The Nyingma tradition is the oldest of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism (the other three being the Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug). "Nyingma" literally means "ancient," and is often referred to as Ngangyur (IPA: [ŋaɲɟuː], Tibetan: སྔ་འགྱུར་རྙིང་མ།, Wylie: snga 'gyur rnying ma , "school of the ancient translations" or "old school") because it is founded on the first translations of Buddhist scriptures from Sanskrit into Old Tibetan in the eighth century. The Tibetan alphabet and grammar was actually created for this endeavour.
In modern times, the Nyingma lineage has been centered in Kham.
Early lineage and traditions
The Nyingmapa, a Red Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism, incorporate local religious practices and local deities and elements of shamanism, which is shared with Bon. The group particularly believes in hidden terma treasures. Traditionally, Nyingmapa practice was advanced orally among a loose network of lay practitioners. Monasteries with celibate monks and nuns, along with the practice of reincarnated spiritual leaders are later adaptations.
The Nyingma tradition actually comprises several distinct lineages that all trace their origins to the Indian master Padmasambhava, who is lauded in the popular canon as the founder of Tibetan Buddhism in the eighth century, and is still propitiated in the discipline of reciprocity that is guru yoga sādhanā, the staple of the traditions.
Nyingma maintains the earliest tantra teachings that have been given the popular nomenclature of Vajrayana. Early Vajrayana that was transmitted from India to Tibet may be differentiated by the specific term "Mantrayana" (Wylie: sngags kyi theg pa ). "Mantrayana" is the Sanskrit of what became rendered in Tibetan as "Secret Mantra" (Wylie: gsang sngags ): this is the self-identifying term employed in the earliest literature, whereas Nyingma was coined in differentiation from the "New Schools" or Sarma.
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Geographical dissemination of Buddhism into the Tibetan plateau
[A]t least in Eastern Tibet, there existed during and after the time of Lha-tho-tho-ri [Fl.173(?)-300(?) CE] a solid knowledge of Buddhism and that the upper classes of the people were faithfully devoted to it. But the border regions in the north and west probably had also come into contact with Buddhism long before the time of Srong-btsan-sgam-po. Buddhist teachings reached China via a route along the western and northern borders of the Tibetan culture and language zone; the same route was travelled by Indian Pandits and Chinese pilgrims in their endeavour to bring this Indian religion to China. There used to be contacts with the Tibetan population in these border regions. It is possible that the knowledge gained from these encounters was spread by merchants over large areas of Tibet. Thus, when Srong-btsan-sgam-po succeeded to the throne of Tibet in the year 627, the country was ready for a systematic missionary drive under royal patronage.
Around 760, Trisong Detsen invited Padmasambhava and the Nalanda abbot Śāntarakṣita to Tibet to introduce Buddhism to the "Land of Snows." Trisong Detsen ordered the translation of all Buddhist texts into Tibetan. Padmasambhava, Śāntarakṣita, 108 translators, and 25 of Padmasambhava's nearest disciples worked for many years in a gigantic translation-project. The translations from this period formed the base for the large scriptural transmission of Dharma teachings into Tibet. Padmasambhava supervised mainly the translation of tantras; Śāntarakṣita concentrated on the sutras. Padmasambhava and Śāntarakṣita also founded the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet: Samye. However, this situation would not last:
The explosive developments were interrupted in the mid-ninth century as the Empire began to disintegrate, leading to a century-long interim of civil war and decentralization about which we know relatively little.
From this basis, Tantric Buddhism was established in its entirety in Tibet. From the eighth until the eleventh century, the Nyingma was the only school of Buddhism in Tibet. With the reign of King Langdarma (836–842), the brother of King Ralpachen, a time of political instability ensued which continued over the next 300 years, during which time Buddhism was persecuted and largely forced underground because the King saw it as a threat to the indigenous Bön tradition. Langdarma persecuted monks and nuns, and attempted to wipe out Buddhism. His efforts, however, were not successful. A few monks escaped to Amdo in the northeast of Tibet, where they preserved the lineage of monastic ordination.
From the eleventh century onwards, the Nyingma tradition flourished along with the newer Sarma schools, and it was at that time that Nyingmapas began to see themselves as a distinct group and the term "Nyingma" came into usage.
Historically, the Nyingma tradition is unique amongst the four schools in that its supporters never held political power, and therefore its practitioners were mostly removed from the political machinations of Tibet. Indeed, the Nyingma traditionally had no centralized authority or Nyingma-wide hierarchy. Only since the Tibetan diaspora following the Chinese annexure of Tibet have the Nyingma had a head of the Tradition and this seat was only invested at the polite request of the Dalai Lama. Even so, the Nyingma tradition is still politically decentralized and often decisions are made in an oligarchy or community of the senior sangha within a given jurisdiction or locale. Nyingmapa are also historically characterized and distinguished by decentralization and by their general wider political disinterest, with a lesser emphasis on monasticism relative to the other schools, with a correspondingly greater preponderance of ngagpas, uncelibate householders and yogins.
There was never a single "head of the lineage" in the manner of either the Ganden Tripa or Dalai Lama of the Gelug, the Karmapa of the Karma Kagyu or the Sakya Trizin of the Sakya. It was only recently in exile in India that this role was created at the request of the Central Tibetan Administration and it is largely administrative. Nevertheless, the lamas who have served in this role are among the most universally highly regarded. They are:
- Dudjom Jigdral Yeshe Dorje (c. 1904–1987), served from the 1960s until his death.
- Dilgo Khyentse (c. 1910–1991), served from 1987 until his death.
- Penor Rinpoche (1932–2009) served from 1991 until retirement in 2003.
- Mindrolling Trichen (c. 1930–2008), served from 2003 until his death.
- Trulshik Rinpoche (1923–2011), served from 2010 until his death on September 2, 2011. Selected after Chatral Rinpoche declined the position.
- Taklung Tsetrul Rinpoche (1926-2015), served from 2012 until his death.
Rise of scholasticism and monasticism
In 1848, Dzogchen Shri Sengha (rdzogs chen srwi sengha), was founded by a charismatic teacher, Zhanphan Thaye (gzhan phan mtha' yas, 1800-), in association with the active participation of Do Kyentse (rndo mkhyen rtse). As scholar Georges Dreyfuss reports,
The purpose of this school was not . . . the study of the great Indian treatises . . . but the development of Nyingma monasticism in Kham, a particularly important task at that time. Up to then, the Nyingma tradition had mostly relied on non-ordained tantric practitioners to transmit its teachings through authorized lineages. The move toward monasticism changed this situation, putting a greater emphasis on the respect of exoteric moral norms of behavior as a sign of spiritual authority. This move participated in the logic animating the nonsectarian movement, the revitalization of non-Geluk traditions so that they could compete with the dominant Geluk school. Since the Geluk hegemony was based on a widespread monastic practice, it was important for the other schools to develop their own monasticism to rival the dominant Geluk tradition. This seems to have been one the goals of Zhanphan Thaye in creating the Dzokchen commentarial school. . . .A further and equally important step was taken a few decades later with the transformation by [Khenpo] Zhenga of this institution into a center devoted to the study of the exoteric tradition. This step was decisive in creating a scholastic model that could provide an alternative to the dominant model of the Geluk seats and could train scholars who could hold their own against the intellectual firing power of Geluk scholars.
For Zhenga and his followers, the way to return to this past was the exegetical study of commentaries, the proper object of scholarship. By downplaying the role of debate emphasized by the Geluk monastic seats and stressing exegetical skills, they accentuated the differences between these two traditions and provided a clear articulation of a non-Geluk scholastic tradition. In this way, they started the process of reversal of the damage inflicted on the non-Geluk scholarly traditions and created an alternative to the dominance of Geluk scholasticism, which had often tended to present itself in Tibet as the sole inheritor and legitimate interpreter of the classical Indian Buddhist tradition.
This scholastic movement led by Khenpo Shenga came on the heels of the work of Mipham, who "completely revolutionised rNying ma pa scholasticism in the late nineteenth century, raising its status after many centuries as a comparative intellectual backwater, to arguably the most dynamic and expansive of philosophical traditions in all of Tibetan Buddhism, with an influence and impact far beyond the rNying ma pa themselves."
Distinguishing features of the Nyingma lineage
The doxography employed by the Nyingma tradition to categorize the whole of the Buddhist path is unique. Nyingmapas divide the Buddhist path into nine yanas, as follows:
The Sutra System
- Śrāvakayāna, the Vehicle of the Listeners or disciples.
- Pratyekabuddhayāna (Hinayana) the Vehicle of the Solitary Buddhas, the way of solitary meditation.
- Bodhisattvayāna (Mahayana) the Great or Causal Vehicle, the Vehicle of Enlightened Beings, is the way of those who seek or attain enlightenment for the sake or intention of liberating not just oneself, but all sentient beings from Saṃsāra.
- Kriyā (Wylie: bya ba'i rgyud ) Tantra of Action which involves ritual, mantra repetition and visualization.
- Carya or Ubhaya (Wylie: u pa'i rgyud or spyod pa'i rgyud) Tantra of Conduct — equal amounts of meditation and symbolic rituals.
- Yogatantra (Wylie: rnal 'byor gyi rgyud ) Tantra of Union
- Mahayoga (Wylie: chen po'i rnal 'byor ) Great Yoga
- Anuyoga (Wylie: rjes su rnal 'byor ) Subsequent Yoga — controlling breathing and energy (nervous and sexual).
- Atiyoga (Dzogchen) (Wylie: lhag pa'i rnal 'byor or rdzogs chen) Ultimate Yoga; The Great Perfection — often practised in monasteries kept specially for this purpose.
In the later schools the inner tantric teachings are known as Anuttarayoga Tantra, which corresponds to Mahayoga in the Nyingma system, while the Mahamudra teachings of the later schools are said to lead to similar results as the Dzogchen teachings. The first two of the nine vehicles are seen as Hinayana, the third as Mahayana and the remaining six as specifically Vajrayana.
Dudjom Jigdral Yeshe Dorje emphasized the eight lower vehicles are intellectually fabricated and contrived:
The eight lower levels have intellectually fabricated and contrived that which is changeless solely due to fleeting thoughts that never experience what truly is. They apply antidotes to and reject that which is not to be rejected. They refer to as flawed that in which there is nothing to be purified, with a mind that desires purification. They have created division with respect to that which cannot be obtained by their hopes and fears that it can be obtained elsewhere. And they have obscured wisdom, which is naturally present, by their efforts in respect to that which is free from effort and free from needing to be accomplished. Therefore, they have had no chance to make contact with genuine, ultimate reality as it is (rnal ma'i de kho na nyid).
Philosophy and doctrinal tenets
Rongzom held that the views of sutra such as Madhyamaka were inferior to that of tantra, as Koppl notes:
By now we have seen that Rongzom regards the views of the Sutrayana as inferior to those of Mantra, and he underscores his commitment to the purity of all phenomena by criticizing the Madhyamaka objectification of the authentic relative truth.
Tantra and Dzogchen texts and praxis in the Nyingma tradition
With the advent of the transmission of Sarma traditions into Tibet, various proponents of the new systems cast aspersions on the Indic origins of much of the Nyingma esoteric corpus. Indic origin was an important component of perceived legitimacy at the time. As a result, much of the Nyingma esoteric corpus was excluded from the Tengyur, a compilation of texts by Buton Rinchen Drub that became the established canon for the Sarma traditions. This means that while Nyingma accept the Tengyur scriptures they also include writings that other schools reject as not being authentic for having no Indic sources—though Sanskrit originals of some have been discovered in Nepal.
The Nyingmapas organized their esoteric corpus, comprising mostly Mahayoga, Atiyoga (Dzogchen) Mind class Semde and Space Class (Longde) texts, into an alternate collection, called the Nyingma Gyubum (the Hundred Thousand Tantras of the Ancient School, Wylie: rnying ma rgyud ‘bum ). Generally, the Gyubum contains Kahma (Wylie: bka' ma ) and very little terma (Wylie: gter ma ). The third class of Atiyoga, the Secret Oral Instructions (Menngagde), are mostly terma texts.
Various editions of the Gyubum are extant, but one typical version is the thirty-six Tibetan-language folio volumes published by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche in New Delhi, 1974. It contains:
- 10 volumes of Ati Yoga (Dzogchen)
- 3 volumes of Anu Yoga
- 6 volumes of the tantra Section of Mahayoga
- 13 volumes of the sadhana Section of Mahayoga
- 1 volume of protector tantras
- 3 volumes of catalogues and historical background
There are 'eighteen great tantras' (Wylie: bshad pa dang cha mthun gyi rgyud tantra sde bco brgyad ) at the heart of the 'Mahayoga' (Wylie: rnal 'byor chen po ) tradition, grouped into 'five root tantras' (Wylie: rtsa ba sku gsung thugs yon tan phrin las kyi rgyud chen po lnga ), 'five practice tantras' (Wylie: sgrub pa lag len du bstan pa rol pa' rgyud chen po lnga ), and 'five activity tantras' (Wylie: spyod pa'i yan lag tu 'gro ba'i rgyud chen po lnga ), and the 'two supplementary tantras' (Wylie: ma tshang kha bskong ba'i rgyud chen po gnyis ). Together they are known as the Māyājāla. The Guhyagarbha Tantra (Wylie: rDo rje sems dpa' sgyu 'phrul drwa ba gSang ba snying po ) is the foremost of all of these and it abridges the content of the seventeen others.
"Eighteen" Texts of the Mind Division (Semde)
The mind class (semde) of Dzogchen comprises 21 tantras, although the formulation eventually came to include slightly more. The Kunjed Gyalpo (Sanskrit: Kulayarāja Tantra; The Great Leveler) Tantra is the most significant of the 'mind' tantras and is taken to be the primary or root tantra of the Mind Series. The first five Dzogchen tantras are the "Five Earlier Translated Tantras", translated by Vairotsana and are contained in The Great Leveler. The next thirteen were translated primarily by Vimalamitra and two Tibetan lotsawas.
Yidam practice & protectors
The foremost deities practiced by the Nyingma masters are Vajrakīla (Tib. Dorje Phurba) and Vajra Heruka (also Vishuddha Heruka; Tib. Yangdak Tratung, Wylie: yang dag khrag 'thung ), the third of the Eight Herukas who closely resembles Śrī Heruka of the Chakrasamvara tantra. The three principle protectors of the Nyingma lineage are said to be Ekajaṭī (Wylie: e ka dza ti ), Rāhula (Wylie: gza' ra hu la ) and Dorje Legpa (Wylie: rdo rje legs pa , Sanskrit: Vajrasādhu).
Termas and tertons
The appearance of terma ("hidden treasures") is of particular significance to the Nyingma tradition. Although there have been a few Kagyupa "tertons" (treasure revealers) and the practice is endemic to the Bönpo as well, the vast majority of Tibetan Buddhist tertons have been Nyingmapas. It is held that past masters, principally Padmasambhava, secreted objects and hid teachings for discovery by later tertons at appropriate and auspicious times such that the teaching would be beneficial. These teachings may be physically discovered, often in rocks and caves, or they may be "mind terma," appearing directly within the mindstream of the terton.
Padmasambhava and his main disciples hid hundreds of scriptures, ritual objects and relics in secret places to protect Buddhism during the time of decline under King Langdarma. These termas were later rediscovered and special terma lineages were established throughout Tibet. Out of this activity developed, especially within the Nyingma tradition, two ways of dharma transmission: the so-called "long" oral transmission from teacher to student in unbroken lineages and the "short" transmission of "hidden treasures". The foremost revealers of these termas were the five terton kings and the eight Lingpas.
The terma tradition had antecedents in India; Nagarjuna, for example, rediscovered the last part of the "Prajnaparamita-Sutra in one hundred thousand verses" in the realm of the Nāgas, where it had been kept since the time of Buddha Shakyamuni.
According to Nyingma tradition, tertons are often mindstream emanations of the 25 main disciples of Padmasambhava. A vast system of transmission lineages developed through the ages. Nyingma scriptures were updated when the time was appropriate. Terma teachings guided many Buddhist practitioners to realisation and enlightenment.
The rediscovering of terma began with the first terton, Sangye Lama (1000–1080). Tertons of outstanding importance were Nyangral Nyima Oser (1124–1192), Guru Chowang (1212–1270), Rigdzin Godem (1307–1408), Pema Lingpa (1450–1521), Migyur Dorje (1645–1667), Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820–1892) and Orgyen Chokyur Lingpa (1829–1870). In the nineteenth century some of the most famous were the Khen Kong Chok Sum referring to Jamyang Khyentse, Jamgon Kongtrul and Chokgyur Lingpa.
Various traditions and important historical figures
Nyangrel Nyima Özer (1136-1204)
Guru Chöwang (1212–70)
The Rinchen Terdzod (Tibetan: རིན་ཆེན་གཏེར་མཛོད།, Wylie: rin chen gter mdzod ) is the most important collection of terma treasure to Nyingmapas today. This collection is the assemblage of thousands of the most important terma texts from all across Tibet made by Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye, at the behest of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo in the nineteenth century.
Jamgon Ju Mipham Gyatso (1846–1912)
Jamgon Ju Mipham Gyatso (“Mipham the Great”) was born into an aristocratic family in 1846 in Kham, a province of eastern Tibet. His name, Mipham Gyatso, means “Unconquerable Ocean,” and as a scholar and meditator he was so accomplished that he was enthroned as an emanation of the Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom. As such, he was asked to compose a definitive articulation of the philosophical outlook of the Nyingma lineage. This had never been systematized in the manner of the other four lineages and, as a result, was vulnerable to attack by hostile scholars.
As requested, Mipham Rinpoche composed authoritative works on both the Sutra and Vajrayana teachings as understood in the Nyingma tradition, writing particularly extensively on dzogchen. He is said to have composed these vast works effortlessly. They reinvigorated and revitalized the Nyingma lineage enormously, and he soon became one of the most renowned lamas in Tibet, attracting disciples from all traditions, many of whom became lineage holders. Mipham's works have become the foundation of study for not only the Nyingma lineage, but the Kagyu lineage as well. They hold a central position in all Nyingma monasteries and monastic colleges. Along with Longchenpa, he is considered the source of the Nyingma doctrine.
The Six Mother Monasteries
Nyingma tradition has held that there were "Six Mother Monasteries" out of which developed a large number of branch monasteries throughout Tibet, Bhutan and Nepal.
There have been slightly different formulations of the six. At one time they included Dorje Drak, Mindrolling and Palri monasteries in Upper Tibet and Katok, Palyul and Dzogchen monasteries in Lower Tibet.
After the decline of Palri and the flourishing of Shechen Monastery, the Six Mother Monasteries were Dorje Drak and Mindrolling in the upper region, Shechen and Dzogchen in the center, and Kathok and Palyul in the lower part of Tibet. The last four monasteries are all located in Kham.
Recent and contemporary lineage teachers
Recent and contemporary Nyingma teachers include Trulshik Rinpoche, Chatral Sangye Dorje, Taklung Tsetrul Rinpoche, Thinley Norbu, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, Namkhai Norbu, Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, Lama Gonpo Tseten, Tarthang Tulku, Sogyal Rinpoche, Palden Sherab, Khenpo Sherab Sangpo, Khentrul Lodro Thaye Rinpoche, Chamtrul Rinpoche, Khandro Rinpoche, Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche, Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche.
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- Kathok Nyingma Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism
- Palyul Nyingma Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism
- Nyingma Trust headed by Tarthang Tulku
- Nyingma Institute headed by Tharthang Tulku, with centres in Berkeley, Amsterdam and Rio de Janeiro
- Zangthal Translations of Tibetan texts into English.
- Padmasambhava Buddhist Center Headed by Kenchen Palden Sherab and Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal with centers around the world and Padma Samye Ling Retreat Center and Monastery in Sidney Center, New York.
- Bodhicitta Sangha - a Minnesota-based dharma center
- Thubten Lekshey Ling - Nyingma Dharma Center in India
- Khordong - Byangter and Khordong sangha of the tradition from Chimé Rigdzin (also known as CR Lama, 1922-2002) with centres and groups in India, Poland, German, France, England