In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Drigung Kagyu (’Bri gung bKa’ brgyud)

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Sources
  • Geopolitical History
  • The Great Drigung Phowa Festival
  • Drigung Art

Buddhism Drigung Kagyu (’Bri gung bKa’ brgyud)
Casey Alexandra Kemp
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 July 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0223


The Drigung Kagyu (’Bri gung bKa’ brgyud) lineage is one of the most prominent schools of the Tibetan Buddhist Kagyu tradition. The various Kagyu lineages are generally rooted in the transmission of teachings originating from the Indian mahāsiddhas Tilopa (b. 988–d. 1069) and Nāropa (b. 1016–d. 1100). Nāropa is said to have taught Mahāmudrā and his tantric system of the Six Yogas (nā ro’i chos drug) to the Tibetan translator Marpa Chokyi Lodrö (b. 1012–d. 1097), who in turn transmitted these instructions to Milarepa (b. 1040–d. 1123). Milarepa had multiple close students, but the most well-known among them was Gampopa Sonam Rinchen (b. 1079–d. 1153), who synthesized the Mahāmudrā tradition with the Kadampa tradition of Atīśa Dīpaṅkara (b. 982–d. 1054). One of Gampopa’s students was Phagmo Drupa Dorje Gyalpo (b. 1110–d. 1170), from whom the eight sub-branches of the Kagyu lineage are said to stem, including the Drigung. The founding of the Drigung tradition and lineage is attributed to Jigten Sumgön (b. 1143–d. 1217), who emphasized Gampopa’s synthesis of the Mahāmudrā and Kadampa in his teachings. He is considered by his followers to be a fully enlightened buddha and a reincarnation of the famous Buddhist philosopher and mahāsiddha Nāgārjuna (c. 2nd/3rd century). He met Phagmo Drupa only three years before his death in 1170, after which Jigten Sumgön traveled to the Drigung valley northeast of Lhasa and settled in a small hermitage there, where he founded the monastery Drigung Thil in 1179. This monastery quickly became a famous center for study and practice. Yogis practiced the Kagyu tantric system of the Six Yogas of Nāropa and Jigten Sumgön gave biannual teachings on important topics of the Drigung Kagyu tradition such as the doctrine of the Single Intention (dgongs gcig) and the Essence of Mahāyāna Teachings (theg chen bstan pa’i snying po). These teachings continued to be maintained even after his death, with numerous texts produced on these topics by famous Drigung masters such as Jigten Sumgön’s nephew and successor, Sherap Jungné (b. 1187–d. 1241) and later by such scholars as Rigdzin Chökyi Dragpa (b. 1595–d. 1659). Drigung Thil also became a center of secular power during the 13th century until it was suppressed and destroyed in 1290 by the Mongols, although the monastery was rebuilt shortly afterward. Drigung Thil also became famous as an important site for sky burials, the funerary practice of offering corpses to vultures, and as the location for the famous Great Drigung Phowa Festival (’Bri gung ’pho ba chen mo), which until recently was held every twelve years. Although the Drigung political influence waned, the Drigung Kagyu school continued to have a strong religious influence throughout the Himalayas, particularly in western Tibet and Ladakh, where early Drigung monasteries continue to be active. The tradition of Drigung Kagyu lineage-holders continued in a familial line of the Kyura lineage until the 17th century, when the tradition of having two lineage-holders, a Chetsang and a Chungtsang, who were recognized reincarnations of the last two brothers of the Kyura line, became institutionalized. This tradition has continued to this day, with the current Chetsang Rinpoche living in India, where he established a monastic seat-in-exile in Dehradun, while Chungtsang Rinpoche continues to reside in Tibet in Lhasa. Both heads regularly teach and give empowerments according to the Drigung Kagyu tradition, and the lineage continues to grow internationally with adherents of the tradition establishing meditation and retreat centers in countries such as Vietnam, Germany, and the United States.

General Overviews

Although the Drigung Kagyu lineage is one of the most prominent Buddhist schools in Tibet, with a rich doctrinal, artistic, and cultural history, there have been few systematic studies dedicated to general overviews of the tradition. In order to gain a general understanding of the history and significance of the lineage it is necessary to contextualize the school within the history and transmission line of the greater Marpa Kagyu tradition. The Kagyu lineages stemming from the translator Marpa Chokyi Lodrö (b. 1012–d. 1097) are based on the teachings of the Indian mahāsiddhas Tilopa (b. 988–d. 1069) and Nāropa (b. 1016–d. 1100) that he transmitted to students in Tibet. Perhaps the most concise and significant overviews of the important teachings and transmission lines of the early Kagyu are Roerich 1949 and Kongtrul 2007, both translations of important Tibetan texts. A Brief History of the Drikung Kagyu Lineage of Tibetan Buddhism gives the relevant information on introducing the history of the Drigung Kagyu school, while Nyima 2009 and Buswell and Lopez 2014 also give short but informative introductions to the lineage. Huckenpahler 1990 and Tenzin and Lye 2007 provide life story accounts and lineage prayers of the Drigung Kagyu, and Smith 1969 gives an introduction to the production, recension, and significance of the major textual corpus of the Drigung founder, Jigten Sumgön (b. 1143–d. 1217). Petech 1978 is the most important article to date covering the religious and political history of the Drigung tradition, focusing on western Tibet and Ladakh.

  • A Brief History of the Drikung Kagyu Lineage of Tibetan Buddhism.

    This webpage is dedicated to introducing the origins of the Drigung Kagyu lineage, the history of the development of the school, and the significance of the spiritual heads of the Chetsangs and Chungtsangs. This page is part of the official website for the Drigung Kagyu lineage.

  • Buswell, Robert, and Donald Lopez. “’Bri gung bka’ brgyud.” In The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. By Robert Buswell and Donald Lopez, 144. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014.

    This is a brief but accurate introduction to the Drigung lineage. It is also followed by an entry on the Drigung Thil Monastery in central Tibet.

  • Huckenpahler, Victoria. The Great Kagyu Masters: The Golden Lineage Treasury. Translated by Khenpo Könchog Gyaltsen. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 1990.

    Based on translations of important Tibetan texts, Khenpo Könchog Gyaltsen introduces readers to the life stories and lineage prayers of the Drigung Kagyu school. This is aimed at a general audience and does not critically contextualize the sources and content.

  • Kongtrul, Jamgön. “Marpa Kagyu.” In The Treasury of Knowledge Book Eight, Part Four: Esoteric Instructions. Translated by Sarah Harding, 137–231. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 2007.

    This chapter is a translation made by Sarah Harding from a section of Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye’s famous Tibetan collection, The Treasury of Knowledge (gDams ngag mdzod). This section gives a brief introduction to the various Kagyu schools stemming from Marpa and gives a detailed account of the significant Kagyu teachings and practices of Mahāmudrā and the Six Yogas of Nāropa, the core teachings upheld by the Drigung tradition.

  • Nyima, Thuken Lobsang Chökyi. “Drigung Kagyü.” In The Crystal Mirror of Philosophical Systems: A Tibetan Study of Asian Religious Thought. Edited by Roger Jackson, 129–130. Translated by Geshe Lhundub Sopa. Institute of Tibetan Classics. Boston: Wisdom, 2009.

    This important work on the major Tibetan Buddhist lineage traditions was originally written in the 19th century by Thuken Losang Chökyi Nyima (b. 1737–d. 1802). Chapter 6 is dedicated to giving general introductions to Kagyu tradition and the various subschools, including the Drigung tradition.

  • Petech, Luciano. “The ’Bri-gun-pa Sect in Western Tibet and Ladakh.” In Proceedings of the Csoma de Kőrös Memorial Symposium, held at Matrafured, Hungary, 24–30 September, 1976. Edited by Louis Ligeti, 313–325. Budapest: Akademiai Kiado, 1978.

    A comprehensive article on the religio-political influence of the Drigung Kagyu lineage in Ladakh and western Tibet.

  • Roerich, George. “The Spiritual Lineage of the Lord Translator Mar-pa Which Was Known as the Dwags-po bKa’-brgyud.” In The Blue Annals Part II. Edited by George Roerich, 399–724. Calcutta: Motilal Banarsidass, 1949.

    This translation of Gö Lotsawa’s (b. 1392–d. 1481) monumental history of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, The Blue Annals (Deb ther sngon po) includes a chapter to the Dagpo Kagyu lineage of Marpa and Gampopa. Here, we find valuable historical information of lineage transmissions between central figures of the Drigung Kagyu as well as other Kagyu schools. Jigten Sumgön’s life and teachings he received and transmitted are outlined in this section (pp. 596–601).

  • Smith, Gene. “Introduction.” In ‘Jig ten mgon po’i Bka’ ’bum. Edited by Gene Smith, 1–4. Dehradun, India: Drikung Kagyu Institute, 1969.

    Although this introduction is not widely available, it is a detailed and insightful account of the collected works and tradition of the founding member of the Drigung Kagyu lineage.

  • Tenzin, Khenpo Tsültrim and Hun Lye. Masters of the Golden Rosary Lineage: Life and Liberation Stories of Drigung Kagyü Throne-holders. Gainesville, FL: Vajra, 2007.

    This work is a translation based on The Golden Garland of the Throne Lineage (Gdan rabs chos byung gser phreng), composed by the 4th Drigung Chetsang, Tenzin Pema Gyaltsen (b. 1770–d. 1826). This text outlines the life stories of the heads of the Drigung lineage up through the 28th throne-holder, as well as the Drigung religious history.

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