Understanding the "Four Orders" of Tibetan Buddhism

Being identified with one of the four orders—Geluk, Kagyu, Nyingma, or Sakya—may say less about one’s practices than we think, according to Ngawang Zangpo, translator of Jamgon Kongtrul’s The Treasury of Knowledge: Books 2-4: Buddhism’s Journey to Tibet, in this adaptation from his translator’s postscript.

The four orders of Tibetan Buddhism are, simply put, institutions—containers that house diverse scriptural transmissions and lineages of meditation techniques. The institutions were likely founded with the intent to preserve and promote specific scriptures and meditations, yet those institutions’ missions invariably evolved over the centuries. For example, while Tilopa, Naropa, Marpa, and Milarepa—non-monks all—might view with astonishment the many Kagyu monastic networks erected in their name, Gampopa, Dusum Kyenpa, Pamo Drupa, and the others who founded those networks might be equally amazed at their modern content. What a strictly Kagyu practitioner learns today as the lineage’s core curriculum of theory and practice would hardly have been considered kosher in the founding fathers’ day.

To identify anyone as affiliated with one of the four orders is fair—we all start somewhere. In Kalu Rinpoché’s case, he joined a Kagyu monastery during his adolescence and he would sometimes add the prefix “Karma” to his name in veneration of the Karmapa and his lineage. Nevertheless, after his early training, his three-year retreat course consisted of mostly non-Karma Kagyu meditations, and in his post-retreat-graduate period of education and meditation, he seems to have treated Tibetan Buddhism as a self-serve buffet from which he slowly but surely tried and savored just about everything. Some of us had the impression that at some point he reached the end of the path, about which he was fond of saying, “There is no such thing as a Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu, or Géluk enlightenment, just enlightenment.” He worked tirelessly to give back to the institutions, mainly Kagyu, that had given him so much over the years, but he found it tiresome and limiting to be regarded as a Kagyu Buddha, even among a stellar group of other equally misidentified Kagyu, Nyingma, Sakya, and Géluk buddhas.

Kalu Rinpoché did not live long enough to successfully supplant the “four orders” schema with the eightfold framework of meditation lineages that is more helpful in situating us in relation to our spiritual path in Tibetan Buddhism. An institution provides the setting, teachers, and companions that most of us need at the outset of our practice. Yet it is one of the eight lineages of meditation practice that we receive and follow, ideally in stages from the preliminary to the culminant practices. And having finished one course, we could then engage in another, and then another, to our heart’s content, without changing our affiliation and loyalty to the first institution we joined. Kalu Rinpoché remained a lifelong Kagyu lama whose mastery extended to most, if not all, the eight lineages of meditation practice. Like Jamgön Kongtrul before him, he lived as a happy spiritual omnivore, encouraged others to do the same once they had completed one path from start to finish, and expected at all times from his followers unfailing respect toward all spiritual traditions, Buddhist or non-Buddhist.

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One significant difference between the four-order and eight-lineage approaches is their respective locations: the four orders are centered in the Himalayas; the eight lineages of meditation exist mainly in the spiritual masters who embody them, and once you have received instruction in one of the lineages, it only really takes life wherever you sit on a meditation cushion or whenever their teachings’ wisdom intrudes upon the flow of your daily plans and preoccupations. Further, one cannot assume that monasteries labeled as belonging to a specific order will specialize in the teachings we might associate with that order. For example, the senior lamas of Kalu Rinpoché’s “Kagyu” monastery were likely to be most proficient in the Shangpa Doctrinal Lineage, whereas at Bokar Rinpoché’s “Kagyu” monastery, the greatest enthusiasm was reserved for Vajra Yoga, the lineage of meditation instructions related to the Wheel of Time (Kalachakra). Other “Kagyu” monasteries seem to feature a preponderance of Ancient Lineage rituals and practices in their programs. Some “Nyingma” groups focus on Severance practices, as do some Kagyus. If the institutions are unpredictable in orientation, the same and more can be said for individuals, whose lifelong dedication to the Buddhist path can be expressed in many different rites, liturgies, and practices.

Among “organized religions,” Buddhism is the least organized, but I do not mean to suggest that its Tibetan strain has descended into chaos and anarchy. Yet if one is only armed with the organizing principle of “four orders,” one will soon be confronted with many inconvenient facts of lived faith that are clearly incompatible with that framework. If one instead learns and retains the eight lineage template, everything that may have seemed incongruous and haphazard in Himalayan meditation practice can be understood as part of a larger, coherent system. It is this system that Kongtrul introduces to us here, to the detriment of the four-order scheme, which does not merit a single explicit mention in this chapter.

The four-order scheme can be useful as long as its field of usage is identified and that it is wielded gently and mindfully. It is not a precision instrument. My personal preference is to mentally adopt the Chinese names for the four Tibetan orders. In the place of our transliterated Tibetan names—Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu, and Géluk—the Chinese use their own words for the four: red, multicolored, white, and yellow. These terms seem like code, and they are in fact ingenious in that they identify all we can know for sure without further enquiry concerning any specific monastery: the color of its exterior walls. (To explain “multicolored,” Sakyas paint a single horizontal, multicolored stripe around their buildings.) When I meet a Nyingma, all I can safely assume about her is that she and her spiritual community gather to learn, reflect, meditate, and worship in a red building; if Géluk, in a yellow one. That system has the virtues of simplicity, ease of use, and accuracy, but I don’t expect it to gain any currency: we are not yet close enough to Tibet to comfortably call things by our own names.

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