During the 10th and 11th centuries, while Buddhism was at its peak in India and shortly before its decline following the Muslim invasions, the yogic tradition developed with many great accomplished masters (the mahasiddhas) such as Luipa, Tilopa, Naropa, Maitripa and Saraha. Among them, two extraordinary women were know to have perfected their enlightened realization: Niguma and Sukhasiddhi. It is said that they received the teachings they received directly from the Buddha Vajradhara, the primordial buddha, the essence of all buddhas.
A contemporary of Marpa the translator (1012-1097/9), the scholar-yogi Khyungpo Naljor (990-1139) took seven trips to India and Nepal in search of a comprehensive transmission of the dharma. He received this transmission from the two Wisdom Dakinis Niguma and Sukhasiddhi, as well as from thirteen special masters and four root lamas (Vajrasanapa, Maîtripa, Râhula and a “hidden yogi” sbas pa’i rnal ‘byor). In all, he is said to have one hundred and fifty teachers.
He gained the capacity to manifest in his five chakras the wisdom bodies of the deities of the five tantras (rgyud sde lha nga): Hevajra, ultimate expression of Tummo; Chakrasamvara, ultimate expression of Karma Mudra; Guhyasamaja, ultimate expression of Clear Light and Illusory Body; and Vajrabhairava, ultimate expression of enlightened activity.
On his return to Tibet, he established a monastery at Shang-Shung in Central Tibet. This was his main seat, and he became known as the “Lama of Shang”, giving its name “Shangpa” to the tradition that sprung from him.
He is famous for having founded hundreds of monasteries and having thousands of students, but he passed on the teachings of Niguma to only one of his students, Mokchokpa (1110-1170). The Shangpa lineage is often referred to as the “secret lineage” because Niguma instructed Khyungpo Naljor to transmit the teachings to only one student for the first seven generations (beginning with the Buddha Vajradhara and Niguma). From Mochokpa, the lineage was passed to Kyergangpa (1143-1216), Rigongpa (1175-1247), and Sangye Tönpa (1213-1285). These first seven masters are known as the Seven Great Jewels of the Shangpa Kagyü (shangs pa rin chen rnam bdun).
Sangye Tönpa was the first teacher who gave the complete instructions to more than one of his disciples, and from this point on, several different lines of transmission developed. The intention for keeping the lineage secret by teaching the complete transmission to a single disciple each generation was to prevent it from becoming an established monastic tradition. As one of the more esoteric traditions, it was meant to be practiced rather than codified.
Sangye Tönpa had two main disciples : Samdingpa Shönu Drub (?-1319) and Khedrup Tsangma Shangtön (1234-1309). The latter had three main disciples: Jagpa Gyaltsen Bum (1261-1334), Müchen Gyaltsen Palsang and Khyungpo Tsültrim Gönpo.
In the Profound Meaning Extended (thang brdal ma), Jetsün Taranatha (1575-1634) explains that:
Khedrup Shönu Drub is the one who really put down the instructions in writing. Khetsün Gyaltsen Bum wrote down the teachings of Khedrup Shangtön Tsültrim Gön in the form of instructions, and then had him examine them.
The words of master Aï Senge, who was well experienced in the ancient teachings, as well as the words of Trülku Rinchen Lodrö, were written down by Serlingpa Trashipel. The instructions from the six doctrines and from other texts along with their practices were duly verified.
In general, the transcription is given to Khetsün Gyaltsen Bum who wrote many texts.
Thus the transmission of our tradition’s teachings is entirely included in the instructions of these three accomplished scholars and is truly reliable.
Its ramifications extend into twenty-four different lineages, but they are all included.
Among the holders of the lineage, we find very famous masters such as Thangtong Gyalpo (1361-1464), at the origin of the close lineage, Kunga Drölchok (1495-1566), and at the origin of the very close lineage and Jetsün Taranatha (1575-1634) who had a great influence in Tibetan history and is known to have met directly with the dakini Niguma.
Although the Shangpa teachings were highly regarded and were assimilated by many schools, the tradition itself has never developed as an institution, owned big monasteries or used the tulku system of transmission.
Many of the Shangpa teachings were also integrated into other schools. It is therefore not surprising that we find teachings and practices of the Shangpa even in the Sakya and Gelug schools. Jagchen Jampa Pal (1310-1391) for instance, a prominent holder of the Jagpa tradition of the Shangpa teachings, was one of the teachers of Tsongkhapa Lobsang Dragpa (1357-1419). Another great master of this particular Shangpa lineage was Lapchiwa Namkha Gyaltsen (la phyi ba nam mkha’ rgyal mtshan, 1372-1437), who was also a lineage holder of the Sakya, Karma Kagyu and Drikung Kagyu traditions. Jetsun Kunga Drolchog (1507-1566), a great Sakya and Jonang master, was very fond of the Six Doctrines of Niguma and is known to have taught them many times to many masters from all sorts of schools and traditions.
The various existing streams of Shangpa transmissions were all received by Kongtrul Lodro Thaye and then passed on by him. He received the Tanglug lineage from the great Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo. The Jonang lineage of the Shangpa teachings came to Kongtrul through Karma Shenpen Ozer (karma gshan phan ‘od zer), who was also known as Lama Karma Norbu, about whom we know only what little Kongtrul mentions in his autobiography. Apart from his students at his two main seats at Tsadra Rinchen Drak and Dzongshö Desheg Düpe Phodrang, the Shangpa teachings and lineage of Jamgön Kongtrul were continued and maintained, to the present day, at Benchen monastery in Nangchen and at Tshabtsha monastery in the Lingtsang area of Derge. The masters responsible were the Drongpa Lama Tendzin Chögyal of Benchen (the previous incarnation of Kyabje Tenga Rinpoche), who spent nine years at Tsadra and served both as Kongtrul’s personal attendant and as retreat master while Kongtrul was away; and the Tshabtsha Drubgen, head lama of Tshabtsha monastery, whose 9th incarnation has just recently been enthroned in Tibet. [Source: http://rywiki.tsadra.org]
In this way, up to the 19th century the teachings of the Shangpa Kagyu were practiced and transmitted in small retreat centers all over the Himalayas. Jamgön Kongtrul gathered the surviving transmissions and ensured their survival by including them in his Treasury of Sacred Instructions (gdams ngag mdzod), which was one of five great treasuries he complied that provided the textual foundation of of the 19th Century ecumenical renaissance called the rimay movement.