Along with the Nyingma, the Kagyu, and the Geluk, the Sakya (Tib. sa-skya) school is one of the four main Tibetan Buddhist traditions. Sakya is both a religious and political project—an eminent monastic community affiliated with, and controlled by, the royalty of the noble Khön clan. Sakya means “gray earth,” for the appearance of the land around the main monastery, Sakya, which was founded by Khön Konchog Gyalpo in 1073. In the mid-13th century Sakya Paṇḍita (called “Sa-paṇ”), the tradition’s greatest scholar, was summoned to the Mongol court; he died shortly thereafter, but his nephew Phakpa became state preceptor under Kubilai Khan and viceroy over Tibet, a position the Sakyapa kept for nearly a century. After the monastery’s founder, the tradition often honors eleven famous and influential Sakyapas: the “Five Great Throne-holders” and the “Six Ornaments.” The first five throne-holders established (1) a unique heritage of practices based upon the Hevajra Tantra called the Lamdré, “The Result as the Path”; (2) a reputation for comprehensive, scholastic precision and expertise, especially in the epistemological (tshad ma) and literary sciences; and (3) a distinctive combination of religious and temporal power. The first three (Sachen Kunga Nyingpo, Sönam Tsemo, and Drakpa Gyaltsen) may be primarily associated with the first concern, Sakya Paṇḍita with the second, and Chögyal Phakpa with the third. Of the Six Ornaments, the first pair (Yakdön Sangye Pal and Rongtön Shecha Kunrig) are known for their expertise in “Sūtra” (the second concern), and the second pair (Ngorchen Konchog Lhundrup and Dzongpa Kunga Namgyel) for “Tantra” (the first concern). In addition, Rongtön is famous as founder of Phanpo Nalendra monastery and Ngorchen as founder of Ngor Ewan Choden. The final pair of “ornaments,” Gorampa Sonam Senge and Śākya Chogden, are said to have been experts in both sūtra and tantra, but we may add that they were, in addition, focused on a new, fourth concern. After the great founder of the Gelukpa, Tsongkhapa (who was a Sakyapa), developed a following for his innovative approach to Madhyamaka philosophy, these were his two great challengers from Sakya. Śākya Chogden’s “other-emptiness” (gzhan stong) view was in conflict with Sakya Paṇḍita’s and, consequently, was never adopted by the Sakya mainstream. Gorampa, however, who charges that Tsongkhapa affirms a conceptually constructed ultimate, came to challenge Geluk philosophical and doctrinal hegemony. Both thinkers were suppressed by the Geluk and have seen a revival in recent decades.
These are overviews of the Sakya tradition, centering on biographies of the founders. Powers 2007 is a Western textbook’s introduction to the Sakya tradition. Amipa 1980 is a modern composition by a Tibetan for Western students, as is the final chapter of Tseten 2008. The latter also includes a number of famed short texts, translated into English for an introductory contemplation of the venerable tradition. Gyaltsen, et al. 2000 is a translation into English of biographies written in the 17th century and earlier. Smith 2001 and Stearns 2001 (cited under Hevajra and Lamdré) are careful historical studies, as well as translations of newly discovered sources. Tucci 1999 remains essential reading on Tibetan religious culture, history, and art. Roerich 1988 is an early history of Tibet, with crucial, detailed sections on the Sakyapas.
Amipa, Sherab Gyaltsen. Une Goutte d’eau du splendide ocean: Un récit concis de l’avènement du Bouddhisme en général et des enseignements de la Tradition Sakyapa en particulier. Strasbourg, France: Université des Sciences Humaines de Strasbourg, 1980.
Contains three texts written by this Sakya master with a large European following: an autobiography describing his early life and education at Sakya; an introduction to basic Buddhism and the Mahāyāna path; and a history of the dharma, focusing on Sakya monastery. Includes a detailed royal lineage chart.
Gyaltsen, Kalsang, Ane Kunga Chodron, and Victoria Huckenpahler, trans. Holy Biographies of the Great Founders of the Glorious Sakya Order. Silver Spring, MD: Sakya Phuntsok Ling, 2000.
Readable translations of hagiographies of the founders of Sakya—Khön Konchog Gyalpo and the Five Great Sakyapa Throneholders. All of these were written by Sakyapa Ngawang Kunga Sonam except the Sakya Paṇḍita hagiography, which was written by Lodu Gyaltsen.
Powers, John. “Sakya.” In Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. Rev. ed. By John Powers, 433–466. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 2007.
Readable, clear summary of the history and central lineages of the Sakya.
Roerich, George N., trans. The Blue Annals. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1988.
This massive, early history of Tibet by Gö Lotsawa Zhönu Pel (b. 1392–d. 1481) contains a great many references to Sakya teachers, including a section of Book 4 (pp. 204–218) dedicated to the early lineages of the Lamdré and the Sakyapas up to ‘Phags-pa.
Smith, E. Gene. “The Early History of the ’Khon Family and the Sa skya School.” In Among Tibetan Texts: History and Literature of the Himalayan Plateau. By E. Gene Smith, 99–109. Boston: Wisdom, 2001.
Smith analyzes the available sources for the early history of the Sakya and then provides a translation of a previously unknown historical work, the Rgya bod yig tshang by one Stag-tshang-pa, which antedates all other known sources.
Tseten, Migmar. Treasures of the Sakya Lineage: Teachings of the Masters. Boston: Shambhala, 2008.
Collection containing nine translations of short, beloved works by the Sakya founding fathers Chogyal Phakpa and Jetsun Dragpa Gyaltsen, and sixteen teachings by the modern teachers Khenpo Appey, His Holiness Sakya Trizin, Chogye Trichen, and Migmar Tseten. The last chapter (pp. 228–256) is Migmar Tseten’s “History of the Sakya School.”
Tucci, Giuseppe. Tibetan Painted Scrolls: An Artistic and Symbolic Illustration of 172 Tibetan Paintings Preceded by a Survey of the Historical, Artistic, Literary and Religious Development of Tibetan Culture. With an Article of P. Pelliot on a Mongol Edict, the Translation of Historical Documents and an Appendix of Prebuddhistic Ideas of Tibet. 1st ed. 3 vols. Bangkok: SDI, 1999.
This classic study of Tibetan history and culture includes treatments of the following: the rise of Sakya and its struggles with Phagmodru, as well as its administration; numerous Tibetan historical writings; Sakya monastery; and Sakya lineages depicted in art. Includes several historical documents, including a translation of Dalai Lama V’s oft-cited history. Originally published in 1949.
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