Kagyu Lineages

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Meaning of Kagyu

His Eminence the 12th Tai Situpa explains (Ken Holmes, 1997) that Kagyu is a condensed  way of referring to an entire Tibetan phrase:

" . . .   theg pa gsum gy snying don bka bab kyi chos bzhi'i gdams ngag bar ma ckad pa'i brgyud pa,

which roughly means 'the unbroken lineage of profound and intimate guidance in the four sorts of transmitted mastery, the heart meaning of the three yanas.'

In the above, Ka is short for Ka.pap.zhi. -- which could be loosely rendered as 'four transmissions of mastery'.  Zhi simply mean four. Ka.pap is a term without any equivalent in English.  It means transmission—of knowledge, skill, insight and teaching ability—in a specific domain, from master to student, to the point where the student enters into complete possession of all the master's prowess.  It is the sort of thing that takes place when someone already gifted in, or deeply predisposed towards, a certain subject seeks out the best person in that field and learns from them everything they have to teach.  Implicit to this process is the spontaneous appreciation and rapid assimilation that occurs when a student has a natural feel for a subject.

The four Kagyu transmissions referred to here are those of:

.. great seal - (Tib. phyag.rgya.cken.po Skt. mahamudra) in this instance 'uncharacterised mahamudra', i.e. without ritual, form or sophistry,
.. heat yoga -(Tib. gtum.mo, which literally means 'angry mother'),
.. lucidity - (Tib. od.gsal means ' as clear as if illuminated'--sometimes called 'clear light' in modern translations) this includes dream and between-life (bardo) yogas
.. union - (Tib. Ias.kyi.phyag.rgya Skt. karma mudra)

...These four transmissions contain the very essence of all three levels (yana) of Buddhism. Each contains the others and therefore each contains everything. As a whole they are called mahamudra.

If each of the above were not an aspect of a whole, tu-mo, subtle heat, would simply be a technique for producing warmth; one would be no more than a human oven. Radiant lucidity would be just something illuminating, like torchlight. They are not like that. Subtle heat and lucidity are very profound practices, richly supported by mahamudra's insight, mantras, visualisation-stage mahamudra etc. They are very complete, each being a highlighted aspect of the same thing.

These four, one of which is intimate knowledge of mind and the other three skilful areas of technique, have been transmitted in their original integrity, via a lineage of perfect masters and perfected students, from the time of Tilopa until our present day. They form the hub of the present Kagyu Lineage."

The Lineage Transmissions

It is due to the impact of the realization and activity of Gampopa that many schools and a variety of lineages have continued right up to this day.  There are basically 2 kinds of lineage:  Institutional lineages that are linked to a monastic organization (Tib. labrang,) and instructional, or practice, lineages that are associated with particular teachers.

When someone is a monk residing at one place but decides to take specialized teachings from someone who may not be associated with any monastery, then we can see how difficult it may be to characterize that person as being of one school or another.  Since we practice by the grace of a teacher, that is how we identify our personal "tradition." 

The Four Great Kagyu Schools

Gampopa Dagpo Lharje had many, but four main, disciples:

  1. Barom Darma Wangchuk founded Barom Kagyu.  (The transmission is passed from father to son.  It is in the family of Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche and his son Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche of Nangchen, East Tibet, residing in Kathmandu, Nepal.
  2. Phagmo Drupa Gyalpo (or Pagdru Dorgyal) whose disciples founded eight lineages of which 3 still exist.  They constitute the Padma family of the Kagyus.  
  3. Zhang Yudakpa Tsondu Dakpa or Shang Tsalpa Tsondu Drugpa, (1123-1193) founded the Tsalpa Kagyu
  4. Dusum Khyenpa (1110-1193) the first Karmapa, founder of Karma Kagyu (aka. the Kamtsang, or Tolung Kagyu after the original place where he lived.)

A 5th disciple, Saltong Shogom is not thought of as a lineage founder but is considered to incarnate as the Traleg Rinpoches.

The three lineages of the school of Pagmo Drupa, #2 in the above list:
1. Talung Kagyu founded by Taklung Thangpa Tashe Pel (1142-1210) whose head is HH the 26th Taklung Shabdrung Rinpoche (b. 1991) currently studying in India. 

The Riwoche lineage of the Nyingmapa also transmits Talung teachings.  In North American, the representative is Riwoche Khenpo Sonam Tobgyal Rinpoche of Canada.

2. Drukpa (or Drugpa) Kagyu founded by Ling Repa (1128-1189) a disciple of Tsangpa Gyare who was another of Gampopa's disciples.  Since the 1500's there are two Drukpas: Northern Drukpa of Ladakh and Southern Drukpa in Bhutan.

3. Drikung Kagyu founded by Jigten Sumgon Ratna Sri (1143-1217). The head is HH Chetsang Rinpoche, who lives at Drikung Changchub Ling in Deradhun, India.  In the United States, the representatives are Khenchen Konchog Gyaltsen Rinpoche and HE Garchen Rinpoche.

The Eight Minor Lineages

From Pamodrupa (see above) emerged  3 minor lineages.  Those, plus 5 more from Dusum Kyenpa the 1st Karmapa (#4, above) go to make the 8 minor Kagyu lineages:  

  1. Taglung Kagyu 
  2. Drukpa Kagyu
  3. Drikung Kagyu  
  4. Martsang Kagyu
  5. Trophu Kagyu
  6. Yerpa Kagyu
  7. Yazang Kagyu
  8. Shugseb Kagyu 

These 8 are considered minor only because transmission is not directly from Gampopa; they are all important.  Only the Drukpa, the Taglung and the Karma (a.k.a. Tolung) and the Drikung Kagyu, exist independently today.  

~ thanks to BB and RB at  the Kagyu list 

It seems the Karma Kagyu, the Drikung Kagyu, and Drukpa Kagyu comprise at least 90% of contemporary Kagyupas.   

How Lineages Get Their Names  

Most names of the branches in the Tibetan tradition derive from a description of the place of origin of the lineage founder; Kagyu lineages are no exception.

Dagpo is the name of the place in Kham province where Gampopa, one of Marpa the Translator's many disciples, was born.                 

Drikung is also the name of a Tibetan region. Dri means female yak and the place is the source of the DriChu (meaning "yellow river" because yellow water comes from a rock formation shaped like a cow's nose.  It does not refer to the Yellow River of China; rather, in Tibet the name describes the Yangtse.)

Drukpa Kagyu: druk means dragon and pa means person. Drukpa is a nickname for Bhutanese people because Bhutan has frequent thunderstorms, which are associated with the activity of celestial dragons. 


The Kagyu denomination is held to originate with Vajradhara, the buddha Dorje Chang, who embodies all forms and aspects of all buddhas.  The "Long Transmission" lineage begins with bodhisattvas Sukhanatha and Ratnamati, and the "Short Transmission" lineage begins with Mahasiddha Tilopa. 

Ratnamati, whose name is shared by a 6th-century translator, is sometimes considered an emanation of the Buddha.  He is described as "lotus-born" -- an inspirational being who transmitted from Vajradhara to Saraha the Arrow-maker.  His companion, Sukhanatha, is viewed as an emanation of Vajrapani, the guardian of tantric Buddhism.  A different view is that the former is an emanation of Manjughosa, and the latter an emanation of Avalokitesvara.   In any case, the two bodhisattvas are considered the sources of Saraha's enlightened understanding, which is known as Mahamudra.  

Since the Kagyu is a living tradition, it is also possible to distinguish the various transmissions within each lineage by the wording of the pratimoksha (or Hinayana) and the bodhisattva (Mahayana) vows.  Also, each of "the four great and eight lesser schools" had or has, its areas of expertise.  

The specialty of the Drikung Kagyu is the practice known as the consciousness transference, Great P'howa. Tracing descent from Lord Jigten Samgon, the lineage is also linked with yogini and protector, Achi Chokyi DolmaHis Holiness Chetsang Rinpoche is the main holder of this  lineage.  

The Karma Kagyu lineage is named after the Karmapa where Karma-pa refers to the Activity family of Buddhas.  (Buddhas are believed to manifest in five different ways; action is only one of them.) It is frequently called the Kamtsang Kagyu after Kampo Gangra, the sacred place where the 1st Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa, spent much time in meditation.  


Padma:  Sanskrit for a lotus flower. The are 5 Buddha families or expressions of Buddha-nature, Karma is one, Lotus is another.  See Dakini Orders.

2 kinds: An instructional lineage consists of sadhanas, practices, experiential instructions, that form a course or complete path.  Karma Kagyu, or Kamtsang, is considered a separate one from Shangpa Kagyu.   Once, Shangpa was somewhat an institutional lineage, but now these teachings and instructions are shared -- held, practiced, and taught by lamas in all the four denominations or institutional lineages.   

Also, Shangpa instructions were a part of the Jonang lineage, along with the Kalachakra teachings.  


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