Buddhism is structured on the notion of 'transmission', the passing on
of teachings and methods from the teacher to the student - who in his
turn hands on the teachings to his own students. This has given rise to
a number of 'lineages', lines of descent of dharma wisdom from one
great master to the next. These masters are often 'reincarnate lamas',
with alternate 'lineage-holders' holding the transmission during the
period from the death of the reincarnate to the coming of age of his
The Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan
Buddhism is an example of one such lineage. The Karmapa, who first
incarnated in the 12th century and is now in his 17th incarnation, is a
treasury of teachings.
This is sometimes called the
Whispering Lineage, not because the master literally whispered the
teaching to his pupil, but rather in reference to the continuum of
verbal transmission to a select number of high calibre students.
Karma Kagyu Lineage is the yogic transmission among the four main
schools of Tibetan Buddhism. It encompasses both the old (Nyingma) and
the new (Sarma) teachings which reached Tibet. Being heavily
[meditation] practice oriented, the Kagyu is called the "oral" or the
"perfection" school. The origin of the Kagyu Lineage dates back to the
ninth century at the time of the full flowering of Tantric Buddhism in
India. The first teacher in this tradition was Tilopa,
the renowned yogi and Mahasiddha (perfected one). Tilopa received the
transmission directly from Dorje Chang (skt.: Vajradhara), the
celestial Buddha who symbolizes the Dharmakaya, the ultimate mind.
Tilopa in turn gave the whispered teachings to Naropa
who had previously been chancellor of Nalanda University in India.
Naropa's twelve years of service to Tilopa are regarded as a great
example of devotion to one's teacher.
The first Tibetan to receive the teaching was Marpa,
the Translator, so named because of his heroic efforts to reach India
on foot, searching for his teacher Naropa, and patiently practicing and
translating the Mahamudra teachings into
Tibetan. Marpa was a householder and landowner and he gathered around
him a number of students; the main one was Milarepa.
of the bad karma acquired through his early deeds as a sorcerer,
Milarepa was submitted to years of arduous purifying labor before Marpa
would grant him the teachings. Milarepa spent many years meditating in
caves, gained profound illumination and was famed as a poet and saint.
He died at the age of 80, at which time the lineage passed on to Gampopa
who had previously been a doctor. Gampopa was the first monk of the
Kagyu School and he organized the Kagyu monastic system. He also
formulated the teaching in practical texts such as the "Jewel Ornament
of Liberation" which outlines the gradual path to liberation.
major and eight minor schools originated from Gampopa's three main
disciples. The major schools have all fused into the Karma Kagyu with
the Karmapa as the head.
The first Karmapa, Dusum
Khyenpa, was Gampopa's most gifted disciple. He manifested great
spiritual power and purity early in his life and in his sixteenth year
he received a supernatural Black Crown from dakinis and other
divinities which bestowed knowledge of the past, present and future.
This hat has been passed on to all the subsequent Karmapas who are
reincarnations or "tulkus" of Dusum Khyenpa. All the Karmapas have
worked unceasingly to spread the Buddha's teaching, and are recognized
as emanations of the bodhisattva Chenrezig (skt.: Avalokitesvara).
Karma Kagyu lineage traces itself back over two hundred years before
the first Karmapa, to the Indian source of their knowledge - Tilopa. He
is often to be seen at the top of the traditional paintings or thangkas
of Kagyu refuge trees and looking every inch the ascetic. A Brahmin,
from East India, Tilopa was only a boy when he encountered the famous
master Nagarjuna, whose supernatural abilities later caused a state
oracle to select Tilopa as ruler of a small Indian kingdom. Some years
later, disenchanted with worldly power, he became a monk at the Tantric
Temple of Somapuri in Bengal. We are told that one day a dakini (a
female wisdom-giver) came to him in a vision, and offered him her
knowledge as a route to enlightenment. Seizing his opportunity, Tilopa
requested her teachings, and received the initiation into the
Chakrasamvara Tantra - which, such were his abilities, he was easily
able to understand. For twelve years he practiced this teaching at
Somapuri, but when the monastery saw him take a female consort for the
practice of union yoga, he was forced to quit the community.
profited from his expulsion by travelling throughout India, searching
out many teachers, and learning their methods. He earned his living
during this period by grinding sesame seeds ('Til' in Sanskrit) for oil
- giving him the name by which we know him today. He was given direct
transmission of the Mahamudra and other teachings, by the Buddha
Vajradhara (Tib. Dorje Chang), who became his root guru. Although he
chose to live in remote and inhospitable regions, his fame as a
meditation master brought him excellent students, from whom he selected
Naropa as the lineage holder.
Samantabhadra, a Bengali prince, Naropa (1016-1100) rebelled at a
young age against his royal training. Eight years old, he demanded to
go to Kashmir, to follow an intellectual education with the best
teachers of the time; three years later, he finally embarked upon the
study of logic, science, grammar, rhetoric and art.
his parents, according to the custom of the time, had arranged for his
marriage to Vimaladipi, a Brahmin. The ceremony took place upon his
return, but eight years later Naropa insisted on its dissolution, and
promptly returned to Kashmir to be ordained and to undertake further
Several years later, at twenty-eight, his
interests drew him to Nalanda University, near Pullahari, famous for
its Buddhist philosophers, and of which he became Abbot in due course.
But then a dakini appeared to him, telling him that meditation practice
was more important than philosophizing, and that he should search out a
certain Tilopa for instructions. Abandoning his vows, Naropa set out to
the East to find this teacher - often seen paired with Naropa in
thangkas. He did eventually meet Tilopa, without recognizing him, and
was put through twelve gruelling tests. He persevered, however,
mastered Tilopa's teachings, and took disciples of his own.
of these disciples were encountered on the road by a Tibetan, Marpa
(1012-1097), who had come to Nepal in search of the Dharma. Buddhist
from his earliest youth, he had learnt Sanskrit from the Sakyapa Lama
Drogmi, then exchanged all his belongings for gold, in preparation for
his quest. So impressed was he by Naropa's disciples, he decided to
become one himself. For many years he received Naropa's teachings, as
well as studying with a variety of famous Indian masters including
Jnanagarbha, Kukuripa and Maitripa. Having practiced and mastered the
teachings, Marpa returned to Lhodrag in South Tibet, where he lived
with his wife Dagmema and their two sons, and spent several years
translating the Buddhist scriptures from Sanskrit into the vernacular
Tibetan. Renowned as a translator, he attracted a group of students to
whom he passed on the fruits of his Indian research. After two further
expeditions to India, from which he carried yet more teachings back
over the mountain passes to Tibet, he returned to find a student named
Milarepa who had been sent to him.
the Gungthang province of Western Tibet, close to Nepal, Milarepa
(1052-1135) had had a hard childhood and a dark youth. Only seven when
his father died, relatives had taken over his father's property, and
maltreated the bereaved family. His mother, bitter, sent Milarepa to
train in black magic, to wreak revenge on those who had blighted her
life. She was given her wish - Milarepa proved adept at the practices
he was taught, and unleashed a tide of destruction, killing many. But
he came to regret his actions, and looked for help in shedding the bad
karma he had acquired during his vengeful adolescence. He first
attached himself to a Nyingmapa Lama Rongton, who, observing that
Milarepa had an affinity for Marpa, sent him to await Marpa's return
from his travels.
Milarepa's reward was to suffer years
of testing at his master's hands. Among other trials, he built a
nine-storey tower, to Marpa's specifications. But finally, Marpa gave
Milarepa full transmission of all he had learnt from Naropa and other
Indian masters. Practicing these teachings for many years, Milarepa
attained enlightenment, and gained fame for his songs. Of his own
students, Gampopa became his lineage-holder.
Nyal, in East Tibet, Gampopa (1079-1135) was the son of a doctor, and a
doctor himself. He married in his early twenties, and fathered two
sons. Several years later, an epidemic took both their lives, despite
his skill. His wife falling sick of the same disease, and similarly
failing to respond to his ministrations, begged him as she died not to
marry again, but to become a monk. One might question her motives, but
nevertheless, at the age of twenty-six, Gampopa became a novice in the
He applied himself, working with
many masters, and achieved a high degree of proficiency before - at
thirty-two - hearing talk of Milarepa. Feeling a surge of devotion in
response to these tales, and understanding that this must be his true
teacher, he set out on a gruelling but eventually successful search to
find him. Gampopa, a talented writer, of great insight, was entrusted
by Milarepa with the complete Kagyu transmission - the only one of
Milarepa's students so honoured - before leaving Milarepa to go into
retreat at Dagpo in South-East Tibet. There he founded the monastery of
Daglha Gampo, where he drew many disciples. Four of these were to found
the four "major" Kagyu branches. Eight "minor" branches would appear
later. One of the four, Dusum Khyenpa was both the next Kagyu
lineage-holder, and the first Karmapa.
Since then, the
Kagyu Lineage has been headed by a succession of reincarnations of the
Gyalwa Karmapa. The line of the Karmapas is said to be self-announced,
because each incarnation leaves a letter predicting his next rebirth. All great Kagyu teachers regard His Holiness Karmapa as the embodiment and source of all of the blessings of the lineage.
The Current Karmapa is the 17th, His Holiness Ogyen Trinely Dorje.