Bka' Brgyud (Kagyu)

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Bka' brgyud (pronounced Kagyu) may be translated as "oral lineage" or "lineage of the Buddha's word." Many traditions of Tibetan Buddhism use the term bka'brgyud to describe the successive oral transmission, and therefore authenticity, of their teachings. The name Bka' brgyud, however, most commonly refers to the Mar pa Bka' brgyud (the oral lineage of Mar pa), a stream of tantric Buddhist instructions and meditation practices initially brought to Tibet from India by the Tibetan translator Mar pa (Marpa) in the eleventh century. Although the Bka' brgyud subsequently developed into a complex structure of autonomous subsects and branch schools, later Western writings tended to describe it as one of four sects of Tibetan Buddhism, to be distinguished from the Rnying ma (Nyingma), Sa skya (Sakya), and Dge lugs (Geluk). Another Tibetan typology of tantric traditions enumerates the Mar pa Bka' brgyud as one of eight streams of tantric instruction, the so-called sgrub brgyud shing rta chen po brgyad (eight great chariot-like lineages of achievement), which includes traditions such as the Rnying ma, the Bka' gdams of Atisha, and the Gcod instructions of Ma gcig lab sgron (Macig Lapdon). Some Tibetan historians have referred to the lineage stemming from Mar pa with the near homonym Dkar brgyud (pronounced Kargyu), which means "white lineage," describing the white cotton robes worn by mendicant yogins of this tradition, and stressing their commitment to intensive meditation practice.

Each of the various Bka' brgyud subsects trace their lineage back to the primordial tantric buddha Vajradhara, who is considered an incontrovertible source of authentic Buddhist instruction. According to traditional accounts, the Indian mahĀsiddha (great adept) Tilopa (988–1069) received visionary instructions from Vajradhara, later passing them on to his principal disciple, the Bengali scholar and adept NĀropa (1016–1100). The latter transmitted his chief instructions (codified as the Nā ro chos drug, or the Six Doctrines of Nāropa) to Mar pa. Mar pa returned to Tibet, where he translated, arranged, and disseminated these practices, together with those of the meditational system of mahĀmudrĀ, most famously to his yogin disciple Mi la ras pa (Milarepa; 1028/40–1111/23). These early figures—the buddha Vajradhara, the Indians Tilopa and Nāropa, and their Tibetan successors Mar pa and Mi la ras pa—form the earliest common segment of the Bka' brgyud lineage, a line of individuals largely removed from an institutionalized monastic setting. One of Mi la ras pa's foremost disciples, the physician-monk Sgam po pa Bsod nams rin chen (1079–1153), merged the instructions he received from this lineage with the monasticism and systematic exegetical approach he learned during his earlier training under masters of the Bka' gdams sect. Sgam po pa, therefore, appears to have spearheaded the true institutionalization of the Bka' brgyud, founding an important monastery and retreat center near his homeland in the southern Tibetan region of Dwags po. For this reason, the many subsequent branches of the Bka' brgyud are also collectively known as the Dwags po Bka' brgyud.

The Bka' brgyud later split into numerous divisions, known in Tibetan as the four major and eight minor Bka' brgyud subsects (Bka' brgyud che bzhi chung brgyad), where the terms major and minor carry neither quantitative nor qualitative overtones, but rather indicate a relative proximity to the master Sgam po pa and his nephew Dwags po Sgom tshul (1116–1169). The four major Bka' brgyud subsects follow from the direct disciples of these two masters. These include:

  1. The Karma Bka' brgyud, also known as the Karma Kam ˙ tshang, which is directed by the Karma pa hierarchs and originated with the first Karma pa Dus gsum mkhyen pa (1110–1193). This sect held great political power in Tibet from the late fifteenth to early seventeenth centuries and continues to be one of the most active among the four, especially in Eastern Tibet and in exile.
  2. The Tshal pa Bka' brgyud, which originated with Zhang tshal pa Brtson grus grags pa (1123–1193).
  3. The 'Ba' rom Bka' brgyud, which originated with 'Ba' rom Dar ma dbang phyug (1127–1199) and forged early ties with the Tangut and Mongol Courts.
  4. The Phag gru Bka' brgyud, which originated with the great master Phag mo gru pa Rdo rje rgyal po (1110–1170), who established a seat at Gdan sa thil Monastery in Central Tibet. This monastery, together with an ancestral home in nearby Rtses thang, became the center of the powerful ruling Phag mo gru family during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

The incipience of the eight lesser Bka' brgyud subsects is traced back to the disciples of Phag mo gru pa Rdo rje rgyal po. These include:

  1. The 'Bri gung Bka' brgyud, which originated with 'Bri gung 'Jigs rten mgon po (1143–1217) and held great political influence during the thirteenth century.
  2. The Stag lung Bka' brgyud, which originated with Stag lung thang pa Bkra shis dpal (1142–1210).
  3. The Gling ras Bka' brgyud, which originated with Gling rje ras pa Padma rdo rje (1128–1288) and later became the 'Brug pa Bka' brgyud under his disciple Gtsang pa rgya ras Ye shes rdo rje (1161–1211). The latter subsect rose to prominence under royal patronage in Bhutan.
  4. The Gya' bzang Bka' brgyud, which originated with Zwa ra ba Skal ldan ye shes seng ge (d.1207).
  5. The Khro phu Bka' brgyud, which originated with Rgya tsha (1118–1195), Kun ldan ras pa (1148–1217), and their nephew Khro phu lotsava Byams pa dpal (1173–1228).
  6. The Shug gseb Bka' brgyud, which originated with Gyer sgom Tshul khrims seng ge (1144–1204).
  7. The Yel pa Bka' brgyud, which originated with Ye shes brtsegs pa (d.u.).
  8. The Smar tshang Bka' brgyud, which originated with Smar pa grub thob Shes rab seng ge (d.u.).

Many of these subsects have since died out as independent institutional systems. A few, such as the Karma Bka' brgyud, 'Bri gung Bka' brgyud, and 'Brug pa Bka' brgyud, continue to play an important role in the religious lives of Tibetan Buddhists inside Tibet, across the Himalayan regions, and in Europe and the Americas since the Tibetan exile during the latter half of the twentieth century.

See also:Tibet


Guenther, Herbert V., trans. The Life and Teaching of Naropa. Boston and London: Shambhala, 1986.

Gyaltsen, Khenpo Könchok, trans. The Great Kagyu Masters: The Golden Lineage Treasury. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 1990.

Lhalungpa, Lobsang P., trans. The Life of Milarepa. New York: Dutton, 1977. Reprint, Boston: Shambhala, 1984.

Richardson, Hugh. "The Karma-pa Sect: A Historical Note." Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1958): 139–164 and (1959): 1–18. Reprinted in High Peaks, Pure Earth: Collected Writings on Tibetan History and Culture, ed. Michael Aris. London: Serindia, 1998.

Smith, E. Gene. "Golden Rosaries of the Bka' brgyud Schools." In Dkar brgyud gser 'phreng: A Golden Rosary of Lives of Eminent Gurus, compiled by Mon-rtse-pa Kun-dga'-dpal-ldan and ed. Kun-dga'-brug-dpal. Leh, India: Sonam W. Tashigang, 1970. Reprinted in Among Tibetan Texts, ed. Kurtis R. Schaefer. Boston: Wisdom, 2001.

Torricelli, Fabrizio, and, Naga, Sangye T., trans. The Life of the Mahasiddha Tilopa. Dharamsala, India: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 1995.

Trungpa, Chögyam, and the Nalanda Translation Committee, trans. The Rain of Wisdom. Boston: Shambhala, 1980.

Trungpa, Chögyam, and the Nalanda Translation Committee, trans. The Life of Marpa the Translator. Boston: Shambhala, 1986.

Andrew Quintman