The Kagyu lineage is one of the four main lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, and one of the Eight Great Practice Lineages of Tibet. Its emphasis on profound meditation, heartfelt devotion and retreat has produced an unbroken stream of extraordinary realised beings, earning the Kagyu the title ‘The Practice Lineage’. Although the Kagyu school has existed for almost a thousand years in Tibet, like the other lineages it traces its origins back to Buddha Shakyamuni and to a succession of Indian masters. All these teachings can be said to find their source in Buddha Shakyamuni’s enlightenment: Buddha Shakyamuni was a nirmanakaya manifestation of enlightenment, appearing for the benefit of beings in this world. However, the reality of buddhahood and enlightenment itself is one in which the three kayas are indivisible. The nirmanakaya and sambhogakaya are the natural and inseparable expressions of the dharmakaya, appearing according to the different needs and capacities of beings. Therefore, the origin of the teachings and of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism is actually the dharmakaya, the realisation of the primordial essence of enlightenment, also known as Vajradhara (Dorje Chang) or Samantabhadra (Kuntu Zangpo).
The Kagyu lineage and in particular its Vajrayana teachings therefore originate with Vajradhara, who manifested to suitable disciples in order to transmit the Vajrayana dharma. These teachings were then passed from master to disciple in an unbroken continuity of oral instructions, a form of transmission that is given special emphasis in the Kagyu and whence this lineage gets its name. The syllable Ka, meaning “speech”, here refers to the scriptures of the Buddha and the oral instructions of the guru. The second syllable, gyu, means lineage or tradition. The name Kagyu is therefore commonly taken to mean ‘the lineage of oral instruction’.
The Kagyu transmission has come down to the present day in a number of ways. Of these, the Mahamudra lineage from Buddha Vajradhara down through the Indian Mahasiddhas Tilopa and Naropa, to Lord Marpa Lotsawa is sometimes called the “short lineage” or “close lineage”. The term “long lineage” is often used to describe the Mahamudra transmission from Buddha Vajradhara, through the bodhisattva Ratna Mati (Lodrö Rinchen) and the Indian masters Saraha, Nagarjuna, Shawaripa and Matripa to Lord Marpa. Both of these lineages were then brought to Tibet by Lord Marpa.
Of particular importance was the practice-transmission of mastery that Marpa passed on to the great yogi, Jetsun Milarepa. Milarepa’s heartfelt devotion and diligence in the face of extreme hardship and the supreme accomplishment he attained, has earned him a special place not only within the Kagyu. His life story and songs of realisation have inspired generations of practitioners from across all Tibetan traditions and beyond, right up to the present day, thus bringing inconceivable benefit.
Today, the most well-known Kagyu lineages are those that stem from Gampopa, one of Milarepa’s two main disciples. Before meeting Milarepa, Gampopa had trained extensively in the study and practice of the Kadam lineage founded by Atisha. Later in life, he thoroughly practiced and mastered the teachings he received from Milarepa. The combination of Kadam and Kagyu teaching and practice that Gampopa transmitted to his disciples was his unique contribution to the Kagyu school. He had a number of noteworthy disciples, from whom further branches of the Kagyu eventually grew. In turn, additional Kagyu schools spread from the students of Phagmo Trupa, one of Gampopa’s main disciples. Collectively, all these lineages that stem from Gampopa are referred to as the Dakpo Kagyu. These include the Karma Kagyu founded by the First Karmapa, the Drukpa Kagyu founded by Lingje Repa, and the Drikung Kagyu founded by Jigten Sumgon.
The Karma Kagyu
Dusum Khyenpa, who later came to be known as the first Karmapa, was one of Gampopa’s most important and influential disciples. He built Tsurphu Monastery in Central Tibet and became known as the founder of the Karma Kagyu lineage, also known as the Karma Kamtsang. The second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi, was the first tulku to be recognised as such in Tibet, making this lineage of recognised reincarnate lamas the oldest of its kind. The successive incarnations of the Karmapa and his regents have maintained this lineage over the centuries, preserving its living stream of realisation and producing countless enlightened saints and learned scholars. His Holiness the Sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa was the head of the Kagyu lineage in Tibet at the time of the political upheaval, and then in exile in India. His reincarnation, His Holiness the Seventeenth Gyalwa Karmapa Orgyen Trinley Dorje, was born in Lhathok region of Kham in eastern Tibet and received his initial education in the Kagyu tradition at Tsurphu. His Holiness left Tibet in January 2000 and is currently residing in India, continuing the activities of the Karmapas and benefiting beings.
Kagyu seats in and outside of Tibet
The original seat of Marpa Lotsawa is in the Lhodrak region of southern Tibet, while a relatively short distance from there one can still see the nine-story tower built by his heart disciple, Milarepa. Milarepa, beloved as the greatest yogi of Tibet, practiced at many different mountain caves in the Himalayas, not only in Tibet, but also in some regions of Nepal. Lord Gampopa, the heart disciple of Milarepa, built his monastery at Dhaklha Gampo, in the area of Dhakpo in southern Tibet, which became the first monastic seat of the Kagyu lineage. These are the most sacred seats or places of the forefathers of the Kagyu lineage.
All the chief disciples of Gampopa and the students of Phagmo Trupa developed monastic seats throughout Tibet. One of the principal seats is the Tsurphu Monastery, in the Tölung valley of Central Tibet, founded by the First Karmapa Düsum Khyenpa (1110-1193). This became one of the most important seats of the entire Kagyu lineage, and remained so throughout the centuries. In exile, His Holiness the Sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa designated Rumtek Monastery (that had been founded by the Ninth Karmapa) in Sikkim as the main seat and the most important place for the Kagyu lineage in exile.
Some of the other most important seats of the Kagyu lineage are:
- Drikung Thil Monastery, in the Drikung region of Central Tibet, founded by Drikung Kyopa Jikten Sumgön, the principal seat of the Drikung Kagyu (in exile, H.H. Drikung Kyabgon founded the Drikung Kagyu Institute (Changchub Ling) in Sahastradhara, Dhera Dun, India);
- Namdruk Monastery, in Central Tibet, founded by Drupchen Lingrepa and Tsangpa Gyare, and Druk Sang-ngak Chöling in southern Tibet, founded by Kunkhyen Pema Karpo (1527-1592), the two principle seats of the Drukpa Kagyu (in exile, Druk Thubten Sangag Choeling, in Darjeeling, India, founded by Thukse Rinpoche and H. H. Drukchen Rinpoche);
- Palpung Monastery in the Dege region of eastern Tibet, founded by the eighth Tai Situpa, Chökyi Jungne (1700-1774) in 1727 C.E., one of the most important Karma Kagyu seats in Kham (in exile, the Palpung Institute, Bir, Himachal Pradesh, India, founded by H. E. the Twelfth Tai Situpa Rinpoche);
- Tsadra Rinchen Drak in the Dege region of eastern Tibet, founded by Jamgon Kongtrul (1813-1899) the Great (in exile, Pullahari Monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal, founded by H.E. Third Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche (1954-1992);
- Chögar Gong in Tsurphu, Central Tibet, founded by the lines of Goshir Gyaltsap incarnations (in exile, Palchen Chökhor Ling in Ralang, Sikkim, India, founded by H.E. Twelfth Goshir Gyaltsap Rinpoche).