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Of Rivals and Ri-Me

The Rise and Fall of Tibetan Sectarianism


Although Tibet was briefly united under a monarchy in the 7th-8th centuries, for most of its history it has been more like a confederation of tribes under local chieftains. These chieftains, as chieftains will, battled each other for power and resources. This political structure was mirrored in the realm of Tibetan religion. For most of its history the schools of Tibetan Buddhism have battled each other for power and resources, sometimes masking these battles in arguments over legitimacy or doctrine but often times not. In the early 19th century an ecumenical, pluralist movement was born, chiefly under the leadership of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820-1892) and Jamgon Kongtrul the Great (1813-1899). This movement was not explicitly syncretic, but rather advocated simultaneously for the preservation of each of Tibet's distinct practice lineages and for their equal value. The masters of the Ri-me (Nonsectarian) movement, as it came to be called, traveled Tibet preserving as many teachings and texts as they could from destruction. Partially due to their efforts a greater amount of the Tibetan spiritual literature would ultimately survive the attempted Chinese Communist “reprogramming” of Tibet in the 20th century. In this essay I will examine the structure of sectarian rivalry in Tibet and the birth of the Ri-me movement. I will then discuss its continuing importance today, and the reasons for its apparent triumph as the official perspective of much of contemporary Tibetan Buddhism.


The Origins of Sectarianism (and its negation)


The Buddhism of India left a legacy to its inheritors of a rich feild of competing schools of thought. It also bequeathed philosophical justifications for a pluralistic attitude towards them. Indian Mahayana explained its own developments in doctrine and practice as successive “turnings of the wheel of the Dharma” by the Buddha- a progressive revelation of more and more complete teachings. Some streams of the Mahayana presented a particular doctrine as the highest, and some presented them all as equal parts of one teaching, dispensed by the Buddha according to the various sicknesses of sentient beings. This milieu, in which differing doctrinal standpoints both proliferated and competed on the one hand, and on the other hand were viewed as all being in some way valid, presented the Tibetan inheritors of Mahayana Buddhism with unique challenges. They needed to understand and make their own many differing and sometimes conflicting doctrines. The Mahayana pluralist streak made possible the integration of that plurality due to the view that the different doctrines were different skillful means of the Buddha. Within this general approach, however, there has always been a tendency for different Buddhist schools to rank themselves as the most skillful of the skillful means available, and even at times as the only skillful choice available given the circumstances of the age. In Indian Buddhism Tantra made the claim for itself that it was the most advanced Buddhist vehicle, tailor made for the age in which it was born. Tibet was the inheritor of this late Indian tradition, and it was accepted as axiomatic in all Tibetan schools that Tantra was authoritative. Within the Tantric paradigm, further debate was of course still possible and occurred continuously in Tibet. Different schools held allegiance to different Tantric cycles, to either sudden or gradual practice, or to differing interpretations of the doctrine of emptiness. Some schools adhered to the canon of texts introduced to Tibet in the 8th to 9th centuries, some to the texts introduced in the 10th-13th centuries. Some gave more emphasis to the Nalanda tradition of scholastic Tantricism, others to the direct, experiential teachings of the mahasiddhas.

The resolution of these issues of competition and pluralism took a unique form in Tibet due to its unique adoption of Tantric, or Vajrayana Buddhism as its dominant paradigm. All of the groups that developed in Tibet posited Tantra as the highest skillful means, and while they taught Hinayana and Mahayana doctrines to differing extents, all of them subordinated those levels of Buddhist teaching to Tantric views and practices.The rivalries that arose between the differing schools of Tibetan Buddhism arose largely out of the politics of Tibet. The Mahayana pluralist heritage was not forgotten, however, and would eventually re-arise in the Ri-Me movement. In order to understand how this happened, we will briefly survey the rise of sects and sectarianism in Tibet.


From The Royal Conversion to the Rise of The Sarmapas


The first rivalries to arise in the Tibetan Buddhist milieu arose as a result of the conversion of the royalty of Tibet to Buddhism begining in the 7th century. It is likely that there some degree of Buddhist presence in Tibet prior to the adoption of it by King Songtsen Gampo (c.618-650), but the royal conversion marked a new era for the priests active at court, who had served those in power for centuries with non-Buddhist rituals imbedded in non-Buddhist worldviews. These bonpos, as the priests were called, contested the adoption of Buddhism by the court. Another rivalry resulted from the presence in Tibet of both Chinese and Indian Buddhist monks. Trisong Detsen (Songten Gampo's grandson- c.740-798) reportedly called a debate between the Indian tradition, represented by Kamalashila, and the Chinese side, represented by the Chan monk Hvashang Mahayana. Detsen decided in favour of adopting Tantric Indian Buddhist doctrines as normative and rejected the Chan approach, a decision which likely reflects the political relationship of the three countries at the time more than it does philosophical considerations. After losing ground to Buddhism initially, a Bon counter attack resulted in a non-Buddhist King seizing power and halting Buddhism's officially backed expansion in Tibet. Thus in the first chapter of Buddhisms introduction into Tibet we can already see a pattern emerging which was to remain consistent: rivalry between different religious factions based on political rather than doctrinal considerations.

By the 11th century Buddhism had gained wide spread folk popularity and with the introduction of new translation efforts and a revivified monastic community, it began to flourish again and regain political power. The old Buddhism had lived on in Tibet in the form of folk traditions and lay Tantric practice. The new, reformed Buddhism of the 11th century would come to be dominated by scholars, translators and monastic orders. This led to the third major source of sectarian rivalry in Tibet, the rivalry between the Sarmapas (followers of the new translations) and Nyingmapas (followers of the old translations).


Sarmapas and Nyingmapas


In 978 surviving monks from Amdo and Kham far from the centres of power began returning to Central Tibet bringing Vinaya lineages with them. Others from Western Tibet saught and brought back new texts from India and Nepal (Laird 2006: 73). The prominent Indian pandita Atisha (982-1054) also visited Tibet at this time, and his Tibetan followers became known as the Kadampas. They were renowned for their asceticism, monastic discipline, and dedication to bodhicitta ( the altruistic mind). The Tibetan siddha Marpa (1012-1097) studied with Naropa (1016-1100), an Indian Tantric master who had left Nalanda to pursue a more radical lifestyle. His student, the yogin Milarepa (1040-1123), would in turn teach Gampopa (1079-1153), a monk who systematized the siddha Mahamudra teachings and founded the Kagyu school. The Sakya school can be dated to the founding of the Sakya (“Grey Earth”) Monastery in Tsang, an area of South-Central Tibet. The monastery was founded by Gonchok Gyelpo (1034-1102), a member of the powerful Khon family. The Khon had roots in the old aristocracy of Tibet but were Nyingmapas. Reportedly they became Sarmapas due to the degeneration of the Tantric practices of the Nyingmapas into public ritual drama devoid of proper Buddhist motivations. Gonchok Gyelpo took monastic ordination and became a student of Drogmi, a prestigious member of the new translators. Gyelpo`s son, Gunga Nyingpo (1092-1158) the “Great Sakya” and his sons Lonbon Sonam Tsemo (1141-1182) and Jetsun Drakpa Gyeltsen (1147-1216) were scholars and practitioners who consolidated Sakya as a school. In 1249 Koden Khan, the rising Mongolian chieftain, summoned Gunga Gyeltsen sel Bangpo (1182-1251), known to posterity as Sakya Pandita, or “Sapan” to his court. Sapan, who was widely hailed as a miracle worker and genius scholar, convinced Tibet to submit peacefully to Koden and initiated a priest-patron relationship between Tibet and the Mongolians. In Tibet the Sakyapas created the model of a lama with regional temporal power as well as spiritual authority, a model which logically increased the likelihood of combative sectarianism.

By the end of the 13th century we thus see a situation where the two major Sarmapa schools have been founded, the Sakyapa and Kagyupa, and have gained widespread authority, popularity, and power. The Kadampa tradition, the first of the successful Sarmapa sects, was largely absorbed into the Sakyapa and Kagyupa schools. Starting from the 11th century, the followers of the old translations came to be known as Nyingmapas, and gained in vitality through stressing their allegiance to Padmasambhava and a tradition of rediscovered textual treasures (termas) from his time period, which gave them an ever expanding canon of works to draw from in response to the translation and scholastic works of the Sarmapas. The Nyingmapa treasure texts were criticized as spurious, and their highest practice, Dzogchen, a nondual meditative practice, criticized as being “chinese dharma” a la Hva Shang Mahayana (Reynolds 1996: 215-227). It is reasonable to imagine that these criticisms were based to some extent in an authentic concern to define and defend the true Dharma being brought in from India. It's not surprising that the Nyingmapa treasure texts would be regarded with suspicion, or that the Nyingmapas themselves, Tantric yogis who were generally neither scholars nor monks, would be regarded with suspicion by scholar monks. Previous to the spread of the Kadampas, Sakyapas, and Kagyupas, however, the people of Tibet would generally have given their support to the proto- Nyingmapas. The criticism of Nyingmapa in the 11th-13th centuries was likely a combination of concern for authentic Dharma and a competition over the limited and essential resource of public support. This was the case throughout much of Tibetan history.


Sakyapas and Kagyupas; Kagyupas and Gelugpas


In 1352 the Sakyapas were ousted from power by Gunchub Gyaltsen (d.1364), a local chieftain who declared himself the new viceroy of the Mongols and began re-establishing indigenous Tibetan political and legal customs.Sakyapas and Kagyupas struggled for power with the Sakyapas losing ground as China pushed back the Mongols and Tibet moved towards independence from Mongol rule. Meanwhile a new figure arrived on the scene. In 1357 Je Tsongkhapa (d.1419) was born, a figure whose life work would ultimately have a great impact on intersectarian politics in Tibet. Tsongkhapa was a monk inspired by the early Kadampas who reportedly studied with 45 masters of different lineages and after engaging in deep solitary practice set about clarifying the nature of the true Dharma through his teaching activities and in a series of brilliant philosophical treatises. Tsongkhapa's apolitical nature, charisma, and brilliance brought him many students, including one Gendun Drubpa (1391-1474/5). Drubpa would later be known as the first Dalai Lama. Tsongkhapa and his students quickly became very popular, founding several monasteries including the famous Ganden monastery. Genden Drubpa founded Tashi Lhunpo, which in later times became the seat of the Panchen Lamas. The rising popularity of the reformist Gelugpa (Virtuous Ones) order founded by Tsongkhapa's students caused a backlash and the Karma Kagyupas initiated a violent repression of the Gelugpas. Genden Drubpa wrote a poem where he sang,


These days in our remote mountains

There are many people who uphold their own lineages

While looking down upon other doctrine holders

Verily as their deepest enemies.

Watching how they think and act,

My heart fills with sadness (Mullin 2001: 62).


Thus we see a Ri-Me thought in line with pluralist Mahayana. Ironically, the Ri-Me movement itself would be largely inspired by the doctrinal triumphalism and political repression weilded by later Gelugpas.


The Rise of The Gelugpas

From this period on sectarian violence in Tibet appears to have intensified, as different rulers favoured one school over another. By 1565 the princes of Tsang province were ruling central Tibet, and since they supported the Kagyupas, the Gelugpas were “under constant attack(Laird 138). The second Dalai Lama, who established the process for recognizing the tulkus in his lineage (Laird 139), moved his base of operations to south and central Tibet. The third Dalai Lama, Sonam Gyatso, was born in 1543 near Lhasa. He grew rapidly in power and influence. In 1577, in a replay of history, Altan Khan invited Sonam Gyatso to his court. The resulting relationship between them lead to an increased adoption of Buddhism among the Mongols and an increase in the power of the Gelug tulkus, now known as Dalai Lamas after their Mongol title. In 1589, the fourth Dalai Lama incarnated into the body of the great-grandson of Altan Khan, Yonten Gyatso. He survived only until 1617, dying at the age of 28 from unknown causes. His reincarnation, known to the Tibetans as the Great Fifth, was the true architect of Gelug supremacy in Tibet. Ngawang Lozsang Gyatso (1617-1682) became ruler of the Tibetan nation, sitting on a thrown beside the Manchu emperor and welcomed in Beijing as an equal (Laird 152).

The Fifths relationship with other Buddhist orders is a matter of some controversy. Some contend that he was on friendly terms with the other schools, particularly the Nyingmapa (his father was a Nyingmapa yogin). Although he ordered some monasteries of the other orders to join the Gelugpas, this view argues that this was part of a plan aimed at fostering unity and quelling sectarian rivalries and political instability, and not motivated by sectarian chauvinism or hunger for power. Others contend that under his rule Nyingmapa, Kagyupa, and Sakyapa orders were forcibly converted to become Gelugpas, fostering longstanding resentments which still exist today. Some Gelugpas, Sakyapas, and Nyingmapas do in fact judge the Fifth as being a precursor of the Ri-Me in terms of his spiritual beliefs, but apparently this view is rejected by some Kagyupas (Laird 2006: 165-168). It is interesting to note, as Mullin points out, that it is the Karma Kagyus, the sect that the supported the 5th's rival the King of Tsang who were the Kagyus that were suppressed. The Drikung Kagyupas, on the other hand, were supported by the Fifth and speak kindly of him in their annals. The Fifth also kept a Bonpo lama in his entourage to advise him on Bon interests, protected the rights of Muslims in Tibet, and passed laws outlawing sectarianism. It would thus seem that the Fifth was indeed acting from political rather than religious motivations in his suppression of the Karma Kagyupas (Mullin 2001: 70-77). This also appears to be the case with his suppression of the Jonangpa sect, which we will have to examine in order to understand the background that would determine the shape of the Ri-Me movement.




The now little known Jonang school of Tibet originated with Yumo Mikyo Dorje (b.1027), a Tibetan student of the Kasmiri pandit Somanatha, who taught him the traditions of the Kalacakra Tantra. Dorje was also one of the earliest Tibetan articulators of the approach to Madhyamaka known as shentong, or “emptiness of other”. This view, in brief, holds that the primordial mind of clear light can be established as truly existing, but not any of its contents. In other words, all phenomena are empty of self except the most primordial basis of the mind, which is fundamentally “empty of other”, yet possesses its own nature (Tulku 2006: 193-236). Kunpang Tukje Tsondro (1243-1313), a lineal descendant of Dorje, founded a monastery in South-Central Tibet in the Jomonang area, from which his tradition came to be known as Jonangpa. The Jonangpas continued to grow in popularity and importance, peaking with the Jonangpa scholar Jetsun Taranatha (1575-1635). The Jonangpas, like the Karma Kagyupas, were connected to the King of Tsang, and when the Fifth Dalai Lama came to power he converted their monasteries to the Geluk sect, banned their writings, and sealed their libraries. Some believe the reason for not only disempowering but silencing the Jonangpa sect was their teaching of shentong. The Gelukpas believed this to be a heretical doctrine, and were proponents of rangtong, “empty of self”, by which they held that even the fundamental mind of clear light is empty of self-nature. Many scholars have questioned whether the Fifth's motivations were doctrinal or political. It is hard to believe his motivations were solely based on an aversion to shentong, since explicitly shentong and analogously shentong views occur in the Nyingmapa school, with which the Fifth was on good terms. Thus the facts remin unclear. In any case, the Jonangpa school never regained its prominence in Tibet.



At the turn of the 17th century Lhazang Khan, grandson of the Fifth's political ally and King of Central Tibet Gushri Khan, killed the 6th Dalai Lama and made Tibet a protectorate of the Manchus (Laird 191). The Dzungar Mongols invaded to “liberate” Tibet shortly after, but unleashed such a reign of terror that when the Manchus made a counter-move in 1717 the Tibetans welcomed them. This was facilitated by the Manchus support of the young 7th Dalai Lama. Over the next couple of centuries the Manchus ruled Tibet as a “loose protectorate” and buffer between them and the Mongols while Tibet was rife with internal battles.The institution of the Dalai Lamas was weakened, and a kind of shaky status quo seems to have developed among the different schools. The Jonangpa Kalacakra teachings were absorbed in to the Gelug school through the monasteries they took over, while the Jonangpa contemplative tradition fled to the edges of Gelug influence in Kham and Amdo, where they mixed with Nyingmapas, Kagyupas and Bonpos, influencing their outlooks. According to Ringu Tulku, a modern proponent of Ri-Me, by the time of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820-1892), the four schools had very little contact with eachother and ignorance of eachother's doctrines flourished. Although individual lamas may have had nonsectarian orientations, the schools in general had became insular and triumphalist. Against this background Khyentse and his student, Jamgon Kongtrul the Great (1813-1899), launched the Ri-Me movement. As Kongtrul wrote,


These days even the well-known lamas and geshes concentrate on their own traditions. Other than knowing a few texts, their pure perception of the impartial teachings of the Buddha is very small...They talk a lot about whether a particular tradition is good or bad, or a particular lineage is pure or impure. Many of them denigrate others' traditions in favor of their own school. Like a one-eyed yak who startles himself, they become unsteady, and without any reason they are full of doubts and lack pure vision, even of their own tradition.

When I was younger, although I had a deep longing for the dharma, I lacked strength in my convictions and was too timid to accomplish my wishes. But gradually the lotus of devotion has opened in me toward all the doctrines and the doctrine holders of the unbiased teachings of the Buddha, and my understanding of dharma has increased. It is due to the kindness of my precious guru, Khyentse Rinpoche, that I have not accumulated the serious karmic consequence of rejecting the dharma (2006: 23).


As Kongtrul writes here, it was his guru Khyentse Rinpoche who transmitted to him traditions from eight practice lineages including all the major schools and repeatedly encouraged him to compile his nonsectarian encyclopaedic collections of Buddhist teachings. These became the basis of the Ri-Me movement. Khyentse was a Sakya lama and Kongtrul a Kagyu, but both of them had a strong base in the Nyingmapa traditions, and discovered, compiled and practiced many Treasure teachings (45). Interestingly Kongtrul also collected Bon teachings and was himself an initiate in Bon lineages. As he wrote,

For the benefit of ordinary persons who harbor conceptual partiality toward specific schools of spiritual philosophy, such as theist or non-theist, Buddhist or Bon, the Buddhas compassion is impartial and immeasurable. For example, [buddhas] manifest to guide theists as gods with forms and attributes that correspond to their religions. In fact, in the three worlds, the victors enlightened activity is present in even the most minor form of virtous spiritual paths (Zangpo 2002: 189).


Jamgon Kongtrul completely rejected sectarianism, equating it with partiality, blindness and cognitive limitation. He wrote: Just as a king overpowered by self-interest/Is not worthy of being the protector of the kingdom,/A sectarian person is not worthy of being a holder of the dharma./ Not only that, he is unworthy of upholding even his own tradition (Tulku 4). One of the most interesting features of the Ri-Me tradition is that it is not syncretic, but rather pluralist (Tulku 2006: 3). The Ri-Me masters took care to accurately preserve the tenets and practices of differing traditions, and set out to show the different practice traditions as free of contradictions, but not equivalent. Kongtrul wrote:


Some people are very fussy about the refutations and affirmations of various tenets, becoming particularly attached to their own versions, such as Shentong or Rangtong Madhyamaka. There are many who try to pull others over to their own side, to the point of practically breaking their necks. When Jamyang Khyentse teaches the different tenet sytems, he does not mix up their terminology or ideas, yet he makes them easy to understand and suitable for the students.


Kongtrul then makes a point key to the Ri-Me view:


In general, the main point to be established by all the tenets is the ultimate nature of phenomena. As the Prajnaparamita Sutra states:


The Dharmata is not an object of knowledge;

It cannot be understood by the conceptual mind.

Kongtrul concludes:


So, the ultimate nature cannot be established by the samsaric mind, no matter how deep that mind may be.

The scholars and siddhas of the various schools make their own individual presentations of the dharma. Each one is full of strong points and supported by valid reasoning...In summary, one must see all the teachings as without contradiction, and consider all scriptures as instructions. This will cause the root of sectarianism to dry up, and give you the firm foundation in the Buddha's teachings. At that point, hundreds of doors to the eighty-four thousand teachings of the dharma will simultaneously be open up to you. (4)


Kongtrul argued that shentong and rangtong differed only over how to best describe the ultimate nature of phenomena (10). He also argued that Nyingmapas texts were as authentic as Sarmapa, and that the four major schools all converged in their description of the ultimate stages of attainment (11-13). Kongtrul's approach proved remarkably appealing, and the literature he created spread widely. Ringu Tulku writes that the compilation and transmission of his Five Great Treasuries as well as the Compendium of Tantras and Compendium of Sadhanas, “broke the isolation of single lineage teachings in the majority of Tibetan schools”(12).


Ri-Me Today


During Kongtrul's life, he transmitted his complete teachings many times to many people, including both yogins and important lamas. He also managed to have them printed on wooden blocks and published during his lifetime. Because of his efforts a large amount of Tibetan teachings from all schools were compiled in one place. In 1959, when Tibetans began fleeing the Chinese invasion, Kongtrul's teachings were available. HH The Karmapa (the head of the Karma Kagyu lineage) and HH Dudjom Rinpoche (the head of the Nyingmapas) gave transmissions of these teachings in India. When Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche came to England in the early 60's, the only Tibetan books he bought were the volumes of Jamgon Kongtrul's Treasury of Knowledge (Tulku 13). Perhaps most interestingly, and most portentiously for the development of modern Tibetan Buddhism, has been the influence of Ri-Me on HH The 14th Dalai Lama. His Holiness has been strongly influenced by several great Ri-Me teachers, including Dilgo Khentse Rinpoche, the great Nyingmapa yogin. Due to the efforts of these teachers and the support of His Holiness, there has been more interchange between different schools of Tibetan Buddhism than ever before. The Dalai Lama has adopted the Ri-Me model and has been receiving and giving the teachings of all schools in their respective traditions and lineages. He has gone on record with the view that the highest Gelug teaching is identical in import to the view of Dzogchen, which is in turn in harmony with the highest realizations of all Tibetan schools. Further, in recent years it has come to light that, much to the surprise of many, Jonangpa traditions had survived intact in eastern Tibet. His Holiness has officially recognized the Jonang as a legitimate school and composed a prayer for the long life of the Jonang school. His Holiness also stresses the legitimacy of the Bon tradition and has come out in support of its teachers and institutions. Clearly then The Dalai Lama should be accounted a great modern Ri-Me.


Closing Reflections


The historical circumstances surrounding the birth of the Ri-Me movement need more study. Khyentse and Kongtrul appear to have acted out of a sense of Buddhist idealism and a love for the traditions which fell outside the net of Gelug dogmatics. Their own unique focus combined shentong, Jonang, Bon, Nyingma and Kagyu traditions. This list is conspicuous for its championing of traditions which were endangered by the historical momentum of Buddhism in general, and in particular by Gelug orthodoxy. After many great lamas fled Tibet in the 1950's and 60's they found themselves living in refugee camps in India where all facets of daily life were a struggle. Unity would have been a paramount concern, and it is to their credit that the leading teachers of all the schools, including HH The Dalai Lama (Gelug), HH Sakya Trizin (Sakya), HH Dudjom Rinpoche (Nyingma), HH Penor Rinpoche (Nyingma), HH the Karmapa (Kagyu), HH Khalka Jetsun Dhampa (Jonang) and HH Lungtok Tenpai Nyima (Bon) have adopted a Ri-Me perspective. In the early years of the Tibetan diaspora, it was apparently largely due to the leadership of these lamas that sectarian rivalry did not tear apart the impoverished and traumatised refugee communities (Tulku 1992: 162-189). It is understandable then why the groundwork laid by Khyentse and Kongtrul has blossomed in the work of the 14th Dalai Lama and other contemporary Tibetan exiles as a unifying ideology.

Throughout Tibetan history, as shown above, the different schools of Tibetan Buddhism have competed with words and sometimes with weapons for resources and power. This appears to have ocurred largely at the institutional level. It is ironic, for instance, that Je Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelugpas, lived like a Ri-Me master, seeking teachings from every lineage. Nevertheless, at an institutional level, the ideology of competition and dominance has held sway. The Ri-Me movement provided a counter ideology of pluralism and ecumenicism, an “all for one and one for all” approach. This proved to be exactly what is needed in the Tibetan diaspora, and so has become the prevailing ideology of modern, global Tibetan Buddhism.



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