Marpa Lotsawa | Kagyu
Marpa Lotsawa | Kagyu

1. Kagyu

The Kagyu school, which translates to Oral Lineage or Whispered Transmission school, is one of the main schools of Tibetan Buddhism.

The Kagyu lineages trace themselves back to the 11th century Indian Mahāsiddhas Nāropa, Maitrīpa and the yogini Niguma, via their student Marpa Lotsawa (1012–1097), who brought their teachings to Tibet.

Marpa's student Milarepa was also an influential poet and teacher.

The Tibetan Kagyu tradition gave rise to a large number of independent sub-schools and lineages:

The principal Kagyu lineages existing today as independent schools are those which stem from Milarepa's disciple, Gampopa (1079–1153), a monk who merged the Kagyu lineage with the Kadam tradition.

The Kagyu schools which survive as independent institutions are mainly the Karma Kagyu, Drigung Kagyu, Drukpa Lineage and the Taklung Kagyu.

The Karma Kagyu school is the largest of the sub-schools, and is headed by the Karmapa.

Other lineages of Kagyu teachings, such as the Shangpa Kagyu, are preserved in other schools.

The main teachings of the Kagyu include Mahāmudra and the Six Dharmas of Naropa.

2. Origins

Kagyu begins in Tibet with Marpa Lotsawa (1012–1097) a Tibetan householder who trained as a translator with Lotsawa Drogmi Shākya Yeshe (993–1050), and then travelled 3 times to India and 4 times to Nepal in search of religious teachings.

His principal gurus were the siddhas Nāropa - from whom he received the close lineage of Mahāmudra and tantric teachings, and Maitrīpāda - from whom he received the distant lineage of Mahāmudra.

Together Marpa, Milarepa and Gampopa are known as Mar-Mi-Dag Sum and together these 3 are considered the founders of the Kagyu school of Buddhism in Tibet.

Indian Origins

Marpa's guru Nāropa (1016–1100) was the principal disciple of Tilopa (988-1089) from East Bengal.

From his own teachers Tilopa received the Four Lineages of Instructions, which he passed on to Nāropa who codified them into what became known as the Six Doctrines or Six Dharmas of Naropa.

These instructions consist a combination of the completion stage practices of different Buddhist highest yoga tantras (Skt. Anuttarayoga Tantra;),

which use the energy-winds (Skt. vāyu, Tib: rlung), energy-channels (Skt. nādi,) and energy-drops of the subtle vajra-body in order to achieve the 4 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 Dharmakāya 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 Vajradhara through incarnations of the Bodhisattvas Avalokiteśvara and Mañjuśrī to Saraha, then from him through Nāgārjuna, Shavaripa (Śabara in Sanskrit), and Maitrīpāda to Marpa.

The Mahāmudrā teachings from Saraha that Maitrīpa transmitted to Marpa include the Essence Mahāmudrā where Mahāmudrā is introduced directly without relying on philosophical reasoning or yogic practices.

According to some accounts, on his 3rd journey to India Marpa also met Atiśa (982–1054) who later came to Tibet and helped found the Kadam lineage

Marpa and his successors (Marpa Kagyu)

Marpa established his seat at Drowolung in Lhodrak in southern Tibet just north of Bhutan. Marpa married the Lady Dagmema, and took 8 other concubines as mudras.

Collectively they embodied the main consort and 8 wisdom Ḍākinī in the mandala of his Yidam, Hevajra.

Marpa wanted to entrust the transmission lineage to his oldest 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.

Darma Dode's incarnation as Indian master Tiphupa became important for the future development of Kagyu in Tibet.

Marpa's 4 most outstanding students were known as the Four Great Pillars :

1) Milarepa (1040–1123), born in Gungtang 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.

Among Milarepa's main students were Gampopa (1079–1153), a great scholar, and the great yogi Rechung Dorje Drakpa (1088–1158), also known as Rechungpa.

2) Ngok Choku Dorje (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 stands today.

The Ngok branch of the Marpa Kagyu was an independent lineage carried on by his descendants at least up to the time of the 2nd Drukchen Gyalwang Kunga Paljor (1428-1476) who received this transmission, and 1476 when Go Lotsawa composed the Blue Annals.

3) Tshurton Wangi Dorje was the principal recipient of Marpa's transmission of the teachings of the Guhyasamāja Tantra.

Tshurton's lineage eventually merged with the Shalu Monastery tradition and subsequently passed this down to the Gelug founder Je Tsongkhapa, who wrote extensive commentaries on the Guhyasamāja Tantra.

4) Meton Tsonpo

Other important students of Marpa include:

  1. Marpa Dowa Chokyi Wangchuck.
  2. Marpa Goleg who along with Tshurton Wangi Dorje received the Guhyasamāja Tantra.
  3. Barang Bawacen - who received lineage of the explanatory teachings of the Mahāmāyā Tantra.

Jamgon Kongtrül (1813–1899) collected the initiations and Sādhanas of surviving transmissions of Marpa's teachings together in the collection known as the Kagyu Ngak Dzö ( Treasury of Kagyu Tantras ).


Gampopa (1079–1153), who was a Kadampa monk, is an influential figure in the history of the Kagyu tradition:

He combined the monastic tradition and the stages of the path (Lamrim) teachings of the Kadam order with teaching and practice of the Mahāmudrā and the Six Yogas of Naropa he received from Milarepa synthesizing them into one lineage.

This monastic tradition came to be known as Dagpo Kagyu—the main lineage of the Kagyu tradition passed down via Nāropa as we know it today.

The other main lineage of the Kagyu is the Shangpa Kagyu, passed down via Niguma.

Gampopa's main contribution was the establishment of a celibate and cenobitic monastic Kagyu order.

This was in sharp contrast to the tradition of Marpa and Milarepa which mainly consisted of non-monastic householder or hermit yogis practicing in solitary locations or hermitages.

It is said - Marpa saw the monastic life as appropriate only for people of limited capacities.

Gampopa on the other hand, founded Daklha Gampo Monastery and thus allowed the Kagyu teachings to have established training centres and study curricula in an structured monastic setting which was well suited to the preservation of tradition.

Most of the major Kagyu lineages in existence today can be traced through Gampopa.

Following Gampopa's teachings, there evolved the so-called 4 Major and 8 Minor lineages of the Dagpo Kagyu School. This phrase is descriptive of the generation or order in which the schools were founded, not of their importance.

3. Dagpo Kagyu lineages

The principle Dagpo Kagyu lineages that exist today as organized schools are:

  1. Karma Kagyu,
  2. Drigung Kagyu
  3. Drukpa Lineage.

For the most part, the teachings and main esoteric transmissions of the other Dagpo Kagyu lineages have been absorbed into one of these 3 independent schools.

Historically, there were 12 main sub schools of the Dagpo Kagyu derived from Gampopa and his disciples:

4 primary branches stemmed from direct disciples of Gampopa and his nephew; and 8 secondary branches derived from Gampopa's disciple Phagmo Drupa.

Several of these Kagyu traditions in turn developed their own branches or sub-schools.

The terminology primary and secondary for the Kagyu schools can only be traced back as far as Kongtrül's writings (19th century).

The Tibetan terminology che chung , literally large (and) small, does not reflect the size or influence of the schools,

as for instance the Drigung school was in the 13th century probably the largest and most influential of them, although it is, according to Kongtrül, secondary .

4. 4 primary Dagpo Kagyu

Karma Kagyu

The Karma Kagyu was founded by one of Gampopa's main disciples Düsum Khyenpa, 1st Karmapa Lama (1110–1193).

The figure of Karma Pakshi (1204/6–1283), a student of one of Düsum Khyenpa's main disciples, was actually the 1st person recognized as a Karmapa , i.e. a reincarnation of Düsum Khyenpa.

Rangjung Dorje, 3rd Karmapa Lama, was an important figure because he received and preserved Dzogchen teachings from Rigdzin Kumaradza and taught this along with Kagyu Mahāmudra.

He also influenced Dölpopa Sherab Gyaltsen, the founder of the Jonang school who systematized the Shentong teachings.

The Karmapas continue to be the heads of the Karma Kagyu order today and remain very influential figures.   

Although in the diaspora the 16th Karmapa was considered the “head” of the Kagyu lineage, in Tibet the situation was more decentralized:

In spite of the titular role of the Karmapa, even in exile the various surviving Kagyu sub-schools maintain a high degree of independence and autonomy.

Following the death of Rangjung Rigpa Dorje, 16th Karmapa in 1981, followers came to disagree over the identity of his successor. The disagreement of who holds the current title of Karmapa is an on-going controversy termed the Karmapa controversy .

Sub-schools of Karma Kagyu

The Karma Kagyu school itself has 3 sub-schools in addition to the main branch:

  1. Surmang, founded by Trungmase, 1st Zurmang Gharwang Rinpoche, a student of Deshin Shekpa, 5th Karmapa Lama, this sub-sect was centred on Surmang Monastery, in what is now Qinghai
  2. Nedo Kagyu, founded by Karma Chagme (1613–1678), a disciple of the 6th Shamarpa (1584–1630)
  3. Gyaltön Kagyu

Barom Kagyu

The Barom Kagyu was founded by Gampopa's disciple Barompa Darma Wangchuk (1127–1199/1200), who established the Nak River Barom Riwoche Monastery in 1160.

This school was popular in the Principality of Nangchen in Kham (modern Nangqên County, Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, southern Qinghai) where it has survived in 1-2 pockets to the present day.

An important early master of this school was Tishri Repa Sherab Senge (1164–1236).

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

Tsalpa Kagyu

The Tsalpa Kagyu was established by Zhang Yudrakpa Tsöndru Drakpa (1123–1193), who founded Tsal Gungtang Monastery.

Lama Zhang was a disciple of Gampopa's nephew Dagpo Gomtsul Tsultrim Nyingpo (1116–1169).

The Tsalpa Kagyu tradition continued to function independently until the 15th century when it was absorbed by the Gelug, who still maintain many of its transmissions.

All of the former Tsalpa properties became Gelug possessions under the administration of Sera monastery.

Phagdru Kagyu

The Phagmo Drupa Kagyu or Phagdru Kagyu was founded by Phagmo Drupa Dorje Gyalpo (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 (1092–1158) from whom he received Lamdre transmission.

From 1435 to 1481 the power of the Phagmo Drupa declined and they were eclipsed by the Rinpungpa of Tsang, who patronized the Karma Kagyu.

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

5. 8 Secondary Dagpo Kagyu

The 8 secondary lineages of the Dagpo Kagyu all trace themselves to disciples of Phagmo Drupa.

Some of these secondary schools, notably the Drigung Kagyu and Drukpa Kagyu, became more important and influential than others.

Drigung Kagyu

One of the most important of the Kagyu sects still remaining today, the Drigung Kagyu takes its name from Drigung Monastery founded by Jigten Sumgön.

The special Kagyu teachings of the Drigung tradition include:

  1. the Single Intention ,
  2. The Essence of Mahāyāna Teachings ,
  3. the Fivefold Profound Path of Mahāmudrā .

Since the 15th century the Drigung Kagyupa received influence from the Northern Terma teachings of the Nyingma tradition.

Lingre Kagyu

Lingre Kagyu refers to the lineages founded by Lingrepa Pema Dorje (1128-1188) also known as Nephupa after Nephu monastery he founded near Dorje Drak in Central Tibet.

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 Lineage

The Drukpa Lineage was established by Lingrepa's main disciple, Tsangpa Gyare (1161–1211), who established monasteries at Longbol and Ralung Monastery.

Later, Tsangpa Gyare went to a place called Nam Phu where, legend has it, 9 roaring dragons rose from the ground and soared into the sky.

The Tibetan word for dragon is Druk, 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 in 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, Lahaul and Kinnaur.

Along with the Mahāmudra teachings inherited from Gampopa and Phagmo Drupa Dorje Gyalpo, particular teachings of the Drukpa Lineage include:

1) the 6 Cycles of Equal Taste , a cycle of instructions said to have been hidden by Rechung Dorje Drakpa and discovered by Tsangpa Gyare,

2) the 7 Auspicious Teachings revealed to Tsangpa Gyare by 7 Buddhas who appeared to him in a vision at Tsari.

Shukseb Kagyu

The Shukseb Kagyu was established by Gyergom Chenpo Zhönnu Drakpa (1090–1171), who founded the Shuksep Monastery in Nyiphu.

The Shukseb Kagyu emphasized the Mahāmudra teachings of the dohas, spiritual songs of realization by Indian masters such as Saraha, Shavaripa, Tilopa, Nāropa and Maitrīpa.

A notable member of this lineage was the nun Shukseb Jetsun Chönyi Zangmo (1852–1953) was the most well-known of the yoginis in the 1900s, and was considered an incarnation of Machig Labdrön.

Taklung Kagyu

The Taklung Kagyu named after Taklung Monastery established in 1180 by Taklung Thangpa Tashi Pal (1142–1210).

Trophu Kagyu

The Trophu Kagyu was established by Gyaltsab Rinchen Gön (1118–1195) and Künden Repa (1148–1217).

The tradition was developed by their nephew, Thropu Lotsawa, who invited Paṇḍit Shakyasri of Kashmir, Buddhasri and Mitrayogin to Tibet.

The most renowned adherent of this lineage was Butön Rinchen Drub (1290–1364) of Zhalu, who was a student of Trophu-pa Sonam Sengge and Trophu Khenchen Rinchen Senge.

Yazang Kagyu

The Yazang Kagyu founded by Sharawa Kalden Yeshe Sengge (d. 1207).

His foremost disciple was Yazang Chöje Chö Mönlam (1169–1233) who in 1206 established the monastery of Yabzang, also known as Nedong Dzong, in Yarlung.

The Yazang Kagyu survived as an independent school at least until the 16th century.

Yelpa Kagyu

The Yelpa Kagyu was established by Drubtob Yeshe Tsekpa (b. 1134).

He established 2 monasteries, Shar Yelphuk and Jang Tana.

6. Shangpa Kagyu

The Shangpa Kagyu differs in origin from the better known Marpa or Dagpo school that is the source of all present-day Kagyu schools.

The Dagpo school and its branches primarily came from the lineage of the Indian siddhas Tilopa and Nāropa transmitted in Tibet through Marpa, Milarepa, Gampopa and their successors.

In contrast, the Shangpa lineage descended from 2 female siddhas, Nāropa’s consort Niguma and Virūpa’s disciple Sukhasiddhi, transmitted in Tibet in the 11th century through Khyungpo Nenjor.

The tradition takes its name from the Shang Valley where Khyungpo Nenjor established the gompa of Zhangzhong.

For 7 generations, the Shangpa Kagyu lineage remained a one-to-one transmission.

Although there were a few temples and retreat centres in Tibet and Bhutan associated with the Shangpa transmission, it never really was established as an independent religious institution or sect. Rather, its teachings were transmitted down through the centuries by lamas belonging to many different schools.

In the 20th century, the Shangpa teachings were transmitted by Kalu Rinpoche (1905 –1989), who studied at Palpung Monastery, the seat of the Tai Situpa.

7. Teaching and practice


There are various Kagyu presentations of the right philosophical view depending on the specific lineage.

Some Kagyu lineages follow the Shentong (empty of other) presentations which were influenced by the work of Dölpopa.

This view was defended by the influential Rime philosopher Jamgön Kongtrül Lodrö Thaye (1813–1899).

Shentong views the 2 truths doctrine as distinguishing between relative and absolute reality, agreeing that relative reality is empty of self-nature, but stating that absolute reality is empty only of other relative phenomena, but is itself not empty.

In Shentong, this absolute reality (i.e. Buddha nature) is the ground or substratum which is uncreated and indestructible, non-composite and beyond the chain of dependent origination.

According to Jamgon Kongtrül, this Ultimate Reality which is non-dual, self-aware primordial wisdom can be said to always exists in its own nature and never changes, so it is never empty of its own nature and it is there all the time.

However, this wisdom is also free of conceptual elaborations and also free of the 2 extremes of Nihilism and Eternalism.

This Shentong view has been upheld by various modern Kagyu masters such as Kalu Rinpoche and Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche.

However, several important Kagyu figures have disagreed with the view of Shentong Mādhyamika ,

such as Mikyö Dorje, the 8th Karmapa Lama (1507–1554) and 2nd Pawo Rinpoche Tsuglag Threngwa, both of whom see Shentong as another name for Yogācāra and as a separate system to Mādhyamika.

In his Chariot of the Dagpo Kagyu Siddhas, Mikyö Dorje attacks the Shentong view of Dölpopa as being against the Sūtras of ultimate meaning which state that all phenomena are emptiness as well as being against the treatises of the Indian masters.

He argued that the Rangtong - Shentong distinction is inaccurate and not in line with the teachings of the Indian masters.

He also argued that teachings on Buddha nature being a self, permanent, substantial, really existent, indestructible, and so on are of expedient meaning.

The writings of the 9th Karmapa, Wangchuk Dorje, particularly his Feast for the Fortunate, also follow this view in critiquing the Shentong Mādhyamika position and arguing that the Buddha taught Buddha nature as provisional meaning .


With regards to presentations of the path, the surviving Dagpo Kagyu schools rely on the Lamrim (stages of the path) format outlined by Gampopa in his Jewel Ornament of Liberation.

The practice of Lojong (Mind training) which derives from the Kadam school is also important.

The central meditative practice in Kagyu is Mahāmudra, the Great Seal . This doctrine focuses on 4 principal stages (the Four Yogas of Mahāmudra), 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

The central tantric deities of the Kagyu schools are Cakrasaṁvara and his consort Vajravārāhī.

A central set of practices maintained in the Kagyu schools are the Six Dharmas of Naropa.

The 6 Dharmas consists of the following yogic practices:

  1. tummo – the yoga of inner heat (or mystic heat).
  2. gyulü – the yoga of the illusory body.
  3. ösel – the yoga of the clear light or radiant light.
  4. milam – the yoga of the dream state.
  5. bardo – the yoga of the in-between.
  6. phowa – the yoga of the transference of consciousness

Other practices which are taught in the Kagyu schools include:

  1. Chöd lineage
  2. Kālacakra (derived from the Jonang lineage)
  3. White Tārā (derived from the Kadam school)
  4. Practices of deities such as Green Tārā, Avalokiteśvara, Vajrakīlaya and Padmasambhava (derived from the Nyingma school)