In Vajrayana Buddhism, “lineage” refers both to a corpus of specific practices and also the line of highly realized masters who have attained insight into these practices and handed them down throughout the generations. The founder of Kagyu Changchub Chuling, Very Venerable Kalu Rinpoche, was a holder of both the Shangpa Kagyu and Karma Kagyu lineages, and KCC supports the practices of both.
The Shangpa Kagyu lineage was founded in Tibet in the 11th century by Khyungpo Naljor. Like his contemporary, Marpa Lotsawa, Naljor traveled to India where he received teachings from dozens of teachers, including two female masters, Niguma and Sukkhasiddhi. From these yoginis, Naljor received the practices of the Shangpa lineage. Typically, lineages were established in connection to monasteries, but Niguma instructed Naljor to pass the Shangpa teachings down to a single student, and for that student to follow suit through the course of seven generations. As a consequence, the Shangpa lineage has never had a strong monastic tradition—even to the present. In the Shangpa lineage, the focus is on practice and direct experience.
In the 19th century, the great scholar and practitioner Jamgong Kongtrul Lodro Thaye set about preserving vulnerable practices, including those of the Shangpa Kagyu. He also instituted the three-year retreat as an opportunity to learn and practice the teachings in a formal context.
Since then, retreats have been at the center of the Shangpa lineage: when Very Venerable Kalu Rinpoche founded his center at Sonada, it was for the purpose of three-year retreat. Later, when his student, Venerable Bokar Rinpoche, founded his center in Mirik, he too established a place to do retreat. (Both have since grown into full-scale monasteries.) Perhaps most revealingly, as he began founding centers in the West in the 1970s, Kalu Rinpoche also started leading three-year retreats there. It was this inspiration that would ultimately inspire members at KCC to build the long retreat center currently in construction in Goldendale, Washington.
Following the death of Very Venerable Kalu Rinpoche in 1989, Bokar Rinpoche became the principal holder of the Shangpa Kagyu lineage. In addition to supporting Shangpa centers across the world, Bokar Rinpoche also introduced a program of teachings designed specifically for students in the West. Besides Kalu Rinpoche and Bokar Rinpoche, a number of accomplished teachers also actively propagate and support this lineage, including Tai Situ Rinpoche, Gyaltsab Rinpoche, Tenga Rinpoche, and the current Kalu Rinpoche.
The Karma Kagyu (commonly referred to as “Kagyu”) is one of the four major lineages of Tibet, along with the Nyingma, Sakya, and Gelug. Each lineage has a different emphasis, and the Kagyu’s is evident in the name, which means “oral lineage.” This refers to the continuity of instructions handed down from teacher to student, and in particular, points to the emphasis the lineage places on meditation practice.
Before it was formalized, the practices of the Kagyu lineage were handed down through some of the most famous saints in Indian/Tibetan history. The Indian yogi Tilopa (988-1069), was the first source for the specific practices of the Kagyus, and the lineage continued with Tilopa’s student, the scholar Naropa (1016-1100), then to Marpa the Translator (1012-1097), a Tibetan who traveled from Tibet to receive the teachings, and then to Milarepa (1052-1135), perhaps Tibet’s most famous meditator. Finally, Milarepa taught the accomplished master Gampopa (1079-1153), who integrated the practices and formally established the lineage. He then transmitted the teachings to Düsum Khyenpa (1110-1193), the first Karmapa.
For more on the Kagyu lineage, visit the website of His Holiness Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa.