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Kagyu Lineage



The lineage of the Kagyu emphasizes the continuity of oral instructions passed on from master to student. This emphasis is reflected in the literal meaning of "Kagyu." The first syllable "Ka" refers to the scriptures of the Buddha and the oral instructions of the guru. "Ka" has the sense both of the enlightened meaning conveyed by the words of the teacher, as well as the force which such words of insight carries. The second syllable "gyu" means lineage or tradition. Together, these syllables mean "the lineage of the oral instructions."

The Kagyu Lineage traces its origin back to the historic Buddha, Shakyamuni through Marpa, the great translator and yogi, who brought back the unbroken lineage from India to Tibet.

Buddha Vajradhara

Vajradhara is the primordial buddha, the dharmakaya buddha. Vajradhara, depicted as dark blue in color, expresses the quintessence of buddhahood itself. Vajradhara represents the essence of the historical Buddha's realization of enlightenment.

Historically, Prince Siddhartha attained enlightenment under the bodhi tree in Bodhgaya over 2500 years ago and then manifested as the Buddha. According to Buddhist cosmology, he was the Fourth Historic Buddha of this fortunate eon. Prince Siddhartha's achievement of enlightenment, the realization itself, is called the dharmakaya, the body of truth. When he expresses that realization through subtle symbols, his realization is then called the sambhogakaya, the body of enjoyment. When such realization manifested in more accessible or physical form for all sentient beings as the historical Shakyamuni Buddha, it was then called the nirmanakaya, the body of manifestation.

The dharmakaya, synonymous with Vajradhara Buddha, is the source of all the manifestations of enlightenment. Vajradhara is central to the Kagyu lineage because Tilopa received the vajrayana teachings directly from vajradhara, the dharmakaya buddha. Thus, the Kagyu lineage originated from the very nature of buddhahood.

Tilopa (988-1069)

Tilopa (Tibetan; Sanskrit: Talika) was an Indian tantric practitioner and mahasiddha. He discovered the mahamudra process, a set of spiritual practices that greatly accelerated the process of attaining bodhi (enlightenment). He is regarded as the human founder of the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism and is, in effect, the Buddha Vajradhara.

Tilopa was born into a brahmin (priestly) caste — according to some sources a royal family — but he abandoned the monastic life upon receiving orders from a dakini (spirit) who told him to adopt a wandering existence. From the beginning, she made it clear to Tilopa that his real parents were not the ones who had raised him, but instead were primordial wisdom and universal voidness. Advised by the dakini, Tilopa gradually took up a monk's life, taking the monk vows, and becoming an erudite scholar. The frequent visits of his dakini teacher continued to guide his spiritual path and close the gap to enlightenment.
He began to travel throughout India getting teachings from many gurus:

  • from Saryapa he learned of tummo (inner heat);

  • from Nargajuna he received the radiant light and illusiory body teachings;

  • from Lawapa, the dream yoga;

  • from Sukhasiddhi, the teachings on life, death, and the bardo (between life states, and consciousness transference);

  • from Indrabhuti, he learned of insight (prajna);

  • and from Matangi, the resurrection of the dead body.

During a meditation he received a vision of Buddha Vajradhara and, according to legend, the entire mahamudra was directly transmitted to Tilopa. After having received the transmission, Tilopa embarked on a wandering existence and started to teach. He appointed Naropa, his most important student, as his successor.

6 Words of Advice

To Naropa, Tilopa taught about the "six words of advice".

The original Sanskrit or Bengali (?) is not available. The text reached us in Tibetan translation. According Ken McLeod, the text contains exactly 6 words. Two different English translations given in the following table are both attributed to Ken McLeod.

6 words of advice # First short literal translation/ Later long explanatory translation/ Tibetan in Wylie transliteration/ Tibetan

  1. Don't recall/ Let go of what has passed/mi mno

  2. Don't imagine/ Let go of what may come/ mi bsam

  3. Don't think/ Let go of what is happening now/ mi shes

  4. Don't examine/ Don't try to figure anything out/ mi dpyod

  5. Don't control/ Don't try to make anything happen/ mi sgom

  6. Rest/ Relax, right now, and rest/ rang sar bzhag

Mahamudra Instructions

Tilopa also gave to Naropa Mahamudra instructions:

The fool in his ignorance, disdaining Mahamudra, knows nothing but struggle in the flood of  samsara.
Have compassion for those who suffer constant anxiety!
Sick of unrlenting pain and desiring release, adhere to a master,
For when his blessing touches your heart, the mind is liberating.

Attachment and enjoyment

One of the most famous and important statements attributed to Tilopa is:

"The problem is not enjoyment, the problem is attachment."

Naropa (1016-1100)

(Tibetan; Sanskrit: Nadaprada) was an Indian Buddhist mystic and monk, the pupil of Tilopa and brother, or some sources say partner, of Niguma. Naropa was the main teacher of Marpa.


Naropa is part of the Golden Garland, meaning a lineage holder of the Tibetan Buddhist Kagyu lineage, and was considered an accomplished scholar. A great meditator, he is best known for having enumerated and developed the six yogas of Naropa. These practices were designed to help achieve a more rapid attainment of enlightenment.

Naropa was born a Brahmin and from an early age showed an independent streak, hoping to follow a career of study and meditation. Succumbing to his parents wishes, he agreed to an arranged marriage with a young brahmin girl. After 8 years they both agreed to dissolve their marriage and become ordained.

At the age of 28 Naropa entered the famous Buddhist University Nalanda where he studied both Sutra and Tantra. He gained the reputation as a great scholar and faultless debater, essential at that time as the tradition of debate was such that the loser automatically became a student of the winner. He eventually become Gatekeeper of the North; engaged in many debates, taught and won many students.

One day whilst studying, a dakini appeared and asked if he understood the words. He replied that he did and when she seemed so happy with his response, he added that he also understood their meaning. At this point the dakini burst into tears, stating that he was a great scholar, but also a liar, as the only one who understood the teachings was her brother Tilopa. On hearing the name Tilopa, he experienced an intense feeling of devotion, and realized he needed to find the teacher in order to achieve full realization. He abandoned his studies and position at the university and set out to find Tilopa.

Naropa underwent what is known as the 12 minor hardships in his quest to find his teacher, all hidden teachings on his path to enlightenment. When he finally met Tilopa, he was given the 4 complete transmission lineages which he then began to practice. While studying and meditating with Tilopa, he had to undergo a further 12 major hardships, trainings to overcome all obstacles on his path, culminating in his full realization of Mahamudra.

He stayed in Pulahari where he taught his students and at the age of 85 he passed out of this life. Naropa spent a total of twelve years with Tilopa. He is remembered for his trust and devotion to his teacher, which enabled him to attain enlightenment in one lifetime.

He is considered one of the eighty-four mahasiddhas, the 'saints' of tantric Buddhism. Naropa University was named in his honor.

Marpa The Translator (1012-1097)

Marpa Lotsawa, or Marpa the translator was a Tibetan Buddhist teacher credited with the transmission of many Buddhist teachings to Tibet from India, including the teachings and lineages of vajrayana and mahamudra.


Born as Marpa Chökyi Lodrö, in Lhodrak Chukhyer in the southern part of Tibet, to an affluent family he began studying at a young age but was wild and untamed compared to other children. Marpa first received instruction for three years at Mangkhar with Drokmi Shakya Yeshe and mastered Sanskrit. He decided to travel to India to study with renowned Indian Buddhist masters. Marpa returned home to Lhodrak and converted his entire inheritance into gold to fund his travel expenses and to make offerings to teachers.

Marpa journeyed first to Nepal where he studied with Paindapa and Chitherpa, two famous students of Naropa. Paindapa later accompanied Marpa to Pullahari, near Nalanda University, where Naropa taught. Marpa spent twelve years studying with Naropa and other great Indian gurus. After twelve years he set forth on his journey back to Tibet to teach and continue his dharma activities.

Marpa was to travel to India twice more and Nepal three more times and studied with Naropa and other great teachers including Maitripa. On his third visit to India, Naropa, engaged in tantric practices proved difficult to find. However eventually Marpa found him and received the final teachings and instructions from Naropa. It was then that Naropa prophesied that a family lineage would not continue for Marpa, but that his lineage would be carried on by his disciples. Marpa now had received the full transmission, so Naropa formally declared Marpa to his successor although he had other major disciples including Paindapa, Chitherpa, Shri Shantibhadra or Kukuripa, and Maitripa.

Upon his return to Tibet, Marpa spent many years translating Buddhist scriptures and made a major contribution to the transmission of the complete buddhadharma to Tibet. Marpa continued to practice and give teachings and transmissions to many students in Tibet. After his third visit to India Milarepa became his disciple, who inherited his lineage in full. Marpa lived with his wife Dakmema and their sons in Lhodrak in the southern part of Tibet.

Milarepa (1052-1135)

Jetsun Milarepa (Wylie: Rje-btsun Mi-la-ras-pa), 1052-1135 (approx) was one of Tibet's most famous yogis and poets, a student of Marpa Lotsawa, and a major figure in the history of the Kagyu (Bka'-brgyud) school of Tibetan Buddhism.


The facts of his life as they are popularly known come from the enormously popular romanticized account in the biography the Mi-la-rnams-thar by Gtsang-smyon he-ru-ka rus-pa'i-rgyan-can (1452-1507), although they may be of questionable historic validity, the biographical details given in this article are based upon this account or its derivatives.

Born in the village of Kya, Ngatsa in Tibet to a prosperous family he was named Mila Thöpaga (Thos-pa-dga), which means "A joy to hear". But when his father died Milarepa's uncle and aunt took all the family's wealth. At his mother's request Milarepa left home and studied sorcery. While his Aunt and Uncle were having a party to celebrate the impending marriage of their son, he took his revenge by causing the house they were in to collapse, killing 35 people, although the Uncle and Aunt are supposed to have survived. The villagers were angry and set off to look for Milarepa, but his mother got word to him, and he sent a hailstorm to destroy their crops.

Milarepa knowing that his revenge was wrong set out to find a teacher and was led to Marpa the translator. Marpa proved a hard task master, and before he would teach him had Milarepa build and then demolish three houses in turn. When Marpa still refused to teach Milarepa he went to Marpa's wife, who took pity on him. She forged a letter of introduction to another teacher, Lama Ngogdun Chudor, under whose tutelage he began to practise meditation. However when he was making no progress, he confessed the forgery and Ngogdun Chudor said that it was vain to hope for spiritual growth without the guru's approval. Milarepa returned to Marpa, and after practicing very diligently for twelve years Milarepa attained the state of vajradhara (complete enlightenment). He is said to be the first to achieve this state within one lifetime. He then became known as Milarepa, which means the "Mila, the cotton clad one" (the suffix "repa" is given to many tantric yogis since they wear white robes) At the age of forty-five, he started to practice at Drakar Taso (White Rock Horse Tooth) cave, as well as becoming a wandering teacher. Here, he subsisted on nettle tea, leading his skin to turn green--hence the greenish color he is often depicted as having in paintings and sculpture.

Milarepa is famous for many of his songs and poems, in which he expresses the profundity of his realization of the dharma with extraordinary clarity and beauty. He also had many disciples, which include Rechung Dorje Drakpa (Ras-chung Rdo-rje Grags-pa)), Gampopa (Sgam-po-pa) or Dhakpo Lhaje. It was Gampopa who became his spiritual successor who continued his lineage and became one of the main lineage masters in Milarepa's tradition.

Gampopa (1079-1153)


Gampopa, also known as Dagpo Lhaje ("physician from Dagpo") and Dakpo Rinpoche ("Precious Master from Dagpo"), founded the Kagyu school, one of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism. In many ways the establishment of the Kagyu school marks the beginning of the distinct institution we now recognize as Tibetan Buddhism, even as the Indian Tantric Buddhism model that inspired it faded away.

Gampopa, a physician from Dagpo region in Kham, was the foremost student of the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Milarepa. Gampopa was renowned for the clarity of his perception and his knowledge of both kadampa and, later, mahamudra methods.

Gampopa's position in the transmission lineage of the esoteric mahamudra teaching is as follows:

  • Tilopa (988-1069), the Indian yogi who experienced the original transmission of the mahamudra

  • Naropa (1016-1100), who perfected the methods of accelerated enlightenment, described in his six yogas of Naropa.

  • Marpa (1012-1097), the first Tibetan in the lineage, who translated the vajrayana and mahamudra texts into Old Tibetan

  • Milarepa (1052-1135), poet and master who overcame Marpa's reluctance to teach but nonetheless attained enlightenment in a single lifetime

  • Gampopa, Milarepa's best student, who integrated Atisha's Kadampa teaching and Tilopa's Mahamudra teaching to establish the Kagyu school

This lineage sequence, taken together, is called the "Five Founding Masters" by the Kagyu followers. Prior to studying under Milarepa, Gampopa had studied the kadampa traditions, which is a gradual path based on the lamrim teachings. He searched for, and eventually met Milarepa, and attained realization of ultimate reality under his guidance.

Gampopa wrote The Jewel Ornament of Liberation and founded the Dagpo Kagyud school in 1125. This school merged with the older but less influential Shangpa Kagyud school, founded circa 1050, also dependent on Naropa), to form the major Kagyu school. While the Shangpa school was the first Kagyupa school, it was the integrative teaching of Gampopa which unified Kadampa and Mahamudra teachings into the Kagyu approach.

Gampopa also established various monastic institutions, taught extensively, and attracted many students. Four of his disciples founded the four major Kagyu schools:

  • Babrom Kagyu founded by Babrom Dharma Wangchuk

  • Pagdru Kagyu founded by Phagmo Trupa Dorje Gyalpo

  • Tsalpa Kagyu founded by Shang Tsalpa Tsondru Drag

  • Karma Kagyu, also known as the Kamtsang Kagyu School, founded by Düsum Khyenpa the 1st Karmapa

Gampopa had three heart disciples: Dusum Khyenpa, Phakmo Drupa and Saltong Shogom. Dusum Khyenpa (1110-1193), or Khampa Usey (literally, the "white-haired Khampa"), became known as the First Karmapa, who established the Karma Kagyu lineage.

From Phagmo Drupa (1110-1170) developed eight additional Kagyupa Schools which are: 1) Drikung Kagyu, 2) Taklung Kagyu, 3) Drukpa Kagyu, 4) Yasang Kagyu, 5) Trophu Kagyu, 6) Shuksep Kagyu, 7) Yelpa Kagyu, 8) Martsang Kagyu.

Phagmo Drupa (1100-1170)

Phagmo Drupa was born in Kham in eastern Tibet into a poor family that made its living by impure means. However, Phagmo Drupa remained undisturbed amidst the family's misconduct. At the tender age of four, he took the vows of a novice monk and began his training on the spiritual path. He traveled to central Tibet to receive further training from masters residing in the vicinity.


He received intellectual and spiritual training from a series of qualified masters, including Jetsün Sakyapa who taught him the complete Lam-Dre teachings. Phagmo Drupa mastered various tantras and practiced meditation very seriously. He could remain for days in meditation, totally absorbed in the state of clarity and bliss.

Even before meeting Gampopa, Phagmo Drupa already demonstrated the qualities of an accomplished practitioner. In all his activities he exercised complete humility and fairness towards everyone, regardless of their social status and material well-being. He was particularly compassionate and understanding towards the less fortunate, and was constantly giving them his own possessions even though he did not have enough for himself. Most importantly, Phagmo Drupa was grateful to be serving all beings without exception. In practice, Phagmo Drupa spent most of his time in contemplation and meditation.

Despite his spiritual accomplishment, Phagmo Drupa still felt that he needed the guidance of a qualified master on the path. He therefore went to Dagla Gampo Monastery. Upon the sight of Gampopa and after a brief discussion with him, Phagmo Drupa immediately recognized his own wisdom mind, and fully realized the ultimate truth. Within the following days, Phagmo Drupa completely mastered the direct realization of Mahamudra.

For the remainder of his life, Phagmo Drupa continued to practice meditation with unceasing perseverance, serving as an example to others. He later founded a monastery in central Tibet, and had innumerable disciples, amongst whom his eight most accomplished disciples later established the sub-sects of the Kagyud Order. Lingchen Repa, the spiritual teacher and guide of the 1st Gyalwang Drukpa, was one of the eight disciples chosen to continue his lineage.

Jigten Sumgon "Tibetan" or Ratnashri "Sanskrit" (1143-1217)



The Drikung Kagyu Lineage is one of the Kagyu lineages which was founded 800 overs years ago, by the great spiritual master, Kyoba Jigten Sumgon (Sanskrit; Ratna Shri). All these teachings were transmitted to PhagmoDrupa byDharma Lord Gampopa. Although Kagyu came from the same root, at that time the Kagyu lineage flourished into several different branches, each carrying the complete teachings and enlightened blessings. Like the wish-fulfilling tree, which comes from the same root, but is divided into different branches, each giving many wonderful blossoms and fruits. Although PhagmoDrupa had hundreds of thousands of disciples, Lord Jigten Sumgon was one of his closest and chief disciples. Phagmo Drupa prophesied that the teachings and blessings would be carried on by a Bodhisattva, (Jigten Sumgon), who already attained the ten Bhumis. 

Phagmodrupa's successor, Lord Jigten Sumgon, (1143-1217) who is the embodiment of the Buddha of the Three Times and a reincarnation of Arya Nagarjuna. He appeared at an auspicious time and place acting as an inspiration to those determined to be free of samsara. Early in his life he met with great masters, received all aspects of the teachings, and eventually encountered Lord Phagmodrupa, from whom he received the complete lineage teachings. To integrate these within his mind he practiced day and night until he attained Buddhahood in the Echung Cave at the age of thirty-five. At the request of humans and non-humans he established a monastery at Drikung Thil (1179) thus becoming the founder of the Drikung Kagyu order. His teachings were geared to his hearers' through cultural differences and dogma, revealing the universal law of causes and conditions. Though he had hundreds of disciples, he never excluded any beings from his heart, wishing only to dispel their suffering and establish them in freedom from samsara. The embodiment of wisdom and compassion, he cut the link of their negative propensities. Lord Jigten Sumgon wrote many commentaries and explanations, especially the four volumes known as Inner Profound Teachings, in which he gives meditation instruction and advice. One of his foremost works, the Gong Chik, contains all the essential aspects of Vinaya discipline, Bodhicitta, and Tantra. This text has many commentaries, both in detail and concise, by such masters as Sherab Jungne, who was Lord Jigten SumgonÕs own disciple, the 8th Karmapa, the Fourth Shamarpa, and Drikung Dharmakirti.