In order to benefit all sentient beings, after he attained enlightenment and until his Parinirvana, the historical Buddha Shakyamuni compassionately turned the wheel of Dharma and expounded numerous teachings. To accommodate the different temperaments and intellectual capacities of his disciples, he extensively and skillfully gave teachings openly to vast assemblies, small groups, as well as private teachings to individuals.


His First Sermon explained the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eight- Fold Path which laid the ground of all spiritual development. This first teaching was given to the common beings and it attracted a vast assembly. His Second Sermon emphasized more on Emptiness and compassion. This teaching was given to the Bodhisattvas. The Third Sermon, a more elaborate teaching, with emphasis on Buddha nature, was given to the Bodhisattvas who have sharp intellect and were capable of understanding the Ultimate Truth.


Altogether, there are 84,000 heaps of teachings from his discourses; each of them serves as an antidote accordingly to our 84,000 defilements. It is said that 21,000 heaps of them are antidotes for the defilements of attachment, 21,000 heaps for the defilements of hatred, 21,000 heaps for the defilements of ignorance, and 21,000 heaps for the defilements of attachment, hatred and ignorance together.

Categories of Buddhist Teachings

All these teachings are also broadly classified into 3 categories, namely, 1) Theravada School, the teachings which emphasized on moral discipline and ethics and the Mahayana School, comprising of 2) Sutrayana teachings and 3) Tantrayana teachings. Sutrayana is a gradual path to perfect the causes of enlightenment. Its teachings focus on the practices of the six perfections, compassion and loving kindness towards all sentient beings. It is also known as the causal path and could take as long as three great eons to attain enlightenment. Tantrayana also known as Vajrayana or Secret Mantrayana, elaborates on the ultimate truth and has the quality of bountiful profound methods. Under the skillful guidance of an authentic teacher with pure lineage, the Vajrayana practitioners on the path of practice skillfully engage the profound methods and attain the fruition of enlightenment. Thus it is also known as the path of result. It also has the unique qualities of effortlessness and swiftness which means that practitioners can attain the supreme enlightenment effortlessly within a short period of time, even as short as within one’s lifetime.

Meaning of Vajrayana (Tibetan Buddhism)

Vajrayana Buddhism is a multifaceted system of Buddhist thought and practice which evolved over several centuries. The Sanskrit term “vajra” denotes the thunderbolt, a legendary weapon and divine attribute that was made from an indestructible substance and which could therefore pierce and penetrate any obscuration. “Yana” means vehicle in Sanskrit. So literally, Vajrayana is the indestructible vehicle for ferrying sentient beings across the shore of ignorance and much suffering to a haven of peace and happiness.

The history of the Kagyu lineage

Buddhism has its roots in India. The historical Buddha gave a great variety of teachings in order to accommodate the different capacities of beings. Although he taught only orally, his early disciples recorded his instructions in writing and passed them on in their original form. Later on, Buddhist masters wrote many treatises that explain the Buddha’s teachings. The emphasis was on the authentic and accurate transmission of the teachings. Throughout the centuries, as disciples became teachers, different lines of transmission came about, each with their own characteristics.

Approximately one and a half millennia after the passing away of Buddha Shakyamuni, Northern India was home to a number of great Buddhist masters, holders of many Buddhist transmissions and key instructions to accomplish meditation. Among them was the master Tilopa (988-1069), who held four special esoteric Buddhist lineages. In Tibet these were later referred to as “ka bab shi’i gyu pa”, i.e., “the lineage of the four transmissions” (“ka bab” = tradition; “shi” = four and “gyu pa” = lineage). This was abbreviated to “ka-gyu”, thus giving the name “Kagyu” to this school.

Tilopa gave his special transmissions to his disciple Naropa (1016-1100). Other prominent Indian figures for the teachings transmitted in the Kagyu school were the masters Saraha and Maitripa. They were famous for their special instructions of Mahamudra and mental non-engagement, teachings which Tibetan masters later on skillfully continued to transmit until the present day.

Buddhism comes to Tibet

A complete transmission of these teachings came to Tibet starting 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 mainly 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 Karma Kagyu tradition is a subschool within the Kagyu tradition. Like all Tibetan Buddhist schools, it traces itself back to Indian Buddhist masters who were active at the time when Buddhism found its way to Tibet.

The Tibetan translator Marpa (1012-1097) learned in India from both Naropa and Maitripa and brought all these transmissions back to Tibet, mastered them and transmitted them to, among others, his disciple Milarepa (1052-1135). With the latter’s student Gampopa (1079-1153), the Kagyu school branched off into a number of subschools, a major one being the Karma Kagyu lineage which was named after its founder, the first Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa (1110-1193).

With the recognition of Karma Pakshi (1204-1283) as the 2nd Karmapa, the first line of reincarnated lamas of Tibet came into being. Ever since, the spiritual heritage of the Karma Kagyu tradition, with its special focus on Mahamudra meditation, was transmitted through the Karmapas and the lineage holders who held the transmissions between the reincarnations of the Karmapas.

The basic view that has been taught ever since is what the great Yogi Saraha phrased centuries ago in one of his beautiful songs of realization:

Mind alone is the seed of everything,
from which cyclic existence and nirvāṇa emanate.
Homage to the mind that is like a wish-fulfilling jewel,
which grants what fruit is desired.”


What is a Karmapa?

Buddha Shakyamuni predicted the coming of the Karmapas. Karmapa means “the one who carries out buddha-activity” or “the embodiment of the activities of the buddhas”. The Karmapas head the Karma Kagyu lineage, and have incarnated in this form for 17 lifetimes.

In each lifetime, the Karmapas have demonstrated great inner achievement, in that they receive, fully realize, and pass on many esoteric teachings and practices of the Kagyu tradition and other spiritual lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, thus safeguarding the spiritual heritage of Buddhism in Tibet. It is the living experience of enlightenment that is passed on from teacher to student through direct contact and interaction which results in an inexpressible inner realization of the student.

Thus the Karmapas are highly respected by all lineages. Throughout history they have also demonstrated great beneficial outer achievements such as brokering peace, curing diseases, building bridges, creating new schools of art, social activities or even changing the habits of nations.

The following timeline gives an overview of the lives of some important teachers in the Kagyu lineage, all of whom were extraordinary masters who passed on the special transmissions of this school up to the present Karmapa, Thaye Dorje, His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa.

Karma Kagyud Buddhist Centre                                                                             

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Singapore 398695

Email: adminweb@karma-kagyud.org.sg

Phone: +65 6749 1103

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