent a revival and its legacy was fully secured. After another period of unrest in the 17th century, the seat of power in Tibet shifted from Tsang to Lhasa and in forming a solid rapport with the new administration, the 27th Sakya Throne Holder, Jamgon Ameshab Kunga Sonam (1597-1659), who was an extraordinary polymath, peace envoy and spiritual master, aided Sakya’s continued development. Later, the 31st Sakya Throne Holder Sachen Kunga Lodrö (1729-1783) made tremendous efforts to preserve all the vast teachings of the tradition. His grandsons founded the two surviving branches of the Khön family in the 18th century named after their respective residences: the Dolma Phodrang and the Phuntsok Phodrang. Leadership of Sakya and its tradition has alternated between the two Phodrangs in more recent history.

Since 1959, the families of both Phodrangs have lived outside of Tibet. H.H. the 41st Sakya Trichen (b. 1945) re-established the Dolma Phodrang as well as many monasteries and nunneries in India, ensuring the continuation of the Sakya tradition and spreading its teachings across the globe. The Phuntsok Phodrang, headed by the late Jigdal Dagchen Dorje Chang (1929-2016), relocated to Seattle in the USA but later established a base in New Delhi with the Sakya Heritage Society.

Right: H.H. the 41st Sakya Trichen
Left: H.H. Jigdal Dagchen Dorje Chang

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