The Kagyu lineage originated with the great yogi Tilopa who lived in Northern India sometime around the 10th century A.D. Tilopa received the four special transmissions (T:bka-babs-bzhi) and mastered them. Although there is some discrepancy in historical sources regarding the identities of the masters associated with each of the four transmissions the most common consensus indicates that their sources are as follows:
Origins of the Four Special Transmissions
The first of the four came from Nagarjuna and consists of two tantras, the Sangwa Dupa Tantra (Skt. Guhyasamaya) and the Denshi Tantra. It also incorporates the practices called Illusory Body (T: sgyu-lus) and ‘(T: pho-ba).
The second special transmission came from Nakpopa and includes the tantra called Gyuma Chenmo (Skt: Mahamaya) and the practice called Conscious Dreaming (T: rmi-lam).
The third special transmission came from Lawapa. It includes the Demchok Tantra and the practice of Clear Light (T: od-gsal).
The fourth was transmitted from Khandra Kalpa Zangmo and includes the tantra known as Gyepa Dorje (Skt: Hevajra), and the practice called Tummo.
The master Tilopa passed the four special transmissions to Naropa, who systematized them as the Six Yogas of Naropa, considered a central theme in the Kagyu Lineage.
Maitripa (1007–1085), one of the great mahasiddhas of India, was a disciple of Naropa and held Saraha’s transmission. Maitripa is an important figure in Tibetan Buddhism in general, and the Kagyu lineage in particular, because he was one of Marpa Lotsawa’s main teachers.
Maitripa studied at both Nalanda and Vikramashila monastic universities in India. One of his teachers at Nalanda was the famed master Naropa. At Vikramashila, however, during the tenure of Atisha, Maitripa was expelled because of “unseemly” yogic behavior he had exhibited by engaging in advanced Vajrayana rituals within the monastic setting. After leaving Vikramashila, he lived and practiced as a wandering yogi.
After meeting with the great mahasiddha Shawaripa, Maitripa studied the special techniques of Mahamudra under him.
Maitripa is considered to have been a greatly accomplished master of the Buddhist Tantric system and is most famous for transmitting the profound Mahamudra teachings to the legendary Tibetan translator Marpa Chokyi Lodro, who would in turn transmit them to Milarepa.
Saraha (circa 9th century CE) was one the most famous mahasiddhas and a quintessential Mahamudra master. The name “Saraha” means “he who has shot the arrow,” in reference to his having studied with a dakini disguised as a low-caste arrowsmith. Metaphorically, this refers to one who has shot the arrow of non-duality into the heart of duality. He is often referred to as The Great Brahmin. Saraha was one of the great masters of the early Buddhist Vajrayana transmission, and a founder of the Mahamudra tradition.
Atisha (982–1054) was a great Indian sage and scholar, and the author of many influential texts, notably including the Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment. One of the main teachers at Vikramashila University, he was also a strict follower of the monastic rule and was widely acclaimed for the purity of his teaching.
Atisha spent the last part of his life in Tibet, giving transmissions and translating texts. He was instrumental in reinvigorating Buddhism in Tibet and is known for having established the lojong, or mind training, teachings there. His disciples founded the Kadampa school.