Sakya School

Tibetan Renaissance Seminar > Participants > Luke Wagner > Organization Essay: Sakya School

Sakya School

The Sakya school is one of the four great schools of Tibetan Buddhism and traces its roots to the heart of the Renaissance period. Two centuries after the founding of Sakya monastery in Tsang, the school emerged as the dominant religious and political force in Tibet. As Davidson indicates, the Sakya school was well positioned to take control over Tibet by the end of the Renaissance period because of its association with the Khön clan. While tensions between the historical claims of dynastic aristocratic clans and the newly established aristocracy mounted, the Khön clan essentially embodied both worlds: they maintained Nyingma rituals, which served to verify their dynastic roots, but they were able to seamlessly integrate the Sarma practices that emerged in the later translation period (Davidson 267). The Khön clan traces its origins to the descent of three “sky gods,” the youngest of whom remained on Earth. His first human offspring was supposedly “born in the midst of the strife” (‘khon bar skyes) that occurred between the sky gods and the “demon-like savages” who lived in Tibet at the time. Some Tibetan histories indicate that the earliest important Khön association with Buddhism was through Lüü Wangpo Sungwa, who was supposed to have been a disciple of Padmasambhava and is said to have taken ordination from Śāntaraksita following the foundation of Samyé, thus firmly establishing the clan’s Nyingma roots. However, the earliest recorded account of the clan is from the eighth century when Khön Jegung Tag attained the rank of ‘home minister’ to King Trison Detsen (~742-797) (Gyaltshen, 9).

As opposed to the Kadampa and Kagyüpa schools, the Sarma traditions in Ü that were the predominant religious forces throughout the twelfth century, the Sakya school emerged as a relatively conservative response to many of the practices that had become commonplace throughout the region (Davidson, 277)

The tantric systems associated with the Sakya school are the Hevajra Tantra and the Cakrasamvara Tantra, though the former is clearly more central as it serves as the foundation of the Lamdre (lam ‘bras) teachings.


As Davidson points out, the Lamdré is “referred to as the ‘crest jewel’ of the Sakya tantric practice,” however, its Indic roots are questionable considering that it was supposedly brought to Tibet by Kāyastha Gayādhara, “one of the more eccentric characters in Indian Buddhist history” (Davidson, 14). Regardless, it was not only a complex series of teachings, but effectively served as an “icon for the emerging power and authority of the Khön clan” and served to provide the unique authority the Khön claimed.

Drokmi initially received the Lamdré teachings from Prajnendraruci, whose secret name was Vīvajra, after receiving initiation into the Vajrayāna from him. According to the Blue Annals, the Lamdré teachings he received were “without the basic text” (R 206), which Davidson explains became known as the “rootless Lamdré” and was referred to as such to distinguish it from the system that was passed down in the root text form from Virūpa. However, it became associated with numerous texts concerned with the tantras of the Hevajra (Davidson, 173). Later, he convinced Gayādhara to initiate him into the Lamdré, which Gayādhara reportedly received from Avadhūti. Drokmi apparently convinced Gayādhara to refrain from teaching anyone else the Lamdré by giving him five hundred ounces of gold. In this way, Drokmi established something of a monopoly on the Lamdré teachings: he taught his disciples one of two traditions: the method of instruction (upadeśanaya) or the exegetical method (vyākhyānaya), but would not teach both to any one person. (Davidson, 180-181).

Sakya Monastery

The founder of Sakya Monastery, Khön Könchok Gyelpo (dkon mchog ryal po, 1034-1102) effectively set the standard for the Sakya as his interest in the new form of Tibetan Buddhism was piqued after witnessing the public display of secret tantric rituals, an event he and his brother considered disgraceful and a signal that the old traditions would no longer be fruitful. The sentiment passed to later Khön generations, and set the standard for the Sakya concern with secrecy. He later went to study with Drokmi and received the teachings of the text-less Lamdré. After purchasing land and by founding Sakya Monastery, Könchok Gyelpo established the institutional base of the Sakya school (Davidson, 271-274).

His son and successor was Sachen Kunga Nyingpo (sa chen un dga’ snying po, 1092-1138) and the school that developed owes its teachings and practices to the various transmissions collected by him (Stearns, 751). Sachen received a wide range of teachings and wrote extensively, though his emphasis was on commentaries of the Root Text of the Margaphala, the Lamdré text. In this way, Sachen brought together the tantric and exegetical streams of the Lamdré that Drokmi separated (Davidson, 311).

His sons Sönam Tsemo (bsod names rtse mo, 1142-1182) and Trakpa Gyaltsen (grags pa rgyal mtshan, 1147-1216) succeeded him. Up until the time of Trakpa Gyaltsen, the influence of the Sakya school was effectively concentrated in the region immediately surrounding Sakya Monastery, but its influence was extended when Sakya Pandita Kunga Gyaltsen (sa skya pandita kun dga’ rgyal msthan, 1182-1251) succeeded his uncle, Trakpa Gyaltsen.

Sapan was summoned to the Mongol court in 1244. He arrived there and began teaching in 1247, converting Prince Köden (Godan) and several of his ministers to Mahāyāna Buddhism. It is reported that he cured the Prince of leprosy and performed other miracles in addition to the teachings he provided. The Mongol prince granted temporal authority over Ü and Tsang to Sapan in 1249 (Gyaltshen, 16-18). This established the framework for the patron-preceptor relationship between the Sakya school and the Mongol court upon the succession of Sapan’s nephew, Pakpa (‘phags pa, 1235-1280, who was named Khubilai Khan’s national preceptor in 1261 and imperial preceptor in 1269/1270. While there are many unanswered questions regarding the nature of the relationship between Pakpa and Khubilai, the most pressing of which is the exact function the Sakya school served, the political consolidation brought about by the arrangement effectively marked the end of the Renaissance period (Davidson, 6-10)


the Blue Annals

Davidson, Ronald M. 2005. Tibetan Renaissance: Tantric Buddhism in the Rebirth of Tibetan Culture. New York: Columbia Univeristy Press.

Stearns, Cyrus. 2004. “Sa skya (Sakya)” in Encyclopedia of Buddhism, vol II edited by Robert E. Buswell. New York: Gale. pp 751-752.

Gyaltshen, Sakya Pandita Kunga. 2002. A Clear Differentiation of the Three Codes: Essential Distinctions Among the Individual Liberation, Great Vehicle, and Tantric Systems. Translated by Jared Douglas Rhoton, edited by Victoria R. M. Scott. Albany: State University of New York Press.