August 16, 2014


Here is a “listophile’s list” of sub-schools of bKa’-brgyud schools of Tibetan Buddhism:

1. Shangs-pa-bka’-brgyud
2. Dwags-po-bka’-brgyud
3. Mar-pa-bka’-brgyud
4. Karma-bka’-brgyud (or Kam-tshang-bka’-brgyud)
5. Tshal-pa-bka’-brgyud
6 ’Ba’-rom-bka’-brgyud
7. Phag-gru-bka’-brgyud
8. ’Bri-gung-bka’-brgyud
9. sTag-lung--bka’-brgyud
10. ’Brug-pa-bka’-brgyud
11. g.Ya’-bzang-bka’-brgyud
12. Khro-phu-bka’-brgyud
13. Shug-gseb-bka’-brgyud
14. Yel-pa-bka’-brgyud
15. sMar-tshang-bka’-brgyud
16. dGa’-ldan-bka’-brgyud (or dGe-ldan-bka’-brgyud)
17. gNas-mdo-bka’-brgyud
18. Zur-mang-bka’-brgyud
19. Zhal-snga-bka’-brgyud

What is common to all of these schools? I have a feeling it is the meditative practice of the Mahāmudrā doctrine. In my view, a school that does not recognize Mahāmudrā as its ultimate doctrine would never call itself bKa’-brgyud.


  1. To think that mahamudra is the common factor of all these schools(?) is tempting on first sight, but probably misleading. From my reading experience it occurs to me, for instance, that the transmission of Atisha's teachings and instructions (blos sbyong, lam rim, etc.) is not as prominent in some of these as it is in others of these. But in those "schools" where they are really prominent, such as in the 'Bri-gung-bka'-brgyud, its certainly integral, but not mahamudra-focused.
    Anyway, your assumption is provocative (in a positive sense). What could be an alternative or second factor? Many of these "schools" did not necessarily start out as an independent school, or they were not intended as "school". There was the intention to continue (brgyud) the instructions (bka') of Gam-po-pa and Phag-mo-gru-pa at a particular location, such as 'Bri, hence 'Bri-gung-bka'-brgyud. Assuming that these beginnings were predominantly mantric, I would say that an important factor has been the intention to keep certain instructions received from the guru authentically intact in an unmixed way. It often occurs to me that this way of keeping an instruction lineage unmixed, i.e. not to beef it up with other mantra instructions and with philosophical supports, relying purely on one transmission of instructions in each particular kind of practise, is "typically bKa'-brgyud-pa".


    1. Dear Jan, many thanks for your comments and critiques. So sorry for not being able to respond a bit earlier. I may make merely two points here. Firstly, of course and to be sure, any given Buddhist school, system, or tradition would and can have more than one special or typical features. The bKa’-brgyud school is no exception. While the (alternative or second) typicality that you ascribe to the bKa’-brgyud school is certainly worth-considering, I have a feeling that perhaps all Tibetan Buddhist schools would make the same kind of claim. Second, while it is true that various bKa’-brgyud schools and sub-schools would differ in their focus on certain meditative practices, I still think we should ask this question: Is there any bKa’-brgyud school or sub-school that does not have (or recognize) the Mahāmudrā doctrine as its highest or ultimate doctrine? Doctrinally, I am tempted to compare the various bKa’-brgyud schools and sub-schools to various kinds of temples with different designs, structures, materials, and size, but all temples without an exception have the golden copula/dome (dbu rtse). The Mahāmudrā doctrine is, in my view, the golden dome that adorns all bKa’-brgyud schools and sub-schools. The argument that also the non-bKa’-brgyud schools practice or endorse the Mahāmudrā doctrine would not undermine my assumption, an issue that I will take up with Dan below. At any rate, it is a mere attempt to understand the identity or rather the self-perception of the bKa’-brgyud schools. Many thanks again for engaging with the topic. Best wishes, Dorji

  2. Hi Jan,

    I think I can attack Dorji's idea from a different perspective. There were Mahâmudrâ movements such as those of Padampa and Chagna (Phyag-na) and so on that weren't usually regarded as being any kind of Kagyu, and that had only lower-level impact on the schools designated as Kagyu. And of course Mahamudra teachings are in all the schools, no doubt about it (except Nyingma & Bon, unless Nyingma and Bon teachers assert otherwise, in which case we will have to defer to their higher wisdom). All the existing Kagyu schools have mixtures in them, not least of all the teachings of Phagmodrupa, who integrated Lamdre ideas into his own teachings. Just like Lamdre, Padampa's Zhije school also got "mixed into" the various Kagyu lineages, and may have served as reasons for their distinctiveness in earlier times (more than is conscious today). So I hope we don't have to assert too strongly the "purity" of the Kagyu lineages, or it's likely to lead us into perceived contradictions. Will have to think about this some more, as anyway we have been thinking about it for quite awhile, huh!

    1. Dear Dan, although your comments have been addressed to Jan, I take the liberty to reply briefly. To put it somewhat axiomatically, in my view, all bKa’-brgyud schools must necessarily accept the Mahāmudrā as ITS HIGHEST doctrine, but not all schools that endorse or practice Mahāmudrā can be called the bKa’-brgyud schools. It would not contradict the fact that many non-bKa‘-brgyud schools and scholars would endorse or practice the Mahāmudrā teaching. Those who regard rDzogs-chen, Zhi-byed, etc. as THEIR highest teachings may or may not recognize the Mahāmudrā doctrine EQUAL to their highest teachings but would usually accept and even practice the Mahāmudrā teaching as the correct teaching. I must run. Warm wishes, Dorji