Sakya Monastery in Ponpori Hills
Sakya Monastery in Ponpori Hills

1. Sakya

Sakya ( pale earth ) school is one of 5 major schools of Tibetan Buddhism, the others being the Nyingma, Kagyu, Jonang and Gelug.

The name Sakya ( pale earth ) derives from the unique grey landscape of the Ponpori Hills in southern Tibet near Shigatse,

where Sakya Monastery, the 1st monastery of this tradition, and the seat of the Sakya School was built by Khön Könchok Gyalpo (1034–1102) in 1073.

The story tells that In 1042, Atiśa, the great Indian Buddhist master who helped revive Buddhism in Tibet, was traveling in Tibet spreading the Buddha’s teachings:

At the side of a mountain where there was “pale earth,” he foresaw the emanations of 3 Bodhisattvas who he knew would spread the Buddhist doctrine in Tibet:

  1. Avalokiteśvara (the embodiment of compassion),
  2. Mañjuśrī (the embodiment of infinite wisdom),
  3. Vajrapāṇi (the embodiment of infinite power).

It was at the same site of pale earth some 30 years later, in 1073, that Khön Könchok Gyalpo (1034–1102) built the 1st Sakya Monastery.

The monastery took its name from the pale earth (in Tibetan “sa-kya”) where the monastery was founded.

Subsequently, the town that arose there, the family of the monastery’s founder (the Khön lineage), and the school of Tibetan Buddhism took the name of the monastery: Sakya.

The Sakya tradition developed during the period of New Translation of Buddhist scripture from Sanskrit into Tibetan in the late 11th century.

It was founded by Drogmi, a famous scholar and translator who had studied at the Vikramaśīla directly under Naropa, Ratnākaraśānti, Vagīśvakīrti and other great paṇḍitas from India for 12 years.

Khön Könchok Gyalpo became Drogmi's disciple on the advice of his elder brother.

The tradition was established by the 5 Venerable Supreme Masters starting with the grandson of Könchok Gyalpo, Sachen Kunga Nyingpo, who became known as Sachen, or Great Sakyapa :

  1. Sachen Kunga Nyingpo (1092–1158)
  2. Sonam Tsemo (1142–1182)
  3. Jetsun Dragpa Gyaltsen (1147–1216)
  4. Sakya Paṇḍita (1182–1251)
  5. Drogön Chögyal Phagpa (1235–1280)

Butön Rinchen Drub (1290–1364) was an important scholar and writer and one of Tibet's most celebrated historians.

Other notable scholars of the Sakya tradition are the so-called 6 Ornaments of Tibet:

  1. Yaktuk Sangyey Pal
  2. Rongtön (1367–1449)
  3. Ngorchen Kunga Zangpo
  4. Zongpa Kunga Namgyal
  5. Gorampa (1429–1489)
  6. Sakya Chokden (1428–1507)

The leadership of the Sakya School is passed down through a hereditary system between the male members of the Sakya branch of the Khön family.

2. Teachings

Sachen, the first of the 5 Supreme Masters, inherited a wealth of tantric doctrines from numerous Tibetan translators or Lotsawas who had visited India: most importantly Drokmi Lotsawa, Bari Lotsawa and Mal Lotsawa.

From Drokmi comes the supreme teaching of Sakya, the system of Lamdre Path and its Fruit deriving from the Mahāsiddha Virūpa based upon the Hevajra Tantra.

Mal Lotsawa introduced to Sakya the esoteric Vajrayoginī lineage known as Naro Khachoma.

From Bari Lotsawa came innumerable tantric practices, foremost of which was the cycle of practices known as the One Hundred Sādhanas.

Other key transmissions that form part of the Sakya spiritual curriculum include the cycles of Vajrakīlaya, Mahākāla and Guhyasamāja tantras.

The 4th Sakya patriarch, Sakya Paṇḍita, was notable for his exceptional scholarship and composed many important and influential texts on Sūtra and tantra, including:

  1. Means of Valid Cognition: A Treasury of Reasoning ,
  2. Clarifying the Sage's Intent
  3. Discriminating the 3 Vows .

The main Dharma system of the Sakya school is the Path with its Result , which is split into 2 main lineages:

  1. Explanation for the Assembly
  2. Explanation for Close Disciples .

The other major system of the Sakya School is the Naropa Explanation For Disciples .

Another important series of teachings is based on verses of Günga Nyingpo (1092–1158) called separating from the 4 attachments which is the subject of commentaries by numerous Sakya masters.

The verses are:

If you cling to this life, then you are not a dharma practitioner.
If you cling to existence, then you do not have renunciation.
If you are attached to your own interests,
then you do not have the mind of awakening.
If you hold to a position, then you do not have the correct view.

3. Sub-schools

In due course, 2 sub-sects emerged from the main Sakya lineage,

1) Ngor, founded in Tsang by Ngorchen Kunga Zangpo (1382–1457):

The Ngor School is centred on Ngor Evam Choden monastery.

It represents 85% of the Sakyapa School and most if not all the monasteries in India are Ngorpa, apart from Sakya Trizin's monastery.

2) Tshar, founded by Tsarchen Losal Gyamtso (1496 - 1560).

There were 3 mother monasteries of the Sakya School:

1) Sakya Monastery, founded in 1073,

2) Ngor Evam Choden, founded in 1429,

3) Phanyul Nalendra in Phanyul, north of Lhasa, founded in 1435 by Kuntchen Rongtön. Nalendra became the home of the 'whispered-lineage' of the Tshar School.

The Bodongpa tradition, founded by Bodong Panchen Chögle Namgyal (1376-1451), is considered by some scholars to be a sub-sect of the Sakya tradition.

4. Sakya Rulers

The Mongol conquest of Tibet began after the foundation of the Mongol Empire in the early 13th century.

In 1264, the feudal reign over Tibet was given to Drogön Chögyal Phagpa by Kublai Khan, founder of the Yuan dynasty.

Sakya lamas, along with Sakya Imperial Preceptors and dpon-chens continued to serve as viceroys or administrators of Tibet on behalf of Yuan emperors for nearly 75 years after Phagpa’s death in 1280,

until the Yuan dynasty was greatly weakened by the Red Turban Rebellion in the 1350s, a decade before the Ming dynasty founded by the Han Chinese overthrew Mongol rule in China.

The leaders of the Sakya regime were as follows.

  1. Drogön Chögyal Phagpa 1253-1280
  2. Dharmapala Rakṣita 1280-1282, d. 1287
  3. Jamyang Rinchen Gyaltsen 1286-1303
  4. Zangpo Pal 1306-1323
  5. Khatsun Namkha Lekpa Gyaltsen 1325-1341
  6. Jamyang Donyo Gyaltsen 1341-1344
  7. Lama Dampa Sonam Gyaltsen 1344-1347
  8. Lotro Gyaltsen 1347-1365

5. Sakya today

42nd Sakya Trizin
Ratna Vajra Rinpoche

The head of the Sakya School, known as Sakya Trizin ( holder of the Sakya throne ), is always drawn from the male line of the Khön family.

The present Sakya Trizin, Ngawang Kunga, born in Tsedong in 1945, is the 41st to hold that office.

41st Sakya Trizin is thought to be the reincarnation of 2 great Tibetan masters:

a Nyingmapa lama known as Apong Tertön (Orgyen Thrinley Lingpa), who is famous for his Red Tārā cycle, and his grandfather, the 39th Kyabgon Sakya Trizin (1871–1936).

Today, he resides in Rajpur, India along with his wife, Gyalyum Kushok Tashi Lhakyi, and 2 sons Ratna Vajra Rinpoche and Gyana Vajra Rinpoche.

Ratna Vajra Rinpoche being the older son, is the lineage holder. Both sons are married.

Traditionally, hereditary succession has alternated between the 2 Sakya palaces, since Khön Könchok Gyalpo's (1034–1102) reign:

The Ducho sub-dynasty of Sakya survives split into 2 palaces:

1) Dolma Phodrang
2) Phuntsok Phodrang.

Sakya Trizin is head of the Dolma Phodrang.

Jigdal Dagchen Sakya (1929–2016) was the head of the Phuntsok Phodrang, and lived in Seattle, Washington,

where he co-founded Sakya Monastery of Tibetan Buddhism with Dezhung Rinpoche III, and constructed the 1st Tibetan Buddhist Monastery in the United States.

Dagchen Sakya's father was the previous Sakya Trizin, Trichen Ngawang Thutop Wangchuk, throne holder of Sakya, and his mother Dechen Drolma.

Dagchen Sakya was married to Her Eminence Dagmo Jamyang Kusho Sakya; they have 5 sons, 5 grandchildren and 3 great-grand-children, and he founded the 1st Monastery of Tibetan Buddhism in USA.

On 11 December 2014, a new throne holder succession system was announced during the 23rd Great Sakya Mönlam prayer festival on a resolution passed by the Dolma Phodrang and Phuntsok Phodrang,

where members of both Phodrang will serve the role of Sakya Trizin in one 3 year term, according to their seniority and qualification.

Ratna Vajra Rinpoche was enthroned on 9 March 2017 as the 42nd Sakya Trizin, the first to be enthroned under the new system.