Driven by an intense thirst for Dharma, in the early 11th century a young Tibetan named Marpa Chökyi Lodrö journeyed overland from Tibet to India. There, he trained under a series of great Buddhist masters, foremost among whom was one of India’s most eminent mahāsiddhas, Nāropa, former abbot of Nālandā’s monastic university. Nāropa guided Marpa personally until he gained full realizationan understanding that goes far beyond intellectual knowledge to permeate and transform one’s very being. Delighted with his disciple’s spiritual attainments, Nāropa authorized Marpa to transmit his lineage in Tibet. Once Marpa had made the return trip to his homeland, he deployed a variety of means to guide each of the many disciples who came seeking to train under him. As Marpa’s disciples began to realize the full force of the Buddhadharma within their own minds, the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism came into being.
Marpa passed his Kagyu lineage to Tibet’s greatest yogi, Jetsun Milarepa, who handed it to his own heart disciple Gampopa, the root lama of Dusum Khyenpa. The Karma Kagyu is the name given to the Kagyu transmission stream flowing from the First Karmapa. Sustained and protected by all successive Karmapas for the past nine centuries, the Karma Kagyu today nourishes many tens of thousands of disciples worldwide.
Its emphasis on the attainment of realization and on the transmission of those attainments to others has earned the Kagyu lineage the epithet, ‘the practice lineage.’ Through the Mahāmudrā and other teachings that Marpa received from his Indian masters, and through their own personal meditative attainments, Kagyu lamas train their students to gain a direct meditative experience of the luminous nature of their own minds. Marpa once described his teachings to Milarepa as “instructions that still carry the warm breath of the Dākinīs,” and this vivid freshness of experience is precisely what animates the Kagyu school of Buddhism, Tibet’s ‘practice lineage.’
The term Kagyu itself emphasizes the way that the teachings and realization Marpa brought from India continue moving forward through time, ensuring that each successive generation has access not only to the theories of Buddhism, but also to the personal instructions they need to put them fully into practice. Ka refers to speech, or oral instructions, and gyu means lineage or transmission. Thus Kagyu is quintessentially a lineage of instructions spoken directly by teacher to disciple.
Within this context, the personal relationship between lama and disciple takes on central importance. Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye, who transmitted the Karma Kagyu teachings to the Fifteenth Karmapa, identified as one of the necessary qualities of authentic spiritual masters that they do not abandon their disciples even at the cost of their own lives. Indeed, it was the Kagyu school that produced the first great being in the history of Buddhism to conceive of establishing an intentional reincarnation line as a means of caring for disciples continuously life after life. That great being was, of course, the First Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa, whose birth is being commemorated with this grand, yearlong Karmapa 900 celebration.
Just as a mighty mountain can produce many rivers that will take different courses as they wind their way down to the same ocean, so too from Marpa the Buddhadharma flowed forth in a great abundance of transmission streams. Over time, the paths of these distinct transmission streams would cross again and again. Some Kagyu lineages merged with others in the process, enriching and enlivening one another, as masters from different Kagyu lineages continued to exchange teachings and initiations over the centuries. And just as great rivers bring life to many different fields as they course forwards to the sea, so the living Kagyu teachings flowing from Marpa through the Karmapa reincarnation lineage continue to yield bountiful harvests in a vast number of minds and hearts around the world today.