Lineage is the sacred trust through which the Buddha’s teachings are transmitted from one generation to the next, from master to disciple. Although different Buddhist lineages share in common the Buddha’s core teachings, each has developed a different emphasis or approach. As one of the main Vajrayana Buddhist orders, the Kagyu lineage (translated as the oral lineage or whispered transmission) gives importance to meditation instructions passed from master to disciple.
The roots of the Kagyu lineage begin in tenth-century India, where the master Tilopa collected the most advanced spiritual practices from renowned Buddhist teachers of his day. One of Tilopa’s female teachers, recognizing that he possessed a strong sense of pride, directed him to work at the humble task of pounding sesame seeds in a rustic village. By engaging in this method of purifying ego, Tilopa received the transmission on the mind’s nature directly from Vajradhara, the Buddha’s primordial aspect. Tilopa transmitted the practices he mastered to the scholar Naropa, who had resigned as the abbot of lndia’s most prestigious Buddhist university to meditate under Tilopa’s guidance. Naropa, in turn, transmitted these practices (now termed the “six yogas of Naropa”) to the Tibetan householder Marpa, who made three arduous journeys across the Himalayas to receive the Buddhist teachings, which he then translated into Tibetan. Marpa’s disciple Milarepa had great remorse for his misdeeds as a vengeful sorcerer and became a holy sage through his Dharma practice. Milarepa meditated in Tibet’s remote caves and mountains, wearing only a cotton cloth and meditation belt, and expressed the essence of his realization in songs, which the Tibetan people recite to this day.
Milarepa passed the Kagyu practices down to the physician Gampopa, who integrated Milarepa’s meditation instructions with the teachings on the gradual path (Lamrim) and the monastic tradition dating back to the Buddha (Vinaya). One of Gampopa’s disciples, Dusum Khyenpa, became known as the 1st Gyalwang Karmapa, whose name means the victorious one who performs buddha activity. As Buddha Shakyamuni foretold, Dusum Khyenpa would take birth as an emanation of the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokitesvara. Before his death, Dusum Khyenpa entrusted his disciple with a letter describing the circumstances of his next reincarnation and, in due course, the 2nd Karmapa was discovered in accordance with the prediction letter. The Karmapa’s reincarnation tradition and position as one of the foremost holders of the Kagyu lineage continues to this day, with the guidance of the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa.
In addition to upholding the Kagyu teachings brought to Tibet by Marpa, the KTC sangha practices teachings and meditations of the Shangpa Kagyu lineage. In the eleventh century, the Tibetan yogi Khyungpo Naljor received core Shangpa practices (such as the Mahamudra transmission, Six Yogas, and Five Golden Dharmas) from the Indian female masters Niguma and Sukhasiddhi, among other renowned teachers. Khyunpo Naljor transmitted the Shangpa practices to only one disciple, and for the next several generations the Shangpa lineage was preserved this way, in accordance with Niguma's instructions that the lineage be held closely and remain pure.
In subsequent generations, the Shangpa teachings were held by masters such as Thangtong Gyalpo, a renowned civil engineer who built iron bridges throughout the Himalayas; Jetsun Taranatha, one of the greatest scholars in Tibet's history; and Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye, who co-founded the non-sectarian movement in the nineteenth century and revitalized the Shangpa lineage.
Although several Shangpa practices have been assimilated by other Buddhist schools, the tradition was primarily maintained in small retreat centers in the Himalayas. In the twentieth century, one of the main holders of this tradition, Dorje Chang Kalu Rinpoche, transmitted Shangpa Kagyu practices to students around the world, including students at KTC.