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The Karma Kagyu Lineage​


The present head of the Karma Kagyu lineage is His Holiness Karmapa, Ogyen Thinley Dorjee. He is the seventeenth of the line that began with the first Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa (1110-1193). The Gyalwa Karmapas have continually embodied and guided the Karma Kagyu transmission of the message of Shakyamuni Buddha. They have displayed their mastery of dharma as scholar, yogin, artist and poet. Their lives are flawless examples of renunciation, compassion and the view of wisdom. From the point of view of spirituality, the Karmapas embody the activity (Skt.:karma, Tib.: phrin.las) of Buddhahood, and as such were prophesied in the Rajasamadhisutra by Shakyamuni Buddha. In addition, their activity was also prophesied by the eighth-century Indian master, Padmasambhava.​

The tradition of lineage is central in understanding the history of the Gyalwa Karmapas. The lineage is the vehicle by which the Buddha's teachings are passed down from generation to generation. The teachings of Buddha have been preserved for two thousand five hundred years in a multiplicity of lineages.​

The Kagyu lineage originated with the great yogi Tilopa who lived in Northern India sometime around the 10th century AD. Tilopa received the four special transmissions (Tib.bka'-babs-bzi) and mastered them: Guhyasamaja and "illusory body" from Nagarjuna, Mahamaya and "dream yoga" from Caryapa, Chakrasambhara and "luminosity yoga" from Lavapa, Hevajra and "heat yoga" (tumo) from Dakini Kalpa Bhadre. These were handed down through Dharmakaya Buddha Vajradhara.​

These teachings were passed on from Tilopa to Naropa, and were systematized as the Six Yogas of Naropa that are considered a central theme in the Kagyu Lineagae. Naropa transmitted his knowledge to Marpa, the great translator, who journeyed from Tibet to India in order to receive instructions. He subsequently returned to Tibet where he spread the Dharma teachings. His student Milarepa became one of Tibet's great yogis. Through his perseverance in the practice of Mahamudra and the Six Yogas of Naropa, Milarepa achieved profound realization of the ultimate nature of reality.​

Milarepa's transmission was continued by Gampopa, a skilled physician, who first received teachings from Kadampa and later on mahamudra and the six yogas of Naropa from Milarepa. Gampopa became the most important teacher in the Kagyu Lineage. After Gampopa's death the four major and eight minor schools: Barom Kagyu, Tsalpa Kagyu, Pagdru Kagyu and Karma Kagyu were developed. These are not referred to as major and minor in terms of the instructions they contain. They are equal in that respect.​

The Karma Kagyu was founded by Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa. Dusum Khyenpa, one of the three main students of Gampopa, was recognized by eminent contemporaries to be the "Man of Buddha Activity" (Tib. prophesied by the Buddha in the Rajasamadhisutra, and also to be an embodiment of Avalokitesvara, the compassionate form of buddhahood. Dusum Khyenpa later founded the three main centres of Karma Kagyu tradition at Tsurphu, Karme Gon, Kampo Gangra, and thus organized the Karma Kagyu as a distinct school. Dusum Khyenpa remained in Kampo Gangra for eighteen years, during which time he built a monastery and a retreat centre. He was an accomplished master, learned scholar and great practitioner.​

The fame of his spiritual realization spread and he became known as "the knower of the three times - past, present and future", (Tib.:, indicating his transcending of time through his understanding of the unborn nature of mind. Spiritually, the moment of his enlightenment was symbolized in the visionary offering by dakinis, of a black vajra crown woven out of their hair. This crown is said to be symbolically present above the heads of all the Karmapa incarnations signifying their realization of the true nature of reality. Today, the Karmapa still performs the Black Crown Ceremony.​

It was during the lifetime of the second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi (1204-1283) that the expansion of the Kamtshang began. Famed as a siddha, Karma Pakshi was invited by the Mongolian Emperor, and became his guru. While in China, Karma Pakshi on several occasions displayed miraculous powers in order to assist his work of spreading buddhadharma. The display of miraculous activity by Karma Pakshi and the other Karmapas has functioned as a means of manifesting the utter freedom of enlightenment. Being beyond the limitations of dualistic perception, such enlightened activity takes on the garb of miraculous power. Karma Pakshi was the first Incarnate Lama in Tibetan history. His birth marked the beginning of the Trulku system. Each Karmapa chooses the teacher who will pass on the lineage to him in his future incarnation. He is a great bodhisattva who has the capacity to perceive the realization and qualities of others.​

The present Karmapa currently lives and studies in Northern India. For more information go to



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