Kadampa Organization Essay

Tibetan Renaissance Seminar > Week 13

Organization Essay: Kadampa Sect

Overview of Kadampa

The Kadampa tradition is one of the few sects of Tibetan Buddhism to clearly emerge in the Renaissance period. Unlike other groups in the eleventh century, the Kadampa rooted their tantric tradition firmly within a Mahayana setting. The Kadampa of this period were focused on two seemingly paradoxical themes: intense scholarship and the popularization of Buddhism. Their chief doctrinal focus in the Renaissance period was compassion. Unlike other sects which were more localized, Kadampa figures spanned the Tibetan plateau, with activities in Western, Central, and Eastern Tibet.

The grandfather of the Kadampas is the Bengali scholar Atiśa. Atiśa was certainly influential among his disciples in terms of his teachings, yet it was not until the fifteenth century or so that hagiographies shape the widely-help Tibetan notion that it was Atiśa that set eleventh century Tibet on fire with a burning love for all things Buddhist.

The term “Kadampa” began to be used in the twelfth century to refer to Atiśa’s disciple’s disciples. Kadampa means “scripture” or “precept” and was thought to refer to the scholastic leanings of come early Kadampa figures. This scholastic focus reached far beyond the Kadampa sect; in fact, many prominent leaders from other sects in the centuries to come received at least part of their training in Kadampa monasteries. The Kadampa are also part of the common inheritance of all Tibetans because of their popularization of Buddhism, including their propagation of the Avalokiteśvara cult.

History of Kadampa in Renaissance Period

The Kadampas were one of the first sects to clearly emerge from the excitement of the Renaissance period, and any history of the Kadampa must begin with the teacher Atiśa (963?-1054).


Kadampa hagiography from a few centuries after the Renaissance period presents the early part of the Renaissance and the development of the Kadampa sect as dominated by the great Bengali teacher, Atiśa. Tibetologist scholars such as Ronald Davidson point out that this characterization of Atiśa’s importance is a retroactive one and an exaggerated one. Davidson suggests that the Kadampa reverence for their great teacher came later during the Renaissance period; after Atiśa’s death. Whether the significance of his influence began during his life or a century or so later, Atiśa has become an important figure for the Kadampa sect, and marks the beginning of its beginning.

Atiśa was a monk and an outstanding representative of scholastic Indian Buddhism. He came to Tibet by invitation in the 1030s and it was his main disciple and, in turn, his disciples who became known as the founders of the Kadampa sect of Tibetan Buddhism. He was esteemed as a generous and gregarious teacher. Atiśa never established a Vinaya system in Tibet; he was a monk of the Lokottaravāda section of the Mahāsāmghika-vinaya. He attempted to teach this Vinaya at Nyétang Monastery he was stopped because of a previous prohibition on teaching any Vinaya other than Mulasarvāstivāda. The Kadampa’s lack of their own Vinaya ordination system made these early Kadampas dependent on other traditions and therefore less influential at this time.

During Atiśa’s life few Kadampa temples were founded by him, and the few that were became dependent on the Eastern Vinaya for ordination. During his travels in Tibet, Atiśa had the patronage of the Eastern Vinaya, which was critical for his success. Davidson suggests that Atiśa was even somewhat manipulated by his Tibetan “managers.” After all, Tibetan monks of this period were referred to as “Big Men;” they were clearly in charge of his every move. Not only were his movements restricted, but his teachings were also controlled and some scholars today believe that he has more of an esoteric proclivity than his biographies let on.

His followers portrayed Atiśa as a conservative teacher stressing Buddhist morality, monasticism, the strict framing of Tantra within Mahāyāna study and practice, gradual approaches to the Buddhist path, and exoteric scholastic study. They followed lineages of Eastern Vinaya but with a Kadampa curriculum.

Atiśa is also regarded for one particular text which he brought into Tibet: the Lamp for the Path of Awakening. This text accomplished two things: it gradated the path; clearly stating the relationship of different Tibetan teaching to each other and clearly grounding the beginning stages of practice in exoteric stages. In other words, it contextualized tantra within the Mahayana tradition. It also firmly states that monasticism does not involve sexual tantric practice, a notion which paved the way for the Kadampas to maintain a more conservative monastic tradition than most.


In addition to Atiśa, there is one other particularly famous early Kadampa leader who was also Atiśa ‘s leading disciple: Drömton. Drömton, who was a layman, translated tantric ritual manuals such as Cakrasamvara and Yamataka with Atiśa. Drömton founded Retreng Monastery (ra sgreng or rwa sgreng ) in 1056-7 in central Tibet, northeast of Lhasa.

Drömton was said to have 60-80 disciples at this time. Three of his disciples at Retreng stand out: Punchungwa Zhönu Gyeltsen (1031-1109), Chenga Tsultrim-bar (1038-1103) and Potaba Rinchen-sel (1027-1105). It was at this time that the Kadampa sect became known as “Kadampa,” as these disciples were referred to as “Kadampa” or “Jowo Kadampa.” They were dedicated to protecting Kadampa teachings. These three brothers each played their own role in the popularization of Buddhism, and their teacher Drömton Gyélwe Jungné is remembered as one of the founders of the Kadam sect.

Drömton himself exemplifies several interesting trends in Renaissance Tibetan Buddhism. He is an example of the flowering of the Drom clan in the Renaissance period, which up until this time has been a clan of relatively minor importance. Drömton is also an example of the somewhat odd but not uncommon system of a layman controlling or founding a monastery. Furthermore Drömton’s scholarship illustrates the growing emphasis on the ethical substance of religious practice, an emphasis that has far-reaching influence, well outside of the Kadampa sect.

Kadampa Influence and Significance in the Renaissance Period

The legacy of the Kadampa in this period is interestingly both an intellectual one as well as a non-intellectual, popular one; and is also focused on Indian Buddhism yet uniquely open to Tibetan motifs.

The intellectual legacy and influence of the Kadampa comes from their rigorous scholastic training in their monasteries, especially Sangpu Néütok. The texts they studied, which came through Atiśa, became the markers of Tibetan intellectual development. The Kadampa valued the authentic Indian Buddhist texts and teachings they had garnered from Atiśa. Their emphasis on the gradated, gradual path later became dominant among other Tibetan Buddhist sects.

In contrast to their focus on Indian Buddhism-based scholastics, they also popularized Tibetan Buddhism through previously unused techniques which valued that which was unique to Tibet. Drömton’s disciples were instrumental in the popularization of Buddhism. After his death some of his disciples left Retreng Monastery and began to evangelize the populace. They promoted the very egalitarian ideal of compassion. Their pedagogy changed from what they might have used in a monastic setting. Instead, they employed indigenous Tibetan metaphors, local expressions, and popular images. For the first time, purely Tibetan language and expressions were successfully and legitimately used uncloaked in the guise of Indian Buddhism

The Kadampa were also the architects of the deity Avalokiteśvara’s wild popularity. Two of Drömton’s disciples, Chenga and Potaba, essentially turned the deities Avalokiteśvara and Tara into the religious ancestors of all Tibetan people. Even though these were Indian deities with Sanskrit names, they become adopted by the Tibetan imagination such that they truly became Tibetan figures. Reverence was great especially for Avalokiteśvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion. The Kadampa were responsible for collecting and popularizing the rich body of narrative around Avalokiteśvara.

Kadampa Monasteries in this Period

The eleventh century was a time of rapid monastery building for the Kadampa sect. It’s estimated that by the middle of the century, 3-4 dozen monasteries has been built, without a break in stride. Because the Kadampa never established their own Vinaya system, the majority of these monasteries were Kadampa in flavor and curriculum and Eastern Vinaya in ordination.

In the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries we see an undeniable rise of Kadampa importance in Tibet. A huge Kadampa monastery-building effort began in the mid-eleventh century and continued without faltering for many decades. The great Kadampa monasteries during Renaissance period included Solnak Thanpöché, Nyétang, and Sangpu Néütok, and they each – in line with Atiśa’s legacy – became noted for their scholastic excellence. Notably, Retreng Monastery was not founded in Eastern Vinaya.

Most of these monasteries became renowned for their study of the newest philosophical systems and their dedication to the Mahayanist doctrine, particularly Sangpu Néütok Monastery. These Kadampa monasteries are often referred to as a locus of the beginning of Tibetan scholasticism and debate.

Nyétang Monastery

Nyétang Monastery (snye thang) was founded in 1055 A.D. as a Kadampa monastery in the Kyichu Valley, near Lhasa by Bangtön. Like most of the great Kadampa monasteries founded in 11th century Tibet, Nyétang was established in the Eastern Vinaya lineage. Nyétang was specifically Ba Rak (a particular strand of Eastern Vinaya) in lineage but Kadampa in curriculum. After Atiśa’s death there was a struggle for control of Nyétang, which was eventually won by the Ba Rak group.

Puchungwa Zhönu Gyeltsen (1031-1109), a monk who became renowned for his knowledge of meditation and his mystical abilities which were immortalized in Kadampa secret literature, studied with Atiśa at Nyétang and Drömton at Reting.

The character and story of Bangtön, Nyétang’s founder and the circumstances of modern Nyétang are two areas for further research.

Sangpu Néütok Monastery

Sangpu Néütok Monastery (gsang phu) was founded as a Kadampa monastery in 1073 A.D. by Ngok Lekpé Shérap near Lushon Village in Central Tibet. Like most of the great Kadampa monasteries founded in 11th century Tibet, Sangpu Néütok was established in the Eastern Vinaya tradition.

Sangpu Néütok was founded in 1073 by Ngok Lekpé Shérap (1059 - 1109) who established a strong intellectual tradition there. Interestingly, the Blue Annals does not supply the names of any of his teachers or the teachings he received. Both Ngok Lekpé Shérap and his nephew Ngok Loden Shérap were translators and were close disciples of Atiśa.

Sangpu Néütok became known for its study of the newest philosophical systems and its dedication to the Mahayanist doctrine. It’s often referred to as a locus of the beginning of Tibetan scholasticism and debate. Because of the weakening of the previously dominant Kadampa monastery Reting, Sangpu Néütok assumed primary importance among the Kadampa monasteries in the early twelfth century. At first there were two Kadampa schools at this monastery, one called Longto and the other Lingme. Eventually, these colleges morphed into a mixed bag of seven Sakya schools and four Gelupkpa schools.

A monk known for his unorthodox views and willingness to challenge accepted precepts lived at Sangpu Néütok in the mid-eleventh century. Chökyi Sengé’s (1109-69) attempts at doctrinal innovation were definitively snuffed out, which was typical of the period’s deep skepticism of ideas that were exclusively Tibetan. One of the late twelfth monastic century stars of the Khön, Sönam Tsémo, studied with Chapa at Sangpu Néütok. Sönam Tsémo was very dedicated to Chapa and yet and he and his relatives played a fundamental role in the burgeoning Sakya sect.

The fact that Sönam Tsémo studied with a Kadampa master yet he was also instrumental in the Sakya sect’s beginnings shows the fluidity of sectarian affiliations at this point in Tibetan history. It wasn’t until a few centuries later that the lines were clearly drawn between what we now know as the major sects of Tibetan Buddhism.

Sangpu Néütok remained an active monastery through at least the fifteenth century, including the addition of a famous pupil in the fourteenth century, Longchenpa, after which Sangpu Néütok was absorbed into the Gelukpa sect. Sangpu Néütok’s history after the fifteenth century is not easily researched, although it is still mentioned in current travel guides.

Solnak Thanpöché Monastery

Solnak Thanpöché Monastery (sol nag thang po che) was founded southwest of Lhasa in the Yarlung Valley by Drumer. Like most of the great Kadampa monasteries founded in 11th century Tibet, Solnak Thanpöché was established in the Eastern Vinaya lineage.

Solnak Thanpöché was established in the Yarlung Valley of Ü in 1017 by Drumer and his cohort. Drumer was a disciple of Lumé who is considered to be the greatest representative of the hierarchical Eastern Vinaya tradition. Lumé died on his way to Solnak Thanpöché. He and Drumer were both interred in the Great Stupa at Solnak Thanpöché. In Chapter 2 of the Blue Annals, it is reported that “some eight monks belonging to the school of the kalyana Grumer and others, after requesting Lumé in person, built Solnak Thanpöché (Sol nap Than po che),” {R 75} and it’s later noted that Solnak Thanpöché became known for its philosophical (rather than tantric) teachings.

Solnak Thanpöché shares the reputation of a great early scholastic center in Tibetan Buddhism with other Kadampa monasteries, including Nyétang and Sangpu Néütok.

Solnak Thanpöché has several illustrious visitors. Atiśa resided at Solnak Thanpöché for one month during his Tibetan travels. Atiśa was invited to the monastery by the Kadampa spiritual giant Tsondru Yungdrung (1011-75). Also Chapter 15 of the Blue Annals notes that the Buddhist chronology was established by Sakya Pandita while he was staying at Solnak Thanpöché in 1207.

Solnak Thanpöché was absorbed into the Gelukpa sect after Tsongkapa’s visit in the 14th century and is still an active Gelukpa community.

Retreng Monastery

Exceptional to the trend of Kadampa monasteries, Reting (ra sgreng or rwa sgreng) was not founded in the Eastern Vinaya lineage. Drömton Gyélwe Jungné, who was a lay disciple of Atiśa, founded Reting in 1056-7 Central Tibet, northeast of Lhasa. He translated tantric ritual manuals such as Cakrasamvara and Yamataka with Atiśa. In contrast his Kadampa contemporaries at Solnak Thanpöché and Sangpu Néütok, Drömton translated more philosophical, non-tantric materials. Reting became known for its Kadampa contemplative path teachings, such as the purifying the intellect (blo shyong) practices.

Several noteworthy pieces of art from this period are extant including a scroll copy of Tara and a white bell-metal image of Tara called Tara Victorious over the Army (gyul rgyal sgrol ma), the latter of which is believed to be one of Atiśa’s personal statues.


See also Kadampa Bibliography.

external link: TBRC

Blue Annals, Roerich Translation

Ronald Davison’s Tibetan Renaissance

Michael Kapstein’s The Tibetans