The history of the Kagyu lineage


Buddhism began in India. The historical Buddha Shakyamuni gave many different kinds of teachings in order to accommodate the different capacities of beings. All these teachings can be divided into the two categories of the Sutrayana and the Tantrayana. Although the Buddha only gave oral teachings, his early disciples recorded his instructions in writing and thus passed them on in their original form. Buddhist masters also authored many treatises that explain the Buddha’s teachings. The emphasis was on the authentic and accurate transmission of the teachings, as this is of prime importance. Throughout the centuries, as disciples became teachers, different lines of transmission came about, each with their own characteristics.

A complete transmission of these teachings came to Tibet. The teachings were carefully translated into Tibetan over several centuries by Tibetan translators and Indian masters.

Buddhism comes to Tibet

In the 8th century the Tibetan king Trisong Detsen invited two Indian Buddhist masters to Tibet – Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) and Shantarakshita – and authorised the translation of the teachings from Indian to Tibetan. This was the start of the Nyingma or “Old” tradition.

During the 11th century there was a second period of translation, which involved the revision of earlier terminology as well as new translations. The traditions that base their transmission on that period are referred to as the Sarma traditions, the “New traditions”. Of these, the Kagyu, Sakya, and Gelug are the best known.

The Sakya tradition was founded by Khön Könchog Gyalpo (1034 – 1102) who focused his transmission on the teachings expounded by the Indian Mahasiddha Virupa.

The Gelug (or Ganden) tradition was established by Tsongkhapa (1357 – 1419) who stressed the teachings of the Kadampa school founded in Tibet by the Indian master Atisha (982 – 1054).

The Kagyu, introduced to Tibet by Marpa the translator, combines both the Old and New traditions.

Tilopa begins the Kagyu lineage

The Kagyu lineage originated with the great yogi Tilopa who lived in Northern India around the 10th century A.D. Tilopa received the four special transmissions that he was given by Dorje Chang, the celestial Buddha who symbolises the Dharmakaya or ultimate mind.

These teachings were passed on from Tilopa to Naropa, and were systematized as the Six Yogas of Naropa, considered a central theme in the Kagyu Lineage. Naropa transmitted his knowledge to Marpa, the great translator who travelled from Tibet to India in order to receive instructions, and who subsequently returned to Tibet and spread the teachings of the Dharma.

His student, Milarepa, became one of Tibet’s great yogis. Through perseverance in the practice of Mahamudra and the Six Yogas of Naropa, he achieved profound realization of the ultimate nature of reality.

Milarepa’s transmission was carried on by Gampopa, the physician from Dagpo. He studied the Kadampa tradition, which is a gradual path that includes what are called the Lam Rim teachings. He also met Milarepa, and attained realization of ultimate reality under his guidance. He established monastic institutions, taught extensively and attracted many students. Four of his disciples founded the four major Kagyu schools: Babrom Dharma Wangchuk founded the Babrom Kagyu, Pagdru Dorje Gyalpo founded the Pagdru Kagyu, Shang Tsalpa Tsondru Drag founded the Tsalpa Kagyu, and Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa founded the Kamtsang Kagyu, also known as the Karma Kagyu School.

It was the first Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa, who received the complete Mahamudra transmission from Gampopa.

Transmission, the passing on of the teaching from teacher to student, is the way Vajrayana Buddhism works. It creates lineages, or lines down which dharma wisdom descends through lineage holders.

What is a Karmapa?

Buddha Shakyamuni predicted the coming of a Karmapa. A Karmapa is “the one who carries out buddha-activity or is “the embodiment of all the activities of the buddhas”. The Karmapas head the Karma Kagyu lineage, and have incarnated in this form for 17 lifetimes. In each lifetime, Karmapas have demonstrated great beneficial outer achievements such as brokering peace, curing plagues, building bridges, creating new schools of art, or even changing the habits of nations; they have great inner achievement, in that they receive, fully realize, and pass on many esoteric teachings and practices; and they also have the supreme secret achievement: they realize full enlightenment, the goal of all Buddha’s teachings.

The Karmapas not only hold the Karma Kagyu teachings for which they are directly responsible, but sometimes also take care of important transmissions from other schools so that they are preserved. They are known as the King of the Yogis, and highly respected by all lineages.


Without a lineage, there is no Vajrayana Buddhism. The living experience of enlightenment is passed on from teacher to student through direct contact, resulting in an inexpressible inner realization.

The lineage below is the chain of extraordinary people who have passed on the “whispered” transmissions of Kagyu Tibetan Buddhism, up to the present Karmapa, His Holiness Karmapa Thaye Dorje.

  • Tilopa
  • Naropa
  • Marpa
  • Milarepa
  • Gampopa
  • 1st Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa
  • Drogon Rechen
  • Pomdragpa Sonam Dorje
  • 2nd Karmapa Karma Pakshi
  • Drubtob Urgyenpa
  • 3rd Karmapa Rangjung Dorje
  • Gyalwa Yungton Dorje Pal
  • 4th Karmapa Rolpe Dorje
  • 2nd Shamarpa Kacho Wangpo
  • 5th Karmapa Deshin Shegpa
  • Ratnabadra
  • 6th Karmapa Tongwa Donden
  • Bengar Jampal Zangpo
  • Goshir Paljor Dondrub
  • 7th Karmapa Chodrag Gyamtso
  • Denma Drubchen Tashi Paljor
  • 8th Karmapa Mikyo Dorje
  • 5th Shamarpa Konchog Yenlag
  • 9th Karmapa Wangchuk Dorje
  • 6th Shamarpa Chokyi Wangchuk
  • 10th Karmapa Choying Dorje
  • 7th Shamarpa Yeshe Nyingpo
  • 11th Karmapa Yeshe Dorje
  • 8th Shamarpa Palchen Chokyi Dondrub
  • 12th Karmapa Changchub Dorje
  • 8th Situpa Chokyi Jungnay
  • 13th Karmapa Dudul Dorje
  • 10th Shamarpa Mipam Chodrub Gyamtso
  • 9th Situpa Pema Nyinche Wangpo
  • 14th Karmapa Thegchog Dorje
  • Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye
  • 15th Karmapa Khakyab Dorje
  • 11th Situpa Pema Wangchog Gyalpo
  • 2nd Jamgon Kongtrul Palden Kyentse Oser
  • 16th Karmapa Rigpe Dorje
  • 14th Shamarpa Mipham Chokyi Lodro
  • His Holiness 17th Karmapa Thaye Dorje


HH 17th Karmapa Trinley Thaye Dorje
Website of His Holiness 17th Karmapa Trinley Thaye Dorje, the spiritual head of the Karma Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.

Bodhi Path Buddhist Centers
Bodhi Path is an international organization of Buddhist centers and groups founded by Shamar Rinpoche.

Dhagpo Kagyu Mandala
A European network of Karma Kagyu centers, hermitages, monestaries, and a library of Buddhist resources. Includes Dhagpo Kagyu Ling education center and Dhagpo Kundreul Ling retreat centers and monastic hermitages.

Diamond Way Buddhism
Representing more than 640 lay Diamond Way Buddhist centers of the Karma Kagyu Lineage, founded by Lama Ole Nydahl, under the spiritual guidance of H.H. 17th Karmapa Trinley Thaye Dorje.