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You are here : Home > Reading Room > Brief History of the Kagyu School of Tibetan Buddhism
Brief History of the Kagyu School of Tibetan Buddhism

The Kagyu School is one of the four mains schools of Tibetan Buddhism: the others being the Nyingma, Gelugpa and Sakya. The Nyingma (ancient) School represents the initial establishment of Buddhism from India to Tibet, beginning in the eighth century. The other three schools trace their origins to the later flourishing of Buddhism and are collectively known as the Sarma (new) schools. In the present day there are four main lineages that can be classified as part of the Kagyu school. They are the Karma Kagyu, Drukpa Kagyu, Drikung Kagyu and Shangpa Kagyu.

It is important to have an understanding of the nature and development of lineages. The transmission of a lineage occurs when a student attains a complete understanding of the teachings as given by the teacher. Lineages can therefore be traced historically as a list of lineage holders, each of whom realised the complete meaning of the teachings. It is possible that a teacher transmits the lineage to more than one student. This can result in more than one lineage with a common root. For example Gampopa transmitted his teaching to four disciples who went on to found the four major Kagyu schools. The content of the teachings within a lineage can have more than one source. For example Gampopa integrated the tantric meditation practices that he learnt from Milarepa with the teachings he received from Atisha of the Kadampa tradition. Lineages, as well as being transmissions of realisation, are organic entities that influence each other and adapt to the situations presenting themselves.

The Buddha Vajradhara is the original source of the tantric teachings of all of the Kagyu lineages. If one looks at thangka paintings one can see that the deep blue colour, crown and ornaments of Vajradhara are very different from the robes of Shakyamuni Buddha. However, Kagyu practitioners regard Vajradhara as a manifestation of the same enlightenment as Shakyamuni. The essense of the Buddha's enlightenment manifested in these two forms, at different times to give different types of teachings. Vajradhara taught the four classes of tantra for the benefit of disciples who harbour desire as their principle emotion. Vajradhara is named as being the sixth Buddha. This is because he unites the enlightened qualities of the five Buddha families. He is the main figure of supplication in Kagyu lineage Guru Yoga practices. In these practices the practitioner's Guru is visualised as Vajradhara.

The Kagyu lineage masters have engaged in a wide range of lifestyles and displays of spiritual realisation. All of their lives illustrate the lineage's qualities of meditation, devotion and unconventionality.

Vajradhara is said to have manifested to Indian mahasiddhas, such as Tilopa, to reveal tantric teachings. The Karma Kagyu, Drikung Kagyu and Drukpa Kagyu all have Tilopa as the first human lineage holder. Tilopa was born around 988 as a Brahmin and as a young man he renounced the world and took up monastic ordination. Later, he had a vision of a dakini who instructed him to "Speak like a madman, throw off your robes and practice in secret". Tilopa distanced himself from conventional values and acted crazily. This behaviour was a method for renouncing deceptive comforts and egoistic existence within society. Tilopa travelled, meditated and sought out teachings from mahasiddhas and eventually found himself in Bengal, pounding sesame seeds during the day and working for a prostitute during the night. After twelve years of meditating under these circumstances, Tilopa went into isolated meditation retreat in a tiny hut in Bengal. He perceived a vision of the Buddha Vajradhara and received teachings including Mahamudra and what were to become known as the Six Yogas of Naropa that were to be passed on through the Kagyu lineage.

Tilopa passed on the realisation of this lineage to his student, Naropa. Naropa was a highly learned pandit and the abbot of Nalanda Monastery, North India. He was a highly skilled debater and he had an unequalled knowledge of the words of the Buddha's teaching. One day an ugly old hag confronted Naropa and asked him two questions. The first question was whether Naropa understood all of the words of the Buddha's teaching. Naropa said that he did and the hag was very pleased. Then she asked Naropa whether he understood their inner meaning to which he also replied yes. At this the old crone broke down and started to weep. When asked to explain her behaviour, she replied that she was pleased when Naropa said he understood the words of the Buddha because this was true. However when Naropa said that he understood their inner meaning, she was upset because this was not true. Naropa then, against the wishes of the monks, decided to leave the Monastery in search of Tilopa as suggested by the old hag who was actually a wisdom Dakini.

After leaving the monastery, Naropa spent a long time searching for Tilopa, his future Guru. He had to go to a large number of different places and encountered a large number of obstacles before Tilopa finally appeared and accepted him as his disciple. Naropa's challenges did not end there. For the next twelve years, Tilopa gave him a series of demanding trials, which caused him a great deal of mental and physical suffering. Tilopa's teachings were intended to destroy Naropa's ego. After twelve years of this intense training, Tilopa told Naropa that he was ready to offer the much sought after oral instructions and demanded an offering. Naropa, having nothing, offered Tilopa his own fingers and blood. After Tilopa colleced the fingers, he hit Naropa on the face with a dirty sandal and Naropa instantly lost consciousness. When he regained consciousness, he directly perceived the ultimate truth, the suchness of all reality and his fingers were restored. Naropa subsequently received all of the teachings and became a realised Siddha. He is a pivotal figure in the Kagyu lineage because he joined the tantric practice to the more traditional scholarship.

The next lineage holder in the Kagyu lineage was Marpa the Translator. He was known as the translator because he brought the teachings from India to Tibet and so was required to translate them into the Tibetan language. When young, Marpa was said to have had a fearsome temper and fiery disposition. In an attempt to help this problem, Marpa's parents sent him off to be trained in the Dharma at a young age. He found that he needed to make a lot of offerings to receive even basic Dharma teachings and felt that he needed to go to India to receive a full Dharma transmission. Reluctantly, his parents allowed him to go so he set off on the long and dangerous journey to India. When in Nepal on his way to India, Marpa heard of the siddha Naropa. It is said that a connection from a former life re-awakened and Marpa felt a strong yearning to meet Naropa. After arriving in India, Marpa bypassed the monastic scene and went straight away to find his teacher, Naropa, in the forest. Marpa stayed and studied with Naropa and other siddhas for twelve years. He returned to Tibet and married a spiritually gifted woman named Damema. Marpa then returned to India a second time and spent six years studying with Naropa. Before leaving for Tibet, Marpa promised Naropa that he would return to India to complete his training. Although well into middle age, Marpa then returned to India for a third time. On his final visit, Marpa is agonized to discover that his beloved teacher has gone into the jungle to follow a hidden and anonymous path. Marpa searches for Naropa extensively but then gives up all hope of ever seeing his guru. At this point Naropa appears to Marpa and they are able to communicate freely. The barriers that previously existed between them had gone. Marpa spent another three years studying with his teacher before returning to Tibet for the third and final time. During his remaining years, Marpa taught dharma extensively. His most famous student was Milarepa, the next holder of the Kagyu lineage and Tibet's most loved saint.

Unlike many other spiritual figures in Tibet's history, Milarepa was not portrayed as having perfect qualities from his birth. On the contrary, Milarepa had been a murderer. However, after making enormous efforts with his practice, Milarepa developed strong devotion for his teacher and went on to attain complete enlightenment in one lifetime. Because of Milarepa's previous bad deeds, this example can give hope on the spiritual path to any individual, whatever wrongdoings have been commited. He is one of Tibet's most loved yogis.

Milarepa was born in southern Tibet and enjoyed a prosperous childhood. However his father died and due to a poorly written will Milarepa, his sister and his mother become virtual slaves to his aunt and uncle. They treated Milarepa and his family very badly and prevented the return of their property. Milarepa's mother, consumed with hatred and rage, sent Milarepa to train with a Tibetan Bonpo Lama skilled in spells to bring ruin on other people. He found the Lama and applied himself diligently to his studies. Within a year, he is given the destructive practices that he seeks. Milarepa used his powers to cause the death of thirty-five people but left the aunt and uncle alive. After this, Milarepa realised the karmic consequences of his actions and became very remorseful. He began to search for a Buddhist Lama to instruct him in sincere purification practice; the only alternative to a low and fearful rebirth. After a false start on the spiritual path, Milarepa met Marpa, his guru. Marpa initially set Milarepa to work with tasks such as building a watchtower. During this time Marpa called Milarepa "The Great Magician" in reference to his previous activities. When the tower was completed Marpa asked Milarepa to pull it down and build it in another place. This happened four times in total. Marpa's apparently harsh and unreasonable treatment of Milarepa in fact served as preliminary to receiving instructions. Milarepa experienced a great deal of despair as a result of Marpa's continual rejection of him. It was not until Milarepa was about to commit suicide that Marpa agreed to give him some teachings. Marpa went on to explain how he asked Milarepa to build the towers as a means of purification of his negative karma. Milarepa then received the teachings and went into retreat to practice them. He attained great realisation and continued to live only in caves in the mountains. Over time a circle of devoted disciples gathered around him. Milarepa continued to teach until he was eighty-four. His life had an enormous influence on Tibetan culture and, in particular, the Kagyu school of Buddhism.

Gampopa, the next holder of the lineage, was the most influential of Milarepa's disciples. Whereas Milarepa never abandoned the lifestyle of the wandering ascetic, Gampopa allowed the Kagyu tradition to continue in a monastic setting. Gampopa initially entered the Kadam tradition of Atisha and followed a monastic lifestyle defined by the Vinaya. One day, after leaving a retreat hut that he had been practising in, Gampopa overheard a conversation of three beggars. The first beggar expressed a desire for plentiful food and drink. The second said that he would like to be a king like Tsede of Tibet. The third one, however, said that Tsede would die one day and that he would wish to become a great yogin like Milarapa. When Gampopa heard the name Milarepa a great devotion arose in him. Gampopa was unable to settle when back in his meditation retreat so set off in search of his future guru, Milarepa. When Gampopa arrived to meet Milarepa he discovered that his arrival had been prophesised and that Milarepa was expecting him. This resulted in Gampopa having feelings of great pride. To counteract Gampopa's pride, Milarepa refused to see him for two weeks. When they eventually met Milarepa taught Gampopa his system of tantric meditation. Gampopa practiced these meditation techniques diligently and made excellent progress. Milarepa advised him to practice meditation in solitary places, which Gampopa spent a lot of time doing. He eventually ended up in a place called Gampo (as a result of which he gained his name, meaning 'the man from Gampo').

Previous masters of the Kagyu lineage reserved their teachings for a small number of disciples. Gampopa increased the availability of the Kagyu teachings by teaching to a larger number of disciples. To some he taught Mahayana teachings such as the six perfections; to others basic tantric practices; and some he gave the final instructions of Mahamudra. Gampopa combined the tantric practices that he learnt from Milarepa with the monastic practices of the Kadampa tradition of Atisha. By providing this range of teachings in a monastic setting, Gampopa managed to provide for a range of spiritual practitioners.

Milarepa's other main disciple was Rechungpa. Rechungpa had periods when he was adversely affected by pride regarding his spiritual attainments. However, by following the life of a wandering yogi, he attained genuine attainment. Rechungpa's lineage was specifically connected with the tradition of togdenmas, female yogic practitioners. It continued down to the time of the Chinese invasion in 1949.

As was mentioned earlier, Gampopa's four main disciples set up the four major Kagyu schools. One of these disciples was Tustum Kyenpa who founded the Karma Kagyu lineage. Today the Karma Kagyu is the most widely practiced of the Kagyu lineages. Tustum Kyenpa was retrospectively identified as the first Karmapa. This was the first example of the tulku tradition in Tibet and there have been many examples since. An enlightened being may choose to re-incarnate for the purpose of benefiting beings in a continued succession of emanations. The incarnations of the Karmapas have continued from Tustum Kyenpa to the present day.

Another one of Gampopa's four main disciples was Phagmo Drupa. Phagmo Drupa's eight main disciples founded the eight minor Kagyu schools. One of these disciples was Jigten Sumgon who founded the Drikung Kagyu lineage. His line of incarnations also continue to this day. The present heads of the Drikung Kagyu lineage are Their Holinesses The Drikung Kyabgon Chetsang Rinpoche, and Drikung Kyabgon Chuntsang.

One of the other eight minor Kagyu schools was founded by Lingchen Repa. Lingchen Repa's principle disciple was Tsangpa Gyare, The first Gyalwang Drukpa. Tsangpa Gyare became the head of the Drukpa Kagyu lineage. Unusually for a line of tulkus there was a gap of 217 years between the death of Tsangpa Gyare and the birth of Gyalwang Kunga Paljor, The second Gyalwang Drukpa. During that time, the lineage was held by eight masters with the name 'Senge' (lion) as part of their name. After that there were three masters recognised as emanations of the three Bodhisattvas, Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri and Vajrapani. The Fourth Gyalwang Drukpa, Pema Karpo is revered by all Kagyu lineages as a celebrated scholar. The current lineage holder is The Twelfth Gyalwang Drukpa, Jigme Pema Wangchen, who teaches students around the world.

The Shangpa Kagyu lineage has a different history. Although, like the other Kagyu schools, the teachings originate with Vajradhara, the Shangpa Kagyu cannot be traced through the early Kagyu masters; Tilopa, Naropa, Marpa, Milarepa and Gampopa. The first Tibetan Shangpa Kagyu master was Kyungpa Nailjor. He reportedly travelled to India seven times and learned from more than 150 different masters. Among them the most important were two yoginis called Niguma and Sukkasiddhi. Unusually, the lineage was passed on in a one to one transmission for the first seven lineage holders. These are known as the lineages's 'Seven Jewels'. Throughout its history, most of the lineage holders have chosen to live as concealed yogis, avoiding institutional responsibility. The previous lineage holder, Kalu Rinpoche, spend the first half of his life in study of Buddhist doctrine and meditation retreat. He was inspirational in the transmission of Buddhist teaching to the West. He took a strongly non-sectarian approach and never allowed himself to be labelled as a Shangpa Kagyu master. The current lineage holder, Bokar Rinpoche, concentrates his activities of transmitting pure dharma in his monasteries in India and Tibet.

All of the Kagyu lineages have the unique teaching of Mahamudra as one of their main practices. Mahamudra is thought to represent the essence of all the Buddha's teachings. Its practice involves the direct observation and realisation of mind's essential nature. Practitioners are expected to complete the preliminary practices, which purify previous misdeeds and focus the practitioner's mind on the goal. Then the practitioner must practice calm abiding and higher insight. Calm abiding means resting in the mind's natural state of clear awareness. Higher insight involves analysing the nature of mind within the meditative state to perceive its mirror like nature. Mahamudra practice consists of basis, path and fruit. The basis is realising the nature of mind, after which the meditator begins the process of disengaging from deluded thought. The path is a means of expanding this realisation, which involves meditation on the nature of mind. The fruit is the culmination of this process, in which one attains Buddhahood.

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