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The Kagyu, Kagyupa, or Kagyud Wylie: bka' brgyud pa" school, also known as the "Oral Lineage" or Whispered Transmission school, is today one of four main schools of Himalayan or Tibetan Buddhism, the other three being the Nyingma (རྙིང་མ Rnying-ma), Sakya (Sa-skya), and Gelug (Dge-lugs). Along with the later two the Kagyu is classified as one of the Sarma (གསར་མ) or "New Transmission" schools since it primarily follows the Vajrayāna or Tantric teachings based on the so-called "New Tantras" i.e. those which were translated during the second diffusion of the Buddha Dharma in Tibet.

Like all schools of Tibetan Buddhism the Kagyu consider their practices and teachings to be inclusive of the full range of Buddha's teachings (or three yāna) since they follow the fundamental teachings and vows of individual liberation & monastic discipline (Pratimoksha) which accord with the Mulasarvastivada tradition of the Śrāvakayāna (sometimes called Nikāya Buddhism or "Hīnayāna" ); the Bodhisattva teachings, vows of universal liberation and philosophy of the Mahāyāna; and the profound means and samaya pledges of the Secret Mantra Vajrayāna.

What differentiates the Kagyu from the other schools of Himalayan Buddhism are primarily the particular esoteric instructions and tantras they emphasize and the lineages of transmission which they follow.

Due to the Kagyu tradition's particularly strong emphasis on guru devotion and guru yoga, and the personal transmission of esoteric instructions (dam ngag or man ngag) from master to disciple, the early Kagyu tradition soon gave rise to a bewildering number of independent sub-schools or sub-sects centered round individual charismatic Kagyu teachers and the hereditary lineages as well as mindstream emanation lineages.

Nomenclature, orthography and etymology

Strictly speaking, the term Kagyu (Tibetan: བཀའ་བརྒྱུདWylie: bka' brgyud) (“Oral Lineage” or “Precept Transmission”) applies to any line of transmission of an esoteric teaching from teacher to disciple. We sometimes see references to the "Atisha Kagyu" (“the precept transmission from Atiśa”) for the early Kadampa,[1] or to "Jonang Kagyu" for the Jonangpa and "Ganden Kagyu" (dge ldan bka’ brgyud) for the Gelugpa sects.[2]

Today the term Kagyu is almost always used to refer to the Dagpo Kagyu the main branch of the Marpa Kagyu which developed from the teachings transmitted by the translator Marpa Chökyi Lodrö; and sometimes to the separate lesser-known Shangpa Kagyu tradition which developed from the teachings transmitted by Keydrup Khyungpo Naljor.

“Kagyu” & “Kargyu”

In his 1970 article "Golden Rosaries of the Bka' brgyud schools" E. Gene Smith, discusses the two forms of the name — Kagyu Tibetan: བཀའ་བརྒྱུདWylie: bka' brgyud and Kargyu Tibetan: དཀར་བརྒྱུདWylie: dkar brgyud:

A note is in order regarding the two forms Dkar brgyud pa and Bka’ brgyud pa. The term Bka’ brgyud pa simply applies to any line of transmission of an esoteric teaching from teacher to disciple. We can properly speak of a Jo nang Bka’ brgyud pa or Dge ldan Bka’ brgyud pa for the Jo nang pa and Dge lugs pa sects. The adherents of the sects that practice the teachings centring around the Phyag rgya chen po and the Nā ro chos drug are properly referred to as the Dwags po Bka’ brgyud pa because these teachings were all transmitted through Sgam po pa. Similar teachings and practices centering around the Ni gu chos drug are distinctive of the Shangs pa Bka’ brgyud pa. These two traditions with their offshoots are often incorrectly referred to simply as Bka’ brgyud pa.
Some of the more careful Tibetan scholars suggested that the term Dkar brgyud pa be used to refer to the Dwags po Bka’ brgyud pa, Shangs pa Bka’ brgyud pa and a few minor traditions transmitted by Nā ro pa, Mar pa, Mi la ras pa, or Ras chung pa but did not pass through Sgam po pa. The term Dkar brgyud pa refers to the use of the white cotton meditation garment by all these lineages. This complex is what is normally known, inaccuratly, as the Bka’ brgyud pa. Thu’u kwan Blo bzang chos kyi nyi ma sums up the matter: “In some later ’Brug pa texts the written form ‘Dkar brgyud’ indeed appears, because Mar pa, Mi la, Gling ras, and others wore only white cotton cloth. Nevertheless, it is fine if [they] are all called Bka’ brgyud.” At Thu’u kwan’s suggestion, then, we will side with convention and use the term “Bka’ brgyud.”[3]

Marpa Kagyu & Dagpo Kagyu


The Kagyu begins in Tibet with Marpa Chökyi Lodrö (1012-1097) who trained as a translator with Drogmi Lotsawa Shākya Yeshe ('brog mi lo ts'a ba sh'akya ye shes) (993-1050), and then traveled three times to India and four times to Nepal in search of religious teachings. His principal gurus were the siddhas Nāropa - from whom he received the "close lineage" of Mahāmudrā and Tantric teachings, and Maitripa - from whom he received the "distant lineage" of Mahāmudrā.

Indian Origins

Marpa's guru Nāropa (1016-1100) was the principal disciple of Tilopa (988-1089) from East Bengal. From his own teachers Tilopa had received the Four Lineages of Instructions (bka' babs bzhi)[4] which he passed on to Nāropa who codified them into what became known as the Six Doctorines or Six Yogas of Nāropa. These instructions consist a combination of the completion stage (Skt. sampannakrama; Tib. rdzogs rim) practices of different Buddhist highest yoga tantras ([Skt. anuttarayoga tantra; Tib. bla-med rgyud) which utilize the energy-winds (Skt.vāyu, Tib. rlung; ), energy-channels (Skt. nāḍi, Tib. rtsa; ) and energy-drops (Tib. ) of the subtle vajra-body in order to achieve the four types of bliss, the clear-light mind and realize the state of Mahāmudrā.

The Mahāmudrā lineage of Tilopa and Nāropa is called the "direct lineage" or "close lineage" as it is said that Tilopa received this Mahāmudrā realisation directly from the Dharmakaya Buddha Vajradhara and this was transmitted only through Nāropa to Marpa.

The "distant lineage" of Mahāmudrā is said to have come from the Buddha in the form of Vajradara through incarnations of the Bodhisattvas Avalokiteshvara and Manjusri to Saraha, then from him through Nagarjuna, Savari, and Maitripa to Marpa. The Mahāmudrā teachings coming from Saraha which Maitripa transmitted to Marpa include the "Essence Mahāmudrā" (snying po'i phyag chen) where Mahāmudrā is introduced directly without relying on philosophical reasoning or yogic practices.

According to some accounts, on his third journey to India Marpa also met Atiśa (982-1054) who later came to Tibet and helped found the Kadampa lineage [3]

Marpa's successors

Marpa established his "seat" at Drowolung (gro bo lung) in Lhodrak (lho brag) in Southern Tibet just north of Bhutan. Marpa married the lady Dagmema, and took eight other concubines as mudras. Collectively they embodied the main consort and eight wisdom dakini in the mandala of his yidam Hevajra.

Marpa's four most outstanding students were known as the "Four Great Pillars" (ka chen bzhi):[5]

  1. Milarepa (1040-1123), born in Gungthang province of western Tibet, the most celebrated and accomplished of Tibet's yogis, who achieved the ultimate goal of enlightenment in one lifetime became the holder of Marpa's meditation or practice lineage.
  2. Ngok Choku Dorje (rngog chos sku rdo rje)[6] (1036-1102)- Was the principal recipient of Marpa's explanatory lineages and particularly important in Marpa's transmission of the Hevajra Tantra. Ngok Choku Dorje founded the Langmalung temple in the Tang valley of Bumthang district, Bhutan - which is still standing today.[7] The Ngok branch of the Marpa Kagyu was an independent lineage carried on by his descendants at least up to the time of the Second Drukchen Gyalwang Kunga Paljor ('brug chen kun dga' dpal 'byor) 1428-1476 who received this transmission, and 1476 when Go Lotsawa composed the Blue Annals.[8]
  3. Tshurton Wangi Dorje (mtshur ston dbang gi rdo rje)[9] - was the principal recipient of Marpa's transmission of the teachings of the Guhyasamāja tantra. Tshurton's lineage eventually merged with the Zhalu tradition and subsequently passed down to Tsongkhapa who wrote extensive commentaries on Guhyasamāja.
  4. Meton Tsonpo (mes ston tshon po)

Marpa had wanted to pass his lineage through his son Darma Dode following the usual Tibetan practice of the time to transmit of lineages of esoteric teachings via hereditary lineage (father-son or uncle-nephew), but his son died at an early age and consequently he passed his main lineage on through Milarepa.

Other important students of Marpa include:

  • Marpa Dowa Chokyi Wangchuck (mar pa do ba chos kyi dbang phyug).
  • Marpa Goleg (mar pa mgo legs) who along with Tshurton Wangdor received the Guhyasamāja teachings.
  • Barang Bawacen (ba rang lba ba can) - who received lineage of the explanatory teachings of the Mahāmāyā Tantra.

In the 19th Century Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye (1813-1899) collected the initiations and sadhanas of surviving transmissions of Marpa's teachings together in the collection known as the Kagyu Ngak Dzö (Tibetan: "བཀའ་བརྒྱུད་སྔགས་མཛོད"Wylie: bka' brgyud sngags mdzod) ("Treasury of Kagyu Tantras").

Milarepa and his disciples

Among Milarepa's many students were Gampopa Sonam Rinchen (sgam po pa bsod nams rin chen) (1079-1153), a great scholar, and the great yogi Rechung Dorje Drakpa, also known as Rechungpa.


Gampopa combined the stages of the path tradition of the Kadampa order with teaching and practice of the Great Seal (Mahamudra) and the Six Yogas of Naropa he received from Milarepa synthesizing them into one lineage which came to be known as Dagpo Kagyu - the main lineage of the Kagyu tradition as we know it today.

Following Gampopa's teachings, there evolved the so-called "Four Major and Eight Minor" lineages of the Dagpo (sometimes rendered "Tagpo" or "Dakpo") Kagyu School. This phrase is descriptive of the generation or order in which the schools were founded, not of their importance.

Twelve Dagpo Kagyu Lineages

Although few survive as independent linages today, there were originally twelve main Kagyu lineages derived from Gampopa and his disciples. Four primary ones stemmed from direct disciples of Gampopa and his nephew; and eight secondary ones branched from Gampopa's disciple Phagmo Drupa.[10] Several of these Kagyu lineages in turn developed their own branches or sub-schools.

The abbatal throne of Gampopa's own monastery of Daglha Gampo, passed to his own nephew Dagpo Gomtsul.

Four primary schools of the Dagpo Kagyu

Karma Kamtsang

The Drubgyu Karma Kamtsang, often known simply as the Karma Kagyu, was founded by Düsum Khyenpa (Dus-gsum Mkhyen-pa), later designated the first Karmapa.


The Karma Kagyu itself has three subschools in addition to the main branch:[11]

  • Surmang Kagyu, founded by Trungmase, a student of Deshin Shekpa, the 5th Gyalwa Karmapa
  • Nendo Kagyu, founded by Karma Chagme (kar ma chags med) (1613-1678), a disciple of the 6th Shamarpa (zhwa dmar chos kyi dbang phyug) (1584-1630)
  • Gyaltön Kagyu
Karmapa controversy
The Karmapa is traditionally the head of the Karma Kagyu school. Following the death of the XVIth Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, in 1981, followers disagreed over the identity of his successor. The two main candidates were Ogyen Trinley Dorje and Trinley Thaye Dorje, and others were identified as well. The senior Karma Kagyu incarnates Tai Situpa Rinpoche and Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche recognized Ogyen Trinley Dorje as the 17th Karmapa, as have Thrangu Rinpoche, the Regent of the 16th Karmapa, and also the Dalai Lama; whilst Shamar Rinpoche and others assert that Trinley Thaye Dorje is the 17th Karmapa. Both of these candidates underwent enthronement ceremonies and both are now known by their respective followers as the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa.[12][13] A minority of Karma Kagyu adherents recognize both candidates as legitimate incarnations of the previous Karmapa.
Barom Kagyu

Barom Kagyu, founded by Gampopa's disciple Barompa Darma Wangchug ('ba' rom pa dar ma dbang phyug) (1127-1199/1200) who established Barom Riwoche monastery (nag chu 'ba' rom ri bo che) in 1160.

An important early master of this school was Tishri Repa Sherab Senge ('gro mgon ti shri ras pa rab sengge ) (b. 1164 d. 1236).

This school was popular in the Nangchen principality of Khams (now Nangqên, Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in southern Qinghai province) where it has survived in one or two pockets to the present day.

Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche (1920—1996) was a holder of the Barom Kagyu Lineage.

Tsalpa Kagyu

The Tsalpa Kagyu was established by Zhang Yudragpa Tsondru Drag (zhang g.yu brag pa brtson 'gru brags pa) (1123-1193) or Lama Zhang who founded the monastery of Tsal Gungtang (tshal gung thang). Lama Zhang was a disciple of Gampopa's nephew Dagpo Gomtsul (dwags sgom tshul khrims snying po) (1116-1169).

Phagdru Kagyu

The Phagmo Drupa Kagyu (Tibetan: ཕག་མོ་གྲུ་པ་བཀའ་བརྒྱུདWylie: phag mo gru pa bka’ brgyud) or Phagdru Kagyu (ཕག་གྲུ་བཀའ་བརྒྱུད) was founded by Phagmo Drupa Dorje Gyalpo (Tibetan: ཕག་མོ་གྲུ་པ་རྡོ་རྗེ་རྒྱལ་པོWylie: phag mo gru pa rdo rje rgyal po), (1110-1170) who was the elder brother of the famous Nyingma Lama Ka Dampa Deshek (1122-1192) founder of Katok Monastery. Before meeting Gampopa, Dorje Gyalpo studied with Sachen Kunga Nyingpo (sa chen kun dga' snying po) (1092-1158) from whom he received whole Lamdré transmission.[14]

In 1158 Dorje Gyalpo built a reed-hut hermitage at Phagmo Drupa ("Sow's Ferry Crossing") in a juniper forest in Nedong (Tibetan: སྣེ་གདོངWylie: sne gdong) high above the Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) river. Later, as his fame spread and disciples gathered, this site developed into the major monastic seat of Dentsa Thel (Tibetan: གདན་ས་ཐེལWylie: gdan sa thel ). Following his death the monastery declined and his disciple Jigten Sumgon sent Chenga Drakpa Jungne (Tibetan: སྤྱན་སྔ་གྲགས་པ་འབྱུང་གནསWylie: spyan snga grags pa 'byung-gnas) (1175 – 1255), a member of the Lang (rlang) family, to become abbot and look after the monastery. "Chenga Drakpa Jungne was abbot for 21 years and restored the monastery to its former grandeur. In 1253 when the Sakyapas came to power they appointed Dorje Pel [(Tibetan: རྡོ་རྗེ་དཔལWylie: rdo rje dpal)] the brother of Chenga Drakpa Jungne as Tripon [hereditary myriarch] of Nedon. From that time on the Tripon who as a monk, assumed the seat of government of Nedon and also ruled as abbot at Dentsa Thel and his brothers married in order to perpetuate the family line. This tie with the monastery founded by Phagmo Drupa led to the Tripons of Nedong to become known as Phagdru (short of Phagmo Drupa) Tripon and their period of rule in Tibet as the Phagmo Drupa period (or Phagmodrupa dynasty).”[15]

Changchub Gyaltsen (1302 – 1364) was born into this Lang family. In 1322, he was appointed by the Sakyapa's as the Pagmodru Myriarch of Nedong and given the title “Tai Situ” in the name of the Yuan emperor. Soon he fought with a neighboring myriarchy trying to recover land lost in earlier times. This quarrel displeased the Sakya ruler (dpon chen) Gyalwa Zangpo (Tibetan: རྒྱལ་བ་བཟང་པོWylie: rgyal ba bzang po) who dismissed him as myriach. Following a split beween Gyalwa Zangpo and his minister Nangchen Wangtson (Tibetan: ནང་ཆེན་དབང་བརྩོནWylie: nang chen dbang brtson), the former restored Changchub Gyaltsen to his position in 1352. Taking advantage of the situation, Changchub Gyaltsen immediately went on the offensive and soon controlled the whole of the Central Tibetan province of U (dbus). Gyalwa Zanpo and Changchub Gyaltsen were reconciled at a meeting with the Sakya Lama Kunpangpa (Tibetan: བླ་མ་ཀུན་སྤངས་པWylie: bla ma kun spangs pa). This angered Nangchen Wangtson who usurped Gyalwa Zanpo as Sakya ruler and imprisoned him.

In 1351 Changchub Gyaltsen established an important Kagyu monastery at the ancient Tibetan capital of Tsetang. This was later dismantled during the time of the 7th Dali Lama Kelzang Gyatso (18th Century) and replaced by a Gelugpa Monastery, Gaden Chokhorling.[16]

In 1358, Wangtson assassinated Lama Kunpangpa. Learning of this, Changchub Gyaltsen then took his forces to Sakya, imprisoned Wangtson, and replaced four hundred court officials and the newly appointed ruling lama. The Pagmodrupa rule of Central Tibet (U, Tsang and Ngari) dates from this coup in 1358.[17]

As ruler Changchub Gyaltsen was keen to revive the glories of the Tibetan Empire of Songtsen Gampo and assert Tibetan independence from the Mongol Yuan Dynasty and from Ming Dynasty China. He took the Tibetan title “Desi” (sde-srid), re-organized the thirteen myriarchies of the Yuan-Shakya rulers into numerous districts (rdzong), abolished Mongol law in favour of the old Tibetan legal code, and Mongol court dress in favur of traditional Tibetan dress.[18]

Tai Situ Changchub Gyaltsen died in 1364 and was succeeded as by his nephew Jamyang Shakya Gyeltsen (Tibetan: ཇམ་དབྱངས་ཤ་ཀྱ་རྒྱལ་མཚནWylie: jam dbyangs sha kya rgyal mtshan) (1340 – 1373), who was also a monk. The subsequent rule of the Phagmodrupa dynasty lasted until 1435 followed by the Rinpungpa kings who ruled for four generations from 1435-1565 and the three Tsangpa kings 1566-1641.

In 1406 the ruling Phagmodrupa prince, Dakpa Gyaltsen, turned down the imperial invitation to him to visit China.

From 1435 to 1481 the power of the Phagmodrupa declined and they were eclipsed by the Rinpungpa (Rin spungs pa) of Tsang, who patronized the Karma Kagyu school.

The Phagmo Drupa monastery of Dentsa Thel "was completely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution in 1966-1978"[19]

Eight Secondary schools of the Dagpo Kagyu

The eight secondary lineages (zung bzhi ya brgyad or chung brgyad) of the Dagpo Kagyu all trace themselves to disciples of Phagmo Drupa.

Drikung Kagyu

Drikung Monaastery

One of the most important of the Kagyu sects still remaining today, the Drikung Kagyu (འབྲི་གུང་བཀའ་པརྒྱུད་པ) takes its name from Drikung Thil Monastery founded by Jigten Gonpo Rinchen Pal (‘Jig-rten dgon-po rin-chen dpal) (1143-1217) also known as Drikung Kyopa.

The special Kagyu teachings of the Drikung tradition include the "Single Intention" (dgongs gcig), the "The Essence of Mahāyāna Teachings" (theg chen bstan pa'i snying po), and the “Possessing Five" tradition of Mahamudrā.

Since the 15th Century the Drikung Kagyupa were greatly influenced by the teachings of the Nyingma tradition.


Several sub-sects branched off from the Drikung Kagyu including the Lhapa or Lhanangpa Kagyu, founded by Gyalwa Lhanangpa (1164–1224) who came to Bhutan in 1194. This school was at one time important in Western Bhutan, particularly in the Thimphu and Paro regions where they were rivals of the Drukpa Kagyu. The Lhapa first came into conflict with the early Drukpa teacher, Phajo Drugom Zhigpo (b. 12th cent.) [20] and finally with Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (1594–1651). In 1640 the remaining followers of the Lhapa Kagyu were expelled from Bhutan together with the Nenyingpa followers as both had sided with the attacking Tsangpa forces against the Drukpa during their three invasions of Bhutan and continued to refuse to acknowledge the authority of the Shabdrung.[21]

Lingre Kagyu & Drukpa Kagyu
Lingre Kagyu

Lingre Kagyu refers to the lineages founded by Lingrepa Pema Dorje (Wylie: gling ras pa padma rdo rje) [1128-1188][22] also known as Nephupa after Nephu monastery (sna phu dgon) he founded near Dorje Drak (rdo rje brag) in Central Tibet (dbus). Lingrepa's teachers were Gampopa's disciple Phagmo Drupa Dorje Gyalpo; Rechungpa's disciple Sumpa Repa; and Ra Yeshe Senge, a lineage holder of Ra Lotsawa.

Drukpa Kagyu

The Drukpa Lineage was established by Ling Repa's main disciple Tsangpa Gyare Yeshe Dorje (1161–1211) who established monasteries at Longbol (klong rbol) and Ralung (rwa lung). Later Tsangpa Gyare went to a place called Nam Phu where, legend has it, nine roaring dragons rose from the ground and soared into the sky. The Tibetan word for dragon is 'brug which is pronounced as 'Druk' and so Tsangpa Gyare's lineage and the monastery he established at the place became known as the Drukpa and he became known as the Gyalwang Drukpa. This school became widespread in Tibet and surrounding regions. Today the Southern Drukpa Lineage is the state religion of Bhutan; and, in the western Himalayas, Drukpa Lineage monasteries are found in Ladakh, Zanskar, Lahul, and Kinnaur.

Along with the Mahamudra teachings inherited from Gampopa and Pagmodrupa, particular teachings of the Drukpa Lineage include the "Six Cycles of Equal Taste" (ro snyom skor drug), a cycle of instructions said to have been hidden by Rechungpa discovered by Tsangpa Gyare; and the "Seven Auspicious Teachings" (rten 'brel rab bdun) revealed to Tsangpa Gyare by seven Buddhas who appeared to him in a vision at Tsari.


Several of Tsangpa Gyare's students started sub-schools, the most important of which were the Lower Drukpa founded by Gyalwa Lorepa Wangchug Tsondru and the Upper Drukpa founded by Gyalwa Gotsangpa Gonpo Dorje. This branch further gave rise to several important sub-schools. However the chief monasteries and succession of the First Gyalwang Drukpa Tsangpa Gyare passed to his nephew Önre Darma Senge at Ralung and this lineage was known as the The Middle or Central Drukpa. This lineage of the hereditary "prince-abbots" of Ralung continued to 1616 when Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal fled to Bhutan due to a dispute over the incarnation of the 4th Gyalwang Drukpa and the enmity of the Tsangpa ruler. Due to those events the Central Drukpa split into the Southern Drukpa branch led by the Shabdrung in Bhutan and the Northern Drukpa branch led by Gyalwang Pagsam Wangpo in Tibet.[23]

(a) The Lower Drukpa

The Medruk (smad 'brug) or Lower Drukpa sub-school was founded by the First Gyalwang Drukpa Tsangpa Gyare's disciple Gyalwa Lorepa Wangchuk Tsondru (lo ras dbang phyug brtson 'grus) [1187-1250] who lived a simple life. Lorepa built the Üri (dbu ri) and Sengeri (seng ge ri) monasteries and visited Bhutan where he founded Tharpaling (thar pa gling) monastery in Bumthang. A special transmission of the Lower Drukpa Lineage is known as the The Five Capabilities (thub pa lnga) which are:[24]

  1. Being capable of [facing] death: capability of Mahāmudrā (phyag rgya chen-po 'chi thub).
  2. Being capable of [wearing only] the cotton cloth: capability of psychic heat (gtum mo ras thub).
  3. Being capable of the tantric activities done in seclusion (gsang spyod kyi ri thub)
  4. Being capable of [facing] the disturbances of 'don spirits: sickness (nad 'don gyi 'khrug thub).
  5. Being capable of [facing] circumstances: capability of [applying] antidotes (gnyen-po rkyen thub-pa).

(b) The Upper Drukpa

The Toddruk (stod 'brug) or Upper Drukpa sub-school was founded Tsangpa Gyare's disciple Gotsangpa Gonpo Dorje (rgod tshang pa mgon po rdo rje) [1189—1258] a highly realized yogin who had many disciples. His main disciples were Ogyenpa Rinchenpal (0 rgyan pa), Yangonpa (yang dgon pa), Chilkarpa (spyil dkar pa) and Neringpa.

Gotsangpa's disciple Ogyenpa Rinchenpal (1230—1309), who was also a disciple of Karma Pakshi, became a great siddha who traveled to Bodhgaya, Jalandhar, Oddiyana and China. In Oddiyana he received teachings related to the Six Branch Yoga of the Kālacakra system known as Approach and Attainment of the Three Adamantine States (rdo rje gsum gyi bsnyen sgrub) and, after returning to Tibet, founded the Ogyen Nyendrub tradition and wrote many works including a famous guide to the land of Oddiyana. Ogyenpa had many disciples including the third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje (rang byung rdo rje), Kharchupa (mkhar chu pa) [1284—1339] and Togden Daseng (rtogs dan zla seng).

Barawa Gyaltshen Palzang ('ba' ra ba rgyal mtshan dpal bzang) [1255—1343] was a great scholar of the upper Drukpa Kagyu succession of Yangonpa. He established the Barawa Kagyu sub-school which for a time was widespread in Tibet, and survived as an independent lineage until 1959.[25] For a time this lineage was also important in Bhutan

(c) The Middle or Central Drukpa

The Middle Drukpa (bar 'brug) was the hereditary lineage (dung rgyud) of Tsangpa Gyare centered at Ralung. Following Tsangpa Gyare the next holder of this lineage was his nephew Önre Darma Senge (dar ma sengge) [1177—1237] - son of Tsangpa Gyare's brother Lhanyen (lha gnyan). Darma Senge was succeeded by his own nephew Zhonnu Senge (gzhon nu seng ge) [1200—1266], and he by his nephew Nyima Senge (nyi ma seng ge) [1251—1287]. The lineage then went to his cousin Dorje Lingpa Senge Sherab (rdo rje gling pa seng ge shes rab) [1238—1287], son of Lopon Öntag (dbon stag) a member of the branch of the Drukpa lineage descended from Tsangpa Gyare's brother Lhabum (lha 'bum). The lineage passed to Senge Sherab's brother Senge Rinchen (seng ge rin chen) [1258—1313] who was succeeded in turn by his son Senge Gyalpo (seng ge rgyal po) [1289—1326], grandson Jamyang Kunga Senge ('jam dbyangs kun dga' seng ge) [1289—1326], great-grandson Lodro Senge (blo gros seng ge) [1345—1390], and great-great-grandson Sherab Senge (shes rab seng ge) [1371—1392]. These first nine holders of Tsangpa Gyare's lineage were known as the "Incomparible Nine Lions" (mnyam med seng ge dgu).

Sherab Senge, who died at the age of 21, was succeeded on the throne of Ralung by his elder brother Yeshe Rinchen (ye shes rin chen) [1364—1413] and he by his sons Namkha Palzang (nam mkha' dpal bzang) [1398—1425] and Sherab Zangpo (shes rab bzang po) [1400—1438]. These three were considered to be the emanations of the three great Bodhisattvas Manjusri, Vajrapani and Avalokiteshvara respectively. Sherab Zangpo's son was the first incarnation of Tsangpa Gyare (i.e. the second Gyalwang Drukpa), Gyalwang Je Kunga Paljor (rgyal dbang rje kun dga' dpal 'byor) [1428-1476] who received teachings from the most renowned lamas of his age and became a great author and teacher.

From Kunga Paljor the lineage passed to his nephew Ngawang Chögyal (ngag dbang chos rgyal) [1465—1540], then successively in turns from father to son to Ngakyi Wangchug (ngag gi dbang phyug grags pa rgyal mtshan) [1517—1554), Mipham Chögyal (mi pham chos rgyal) [1543—1604], Mipham Tenpai Nyima (mi pham bstan pa'i nyi ma) [1567—1619] and Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (zhabs drung ngag dbang rnam rgyal) [1594—1651] who was the great-great-grandson of Ngawang Chögyal.

In the Middle Drukpa tradition many great scholars appeared including the fourth Gyalwang Drukpa, Kunkhyen Padma Karpo (kun mkhyen padma dkar po) [1527—1592], Khewang Sangay Dorji (mkhas dbang sangs rgyas rdo rje) [1569—1645] and Bod Khepa Mipham Geleg Namgyal (bod mkhas pa mi pham dge legs rnam rgyal) [1618—1685] who was famed for his knowledge of poetics, grammar and medicine.

Three great siddhas of Middle Drukpa school were Tsangnyon Heruka (gtsang snyon) [1452 1507)- author of the Life of Milarepa, the Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, the Life of Rechungpa, and compiler of the Demchog Khandro Nyengyud; Druknyon Kunga Legpa ('brug smyon kun legs) [1455-1529] also known as Drukpa Kunleg; and Unyon Kunga Zangpo (dbus smyon kun dga' bzang po) [1458-1532]. All three were disciples of Drukchen Gyalwang Je Kunga Paljor.

The fourth Gyalwang Drukpa incarnation of Tsangpa Gyare, "The Omisient" Padma Karpa, whose collected works fill over twenty volumes in modern editions, was the most famous scholar of the tradition and among the Drukpa practitioners as he is known as Kunkhyen Pekar (kun mkhyen pad dkar) or Druk Tamche Khyenpa. He founded the Sangngag Chöling (gsang sngags chos gling) monastery in Jaryul (byar yul) southern Tibet in 1571 which became the seat of the successive Gyalwang Drukpaincarnations in Tibet and so the center of the Northern Drukpa lineage.

Following the death of Kunkhyen Padma Karpo two incarnations were recognized: 1.) Pagsam Wangpo (dpag bsam dbang po) who was the offspring of the Chongje Depa and 2) Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal [1594 1651) who was also the heir to Drukpa lineage of Ralung. Pagsam Wangpo gained the backing of the powerful Tsangpa Desi who was a patron of the Karma Kagyu school and hostile to Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. The latter subsequently fled to Bhutan, where his lineage already had many followers, and established the Southern Drukpa Kagyu (lho 'brug pa dka' brgyud) and became both the spiritual and temporal head of the country after which the country became known as 'Druk Yul' or 'Country of the Drukpas' in the Tibetan and Dzongkha (Bhutanese) languages.

Martsang Kagyu

The Martsang Kagyu (སྨར་ཚང་བཀའ་བརྒྱུད) was founded by Marpa Drupthob Sherab Yeshe (སྨར་པ་ཤེས་རབ་ཡེ་ཤེས) who established Sho Monastery (ཤོ་དགོན) in E. Tibet.

This Kagyu sub-sect was eventually absorbed by the Palyul branch of the Nyingma school.

Shugseb Kagyu

The Shugseb Kagyu (shug gseb bka' brgyud) was established by Gyergom Chenpo Zhonnu Drakpa (gyer sgom chen po gzhon nu grags pa) (1090-1171) who founded the Shugseb monastery in Nyiphu. The Shugseb Kagyu emphasised the Mahamudra teachings of the Dohas, spiritual songs of realisation by Indian masters such as Saraha, Shavaripa, Tilopa, Naropa and Maitripa etc.

Taklung Kagyu
  • Taklung Kagyu (stag lungs bka' brgyud) named after Taklung monastery established in 1180 by Taklung Tangpa Tashi Pal (stag lung thang pa bkra shis dpal) (1142-1210).
Trophu Kagyu

The Trophu Kagyu (khro phu bka' brgyud) was established by Gyal Tsha Rinchen Gon (rgyal tsha rin chen mgon) (1118-1195) and Kunden Repa (kun ldan ras pa) (1148-1217). The tradition was developed by their nephew, Thropu Lotsawa who invited Pandit Shakysri of Kashmir, Buddhasri and Mitrayogin to Tibet.

The most renowned adherent of this lineage was Buton Rinchen Drub (bu ston rin chen grub) (1290-1364) of Zhalu[26] who was a student of Trophupa Sonam Senge (khro phu ba bsod nams sengge)[27] and Trophu Khenchen Rinchen Senge (khro phu mkhan chen rin chen sengge).[28]

Yabzang Kagyu
  • Yabzang Kagyu (g.ya' bzang bka' brgyud)
Yelpa Kagyu

The Yelpa Kagyu (yel pa bka' rgyud) was established by Drubthob Yeshe Tsegpa (drub thob ye shes brtsegs pa, b. 1134). He established two monasteries, Shar Yelphuk (shar yel phug) and Jang Tana (byang rta rna dgon).

Dagpo Kagyu Lineages Today

The principle Dagpo Kagyu lineages existing today as organized schools are the Karma Kagyu, Drikung Kagyu and the Drukpa Kagyu. For the most part, the teachings and main esoteric transmissions of the other Dagpo Kagyu lineages have been absorbed into one or another of these three independent schools.

Shangpa Kagyu

The Shangpa Kagyu ཤངས་པ་བཀའ་བརྒྱུད (shangs pa bka' brgyud) was founded by Khyungpo Naljor (khyung po rnal ‘byor) in the second half of the eleventh century. The tradition takes its name from the valley of Shang (ཤངས) where Khyungpo Naljor established the monastery of Zhong Zhong ཞོང་ཞོང or Zhang Zhong (ཞོང་ཞོང).

Kagyu Doctrines


The central teaching of Kagyu is the doctrine of Mahamudra, "the Great Seal", as elucidated by Gampopa in his various works. This doctrine focuses on four principal stages of meditative practice (the Four Yogas of Mahamudra), namely:

  1. The development of single-pointedness of mind,
  2. The transcendence of all conceptual elaboration,
  3. The cultivation of the perspective that all phenomena are of a "single taste",
  4. The fruition of the path, which is beyond any contrived acts of meditation.

It is through these four stages of development that the practitioner is said to attain the perfect realization of Mahamudra.

The Six Yogas of Naropa

Important practices in all Kagyu schools are the tantric practices of Chakrasamvara and Vajrayogini, and particularly the Six Yogas of Naropa.

Kagyu Literature

In terms of view, the Kagyu (particularly the Karma Kagyu) emphasize the Hevajra tantra with commentaries by Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye and Dakpo Tashi Namgyal, the Uttaratantra with commentaries by Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye and another by Gölo Shönu Pal as a basis for studying buddha nature, and the Third Karmapa Rangjung Dorje's Profound Inner Reality (Tib. Zabmo Nangdon) with commentaries by Rangjung Dorje and Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye as a basis for tantra.


  1. Encyclopedia of Religions & Sects
  2. Smith, E. Gene. "Golden Rosaries of the Bka' brgyud Schools." in Among Tibetan Texts: History and Literature of the Himalayan Plateau, ed. Kurtis R. Schaeffer, p.40. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2001
  3. Smith, E. Gene "Golden Rosaries of the Bka' brgyud schools" in 'Among Tibetan Texts: History and Literature of the Himalayan Plateau, (pp. 40)
  4. These four lineages of instruction are enumerated by Situ Panchen as: 1. The instructions on Mahāmudrā (phyag rgya chen po'i gdam ngags);2. The instructions on caṇḍāli or 'heat yoga' (gtum mo'i bka' babs); 3. The instructions on clear light ('od gsal kyi bka' babs); 4. The instructions on Karma Mudrā (las kyi phyags rgya'i bka babs)
  5. Roerich, George N. (Translator) The Blue Annals. Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi 1988. [reprint of Calcutta, 1949] p. 403
  6. TBRC P0RK1289
  7. Dargey, Yonten. History of the Drukpa Kagyud in Bhutan. Thimphu 2001. pg. 58
  8. The hereditary lineages starting from Ngok Choku Dorje's son Ngok Dode (rngog mdo sde) (b.1090) up to 1476 AD are detailed on pp. 406-414 in Roerich's translation of the Blue Annals.
  9. TBRC P3074
  10. Tenzin Gyatsho, Dalai Lama XIV. The Gelug / Kagyü Tradition of Mahamudra p. 262
  11. " Transcriptions of teachings given by His Eminence the 12th Kenting Tai Situpa (2005)," [1]
  12. "The Karmapa's Return To Tsurphu In Tibet, The Historic Seat Of The Karmapas" Retrieved on December 22, 2008.
  13. "The 17th Gyalwa Karmapa Trinley Thaye Dorje" Retrieved on December 22, 2008.
  14. Stearns, Cyrus. Luminous Lives The Story of the Early Masters of the Lam dre in Tibet. Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0861713079
  15. “The rise of Changchub Gyaltsen and the Phagmo Drupa Period″ in Bulletin of Tibetology, 1981 Gangtok: Namgyal Institute of Tibetology [2]
  16. Dorje, Gyurme. Tibet Handbook: The Travel Guide. Footprint 1999. p.185 ISBN 1900949334
  17. Berzin, Alexandra A Survey of Tibetan History: 4 The Pagmodru, Rinpung, and Tsangpa Hegemonies
  18. Norbu, Dawa "China's Tibet Policy". RoutledgeCurzon 2001. p. 57
  19. Stoddard, E Heather (2002) Golden Buddhas from Tibet: Reconstruction of the Façade of a Stupa from Densathil.
  20. see: Dargye & Sørensen (2001) pp.ix–x, 34–36, 41–46
  21. Dorje, Sangay & Kinga (2008) pp.146–7.
  22. TBRC P910
  23. Smith, "Golden Rosaries of the Bka' brgyud Schools" p.44-5.
  24. Martin, Dan (May 2006). "A Bronze Portrait Image of Lo-ras-pa's Disciple: Tibetological Remarks on an Item in a Recent Asian Art Catalog". Tibetan Mongolian Museum Society. Retrieved 2009-05-20. 
  25. Smith, "Golden Rosaries of the Bka' brgyud Schools" p.45.
  26. Dorje, Gyurme. Tibet Handbook: The Travel Guide p.200
  27. TBRC P3098
  28. TBRC P3099


  • Dargye, Yonten (2001). History of the Drukpa Kagyud School in Bhutan (12th to 17th Century). Thimphu, Bhutan. ISBN 9993661600. 
  • Dargye, Yonten and Sørensen, P.K. (2001); The Biography of Pha 'Brug-sgom Zhig-po called The Current of Compassion. Thumphu: National Library of Bhutan. ISBN 9993617008
  • Dorje, Gyurme. Tibet Handbook: The Travel Guide. Footprint 1999. ISBN 1900949334
  • Powers, John (1994). Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. Snow Lion. ISBN 1559390263. 
  • Roerich, George N. (Translator) The Blue Annals. Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi 1988. [reprint of Calcutta, 1949]
  • Powers, John (1994). Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. Snow Lion. ISBN 1559390263. 
  • Smith, E. Gene (1970a, 2001). "Golden Rosaries of the Bka' brgyud Schools". in Schaeffer, Kurtis R. (ed). Among Tibetan Texts: History and Literature of the Himalayan Plateau. Boston: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0861711793. 
  • Tulku Thondup Rinpoche (1988). Buddhist Civilization in Tibet. Arkana. ISBN 014019083X. 

Further reading

  • Kapstein, Matthew. “The Shangs-pa bKa'-brgyud: an unknown school of Tibetan Buddhism” in M. Aris and Aung San Suu Kyi (eds.), Studies in Honor of Hugh Richardson Warminster: Aris and Phillips, 1980, pp. 138–44.
  • Khenpo Konchog Gyaltsen. The Great Kagyu Masters: The Golden Lineage Treasury. Ithica: Snow Lion Publicaions, 1990. [A translation of part of the Bka' brgyud kyi rnam thar chen mo- a collection of 'Bri gung Bka' brgyud hagiographies by Rdo rje mdzes 'od]
  • Roberts, Peter Alan. The Biographies of Rechungpa: The Evolution of a Tibetan hagiography. London: Routledge, 2007. ISBN 0-415-76995-7
  • Smith, E. Gene. "Golden Rosaries of the Bka' brgyud Schools." in Among Tibetan Texts: History and Literature of the Himalayan Plateau, ed. Kurtis R. Schaeffer, 39-52. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2001. ISBN 0-86171-179-3
  • Smith, E. Gene. "The Shangs pa Bka' brgyud Tradition." in Among Tibetan Texts: History and Literature of the Himalayan Plateau, ed. Kurtis R. Schaeffer, 53-57. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2001. ISBN 0-86171-179-3
  • Smith, E. Gene. "Padma dkar po and His History of Buddhism" in Among Tibetan Texts: History and Literature of the Himalayan Plateau, ed. Kurtis R. Schaeffer, 81-86. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2001. ISBN 0-86171-179-3
  • Thaye, Jampa A Garland of Gold. Bristol: Ganesha Press, 1990. ISBN 0950911933

See also

External links

Barom Kagyu

Drikung Kagyu sites

Drukpa Kagyu

Karma (Kamtsang) Kagyu

Sites associated with Trinlay Thaye Dorje

Sites associated with Urgyen Trinley Dorje

Other Karma Kagyu sites

(Note: Karma Kagyu related sites that apparently do not take sides on the so-called “Karmapa controversy”).

Taklung Kagyu

Shangpa Kagyu