It was pointed out in chapter four that translation of Buddhist texts from Tibetan requires more than a lexical understanding of Tibetan words. One must also understand the technical usage of the terms – called here the doctrinal dimension. The best translators draw on not only on the general doctrinal meanings of the terms but also on the meanings as understood by the author of the text being translated and, later, by Tibetan readers of that text.
Obviously, this is a theoretical goal and not a truly attainable one. One is not going to be able to truly understand across space, time, and language how an author of a text meant certain words to be used. However, one can be sensitive to these issues, and the tendency for Tibetans to write prolific commentaries on texts can help fill in a lot of detail about what contemporaneous or subsequent Tibetan scholars thought about a work being translated.
A translator must strike a balance between a slavishly literal translation that assumes each term has only one meaning that has remained static over hundreds of years (if not thousands) and, on the other hand, a philosophy that claims that a modern Western reader's critical understanding of a text is as valid (or more valid) as any other.
Remember that many of these texts, especially the core, root texts, are written in terse verse format and filled with abbreviations and ambiguities. They are not meant to be “read” in the way that we understood books in the modern, Western world. These texts are only one part of a living tradition that includes a lineage of oral teaching and scholarship that is required for understanding the meaning of the texts. We, in the west, may sometimes think that a text can or should stand on its own. This is mostly not the case in the Tibetan tradition. These texts are often meant to be memorized, debated, and studied as part of a monastic education in the context of skilled teaching from a lineage master.
It is also important to be aware that there are as many dialects of Buddhist Tibetan as there are writers of Buddhist texts or, for that matter, as there are texts (since authors may change their minds over the course of their lives). A translator can also attempt to balance the Western method of historical analysis of texts, in which traditional claims are looked at with great suspicion, with the just-mentioned Tibetan use of a text as a skeleton for the oral transmission of its subject matter. Both methods provide valuable insights to the translator.
The idea of variant dialects of Doctrinal Tibetan has its roots in two traditional Tibetan ways of thinking about different varieties of Buddhism. The first is a way of ordering the Buddhist philosophies seen in Indian texts dating from about the first century onward, the four tenet systems, གྲུབ་མཐའ་.
The other Tibetan way of looking at Buddhism is to look at systems of practice and of textual transmission and commentary as they evolved in Tibet. This latter way is not based purely on either texts or practices, since many of the defining factors of this evolution were political, social, and geographical. Here, speaking of the main types of Tibetan Buddhism – as seen in monastic institutions – are the fours orders of Tibetan Buddhism (also sometimes spoken of as the four families), ཆོས་ལུགས་ [dharma-systems].
Two ways of dividing Tibetan Buddhism:
A tenet, or གྲུབ་མཐའ་, is an established conclusion. The contextual etymology (སྒྲ་བཤད།) is:
སྒྲ་བཤད། ལུང་རིགས་གང་རུང་ལ་བརྟེན་ནས་ཐག་བཅད་ཅིང་གྲུབ་པའམ་དམ་བཅས་པའི་དོན་དེ་ཉིད་རང་གི་བློ་ངོར་ཚུལ་དེ་ལས་གཞན་དུ་འདོར་མེད་པས་ན། གྲུབ་པའི་མཐའ་ཞེས་བརྗོད་པ་
Contextual etymology: A tenet [literally, an established conclusion] is a meaning that has been decided upon and established or promised in reliance upon scripture and/or reasoning and which, from the perspective of one's mind, will not be forsaken.
An important point about tenets is that while they are assertions about reality, they are fundamentally assertions about reality that are meant to release us from suffering. In Buddhism, we are understood to suffer because we misunderstand reality. Thus, a more correct understanding of reality (and not just a cognitive understanding but deep realizations gained through practice and accumulation) will, according to Buddhism, enable us as sentient beings to live without suffering. The word “misunderstanding” is potentially very misleading because the type of ignorance in Buddhism, while encompassing conceptual ignorance and misunderstanding, also encompasses deeply ingrained and innate misperceptions. It is not simply that we think about reality wrong. We experience it inaccurately. These tenet systems are one tool we can use to remove our mistaken superimpositions (our ignorances) and learn to slowly, over time, experience reality truly, and through this, alleviate suffering.
The reason to mention that here is that while these tenet systems make assertions about reality, and one tenet system is held as the “most correct," all are valid in the sense that all are useful tools and ways of seeing the world on our path of transcending suffering and samsara. They can all also be used to describe typical patterns with which we interact with the world (both our normal, habitual patterns and our aspirational patterns). Therefore it is a mistake to think that one can skip the lower tenet systems in study and just skip to the "most profound." It would be very difficult, if not impossible, to skip directly to the most subtle tenet system and expect to truly, deeply understand its subtleties without having first used the less subtle tenet systems as tools for exploring one's own habitual patterns of thought and perception.
As seen from Tibet, there are four main Indian schools of Buddhist tenets. They are understood as a hierarchy, going from the least profound to the most subtle. As such, Vaibhāṣika is understood as being the least reflective of reality and Mādhyamika is understood as most closely corresponding with reality.
Although Cittamātra has had a strong influence on tantric practice, all modern Tibetan Buddhist schools consider themselves followers of the Mādhyamika tenet system (or Middle Way). Regardless, all four tenet systems are taught and studied in the monastic education. The Sautrāntika tenet system, in particular, is foundational and young monks spend years studying Sautrāntika tenets and texts before they move on to Mahāyāna (Cittamātra and Mādhyamika) tenets.
The lower tenet systems are seen as pedagogical tools necessary for students to later be able to grasp the subtlety of Mādhyamika and especially the Prāsaṅgika Mādhyamika tenet system that predominates and is considered the most profound (and thus the most correct). All Tibetan Buddhist lineages and schools consider themselves adherents to Prāsaṅgika Mādhyamika even though they can disagree vehemently as to what, exactly, that label means. The progression through the tenet systems is understood as vital because it is not enough for a student to intellectually comprehend these systems. Instead, the progression is seen as a tool – when accompanied by prayers, offerings, purification, study, and meditation – for the generation of realizations that fundamentally change a student's perception of reality.
There is a particular emphasis on Sautrāntika in the monastic education. Many core texts, such as the study of mind (Mind and Mental Factors), the debate manuals (Collected Topics), and epistemological works, are written from the perspective of the Sautrāntika tenet system. It is through a firm grasp of this Sūtra School that young monks learn to make the leap to the Middle Way (via a brief sojourn through the Mind Only, perhaps).
It is important to understand that many (if not most) works written from the perspective of the Sautrāntika tenet system were written by authors who were not Sautrāntika themselves but instead were adherents to Mahāyāna tenets: either the Middle Way school or the Mind Only school. They wrote from the perspective of Sautrāntika because of pedagogical concerns and because there are certain subjects that are traditionally taught from that perspective. Dignāga and Dharmakīrti (when he is asserting external objects) are examples of authors who write from the perspective of Sautrāntika and actually hold that tenet system. Tibetan Buddhist authors frequently write in different tenet systems (mostly Sautrāntika and Mādhyamika) depending on the topic they are writing about.
The tenet systems are divided into Hearer's tenets (also known as Hīnayāna tenets, see discussion below) and Mahāyāna tenets.
ཉན་ཐོས་ śrāvaka, Hearer – an adherent to the Hearer Vehicle
ཉན་ཐོས་ཐེག་པ་, ཉན་ཐོས་ཀྱི་ཐེག་པ་ śrāvaka-yāna, Hearer's Vehicle
ཐེག་པ་ཆེན་པོ་ Mahāyāna, Great Vehicle
ཐེག་དམན་ Hīnayāna, Lesser Vehicle
Mahāyāna (ཐེག་པ་ཆེན་པོ་) literally means Great Vehicle and the traditional counterpoint to Mahāyāna is Hīnayāna (ཐེག་དམན་), which literally means Lesser Vehicle.
ཐེག་པ་ཆེན་པོ་ Mahāyāna, Great Vehicle
ཐེག་དམན་ Hīnayāna, Lesser Vehicle
What exactly is understood as “great” about the “great vehicle" (and “lesser” about the “lesser vehicle”) has changed over time. In the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (an early Mahāyāna sutra), it is explicitly expressed that Mahāyāna means a large vehicle through which an infinite number of beings can attain nirvana. Here Mahāyāna is figuratively understood as immense, or vast vehicle. In comparison, Hīnayāna is said to be a narrower vehicle. The implicit view is Mahāyāna, as a path, can absorb the destination of Hīnayāna, but the latter cannot do the same. One who follows the Mahāyāna can become either an arhat or a Buddha. But Hīnayāna followers can attain arhathood only.
Over time, this view began to shift and “greater” in Greater Vehicle began to be understood as referring to the capacities of the followers, with Greater Vehicle adherents considered to have a greater capacity for wisdom and altruism that allows them to follow the Mahāyāna.
The use of Hīnayāna and Lesser Vehicle names are discouraged now because of the disparaging attitude toward non-Mahāyāna belief systems. Hearer's Vehicle is one of the alternative names being encouraged by the 14th Dalai Lama, as well as Bodhisattvayana for the great vehicle. Alternatively, they can be referred to, as he has suggested, as the Pali and Sanskrit traditions.
“These days, I don’t use the terms Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna,” His Holiness observed at the start of a talk given in India in 2019. “Teachings of the Theravāda tradition were recorded in Pali. The teachings of the Nalanda tradition were recorded in Sanskrit, so I prefer to talk about the Pali and Sanskrit traditions.
Hīnayāna has, at times, been used as loosely synonymous with Theravāda. This is accurate insofar as Theravāda is the only surviving Hearer's Vehicle school. However, Theravādins have a written history of 2300 years and they are only one of what were up to 20 different early Buddhist (pre-Mahāyāna) schools. Thus, some consider equating Theravāda with Hīnayāna derogatory and inaccurate.
Hīnayāna is essentially a derogatory term applied to non-Mahāyāna Buddhist schools by Mahāyānists. To be fair, Theravādins have also, in the past, considered Mahāyāna sutras to be non-Buddhist (i.e., not spoken by the Buddha nor following Buddhist beliefs) and Mahāyāna in general to not be a Buddhist path.
Regardless of the regrettable sectarianism, it is a gross simplification to equate Tibetan “Hīnayāna” tenets with Theravāda philosophy, regardless of some philosophical similarities. Vaibhāṣika and Sautrāntika (the Tibetan Hearer's tenet systems) were sub-schools from an early Buddhist school called Sarvāstivāda. Some texts claim that Theravāda derived from Sarvāstivāda, but Theravādins hold that Sarvāstivāda derived from them.
Sarvāstivāda is known to have been established as a separate school by the time of Aśoka, around 250 B.C.E., with Vaibhāṣika developing around 150 C.E. and Sautrāntika 300 C.E. Among Sarvāstivāda itself there was considerable diversity of thought spanning hundreds of years, and further, there were numerous other early Buddhist schools (up to 20 total, by some estimates – sadly, most of their texts do not survive and we know about them only by reference).
The Tibetan understanding of Sarvāstivāda (Vaibhāṣika and Sautrāntika) diverged from Theravāda over a thousand years ago and since then, both have evolved separately. The Tibetan appreciation of Vaibhāṣika and Sautrāntika is from a pedagogical standpoint as necessary steps in the path to teachings they hold as more profound, not as valid paths to enlightenment in their own right.
As such, Theravādins have their own lineage of practice and teaching and, while their beliefs may share some commonalities with Vaibhāṣika and Sautrāntika, Theravāda cannot be equated with Tibetan views on Vaibhāṣika and Sautrāntika without grossly simplifying the complexity of early Buddhist thought and denying the Theravāda practitioners their thousands years of history, culture, and practice which has been developing separately from the Tibetan tradition.
There are currently four main orders in Tibetan Buddhism – where an order is understood as an institutionalized lineage in which Buddhist teachings, empowerments, and vows are passed down from generation to generation. These are sometimes also known as the four families of Tibetan Buddhism.
རྙིང་མ་ Nyingma [Ancient (translations)]
བཀའ་བརྒྱུད་ Kagyu [Transmission of the World]
ས་སྒྱ་ Sagya [Gray Earth]
དགེ་ལུགས་ Gelug [Way of Virtue]
A member of རྙིང་མ་ is called རྙིང་མ་པ་. Likewise, a follower of བཀའ་བརྒྱུད་པ་, and those associated with ས་སྒྱ་ are ས་སྒྱ་པ་ and དགེ་ལུགས་ are དགེ་ལུགས་པ་.
རྙིང་མ་པ་ follower of Nyingma order
བཀའ་བརྒྱུད་པ་ follower of Kagyu order
ས་སྒྱ་པ་ follower of Sagya order
དགེ་ལུགས་པ་ follower of Gelug order
The final syllables པ་, པོ་, བ་, and བོ་ are used here as subjective suffix syllables showing agency, ownership, or membership. See Chapter 11.
Where དགེ་ལུགས་ is the name of a lineage of teachings and monastic ordination centered in certain monasteries, a དགེ་ལུགས་པ་ is a member of that lineage. The same process is seen in the names of the tenet systems. སེམས་ཙམ་ is the tenet system, སེམས་ཙམ་པ་ is a proponent of the Mind Only tenet system. དབུ་མ་པ་, however, is both the tenet system itself AND a proponent (since it already ends in པ་).
The four orders can be divided based on the period of textual transmission from India to Tibet that they are based on. Broadly speaking, Indian Buddhism came to Tibet in two periods of transmission: the first dissemination from the 7th to the 9th centuries and the second dissemination from the 10th to the 12th centuries. The second dissemination brought not only new teachers (such as the Bengali master Atiśa) and texts but also new translations of old texts and a systematization of translation equivalents, a process begun by the great translator Lotsawa Rinchen Zangpo.
The རྙིང་མ་ are so named because they follow the earlier translations of tantras from Indic languages into Tibetan. The other three are known as the གསར་མ་པ་, that is, New Ones, because they follow the “new” or second translation of tantras.
སྔ་འགྱུར་རྙིང་མ་ Early Translation School
གསར་མ་པ་ New Ones
ས་སྒྱ་ is named for the seat of their order, which is at a place named ས་སྒྱ་, or Gray Earth.
བཀའ་བརྒྱུད་ and དགེ་ལུགས་ are both descriptive terms in the same way that མདོ་སྡེ་པ་ and དབུ་མ་པ་ are. Just as all Buddhists – not just the Sutra School – are followers of Buddha's discourses (མདོ་སྡེ་, sutras), and all Buddhists attempt to follow a middle way (དབུ་མ་), not just the Middle Way School, so all four orders of Tibetan Buddhism, not only the བཀའ་བརྒྱུད་ are lineages in which Buddhas word (བཀའ་) is transmitted, and all four orders teach the importance of virtue (དགེ་བ་) – the observance of ethics and vowed commitments – not merely the དགེ་ལུགས་.
For brief overviews of the four orders, see Batchelor, The Jewel in the Lotus: A Guide to the Buddhist Traditions of Tibet, pp. 58-63, and Marylin Rhie and Robert Thurman, Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet, pp. 26-30. For more detailed academic approaches, see David Snellgrove, Indo-Tibetan Buddhism (vol. II), pp. 485-509, and Giuseppe Tucci, The Religions of Tibet, pp. 33-39. You can also dig into the Rigpa Wiki page on the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism.
དོལ་པོ་པ་ཤེས་རབ་རྒྱལ་མཚན་ Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen, key figure of the Jonang view and proponent of གཞན་སྟོང་ (other emptiness)
This traditional classification of the four main orders of Tibetan Buddhism leaves out two lineages that are worth mentioning: Bön and Jonang. The Bon belief system has a lot of commonalities with Tibetan Buddhism even though traditionally it is considered an “outsider” belief system by most Tibetan Buddhists. It is understood to have been an indigenous belief system that predated the introduction of Buddhism into Tibet and has subsequently integrated many aspects of Buddhism. To read more about Bön, you can read Alex Berzin's article. In 1978, H.H. the 14th Dalai Lama recognized Bön as a branch of Tibetan Buddhism and it was recognized as an official religion internationally.
The Jonang is a lineage of Buddhist beliefs that began with Yumo Mikyo Dorje in the 12th century but became much more widely known through the scholarship of Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (who is sometimes credited with founding the Jonang order). The Jonangs are proponents of shentong (གཞན་སྟོང་), or other emptiness – a belief that was strongly rejected by Tsong-kha-pa, the founder of the Gelug order. In fact, many of Tsong-kha-pa great works were rebuttals and repudiations to Jonang beliefs and Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen's works, which were very popular at the time he was alive. For both doctrinal and political reasons, the Gelugs actively suppressed the Jonang order. The repression was so successful that the Jonangs were thought, in the west, to be an extinct order of Buddhism. However, this turned out to be untrue, and there are still Jonang monks and monasteries in China and Tibet.
Tsong-kha-pa's Final Exposition of Wisdom, translated by Jeffrey Hopkins, has a long section detailing the Gelug perspective on Jonang and particularly Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen's beliefs. Hopkins also translated Dolpopa's Mountain Doctrine, from which you can get Dolpopa's exposition of other emptiness straight from the source.
It should be noted that while the Gelugs truly reviled shentong (other emptiness) and Dolpopa's syncretic approach to Buddhist tenets and sūtra and tantra, Dolpopa's work on the Kālacakra tantra specifically is well respected and he was known as a great Kālacakra scholar. According to Dolpopa, the Mountain Doctrine and his belief are based on visions he had in part through practicing the Kālacakra tantra.
¶ Rangtong vs Shentong
Shentong (གཞན་སྟོང་) — the extrinsic emptiness or “other empty” tradition of Madhyamika, which maintains that the absolute is not empty of itself (རང་སྟོང་) but is empty of all other relative phenomena. Shentong is most closely associated with the Jonang school of Tibetan Buddhism. The Gelug's also associate shentong beliefs in varying degrees with Kagyu and Nyingma schools and scholars such as Mipam and Longchenpa (because of how they hold the ultimate to be a non-changing, non-dual union of emptiness and luminosity). However, Mipam denies this and accuses Tsong-kha-pa of being a shentongpa. Shentong is related to Buddha nature texts such as the Uttaratantra and the Tathāgatagarbha sutra where the language lends itself to an interpretation of a findable Buddha nature within a beings continuum.
Rangtong (རང་སྟོང་) literally means 'empty of self'. The followers of the Rangtong Madhyamika approach say that all phenomena, including the buddha nature, are empty of their own essence. They therefore disagree with the Shentong approach, which, they say, falls into the extreme of eternalism. Tsong-kha-pa and the Gelug's are vehemently rangtong.
Although there are many important authors and meditators in the history of Tibetan Buddhism, there are some who stand out as major innovators or systematizers. The three listed below are Indians who traveled to Tibet and were important for the initial introduction of Buddhism there.
སློབ་དཔོན་པདྨ་འབྱུང་གནས་ Ācārya Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche (གུ་རུ་རིན་པོ་ཆེ་), founded the Nyingma lineage. He is remembered for his yogic powers, especially his subjugation and conversion of the indigenous spirits of Tibet.
Read the Treasury of Lives entry for Padmasambhava.
Padmasambhava's activities in Tibet are recounted by Dudjom Rinpoche in The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, pp. 512-521. On the life of Padmasambhava, see Rhie and Thurman, Wisdom and Compassion, pp. 168. 176-179; for the iconographic dimension, see pp. 169-175 and 180-183.
The name Padmasambhava (པདྨ་འབྱུང་གནས་) means Lotus-Born – literally, he whose origin (འབྱུང་གནས་) is a lotus (པདྨ་). པདྨ་ is a transliteration of the Sanskrit padma, with the d+m written in Tibetan as if the མ་ were subscribed to the ད་. Note that whereas the Sanskrit word is padma, Tibetans pronounce it bë-ma (or high-tone: bay-ma), following the rules or pronouncing their own language.
མཁན་ཆེན་ཞི་བ་འཚོ་ Śāntarakṣita, Khenpo Bodhisattva, was the abbot who introduced the monastic lineage to Tibet and ordained the first Buddhist monks in Tibet. He came from India during the time of Padmasambhava, but as a scholar and monastic instead of a yogic practitioner.
Read the Rigpa Wiki entry on Śāntarakṣita.
ཇོ་བོ་རྗེ་དཔལ་ལྡན་ཨ་ཏི་ཤ་ Jowo Jé Palden Atiśa, Atiśa, came to Tibet in 1042. He founded the བཀའ་གདམས་ (kadam, Instruction in the Word) lineage, a predecessor of the Gelug and Kagyu orders. He wrote many works. One of his most famous was བྱང་ཆུབ་ལམ་སྒྲོན་ (Lamp for the Path to Awakening), which later became the foundation for Tsong-kha-pa's Lamrim Chenmo.
Read the Treasury of Lives entry for Atiśa.
For a synopsis of the activities of Atiśa in Tibet, see Snellgrove, Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, pp. 479-84. A contemporary traditional account (deriving from the Gelug Stages of the Path tradition) may be seen in Pabongka Rinpoche, Liberation in Our Hands (Tharchin and Engle translations), part one, pp. 31-57.
Famous Tibetan teachers and authors are often known by their titles, names based on their institutional seats or places of origin, or other epithets, rather than by their proper names. Thus Padmasambhava is referred to more often as གུ་རུ་རིན་པོ་ཆེ་ (Guru Rinpoche, or Precious Guru) and Atiśa as ཇོ་བོ་རྗེ་ (Foremost Lord).
Although there are both scholars and yogis in each of the four orders, the Sagya and Gelug traditions emphasize rational philosophical study more than the Nyingma and Kagyu. Those of the Nyingma and Kagyu lineages, on the other hand, see themselves as continuations of the lineages of the Indian siddhas (གྲུབ་ཐོབ་, adepts, accomplished ones), practitioners of the Vajrayāna Buddhism known for their magical power and their poetic expressions, sometimes in song, of their meditative experiences. An understanding of both traditions – the rational and the non-rational – is essential to an understanding of Tibetan Buddhism, since, in fact, all Tibetan Buddhists combine the two in a distinctive way.
The term non-rational does not mean “irrational” – although there are many instances in which Buddhist teachers, especially tantric gurus, act in seemingly irrational ways in order to train (འདུལ་, tame) their disciples (འདུལ་བྱ་, those to be tamed). I use the term non-rational in order to avoid the term “mystical," a term not well suited to the translation of Buddhist accounts of meditative experience, accounts which emphasize knowledge and clarity rather than mystery. Non-rational could be taken to mean experiential, and particularly involving the experiences which transcend the ability of conceptual discourse to capture and convey them.
All orders of Tibetan Buddhism see rational analysis as a vital step in the path. All orders hold that eventually one must move beyond concepts to experiences that transcend the ability of words to capture their meaning. They disagree on where in the path concepts and rationality should be transcended and on their relationship to the non-conceptual realizations or experiences.
For an example of the way in which the rational and the non-rational are blended in the life and philosophy of the most well known Tibetan Buddhist of modern times, the 14th Dalai Lama, see Freedom in Exile: the Autobiography of the Dalai Lama.
བསྟན་འརྫིན་རྒྱ་མཚོ་ Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, born in 1935.
Again, བསྟན་འརྫིན་རྒྱ་མཚོ་ is another bare name. A traditional Tibetan Buddhist would preface it with a ceremonial title, saying in this case རྒྱལ་དབང་བསྟན་འརྫིན་རྒྱ་མཚོ་ or རྒྱལ་བ་བསྟན་འརྫིན་རྒྱ་མཚོ་.
Dalai Lama is not a Tibetan term. It is a title bestowed in the 16th century by the Mongolian leader, Altan Khan. To Tibetans the Dalai Lama is རྒྱལ་བ་རིན་བོ་ཆེ་ or precious conqueror. Conqueror is an epithet for Buddha, who has conquered the afflictions (ཉོན་མོངས་) in his mindstream. Another name for the Dalai Lama is ཡིད་བཞིན་ནོར་བུ་ or wish-fulfilling jewel.
In Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of the tradition. Historically, the Dalai Lama was both the religious and political leader. The 14th Dalai Lama, however, while in exile, instituted democratic reforms and retired from political leadership.
Sogyal Rinpoche writes of the Dalai Lama in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying: “The Dalai Lama is, I believe, nothing less than the face of the Buddha of Compassion turned toward an endangered humanity, the incarnation of Avalokiteshvara not only for Tibet and not only for Buddhists, but for the whole world—in need, as never before, of healing compassion and of his example to total dedication to peace.”
To learn more about the history of the Dalai Lamas in Tibet, The Fourteen Dalai Lamas: A Sacred Legacy of Reincarnation, by Glenn H. Mullin is a great resource. The Fourteen Dalai Lamas details the history not just about the current Dalai Lama but about the entire line of the Dalai Lamas starting with Gedun Drupa, who posthumously became the 1st Dalai Lama. Mary Craig wrote a biography of the 14th Dalai Lama, Kundun: A Biography of the Family of the Dalai Lama, that was turned into a movie.
མར་པ་ཆོས་ཀྱི་བློ་གྲོས་ Marpa (1012-1097)
མི་ལ་རས་པ་ Milarepa (1040-1123)
Marpa and Milarepa are the quintessential Tibetan guru and disciple. The Kagyu lineage originates with them. Marpa's full name is Marpa Chökyi Lodrö. He is also known as Marpa Lotsawa. He was not only a great Tibetan master but also a great translator who brought many tantras from India to Tibet and translated them. Milarepa was his student and the holder of his meditation or practice lineage.
The life of Milarepa is well known in the west through the French translation of his biography by Jacques Bacot and the English version by Kazi Dawa-Samdup and W.Y. Evans-Wentz. A more modern translation is Lobsang Lhalungpa's The Life of Milarepa. The iconographic dimension of Milarepa's life may be seen in Rhie and Thurman, Wisdom and Compassion, pp. 237-245.
ཀུན་དགའ་རྙིང་པོ་ Kunga Nyingpo (1092-1158) was the first of the great Sagya masters.
Read the Treasury of Lives entry for Kunga Nyingpo.
Sachen Kunga Nyingpo received a direct transmission of a famous four line instruction titled Parting from the Four Attachments from Mañjuśrī after extensive practice and concentration.
Parting from the Four Attachments (ཞེན་པ་བཞི་བྲལ་)
If you cling to this life, you are not a practitioner;
if you cling to the three realms, that is not renunciation;
if you cling to self-interest, you are not a bodhisattva;
if grasping arises, it is not the view.
Sachen Kunga Nyingpo's son, Jetsün Drakpa Gyaltsen, wrote a commentary on this, expanding the four lines into a longer discourse. See the Lotsawa House translation and Ven. Thubten Chodron's teachings on the text. You can also read a translation of the commentary on the wiki: freedom-from-the-four-fixations
ཀུན་དགའ་རྒྱལ་མཚན་ Gunga Gyeltsen, (ས་སྐྱ་པཎྜི་ཏ་), lived from 1182-1251, more commonly known as Sakya Pandita. He is considered one of the greatest scholars in Tibetan history. He is one of the so-called Three Mañjughoshas of Tibet (along with Longchenpa and Tshong-kha-pa). He was the nephew of Jetsün Drakpa Gyaltsen, the son of Sachen Kunga Nyingpo.
For more on Sakya Pandita, see Rhie and Thurman, pp. 210-211
Read the Treasury of Lives entry for Gunga Gyeltsen / Sakya Pandita.
ཀློང་ཆེན་པ་ Longchenpa (ཀློང་ཆེན་པ་ - great expanse)
ཀློང་ཆེན་པ་དྲི་མེད་འོད་ཟེར། Longchenpa Drime Wozer (དྲི་མེད་ - stainless, འོད་ཟེར - light rays)
ཀློང་ཆེན་རབ་འབྱམས་ Longchen-ram-cham (ཀློང་ཆེན་པ་ - great expanse, རབ་འབྱམས་ - countless or infinite)
Longchenpa (1308-1364) is considered one of the most brilliant Nyingma teachers. He systemized the Nyingma teachings with his Seven Treasuries and wrote extensively on Dzogchen.
A lengthy account of Long-chen-ba's lifeappears in The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, pp. 575-596
བདུད་འཇོམས་གླིང་པ་ Dudjom Lingpa (aka, ལྕགས་སྐོང་གཏེར་སྟོན་ Chakong Tertön) lived from 1835 to 1904 and was a Nyingma master and prolific revealer of terma (spiritual treasures hidden by Guru Rinpoche). His reincarnation, born before he died, was Dudjom Rinpoche (1904-1987), a Tibetan master and one of the most important figures in the Nyingma school.
Read the Treasury of Lives entry for Dudjom Lingpa.
ཙོང་ཁ་པ་བློ་བཟང་གྲགས་པ་ Tsong-kha-pa Lobzang Drakpa, Tshon-kha-pa, also known as Je Rinpoche
Tsong-kha-pa was founder of the Gelug order, in which scholarship and monastic discipline are emphasized. The Gelug order became the most politically powerful of the four orders. Tsong-kha-pa lived from 1357 to 1419. The name ཙོང་ཁ་པ་ alludes to his birth in the ཙོང་ཁ་ region of northeastern Tibet. Tsong-kha-pa wrote extensively on both sutra and tantra. His Lamrim Chenmo (ལམ་རིམ་ཆེན་མོ་), or The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path, is one of his most well known and important works. He also wrote a work on tantra titled སྔགས་རིམ་ཆེན་མོ་, or The Great Exposition of Secret Mantra.
The Foundation of All Good Qualities is short summary of the entire path to enlightenment written by Tsong-kha-pa. Here is a copy of it in Tibetan with the FPMT translation and an audio recording of Yangsi Rinpoche Gendun Tenzin singing it.
Geshe Thupten Jinpa published a biography about Tsong-kha-pa in 2020 titled Tsongkhapa: A Buddha in the Land of Snows.
ཀུན་མཁྱེན་ omniscient one
བཀའ་ speech, word (h)
གྲུབ་ཐོབ་ [tantric] adept
དགེ་འདུན་ spiritual community, sangha
ཆོས་ལུགས་ order [doctrine-system]
རྗེ་ master, foremost one
དྲི་མ་ stain, defilement
བདག་ཉིད་ being, nature
བློ་གྲོས་ intelligence, intellect
དབང་པོ་ empowerment, sense power
སྨྲ་བ་ speaking, propounding
འོད་ཟེར་ radiance, luminance [light-rays]
ཡི་དམ་ personal deity
ལུགས་ system, way
སྲིད་པ་ existence [rebirth]
ལྷ་ god, deity
འདུལ་ (v) tame, subdue, train
སྨྲ་ (v) speak, propound
སྲིད་ (v) be possible, exist
རུང་བ་ suitable, proper
རྩ་བའི་ཁ་དོག་ primary [root] colors