The rNying-ma-pa subdivide the three vehicles or yana (see Tibetan Buddhism) into nine yanas, six of which relate to the Vajrayana. Of these, the first three are shared with the other Tibetan Buddhist schools, but the final three, which are termed the "Inner Tantras": Mahayoga, Anuyoga and Atiyoga, represent the rNying-ma-pa's distinctive presentation of the highest Vajrayana practice. Most emphasis is put on these three sections in rNying-ma-pa teachings and practice: many ritual and meditation practices integrate all three. Mahayoga makes extensive use of visual imagery: the practitioner adopts the "divine pride" of him/herself as the Vajrayana deity, all beings are similarly manifestations of the deity and all inanimate phenomena the maala. Anuyoga focuses on inner yoga meditative techniques in which the psychic energies within the body are controlled and the practitioner realises the union of "bliss" and "emptiness". Atiyoga requires intensive but uncontrived meditation practice, generating the all-important "View" of the primordial natural perfection yet spontaneous display of all phenomena.
The rNying-ma-pa developed as a distinctive "school" only after the "new" transmissions of Buddhist teachings in Tibet had given rise to new monastic hierarchies from the eleventh century CE (see Tibetan Buddhism chart). The followers of the "ancient" lineages of teachings did not hierarchically organise themselves but maintained their pattern of relatively small-scale centres and hermitages, often focused on hereditary lines of lamas. The flourishing of their tradition of scriptural revelation (gter-ma) in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and the works of great rNying-ma-pa lamas such as Klong-chen-pa (1308-64), O-rgyan Gling-pa (1323-60) and Ratna Gling-pa (1403-79) helped them to forge a common identity and to systematize their teachings. Later masters who helped to compile collections of rNying-ma-pa scriptures include gTer-bdag Gling-pa (1646-1714) and 'Jigs-med Gling-pa (1729-98). The rNying-ma-pa built up their monastic centres from the seventeenth century: eg. sMin-grol-gling and rDo-rje brag in Central Tibet, and dPal-yul, Ka-thog, rDzogs-chen (and later its offshoot, Zhe-chen) in the East.
The rNying-ma-pa share much of their ritual symbolism with the other Tibetan Buddhist schools (see Tibetan Buddhism), although their use of it is slightly different, in line with their teachings on the three Inner Tantras (see Doctrines). The Buddha figure whose image is most frequently at the centre of the shrine in a rNying-ma-pa temple is that of Guru Rinpoche, the Lotus-born (Padma 'Byung-gnas). Seen by Tibetans as a "second Buddha", he was the Indian master who is said to be responsible for overcoming obstacles to the establishment of Buddhism in Tibet in the eighth century. He is also equated with the Inner teacher and most rNying-ma-pa Guru yogas focus on him.
It is virtually impossible to estimate numbers of followers since Tibetan Buddhists do not necessarily owe exclusive allegiance to one school (see Tibetan Buddhism chart), and in the case of the rNying-ma-pa, it is especially problematic since they frequently had numerous small centres in areas otherwise dominated by large monasteries of the other schools. The rNying-ma-pa were particularly well-represented in Eastern Tibet, and are still found in the ethnically Tibetan regions of Nepal. They have many reconstructed monasteries in India, Nepal, and now also in Tibet itself, and also have large centres in Europe and USA.
Since the rNying-ma-pa are not a hierarchical order, they have no headquarters. However, in the circumstances of exile, they have to nominate a representative as their "head". The present "Head of the rNying-ma-pa" is the dPal-yul head lama, Padma Norbu (Pad-ma Nor-bu) Rinpoche, who was chosen at a meeting of rNying-ma-pa lamas in 1993. His monastic centre is Palyul Namdroling monastery, P.O. Bylakuppe, District Mysore, Karnataka, India 571-104.