"Ka-gyu" - transmission of mastery,
the inheritance from Tilopa
The following is an extract from
Ken Holmes' recent book "Karmapa",
published in Scotland by Altea Publishing.
More information on his
The Historical Buddha and His 12 Deeds
Mahayana Buddhism considers that Sakyamuni
had already achieved
enlightenment before being born as Prince Gautama in Lumbini over 2,500
years ago. They see his life here on Earth as being but one fraction of
that enlightenment's consequences—a necessary drama played out in twelve
acts, each of which (including his "attaining enlightenment" in the eyes of
people here) had a vital role to play in his bringing the timeless
message of universal truth to our world.
Every one of the twelve stages helped in the proper establishment
of his teaching for millenia to come and each had something to contribute
to the envigoration he brought to our planet. The coming of a teaching
Buddha coincides with a key moment in the destiny of the world and in the
complex cycle of reincarnations of its inhabitants. Enacting the twelve
deeds is the way in which each of the one thousand and two teaching buddhas
who visit our Earth, before its final burn-up by the sun, will reset in
motion the wheel of truth. The noble, exemplary life which they enact at
such a time is known as the supreme emanation (supreme nirmanakaya).
The twelve deeds are:
... to leave the heavens and
manifest on Earth at the most appropriate time,
... to enter the womb of a
mother so as to be born in the most appropriate family for what will follow,
... to be born miraculously,
... to grow up showing unique
physical prowess and mental intelligence,
...to enjoy consorts and the
finest pleasures that worldly life can offer,
...to leave worldliness,
...to practice asceticism more
radically than anyone ever did and then renounce it for its inadequacy,
...to go to the place where all
the buddhas of this world manifest enlightenment,
...there to vanquish the
negative energies of the world,
...to show recognition of the
Middle Way and attain enlightenment,
...to teach the universal truths
...to enter nirvana.
Had Prince Gautama not been a richand handsome prince, not had more
beautiful wives than all other men, not been a better athlete and scholar
and so forth, how could he be credible, later, as Gautama Buddha, declaring
that worldly possessions are not everything? Had he just been a poor yogi,
many might have accused him of sour grapes about worldly pleasures he had
never known. Likewise, how could he have convinced people of the
non-necessity of self-mortification had he himself not gone without food,
sat in the burning Indian midday sun without drinking and so forth to a
degree which surpassed anything anyone else had ever done?
There is great significance in each aspect of a Buddha's life. It is not
just the final and perfect life of a being who has been working from purity
to purity through hundreds of lives but the perfect teaching drama; a
template for an age to come, a reference point by which all else can be
The teaching emanation of the Buddha as Prince Guatama graced the
world for 84 years. Yet throughout the five thousand year age illuminated
by his enlightenment, he remains constantly present in other forms, giving
teachings to those whose minds are pure enough and open enough to be aware
of them. These can be emanations appearing in an infinite variety of ways,
animate or inanimate, from time to time, to help human and other beings.
Beyond these there is a constant teaching presence which is so pure
and powerfully direct that only those who have reached
the ten levels of constant absorption in voidness have the subtlety and
strength of mind to be aware of it.
Called the sambhogakaya, it is a state of mental transfiguration no longer
sullied by the confusion of worldly ignorance. In that state, every sight
and sound is charged with deep and joyous meaning. Its experience consists
of thousands of interfaces, each perfect and meaningful, with the overall
universal wisdom of enlightenment. These are known as pure lands; pure
Although buddhahood and its wisdom can never be realised
directly for what it is until one attains complete enlightenment and
actually becomes it, bodhisattvas experience it indirectly through the
doors of their mind and senses, as visionary states of insight.
Far removed from suffering yet emanating to help those still suffering,
deeply rooted in peace and wisdom, nurtured by this ever-growing vision of
perfection, they enjoy the finest access to enlightenment. Their way of
experiencing enlightenment is known as sambhogakaya, which means complete
access, complete enjoyment.
Besides the lineages of teaching which go right back to the time of
the nirmanakaya of Sakyamuni, twenty-five centuries ago in India, there
are others which have emerged over the ages.
These stem from his sambhogakaya, as experienced by enlightened
bodhisattva teachers up until the present day. Thus, the buddha mind brings
teachings to the world as and when necessary, to match its changing needs.
Tilopa was one such enlightened bodhisattva. Having gathered
together and penetrated the meaning of the teachings of more than one
hundred of the most advanced Buddhist gurus of his day, he gained total
enlightenment and became inseparable from the buddha mind, uttering at
that time the famous couplet:
"I, Tilo, have no human guru,
My guru is the mighty Buddha Vajradhara",
Buddha Vajradhara being the aspect of enlightenment from which flow the
teachings of vajrayana.
Indian Buddhist biographies may have been a rich oral tradition
while Buddhism was widespread in India. It was not unusual in those days
for people to carry their knowledge in the hearts and minds, committing
volumes to memory. Many abbots were able to recite more than half the
hundred volumes of the Buddha's recorded teachings by heart. Some even knew
them all. Unfortunately the demise of Buddhism in that land destroyed its
oral traditions there. What remains is very little, preserved thanks to the
writings and subsequent printings of other countries' biographers,
especially Tibetans; a people with a very systematic mentality, rather
different from the romantic and beautifully-complicated Indian mind which,
as its architecture and music betray, delights in obtuse diversion and the
Tilopa occurs twice among the famous 84 mahasiddhas of Indian
Buddhism—as Tilopa and Tillipa, although some believe these to have been
two separate individuals. The following summary is based upon the present
biography of Tilopa,
for which he drew upon the various fragments of biography which have
survived the ages.
There is an interesting parallel between the conception of Tilopa
and that of the present Karmapa. In both cases, the parents turned to a
holy man in their attempts to secure the child they wanted, had their wishes
fulfilled by the birth of a son, born amid unusual signs, and then turned
out to be the parents of a wonder child, whose life, even from an early age,
was to be guided by the greatest spiritual teachers of his time.
In Tilopa's case, the guidance came from the commanding appearance
of a dakini ("sky-flyer" - female spiritual being), who manifested at
important moments in his life to set him in the right direction. From the
very outset, she made it clear to him that his real parents were not his
worldly ones, but primordial wisdom and universal voidness:
"...your father is Cakrasamvara and your mother is Vajravarahi .."
On her advice, he frequented monasteries and gradually took up a
monk's life, eventually becoming an erudite scholar and an exemplary monk,
known as Prajñabhadra. Following a vision, he discovered a text hidden in
the base of a statue in the monastery. Not understanding its meaning he
prayed to his dakini mentor, who sent him to the illustrious gurus Matangi
and Saryapa to study tantra. Returning some time later to the monastery, he
furthered his classical studies. Another critical encouter with his
celestial dakini teacher initiated him further and definitively closed the
gaps that existed between his theoretical knowledge and his experiential
Following this, he travelled widely in India, going from guru to
guru until he had assimilated the very quintessence of each major strand of
vajrayana teaching of the day. In particular, he received from Saryapa the
teachings on purification of chakra and subtle body, best known these days
through their Tibetan name of tummo. From Nagarjuna he received the
illusory body and radiant light teachings; from Lawapa the dream yoga;
from Sukhasiddhi the teachings on life, death and between-life states
(bardo) and consciousness transference; from Indrabhuti teachings on insight
(prajna) as the balancing of energies and from Matangi the teachings on
resurrection of the dead body. Understanding the many parallels he found in
the various traditions, and realising that they each responded to the needs
of different people at different stages of awakening, he eventually
condensed their essence into four principal streams of teaching.
It is from
these, and in these, that we have the true meaning of the word
Tai Situpa's words:
"Taking avantage of his new-found freedom,
Prajñabhadra practised meditation very intensively,
travelling when necessary to receive the special techniques and guidance
of most of the great teachers of his day: Guhya, Darika, Dingi and so on.
The best of students, he mastered all their vital teachings and was able to
appreciate their common points and their particularities. The lineages
which he inherited all condense into four streams of transmitted wisdom.
It is from these that the Kagyu tradition derives its name, for
'Kagyu' is a short form of the Tibetan
theg pa gsum gy snying don bka bab kyi chos bzhi'i gdams ngag
bar ma ckad pa'i brgyud pa,
which roughly means the unbroken lineage of profound and intimate guidance
in the four sorts of transmitted mastery, the heart meaning of the three
In the above, Ka is short for
Ka.pap.zhi. - which
could be loosely rendered as 'four transmissions of mastery'.
Zhi simply mean four. Ka.pap is a term without any
equivalent in English. It means
transmission—of knowledge, skill, insight and teaching ability—in a
specific domain, from master to student, to the point where the student
enters into complete possession of all the master's prowess. It is the
sort of thing that takes place when someone already gifted in, or deeply
predisposed towards, a certain subject seeks out the best person in that
field and learns from them everything they have to teach. Implicit to this
process is the spontaneous appreciation and rapid assimilation that occurs
when a student has a natural feel for a subject.
The four Kagyu transmissions referred to here are those of:
During this period of his life, he acquired the name Tilopa,
which means sesame-grinder, as this was the secret guise in which he lived
externally, while all the time perfecting his meditation internally.
A marvellous phrase occurs in this part of his biography:
.. great seal - (Tib. phyag.rgya.cken.po Skt.
mahamudra) in this instance 'uncharacterised mahamudra', i.e. without
ritual, form or sophistry,
.. heat yoga -(Tib. gtum.mo, which literally
means 'angry mother'),
.. lucidity - (Tib. od.gsal means ' as clear as if
illuminated'--sometimes called 'clear light' in modern translations) this
includes dream and between-life (bardo) yogas
.. union - (Tib. Ias.kyi.phyag.rgya Skt.
...These four transmissions contain the
very essence of all three levels (yana) of Buddhism. Each contains the
others and therefore each contains everything. As a whole they are called
If each of the above were not an aspect of a whole,
tu-mo, subtle heat, would simply be a technique for producing warmth; one
would be no more than a human oven. Radiant lucidity would be just something
illuminating, like torchlight. They are not like that. Subtle heat and
lucidity are very profound practices, richly supported by mahamudra's
insight, mantras, visualisation-stage mahamudra etc. They are very complete,
each being a highlighted aspect of the same thing.
These four, one of which is intimate knowledge of
mind and the other three skilful areas of technique, have been transmitted
in their original integrity, via a lineage of perfect masters and perfected
students, from the time of Tilopa until our present day. They form the hub
of the present Kagyu Lineage.
"From this moment on, not one moment of his life, day or night, was
Having inherited the Buddhist lineages of his time, Tilopa was then
advised by his guiding dakini to go to the impenetrable valleys of Orgyen,
where he would receive extraordinary transmissions of teaching. In a
veritable épopée, he worked and fought his way through earthquakes,
hallucinations, demon army attacks and other phenomena and was rewarded
by becoming heir to some very special teachings; the heart teachings of
the dakinis. These included the nine secret dakini teachings and the four
Then followed his enlightenment. Although he had had many excellent
gurus, including celestial dakinis, his enlightenment occured through
direct fusion with the mind of Sakyamuni's sambhogakaya. Tilopa experienced
this as meeting "the Buddha Who Holds the Vajra(yana)" (Vajradhara Buddha).
The fivefold transmission of insight that took place then is indescribable.
It ended with Tilopa being indistinguishable from the enlightenment of all
the Buddhas. The remainder of his earthly life was spent teaching and
ensuring that the precious wisdom and lineages he had inherited were
perpetuated by worthy disciples for the future benefit of humankind.
the above is and extract from a
chapter on Tilopa and the origins
of mahamudra, from Ken
Holmes book "Karmapa" (Altea 1996), which quotes extracts from the 12th
Tai Situpa's biography "Tilopa - some fragments of his life" (KDDL,
Scotland). For ordering information on either of these books,
please click here.
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