Introduction To The Kagyu Lineage

The founder of the Kagyu lineage was the Mahasiddha Tilopa (988-1069), who lived in Northern India. He is considered as having received a direct transmission from the primordial Buddha Vajradhara. In this context the Kagyu lineage has originated from the very essence of reality itself and thus transcends all space and time. Viewed from another level of understanding he also had human teachers, from whom he received four special transmissions, The Four Oral Instructions, for which he became the lineage holder. Some etymologies of the name “Kagyu” consider it as an abbreviation of Lineage of Four Oral Instructions. When Tilopa’s transmission is linked directly to Vajradhara, it is called the “direct transmission” but when it is traced to his human teachers, it is referred to as the “indirect transmission.”

These teachings were passed from Tilopa to his disciple, the Mahasiddha Naropa (1016–1100) and they were systematised as the Six Yogas of Naropa, meditations that are considered an essential teaching of the Kagyu lineage. Naropa transmitted his knowledge to Marpa Chökyi Lodrö (1012–1097), 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.

Jetsun Milarepa – The Most Important Disciple

Marpa’s most important disciple was Jetsun Milarepa (1040-1123) who 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 enter the way of the Dharma, is widely known among Tibetans. 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 (1079-1153), the physician from Dakpo. He first studied under the Kadampa tradition, which is a gradual and systematic path. 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. It is from Gampopa that the first Kagyu schools originated: the Karma Kagyu, Tselpa Kagyu, Barom Kagyu, and Phagdru Kagyu.

The founder of the Phagdru Kagyu was Phagmodrupa Dorje Gyalpo (1110–1170), one of Gampopa’s most important disciples. His own lineage died out as a religious institution, while his clan played an important role in the country’s secular governance in the ensuing epoch. Phagmodrupa’s main disciples founded their own lineages, of which there are eight.

The heart son of Gampopa is Phagmodrupa (1110~1170) who inherited Gampopa’s teaching, while Phagmodrupa promoted the teaching with great popularity to form Phagmodrupa Kagyu sect. The eight major heart sons:

1. Choje Marpa Sherab Yeshe founded Martsang Kagyu in 1167,
2. Yeshe Tseg founded Yelpa Kagyu in 1171,
3. Gyaltsab Rinchen founded Trophu Kagyu in 1171,
4. Kyopa Jigten Sumgyi founded Drikhung Kagyu in 1179,
5. Thangpa Tashi Pal founded Taklung Kagyu in 1180,
6. Gyergom Tsultrim Senge founded Shuksep Kagyu in 1181,
7. Tsangpa Gyare Yeshe Dorje founded Drukpa Kagyu in 1193,
8. The 2nd generation disciple Yasang founded Yasang Kagyu in 1205.