The KARMA KAGYU LINEAGE of Tibetan Buddhism

THE KARMA KAGYU LINEAGE OF TIBETAN BUDDHISM traces its origins to Shakyamuni Buddha through Marpa the Great Translator, who three times traveled to India to bring back authentic Buddhist teachings to Tibet. His teacher, Naropa, received the lineage transmission from Tilopa and so on, back to the Buddha himself. Marpa’s most famous student was the greatest yogi in all of Tibet, the renowned Jetsun Milarepa, who passed the teachings on to Gampopa who in turn transmitted the teachings to the First Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa. Since then, the Kagyu Lineage has been headed by a succession of reincarnations of the Gyalwa Karmapa. The line of the Karmapas is said to be self-announced, because each incarnation leaves a letter predicting his next rebirth. All great Kagyu teachers regard His Holiness Karmapa as the embodiment and source of all of the blessings of the lineage.


Karma Kagyu Lineage History

The lineage in Tibetan Buddhism is based on the unbroken transmission of the Buddha’s teachings from teacher to disciple. It is in this way that Dharma wisdom continues to be passed on from master to master. Beginning in the ninth century with the great Indian yogi Tilopa through to Naropa, Marpa, Milarepa and Gampopa and then in the twelfth century to the first incarnate Lama and Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa, with the Lineage continuing with the current seventeenth Karmapa, Urgen Trinley Dorje as the main lineage holder.

The Karma Kagyu School of Tibetan Buddhism is known as the Oral Lineage because the treasury of the Buddha’s teachings has been passed down in this verbal continuum to the present day.



Tilopa was born into a Brahmin family of Eastern India in 988 CE. Renouncing his life of luxury as the ruler of a small Indian kingdom, he became a monk at the Tantric Temple of Somapuri in Bengal. He remained at the Temple for twelve years, later traveling throughout India meeting many teachers and receiving initiations into advanced practices. The Celestial Buddha Vajradhara became his Root Guru, bestowing direct Teachings and Transmissions. It was especially Mahamudra that was revealed to Tilopa in this way. Although Tilopa preferred to reside in remote and deserted areas, his reputation as a highly realized meditation master drew many outstanding students to study with him. Foremost among his disciples was Naropa.



Born in 1016 CE into a royal family, it was at a young age that Naropa resisted his training as a Bengali prince and future king. Instead he chose to study the arts, sciences, grammar, rhetoric and logic with eminent teachers in Kashmir, showing remarkable scholarship. When he returned to Bengal and was forced by his family to marry a Brahmin girl, he eventually had his marriage dissolved in order to return to his studies, and to be ordained.

At age 28, he studied at India’s Nalanda University, which was well known for its great Buddhist philosophers. Naropa eventually became Abbott but a Dakini appearing to him led him to leave the University in search of Tilopa. After receiving transmissions and enduring twelve arduous tests by Tilopa he mastered the teachings and took on disciples of his own, the main one being Marpa.



When Marpa was born in 1012 CE in Southern Tibet, his father prophesied his potential for great spiritual attainments if he chose the right path. In fact, he embraced Buddhism at an early age. Later, trading his worldly possessions for gold, he set out on a long and difficult journey to India in search of further teachings. In a vision Naropa had already seen the arrival in India of this Tibetan pilgrim and accepted him as a spiritual son. For sixteen years Marpa received teachings and transmissions from Naropa, as well as from other famous Indian masters. He returned to Tibet where he married Dagmema and they had two sons. He became renowned as a translator of Buddhist scriptures from Sanskrit into the vernacular Tibetan, and is therefore credited with establishing the Kagyu lineage in Tibet. In order to bring further teachings to his country, Marpa made further arduous expeditions to India, one when he was already quite old. Known as a strict, but generous, teacher, he had a group of devoted main students, including the notorious yogi and poet, Milarepa.



Milarepa was born in Western Tibet, close to the Nepalese border in 1052 CE. His father died when he was very young and the family property was left in the care of greedy relatives who treated him and his mother very badly. Her bitterness against the family led her to encourage her son to become adept in the art of black magic and to avenge their mistreatment with great devastation to their village, causing many to die. Milarepa grew to regret his destructive actions, and sought to purify the bad karma he had accumulated in his youth. He studied with the Red Hat School before becoming a disciple of Marpa at the age of thirty-eight. On his return to India from Tibet Marpa had a vision of Milarepa coming to him.

The trials and tests faced by Milarepa before receiving the teachings from Marpa are well documented. He had to endure hard physical labour such as several frustrating attempts to construct a nine-story tower according to Marpa’s specifications. After having to tear down and construct the building over and over again, he eventually succeeded and finally Marpa gave Milarepa full transmission of all that he had learnt from Naropa and other Indian masters. Practicing these teachings for many years in high mountain caves, Milarepa attained enlightenment. He became renowned for imparting teachings through his mystic songs, many of which have survived to this day. Of his three main students, Gampopa became his lineage-holder.



The son of a doctor and a doctor himself, Gampopa was born in Eastern Tibet in 1079 CE. At the age of twenty two, he married and fathered a son and a daughter. Unfortunately, an epidemic in the region killed first his children and later his wife. Before dying, his wife requested that he devote his life to Buddhism. Gampopa complied with her wishes and at the age of twenty-six, he became a monk in the Kadampa tradition. After having studied under several masters and achieving a clear understanding of the teachings, he heard about Milarepa when he was thirty two and spontaneously felt great devotion for him. He realized that he was his true teacher and therefore set out in search of him. After many hardships, he was successful in his mission and as one of Milarepa’s students he received the complete Kagyu transmission.

Gampopa spent many years in retreat in Southeastern Tibet. It was there that he founded the Daglha Gampo Monastery where he attracted many disciples, four of whom eventually founded the four major Kagyu branches. One of them was Dusum Khyenpa who was to be the next Kagyu lineage holder and the first Karmapa.

Known for his clear and analytical writing, Gampopa produced profound work that is used as important texts to this day.


The 1st Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa

Born in Eastern Tibet to a Yogi and Yogini in 1110 CE, Dusum Khyenpa was a gifted child. By the age of eleven, he had already perfected teachings and miraculous powers and continued to study profound aspects of Buddhism. He was fully ordained at twenty, and at thirty journeyed to meet his main Lama, Je Gampopa. While he was in a retreat under the guidance of his teacher, his capacity for meditation was recognized as supreme among hundreds of Gampopa’s disciples. After several years, he attained complete Enlightenment and was instructed by Gampopa to impart his realizations to others.

Lord Buddha had predicted that about sixteen hundred years after his own passing, there would be born a man of great spiritual attainment and infinite compassion to spread the Buddhist Dharma for many successive incarnations. He would be known as the Karmapa. Je Gampopa recognized that Dusum Khyenpa was the one foretold in the prophecy.

Dusum Khyenpa was the first to leave a prediction letter containing the details of his next incarnation, and declared that there would be many future Karmapas.


The 16th Gyalwa KarmapaRanjung Rigpe Dorje

Born in Tibet in 1924, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje is best known for having brought the Dharma out of Tibet and into the Western world. His Holiness was recognized as the Sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa by the Eleventh Tai Situpa who fully ordained him in 1945. Not only was His Holiness given comprehensive Kagyu teachings and empowerments by Tai Situpa, he also received complete transmission of the Nyingma teachings of Terton Chojur Lingpa from master Urgyen Rinpoche. It was in 1959 during the Communist invasion into Tibet that His Holiness travelled to India with spiritual treasures and relics as well as tulkus, monks and lay people, settling in Rumtek, Sikkim, India. In 1974, His Holiness set out on the first of several world tours. In the tradition of the Karmapas, His Holiness performed miracles such as leaving his footprints in rocks and making rain during a drought while on a visit to the Hopi reservation in northeastern Arizona. After his death in 1981 in Zion, Illinois, north of Chicago, his body remained upright in meditation posture for three days, and doctors were amazed by the warmth over his heart. Later his heart fell from the blazing body during the cremation at Rumtek Monastery. Bones that remained after the cremation of Rangjung Rigpe Dorje formed Buddhas and relics.


The 3rd Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche,

Lodro Chokyi Senge

The birth of His Eminence in 1954 in Central Tibet was foretold by his previous incarnation and the circumstances prophesied by His Holiness the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa, Ranjung Rigpe Dorje. His devotion to His Holiness was a perfect model of the Guru-Disciple relationship. Moreover, as a practitioner, master and human being, His Eminence was exemplary and a guide.

His Eminence created a number of Monasteries in India, Nepal and Tibet including his main Seat, Pullahari Monastery and Retreat Centre in Nepal.

Even though his life was short, his spiritual and humanitarian deeds were vast and many. Sensitive to the needs of others, particularly the plight of the destitute, he used his connections with others who shared similar ideals for humanity, and founded an international network of organizations to facilitate medical, social and educational assistance for the needy young and old in India, Nepal and Tibet.

His Eminence passed away in, 1992 leaving a legacy of spiritual and humanitarian activities that continue today.


The 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje

Ogyen Trinley Dorje is the spiritual leader of the Karma Kagyu lineage. Born in Eastern Tibet on June 26th, 1985, he was recognized at the age of seven through a prediction letter left by the Sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa. His Holiness’ childhood was spent in the pastoral life of his nomadic family and included Buddhist training at the Karlek Monastery. In June 1992, His Holiness’ parents complied with his wishes to move their camp earlier than planned. This brought him to the location cited in the prediction letter and therefore where the search party arrived in their search for him. In fact, he told his parents that his monks were coming for him and packed his things. In 1992, he went to Tsurphu Monastery in Central Tibet, the main seat of the Karmapas. In that same month, His Holiness the Dalai Lama confirmed the recognition of the Karmapa stating that he had experienced “a kind of dream of the area where the present incarnation was born.”

Twenty thousand people from all over the world attended his Enthronement at Tsurphu Monastery in 1992. His Holiness then completed basic studies of Buddhist texts and became adept at Tibetan language and literature. His poetry was profound and lyrical even at a young age and continues to flourish today. His artistic abilities are also seen in his music, drawing, painting, and calligraphy.

His Holiness escape from Tibet in 1999 in order to receive teachings and transmissions from his teachers in India was widely covered in the international media. Granted refugee status by the Indian government, he took up temporary residence in Gyuto Monastery, not far from the Dalai Lama’s home in Dharamsala. Students from all over the world who visit him at Gyuto Monastery each year for teachings and transmissions are impressed and inspired by the manifestation of his wisdom and maturity. Thousands attend the annual Kagyu Monlam in Bodhgaya, presided by His Holiness since 2001. In 2008, His Holiness’ teaching tour in the USA overjoyed thousands who welcomed him on his brief, but powerful, first visit to the West.


The 4th Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche,

Lodro Chokey Nyima

Born in 1995 in Central Tibet, His Eminence’s birth was prophesied by His Holiness the Gyalwa Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje who also recognised him and confirmed the authenticity of his incarnation. Although he is still young, His Eminence has already assumed responsibilities of the activities of his predecessors. He spends time between Kagyu Tekchen Ling in India and Pullahari Monastery in Nepal, his monastic seats founded by the Third Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche. Training and receiving transmissions from the Lineage Masters are the priorities at this time, but His Eminence meets with many of his disciples who visit him from around the world inspiring them with his compassion and wisdom. Annually, he participates in the Kagyu Monlam at Bodhgaya, India led by His Holiness, and he leads the Kagyu Monlam in Kathmandu, Nepal.

The prophecy, the search, and the recognition of His Eminence are described in the book EMA HO! published by the Jamgon Kongtrul Labrang and available at Rigpe Dorje Centre.

For further information on the lineage, visit Karma Triyana Dharmachakra. All rights reserved.