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Four Sects of Tibetan Buddhism

The main sects are the following: Gelugpa (Yellow Hat), Nyingmapa (Red Hats), Kagyupa (Black Hat) and Sakyapa. Some of the sects were further divided into different schools. Each sect keeps a precise record of its lineage and has its own leader. Consequently, monasteries of each sect, while having some common characteristics, have a few distinct features.

Gelugpa Sect Monasteries

Panoramic view of Gangen Monastery in Tibet
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Ganden Monastery
Tsongkhapa and his disciples
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Statues of Tsongkhapa(in the middle) and his two disciples

Gelugpa or Yellow Hat sect is the newest sect of Tibetan Buddhism. It was established by Tsongkhapa.

The three main monasteries of the sect are Ganden, established by Tsongkhapa himself, Drepung, established by one of Tsongkhapa’s disciples, and Sera. Drepung and Sera are located in Lhasa, and Gangen is located approximately 40km away from Lhasa in a beautiful valley. The head of the Gelug sect is Dalai Lama, and this is the most well-known sect around the world.

Monasteries of the Gelug sect always display the statues of Tsongkhapa and his two disciples. They can be easily recognized as they are always wearing yellow hats.

Nyingmapa Sect Monasteries

Samye Monastery complex in Tibet
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Samye Monastery complex

The oldest and second largest sect in Tibet is Nyingmapa or Red Hat sect. Its lineage begins from Padma Sambhava, who came from India and subdued the demons on Hipo Ri hill near Samye. Samye is the first monastery built in Tibet. Its architecture resembles the shape of a mandala, as it is regarded to be an ideal structure.

There are six main monasteries of the Nyingmapa, sometimes called the “Nyingmapa mother monasteries”. In addition to Samye, there are Thupten Dorje Drak, Dzogchen Ugyen Samten Chooling, Katok, Ugyen Mindrolling and Palyul Namgyal Jangchup Ling. Since the center of the Red Hat tradition was around Samye, the sect influence spread around the nearby areas. Most of the Nyingmapa monasteries are located in Lhoka (Southern Tibet) and Kham (South-Eastern Tibet).

The red hat sect monasteries always display statues of Padma Sambhava (Tibetans call him Guru Rinpoche), Santariskta, the first abbot of Samye Monastery and King Trisong Detsen.

Kagyupa Sect Monasteries

Milarepa Statue
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Milarepa Statue

The Kagyupa or Black Hat sect is one of the most mystique sects of Buddhism.

The lineage begins with Milarepa and his teacher Marpa. Milarepa achieved enlightenment during his lifetime. The sect is famous for yogis, who spent years in retreats, meditating, practicing breathing techniques and yoga.

The leader of the Kagyupa order is Karmapa, the third most important religious leader in Tibet, after Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama.

The main seat of Karmapa is in Tsurpu Monastery, founded in the 12 century. In Tsurpu monastery, the abbot Dusum Khyenpa first announced his future reincarnation. That was the beginning of undisturbed lineage of all Karmapas, as well as other prominent lamas from other orders, including the Dalai Lamas.

Other important monasteries are Drigung, Taglung, Karma Gön and Palpun.

In Black Hat monasteries, you will see statues of Milarepa and his teacher Marpa.

Sakyapa Sect Monasteries

Inside the Sakya Order Monastery in Lhasa, Tibet
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Inside the Sakya Order Monastery

Finally, there is the Sakyapa or tantric sect of Tibetan Buddhism. The sect is famous for its oracles. Lamas don’t cut their hair and wear distinct hats, making it very easy to recognize them.

One of the main monasteries of the sect is Sakya, located near Shigatse.

In tantric monasteries, you will see the statues of Sakya Pandita Kunga Gyaltsen, Sanchen Kunga Nyingpo, Sonam Tsemo, Drakpa Gyaltsen and Dogon Choengal Phakpa.

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8 Days Lhasa to Everest Base Camp Tour

A beautiful and exciting journey, starting in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet and going to the Everest Base Camp. The tour visits Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple, Sera, Drepung and Tashilhunpo monasteries, Kumbum Stupa, Yamdrok Lake and Karola glaciers.

Both group and private tours are available

10 Days Easy Acclimatizing Everest Tour

This slow-paced private tour takes you from Lhasa to Gyantse and Shigatse, where we spend the first few days acclimatizing. We will visit many of the historical and religious places, such as Potala Palace, Jokhang temple, Gyantse monastery, and Kumbum Stupa.

We will make stops by the most beautiful natural spots: Yamdrok Lake, Karola glaciers and many of the high mountain passes and viewpoints. Finally, we will reach Everest Base Camp, where we stay for the night.

6 Days Tibetan Cultural Heritage Tour

This private tour takes you from Lhasa to Yarlung Valley and Samye Monastery. Yarlung valley is the birthplace of Tibetan civilization. You can see Yumbulakhang, an ancient fort and the first surviving building in Tibet. After that, you will visit Samye, the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet.

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