A Brief History of the Karma Kagyu Lineage of Tibet by Topga Yulgyal Rinpoche


The Kagyu lineage, sometimes referred to as the "oral lineage" of Tibet, originated with the great yogi Tilopa, who lived in Northern India around the 10th century A.D. He is considered the founder of the lineage and, in addition, he received four special transmissions (Tib: bka-babs-bzhi) for which he became the lineage holder.

Although there is some discrepancy in historical sources regarding the identities of the yoga masters associated with each of the four transmissions, the most common consensus indicates that their origins are as follows: the first of the four came from Lopon Ludrub (slob-dpon-klu-sgrub, Skt: Acarya Nagarjuna) and consists of two tantras, the "Sangwa Dupa" Tantra (gsang-ba-dus-pa, S: Guhasamaja) and the tantra called "Denshi" (gden bzhi). This transmission also incorporates the practices called "Illusory Body" (sgyu-lus, Skt: Mayadeva) and "Transference" (Tib: pho-ba, Skt: Samkranti). The second special transmission came from Nakpo Chopa (nag-po-spyod-pa). It includes the tantra called "Gyuma Chenpo" (sgyu-ma-chen-po, Skt: Mahamaya) and the practice called "Conscious Dreaming" (Tib: rmi-lam, Skt: Svapna).The third special transmission came from Lawapa (la-ba-pa) and is called "Demchok" or, alternatively, "Korlo Dongpa" (bde-mchog, khor-lo-sdompa, Skt: Chakrasamvara), and the practice called "Clear Light" (Tib: odgsal, Skt: Prabhasvara). The fourth was transmitted from Khandro Kalpa Sangmo (mkha-gro-bskal-pa-bzangmo) and includes the tantra known as "Gyepa Dorje" (dgyes-pa-rdo-rje, Skt: Hevajra) and the practice called "Tumo" (gtum-mo, Skt: Candali).

These teachings were passed from Tilopa to the yogi Naropa and were systematized as the "Six Yogas of Naropa," meditations which are considered a central teaching of the Kagyu Lineage. Based on several textual references, it seems that Naropa was born in 956 A.D.. He transmitted his knowledge to Marpa (born in 1000), 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 widely.

Marpa's student Jetsun Milarepa, born in 1033, became one of Tibet's great yogis. His life story, beginning with difficult circumstances due to his father's early death, his vengeance upon his dishonest aunt and uncle, and his subsequent regret which led to an earnest desire to learn the way of the Dharma, is widely known among Tibetan people. Through his perseverance and ability to accept all circumstances which he met, he achieved profound realization of the ultimate nature of reality. His teachings are recorded in the 100,000 songs of Milarepa and other collections.

Milarepa's teachings were carried on by Gampopa (born in 1079), also known as Dakpo Largay, the physician from Dakpo. He first studied under the Kadampa tradition, which is a gradual and systematic path that includes the Lam Rim teachings. At a later age, he met Milarepa and practicing under him received and realized the true meaning of the complete teachings. Since that time, the lineage has been known as the Dakpo Kagyu and includes many sub-sects. In the 12th century, the first Karmapa Dusum Kyenpa became the disciple of Dakpo Largay, and received all of his instructions relating to the sutra and tantra vehicles. For many years he studied, practiced, and taught at various sites in Tibet. He was the founder of the Karma Kagyu lineage. "Karma" refers to the Karmapa himself and "Kagyu" is a derivation of the term "Khababshi Gyupa," referring to the four special sets of instructions held by Tilopa which trace their origin back to the words of the Buddha. He was the first recognized reincarnate Lama of Tibet.

After the 1st Kamapa's appearance in the world, the lineage evolved rapidly and by the 12th century the Karma Kagyu tradition was spreading quickly and was widely practiced throughout Tibet. This was a time of political upheaval characterized by the rapid decline of monarchies which had formerly ruled. Many prominent political figures emerged who vied for power, but no leader was able to establish sovereignty as no individual had a unified following. The Karmapas were never interested or involved in the struggles of various political factions and, in fact, were forced to actively resist involvement since they were in a particularly vulnerable position. Because they held tremendous spiritual authority, they were targets of those who were politically ambitious. Their religious followers also encouraged them to assume positions of power because they felt that they had the required qualities to lead the people.

It was during this turbulent period, sometime in the 13th or 14th century, that the Sakyapas began ruling Tibet with the support of the Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan followed by Ganges Khan. He was Tibet's first political-religious leader and, for the first time since the disappearance of the kings, Tibet was unified under a single leader. At this time, powerful rulers from Mongolia and Tibet, seeing the sway that the high lamas held over Tibetan people, adopted a strategy of forming allegiances by providing the lamas with gifts, extending invitations to their kingdoms and conveying lengthy titles upon them. The motivation behind these gestures was often more political than religious.

During the Ming Dynasty of the 14th century, the 5th Karmapa, Deshin Shekpa, was invited to China by the "Yunglo," the Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, who received many instructions from Deshin Shekpa. During his visit, the Karmapa demonstrated many miraculous feats, which the Emperor's artists were ordered to record daily and depicted on approximately twenty large scroll paintings. A few of these were extant in Tsurphu Monastery in Tibet until the invasion of 1950. The Yunglo was so moved by these events and developed such deep faith in the Karmapa that he proposed the enactment of a plan to convert all other religious sects of Tibet to Karma Kagyu. Deshin Shekpa absolutely refused to go along with this proposal, and instead gave a discourse on the importance of respecting diverse schools of thought by understanding that different traditions are necessary in order to accommodate the array of particular inclinations found in the whole of humanity.

Despite the politics of the times, however, the period from the 13th to the 17th centuries was a time of generally favorable circumstances for the Karma Kagyu tradition. As the teachings spread and the number of followers increased, the leaders of the lineage became more and more prominent and, in fact, this period in the history of Tibet could be termed the "Kagyu Era."

At this time a dramatic change occurred in the power structure of the country, which was being crushed between the forces of domestic strife, power struggles, and outside political influences. The central government headed by Desi Tsangpa, a stout supporter of the Karmapa, was overthrown by the Mongol leader Goshir Khan and the 5th Dalai Lama became the leader of Tibet.

The 10th Karmapa, Choying Dorje, became a victim of these political events and had to leave Tibet in the mid-17th century for Jang, a province of China. After this, the Kagyu lineage following decreased until the 18th century when, under the 13th Karmapa, Dudul Dorje, Situ Chogyi Jungne led the lineage toward a period of growth and renewal in which it began to flourish again. At this time, in particular, lamas of the lineage produced many eminent philosophical texts and works relating to grammar, Sanskrit, and astrology that benefitted Tibet's literary tradition and the Tibetan people as a whole. In the present century, during the lifetime of H.H. the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa, many Dharma centers were established throughout the world, including the Karmapa International Buddhist Institute in New Delhi, India, in order to provide the opportunity for people to study and practice the Buddha's teachings. Following his departure from Tibet in 1959, His Holiness was able to reconstruct his main seat by creating a monastery in Rumtek, Sikkim, which is known as the Dharma Chakra Center, as well as a monastic college, a retreat center, and a primary school for monks.

Like his predecessors, the 16th Karmapa was primarily a spiritual figure and therefore not involved in propagating the cause of Tibetan freedom. Instead, he made efforts to keep the spiritual tradition of Tibet intact, and in this way helped to preserve the identity of Tibet as a unique and individual culture. At the same time, the 16th Karmapa never forgot the existence of the very capable and profound spiritual leader, H.H. the Dalai Lama, who is also the political leader of the Tibetan nation. The Dalai Lama has all the requisite qualities that such a position demands as well as a large administrative body of people who are very much involved in truly relevant and significant political movements for the benefit of the Tibetan people.

As stated, all of the establishments created by H.H. Gyalwa Karmapa have been designed with the intention of preserving the Tibetan religious tradition and culture, and providing the teachings of the Buddha to people of all nationalities who feel that they can benefit from the insight and wisdom of the Buddha. The Karma Kagyu lineage in general emphasizes the extensive studies of a wide range of subjects without distinguishing as to their level of importance. At a certain point deemed appropriate by the spiritual guide, practical teachings on Mahamudra, the Great Seal of Voidness, which are the ultimate and innermost teachings of the lineage, are received and practiced according to stages prescribed by tradition. When the capacity for understanding the entire depth of meanings of Mahamudra arises, then the "Six Practices of Naropa" may be embarked upon.

Once the teacher has imparted the essence of the teachings relating to Mahamudra which have been passed down through the lineage, and once the student has established the same profound realization of Mahamudra as the teacher, then that person is recognized as a lineage holder regardless of his/her background. Whether he/she is a recognized lama, or a lay person, realizing the essential nature of the profound meaning of Mahamudra is the qualification which establishes such an individual as a holder of the tradition.

Taken from "Knowledge in Action," a Newsletter of the Karmapa International Buddhist Institute (KIBI), New Delhi.

Kagyu Life International, No.3, 1995