The Kagyu Lineage

One morning in the 6th Century, in the highlands of Tibet, the sunrise seemed to be much brighter than it usually was. Daylight lasted much longer than it usually would have. The air seemed calmer. it was on that particular day that Buddhism first set foot onto the highlands of Tibet. It was the beginning of a new era in Tibet. It was at that time that the tradition of what is now popularly known as Tibetan Buddhism first sprouted in the mystic highlands.

Now, this excellent denomination of Mahayana Buddhism can be further sub-divided into four main schools: The Nyingmapa, The Sakyapa, The Kagyupa and the Gelugpa. Like the branches of a tree, these four schools of Tibetan Buddhism share a common foundation. These schools are based on the teachings of the Lord Buddha and they share a common objective: To enlighten all suffering mother sentient beings who are in the cycle of Samsara. These four schools are different in the sense that they were founded by different patron lineage masters. The practices of these different lineage masters of the various schools vary but they all seek the common goal of attaining Buddhahood.

The patron founders and the lineage masters who belong to the tradition of Kagyupa have been known throughout history to be Masters of Meditation and the Gurus of Buddhist Philosophy. Another key feature that sets the Kagyu Tradition apart from the rest is the emphasis on the Guru-Disciple Relationship. Practitioners who belong to this tradition believe deeply that the Guru-Disciple Relationship can lead them to complete enlightenment within one lifetime.


The founding patron of the Kagyu Tradition was the Great Siddha Tilopa who lived in Northern India from 998 - 1069 AD. From the great Indian Masters, Tilopa received the four special transmissions. From the celestial Buddha Vajradhara, Dorje Chang, he received the Mahamudra practice. Through dedicated practice, Great Tilopa accomplished these practices. Although there have been historical discrepancies pertaining to the identities of the Indian Masters from whom Tilopa received each of the four transmissions, there is a general consensus on the origin each of these four transmissions.

The first special transmission came from Nagarjuna. The transmission consisted of two tantras. They are known as: The Sangwa Dupa Tantra (Guhya Samajha) and The Denshi Tantra. The practices of the Illusory Body and Consciousness Transference are also part of these two tantric practices.

The second of the special transmissions was said to have come from Nakpopa. The transmission included tantras known as The Gyuma Chenmo (Maha Maya) as well as the practice of Conscious Dreaming.

The third special transmission originated from Lawapa. This transmission that Lawapa bestowed included the Tantra of Demcho (Chakra Samvara) as well as the practice of Clear Light.

The fourth special transmission was given by Khandro Kalpa Zangmo. The tantra of Gyepa Dorje (He Vajra) and the practice of Tummo (Candali) were also included in this transmission.

Vajradhara - Dorje Chang

The Celestial Buddha Dorje Chang (Vajradhara) was the main teacher to the Great Siddha Tilopa. It was from the Celestial Buddha that Tilopa attained the transmission of The Mahamudra teaching. Unlike the historical Buddha Shakyamuni, the Celestial Buddha Dorje Chang (Vajradhara) is one of many supreme enlightened beings that are always present and around us, ceaselessly bestowing us with their blessings.

The main disciple of Great Siddha Tilopa was Pandita Naropa who lived from 1016 - 1100 AD. Naropa is also popularly known as Jnanasiddhi. A heart theme of the Kagyu tradition is The Six Yogas of Naropa and the Mahamudra. Naropa was the central figure who systemized these essential heart teachings of the Kagyu Tradition.

A foremost disciple of Naropa received all of Naropa's knowledge. This disciple was Marpa. Marpa was a great translator who was also popularly known as Chokyi Lodoe. In order to receive the tantric methodology and teachings of the Lord Buddha, Marpa traveled from Tibet to India thrice. He was a dedicated disciple who made great sacrifices: scaling high mountains and threading on treacherous routes to seek the sacred methods of Tantric practices was well as the teachings of the Enlightened One: The Buddha. It was through Marpa that these teachings and tantric practices spread far and wide all across Tibet.


Milarepa is one of the greatest tantric yogis of Tibet. This extremely famous yogi was the heart disciple of Marpa. He lived in Tibet from 1052 - 1135. The perseverance and dedication he has displayed in his practice of the Mahamudra and the Six Yogas of Naropa still inspire many practitioners till this very day. His attainment of the most profound realization of the ultimate nature bore fruit only after dedicated and ceaseless practice.

The transmission continued from Milarepa to Je Gampopa. Je Gampopa was a physician who lived in Tibet from 1079 - 1153. Initially he studied the teachings of the Kadampa tradition but after meeting Milarepa Lord Gampopa attain the profound realization of the true nature of reality under Milarepa's compassionate guidance. Gampopa was the founder of many monastic institutions. He taught widely and extensively. His knowledge and abilities at giving teachings and instructions attracted many followers and students. It was due to the efforts of Lord Gampopa that some practices which belonged to the Kadampa tradition was later integrated with the Mahamudra. This traditional method of practice is still followed by practitioners following the Kagyu tradition till today.

Lineage of the Kagyu

Four illustrious disciples of Lord Gampopa later formed the 4 major schools of Kagyu lineage:

  • Barom Dharma Wangchuk was the founder of Barom Kagyu
  • Phagmo Drupa Dorje Gyalpo was the founder of Phagdtru Kagyu.
  • Shang Tsalpa Tsondru Drag was the founder of Tsalpa Kagyu
  • Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa was the founder of Karma Kagyu, also known as Kamtsang Kagyu. The First Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa received the complete transmission of The Mahamudra from Je Gampopa.

Four illustrious disciples of Lord Gampopa later formed the 4 major schools of Kagyu lineage:

  • Taglung Thang Tashi Pel founded Taglung Kagyu
  • Phagmo Trugpa's nephew, Drogon Gyaltsa founded Trophu Kagyu
  • Choje Gyare Yeshe Dorjey who was also known as Lingje Repa Pema Dorje founded Drukpa Kagyu
  • Choje Marwa Drupthop founded Martsang Kagyu
  • Yelpa Yeshe Tsegpa founded Yerpa Kagyu
  • Zharawa Yeshe Genge founded Yazang Kagyu
  • Nyiphu Gyergom Chenpo founded Shugseb Kagyu
  • Drikung Kyopa Jigten Gonpo founded Drikung Kagyu

The terms of reference to the various lineages of the Kagyu tradition as being Major and Minor do not refer to the instructions and the methods of practice. They do not refer to any form of ranking of any sort. All the lineages are and should be treated and perceived to be equal and accorded with the amount of same respect. They are termed this way merely because the four major lineages originated from directly transmissions from Je Gampopa while the eight minor were founded later by accomplished masters belonging to a later generation. Today, Karma Kagyu or Kamtsang Kagyu is the most prominent lineage among the major Kagyu Lineages. Pertaining to the minor lineages, Taglung, Drukpa and Drikung Kagyu are the only remaining lineages that still exist as independent lineages. All schools and lineages of Tibetan Buddhism have one common lineage; it is the lineage of Pratimoksha vows and the lineage of the Bodhisattva Vows.

In the Kagyu school of thought, there is a term of reference known as "The Golden Kagyu Garland". This term refers to accomplished masters who belong to a special lineage whose heart practice is The Practice of the Mahamudra. The lineage masters include the Indian Masters of this lineage, the successive reincarnations of the Gyalwa Karmapas and important selected students who re-transmit the practice back to the line of the Gyalwa Karmapas. This lineage of great masters ensures that the teachings remain intact and are kept pure. The lineage masters are always selected by the Karmapa himself.

The Masters

It is traditional to the Gyalwa Karmapas to choose the teacher who will in turn re-transmit the teachings back to his next reincarnation. The Gyalwa Karmapas are known to be the emanation of a great Bodhisattva: Avalokitesvahara. It is believed that they possess the ability to ascertain the realizations and the qualities of practitioners. Hence it is traditional to the illustrious line of the Gyalwa Karmapas that he chooses his own gurus. To date there has been no fixed set of rules that determines who would be the Karmapa's teachers in advance. In some cases, these teachers are eminent reincarnates who have high status in the religious hierarchy while there have been incidents where some are just exceptionally accomplished practitioners.

On the entirety, the pantheon of the Kagyu Order is like a spring from which many rivers flow and these rivers are like the lineages of the major and the minor schools which stem from the source of the lineage's teachings the Great Indian Siddha, patron Saint of the tradition: Tilopa. The rivers carry all these tantric teachings, meditative instructions, teachings of the Buddha, the practice of Mahamudra and the teachings of great realizations as well as spontaneous insights and these rivers spread these teachings to all sentient beings. From Guru to disciple, from mouth to ear, from generation to generation, from Naropa to Marpa, from Marpa to Milarepa, from Milarepa to Gampopa and then onto the successive reincarnations of the Karmapas.

The Lines of Gyalwa Karmapas

"The illustrious line of the Gyalwa Karmapas, the Black Hat Lamas of Tibet, the Patron founder of reincarnation system in Tibet, the emanation of Chenrezig". This is a list of formal and informal ways of addressing this line of great spiritual leaders who are the Supreme Throne Holders of the Kagyu Order of Buddhism who have been heading the Kagyu lineage since the 12th Century. The Gyalwa Karmapa is the embodiment of all the knowledge, wisdom, compassion as well as all of the supreme enlightened qualities, insights, realizations, attainments, accomplishments and merits of all the lineage masters since the patron founding saint: Tilopa.

The Gyalwa Karmapa is the guiding light of the Kagyu tradition. He is a living inspiration to all sentient beings. The Karmapas have one only wish: To benefit all sentient beings. This is the quality of an enlightened being that is manifested into a physical body. This physical form is known as the Nirmanakaya form. The Nirmanakaya form emanates all the aspects of an enlightened being. The Gyalwa Karmapas of Tibet are such manifestations of enlightened beings. They are believed to be the emanation of Avalokitesvara and hence they reincarnate ceaselessly to benefit and liberate all mother sentient beings with their tirelessly work.

The 1st Gyalwa Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa - 1110 - 1193

The 1st Gyalwa Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa lived in Tibet from 1110 - 1193. He was the foremost disciple of Lord Gampopa. The 1st Karmapa displayed a natural ability in meditation. Sometimes he would spend months in a little hut that is only high enough for him only if he adopts the crossed-legged posture with his back straight. Under the compassionate guidance of his teacher, Lord Je Gampopa, The first Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa, attained complete enlightenment.

Dusum Khyenpa

Two Dakinis presented him with a gift at the moment of his attaining complete enlightenment. The gift came in the form of a Black Crown. It is said that the crown is always present above the heads of all the successive reincarnations of the Gyalwa Karmapas. Though it is usually invisible to the ordinary human eye, there have been tales of accomplished practitioners seeing this black crown. In Samadhirajasutra, the Lord Buddha foretold the line of the Gyalwa Karmapas. Dusum Khyenpa was recognized by Lord Gampopa to be the emanation of Avalokitesvara.

The 1st Karmapa had many accomplished disciples. This lineage master placed a special emphasis on meditation within the school of Kagyu . Commonly termed as "the practicing lineage", the 1st Karmapa was also the founder of Tsurphu Monastery which subsequently became the principal seat for successive Gyalwa Karmapas for the following 700 years.

The 2nd Gyalwa Karmapa, Karma Pakshi - 1204 - 1283

The 3rd Gyalwa Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje - 1284 - 1339

The 4th Gyalwa Karmapa, Rolpei Dorje - 1340 - 1383

The 5th Gyalwa Karmapa, Deshin Shegpa - 1384 - 1415

The 6th Gyalwa Karmapa, Thongwa Donden - 1416 - 1453

The 7th Gyalwa Karmapa, Chotrag Gyatso - 1454 - 1506

The 8th Gyalwa Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje - 1507 - 1554

The 9th Gyalwa Karmapa, Wangchuk Dorje- 1556 - 1603

The 10th Gyalwa Karmapa, Choying Dorje- 1604 - 1674

The 11th Gyalwa Karmapa, Yeshe Dorje- 1676 - 1702

The 12th Gyalwa Karmapa, Jangchub Dorje- 1703 - 1732

The 13th Gyalwa Karmapa, Dudul Dorje- 1733 - 1797

The 14th Gyalwa Karmapa, Thegchog Dorje- 1798 - 1868

The 15th Gyalwa Karmapa, Khakhyab Dorje- 1871 - 1922

The 16th Gyalwa Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje - 1924 - 1981

16 Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje

Like all of his predecessors in the illustrious line of the Gyalwa Karmapas, the 16th Karmapa was discovered through a letter left by his predecessor predicting the place and the time of birth of his next incarnation. As a child, he showed the natural ability of great insights. After he was discovered, he received all of the meditative training that is traditional for a Gyalwa Karmapa. Despite the turbulent social circumstances in which he lived, he was entrusted with the utmost important role of maintaining and continuing the Kagyu legacy. In 1958, the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa migrated to India through Bhutan. It was because of this great spiritual leader that Buddhism spread to the west. His Holiness passed away peacefully on the 5th Nov 1981 at 8:30p.m. in Zion which is near Chicago, USA.

The 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, Thaye Dorje

17 Karmapa, Trinley Thaye Dorje

His Holiness was born the first son of Mipham Rinpoche of the Nyingma Tradition, in the year of the Pig, in 1983. The father of the 17th Karmapa is the 3rd reincarnation of the 1st Mipham Rinpoche, head of 13 Nyingma Monasteries in the Kham region of Tibet. The 3rd Mipham Rinpoche comes from a long line of doctors and scholars in the field of medicine. Dechen Wangmo, the mother of the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, is of noble descent from King Gesar of Ling. The 17th Karmapa entered monkhood through receiving his refuge vows at Buddha Gaya Temple. He was given the name Trinley (Buddha activities) Thaye (limitless) Dorje (indestructible). Currently, His Holiness now resides in Kalimpong, India where he continues with his intensive education in Buddhism daily.