The Sa-skya-pa are renowned for their school's scholarship and for their Vajrayana meditative traditions; they tend to stress the importance of establishing a solid basis in meditation and study as an introduction to the Vajrayana. Their main system of Vajrayana teachings is called the Path and its Fruit (Lam-'bras). Based on the Hevajra Tantra, it consists of two sections: firstly, a preliminary practice, the Three Visions, which covers Hinayana and Mahayana and prepares the student for the Vajrayana, and secondly the Three Tantras. These derive from the teachings of the Indian tantric siddha, Virapa. As well as the New Tantras, such as the Path and its Fruit, the 'Khon family also preserved their hereditary lineages of some Ancient Tantra teachings, keeping the approach and methods of the New and Ancient teachings distinct, since each could benefit different individuals.
The Sa-skya-pa tradition was firmly established at Sa-skya by the "five foremost spiritual masters" (rje-btsun gong-ma lnga), Sa-chen Kun-dga' sNying-po (1092-1158), the son of dKon-mchog rGyal-po (1034-1102), founder of Sa-skya monastery (see Tibetan Buddhism chart), and his sons and grandsons. Located on an important trade route, the monastery became a leading centre for the New Tantra teachings and soon grew in wealth and prestige. The Sa-skya Pa-i-ta, Kun-dga' rGyal-mtshan (1182-1251), acted as the Tibetan emissary to the Mongol Prince Godan (whose forces were threatening to invade Tibet) and submitted on behalf of Tibet; his nephew, 'Phags-pa (1235-80), was later appointed Ruler of Tibet (under Mongol overlordship) and Sa-skya became the seat of government. Finally, when the Mongol dynasty were overthrown in China in the mid-fourteenth century, Byang-chub rGyal-mtshan, supported by the Phag-mo-gru monastic establishment, ousted the Sa-skya-pa administration, but the Sa-skya-pa monastic order retained control over its own region. The 'Khon family continued to produce great scholars and meditation masters; sometimes a son would succeed a father, sometimes a nephew would succeed an uncle who was a monk. In the eighteenth century, the family split into two branches: the succession to the headship alternated between them. Sa-skya continued to be the school's main base, although large Sa-skya-pa monasteries were established in other areas. The Ngor branch stems from Ngor-chen Kun-dga' bZang-po in the fifteenth century, who founded its seat, Ngor E-wam Chos-ldan, as well as other monasteries. The Tshar-pa sub-school was founded by Tshor-chen Blo-gsal rGya-mtsho, who established his centre at the 'Dar Grong-mo-chen monastery in gTsang in the sixteenth century.
The Sa-skya-pa share much of their ritual symbolism with the other Tibetan Buddhist schools. Their devotional practices focus on the outstanding early Sa-skya-pa masters, and they specialise in meditation practices on the deities Hevajra, Vajrayogini and Mahakala.
It is not possible to estimate numbers of followers since the Tibetan Buddhist schools do not demand exclusive allegiance. The Sa-skya-pa had their stronghold in the large region of Sa-skya (with a population of about 16,000), and also had smaller territories elsewhere in gTsang and in Khams (Eastern Tibet). The main monasteries at the Sa-skya-pa capital housed 400-600 monks, while other monasteries outside the capital contained roughly another 500 monks. Two nunneries near the capital housed about 110 nuns and about 180 resided in other nunneries. The Sa-skya-pa had a close connection with the royal family of sDe-dge in Khams, and a large Sa-skya-pa monastery located in their capital was supported by the sDe-dge rulers. The Sa-skya-pa have now established important centres in India, the USA and Europe, and also in East Asian countries such as Malaysia.
The present head of the Sa-skya-pa, the Sakya Trizin (Sa-skya Khri-'dzin), has established his headquarters in exile: Sakya Centre, 187 Rajpur Road, P.O. Rajpur, District Dehra Dun, Uttar Pradesh, India. The other branch of the 'Khon family have established a focal point for the tradition in the USA: Sakya Monastery, 108 N.W. 83rd Street, Seattle, Washington, USA 98117.