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 yogisbas 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.

The Rimay Movement

In the 19th century an extraordinary spiritual renewal developed in Tibet: the rimay movement. The rimay movement was not a new school or a new lineage. Rimay is a Tibetan term meaning “without bias”, “non sectarian”. The rimay outlook developed a vision of unity in diversity of the different schools and lineages.

Among the principal architects of this renaissance were the Omniscient Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820-1892), the tertön Chokgyur Dechen Lingpa (1829-1870) and Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye (1813-1899), that the Tibetologist E. Gene Smith very appropriately called the “Tibetan Leonardo da Vinci”. These three masters’ activities were immense. Beyond any sectarianism, with complete devotion towards all of the Buddha’s teachings, they undertook the task of collecting all of the lineages’ teachings and transmissions, of putting those of them that had never been written down into writing and of transmitting them, in order to continue to maintain their living existence, this at a time when some of these lineages were about to disappear. Jamgön Kongtrul had the responsibility of compiling this immense wealth of knowledge into the five great anthologies known as the Five Great Treasuries. It can be stated, without any doubt, that not only Tibetan Buddhism, but Buddhism in general would not be what it is today without this masterpiece.

In the 20th century its main holder, Vajradhara Kalu Rangjung Künchab (1904-1989) – considered to be the enlightened activity emanation of Jamgön Kongtrül Lodrö Thayé – continued the spirit and vision of the rimay movement, and particularly spread the Shangpa tradition throughout the world. In the nineteen seventies and eighties Kalu Rinpoche founded numerous Dharma centers and several retreat centers dedicated to Shangpa teachings. He entrusted their spiritual guidance to his oldest disciples and heirs, the main one being Bokar Rinpoche (1940-2004) who was the head of Mirik Monastery (West Bengal, India).

After Kalu Rinpoche passed away in 1989, his tulku, Yangsi Kalu Rinpoche (born in 1990) inherited of his monasteries of Sonada and Salugara in Northern India. The other current holders of the Shangpa

Lineages of the Shangpa Tradition

There are many ways to introduce the Shangpa lineages, here we will use the one written by Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye in his introduction to the Shangpa lineage in the shes bya kun khyab mdzod.

He introduces us to the Shangpa transmission lineages of Niguma’s Golden Teachings following the commonly used paradigm of the distant transmission lineage, the close transmission lineage and the very close transmission lineage.

The distant transmission lineage:
The root verse:

Khyungpo Naljor matured and liberated one hundred and eighty thousand individuals who became spiritual guides in their own right. Included among those are his six earlier and later dharma heirs. The vajra seal of the exclusive single transmission lineage (from one master to one disciple; see the Seven Jewels of the Shangpa Lineage), was lifted by the protector of beings, the dharma master (Sangye) Tönpa. He was the seventh master in this line of precious ones. Various lineages of disciples arose from the three learned and accomplished ones, and from the monastic seat of Latö Nenying.

The explanation:

“The greatly learned and accomplished master Khyungpo Naljor spiritually matured and liberated disciples whose number is equal to that of the (dust) particles found on this earth. Included among them were one hundred and eighty thousand spiritual guides. The chief ones among those were his five earlier disciples and the single later one. Among his five older inheritors, Me-u Tönpa was like the trunk of the tree of unmistaken highest insight. Yorpo Gyamoche was like its branches of compassionate intention. Ngultön Rinwang was like the leaves of compassion. Latö Könchok Kar was like the flower of loving kindness. Togden Zhang-gom Chöseng was like the sap of clear light. Khyungpo’s younger heir, Mokchokpa Rinchen Tsöndrü, was like the fully ripened fruit of the yogas of illusory form and dream.

The doctrines of the “single transmission lineage” of the secret words of Buddha Vajradhara were transmitted to Mokchokpa Rinchen Tsöndrü alone. They were then in turn passed on to Öntön Kyergangpa Chökyi Senge, Sangye Nyentön (aka Rigongpa Chökyi Sherab), and the protector of beings Chöje Tönpa (aka Sangye Tönpa Tsöndrü Senge). As foretold by both Vajradhara and the awareness dakini (Niguma), the vajra seal of the single transmission lineage lasted until the seventh jewel in line, Chöje Tönpa, to whom it fell to lift the seal. His accomplished students in turn filled the entire world of Jambu, all the way to the minor neighboring continents.

His main students were the three learned and accomplished masters known as Khedrub Tsangma Shangtön, Khetsün Shönu Drub of Samding and the great Jagpa Gyaltsen Bum. They upheld the Shangpa lineage as an independent (school) and put its profound instructions into writing.

Khedrub Tsangma Shangtön, Khyungpo Tsültrim Gönpo, Ritrö Rechen Sangye Senge, Shangkarwa Rinchen Gyaltsen, Nyame Sangye Palsang, Drubchen Namkha Gyaltsen and Gyagom Legpa Gyaltsen then formed an outstanding line of masters known as the “Later Seven Jewels of the Shangpa Kagyü.” Innumerable lineages of students came into being at the monastic seats of both Jagchen Gyaltsen Bum and Samdingpa Shönu Drub.

Furthermore, infinite lineages arose from Serlingpa Tashi Pal, a direct disciple of Chöje Tönpa, and from the family lineage of Latö Nenying, all of which were possessed of the ten great qualities from which came the prophecy that eighty eight miraculous manifestations of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara would appear and labor for the benefit of the teachings and beings. Latö Könchok Kar, being the first generation of that lineage, headed a monastery from which sprang many lines of masters and disciples.”

The close transmission lineage:
Root verse:

“On three earlier and later occasions, the transmission of Niguma’s doctrines was received by Thangtong Gyalpo.”

The explanation:

“The later rebirth of the all-knowing buddha from Dolpo, the accomplished adept Tsöndrü Sangpo, a single person with five names among which the name Thangtong Gyalpo was included, received the oral transmissions known as the Upper Rigong lineage, which had passed through Müchen Gyaltsen Palsang, who was a disciple of the learned and accomplished lineage holder Tsangma Shangtön, from Jangsem Jinpa Sangpo. Due to Thangtong Gyalpo’s cultivating experience, he was accepted as a disciple by the awareness dakini herself, and received close transmissions from her on three occasions.

The first occurred at Riwoche in Tsang. Niguma clearly revealed herself to him and transmitted her Six Doctrines, Mahamudra, the Integrations upon the Path, teachings on Deathlessness and the Lama and Protector Inseparable.

The second took place in a grove of juniper trees at the demon fortress of Dome, where he received further empowerments.

On the third occasion Niguma’s instructions on the Khecharis arose as a symbolic teaching which was transmitted without any words being spoken. These three transmissions, the earlier, middle and later, were passed on via Mangkarwa Lodrö Gyaltsen and others and formed individual lineages the teachings of which continue without interruption to this very day.”

The very close transmission lineage:
Root verse:

“Drubpe Pawo received twenty five transmission lineages, distant and close, and was accepted as a disciple by the dakini (herself). From among these lineages, the system of teachings of the Lord of Secrets Drölwe Gönpo is unique.”

The explanation:

“The Jamgön Drubpe Pawo Palden Kunga Drölchog received instructions from among twenty five lineages of Shangpa transmissions over a hundred times. The Vajra Queen Nigupta (Niguma) revealed herself twice in his visions and imparted especially profound meditation instructions upon him.

All in all he received twenty-four distant transmission lineages such as the ones passed down from Jagchen Gyaltsen Bum, Samdingpa Shönu Drub and Thangtong Gyalpo. He then proceeded to bestow this system of instructions over a hundred times upon fortunate disciples, thus guiding many of them to the attainment of accomplishments. In this way the Shangpa transmissions include both distant and close transmission lineages as well as the incredible very close transmission which came about through the dakini’s acceptance of Kunga Drölchog (as a disciple). All of these constitute the Shangpa lineage’s oral transmissions of the Golden Doctrines, which are beautified with the recent transmission’s fresh profound meditation instructions which carry (the blessing of the) dakini’s warm breath. They are the unique system of the Lord of Secrets Drölwe Gönpo (Taranatha) and include his “Profound Meaning Which Covers the Plains” (tib: thang brdal ma; his instruction manual on the Six Doctrines of Niguma).”

Sources: compiled and translated in English from the original Tibetan by Lama Sherab Drime

The Recent Tradition : Dashang (or Mar-shang) Lineage, from Jamgön Kongtrül Lodrö Thayé to Vajradhara Kalu Rangjung Künchab

The Shangpa Kagyu tradition was revived by Jamgön Kongtrül Lodrö Thaye (1801-1899), particularly in his Tsadra Rinchen Drak (Eastern Tibet, Khams) retreat center.

Khenchen Tashi Öser (1836-1910) and Khedrub Karma Tashi Chöpel (19/20th cent.) have been particularly important in the lineage transmission. Both of them were close disciples of Jamgön Kongtrül Lodrö Thaye from whom they received the lineage and spent the end of their lives at Tsadra Rinchen Drak in retreat.

That is where they probably met Drubwang Norbu Döndrub (1880-1954?) who received the lineage from them. He already had received the complete transmission from Jamgön Rinpoche himself in his youth in Palpung Monastery. Eventually, Drubwang Norbu Döndrub became the vajra master of Tsadra Rinchen Drak.

Through him, the transmission then came to Vajradhara Kalu Rangjung Künchab (1904-1989) during his time in the retreat center at Tsadra Rinchen Drak. Vajradhara Kalu Rangjung Künchab founded many three-year retreat centers worldwide dedicated to the practice of the Shangpa Kagyu. He was an holder of both Dagpo Kagyu and Shangpa lineages and thus gave the patronym “Dashang” to the Dharma centers he founded.

After the passing of Kalu Rangjung Künchab, the complete transmission of the lineage (the “Shangpa Chatsang”) continued to be transmitted by his different spiritual heirs, mainly in the context of three-year retreat centers.

Presently the descendants and spiritual heirs of Vajradhara Kalu Rangjung Künchab continue the great dharma works of his enlightened activities.

The Seven Jewels of the Shangpa Lineage and the Later Seven Jewels of the Shangpa Lineage

The Seven Jewels of the Shangpa lineage (tib : shangs pa rin chen rnam bdun snga ma)

The sealed teachings of the secret seal that she received from Vajradhara himself come from Niguma, who lives in a rainbow body in the tenth bodhisattva realm. She passed them on to Khyungpo Naljor asking him to pass them on to one person only for seven generations.

The Seven Jewels appeared chronologically as follows:

The second spiritual generation started the diffusion of the teachings throughout Tibet, then throughout the whole world. Sangye Tönpa was the one who opened the secret seal placed on the teachings.

The Seven later Jewels of the Shangpa lineage (tib : shangs pa rin chen rnam bdun phyi ma)

There are differences in the following list according to the literature. The essential difference resides in the first and the last of these later Jewels.

In the following list, either we consider the masters from 1 to 7, or from 2 to 8:

  1. Khedrub Tsangma Shangtön (1234-1309)
  2. Khyungpo Tsültrim Gönpo (13-14th Century)
  3. Ritrö Rechen Sangye Senge (14th Century)
  4. Shangkarwa Rinchen Gyaltsen (1353-1435)
  5. Nyame Sangye Palsang (1398-1465)
  6. Drubchen Namkha Gyaltsen (15th Century)
  7. Gyagom Legpa Gyaltsen (15-16th Century)
  8. Jetsün Künga Drölchog (1507-1566)