Kagyu School of Tibetan Buddhism

The Kagyu (“oral transmission”) school of Tibetan Buddhism traces its origins to Tilopa (968-1069), a tantric master of India, who is said to have received instructions directly from Vajradhara. Vajradhara’s teachings are considered to be superior to those of Shakyamuni in that he is a “complete enjoyment body”, while Sakyamuni is only an “emanation body. In order to receive teachings from a complete enjoyment body Buddha, one must have reached a high level of mystical awareness, and so the instructions of such buddhas are vastly superior to those of emanation bodies since the latter must adapt their message to the limited capacities of their audiences.

In addition to Tilopa, the Kagyu order also counts such important Indian figures as Nagarjuna, Saraha, Savari, and Maitripa as the member of its lineage. The Name Kagyu literally means “teaching lineage” and its adherents claim that its doctrines and practices are passed down through a succession an awakened teacher. Tilopa, for example, transmitted the teachings to his student Naropa (1016 -1100), who first underwent a series of trails that tested his determination and purified his mind. Tilopa is credited with developing a meditation method called Mahamudra that would become a foundational practice of Kagyu.

One of Tilopa’s disciples was named Naropa (956-1041). Naropa was renowned as a scholar and was widely recognized as a person who had conceptually mastered the teachings of the Sutras, Tantras, and Vinaya. He eventually rose to the position of abbot of Nalanda monastery, the greatest seat of learning in the Buddhist world at the time, which indicates that he was one of the foremost scholars of his day.

The main disciple of Naropa was Marpa Lotsawa (1012-1097), he is the first Tibetan member of the lineage, and began his career as a translator of Buddhist texts into Tibetan. He made three trips to India and eventually received all of Naropa’s teachings, becoming one of his Dharma heirs. He spent the rest of his life in Tibet, giving teachings and transmissions and translating Buddhist scriptures into Tibetan.

Marpa’s most famous student was Jetsun Milarepa (1052–1135), who is renowned throughout the Tibetan cultural area as one of the greatest figures of Tibetan Buddhism. Milarepa would also become one of Tibet’s greatest poets and yogis, therefore his life became one of Tibet’s favorite epic stories.

In brief, Milarepa studied with a sorcerer and mastered black magic in his youth. But he repented and sought out Marpa for teaching. Milarepa mastered the teachings and realized great enlightenment. One of Milarepa’s students, Gampopa Sonam Rinchen (1079-1153), is generally credited with founding the Dakpo Kagyu School, which is the main Kagyu tradition and usually just called “Kagyu.” Gampopa had mastered another tantric system called Kadampa, and his synthesis of Kadampa and Mahamudra became the basis of Kagyu practice.

Among the most important practices of the Kagyupa are the “Six Yogas of Naropa”, which are named after the Indian master. The six yogas are 1. Heat 2. Illusory body 3. Dream 4. Clear light 5. Intermediate state and 6. Transference of consciousness.

Four Major Schools:

Kagyu School comprises one major and one minor subsect. The major subsect, Dagpo Kagyu that includes all those Schools dating back to the times of Gampopa, is further subdivided into four major sub-sects: the Karma Kagyu, the Tsalpa Kagyu, the Barom Kagyu, and Pagtru Kagyu. The Pagtru Kagyu (minor subsect) gave birth to eight subsects – Drukpa Kagyu, Drikung Kagyu, Mar Kagyu, Shugseb Kagyu, Taklung Kagyu, Trophu Kagyu, Yamzang Kagyu and Yelpa Kagyu.


Important Kagyu Monasteries:

  1. Tsurphu monastery the seat of the Karmapa and one of the two main strongholds of the Karma Kagyu School in Tibet.
  2. Nenang monastery funded by Nenang Pawo Rinpoche is one of the highest lamas of the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism.
  3. Ralung monastery the original seat of the Drukpa Kagyu order.
  4. Nam Druk Gompa serves as the origin of Drupa Kagyu school in Tibetan Buddhism.
  5. Drigung Til monastery the head monastery of the Drigungpa and traditionally the monastery has been the main seat of the Drikung Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.
  6. Palpung monastery in east Tibet, a historical seat of the successive incarnations of the Tai Situ in Kham, it is also the “Mother” monastery of the Karma Kagyu in Kham found in 1727 by King Denba Tsering of ancient Derge kingdom.

Following the footsteps Kagyu tour in Tibet

We can organize a thematic tour of following the footsteps of Kagyu in Tibet. If you are interested please read more about the tour in the link below. We can give special discount for the Kagyu centers abroad.

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Over 20 years of experience in the Tibetan travel industry, our team consists of the best and experienced Tibet travel guides that will show you the best that this extraordinary place has to offer, unravel all the undiscovered beauty of Tibet unique culture and tradition in front of you.  Whether a guest is looking to join a Tibet group tour or take a private tailor-made journey, we are the best choice.

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