The Kagyu (Bka’ brgyud) tradition is one of the principal lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, famous for its emphasis on meditation and yogic practice, especially the Six Doctrines of Naropa (Na ro chos drug) and the doctrine of mahāmudrā. Although the tradition took root in Tibet during the Chidar (phyi dar) or “later dissemination” of Buddhism in the 11th century, it traces its origins to the great Indian tantric adepts known as siddhas. The Kagyu is often counted as one of four Tibetan Buddhist sects, together with the Nyingma, Sakya, and Geluk, although Tibetan historians commonly recognized a diverse array of religious systems, including the Kadam, Lamdré, Zhijé, Jonang, and the closely related Shangpa Kagyu. Many Tibetan lineages use the generic term kagyu (literally “oral transmission”) to emphasize the oral dissemination of their teachings through successive generations, thereby demonstrating their legitimacy and authority as valid sources of instruction. For this reason, the traditions under discussion here are sometimes specified as the Marpa Kagyu (Mar pa bka’ brgyud), the “Oral Transmission of Marpa,” in order to describe the stream of tantric Buddhist doctrines and meditation practices taught by the renowned Tibetan translator Marpa Chokyi Lodro (Mar pa Chos kyi blo gros, b. c. 1012–d. 1097). Marpa famously studied with the Indian masters Maitripa (b. c. 1002–d. 1077) and Naropa (b. c. 956–d. 1041), the latter of whom himself trained under the mahāsiddha Tilopa. In Tibet, Marpa taught his newly translated systems of doctrine and practice to a small group of disciples, including the acclaimed poet and meditator Milarépa (Mi la ras pa, b. c. 1040–d. 1123), who in turn passed them to Gampopa (Sgam po pa, b. 1079–d. 1153). Gampopa merged these tantric systems with the monastic and scholastic approaches he learned during his previous training under Kadampa masters. With Gampopa’s disciples, the Kagyu split into numerous institutional divisions, known in Tibetan as the “four major” and “eight minor” Kagyu subsects.
A number of general introductions to Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan religious history discuss Kagyu history and doctrine. Thuken Lozang Chökyi Nyima 2009 presents a traditional survey of Tibetan religious traditions written by an 18th-century Tibetan author and includes a chapter on Kagyu history and doctrine. Kapstein 2006 provides one of the most comprehensive surveys of Tibetan political and religious history, including an overview of the rise of early Kagyu institutions. The introduction to Lopez 1997 gives a useful summary of Tibetan religious history and practice. Powers 1995 and its abridged version, Powers 2008, offer more extended surveys of Tibetan religion and practice. For a brief overview of the principal Kagyu founders and institutional divisions, see Quintman 2004. For a more extended historical examination of the political, social, literary, and religious contexts in which Indian tantric Buddhism arose and served as a source for later Kagyu traditions, see Davidson 2002.
Davidson, Ronald M. Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.
Analysis of the historical and social environments that gave rise to Buddhist tantra in India.
Kapstein, Matthew T. The Tibetans. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006.
Broad survey of Tibetan religious and political history. The rise of the Kagyu sect and its religious institutions is covered in chapter 4.
Lopez, Donald S., Jr., ed. Religions of Tibet in Practice. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.
A collection of introductions and short translations from original Tibetan sources on various aspects of Tibetan Buddhist thought and practice, including ritual manuals, pilgrimage guides, biographies, and historical materials.
Powers, John. Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 1995.
Provides a useful overview of the basic doctrine and practices of Tibetan Buddhism. It includes a chapter on the history and doctrines, as well as the meditation practices, associated with the Kagyu sect.
Powers, John. A Concise Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 2008.
An abbreviated version of Powers 1995, which includes a chapter on the four orders, including the Kagyu.
Quintman, Andrew. “Bka’ brgyud (Kagyu).” In Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Edited by Robert Buswell, 47–49. New York: Macmillan Reference, 2004.
A brief overview of the principal Kagyu founders, sects, and subsects.
Thuken Lozang Chökyi Nyima. The Crystal Mirror of Philosophical Systems: A Tibetan Study of Asian Religious Thought. Boston: Wisdom, 2009.
A traditional Tibetan survey of the various divisions of Tibetan Buddhist thought and practice, by the acclaimed historian Thuken Lozang Chökyi Nyima (b. 1737–d. 1802). Chapter 6 (pp. 117–156) covers the Kagyu tradition’s history and central doctrinal tenets.
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