"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 Website.

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 and
...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 measured.


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 experience.

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 non-concrete.

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
Tai Situpa's 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 insight.

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 Kagyu. In 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 yanas.

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:

.. 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. karma mudra)

...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.
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:
"From this moment on, not one moment of his life, day or night, was wasted."
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 wish-fulfilling-gem teachings.

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.

.. Page maintained by webspinner@rokpa.org

enquiries about the spiritual aspects of ROKPA's work to
your nearest Samye Ling or Samye Dzong

Last updated 25 January 1997

© All material on this web site is copyrighted
and all rights reserved by Rokpa Trust, Samye Ling Tibetan Centre, Scotland.