The Kagyu or Kagyupa school, also known as the "Oral Lineage" or Whispered Transmission school, is one of four main schools of Himalayan or Tibetan Buddhism today, the other three being the Nyingma (རྙིང་མ Rnying-ma), Sakya (Sa-skya), and Gelug (Dge-lugs). Along with the later two the Kagyu is classified as one of the Sarma (གསར་མ) or "New Transmission" schools since it primarily follows the Vajrayāna or Tantric teachings based on the so-called "New Tantras" i.e. those which were translated during the second diffusion of the Buddha Dharma in Tibet.
Like all schools of Tibetan Buddhism the Kagyu consider their practices and teachings to be inclusive of the full range of Buddha's teachings (or three yāna) since they follow the fundamental teachings and vows of individual liberation & monastic discipline (Pratimoksha) which accord with the Mulasarvastivada tradition of the Śrāvakayāna (sometimes called Nikāya Buddhism or "Hīnayāna" ); the Bodhisattva teachings, vows of universal liberation and philosophy of the Mahāyāna; and the profound means and samaya pledges of the Secret Mantra Vajrayāna.
What differentiates the Kagyu from the other schools of Himalayan Buddhism are primarily the particular esoteric instructions and tantras they emphasize and the lineages of transmission which they follow.
Strictly speaking, the term Kagyu (“Oral Lineage” or “Precept Transmission”) applies to any line of transmission of an esoteric teaching from teacher to disciple. We sometimes see references to the "Atisha Kagyu" (“the precept transmission from Atiśa”) for the early Kadampa, or to "Jonang Kagyu" for the Jonangpa and "Ganden Kagyu" (dge ldan bka’ brgyud) for the Gelugpa sects.
Today the term Kagyu is almost always used to refer to the Dagpo Kagyu the main branch of the Marpa Kagyu which developed from the teachings transmitted by the translator Marpa Chökyi Lodrö; and sometimes to the separate lesser-known Shangpa Kagyu tradition which developed from the teachings transmitted by Keydrup Khyungpo Naljor.
In his 1970 article "Golden Rosaries of the Bka' brgyud schools" [republished in Smith, E. Gene; Among Tibetan Texts: History and Literature of the Himalayan Plateau, Wisdom Publications, Boston 2001. ISBN 0-86171-179-3], (p. 40) E. Gene Smith, discusses the two forms of the name Kagyu and Kargyu :
The Kagyu begins in Tibet with Marpa Chökyi Lodrö (1012-1097) who trained as a translator with Drogmi Lotsawa Shākya Yeshe ('brog mi lo ts'a ba sh'akya ye shes) (993-1050), and then traveled three times to India and four times to Nepal in search of religious teachings. His principal gurus were the siddhas Nāropa - from whom he received the "close lineage" of Mahāmudrā and Tantric teachings, and Maitripa - from whom he received the "distant lineage" of Mahāmudrā.
Marpa's guru Nāropa (1016-1100) was the principal disciple of Tilopa (988-1089) from East Bengal. From his own teachers Tilopa had received the Four Lineages of Instructions (bka' babs bzhi) which he passed on to Nāropa who codified them into what became known as the Six Doctorines or Six Yogas of Nāropa. These instructions consist a combination of the completion stage (sampannakrama; rdzogs rim) practices of different Buddhist highest yoga tantras (anuttarayoga tantra; bla-med rgyud) which utilize the energy-winds (Skt.vāyu, Tib. rlung; ), energy-channels (Skt. nāḍi, Tib. rtsa; ) and energy-drops (Tib. ) of the subtle vajra-body in order to achieve the four types of bliss, the clear-light mind and realize the state of Mahāmudrā.
The Mahāmudrā lineage of Tilopa and Nāropa is called the "direct lineage" or "close lineage" as it is said that Tilopa received this Mahāmudrā realisation directly from the Dharmakaya Buddha Vajradhara and this was transmitted only through Nāropa to Marpa.
The "distant lineage" of Mahāmudrā is said to have come from the Buddha in the form of Vajradara through incarnations of the Bodhisattvas Avaokiteshvara and Manjusri to Saraha, then from him through Nagarjuna, Savari, and Maitripa to Marpa. The Mahāmudrā teachings coming from Saraha which Maitripa transmitted to Marpa include the "Essence Mahāmudrā" (snying po'i phyag chen) where Mahāmudrā is introduced directly without relying on philosophical reasoning or yogic practices.
Marpa established his "seat" at Drowolung (gro bo lung) in Lhodrak (lho brag) which is in South Tibet just north of Bhutan. Marpa married the lady Dagmema, and took eight other concubines as mudras. They collectively embodied the main consort and eight wisdom dakini in the mandala of his yidam Hevajra.
Marpa's four most outstanding students were known as the "Four Great Pillars" (ka chen bzhi):
1. Milarepa (1040-1123), born in Gungthang province of western Tibet, the most celebrated and accomplished of Tibet's yogis, who achieved the ultimate goal of enlightenment in one lifetime became the holder of Marpa's meditation or practice lineage.
2. Ngok Choku Dorje (rngog chos sku rdo rje) (1036-1102)- Was the principal recipient of Marpa's explainitory lineages and particularly important in Marpa's transmission of the Hevajra Tantra. Ngok Choku Dorje founded the Langmalung temple in the Tang valley of Bumthang district, Bhutan - which is still standing today. The Ngok branch of the Marpa Kagyu was an independent lineage carried on by his descendants at least up to the time of the Second Drukchen Gyalwang Kunga Paljor ('brug chen kun dga' dpal 'byor) 1428-1476 who received this transmission, and 1476 when Go Lotsawa composed the Blue Annals.
3. Tshurton Wangi Dorje (mtshur ston dbang gi rdo rje) - was the principal recipient of Marpa's transmission of the teachings of the Guhyasamāja tantra. Tshurton's lineage eventually merged with the Zhalu tradition and subsequently passed down to Tsongkhapa who wrote extensive commentaries on Guhyasamāja.
4. Meton Tsonpo (mes ston tshon po)
Marpa wanted to pass his lineage through his son Darma Dode as the usual transmission of esoteric teachings at the time was via hereditary lineage (father-son or uncle-nephew), but his son died at an early age and the main lineage passed on through Milarepa.
Other students of Marpa include: Marpa Dowa Chokyi Wangchuck (mar pa do ba chos kyi dbang phyug); Marpa Goleg (mar pa mgo legs) who along with Tshurton Wangdor received the Guhyasamāja teachings; and Barang Bawacen (ba rang lba ba can) - who received lineage of the explanatory teachings of the Mahāmāyā Tantra.
In the 19th Century Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye (1813-1899) collected the initiations and sadhanas of surviving transmissions of Marpa's teachings together in the collection known as the Kagyu Ngak Dzö ("Treasury of Kagyu Tantras").
Gampopa combined the stages of the path tradition of the Kadampa order with teaching and practice of the Great Seal (Mahamudra) and the Six Yogas of Naropa he received from Milarepa synthesizing them into one lineage which came to be known as Dakpo Kagyu - the main lineage of the Kagyu tradition as we know it today.
Following Gampopa's teachings, there evolved the so-called "Four Major and Eight Minor" lineages of the Dagpo (sometimes rendered "Tagpo" or "Dakpo") Kagyu School. This organization is descriptive of the generation in which the schools were founded, not of their realization or prominence. The Rechung Kagyu school that descended from Rechungpa has always been far smaller and more obscure.
Although few survive as independent linages today, there were originally twelve main Kagyu lineages derived from Gampopa and his disciples. Four primary ones stemmed from direct disciples of Gampopa and his nephew; and eight secondary ones branched from Gampopa's disciple Phagmo Drupa. Several of these Kagyu lineages in turn developed their own branches or sub-schools.
The abbatal throne of Gampopa's own monastery of Daglha Gampo, passed to his own nephew Dagpo Gomtsul.
The Karma Kagyu itself has three subschools in addition to the main branch:
An important early master of this school was Tishri Repa Sherab Senge ('gro mgon ti shri ras pa rab seng+ge ) (b. 1164 d. 1236).
This school was popular in the Nang chen principality of Khams.
The Phagmo Drupa Kagyu or Phagdru Kagyu (ཕག་གྲུ་བཀའ་བརྒྱུད) was founded by Phagmo Drupa Dorje Gyalpo (1110-1170) who was the elder brother of Ka Dampa Deshek (1122-1192). Before meeting Gampopa, Dorje Gyalpo studied with Sachen Kunga Nyingpo (sa chen kun dga' snying po) (1092-1158) from whom he received whole Lamdre transmission
In 1158 Dorje Gyalpo built a reed-hut hermitage at Phagmo Drupa ("Sow's Ferry Crossing") in a juniper forest in Nedong high above the Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) river. Later, as his fame spread and disciples gathered, this site developed into the major monastic seat of Dentsa Thel (). Following his death the monastery declined and his disciple Jigten Sumgon sent Chenga Drakpa Jungne (1175 – 1255), a member of the Lang (rlang) family, to become abbot and look after the monastery. "Chenga Drakpa Jungne was abbot for 21 years and restored the monastery to its former granduer. In 1253 when the Sakyapas came to power they appointed Dorje Pel [()] the brother of Chenga Drakpa Jungne as Tripon [hereditary myriarch] of Nedon. From that time on the Tripon who as a monk, assumed the seat of government of Nedon and also ruled as abbot at Dentsa Thel and his brothers married in order to perpetuate the family line. This tie with the monastery founded by Phagmo Drupa led to the Tripons of Nedong to become known as Phagdru (short of Phagmo Drupa) Tripon and their period of rule in Tibet as the Phagmo Drupa period.”
Changchub Gyaltsen (1302 – 1364) was born into this Lang family. In 1322, he was appointed by the Sakyapa's as the Pagmodru Myriarch of Nedong and given the title “Tai Situ” in the name of the Yuan emperor. Soon he fought with a neighboring myriarchy trying to recover land lost in earlier times. This quarrel displeased the Sakya ruler (dpon chen) Gyalwa Zangpo who dismissed him as myriach. Following a split beween Gyalwa Zangpo and his minister Nangchen Wangtson the former restored Changchub Gyaltsen to his position in 1352. Taking advantage of the situation, Changchub Gyaltsen immediately went on the offensive and soon controlled the whole of the Central Tibetan province of U (dbus). Gyalwa Zanpo and Changchub Gyaltsen were reconciled at a meeting with the Sakya Lama Kunpangpa (). This angered Nangchen Wangtson who usurped Gyalwa Zanpo as Sakya ruler and imprisoned him.
In 1351 Changchub Gyaltsen established an important Kagyu monastery at the ancient Tibetan capital of Tsetang. This was later dismantled during the time of the 7th Dali Lama Kelzang Gyatso (18th Century) and replaced by a Gelugpa Monastery, Gaden Chokhorling.
In 1358, Wangtson assassinated Lama Kunpangpa. Learning of this, Changchub Gyaltsen then took his forces to Sakya, imprisoned Wangtson, and replaced four hundred court officials and the newly appointed ruling lama. The Pagmodrupa rule of Central Tibet (U, Tsang and Ngari) dates from this coup in 1358.
As ruler Changchub Gyaltsen was keen to revive the glories of the Tibetan Empire of Songtsen Gampo and assert Tibetan independence from the Mongol Yuan Dynasty and from Ming Dynasty China. He took the Tibetan title “Desi” (sde-srid), re-organized the thirteen myriarchies of the Yuan-Shakya rulers into numerous districts (rdzong), abolished Mongol law in favour of the old Tibetan legal code, and Mongol court dress in favur of traditional Tibetan dress.
Tai Situ Changchub Gyaltsen died in 1364 and was succeeded as by his nephew Jamyang Shakya Gyeltsen (1340 – 1373), who was also a monk. The subsequent rule of the Phagmodrupa dynasty lasted until 1435 followed by the Rinpung kings who ruled for four generations from 1435-1565 and the three Tsangpa kings 1566-1641.
In 1406 the ruling Phagmodrupa prince, Dakpa Gyaltsen, turned down the imperial invitation to him to visit China.
From 1435 to 1481 the power of the Phagmodrupa declined and they were eclipsed by the Rin spungs pa of Tsang, who patronized the Karma Kagyu school.
The Phagmo Drupa monastery of Dentsa Thel "was completely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution in 1966-1978
The eight secondary lineages (zung bzhi ya brgyad or chung brgyad) of the Dagpo Kagyu all trace themselves to disciples of Phagmo Drupa.
One of the most important of the Kagyu sects still remaining today, the Drikung Kagyu (འབྲི་གུང་བཀའ་པརྒྱུད་པ) takes its name from Drikung Thil Monastery founded by Jigten Gonpo Rinchen Pal (‘Jig-rten dgon-po rin-chen dpal) (1143-1217) also known as Drikung Kyopa.
Several sub-sects branched off from the Drikung Kagyu including the Lhapa Kagyu, founded by Gyalwa Lhanangpa (1164-1224) which was at one time important in Bhutan but later eclipsed by the Drukpa Kagyu.
The special Kagyu teachings of the Drikung tradition include the "Single Intention" (dgongs gcig), the "The Essence of Mahāyāna Teachings" (theg chen bstan pa'i snying po), and the “Possessing Five" tradition of Mahamudrā.
Since the 15th Century the Drikung Kagyupa were greatly influenced by the teachings of Nyingma tradition.
Lingre Kagyu refers to the lineage founded by Lingrepa Pema Dorje [1128-1188]. Lingrepa's teachers were Phagmo Drupa Dorje Gyalpo; Ra Yeshe Senge, a lineage holder of Ra Lotsawa; and Sumpa Repa, a disciple of Rechungpa.
The Drukpa Kagyu, which combined lineages from both Gampopa and Rechungpa, is the state religion of Bhutan, giving the country the name Druk Yul. Drukpa monasteries are also found in Ladakh, Zanskar, Lahoul, Kinnaur, Spiti, and other parts of the Himalayas.
The most renowned adherent of this lineage was Buton Rinchen Drub (bu ston rin chen grub) (1290-1364) of Zhalu who was a student of Trophupa Sonam Senge (khro phu ba bsod nams sengge) and Trophu Khenchen Rinchen Senge (khro phu mkhan chen rin chen sengge).
The central teaching of Kagyu is the doctrine of Mahamudra, "the Great Seal", as elucidated by Gampopa in his various works. This doctrine focuses on four principal stages of meditative practice (the Four Yogas of Mahamudra), namely:
It is through these four stages of development that the practitioner is said to attain the perfect realization of Mahamudra.
The Shangpa Kagyu ཤངས་པ་བཀའ་བརྒྱུད (shangs pa bka' brgyud) was founded by Khyungpo Naljor (khyung po rnal ‘byor) in the second half of the eleventh century. The tradition takes its name from the valley of Shang (ཤངས) where Khyungpo Naljor established the monastery of Zhong Zhong ཞོང་ཞོང or Zhang Zhong (ཞོང་ཞོང).