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Buddhadharma : Summer 2008
buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly summer 20 0 8 30 For thirteen centuries, Buddhism developed, expanded, and flourished in the high elevations and protected valleys of Tibet and the surrounding Himalayan region. Imported from India, the Vajrayana, or tantric, yogic form of Buddhism that took root there seemed to suit the rugged nomadic cul- ture. Tibet became home to thousands of monasteries and mountain retreats. Traveling tent cities carried the dharma across the countryside, and the equivalent of universities of Buddhist studies developed intricate commentarial tradi- tions. The variations in the path were, and are, manifold, owing to differing Indian sources and the crazy-quilt landscape of Tibet, which fostered powerfully indepen- dent communities. Over the centuries in Tibet, Vajrayana Buddhism established many systems to ensure that its teachings and practices would reliably continue from generation to generation. The Vajrayana gives paramount importance to transmission from teacher to student by word of mouth and direct instruction. So each of the many schools and sub-schools passed their teachings on through an in- tricate hierarchy. In many cases authority was vested in tulkus, reincarnate lamas whose rebirth was chosen with the intent of carrying on a tradition. After the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, the most well-known tulku is the Karmapa. The Gyalwang (“Victorious”) Karmapa is responsible for ensuring that the teachings and practices of the Kagyu remain intact and that what is practiced today leads to realization as surely as it did for those who practiced it a thousand years ago. According to the history that every Kagyu practitioner knows, the lineage began with the spontaneous insight of the wild Indian yogi Tilopa, who passed his realization on to his principal student, the scholar Naropa, who passed it on to the Tibetan translator and farmer Marpa. Marpa’s principal student was the cave-dwelling ascetic and Tibetan national hero, Milarepa, whose principal student was Gampopa, a monk and physician who established the first Kagyu monastery. Gampopa had many students and is the source of several lineages, but his most significant student was Tusum Khyenpa, the founder of the Karma Kagyu, whose contemporaries gave him the title Karmapa, meaning “the man of Buddha activ- ity.” He dubbed the lineage he founded “the practicing lineage,” to emphasize that without vigorous applica- tion, no amount of learning will bring about results. Tusum Khyenpa estab- lished many monasteries, in- cluding Tsurphu, near Lhasa, which was to become the seat of the Karmapas for more than seven hundred years. It was also Tusum Khyenpa who decided that the best way to ensure the continu- ation of the lineage was to give a letter to his principal student instructing him how to find his future incarnation, who would be installed as head of the lineage after a pe- riod of regency. The second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi, be- came the first formally recog- nized tulku, creating a system for maintaining continuity of the teachings that became widespread. The various Tibetan lineages are not isolated from one an- other. Teachers from different schools study with each other, and students are encouraged to be familiar with teachings from a variety of sources. What lineage supplies is a system- atic path and methods of training, rather than an ideological home to reside in. The various Karmapas throughout history were supported in their work by many other teachers within the Kagyu family, as well as a number from other lineages. In (Below) The Refuge Tree of the Karma Kagyu lineage (Opposite) The young Seventeenth Karmapa in Tibet before his escape to India courTesyoflou&JoanneBraunsourceunKnoWn