Kagyü (Wylie: Bka'-brgyud) (meaning "oral lineage") is a school of Tibetan Buddhism that emphasizes a combination of monastic and yogic practice. It has its roots in medieval India, where it was founded by Tilopa, the meditation master who received his teachings directly from the primordial Buddha Vajradhara. His disciple, Nāropa, would in turn teach Marpa, who brought the lineage back to his native Tibet, where it would flourish up to the present day.

Kagyü presents followers with a wide variety of paths and models for awakening, from the life of a householder (Nāropa) to that of a cave-dwelling saint (Milarepa), to that of the monastic (Gampopa). This variety allows for the diversity of personalities and dispositions found among spiritual seekers. They also have a set of distinct practices: the six yogas of Nāropa, and mahamudra, both of which are intended to bring about complete enlightenment in one lifetime.



The Kagyü lineage was founded by Tilopa (988-1069 C.E.), who was born a brahmin, but renounced his high status to become a Buddhist monk in a monastery run by his uncle. However, not long after entering the institution, he was given initiation into tantric practices by a dakini, who then told him to “speak like a madman and, after throwing off your monks robes, practice in secret” (Ray. Indestructible Truth, 152). In doing so, he placed himself in the lowest status in Indian society, that of an outcaste. This is quite common among tantric practitioners, who find that leading this lifestyle removes their attachment to the conventions and comforts of society. As he continued his journey, he was given further instruction by siddhas and dankinis, who instructed him to work as a common laborer during the day, and as the servant of a prostitute during the night. After twelve years, they instructed him to travel to Bengal, where he lived and practiced in a small, isolated grass hut. After meditating there for some time, he came face-to-face with the highest truth, in the form of Vajradhara, who initiated him into the practice of mahamudra (see below), what are now known as the “six yogas of Nāropa” (tib. Na ro chos drug), and various tantric lineages (Powers, 346). Because these teachings came from a sambhoghakāya (enjoyment body), there are considered to be superior to those of the historical Buddha, who was a nirmānakāya (manifestation body), and therefore gave much coarser teachings suitable to a wider, but less advanced audience. Tilopa became the paradigm for the guru (lama in Tibet) in the Kagyü tradition, in both his extraordinary realization, and unconventional methods of teaching.

Tilopa’s student was Nāropa (1016-1100 C.E.), who was born into a wealthy kshatriya family, but like his teacher renounced his status and became a monk. He would stay as a monk for much longer, becoming a prominent scholar and abbot of the renowned Nalanda university. He would eventually give up his title (again, as the result of a visit from a dakini) and wander in search of his guru, who would teach him the inner meaning of the dharma that he lacked. After a long period of searching he found Tilopa, and became the ideal devote to his master, creating a model that would become archetypical to the tradition. After years of begging for the esoteric teachings (during which his pride was steadily whittled away), Tilopa passed on his secret teachings to Nāropa in an unconventional initiation ceremony in which he stuck his student across the face with his dusty sandal, knocking him unconscious. Nāropa was fundamental to the development of what would become the Kagyü school, as he joined “tantric practice and more traditional scholarship, unreasoning devotion and the rationality of the intellect” (Ray. Indestructible Truth, 159).

Nāropa taught many students, but of greatest importance was Marpa (1012-1096 C.E.), a householder and translator of Buddhist texts who traveled to India during the “second dissemination” in Tibet, when Buddhism was being re-introduced after years of persecution. He studied with Nāropa for close to two decades during his three trips to India, as well as with other siddhas that his teacher sent him to (one of these, Maitripa, would give him the mahamudra initiation). He became a wealthy farmer in Tibet, married a “spiritually gifted Tibetan woman named Damema” (Ibid, 161) with whom he had several children, and attracted numerous disciples. Marpa’s life serves as yet another model for spiritual realization, that of a householder-practitioner. He lived a life like most members of the laity, with a family, a job, and a house to take care of, and did not take monastic vows. However, he was of immeasurable importance to Tibetan Buddhism as a translator of Indian texts, and to the Kagyü tradition as its Tibetan founder.

Milarepa (1040-1123 C.E.) provided the Kagyü school with yet another model of a spiritual seeker: that of the sinner who finds redemption and enlightenment in one lifetime. His parents died when he was young, and his uncle and aunt manipulated their way into owning him, his mother, and his sister. Milarepa’s mother became obsessed with revenge, and convinced him to learn black magic in order to kill them. After mastering the shamanic arts, he used them to kill thirty-five people within his aunt and uncle’s home. Ironically, their oppressors were the only two who survived. Milarepa realized the karmic reality of what he had done (murdering one person is enough to bring about rebirth in a hell realm, let alone thirty-five) and began wandering the countryside in search of a lama who could help him. A Nyingma guru directed him toward Marpa, who took him on as his student. After years of brutal physical labor and constant humilation, which included building a tower, then tearing it down several times (the fourth and final tower, known as Sekhar Guthok, still stands today in Tibet, one of the few monasteries left standing after the Cultural Revolution), Marpa finally felt that his student was purified of his negative karma and able to receive his teachings. Milarepa would go on to become perhaps the most celebrated saint in Tibet, famous for his spiritual songs, collected in the Mila Grubum (The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa), and still cherished by Tibetans today as “a guidebook for devotions, a manual of Buddhist Yoga [meditation], a volume of songs and poems, and even a collection of Tibetan folklore and fairy tales” (Chang, 679). Despite his renown, Milarepa did not establish any monasteries, write any commentaries, win any debates, or seek out students. He stayed committed to Marpa’s instructions to live the life of a yogi, living in caves high up in the Himālayas and spending almost all of his time absorbed in meditation. Despite this. his fame spread during his lifetime, and he was often asked to exorcise demons from people or places, and for spiritual direction. He would be the guru of two students who would carry his lineage in two different directions: Rechungpa and Gampopa (Tibetan sub-schools often began, not from disagreements, but based on who founded a particular monastery or style of practice).

Rechungpa (c. 1083-1160) lost his father at a young age and underwent hardships similar to Milarepa, who became his teacher at an early age, but due to the cruelty of his uncle and mother, was unable to begin his practice in earnest until several years later. He would carry on the tradition of the yogi that his guru exemplified, spending the rest of his life wandering throughout Tibet, meditating in caves and wearing only rags for clothing. He was also notable for beginning a lineage of female practitioners that would last until the Chinese invasion of 1949, when it, along with many other lineages, was lost (Ray. Indestructible Truth, 178).

Gampopa (1079-1153) became a monk in the Kadam tradition of Atiśa in his mid-twenties, when a plague killed his wife and only child. He eventually left his monastery in search of the famed saint Milarepa. After an arduous journey, he found the yogi, who took him on as his student. His contribution to the Kagyü lineage was enormous. Though the combination of monastic training and extensive retreats, he created a synthesis that has lasted to the present day. The outline for this union is found in his celebrated text Dam chos yid bzin gyi nor bu thar pa rin po chei rgyan (The Jewel Ornament of Liberation : The Wish-Fulfilling Gem of the Noble Teachings), which includes the taking of monastic vows and the study of the Mahayana and Vajrayana Sutras, combined with long periods of retreat (typically consisting of at least one period of three years, three months, and three days) (Powers, 352).

The other central historical figure to the Kagyü lineage is the Karmapa, who is believed to be the reincarnation of Tüsum Khyenpa (1110-1193 C.E.), the primary disciple of Gampopa. The second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi (1024-1283 C.E.), was the first tulku (reincarnate lama) to be recognized in Tibet, and would lead his school to prominence as the guru “first of Mongka Khan and later of Kublai Khan” (Ray. Indestructible Truth, 182). The third Karmapa was also notable for his integration of the mahamudra and dzogchen (see Nyingma). The identity of the current 17th Karmapa is hotly disputed by rival camps, with some (including the Dalai Lama) backing Urgyen Trinley Dorje (b. 1985), and others supporting Thaye Dorje (b. 1983). As of 2006, there is no indication of who will prevail in this contest.

Kagyü has been extremely successful in the West, and was the first school to start a monastery outside of Asia. Notable figures include Kalu Rinpohce (1905-1989 C.E.), who founded dozens of Kagyü teaching centers across the West, and Chögyam Trunpa Rinpoche (1939-1987 C.E.), who was also responsible for the founding of dozens of teaching centers, monasteries (including Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia, Canada), Nāropa University in Boulder Colorado, and the Shambhala International organization, as well as writing over a dozen books, such as Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. One of Chögyam’s students, an American nun named Pema Chödrön, has also increased the visibilty of the Kagyü school in the West through the publication of numerous books, such as When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times.


Over the course of its 800 year history in Tibet, the Kagyü school divided into numerous sub-schools based on the lineage of their founders. It is typically divided into the “four great and the eight lesser schools” (Powers, 349). The greater schools trace their lineage back to Gampopa and his nephew Takpo Gomtsül (1116-1169 C.E.):

  • Karma Kagyü (headed by the Karmapa)
  • Tselpa Kagyü
  • Baram Kagyü
  • Pakmo Kagyü

The lesser schools are: Drikung, Taklung, Drukpa, Tropu, Mar, Yerpa, Shuksep, and Yamsang. Only the first three schools have survived to the present day (Powers, 349).

Distinctive Practices

The Six Yogas of Nāropa

The six yogas of Nāropa (sometimes referred to as the six dharmas of Nāropa) are advanced meditation techniques passed from teacher to student through oral transmission. Like many tantric practices, the details of how they are performed are kept secret, and thus only general explanations of the techniques are available to the general public. Kalu Rinpoche explains the purpose of the six yogas:

“The six dharmas of Nāropa form a group of practices allowing one to integrate all existential situations with the path and transform them into opportunities for liberation. These situations are the state of wake (sic), dream, deep sleep, the moment of death, and the intermediate period between birth and death.” (Ray. Secret of the Vajra World, 236-237)

Tummo (inner fire) forms the foundation of all the other yogas, refers to the basic heat of our life force. The practice involves visualization similar to that found in tantric yidam (deity) meditations, in which they envisage themselves as the deity of their assigned mandala (in Kagyü this is typically the feminine Vajrayogini) . If this is done properly, the idea of the “I” that is performing the visualization disappears, and they are transformed into the deity. Through this and other practices, the negative karma and mental states of the initiate are burnt off by their tummo (Milarepa credited this practice with his own salvation). It also brings about a significant increase in their body temperature, a useful side effect when entering the traditional three year retreat in the caves of the Himālayas. Once all of the negative forces within the practitioner have been consumed, they are ready for the other five yogas, as well as mahamudra. Tummo is performed before any other of the dharmas during a session of meditation (Ibid, 241-244).

The other yogas are seldom explained in as much detail as tummo. Gyulü (illusory body) is a practice to generate the “rainbow-like [sambhogakāya] body of a Buddha” (Tashi Namgyal in Ray. Secret of the Vajra World, 245). Milam (dream yoga) allows consciousness to be brought into the dream state in order to transform its symbols into tantric imagery, and to bring about a deepening awareness of the insubstantiality (emptiness) of both waking and dream states. Ösel (clear light) brings awareness into deep sleep, and a perception of all experiences as being pervaded by the inherent luminosity of the mind, the experience of the dharmakāya. Bardo (intermediate state) is a series of practices that help prepare for the moment of death, and to allow for rebirth in a pure land. Phowa (ejection) allows one to eject one’s own or another’s consciousness out of the crown chakra in order to increase the possibility of a good rebirth.


Mahamudra (the great seal or symbol) is a practice distinct to Kagyü (but often taught to qualified members of the other four schools), and is seen as the culmination of all other practices. Once a student has progressed enough, their guru gives them the “pointing out” instructions which bring into their awareness the primordially pure consciousness that is the union of emptiness and luminosity. Initiates are then given one of three paths based on their disposition.

The first is sutra mahamudra, which was introduced to the tradition by Gampopa and brings about the enhancement of the mahamudra awareness through the study of the Buddhist canon combined with meditation. Through this practice, they are brought into the awareness of dharmadhatu, or “the expanse or nature of all things” (Dzogchen Ponlop, 32).

The second path is mantra mahamudra, which utilizes the yidam tantric practices as a method to strengthen awareness of the primordial mind. The mahamudra yidam practices are found within the anuttarayoga tantras (highest yoga tantra), and are given through a series of abhishekas (empowerments).

The third is essence mahamudra, which is the most direct and immediate of the three. In this empowerment, revealed only to the most receptive and devoted of students, the student experiences “the descent of the actual realization of the root and lineage gurus upon or into a student” (Ibid, 24). It brings about realization of thamal gyi shepa (the "ordinary mind", synonymous buddha nature), and the student is instantaneously fully enlightened.


  • Chang, Garma C. C. 1999. The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications. ISBN 1570624763
  • Dzogchen Ponlop. 2003. Wild Awakening: The Heart of Mahamudra and Dzogchen. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications. ISBN 1590300963
  • Powers, John. 1995. Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications. ISBN 1559390263
  • Ray, Reginald. 2002. Indestructible Truth: the Living Spirituality of Tibetan Buddhism. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications. ISBN 1570629102
  • Ray, Reginald. 2002. Secret of the Vajra World: the Tantric Buddhism of Tibet. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications. ISBN 157062917-X


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