‘All Buddhists can be called ‘Kagyupa”: the ‘Four Dharmas’ of Gampopa by 17th Karmapa (Part I)

HH 17th Gyalwang Karmapa teaching yesterday on the ‘Four Dharmas of Gampopa’

Yesterday was the first day of HH Gyalwang Karmapa’s teachings on the ‘Four Dharmas of Gampopa’, given for the annual Kagyu debate meeting (this year held at Zurmang monastery, Sikkim). The 17th Karmapa was in excellent form, giving a detailed and interesting teaching on various topics connected to Je Gampopa (sGam-po-pa bSod-nams rin-chen) (1079-1153)) and his teachings on the Four Dharmas.

His teaching covered the meaning of the word ‘Kagyu’ and Dagpo Gampopa’s name, Gampopa’s role as the founder of the Dagpo Kagyu and it being the source of the other Kagyu lineages, and what was unique about Je Gampopa and his teachings.

As an offering, I have written a brief report and transcript of the teachings, based on the original Tibetan and English translation by David Karma Chophel (video is here). Where the Karmapa refers to specific texts or people, I have done additional research on the Tibetan sources and names, and provided them for reference.

May it be of benefit!

Origin of the ‘Four Dharmas’

The Four Dharmas (chos bzhi) of Gampopa are:  

བློ་ཆོས་སུ་འགྲོ་བ། ། (or ཆོས ཆོས་སུ་འགྲོ་བ།)

ཆོས་ལམ་དུ་འགྲོ་བ། །

ལམ་འཁྲུལ་བ་ཞིག་བ། །

འཁྲུལ་པ་ཡེ་ཤེས་སུ་འཆར་བ། །

“May Dharma (or mind) go along with Dharma.

May Dharma may go along with the path.

May confusion on the path be clarified.

May confusion dawn as primordial awareness.”

Je Gampopa, Dagpo Rinpoche, Sonam Rinchen

The 17th Karmapa explained that these ‘Four Dharmas’ are to be found in all Tibetan Buddhist lineages:

“The four Dharmas of Gampopa are not only in the Kagyu tradition but in all the Tibetan traditions. In the instructions of the Nyingma[i], Sakya, Gelug, the Four Dharmas are mentioned. In the Collected Works we have of Gampopa [ii] now, there are several texts within them that talk about the four dharmas, some in verse some in prose, some are long and short. The 4th Gyalwang Drugpa Kagyu master, Kunkhyen Pema Kharpo [kun-mkhyen pad-ma dkar-po) (1527–1592)] and other scholars, identified the text on the The Three Individuals the Supreme Garland of the Stages of the Path of twele and a half stanzas (skye bu gsum gi lam mchog rin po che’i phreng ba) as being like the root text of the four Dharmas[iii]. However, within this root text if you look at what it explicitly says: for each of the four Dharmas, practice it with the view, meditation and conduct. It mentions the four Dharmas but it doesn’t identify them clearly, nor give much explanation of them.

Within the Collected Works of Gampopa there is a text called the ‘Four Dharmas: An Excellent Summary’’[iv] [chos bzhi mdor bsdus pa legs] and some of these texts begin with the phrase ‘Namo Guru’[v].  So, within the Collected Works of Gampopa, there are two texts that clearly identify each of the Four Dharmas and explain them. Other than that, there do not seem to be any others that identify and name the four Dharmas clearly. So the one we will discuss, is the one I mentioned before that does clearly state them, with the title ‘The Four Dharmas: An Excellent Summary’. Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye also included that text in his Treasury of Precious Instructions (Dam Ngag Dzo)[v].

Not only that, Je Gomtsul also wrote on a commentary on the text I mentioned before with twelve and a half stanzas. There is also another direct disciple of Gampopa, named Lho Layakpa [vi], who also wrote a root text on the four Dharmas and a summary of them [after checking this it is: Ornament of the Clear Heart: Commentary on the Renowned Four Dharmas of the Incomparable Dagpo, mnam med dwags po’i chos bzhir grags pa’i gzun gi ‘grel pa sning po gsal ba’i rgyan] [vii]. There are many complete commentaries on the four Dharmas[viii]. The one by Layakpa was important for spreading the teachings and very kind and useful for later generations. There are also several commentaries that are written by Je Phagmo Drugpa [phag mo gru pa rdo rje rgyal po) [1110-1170], one of the three main disciples of Gampopa][viv].”

Here is an image I took of the first page of the beautifully illustrated Layakpa text:

Image from the Commentary on the Four Dharmas of Gampopa by Layagpa

When Layakgpa met Gampopa it is reported that Gampopa said to him:”I am an old man like a dry meadow in the setting sun, but this Lhopa (lho pa; Southerner) has a karmic connection with me like the one I had with the Jetsun [Milarepa].” Indeed, Gampopa was an elderly man in the last years of his life. He believed Layakpa was a reincarnation of one of his earlier students who had died young. He took Layakpa, who was also called Lhopa, with him into a closed retreat and gave him all the precepts. In all, Chokyi Ngodrub spent no more than four years with Gampopa, but through the blessings of this great teacher he met with the Mahāmudrā as if encountering an old friend.”

There are not many extant editions left of Gampopa’s Collected Works (known as the Dags po’i Bka’ ‘bum) were published in Dvag Lha Gampo monastery, but that edition has been lost. I have listed the editions available online in a footnote below. The three main editions extant today are: 

  • An edition made in Remis Monastery, Ladhak, in the nineteenth century;
  • A copy of the above, published in February 1982, in India;
  • The Derge wood block edition.
Difference in Wording of the first of the ‘Four Dharmas

The 17th Karmapa then went on to discuss the different wording of the first Dharma out of the four, and how it changed after the 5th Karmapa’s time:

“So, we have the texts written by Gampopa in his Collected Works, then there are the Four Dharmas commentaries written by his disciples. There are some differences in the words of these Four Dharmas. In later times, the first of the four dharmas was well-known as ‘may my mind become the Dharma’, but in the older texts it says ‘may the Dharma go along with Dharma’. There aren’t any that say ‘may my mind go along with the Dharma’. So Karma Khenchen Rinchen Dhargye (karma rin chen dar rgyas)[ix] wrote a short commentary on the four Dharmas, and within that, what he said is that at the time of the 5th Karmapa, Dezhin Shegpa, it had changed to the latter. I have not been able to look at the entire Collected Works of Dezhin Shegpa, but there is a work by a student of Dezhin Shegpa, called Mase Togden[x], giving instructions on Mahamudra, (in the Treasury of Precious Instructions) and in this it says ‘may my mind go along with the Dharma’. So, it seems that Karmay Khenchen’s teachings may be correct with authentic sources. This is something we can look at slowly and in more detail over the next few days.

In brief, when we talk about the four Dharmas of Gampopa, or the ’ four striking the points’, within these it teaches all of the Stages of the Path (Lam Rim) of the three types of individuals of the Kadampa tradition. It also summarises the main points of the union of the Mahamudra and tantra traditions. So, it includes the main points of the Sutra and Tantra traditions. Being followers of Dagpo Gampopa, it is important to know what these four main points are. It is unsuitable not to know them. So, for that reason, I think it’s good to take this opportunity to teach the four Dharmas of Gampopa.”

Interesting to note here, after a brief research online, the texts beginning ‘Namo Guru’ in Gampopa’s Collected Works, both use the phrase ‘may Dharma go along with Dharma’ (chos chos su ‘gro). It may be that the best translation of the Tibetan term chos in that expression is ‘phenomena’ (instead of Dharma). I found a text in the Collected Works of the 3rd Karmapa on the Four Dharmas of Gampopa (man ngag rim chos bzhi) [xi], which uses the term ‘may Dharma go along with Dharma’ . So clearly that was the expression used at that time of the 3rd Karmapa.

Image of first page from Gampopa’s Four Dharmas: An Excellent Summary with the first line as ‘May Dharma go along with Dharma (or phenomena)

The meaning of the term ‘Kagyu

The 17th Karmapa challenged the commonly-held notion that ‘Kagyu’ is simply the name of a Tibetan Buddhist lineage, by explaining the literal meaning of Kagyu as meaning the ‘words/speech of the Buddha’, so that in reality, the term applies to all followers of Buddhist teachings:

“Before talking about the four Dharmas, we usually call ourselves Dagpo Kagyu or Kagyupas. We say this, but what is Kagyu? However, if we say please explain it, a lot of people would not be able to explain it. So some might ask ‘Why are you Kagyupa?’ ‘Oh my parents were Kagyu’ or ‘when I was young, I became a monk in a Kagyu monastery’. So for that reason, that’s ‘why I am a Kagyu’. That’s how some people think.

First of all, we need to think, what does it mean to be a Kagyupa? So if we take a broader understanding of the term ‘Kagyu’. The first syllable is ‘Ka’ (bka’) which means ‘speech’ [words: gsung]. For example, when used in the Kangyur, it means the Collected Words [or Speech] of the Buddha. So it means the words or speech of the Buddha. Gyu (rgyud) means lineage and what that means is a lineage that is passed down uninterrupted from one master to the next. Thus, Kagyu means the transmission of the words of the Buddha contained in the Tripitaka and Tantra, in an unbroken series. If we think about it in that way, everyone who upholds a Buddhist lineage could be called a Kagyupa. We could say this and it is appropriate to say that.

For that reason, the Kadampas who were sometimes called the Jowo Kagyu. Later, there were people in the hearing lineage in the Gelugpa, who were called the Gedun Kagyu. There was also a lineage passed down from the Bodong Panchen, called the Bodong Kagyu. So in this way, there were many different lineages called by the name Kagyu. However, these days, generally when we talk about Kagyu, we understand it as a particular lineage of Tibetan Buddhism and we understand it as the name of that lineage. So for example, if you had a monk from Sakya, Gelug and Nyingma and asked them what traiditon they are from, they would say ‘oh I am Sakya, Gelug, Nyingma but they would not say ‘I am Kagyupa’. They are not thinking I don’t uphold a lineage of the Buddha’s teachings, they are thinking Kagyu is the name of a lineage and that they are not part of that lineage. Therefore, the main point is this, the way a word is used, and the way it is understood has changed. Nonetheless, in terms of it meaning ‘the words of the Buddha lineage’ there is no difference in that meaning at all. If we understand that, it is good.”

Dagpo Kagyu and Gampopa

Je Gampopa with 1st Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa

The 17th Karmapa explained that, nowadays, what is understood to be Kagyu are the teachings that were passed down and originated from Je Gampopa, the founder of what is called the Dagpo Kagyu, which then spawned several other Kagyu lineages:

“Nowadays, it is understood to be the four transmissions [bka’ babs bzhi] and other teachings passed down from Tilopa to Naropa, who then taught them to Marpa the Translator, who then brought them to Tibet. He established these teachings by listening, contemplation and meditation. These were then passed down to Milarepa and so forth, and so there has been an unbroken lineage. That is what we call the Kagyu,

When we talk about the four oral transmissions, there are different ways we speak about that in the Kagyu. But I will not discuss that today. In any case, all four of these traditions, originate from the Buddha Vajradhara. They all are considered the words of the Buddha and there is no contradiction between that and what I said before about the words of the Buddha.

In the Drugpa Kagyu tradition, they talk about Kargyu and spell it differently. However, within the other Kagyu traditions, the spelling Kagyu is more common. In brief, the source of Kagyu came first from India, from Tilopa, then Naropa. There are many great masters upholding this lineage in India. Marpa the Translator became a student of Naropa and then he brought it for the first time to Tibet. Marpa had many students but among the most famous of them is Jetsun Milarepa. He also had many students, including Rechungpa and so on. But one of the main disciples, who is ‘like the sun’ is Gampopa. So Marpa, Milarepa and Gampopa were called the three Kagyu forefathers. Like talking about the grandfather, or great-grandfather, they are the ancestors or forefathers. Thus, in terms of the foundation of the Kagyu teachings in Tibet, it would be these three. Among those there, there is especially Gampopa, who is the founder of the Dagpo Kagyu lineages. Now when we talk about the Kagyupa, we mean the lineage of the teachings that were spread by Je Gampopa.”

The unique approach and lineage of Gampopa

“Gampopa had several names. The two most well-known names were Dagpo Rinpoche and the other Je Gampopa. Dagpo is a place name. Gampopa is a mountain name. So the teacher was called by the name of the place or mountain. The students who followed him and upheld the lineage, became the Dagpo Kagyu. Of course, before Gampopa was even born, there was a Kagyu lineage wasn’t there? From Marpa and Milarepa, yet later the Kagyu were called the Dagpo Kagyu. They are not called the Marpa or Mila Kagyu. The tradition for calling them that has not really spread. What’s the reason for that? So not only did Gampopa have the oral instructions passed down from Marpa and Milarepa but he also held the lineage of instructions from the Kadamapas. He also practiced the tradition of the three paths in the tradition of the Kadamapa individuals. Gampopa combined the instructions of Mahamudra and the three paths of the individuals in union. As he was able to do that, he had a greater power to spread the teachings of the Kagyu tradition.

For that reason, it became the Dagpo Kagyu in Tibet, and it became the most well-known lineage. It is like the overall name for all the Kagyu lineages. That is how that all occurred. Therefore, when we say Kagyupa we need to understand that it is the Dagpo Kagyu. Milarepa taught that from his practice lineage, Dagpo Kagyu will arise. Also, Milarepa said, I am a yogi but after me there will be more monastics, so Gampopa also did great things for the Buddha’s teachings and praised Gampopa for that. This is also very clear in the texts of Gampopa. So among these three, the one who did the most activities, and who spread the Kagyu teachings, is mainly Gampopa.”

I hope to do a brief a report of each day of the teachings and will publish the full transcript here shortly.

Written, compiled and edited by Adele Tomlin, 29th December 2020.

Further Reading

  • Longchenpa, A Precious Garland for the Four Themes (of Gampopa) (Skt. dharma chatur ratna mala, Wyl. chos bzhi rin po che’i ‘phreng ba)
  • Chögyam Trungpa, The Four Dharmas of Gampopa, a seminar given at Karme Chöling, July 1975 (Vajradhatu Publications)
  • Thrangu Rinpoche, The Four Dharmas of Gampopa (Namo Buddha Publications, 1999)
  • Trungram Gyaltrul Rinpoche, Gampopa, the Monk and the Yogi: His Life and Teachings. PhD dissertation, Harvard University, 2004.


[i]  I found a text online in the Collected Works by the 14th Century Nyingma master, Drime Ozer on the Four Dharmas. See: dri med ‘od zer ,  mi ‘gyur nam mkha’i rdo rje tshe dbang grub pa rtsal . “chos bzhi rin po che’i phreng ba/.” In gsung ‘bum/_dri med ‘od zer/ (sde dge par ma/). TBRC W00EGS1016299. 5: 191 – 204. [sde dge]: [sde dge par khang chen mo/], [2000] .

[ii] I found seven editions of Gampopa’s Collected Works (gsung ‘bum/ sgam po pa) that have been uploaded online:

1) 2 volumes; W22393. sde dge par khang chen mo, sde dge. 1998?. sde dge par khang chen mo. Block Print.

2.) 4 volumes; W23439. khenpo s. tenzin & lama t. namgyal, kathmandu. 2000.

3) Reproduced from a manuscript from Lahul. 2 volumes; W23444. shashin, delhi. 1976. dbu can.  

4) From a reprint of a Lahuli manuscript. 3 volumes; W23566. kargyud sungrab nyamso khang, darjeeling, west bengal. 1982. dbu can. 5. 1 volume; W8LS16354. dbu med.

6) 1 volume; W4CZ301826. dwags lha sgam po/, rgya tsha rdzong /. 16th cent. . Block Print.

7) gsung ‘bum/ sgam po pa’i gdan rabs rim byon/ 5 volumes; W3CN8060. krung go’i bod rig pa dpe skrun khang /, pe cin/. 2013. dpal brtsegs bod yig dpe rnying zhib ‘jug khang nas bsgrigs/. Computer Input.

See also, Gyaltrul Rinpoche (2004: 300-308) for a full contents list of Gampopa’s various Collected Works (in Tibetan and English) . He says of the publishing of the Collected Works (p. 94):

[iii] “skyes bu gsum gyi lam rim phyed bcas sh+lau ka bcu gnyis pa’i ‘grel pa mdor bsdus pa/.” In gsung ‘bum/_pad+ma dkar po. TBRC W10736. 10: 537 – 542. darjeeling: kargyud sungrab nyamso khang, 1973-1974.

[iv] After a quick search online I discovered three editions of this text in different editions of Gampopa’s Collected Works: chos bzhi mdor bsdus pa lags: 1) gsung ‘bum/_sgam po pa; W23444, pp. 387-388. shashin, delhi. 1976. 2) gsung ‘bum/_sgam po pa/; W23566, vol. 3. kargyud sungrab nyamso khang, darjeeling, west bengal. 1982. 3) gsung ‘bum/_sgam po pa; W23439, vol. 3. khenpo s. tenzin & lama t. namgyal, kathmandu. 2000.

[v] This seems to be the text in the gsung ‘bum/_sgam po pa; W23444, pp. 387-388. shashin, delhi. 1976.

[vi] “dwags po rin po che’i chos bzhi mdor bsdus pa/.” In gdams ngag mdzod/. TBRC W20877. 8: 401 – 404. paro: lama ngodrup and sherab drimey, 1979-1981.

[vii] When Layakgpa met Gampopa it is reported that Gampopa said to him:”I am an old man like a dry meadow in the setting sun, but this Lhopa (lho pa; Southerner) has a karmic connection with me like the one I had with the Jetsun [Milarepa].” Indeed, Gampopa was an elderly man in the last years of his life. He believed Layakpa was a reincarnation of one of his earlier students who had died young. He took Layakpa, who was also called Lhopa, with him into a closed retreat and gave him all the precepts. In all, Chokyi Ngodrub spent no more than four years with Gampopa, but through the blessings of this great teacher he met with the Mahāmudrā as if encountering an old friend.” See: Layakpa Jangchub Ngodrub – The Treasury of Lives: A Biographical Encyclopedia of Tibet, Inner Asia and the Himalayan Region

[vii] mnam med dwags po’i chos bzir grags pa’i gzun gi ‘grel pa sning po gsal ba’i rgyan : a detailed study on sgam po pa’s chos bzi presentation of fundamental buddhist practice. See TBRC P7589. Written by the 12th century author, Layakpa Changchub Ngodrub.

[viii] There is a publication of a Collection of Commentaries on the Four Dharmas of Gampopa, published by Rigpe Dorje Publications, 2008. mnyam med dwags po chos bzhi’i dgongs ‘grel/ See TBRC W1KG4224 

[viv]For example, Pagmo Drupa wrote: “chos bzhi dang nyes pa rang zad kyi ‘grel pa/.” In gsung ‘bum/_rdo rje rgyal po/ (sde dge par ma/). TBRC W1KG10493. 1: 983 – 986. lhun grub steng/: sde dge par khang /, [2010?].

[x] Karma Rinchen Dargye (1823-1886?) karma rin chen dar rgyas also known as Karmay Khenpo, was a nineteenth century master recognized at an early age as the reincarnation of master of the Kagyü lineage whose seat was at the monastery of Karma Monastery in Kham. “Karmey Khenpo Rinchen Dargye was a reincarnation of the great pandita, Shantarakshita, who Tibetans commonly call Khenpo Bodhisattva. Shantarakshita was from the Indian country of Sahor and was the very first master invited for the construction of Samye in Tibet. Karmey Khenpo was often compared to Karmey Chagmey in terms of caliber. He had his own seat at the great monastery Karmey Gon in Kham and, even though he was a disciple of Chokgyur Lingpa, his background was Karma Kagyu. Karmey Khenpo was an extraordinary master and looked like one of the sixteen arhats. He was a completely pure monk and never let meat or alcohol touch his tongue his entire life. He also said that his hand had never even grazed a woman. They also say he never allowed a lie to cross his lips. Yet, even though he was so gifted and quite close to Chokgyur Lingpa, he still didn’t have the fortune to receive the Dzogchen Desum in person. However, after the great terton passed away, Karmey Khenpo did have a vision of Chokgyur Lingpa’s wisdom-body and received the complete empowerments and transmissions then. Karmey Khenpo was an incredibly great master. Even Dudjom Rinpoche was amazed by his writings and once told me, “It’s so wonderful that someone like Karmey Khenpo could possibly exist in this world.” He lived, I believe, into his early 80’s and was then reborn as the son of Samten Gyatso’s sister.”–extract from Blazing Splendor, the memoirs of Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche.

[xi] Mase Togden (rma se rtogs ldan blo gros rin chen) was the founder of Zurmang lineage and a disciple of the 5th Karmapa Deshin Shegpa (de bzhin gshegs pa (1384-1415).

[xii] man ngag rim chos bzhi, gsung ‘bum/_rang byung rdo rje, Volume 10, Pages 615 – 620. TBRC W30541.

6 thoughts on “‘All Buddhists can be called ‘Kagyupa”: the ‘Four Dharmas’ of Gampopa by 17th Karmapa (Part I)

  1. Hi Adele, Thank you for your rich informative commentary on yesterday’s teaching from His Holiness Karmapa. How fortunate we all are to be able to tune in! Thought I should share this intriguing footnote I came across recently as to the meaning and interpretation of the distinctive terms Ka-gyu and Kar-gyu on the wonderful website for The Drukpa Choegon Lineage at http://www.drukpachoegon.org
    To my mind it clearly emphasises the early Yogic tradition of the Indian forefathers and Tibetan founders of our present day living Kagyu lineage, as opposed to the monastic Kadampa aspect so emphasised by Gyalwang Karmapa in his recent talk. When I first read this Drukpa interpretation a few weeks ago for some reason it gave me quite a secret thrill – obviously the yogic “white robe” origins of the Kagyupa lineage are still a rather important point of historic pride for the Drukpa practitioners.
    So here is the footnote such as it is, a jumping board for further debate perhaps:

    *** *** **** *** ***

    ” Note to Reader:
    2. Some readers might be confused by the term “Kagyu” vs “Kargyu” used in this website. Below are the short explanations on the actual denotation of these 2 terms. However, nowadays Drukpa ‘Kargyu’ and Drukpa ‘Kagyu’ are used interchangeably in the English media.

    Kagyu – can be translated as “The Lineage of the Oral Instructions.” The first syllable “Ka” refers to the scriptures of the Buddha and the oral instructions of the guru. “Ka” has the sense both of the enlightened meaning conveyed through the instructions of the realised master, as well as the power and the blessing such words of insight carries; and “Gyu” simply means lineage or tradition.

    Kargyu – The Kar (white) Gyu (lineage) of Marpa, Milarepa, and their followers; many of which dressed in white robes. Kewang Sangye Dorje, one of the foremost disciples of Pema Karpo, suggested this name for our Drukpa Kargyu Lineage. “

    1. Hello Paul. thanks for that info, I will include a note to it in the article! Don’t forget though that Gampopa, after meeting Milarepa definitely practised and lived the life of a yogi etc. for many years, as you will see in the forthcoming posts on his ‘life-liberation’…..his reasons for becoming a monk were based on deep personal tragedy too and the insistence of his ‘attached’ dying wife! Dagpo Kagyu was the fount of all the other Kagyu lineages, including Drugpa…….

  2. Thank you so much for this offering. It is of immense value as a way of reviewing the talks after listening to them. I am especially happy to see the mention of “dharma” as phenomena, which makes “dharma become the dharma” both more understandable and more aligned with a vajrayana view of seeing the world as sacred. No where else have I seen this interpretation mentioned and have not yet (as of day 4) heard the H.H. Karmapa explain it. Much gratitude.

    1. Hello Laura, thanks so much for your kind comments! Am happy to hear you find it valuable. I have also added in some references to the texts that were not in the teaching explicitly. Regarding the translation point, I agree. Let’s see what HH Karmapa has to say about it. Am typing up Day 4 now. Wishing you a very happy and meaningful 2021!

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