The Treasury of Lives

Foundations of Tibetan Buddhism

The Kagyu Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism

The Kagyu tradition originated in the 11th century with the Tibetan translator Marpa (mar pa), his famous disciple Milarepa (mi la ras pa) and his disciple Gampopa (sgam po pa), who merged the lay tradition with the Kadampa (bka’ gdams pa) monasticism and scholarly focus that he had previously studied. Gampopa founded the first Kagyu monastery, Daglha Gampo (dwags lha sgam po) in Dagpo, southern Tibet. Following Gampopa the tradition split into multiple autonomous subsects, listed below. All claim allegiance to the tantric teachings of the Indian Mahasiddha tradition, primarily that of Naropa, in the form of the Six Doctrines of Na  ropa (na  ro chos drug) and the doctrine of Mahamudra. The Kagyu were also heavily involved in the transmission of the Cakrasamvara, Hevajra, among other tantras of the Second Propagation era.

The traditional – though not very old – way of classifying the Kagyu lineages was evidently invented by members of the Drugpa Kagyu. These are all covered by the general term Dagpo Kagyu (dwags po bka’ brgyud), the name stemming from the monastery Gampopa founded in 1121:

Four Major Lineages, the first three founded by direct disciples of Gampopa, with the fourth founded by a disciple of Gampopa’s nephew Gomtsul (sgom tshul):

1. Barom Kagyu (’ba’ rom bka’ brgyud), originated by Barompa Darma Wangchug (’ba’ rom pa dar ma dbang phyug).

2. Pagdru Kagyu (’phag gru bka’ brgyud), originated by Pagmodrupa Dorje Gyalpo (phag mo gru pa rdo rje rgyal po).

3. Karma Kagyu (karma bka’ brgyud), also known as Kamtsang Kagyu (kaM tshang bka’ brgyud), originated by the First Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa (dus gsum mkhyen pa).

4. Tselpa Kagyu (tshal pa bka’ brgyud), originated by Shang Yudragpa Tsondru Dragpa (zhang g.yu brag pa brtson ’grus grags pa) aka Shang Rinpoche (zhang rin po che).

Eight Minor Lineages (of disciples of Pagmodrupa), all part of the Pagdru Kagyu:

1. Drigung Kagyu (’bri gung bka’ brgyud), originated by Jigten Gonpo Rinchen Pal (’jig rten mgon po rin chen dpal), with its Lhapa (lha pa) branch, originated by Nyo Gyalwa Lhanangpa Sanggye Rinchen (gnyos rgyal ba lha nang pa sangs rgyas rin chen).

2. Drugpa Kagyu (’brug pa bka’ brgyud), originated by Tsangpa Gyarepa Yeshe Dorje (gtsang pa rgya ras ye shes rdo rje). With three divisions: Upper Drugpa (stod ’brug), Middle Drugpa (bar ’brug), and Lower Drugpa (smad ’brug).

3. Martsang Kagyu (smar tshang bka’ brgyud), originated by Marpa Sherab Yeshe (smar pa shes rab ye shes).

4. Shugseb Kagyu (shug gseb bka’ brgyud), originated by Gyerton Tsultrim Sengge (gyer sgom tshul khrims seng+ge).

5. Taglung Kagyu (stag lung bka’ brgyud), originated by Taglungtangpa Tashi Pal (stag lung thang pa bkra shis dpal), with its Riwoche (ri bo che) branch, founded by Taglungpa Sanggye On Dragpa Pal (stag lung pa sangs rgyas dbon grags pa dpal).

6. Tropu Kagyu (khro phu bka’ brgyud), originated by Gyaltsa Rinchen Gonpo (rgyal tsha rin chen mgon po).

7. Yabzang Kagyu (g.ya’ bzang bka’ brgyud), originated by Zarawa Kalden Yeshe Sengge (zwa ra ba skal ldan ye shes seng ge).

8. Yelpa Kagyu (yel pa bka’ brgyud), originated by Yelpa Yeshe Tseg (yel pa ye shes brtsegs).

Not included in this group of Dagpo Kagyu lineages, although certainly belonging to the Marpa Kagyu, is the Ngog (rngog) lineage of Marpa’s disciple Ngog Choku Dorje (rngog chos sku rdo rje) and the Rechung Nyengyu (ras chung snyan brgyud), transmitted by the disciples of Milarepa’s disciple Rechung Dorje Drakpa (ras chung rdo rje grags pa).


Below is bibliography of writings on the Kagyu tradition in general that include discussions of the different lineages:


Donath, Dorothy. 1967. “The Kargyutpa School of Tibetan Buddhism.” Maha Bodhi, vol. 75, nos. 5-6, pp. 142-50.

Donath, Dorothy. 1971. “The Tibetan Vajrayana: Marpa and Milarepa and the Kargyudpa School.” The Tibet Society Bulletin, vol. 5, pp. 25-51. 

Dung dkar blo bzang ’phrin las. 2002. Dung dkar tshig mdzod chen mo. Beijing: Krung go’i bod rig pa dpe skrun khang, pp. 158-9.

Fa-tsun (Fazun). 1971. “Bkah-brgyud-pa.” In: G.P. Malalasekera, ed., Encyclopaedia of Buddhism. Colombo: Government of Ceylon, vol. 3, pp. 137-145.

Hermanns, Matthias . 1951. “Tibetan Lamaism up to the Time of the Reform by Tzon kha pa.” The Journal of the Anthropological Society of Bombay, new series vol. 5, no. 2, pp. 7-36.

Hoffmann, Helmut. 1973. “The Bka-brgyud-pa.” In: H. Hoffmann, ed., Tibet: A Handbook. Bloomington: Research Center for the Language Sciences, pp. 152-7.

Hoffmann, Helmut. 1961. The Religions of Tibet. Edward Fitzgerald, trans. London: George Allen & Unwin, pp. 140-57.

Lhalungpa, Lobsang P. 1995. “The History of the Kagyupa Order.” In: Jampa Mackenzie Stewart, The Life of Gampopa: The Incomparable Dharma Lord of Tibet. Ithaca: Snow Lion, pp. 117-139.

Li An-che. 1949. “The Bkah-brgyud Sect of Lamaism.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 69, no. 2, pp. 51-59. 

Nebesky-Wojkowitz, Rene. 1950. “The Tibetan Kagyupa Sect.” Stepping Stones, pp. 185-187.

Quintman, Andrew. 2004. “Bka’ brgyud (Kagyu).” In: Robert Buswell, ed., Encyclopedia of Buddhism. New York: Macmillan Reference, pp. 47-49.

Smith, E. Gene. 2001 (1970). “Golden Rosaries of the Bka’ brgyud Schools.” In: Among Tibetan Texts: History & Literature of the Himalayan Plateau. Boston: Wisdom , pp. 39-51. 

Tucci, Giuseppe. 1949. Tibetan Painted Scrolls. Rome: La Libreria dello Stato, pp. 89-91.

Waddell, L. Austin. 1972. Tibetan Buddhism with its Mystic Cults, Symbolism and Mythology. New York: Dover, pp. 63-69.


Dan Martin

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