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Karma Kagyu (Tibetan: ཀརྨ་བཀའ་བརྒྱུདWylie: karma bka'-brgyud), or Kamtsang, is the largest lineage within the Kagyu school, one of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism. The spiritual head of the Karma Kagyu is the Gyalwa Karmapa. The Karma Kagyu are sometimes called the "Black Hat", in reference to the Black Crown worn by the Karmapa.



The Karma Kagyu was founded by the first Karmapa, Jetsun Dusum Khyenpa. It is headed by the Gyalwa Karmapa, a reincarnate lama (tulku). Followers believe that the Karmapa's appearance as the first historical consciously reincarnate teacher was predicted by the Buddha in the Samadhiraja Sutra (lit: Discourse on the Kings of Meditative Concentration).


The Karma Kagyu school belongs to the Vajrayana branch of Mahayana Buddhism. It is a Triyana (all three turnings of the Wheel of the dharma) school (e.g., monks and nuns keep the vows of Vinaya while lay practitioners hold the Upasaka vows) and a Rime (non-sectarian) tradition.

The central teaching of the Karma Kagyu is the doctrine of Mahamudra, also known as the "Great Seal". This doctrine focuses on four principal stages of meditative practice (the Four Yogas of Mahamudra):

  • The development of single-pointedness of mind,
  • The transcendence of all conceptual elaboration,
  • The cultivation of the perspective that all phenomena are of a "single taste",
  • The fruition of the path, which is beyond any contrived acts of meditation.

It is through these four stages of development that the practitioner is said to attain the perfect realization of Mahamudra. Mahamudra is practiced both independently and as the completion stage of Vajrayana practice.

Within the Karma Kagyu, meditative practice is almost invariably presented in a progressive manner. Early practice includes Shamatha meditation (calm abiding; single-pointedness), introduction to Buddhist history and philosophy, and initiation into the lower Tantras - classically across the Yidams (deities) Avalokiteshvara (Tibetan Chenrezik), Tara and Amitabha Buddha. This is followed by Ngondro (the practice of the Four Extraordinary Foundations) and Vipassana meditation. During the traditional three-year retreat, retreatants usually focus their practice on the Six Yogas of Naropa. At the Anuttarayogatantra level of practice, the principal Yidams of the lineage are Vajrayogini, Hevajra and Chakrasamvara.

While one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Karma Kagyu is its emphasis on meditative practice, all forms and levels of Buddhist history and philosophy are also taught, most notably the Shentong branch of Prāsaṅgika Madhyamaka philosophy.


The supreme Lama of the Karma Kagyu is the Karmapa, who always presides as lineage holder once he has reached his majority and received all the necessary training and transmissions. From the death of one Karmapa until the next takes his seat as lineage holder, one (or more) of the previous Karmapa's principal disciples holds the lineage. The 16th Gyalwa Karmapa left the lineage in the hands of four eminent Lamas; the 14th Shamar Rinpoche, the 12th Tai Situ Rinpoche, the 3rd Jamgön Kongtrül Rinpoche and the 12th Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche.

At the next level of precedence, all Kagyu Lamas who have been accorded by His Holiness the title Rinpoche (Lit: precious one) are highly regarded as trustworthy teachers. Those who hold the Khenpo degree have completed the equivalent of a doctorate in Buddhist studies. There are (both currently and historically) many female Kagyu Lamas. Probably the most well-known active female Kagyu Lama in the West is Ani Pema Chödrön.


External links

Karma Kagyu (Trinley Thaye Dorje)

Karma Kagyu (Orgyen Trinley Dorje)



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