The history of Buddhism starts with Shakyamuni Buddha in India. After that time his teachings were transmitted in an unbroken transmission within India. In the 8th and 12th centuries the Buddhist teachings were transmitted from India to Tibetan masters who spread those teachings across Tibet.
It is important to have some understanding of the history of Buddhism, particularly if we are considering taking someone as a personal spiritual master and following one of the Buddhist traditions. To have confidence in a teacher, we must know about his or her lineage of teachings.
The Sakya Tradition
The Sakya school has a very rich history, having both Indian and Tibetan antecedents. The school’s actual commencement dates from the establishment of the Dharma centre founded in 1074 at Sakya in southwest Tibet by Konchok Gyalpo of the Khön family.
This dynasty who remain at the centre of the school today were practitioners of the Nyingma teachings who became attracted to the new tantric teachings of Drogmi Lotsowa and Gayadhara. They embraced the Hevajra tantra in particular. Subsequently Konchok Gyalpo’s son Kunga Nyingpo was the first of the five Great Masters. He was known as the “Great Sakyapa”. He seems to have received every sutra and tantra teaching available and to have preserved such Nyingma teachings as Vajrakilaya.
Hence from him come five principle streams: Vajrakilaya, Hevajra, Guhyasamaja, Vajrayogini and Mahakala, plus an extraordinary profusion of teachings beyond that. These were passed onto his two sons, Sonam Tsemo and Drakpa Gyaltsen, and then onto Sakya Pandita.
Sakya Pandita was even more learned than his predecessors and a major figure in the history of Buddhism. He mastered all the texts and tantras, plus many philosophical teachings such as Indian logic and secular studies such as poetry and arts. The Khöns were not monastics, but preserved the teachings by family transmission. However Sakya Pandita was a monk and thus brought monasticism to the Sakyas, and following him the majority of Sakya practitioners became monks or nuns.
The Khön dynasty almost immediately reverted to marrying and so the tradition that the head of the Sakyas be a married Khön was maintained. However outside of the Khön family there were relatively few lay masters.
The fifth great Sakyapa was Chogyal Phakpa, the nephew of Sakya Pandita. He brought Buddhism to Mongolia by the conversion of Kublai Khan, who was an excellent leader and student. The offering he gave in exchange for the initiation of Hevajra was Tibet. Hence the Kingship of Tibet was resumed, and was in the hands of the Sakya school for 75 years.
The Sakya school has enjoyed the dual reputation of tantric masters and scholars, and is renowned for its cultivation in all areas. The two subsects are the Ngorpa subsect of the late 14th century, established by Ngorchen Kunga Zangpo, the lamdre master who founded the Ngor monastery, and the Tsharpa school emerging in the 16th century, established by Tsarchen Losal Gyamtso.