Early Mahayana

During the era of Early Buddhism, Mahayana was not a distinct school, but seems to have initially been a set of oral (i.e. unwritten) teachings—a Mahayanist lived in the same Sangha or Vihara as non-Mahayanists (or Sravakayanists), but studied and practiced an additional set of teachings. This accords with Blavatsky’s insistence that there was always an exoteric vs. esoteric division in Buddha’s teachings, i.e. that he taught his exoteric doctrines publicly, but reserved his esoteric doctrines for his more advanced disciples. Modern scholars suggest that the earliest Mahayana texts may have been put into writing in the Andhra region of India around the 1st century BCE, and brought north from there. Blavatsky similarly suggests that these texts were originally written in the 2nd century BCE. Thus, while the emergence of Mahayana as a distinct school is a later development, following the transmission of Buddhism in the north by the Mahasamghikas, Sarvastivadas, Dharmaguptakas, etc. (see Early Buddhism), it may be suggested that its most important doctrines originated with Buddha’s private teachings and existed to some extent within all early schools.

Since Early Mahayana did not operate as a distinct school, there is little that is known about the activities of its adherents. It is not until nearing the 5th century CE that Mahayana seems to have become popular and widely active as a school. However, the early Mahayana texts form the basis of all later Mahayana schools; they are its cornerstones.

Early Mahayana Texts

Suggested dates for the earliest Mahayana texts are between the 2nd century BCE and the beginning of the common era (CE). The texts below range in dates, with some texts being likely from the early period and others from the early centuries of the common era.


Among the earliest Mahayana sutras are a collection of about 40 texts called the Prajna-Paramita-Sutras, the primary texts of which are commonly named according to their lengths (see below). The oldest of these are generally believed to be the:

The next period of development (according to Conze) includes the elaborated:

  • Aṣṭadaśasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (18,000 lines);
  • Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (25,000 lines); and
  • Śatasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (100,000 lines).

Other, shorter and generally later texts include:

  • Pañcaśatikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (500 lines);
  • Saptaśatikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (700 lines);
  • Sārdhadvisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (2500 lines);
  • Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya (Heart Sutra)

In addition to these there is the commentary Mahāprajñāpāramitāupadeśa, commonly attributed to Nagarjuna.

The Prajna-Paramita-Sutra texts are extant in the Chinese Canon, the Tibetan Canon (Kangyur), and various Sanskrit MSS.

Saddharmapundarika Sutra (Lotus Sutra)

The Lotus Sutra is an Indian Mahayana text, perhaps composed around the 1st century BCE. It was later translated into Chinese and became one of the most influential texts in East Asian Buddhism. It is extant in Sanskrit, Chinese, and Tibetan, and has been translated into numerous other languages.

Avatamsaka Sutra

Avataṃsaka Sūtra aka Buddhāvataṃsaka Sūtra is a large composite text, which includes the Daśabhūmika Sutra (Ten Stages Sutra) and the Gandavyuha Sutra. It was likely composed in India in stages leading up to the beginning of the common era. According to Paramartha, the Avatamsaka Sutra is also known as the Bodhisattva-Pitaka, and in a Dunhuang manuscript, it is referred to as the Bodhisattvapiṭaka Buddhāvataṃsaka Sūtra. It is possible that this text is but a part of a larger collection called Bodhisattva-Pitaka.

It is extant in Chinese in two translations, by Buddhabhadra and by Siksananda. The latter has been translated into English, see: The Flower Ornament Scripture: A Translation of the Avatamsaka Sūtra, tr. Thomas Cleary, 1993.

Pure Land Sutras

The “Pure Land” sutras are Indian Mahayana texts likely composed in the Kashmir or Gandhara regions of the northwest. The primary sutras were later translated into Chinese and became highly influential in East Asian Buddhism. The primary, and oldest, Pure Land sutras are the:

See: The Three Pure Land Sutras, tr. Hisao Inagaki, 2010.


The Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra was perhaps composed, along with the early Prajna-Paramita-Sutras, in the Andhra region of India. It is the first text to include the concept of the tathāgatagarbha, which would have large influence in Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism. It is extant in Chinese and Tibetan translations.

The Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra is another text perhaps composed in the Andhra region, though its composition may have occurred gradually over an extended period of time, into the common era. The text shares the same title as the Mahaparinibbana Sutta of the Pali Canon, but they are quite different in content. It is extant in Chinese and Tibetan translations.

The Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra is a somewhat later text (perhaps into the first few centuries of the common era), and was highly influential in the development of Chan Buddhism. It is extant in Sanskrit, and in Chinese and Tibetan translations.

Mahāratnakūṭa Sūtra (Great Jewel Heap) is a collection of 49 sutras, also likely composed in the Andhra region. It is extant in Chinese and Tibetan.

Other notable texts include the:

Numerous other early Mahayana texts exist, of varying importance and influence, and with varying doctrinal emphasis. There is not a single collection or a “Pitaka” for what is referred to as Mahayana Sutras, though as suggested above, the early texts may have belonged to a “Bodhisattva-Pitaka.”

The Mahayana Ideal

While the different lineages and schools in Mahayana teach differing sets of doctrines, which are at times conflicting (the most obvious example being the Vajrayana elements in Tibetan Buddhism which are absent in other Mahayana schools), there is an underlying ideal which is common to all and is the bedrock on which all Mahayana schools rest. This is the doctrine of the Bodhisattva.

The Bodhisattva Doctrine

The term Bodhisattva means literally “one whose sattva (real essence) has become bodhi (wisdom).” The idea sets up a distinction between a Pratyeka Buddha—i.e. one who, on the attainment of Nirvana, enters into that state and thus loses all concern for the woes of humanity—and a Bodhisattva or Nirmanakaya (in the theosophical interpretation), who renounces the bliss of Nirvana to remain behind and continue to help humanity. This doctrine is the primary difference between Mahayana and Theravada (or what Mahayanists commonly referred to as Hinayana or Sravakayana). Mahayanists place the doctrine of the Bodhisattva at the forefront of their study and practice, and thus take and continually reinforce a vow to place the needs of humanity above their own desire for liberation or the bliss of Nirvana. The taking of this vow becomes the cornerstone of all the efforts of a Mahayanist.

The Bodhisattva path is also central to Theosophy, and can be found outlined in H. P. Blavatsky’s Voice of the Silence.

The Paramita Path

The Paramitas (“perfections,” lit. “gone beyond”) are a set of principles or virtues that are viewed as the path of development of the Bodhisattva. While the Paramitas are taught in both Mahayana and Theravada, they are given more prominence in Mahayana.

The Prajñapāramitā sūtras list six paramitas, while the Daśabhūmika Sutra (Ten Stages Sutra) adds an additional four to reach a total of ten. These Paramitas are:

Dāna: generosity, charity, selfless love;
Śīla: virtue, morality, discipline, proper conduct, harmony in word and act;
Kṣānti: patience, tolerance, forbearance, acceptance, endurance;
Vīrya: energy, diligence, vigor, effort;
Dhyāna: meditation, contemplation, tranquility of mind (see also Śamatha);
Prajñā: discerning wisdom, insight (see also Vipaśyanā);

In the Ten Stages Sutra, the additional four are:

7. Upāya: skillful means;
8. Praṇidhāna: vow, resolution, aspiration, determination (lit. “prostration”);
9. Bala: power
10. Jñāna: knowledge, wisdom.

H. P. Blavatsky, in her Voice of the Silence inserts Viraga (indifference to pleasure and to pain, lit. “without passion”) in the middle of the traditional list of six.

Cornerstones of Mahayana Philosophy

Early Buddhism gradually spread across the whole of India, southwards into Sri Lanka and northwards into Kashmir and Central Asia. During this period (320-180 BCE) were the first sectarian divisions of Buddhism into its earliest distinct schools (Mahasamgika & Sthavira), and the appearance of several sub-schools (such as the Sarvastivada, Dharmaguptaka, etc.). The eventual persecution and expulsion of Buddhism from much of India (see Ashokavadana) after the fall of the Maurya empire, resulted in isolation between northern and southern centers of Buddhism (Sri Lanka in the south; North-west India, Kashmir and Central Asia in the north). Northern Buddhists gradually emigrated into Tibet and China (see Silk Road transmission of Buddhism), bringing with them their Sutras, Vinaya lineages and Abhidharma texts, along with early Mahayana texts. This emigration would eventually lead to the firm establishment of Mahayana Buddhism in China and Tibet and the formation of distinct centers and schools in those regions.

During the early centuries CE two major systems of Buddhist philosophy and psychology were developed—Madhyamaka and Yogacara. These two systems would have a profound influence on all later developments of Mahayana schools. While not necessarily considered distinct schools in themselves, they form the philosophical basis of the major Mahayana schools.

Madhyamaka or Madhyamika

Nagarjuna, the founder of Madhyamaka (or Madhyamika “belonging to the mid-most,” also known in Chinese Buddhism as 三论宗 (Sānlùnzōng) “Three Śastra School”), is connected with the Prajna-Paramita-Sutras in traditional accounts, which have him receiving those sutras from the Nagas (“Serpents,” which Blavatsky suggests refers to the Mahatmas). The primary Madhyamaka text is Nagarjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (extant in Sanskrit). There are numerous other texts from the early Madhyamaka school, most notably those attributed to Nagarjuna and his student Aryadeva.

The central idea in Madhyamaka is the doctrine of śūnyatā or “emptiness,” i.e. that all dharmas (ultimate components of existence, or elementary constituents of experience) are fundamentally empty of svabhāva (self- or intrinsic-nature). According to Nagarjuna: “since nothing has arisen without depending on something, there is nothing that is not empty [of an independent intrinsic nature].” Another pivotal doctrine is that of the “two truths”—saṁvṛti-satya (“relative” or “provisional” truth) and paramārtha-satya (“absolute” or “ultimate” truth) (see SD 1:48). Madhyamaka is famous for its logic and philosophic rigor, one primary form of this logic being catuṣkoṭi, the “principle of four-cornered negation,” i.e. “X is neither this nor not-this, nor both this and not-this, nor neither this or not-this.”

As is evident in the name, Madhyamaka is referred to by Nagarjuna and his followers as “the Middle Way,” and this can perhaps be best understood in reference to śūnyatā or śūnya not as equivalent to the common conception of “emptiness,” but rather as equivalent to the mathematical conception of “zero” as the “middle” between all negative and positive numbers, but which is itself neither negative nor positive, nor both negative and positive, nor neither negative nor positive. A very literal translation of śūnyatā would be “zero-ness,” a conception which matches well with Blavatsky’s use of the term “Be-ness” (see SD 1:14-16). This Madhyamaka “middle way” position may thus be exemplified by saying that the One Reality is neither Being nor Non-Being, nor Both, nor Neither of those qualifiers.

Madhyamaka philosophy and practice has been highly influential in both Tibetan and Chinese (East Asian) Buddhism.

Selected Articles, Translations, Commentaries, etc.

Yogacara (or Yogacarya)

The Yogacara or Yogacarya (lit. “practice of yoga,” also known in Chinese Buddhism as 唯识宗, Wéishízōng, “Consciousness Only School”) is commonly said to have been systematized by the 4th century Indian brothers Asanga and Vasubandhu, but Blavatsky suggests the existence of an original Yogacarya school from the very beginning of Buddhism, which Asanga merely formulated (while, she claims, mixing in elements which were foreign to the original Yogacarya). Asanga and Vasubandhu were students of the Sarvastivada school, from which they may have gained their Yogacara education (see Early Buddhism).

The Ārya-saṃdhi-nirmocana-sūtra is perhaps the central Yogacara text, composed likely in the early centuries of the common era. It is extant in Chinese and Tibetan translations. The Yogācārabhūmi-Śāstra is another central text of Yogacara, traditionally attributed to Asanga, though he may perhaps have been more a compiler than author. It is extant in Chinese and Tibetan translations and a large portion in Sanskrit. Two primary works of Asanga are the Mahāyānasaṃgraha and the Abhidharma-samuccaya. A key work of Vasubandhu is the Abhidharmakośakārikā, which is a kind of distillation of Sarvastivada Abhidharma. Two other of his influential works are the Vimśatikāvijñaptimātratāsiddhi and the Triṃśikā-vijñaptimātratā.

Yogacara deals primarily with the nature of consciousness and conscious experience. The fundamental classification of our consciousness is eightfold, i.e. the five senses, citta or mano-vijñāna, manas or kliṣṭa-manas, and ālāyavijñāna, the latter being a unique and quintessential teaching of Yogacara. Ālāyavijñāna is often translated as “storehouse consciousness,” and is also referred to as the mūla-vijñāna (“root-consciousness”). It is conceptualized as the receptacle of karmic seeds (bīja), thus storing these seeds while they mature until karmically ripe and ready to emerge as karmic consequences. The process of (or occurring within) ālāyavijñāna is viewed as a “mindstream” (citta-saṃtāna), a continuous flow of mentation.

“Ālaya is literally the “Soul of the World” or Anima Mundī, the “Over-Soul” of Emerson, and according to esoteric teaching it changes periodically its nature. Ālaya, though eternal and changeless in its inner essence on the planes which are unreachable by either men or Cosmic Gods (Dhyāni-Buddhas), alters during the active life-period with respect to the lower planes, ours included.” (SD 1:48)

Another core conception of Yogacara is that of the three svabhāvas:

  1. parikalpita (“imagined”), that which falsely attributes intrinsic existence to things based on unreal conceptions;
  2. paratantra (“dependent”), that which mistakes impermanent occurrences in the flow of causes and conditions for fixed, permanent entities; and
  3. pariniṣpanna (“perfect” or “real”), that which is empty of all conceptual overlays or false imaginings.

As explained by H. P. Blavatsky:

“Parikalpita is error, made by those unable to realize the emptiness and illusionary nature of all; who believe something to exist which does not . . . and Paratantra is that, whatever it is, which exists only through a dependent or causal connection, and which has to disappear as soon as the cause from which it proceeds is removed . . . [while] Pariniṣpanna [is] absolute perfection.” “Pariniṣpanna . . . is the summum bonum, the Absolute, hence the same as Parinirvāṇa. Besides being the final state it is that condition of subjectivity which has no relation to anything but the one absolute truth (Paramārthasatya) on its plane. It is that state which leads one to appreciate correctly the full meaning of Non-Being, which, as explained, is absolute Being. (SD 1:48 & SD 1:53)

Though Yogacara is referred to as vijñapti-mātra (“consciousness-only”) it is not purely Idealism as commonly understood, as Yogacara itself is not so much ontological (theorizing about the fundamental nature of existence per se) but is rather a set of teachings and practices designed to understand and deal with the main problem we are faced with: the operations of our consciousness. As explained by Dan Lusthaus:

“The school was called Yogācāra (Yoga practice) because it provided a comprehensive, therapeutic framework for engaging in the practices that lead to the goal of the bodhisattva path, namely enlightened cognition. Meditation served as the laboratory in which one could study how the mind operated. Yogācāra focused on the question of consciousness from a variety of approaches, including meditation, psychological analysis, epistemology (how we know what we know, how perception operates, what validates knowledge), scholastic categorization, and karmic analysis.”—“What is and Isn’t Yogacara

Yogacara philosophy and practice has been highly influential in both Tibetan and Chinese (East Asian) Buddhism.

Selected Articles, Translations, Commentaries, etc.

Two Major Lineages of Mahayana

The division of major distinct schools of Buddhism is largely founded on differing Vinaya lineages (Vinaya are the sets of rules for ordained monks). There are three Early Buddhist Vinaya lineages still in existence today, these being:

1. The Vinaya of the Dharmaguptaka in East Asian Buddhism (China, Vietnam, Korea, Japan, etc.), contained in the Chinese Canon;

2. The Vinaya of the Mulasarvastivada in Tibetan Buddhism, contained in the Tibetan Kangyur and in the Chinese Canon;

3. The Vinaya of the Theravada, contained in the Pali Canon.

The first and second of these are the cornerstones of the two major distinct schools of Mahayana Buddhism—Chinese (East Asian) and Tibetan, and their numerous sub-schools and later branches. The third is the cornerstone of Theravada Buddhism.

East Asian Buddhism

Modern scholarship generally focuses on the Silk-road transmission of Buddhism into China during the early centuries CE, but some traditional Chinese Buddhist sources date the arrival of Buddhism in China as far back as the 3rd century BCE. It is generally accepted that Buddhism began to take root in China during the Han dynasty, with its main foundations—translations of early Mahayana texts and the Sutra-Pitaka into Chinese—taking place largely during the Jin dynasty. Over time, and through the early efforts of monks like LokaksemaKumarajiva, Paramartha, Faxian, Xuanzang, Yijing and others, the translation of many early Buddhist texts eventually resulted in the formation of a Chinese Buddhist canon, which today forms the textual basis of all major East Asian Buddhist schools.

The four most prominent schools that emerged in China were the schools of HuayanTiantai, Pure Land and Chan, however neither Chinese nor East Asian Buddhism ought to be viewed as limited to these or other schools, but rather to encompass a wide array of approaches, lineages, teachings and practices founded on the same textual canon.

Pure Land Buddhism

Pure Land teachings are centered around the Buddha Amitābha and his “paradise” (see VOS p. 57) or “pure land,” also referred to as Sukhavati, the Sanskrit equivalent of the Tibetan term Devachan [bde ba can]. The core idea and goal in Pure Land Buddhism is “rebirth” in Sukhavati, which is imagined to be a blissful realm, wherein one can be taught by Amitābha and Bodhisattvas and thereby attain enlightenment, from which point one can then choose to either return to aid humanity or move onwards towards Buddhahood. Theosophical teachings on the nature of Devachan and that of Nirmanakayas may shed some light and provide some context for much of Pure Land thought.

See above for information on the central Pure Land texts.

Chan-Zen Buddhism

The most far-reaching and influential school of Chinese Buddhism is the Chan school, which began to be formalized sometime around the 5th century CE with the monk Bodhidharma. Records of its formation and early teachings during the time of its first six “patriarchs” are scant and partial and full of legend along with what is likely a good deal of fabrication (see references below). During these initial years there may have been an “exoteric” and an “esoteric” teaching (see VOS p. 25)—the “esoteric” having continued from Bodhidharma through to the original sixth patriarch Shenxiu. It is interesting to note that Blavatsky refers to this school, its patriarchs and its books in several places in her Voice of the Silence and when defining the term “Dzyan” in the opening pages (see 1:xx fn) of The Secret Doctrine (see “On the Etymology of Dzyan”).

During his life, Shenxiu was recognized as the sixth patriarch of the Chan school. He taught at a residence referred to as the “East Mountain” community, and became widely known and popular. However, after his death there was a schism in the school brought about by one of his students (Shenhui), who claimed to be a student of a monk named Huineng. This schism resulted in two distinct schools, referred to by the followers of Shenhui as the “Northern” (the school of Shenxiu) and the “Southern” (their own school). Following this schism, the “Southern school” conferred the title of sixth patriarch on the late Huineng. Traditionally, the school of Shenxiu is regarded as having taught a “gradual path” to enlightenment, while the school following Shenhui (or Huineng) is regarded as having taught a doctrine of “sudden” enlightenment (which is exemplified in the supposed biography of Huineng as an unlearned man who became suddenly enlightened in a single moment). It is from this “Southern School” that nearly all modern Chan/Zen schools draw their teachings and claim their lineage. However, modern scholarship has quite effectively argued that the story of Huineng was invented by Shenhui, and that it almost certainly has very little, if any accurate historical basis on which to rest (see references below). On this point it is worth noting that in the Voice of the Silence, Blavatsky refers to Shenxiu as “the sixth Patriarch of North China who taught the esoteric doctrine of Bodhidharma” (see VOS, p. 28fn).

For more on the history and historicity of early Chan, see:

John R. McRae, The Northern School and the Formation of Early Ch’an Buddhism, 1986
John J. Jørgensen, Inventing Hui-neng, the Sixth Patriarch: Hagiography And Biography in Early Ch’an, 2005

Similarly to early Mahayana in India, and both Madhyamaka and Yogacara, it may be said that Chan itself was not so much a distinct “school,” separate from other schools of Chinese Buddhism, but rather that it encompassed a certain set of teachings and practices which disciples could learn. A disciple living at a monastery could learn Chan (Dhyāna) meditation from a Dhyana-Master, while living aside disciples who did not learn such practices. However, the Chan set of teachings and meditation would eventually develop into distinct “schools,” or lineages (see the Five Houses of Chan), and over time would give rise to a starkly contrasted form of Buddhism, which is now most commonly referred to using the Japanese form of the word—Zen—but also the Korean form—Seon. As scholars (see McRae) have pointed out, the meditation techniques of early Chan do not seem to have differed widely from other meditation techniques of Mahayana schools, however the “sudden enlightenment” approach was not qualified by preparatory requirements, and no moral prerequisites or preliminary exercises were viewed as strictly necessary. This is one aspect where modern Zen tends to differ from some other forms of Mahayana, particularly in the downplaying of sutra study and doctrinal understanding.

Early Chan Buddhism focused heavily on the early Mahayana sutras, in particular the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, which played a prominent role in its development. The “Southern school” widely used the Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (Diamond Sutra), while other texts such as the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana (大乘起信論) also had large influence.


Selected Articles, Commentaries, etc.

Early Tibetan Buddhism

By “Early Tibetan Buddhism” we mean to indicate the development of Buddhist schools, philosophy and practice in Tibet, China and Mongolia which fall under the banner of “Tibetan” or “Northern” Buddhism, spanning from the introduction of Buddhism in that land up until the Gelugpa reformation of Tsong Kha Pa in the 14th century.

Tibetan Buddhism is referred to by Tibetans as ནང་ཆོས་ (Nangchö), the “inner dharma.” It has been traditionally referred to by Chinese Buddhists as 喇嘛教 (lama jiao), from which we get the English term “Lamaism.” Though this term has been largely abandoned by modern scholars, it was used by early theosophical writers, including H. P. Blavatsky, who distinguished between “Lamaism” as a popular religion and the more esoteric teachings, including those espoused by herself and her teachers.


The transmission and establishment of Buddhism in Tibet occurred much later than the establishment of Buddhism in China—the introduction of Buddhism into Tibet occurred during the Tibetan Empire (7th-9th century), at a time when the Chinese Buddhist canon was already being formulated, and nearly two centuries after the arrival of Bodhidharma and the foundations of Chan Buddhism. During the Tibetan Empire, the earliest school of Tibetan Buddhism, later referred to as Nyingma, was established through the patronage of king Trisong Detsen, who invited Indian Buddhists (such as  Śāntarakṣita) to Tibet, set in motion a massive translation effort of texts into Tibetan (including the development of the Tibetan script), and through whom Śāntarakṣita was able to found the first Tibetan monastery, Samye. Much of this early history is unclear, fragmentary, and clouded by later historicities and hagiographies, making it difficult to discern how the Nyingma school and its doctrines were developed. There is, for instance, the story of an early debate held at Samye between Chinese proponents of Chan Buddhism and students of Śāntarakṣita, wherein it is claimed by Tibetan sources that the latter was victorious and this led to the firm establishment of those teachings as the basis of Tibetan Buddhism. The accuracy of this story, as well as the extent of influence of Chan Buddhism on this early development, is unclear and subject to debate.

Within the Nyingma tradition there are Vajrayana or tantra elements which are not found in Chinese (East Asian) Buddhism. These Vajrayana teachings are traced to Padmasambhava, who is said to have accompanied Śāntarakṣita and to have aided in the foundation of Samye monastery. The Vajrayana teachings would become a distinctive element of Tibetan Buddhism, which are not found in either of the other two major branches (East Asian and Theravada). Within Nyingma, these tantric teachings include the system of Dzogchen. The origins of Dzogchen are unclear and subject to debate among scholars, and whether or not it was entirely or only partially existent within early Nyingma is uncertain.

Following this initial establishment of Buddhism in Tibet, and after the collapse of the Tibetan Empire, there followed a period of two centuries where Buddhism remained relatively restricted in its spread and development in Tibet. This was, however, followed by a kind of renaissance of Buddhism in Tibet, during the 10th-12th centuries, when the foundations of three additional major schools were made—the KagyuSakya, and Kadam. These three, along with the Nyingma, are even today the four main branches of Tibetan or Northern Buddhism.

Much of the source-teachings and material that went into the founding of the following schools may be traced back to the Buddhist Empire of Pala in Bengal and north-eastern India and its famous schools such as Vikramashila and Nalanda. The Buddhism practices in the Pala Empire were a mixture of Mahayana and Vajrayana teachings, and thus we find the following schools founded upon that mixture. This Vajrayana element distinguishes much of Tibetan Buddhism from its counterpart Chinese or East Asian Buddhism.


The Kagyu school traces its origin to Marpa who transmitted the teachings of 11th century Bengali “Mahasiddha” Tilopa, and his students Naropa and Maitripa, into Tibet. Marpa became the teacher of the yogi Milarepa. It is through these early teachers that the foundations of Kagyu were formed. The centerpieces of Kagyu teachings are Mahamudra or Sahajayoga and the Six Dharmas of Naropa. The further development of Kagyu connects with the developments in Kadam (see below) through Gampopa, who brought together the Lamrim teachings of Kadam with the Mahamudra teachings of Kagyu. This combination became known as Dagpo Kagyu, which is the primary lineage of Kagyu today. Dagpo Kagyu has numerous sub-schools or sub-lineages, including (but not limited to) the Drikung, Karma, and Drukpa lineages (the latter has been alternately spelled “Dugpa,” for notes on which see below).


The foundations of Sakya were laid by Khon Konchog Gyalpo, a student of Drogmi, who had studied at Vikramashila directly under Naropa and other teachers. Thus, as with Kagyu, its origin stems from the 11th century Buddhism of the Pala Empire. The quintessential teaching of Sakya is the meditative system called Lamdré. Sakya, along with Kagyu and Nyingma constitute the three major schools of what is commonly known as the “red hat sects.”


The Jonang school was originated by Yumo Mikyo Dorje, and furthered by Dolpopa (originally a Sakya monk). Yumo Mikyo Dorje was a Kalacakra master from Kashmir, who passed his teachings orally to Dolpopa. The foundations of Jonang were then established through the efforts of Dolpopa to record these teachings. The Jonangpa teachings are based primarily on Kalacakra and the works of Maitreya, and the quintessential doctrine of Jonang is Shentong, or “other emptiness.” The Jonang school was greatly oppressed in Tibeta, and all but disappeared until it began to become more widely known again in recent centuries.


Similar to the Kagyu and Sakya, the Kadam school traces its origin to the 11th century Buddhism of the Pala Empire, in this case from the Bengali teacher Atiśa, whose traveled to Tibet to transmit his teachings. His student Dromtön is credited as the founder of Kadam as a distinct school of Tibetan Buddhism. The Bodhipathapradīpa is considered Atiśa’s magnum opus. Kadam teachings involved a focus on doctrines relating to bodhicitta. The Quintessential teachings of Atiśa and the early Kadam lineage are Lojong and Lamrim. Lamrim refers to the “Stages of the Path” and would become a cornerstone of the teachings of Tsong Kha Pa and the later Gelugpa tradition. As mentioned above, Lamrim was also brought together with the Kagyu teachings by Gampopa and thus continued to have a strong influence on that lineage.

For more on the tantric aspects of the above schools, see Vajrayana Buddhism.

On Blavatsky and the “Red Caps”

One of the difficulties in tracing the history and development of Tibetan Buddhism is the continuous intermixing and blending of various schools and systems over the course of centuries, combined with fragmentary historical records. There is firstly the question of the role of Chan Buddhism in the early formations of Tibetan Buddhism. Secondly, uncertainties as to the origins of some early Vajrayana or tantric doctrine and the question of influence of Indian tantric systems. Thirdly, the claim of Vajrayana traditions that their doctrines have come directly from Buddha (a claim generally disputed by both of the other main branches of Buddhism—East Asian and Theravada). In addition to these there is the important question of the role of the native Bön tradition in the early formation of Tibetan Buddhism. Modern scholars are engaged in study and debate of these topics and as with much of eastern history, it is not always simple to discern the historical truths from false or exaggerated historicities.

We should here say a few words on the early theosophical approach to some of these questions, in particular relating to the Bön tradition and the early Buddhist schools. Bön was the dominant religious system in Tibet when the foundations of Buddhism were being laid in that land. In her day H. P. Blavatsky viewed the “old Buddhist faith” (i.e., pre-Gelugpa) as having been “strongly mixed up with the Bon practices.” She and her teachers did not view the Bön system or proponents favorably, and repeatedly took the position that the Böns were in direct opposition to their own teachings and activities, referring to them often as “dugpas,” which Blavatsky defined as “mischief-makers or sorcerers.” Blavatsky referred to the Böns as “a degenerated remnant of the Chaldean mysteries of old, now a religion entirely based upon necromancy, sorcery and sooth-saying” (see “Reincarnations in Tibet”). Some further quotes from Blavatsky: “The Bons or Dugpas, the sect of the ‘Red Caps,’ are regarded as the most versed in sorcery. They inhabit Western and little Tibet and Bhutan. They are all Tantrikas” (VOS, p. 56fn). “The ‘Dug-pa or Red Caps’ belong to the old Nyang-na-pa [Nyingma] sect, who resisted the religious reform introduced by Tsong-kha-pa” (see “Reincarnations in Tibet”). “Before the advent of Tsong-ka-pa in the fourteenth century, the Tibetans, whose Buddhism had deteriorated and been dreadfully adulterated with the tenets of the old Bhon religion,—were all Dugpas” (TG p. 105). In quotes such as these, we see Blavatsky blending together the Böns with the all pre- and non-Gelugpa schools of Buddhism (the “red cap sects”), and collectively referring to them as “red-caps” or “dugpas.” She further states that “from that century [the 14th], however, and after the rigid laws imposed upon the Gelukpas (yellow caps) and the general reform and purification of Buddhism (or Lamaism), the Dugpas have given themselves over more than ever to sorcery, immorality, and drunkenness” (TG p. 105).

However, it is important to include the following quote, which sheds light on an important distinction:

“But there is another and still more dangerous class [of “elementaries”]. In the East, they are known as the “Brothers of the Shadow,” living men possessed by the earth-bound elementaries; at times—their masters, but ever in the long run falling victims to these terrible beings. In Sikkhim and Tibet they are called Dug-pas (red-caps), in contradistinction to the Geluk-pas (yellow-caps), to which latter most of the adepts belong. And here we must beg the reader not to misunderstand us. For though the whole of Bhutan and Sikkhim belongs to the old religion of the Bhons, now known generally as the Dug-pas, we do not mean to have it understood that the whole of the population is possessed, en masse, or that they are all sorcerers. Among them are found as good men as anywhere else, and we speak above only of the elite of their Lamaseries, of a nucleus of priests, “devil-dancers,” and fetish worshippers, whose dreadful and mysterious rites are utterly unknown to the greater part of the population.” (“Elementals,” Lucifer, September, 1893, p. 34-35)

Commenting on the state of understanding of Tibetan Buddhism in her time, Blavatsky gives her view that:

“Europeans not being permitted to penetrate further than those borders [Bhutan, Sikkim, and the borderlands of Tibet], the Orientalists never having studied Buddho-Lamaism in Tibet proper, but judging of it on hearsay and from what Cosmo di Köros, Schlagintweit, and a few others have learnt of it from Dugpas, confuse both religions and bring them under one head. They thus give out to the public pure Dugpaism instead of Buddho-Lamaism. In short Northern Buddhism in its purified, metaphysical form is almost entirely unknown.” (TG p. 105)

While the modern Rimé movement has led to an embrace of a non-sectarian Tibetan Buddhism in the 20th and 21st centuries, it must be admitted that both H. P. Blavatsky and her teachers present themselves as staunchly sectarian when it comes to Tibetan Buddhist schools, firmly siding with a pre-Rimé Gelugpa system and showing a strongly negative view of those who did not follow Tsong Kha Pa’s reformation. With this in mind, the question remains whether the current system of non-sectarian Tibetan Buddhism—the product of the universalism of the Rimé movement—would be regarded by Blavatsky and her teachers similarly as “confusing both religions and bringing them under one head,” and thus presenting a form of “Dugpaism” rather than “Northern Buddhism in its purified, metaphysical form.” The debate over this question has been a continuing one among theosophists, with proponents on both sides.


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Articles, Translations, etc. on Mahayana Buddhism


Selected Articles, Commentaries, etc.