The Kagyu tradition



The practice lineage

The Kagyu tradition is one of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism. It is famed as the school of meditation practice. One of its alternative names is ‘the practice lineage’.

The translator

The origins of the Kagyu tradition in Tibet go back nearly a thousand years. In the 11th century a layman called Marpa made three journeys to India in search of Buddhist teachings. There, he studied under famous Indian Buddhist masters, such as Naropa and Maitripa. Having brought their teachings back to Tibet, Marpa the Translator, as he became known, transmitted them to students who gathered around him.

The mountain hermit

Marpa’s chief student was a man called Milarepa. While still young Milarepa had been responsible for the deaths of many people in a family feud. Remorse for his actions led him to turn to the path of the Buddha. Under Marpa’s guidance he devoted his life to meditation. After years of solitary meditation in caves in the Himalayas he attained enlightenment. The name of Milarepa has become synonymous with supreme spiritual endeavour and achievement.

“Buddha cannot be found through searching,
look into your own mind.”  Milarepa

The doctor

Among Milarepa’s followers, the foremost was a doctor called Gampopa, After his wife and children died in an epidemic, Gampopa committed himself to dharma practice and became a monk. From Milarepa he received the teachings Marpa had brought back from India. In time, he established a Buddhist centre in his home region, where many people came to study and practise.

The Karmapa

From the time of Gampopa onwards, the Kagyu teachings spread throughout Tibet. One of those responsible for their growth was the first Karmapa. One of the chief disciples of Gampopa, he too achieved enlightenment. He also became the first in a line of incarnate masters (the first in Tibet) known as the Karmapas – ‘the ones of Buddha activity’. Under their guidance the Karma Kagyu tradition, as it became known, flourished in Tibet until modern times. The present Karmapa is the seventeenth in the line. Like his predecessor the 16th Karmapa, he has visited Kagyu Ling Buddhist Centre in Manchester.

The great seal

The key meditation practice in the Kagyu tradition is mahamudra. The term means ‘great seal’ and signifies the way in which the enlightened practitioner ‘seals’ everything he or she experiences with their realisation of emptiness. Neither the phenomenal world nor mind itself have any essence by which they can be grasped. In this respect they are inseparable, in a unity that is fluid, all-embracing and eternal. Mahamudra meditation is the effortless relaxation of mind into its natural state accompanied by direct insight into the true nature of mind, which can also be called buddha nature.