From Buddha World

The Kagyu or Kagyupa school, also known as the "Oral Lineage" or Whispered Transmission school, is today one of four main schools of Himalayan or Tibetan Buddhism, the other three being the Nyingma, Sakya , and Gelug. Along with the later two the Kagyu is classified as one of the Sarma or "New Transmission" schools since it primarily follows the Vajrayāna or Tantric teachings based on the so-called "New Tantras" i.e. those which were translated during the second diffusion of the Buddha Dharma in Tibet. Like all schools of Tibetan Buddhism the Kagyu consider their practices and teachings to be inclusive of the full range of Buddha's teachings (or three yāna) since they follow the fundamental teachings and vows of individual liberation & monastic discipline (Pratimoksha) which accord with the Mulasarvastivada tradition of the Śrāvakayāna (sometimes called Nikāya Buddhism or "Hīnayāna"); the Bodhisattva teachings, vows of universal liberation and philosophy of the Mahayana; and the profound means and samaya pledges of the Secret Mantra Vajrayāna. What differentiates the Kagyu from the other schools of Himalayan Buddhism are primarily the particular esoteric instructions and tantras they emphasize and the lineages of transmission which they follow.


Strictly speaking, the term Kagyu (“Oral Lineage” or “Precept Transmission”) applies to any line of transmission of an esoteric teaching from teacher to disciple. We sometimes see references to the "Atisha Kagyu" (“the precept transmission from Atiśa”) for the early Kadampa, or to "Jonang Kagyu" for the Jonangpa and "Ganden Kagyu" (dge ldan bka’ brgyud) for the Gelugpa sects. Today the term Kagyu is almost always used to refer to the Dagpo Kagyu the main branch of the Marpa Kagyu which developed from the teachings transmitted by the translator Marpa Chökyi Lodrö; and sometimes to the separate lesser-known Shangpa Kagyu tradition which developed from the teachings transmitted by Keydrup Khyungpo Naljor.

Marpa Kagyu & Dagpo Kagyu

The Kagyu begins in Tibet with Marpa Chökyi Lodrö (1012-1097) who trained as a translator with Drogmi Lotsawa Shākya Yeshe ('brog mi lo ts'a ba sh'akya ye shes) (993-1050), and then traveled three times to India and four times to Nepal in search of religious teachings. His principal gurus were the siddhas Naropa - from whom he received the "close lineage" of Mahāmudrā and Tantric teachings, and Maitripa - from whom he received the "distant lineage" of Mahāmudrā.

Indian Origins

Marpa's guru Naropa (1016-1100) was the principal disciple of Tilopa (988-1089) from East Bengal. From his own teachers Tilopa had received the Four Lineages of Instructions (bka' babs bzhi) which he passed on to Nāropa who codified them into what became known as the Six Doctorines or Six Yogas of Nāropa. These instructions consist a combination of the completion stage (sampannakrama; rdzogs rim) practices of different Buddhist highest yoga tantras (anuttarayoga tantra; bla-med rgyud) which utilize the energy-winds (Skt.vāyu, Tib. rlung; ), energy-channels (Skt. nāḍi, Tib. rtsa; ) and energy-drops (Tib. ) of the subtle vajra-body in order to achieve the four types of bliss, the clear-light mind and realize the state of Mahāmudrā. The Mahāmudrā lineage of Tilopa and Nāropa is called the "direct lineage" or "close lineage" as it is said that Tilopa received this Mahāmudrā realisation directly from the Dharmakaya Buddha Vajradhara and this was transmitted only through Nāropa to Marpa. The "distant lineage" of Mahāmudrā is said to have come from the Buddha in the form of Vajradara through incarnations of the Bodhisattvas Avaokiteshvara and Manjusri to Saraha, then from him through Nagarjuna, Savari, and Maitripa to Marpa. The Mahāmudrā teachings coming from Saraha which Maitripa transmitted to Marpa include the "Essence Mahāmudrā" (snying po'i phyag chen) where Mahāmudrā is introduced directly without relying on philosophical reasoning or yogic practices. According to some accounts, on his third journey to India Marpa also met Atiśa (982-1054) who later came to Tibet and helped found the Kadampa lineage.

Marpa's successors

Marpa established his "seat" at Drowolung (gro bo lung) in Lhodrak (lho brag) in Southern Tibet just north of Bhutan. Marpa married the lady Dagmema, and took eight other concubines as mudras. Collectively they embodied the main consort and eight wisdom dakini in the mandala of his yidam Hevajra. Marpa's four most outstanding students were known as the "Four Great Pillars" (ka chen bzhi):

  1. Milarepa (1040-1123), born in Gungthang province of western Tibet, the most celebrated and accomplished of Tibet's yogis, who achieved the ultimate goal of enlightenment in one lifetime became the holder of Marpa's meditation or practice lineage.
  2. Ngok Choku Dorje (rngog chos sku rdo rje)(1036-1102)- Was the principal recipient of Marpa's explainitory lineages and particularly important in Marpa's transmission of the Hevajra Tantra. Ngok Choku Dorje founded the Langmalung temple in the Tang valley of Bumthang district, Bhutan - which is still standing today. The Ngok branch of the Marpa Kagyu was an independent lineage carried on by his descendants at least up to the time of the Second Drukchen Gyalwang Kunga Paljor ('brug chen kun dga' dpal 'byor) 1428-1476 who received this transmission, and 1476 when Go Lotsawa composed the Blue Annals.
  3. Tshurton Wangi Dorje (mtshur ston dbang gi rdo rje)- was the principal recipient of Marpa's transmission of the teachings of the Guhyasamāja tantra. Tshurton's lineage eventually merged with the Zhalu tradition and subsequently passed down to Tsongkhapa who wrote extensive commentaries on Guhyasamāja.
  4. Meton Tsonpo (mes ston tshon po)

Marpa had wanted to pass his lineage through his son Darma Dode following the usual Tibetan practice of the time to transmit of lineages of esoteric teachings via hereditary lineage (father-son or uncle-nephew), but his son died at an early age and consequently he passed his main lineage on through Milarepa. Other important students of Marpa include:

  • Marpa Dowa Chokyi Wangchuck (mar pa do ba chos kyi dbang phyug).
  • Marpa Goleg (mar pa mgo legs) who along with Tshurton Wangdor received the Guhyasamāja teachings.
  • Barang Bawacen (ba rang lba ba can) - who received lineage of the explanatory teachings of the Mahāmāyā Tantra.

In the 19th Century Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye (1813-1899) collected the initiations and sadhanas of surviving transmissions of Marpa's teachings together in the collection known as the Kagyu Ngak Dzö ("Treasury of Kagyu Tantras").

Milarepa and his disciples

Among Milarepa's many students were Gampopa Sonam Rinchen (sgam po pa bsod nams rin chen) (1079-1153), a great scholar, and the great yogi Rechung Dorje Drakpa, also known as Rechungpa.


Gampopa combined the stages of the path tradition of the Kadampa order with teaching and practice of the Great Seal (Mahamudra) and the Six Yogas of Naropa he received from Milarepa synthesizing them into one lineage which came to be known as Dagpo Kagyu - the main lineage of the Kagyu tradition as we know it today. Following Gampopa's teachings, there evolved the so-called "Four Major and Eight Minor" lineages of the Dagpo (sometimes rendered "Tagpo" or "Dakpo") Kagyu School. This organization is descriptive of the generation in which the schools were founded, not of their realization or prominence. The Rechung Kagyu school that descended from Rechungpa has always been far smaller and more obscure.

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