Biography and autobiography in Tibet are important sources for both education and inspiration. Tibetans have kept such meticulous records of their teachers that thousands of names are known and discussed in a wide range of biographical material. All these names, all these lives—it can be a little overwhelming. The authors involved in the Treasury of Lives are currently mining the primary sources to provide English-language biographies of every known religious teacher from Tibet and the Himalaya, all of which are organized for easy searching and browsing. Every Tuesday on the Tricycle blog, we will highlight and reflect on important, interesting, eccentric, surprising and beautiful stories found within this rich literary tradition.

Read Part 1: Mila and Marpa, here.

Kagyu Founders Part 2: Gampopa and Barompa

Gampopa. Tibet, 1700–1799. Drukpa (Kagyu), Buddhist and Kagyu Lineages. 81.28×57.15cm. Ground mineral pigment on cotton. Collection of Rubin Museum of Art.

Among the most famous disciples of the great Tibetan Kagyu saint Milarepa is Gampopa Sonam Rinchen (1079–1153), also known as Dakpo Lhaje. Ordained as a monk in the Kadam tradition, Gampopa introduced monastic ordination and the teachings of the stages of the path (Lamrim) to the eclectic and decidedly lay mahasiddha tradition, brought from India by Marpa Lotsawa and given perfect expression by Milarepa. This was no small feat, as adherants of the mahasiddha path—tantric practitioners—engaged in socially proscribed behavior as a way of breaking through dualistic thinking, in opposition to the strict ethical commandments of the Buddhist monastic codes. The tension between the monastic codes and the tantric penchant for breaking all conventions is a basic characteristic of the Kagyu and other Tibetan Buddhist traditions.

Among Gampopa’s disciples were Pakmodrupa Dorje Gyelpo (1110–1170), the First Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa (1110–1193), Zhang Yudrakpa (1123–1193), and Darma Wangchuk (1127–c.1199), who went on to establish the four “major” branches of the Kagyu tradition: the Dakpo Kagyu, Karma Kagyu, Tselpa Kagyu, and Barom Kagyu, respectively. In this post I will summarize Gampopa’s life and the life of Darma Wangchuk, one of his disciples. In later posts I will continue with the progenitors of the myriad Kagyu traditions.

Gampopa. Tibet, 1500–1599. Karma (Kagyu) Lineage. 87.00×60.33cm. Ground mineral pigment, fine gold line on cotton. Collection of Rubin Museum of Art.

Gampopa originally trained as a medical doctor and lived as a layman. When his wife and child both passed away he turned to religion and, at the age of 25, took ordination in the Kadam tradition, receiving the name Sonam Rinchen. Among his many masters was Potowa Rinchen Sel (1027–1105), the chief disciple of Atisha’s (c.982–1054) student Dromton Gyelwa Jungne (1005–1064). After five years of study he overheard the name of Milarepa and, experiencing a rush of faith, begged permission of his masters to seek him out. They granted his wish on the condition that he not renounce his monastic vows, a condition that he upheld, thereby ensuring that monastic ordination became central to the Kagyu tradition. And this was in spite of Milarepa’s criticism of the Kadam tradition’s tantric teachings, which he alleged were deficient as a result of Tibetan monastic resistence to Atisha’s full transmission.

Gampopa spent several years with Milarepa before returning to monastic life, to which he brought the practices of Mahamudra and the Six Yogas of Naropa, transmitted to him by Milarepa. In 1121 he established a monastery, Daklha Gampo, where he attracted scores of disciples. Among these was Darma Wangchuk.

Darma Wangchuk was born to devout parents who gave their three sons the names of different Prajnaparamita Sutras—his was Bumkhyab, meaning “Protected by the Hundred-Thousand Verse Prajnaparamita.” After ordaining and studying in the Kadam tradition, he went to Daklha Gampo to study with the famous Gampopa, for whom he felt such fierce devotion that he was cured of a terrible skin disease after the master appeared to him in a visionary dream.

Gampopa advised Darma Wangchuk to go meditate in a hermitage in Barom, Nakchu—to the northeast of Lhasa close to the Kham and Amdo border—which the younger man did only after his master had passed away. He stayed there in isolated retreat for seven years. After traveling in Kham and attracting disciples, he returned to Barom and headed a growing monastic community there that grew into Barom Riwoche Monastery, thus initiating the Barom Kagyu tradition.

The Barom Kagyu never attained widespread popularity, and survives in only a few institutions in Kham. Barompa Darma Wangchuk’s disciple, Tishri Repa Sherab Senge (1164-1236), was a preceptor to the Tangut rulers before Ghengis Khan conquered that kingdom in 1226 and he was forced to flee. A more recent master in the lineage was Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche (1920-1996), who lived and taught in Kathmandu. His son, Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche (b.1951), the founder of Kathandu’s Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling and the Rangjung Yeshe Institute, is also a Barom Kagyu lineage holder.

Continue to Part 3: First Karmapa and Lama Zhang

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