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Kagyu Lineage

From Tibetan Buddhist Encyclopedia
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The Kagyupa School is particularly known for its emphasis on meditation practice.

It originated with the Indian master Tilopa and spread throughout the Himalayas, including Tibet.

Today, the Kagyu lineage of Buddhism is practiced worldwide.


The Kagyu lineage, originated with the great yogi Tilopa who lived in Northern india sometime around the 10th century A.D. Tilopa received the four special transmissions (T:bka-babs-bzhi) and mastered them.

Although there is some discrepancy in historical sources regarding the identities of the masters associated with each of the four transmissions the most common consensus indicates that their sources are as follows:

Origins of the Four Special Transmissions

The first of the four came from Nagarjuna and consists of two tantras,

the 'Sangwa Dupa Tantra' (Skt. Guhyasamaya) and
the 'Denshi Tantra'.

It also incorporates the practices called 'Illusory Body' (T: sgyu-lus) and '(T: pho-ba).

The second special transmission came from Nakpopa and includes the tantra called 'Gyuma Chenmo' (Skt: Mahamaya) and the practice called 'Conscious Dreaming' (T: rmi-lam).

The third special transmission came from Lawapa.

It includes the 'Demchok Tantra' and the practice of 'Clear Light' (T: od-gsal).

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The fourth was transmitted from Khandra Kalpa Zangmo and includes the tantra known as 'Gyepa Dorje' (Skt: Hevajra), and the practice called 'Tummo'.


The master Tilopa passed the four special transmissions to Naropa, who systematized them 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.


Marpa's student Milarepa became one of the Tibet's great yogis.

Through perseverance in the practice of Mahamudra and the Six Yogas of Naropa, he achieved profound realization of the ultimate nature of reality.


Milarepa's transmission was carried on by Gampopa, 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 Karmapas

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It was the first Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa, who received the complete Mahamudra transmission from Gampopa.

He began the lineage of the Karmapas, which continues today.

The Gyalwa Karmapa is the spiritual head of the Karma Kagyu lineage.

The Karmapa represents the line of reincarnated Tibetan Buddhist masters, dating to the 12th century.

The current Karmapa, Trinley Thaye Dorje, is the 17th Karmapa.

You can learn more about the Karmapa lineage here.

The Shamarpas

The first Shamarpa, Khedrup Drakpa Senge (1283-1349), was the principal disciple of the third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje.

Rangjung Dorje gave this disciple a ruby-red crown and the title Shamarpa, establishing the second line of reincarnate lamas in Tibetan Buddhism, Karmapa being the first.

This was the fulfillment of a prediction of the second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi, who said "Future Karmapas will manifest in two forms".

When the fourth Karmapa, Rolpe Dorje, returned the red crown to the second Shamarpa, he recalled Karma Pakshi's prediction, saying, "You are the one manifestation, while I am the other.

Therefore, the responsibility to maintain the continuity of the teachings of the Kagyu lineage rests equally on you as it does on me."

The present (14th Shamarpa is Mipham Chokyi Lodro, born in Derge, Tibet in 1952.

At age four he was recognized by his uncle the 16th Karmapa.

After the death of the 16th Karmapa in 1981, the Shamarpa recognized Thaye Dorje as the 17th Karmapa in 1994.

The 14th Shamarpa presently resides in India.

You can learn more about the Shamarpa lineage here.

The Four Main Kagyu Schools and the Eight Branches

Four disciples of Gampopa founded the four main Kagyu schools

The eight branches of the Kagyu lineage originated from Gampopa's disciple, Phagmo Drubpa:

    Taglung Kagyu
    Trophu Kagyu
    Drukpa Kagyu
    Martsang Kagyu
    Yerpa Kagyu
    Yazang Kagyu
    Shugseb Kagyu
    Drikung Kagyu

The four main lineages are sometimes known as major in that they originate with Gampopa himself, whereas the branches are sometimes referred to as minor lineages because they originate from Gampopa's disciple Phagmo Drubpa.

This does not reflect on the instructions they contain-- they are equal in that respect.

Nowadays, among the four main Kagyu lineages, only the Karma Kagyu remains prevalent.

Among the eight branches of the Kagyu lineage only the Taglung, Drukpa and Drikung Kagyu still exist as independent lineages.

One can distinguish several transmissions within each lineage.

However, all major buddhist traditions in Tibet have a lineage of the Pratimoksha-vows and a lineage of the Bodhisattva-vows.