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The Kadampa (or, Gelugpa) tradition that many people know about because of its most public figure who is the Dalai Lama, conforms to the Indian monastic model.  However, the Kagyu denomination of Tibetan Buddhism is primarily a tantric tradition that involves direct transmission from master to disciple.  Therefore, for Kagyupas, institution is not nearly as important as lineage transmission.

Also, Kagyu places great emphasis on meditation.  It considers transcendent Buddha Akshobya emanating as Vajradhara (Thunderbolt-holder) as the source of meditation method.  From Tilopa the yogi, who experienced the original transmission, to Naropa and then, to Marpa the Translator, the teachings went to Milarepa.

Many of Mila's students were sources of distinctive Kagyu lineages.  The Karma Kagyu line descends from Gampopa Dagpo Lharje, the doctor from Kham (or, Gam) in East Tibet, who was a great clarifying influence, and not only for Kagyupas.


Buddha Shakyamuni predicted the coming of a King of Samadhi, master of Mahamudra meditation, and this is understood to refer to Gampopa.

Dagpo Lharje (1079-1135) was a medical practitioner and a monk.  Known as Gampopa, he was one of the main disciples of practitioner-poet, Milarepa.  This was around the time England was invaded by William the Conqueror.  That is, the end of the age of the Vikings, over 900 years ago.   

After Milarepa had given meditation instructions to Gampopa, Milarepa told him to go to Gampo Mountain, which was a solitary place, and practice there. Gampopa made himself a small retreat hut at Gampo Mountain and resolved to spend thirteen years there in solitary retreat. 

Then, in a dream, a dakini told him that thirteen years benefiting beings in that place would be better than thirteen years in retreat. Gampopa awoke and wondered how he could benefit beings, as there was no one living there. Gradually, however, the rebirths of the eight hundred bodhisattvas from the lifetime of the Buddha came to Gampo Mountain to receive his teachings, and they became eight hundred great meditators. In this way, Gampopa passed on the Mahamudra instructions.  

~ Introduction to Ocean of Ultimate Meaning

He had studied the gradual path called Lam Rim as taught by the Kadampa (reformed by Tsongkhapa to become the Gelugpa denomination.)  He unified this method with the Kagyu specialty of Mahamudra, and taught and wrote extensively.  He also founded monasteries. 

His disciples went on to found the "four major Kagyu lineages."  One of those people was the founder of the Karma Kagyu and came later to be known as Karmapa.  Other of Gampopa's students such as the Three Men from Kham, were founders of some of the "eight minor lineages."

Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche recounts the manner in which Gampopa tested his students in an anecdote that also reveals how, in the Vajrayana, a request by the teacher can have profound significance:

"On another occasion, Gampopa told his three main students to bring him some firewood so that he could read indications about the future based upon what they brought.  Khampa Dorgyal was huge and very strong. He brought a massive load of logs of all different shapes, sizes and types: some long, some short.  Khampa Usey brought one nice long log.  Shogom went to sleep. [Laughter] Upon awakening, he said, "Oh boy! I better bring in that wood he asked for!" So Shogom went out and, seeing one dead tree, brought that to Gampopa.

"Based on the variety of wood brought by Khampa Dorgyal, Gampopa predicted that he would spawn a great variety of lineages: some short-lived, and some which would have great duration. Also, Gampopa predicted that these lineages would include different types of practitioners: some monks, some lay tantrikas. In fact, Khampa Dorgyal was Phagmo Drupa, the progenitor of many of the Kagyu traditions. 

Based on the one nice log brought in by White Head, Gampopa predicted: "You will produce one lineage that will last until the end of Buddha Shakyamuni's teachings. It will be very, very clean--a pure and strong and straight lineage." White Head was the first Gyalwa Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa. 

Based on the dead tree that Harelip brought in, Gampopa predicted that he would not have many human students but would, more than any other teacher, benefit beings in the bardo.  His reincarnations would be the Traleg Rinpoches of Thrangu Monastery."

One of the standard reference works on the Kagyu tradition is Gampopa's Jewel Ornament of Liberation.  


Terma is a Tibetan word referring to texts or sacred objects believed to have been hidden for safekeeping until the time is right for their recovery and utilization for the benefit of sentient beings.  Someone who actually finds a material object of this nature, or who by virtue of inspiration, memory or other means reveals an inspirational text is known as a terton.   

The enlightened dakini plays an important role in the protection, concealment, recovery and proper interpretation of these objects or texts.

Tulku Thondup [Talbott ed.] Hidden Teachings of Tibet: An Explanation of the Terma Tradition. Somerville, Mass.: Wisdom Publications, 1987.

Kagyu: pronounced either as Central Tibetan, kah-ghyoo or Eastern Tibetan, kah-djoo

King of Samadhi: Ven. Thrangu Rinpoche tells us this in his commentary by that title.  Samadhi is Sanskrit for the purest of meditative states.

Jewel Ornament: Several translations are available.  The first widely available version (by H. Guenther) was a pioneering work and is not easy to grasp.  The more recent versions have benefited from expert translation and experience with application.

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