While the other three major schools have traditionally recognized spiritual and political heads:
- The Dalai Lama of the Gelug school (the newest school, having the largest population)
- The Karmapa of the Kagyu school
- The Sakya Trizin of the Sakya school
the Nyingma school has only recognized such spiritual and political representatives since the 1960s after the invasion by the Chinese in 1950:
- Dudjom Rinpoche (c. 1904–1987), served from the 1960s until his death.
- Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (c. 1910–1991), served from 1987 until his death.
- Penor (Pema Norbu) Rinpoche (1932–2009) served from 1991 until retirement in 2003.
- Mindroling Trichen Rinpoche (c. 1930–2008), served from 2003 until his death.
- Trulshik Rinpoche (1923–2011). Selected after Chatral Rinpoche declined the position.
- Taklung Tsetrul Rinpoche (born 1926) accepted this position on March 22, 2012.
These events formed the basis of the early dissemination of Buddhism in Tibet up to the 11th century, which did not all proceed smoothly. Political instability followed the succession of the anti-Buddhist king Langdarma (836–842) and his subsequent assassination.
The persecution of Buddhism under Langdarma and later local leaders was such that most Buddhist practice was forced underground. When in the 11th century the persecution abated, new lineage transmissions from Indian to Tibetan masters caused new schools of Buddhism to rise, including the Kagyu, Sakya, and much later, the Gelug, mentioned above. When this began to happen, members of the existing school began to see themselves as a distinct group, identifying themselves as followers of the “ancient” or “Nyingma” tradition, as contrasted tothe “Sarma” or” new” traditions. The four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism differ in their size, political ethos, emphasized practices, and of course, lineage. Unlike the other three major schools, supporters of the Nyingma tradition rarely held political power in Tibet, generally preferring to remain at a distance from Tibetan political concerns. Traditionally, the Nyingma had no centralized authority. It is onlysince the Chinese invasion of Tibet that the Dalai Lama politely requested that the Nyingma followers recognize someone to represent them within the Tibetan government-in-exile.