Karma Kagyu Lineage

Tibetan Buddhism is structured on the notion of ' oral transmission', the passing on of teachings and methods from the teacher to the student. This is sometimes called the "Whispering Lineage", because its highest teachings are still passed in an unbroken line from teacher to student since the days of the Buddha, from whence the name " Kagyu" derives.

The Karma Kagyu lineage gives central prominence to the role of secret meditation instructions passed orally from master to student. With great reverence, the unbroken succession of masters who have preserved and transmitted the instructions of the Karma Kagyu tradition is referred to as the "Golden Rosary".

Origin of Kagyu Lineage

The Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism traces its origin back to Buddha Shakyamuni. The most important source for the specific practices that characterize the Kagyu order is the great Indian yogi Tilopa, one of the 84 mahasiddhas of India, who lived in Northern india sometime around the 10th century A.D. He received the transmission directly from Dorje Chang (skt.: Vajradhara), the celestial Buddha who symbolizes the Dharmakaya, the ultimate mind.

Tilopa also received and mastered four special transmissions that would later form the basis of the six yogas of Naropa. Although there is some discrepancy in the historical sources regarding the identities of the masters associated with each of the four transmissions, the most common consensus indicates their sources are as follows: the first of the four came from Nagarjuna and consists of two tantras, the sangwa dupa tantra (Skt. guhyasamaja) and the denshi tantra. It also incorporates the practices called " illusory body" and " transference" (Tib. pho-wa). The second special transmission came from Nakpopa and includes the tantra called gyuma chenmo (Skt. mahamaya) and the practice called 'conscious dreaming' (Tib. rmi-lam). The third special transmission came from Lawapa and includes the demchok tantra and the practice of 'clear light' (Tib. od gsal). The fourth was transmitted from Khandro Kalpa Zangmo and includes the tantra known as gyepa dorje (Skt. hevajra) and the practice called tummo or " inner heat ".

Tilopa in turn gave the whispered teachings to Naropa, and were systematized as the Six Yogas of Naropa that are considered a central theme in the Kagyu Lineage.

Naropa transmitted his knowledge to Marpa, the great translator who journeyed from Tibet to India in order to receive instructions and who subsequently returned to Tibet and spread the teachings of the Dharma.

His student Milarepa, became one of the Tibet's great yogis. Marpa put Milarepa through years of hardship in order to prepare him for later instructions and teachings. During this period, Milarepa single-handedly built a nine-storied tower according to the specifications of Marpa. At the end of these trials, Marpa imparted all the teachings he had received from Naropa and other masters to him. Milarepa practised for many years in total isolation in high mountain caves and mastered the transmissions that he had received. Through perseverance in the practice of Mahamudra and the Six Yogas of Naropa, he achieved profound realization of the ultimate nature of reality and began to teach and became famous for his poetic songs.

Milarepa's transmission was carried on by Gampopa, also known as Dakpo Largay, the physician from Dagpo. He studied the Kadampa traditions, which is a gradual path that includes what is called the Lam Rim teachings. He also met Milarepa, and attained realization of ultimate reality under his guidance. He established monastic institutions, taught extensively and attracted many students.

The first Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa 

The first Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa, was Gampopa's most gifted disciple. He manifested great spiritual power and purity early in his life and in his sixteenth year he received a supernatural Black Crown from dakinis and other divinities which bestowed knowledge of the past, present and future. This hat has been passed on to all the subsequent Karmapas who are reincarnations or " tulkus " of Dusum Khyenpa. All the Karmapas have worked unceasingly to spread the Buddha's teaching, and are recognized as emanations of the bodhisattva Chenrezig (skt.: Avalokitesvara).  

Four Major and Eight Minor Schools of Kagyu Lineages

The Kagyu often refers the Shangpa Kagyu and Dakpo Kagyu schools:

Shangpa Kagyu

The Shangpa Kagyu, one of the main Kagyu lineages, was founded by the great yogi, Khyungpo Nyaljor (978-1079). Khyungpo Nyaljor traveled to Nepal where he met Acharya Sumati and received training as a translator and then traveled to India. He received teachings from one hundred and fifty scholars and yogis and mastered the vajrayana teachings. Khyungpo Naljor's main teachers are Sukhasiddha, Rahulagupta and Niguma, the consort of Naropa. When he returned to Tibet, he received the monastic vows from the Kadampa master, Langri Thangpa.

Khyungpo Naljor established many monasteries in the regions of Phenyul and the Shang area of the Tsang region of Tibet, and therefore, the lineage he founded came to be known as the Shangpa Kagyu. He continued his activities of teaching and propagating the Shangpa Kagyu lineage for over thirty years in Tibet. He had many students and passed down the lineage he received, which continues today.

Some of the main practices of the Shangpa Kagyu lineage are Chakrasambhava, Hevajra, Mahamaya, Guhyasamaja, the Six Doctrines of Niguma, Mahamudra, the Six-armed and the White Mahakala, and others. Jamgon Kongtrul the Great made a tremendous effort to revive and preserve the lineage of the Shangpa Kagyu, which is now flourishing in Tibet and outside through the blessings and aspirations of Jamgon Kongtrul and the Sixteenth Karmapa. Two of the main contemporary Shangpa Kagyu masters are the Very Venerable Kalu Rinpoche (1905-89) and Bokar Rinpoche.

Dakpo Kagyu

It was introduced to Tibet by the great Lotsawa Marpa and his student Milarepa. Milarepa's student Gampopa later fused the teachings of Marpa with teachings he had received in the Kadampa lineage of Atisha. The lineages stemming from Gampopa came to be known as the Dakpo Kagyu. The Dakpo Kagyu tradition The Dakpo Kagyu developed into the so-called Four Major and Eight Minor Kagyu schools.

Four Major Schools

1. Karma Kagyu

The First Karmapa, Düsum Khyenpa (1110-1193), who was one of the main students of Gampopa, founded this lineage of the Kagyu School. In 1139 C.E., at the age of thirty, Düsum Khyenpa met Gampopa and became his disciple. This tradition has remained strong and successful due mainly to the presence of an unbroken reincarnate line of the founder, the successive Karmapas. All the successive incarnations of the Karmapas are very well know in every part of Tibet and among all Tibetan Buddhist practitioners, for their accomplishments in meditation, scholarship, and the activities of benefiting beings.

2. Phaktru Kagyu

Deshek Phakmo Trupa Dorje Gyalpo (1110-1170), who was one of the main students of Gampopa and is especially known for his realization and transmission of the Mahamudra lineage, founded this lineage of the Kagyu school. He also founded a monastery in the Phakmo area, which was later called Densa Thil. Many additional schools of Kagyu lineage grew from Phakmo Trupa's disciples.

3. Barom Kagyu

Barom Darma Wangchuk, a student of Gampopa, founded this tradition. He was also the founder of Barom monastery in the northern Latö region of Tibet and the name of the tradition came from this.  

4. Tsalpa Kagyu

Lama Zhang, otherwise known as Yudakpa Tsondu Dakpa (1123-1193), whose main teacher was Wangom Tsultrim Nyingpo, a student of Gampopa, founded this tradition. He is also the founder of Gungthang monastery and had many learned students.

Eight Minor Schools

The eight additional or sub-schools of the Kagyu lineage have developed within the Phaktru Kagyu.  

1. The Drikhung Kagyu was founded by Drikhung Kyopa Jigten Sumgyi Gönpo (1143-1217). Drikung Kyapgön Chetsang Rinpoche (b. 1946), who resides in Dehradun, India, is the present head of the Drikhung Kagyu lineage.  

2. The Drukpa Kagyu was founded by Drupchen Lingrepa Pema Dorje (1128-1188), a student of Phakmo Trupa, and his disciple Chöje Tsangpa Gyare Yeshe Dorje, (1161-1211). They founded the first seat of this lineage, Namdruk Monastery in central Tibet. Later, Kunkhyen Pema Karpo (1527-1592) founded the Druk Sang-ngak Chöling in southern Tibet, which became the main seat of this lineage. Kapgön Drukchen Rinpoche, who lives in Darjeeling, India, is the present head of the lineage. This lineage, adopted as the state religion of the Kingdom Of Bhutan, originally was brought there by the great Drukpa Kagyu master Shaptrung Ngakwang Namgyal and flourished in Bhutan throughout the centuries. His Holiness Je Khenpo of Bhutan and the present King of Bhutan Jigme Senge Wangchuk are the head of Drukpa Kagyu in Bhutan.  

3. The Taklung Kagyu was founded by Taklung Thangpa Tashi Pal (1142-1210). Taklung Shapdrung Rinpoche, is presently heads the lineage, along with Taklung Matul Rinpoche and Tsatrul Rinpoche.

4. The Yasang Kagyu was founded by Zarawa Kalden Yeshe Senge, a student of Phakmo Trupa, and his disciple Yasang Chöje Chökyi Mönlam (1169-1233). Yasang Chöje founded the Yasang or Yamsang monastery in 1206 C.E. and the name of the lineage came from that.  

5. The Trophu Kagyu was founded by Rinpoche Gyatsa, nephew and a student of Phakmo Trupa, and his disciple Trophu Lotsawa Champa Pal (1173-1225). Trophu Lotsawa founded the Trophu monastery and institute in the Tsang region of central Tibet and the name of the lineage derives from this.

6. The Shuksep Kagyu was founded by Gyergom Tsultrim Senge (1144-1204), who was a student of Phakmo Trupa. He founded the Shuksep monastery in 1181 C.E., in the Nyephu area in the Chushur region of central Tibet, from whence comes the name of the lineage.  

7. The Yelpa Kagyu was founded by Yelpa Drupthop Yeshe Tsekpa who founded the monasteries in Yelphuk.

8. The Martsang Kagyu was founded by Martsang Sherab Senge, a student of Phakmo Trupa.

The different Kagyu lineages are not referred to as major and minor in terms of the instructions they contain; they are equal in that respect. The four major lineages are known as major in that they originate with Gampopa himself, whereas the eight minor lineages originate with a later generation of masters.

Nowadays, of the four major Kagyu lineages only the Karma Kagyu remains prevalent. Among the eight minor Kagyu lineages only the Taglung, Drukpa and Drikung Kagyu still exist as independent lineages.