Tankha and detail below from Eastern Tibet, circa 1900, courtesy of Buddhist Artefacts / Parkham Place Gallery, Sydney, Australia

This tankha depicts Khyungpo Naljor in a typical posture with his left hand placed behind him to show his weariness after seven trips to Nepa / India. To the left of Khyungpo is a small scene with the inscription 'Mokchokpa,' referring to Khyungpo's principal disciple, Mokchokpa Rinchen Tsondru. The inscriptions identity the figure to the lower left as Tangtong Gyalpo and the lower central lama as Jamgon Kongtrul. The lower right lama has not yet been identified but according Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, he may be Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo.


Masters of the Shangpa Kagyu lineage

In Like An Illusion, the new book of biographies of the Shangpa Kagyu Masters, the characters are colorful, even to the point of eccentricity. They are humorous, vibrant, touching. Below, several Shangpa Kagyu Masters are presented individually.

Khyungpo Naljor launched the Shangpa lineage by receiving transmissions from two accomplished women, Niguma and Sukhasiddhi. In particular, the teachings he received from Niguma came with the command that they be given only in a one-to-one guru-to-disciple transmission for the first seven generations. More about these two dakinis is available here. Khyungpo Naljor was probably born in 984 in Nyemo Ramang, West-Central Tibet. At his birth, the adept Amogha flew down from the sky to offer wondrous prophecies about the new born. Khyungpo Naljor took seven trips to India and Nepal in search of the authentic dharma; he studied and practiced under such adepts as Maitripa, Dorjedenpa, and Rahula. He finally settled to establish his monastic seat in Shang--which is how the lineage got its name Shangpa. He passed away in 1139, at the ripe age of 150.



Lama Mokchokpa, detail from tankha referred above

Mokchokpa Rinchen Tsöndru (1110-1170) was only 16 when he first met Khyungpo in 1126, and Khyungpo advsied him to go study the Prajnaparamita. Years later, the two met again and Mokchokpa received the Shangpa Kagyu transmission from Khyungpo. Mokchokpa's determination to practice is unequaled by ordinary practitioners. He spent twelve years meditating in a cave, although not even his aunt brought him any supplies. Mokchokpa's songs are evocative and some of the most beautiful in Like An Illusion. For an excerpt, click here.

Hundreds of disciples gathered around Mokchokpa's cave, but the Shangpa Kagyu Master always sought solitude. He met Gampopa, Milarepa's disciple. At their meeting, as tears flowed down Gampopa's face, he said:

    In our many past lives
    We have taught one another.
    Because of our previous connections,
    We now meet in this meditation cave.
    Full of faith and devotion,
    You have come here as my son.
And Gampopa gave Mokchokpa teachings on the Six Yogas.

Homage to this holy being, master of Dream Yoga!



Kyergangpa Chökyi Senge (1143-1216), Mokchokpa's disciple, had a powerful connection with Avalokiteshvara, the Lord of Great Compassion (Chenrezig in Tibetan). He first meditated in solitude for three years with "no accomplishments whatsoever" and was ready to give up when Avalokiteshvara appeared. Kyergangpa burst out an ironic greeting: "Oh Lord of Little Compassion!"
In his autobiography, Kyergangpa is very straighforward about the mistakes he made. For example, he belittled a man who was in fact a realized being: the goddess Nairatmya reproached him and he made amends. Kyergangpa also admits his motivation was not always pure, and he was not always able to balance study and practice. The hardships in his life, this Shangpa Master explained, were the result of negative karma accumulated in past lives.


Rigongpa Sangye Nyentön (1175-1247) was one of the more colorful Shangpa Kagyu Masters. Just as dreams play a paramount part in Mokchokpa's autobiography, and Avalokiteshvara plays a central role in Kyergangpa's story, in Rigongpa's autobiography it is the protectors that are often the focus. Rigongpa had to repeatedly tame protectors who tended to go on rampages against anyone who lacked respect for the dharma in general, and Rigongpa in particular. The advice of this Shangpa Master is:

    Yogis and yoginis, if you don't develop faith and devotion,
    You will never see the qualities of your Lama.
    But if you engender complete faith in your heart,
    You will understand that the Lama is himself a jewel:
    The body, speech, and mind of all the Buddhas of the three times.


Sangye Tönpa (1213-1285) is the last of the Seven Jewels--the seven generations of lineage holders who had to pass the instructions in a one-to-one, guru-to-disciple transmission. One day, while Sangye Tönpa was practicing, the dakini Sukhasiddhi appeard and said:

    The sky is empty and non-conceptual.
    Cut the root of this conceptual mind!
    Cut the root and relax!
The final words of advice of this Shangpa Kagyu Master: "It is non-meditation, non-mental activity, beyond samsara and nirvana."


Sangye Tönpa passed the transmission to several disciples, and the lineage continued through a succession of realized masters. However, with the advent of the Gelukpas in the 16th century, the Shangpa tradition nearly disappeared.
But in the mid-19th century, the eclectic master Jamgon Kongtrul Lodrö Taye revitalized the lineage as an independent tradition. He compiled the Shangpa teachings to which he devoted an entire volume in his Treasury of Oral Instructions (gdams ngag mdzod). His work was continued by Kyabje Kalu Rinpoche, who made the Shangpa practices part of the three-year retreats carried out in Tibet and in the west.
Kyabje Kalu Rinpoche passed away in 1989. His reincarnation, Yangsi Kalu Rinpoche, was born in September 1990. The transmission is now held by Bokar Tulku Rinpoche. Bokar Tulku Rinpoche resides in Mirik, India, and gives teachings every year.

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