How Do the Tibetan Buddhist Traditions Differ?

The four Tibetan traditions have much in common, with most of the differences coming down to their interpretations of emptiness and how our minds work. Here we look at some of the similarities and differences among the Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu and Gelug schools.

Monastic Tradition

Eighteen different schools of Hinayana developed in India, with only three main vinaya lineages of monastic vows now extant. These are:

  • Theravada – in Southeast Asia
  • Dharmagupta – in East Asia
  • Mulasarvastivada – in Tibet and Central Asia.

All four Tibetan traditions share the Mulasarvastivada lineage of full and novice monks’ and novice nuns’ vows, and all four have lay practitioners as well. Like Theravada, however, Mulasarvastivada no longer has fully ordained nuns – they are only found in Dharmagupta – since the ordination lineage was never transmitted to Tibet.

The Nyingma tradition also has ngagpa (mantrika) ordination. Ngagpas hold an extensive set of tantric vows, and specialize in meditation and in performing rituals for the lay community. Becoming a ngagpa was never a major alternative to the monastic institution and so they have always been quite rare.

Study, Rituals and Meditation

All four Tibetan traditions combine sutra and tantra study with ritual and meditation. Buddhist education in each of them entails memorization of texts from the four Indian tenet systems and formal debate of their meaning. Differences in interpretation of subtle points appear not only among the four Tibetan schools, but even within each school, among its different monastic textbooks. Such differences make for lively debates and clearer understanding.

Upon successful completion of their studies, Gelugpas receive the title “Geshe” and the other three traditions the title “Khenpo.” “Khenpo” is also the title conferred on abbots. All four traditions also have the “tulku” system of reincarnate lamas. Tulkus and abbots all receive the title “Rinpoche,” regardless of their level of education.

Ritual practice in all four traditions includes chanting, accompanied by cymbals, drums and horns, and sculpting and offering cone-shaped tormas – cakes made from barley flour and butter. Chanting and music styles are generally similar, although contrabass throat chanting with overtones is found more frequently with Gelugpa monks.

All four traditions instruct their followers to do ngondro preliminaries of 100,000 repetitions of various practices, such as prostration and guru-yoga. The verses recited and the specific number of practices done, however, differ slightly. Meditation in each tradition includes daily practice, short retreats of a few months and three-year retreats. They differ mostly as to when in practitioners’ lifetimes they do retreats. Sakya, Nyingma and Kagyu tend to do ngondro and retreats earlier in their training, while Gelugpas fit them in later on, along the way.

Definitions and Points of View

Some of the main differences in the explanations that the four traditions give of the teachings come from their ways of defining and using technical terms, as well as from their presenting the Dharma from different points of view.

For instance, the pair “permanent/impermanent” can mean either static/non-static or eternal/temporary. When the Gelugpas say that the mind is impermanent, they are referring to the fact that our minds are aware of different objects in each moment and so they never remain static. On the other hand, when Kagyupas and Nyingmapas explain that the mind is permanent, they are referring to the fact that the mind’s nature never changes and that it has no beginning or end. Both sides would agree, however, with the others’ assertions, despite their positions regarding the mind’s impermanence or permanence, on the surface, are diametrically opposed.

Another difference is that Gelug explains the Dharma from the point of view of ordinary beings, Sakya from that of highly realized aryas on the path, while Kagyu and Nyingma from the point of view of enlightened beings. So, for instance, Gelug says the subtlest mind still has the habits of ignorance, like at the time of death; Sakya says it is blissful like it is generated on the path; while Kagyu and Nyingma explain it has everything complete and perfect already, as in the case of Buddhas. Further, Gelug and Sakya explain from the point of view of practitioners who proceed slowly in stages, while Kagyu and Nyingma often present the path as it occurs with those rare practitioners for whom “everything happens at once.”

Explanation and Way of Meditating on Emptiness

All four traditions agree that the explanation of emptiness – the voidness of truly established existence – given in the Madhyamaka texts are the most profound. They differ, however, in how they divide Madhyamaka into sub-schools and how these schools differ from each other. The endpoint is to achieve non-conceptual cognition of voidness – with the coarse level of mind in sutra and the subtlest clear light mind or rigpa pure awareness in highest tantra. This means achieving both a certain state of mind and a certain object, voidness, as its object. Gelug emphasizes meditation on the object side, while Sakya, Kagyu and Nyingma on the mind side.

Each tradition also teaches its own methods for attaining a non-conceptual understanding and for accessing and activating the subtlest mind. What Gelug calls non-conceptual, Sakya, Kagyu and Nyingma call “beyond words and concepts.”

As for the relation between mind and its objects, Gelug explains that we can only account for the existence of objects as their being what the words and concepts for them refer to; but of course mental labeling with concepts and designation with words does not create any findable objects. Sakya, Kagyu and Nyingma emphasize the non-duality of the mind and its objects; but that doesn’t mean that the two are identical. Rather that they cannot exist independently of each other. This is referred to as the inseparability of mind and appearances. The two positions of the Tibetan schools are not contradictory.

Further, both sides agree that upon analysis, nothing is findable, existing independently all on its own, establishing its existence from its own side; yet cause and effect still function. Gelug explains that appearances of truly established existence are like an illusion in that they don’t correspond to anything real; while the other three traditions emphasize that truly established existence is in fact an illusion.

Perception Theory

The non-Gelug schools say that what we perceive non-conceptually is just sensibilia – the sense data of one sense, for instance colored shapes with our vision. Further, we only perceive one moment at a time. Yet, conventional objects can be known through many different senses: we can know an apple through sight, smell, taste or a physical sensation in our hand, and this is through a series of moments of perception. Because of this, Sakya, Kagyu and Nyingma assert that we can only know conventional commonsense objects, like an apple, conceptually. Of course, that doesn’t mean that apples exist only in our conceptual minds, but that we can only know them through conceptual mental constructs.

Gelug asserts that even non-conceptually, we see not only one moment of colored shapes, but in each moment we also see conventional objects, like apples, that can be known through various senses and which last over time. The relation between conceptual thought and conventional objects is not that objects can only be known conceptually, nor is it that they are just the creation of conceptual thought. Rather, we can only account for their existence in terms of mental labeling with conceptual thought, as explained above. Thus both sides agree that understanding the role of conceptual thought in our way of knowing the world is essential for overcoming and eliminating forever our confusion and ignorance about reality – the deepest cause of all our suffering.


It’s very important to follow a non-sectarian approach, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama constantly emphasizes. There’s no need to get into a football team mentality with the lineages, where we think one is better than the other. The best antidote to sectarianism is education. The more we learn about the different traditions, the more we see how they all fit together, even if they often describe things very differently. In this way, we can respect the teachings from all the lineages.