Long ago in 10th century India, two extraordinary women perfectly realized the state of Buddha: the Wisdom Dakinis Niguma and Sukhasiddhi. The learned and accomplished Khyungpo Naljor (11-12th cent.), who left Tibet seeking India’s most precious teachings, met them and received from them the teachings that became the basis of the Shangpa Lineage. Due to the wisdom and compassion of all the masters who were the subsequent holders of this lineage, the tradition has been authentically transmitted down to the present day in an unbroken lineage from master to disciple, fully preserving its richness and vitality.
Khedrub Khyungpo Naljor was regarded by Jamgon Kongtrul to be the greatest Tibetan master after Guru Padmasambhava of the 7th century. Khyungpo Naljor established his seat at Shang-Shong in the Yeru Shang valley, which is how he came to be called Lama Shang and is the source of the name “Shangpa Kagyu.” Among the vast amounts of teachings that he received, five cycles stand out in particular, and continue to form the core of the Shangpa teachings to the present day. These are the teachings of two Jnana Dakinis, Niguma and Sukhasiddhi; of Vajrasanapa; of Maitripa; and of Rahula.
While not established as an institutional school, the Shangpa Kagyu is one of the “Eight Tibetan Traditions” of transmission. This unique tradition of the Shangpa is alive today, transmitted in full within the Dashang Kagyu yogic lineage. It is also found in the midst of various other Tibetan schools and was cherished among many preeminent Tibetan masters of diverse lineages. It is a pure yogic lineage of Vajrayana Buddhism, transmitted from master to disciple through initiation and sacred commitments (samaya).
The Shangpa tradition started in the 10th century with the two jnana dakinis Niguma and Sukhasiddhi who passed their teachings on to the Mahasiddha Kyungpo Naljor.
The Shangpa Kagyü lineage is generally little known, yet it is one of the eight practice lineages (sgrub brgyud shing rta brgyad) of the Tibetan tradition. The Shangpa Kagyu has often been mistaken as a secondary lineage of the Marpa Kagyü (the famous lineage of Marpa, Milarepa, Gampopa, and the Karmapas). These two lineages had their own development while remaining close to each other within Tibetan history.
The Shangpa tradition is a tree of yogic lineages that is not structured as an institution, each lineage holder developing his own mandala of disciples. Throughout its history, the Shangpa Kagyü lineage remained above all a lineage of practice that has never been concerned with power or wealth. Most of its holders were great yogis living as hermits, all of whom had attained great spiritual enlightenment.
It had very few monasteries, was without hierarchy, and long remained a “secret” lineage transmitted from one master to one disciple. At each generation, several branches would also appear; some of them did not last, while others endured. The lineage has often been held by masters from other lineages or schools.
In the 19th century, very few holders of the tradition remained. The great masters of the Rime movement (ris med) Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye and Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo gathered and collected the different transmissions of its branches and gave a new energy to the tradition.
In the 20th century its principal holder, Vajradhara Kalu Rinpoche (1904-1989)—considered to be the enlightened emanation of Jamgön Kongtrül Lodrö Thayé – spread the Shangpa tradition widely throughout the world. In the seventies and eighties he founded numerous Dharma centers and several retreat centers dedicated to the Shangpa yogic transmission. He entrusted their spiritual guidance to his elder disciples and heirs, foremost of which was Bokar Rinpoche (1940-2004).
In accordance with the Shangpa Kagyü lineage yogic transmission from master to disciple, the other current holders are the Rinpoches and Lamas who were disciples of Kalu Dorje Chang that were entrusted by him with the lineage. They are presently gathered in the Council of Elders of the Shangpa Foundation.
After Kalu Rinpoche passed away in 1989, his tülku Yangsi Kalu Rinpoche (b. 1990) was officially recognized by Kenting Chamgön Tai Situpa on March 25, 1992 as the son of Lama Gyaltsen, Rinpoche’s nephew and life time assistant, and his wife Drölkar. The young boy was born on September 17, 1990, at Samdrub Darjay Choling Monastery in Sonada, India. He inherited the monasteries of Sonada and Salugara and is one of the current holders of Vajaradhara Kalu Rangjung Künchab’s lineage.
The Shangpa tradition’s yogic teachings and practices are transmitted mainly within retreat centers. It remains very much alive as a complete yogic tradition.
An Authentic Teaching, Complete and Alive
The Shangpa teachings are teachings of liberation—liberation from illusions, the ego and its passions—a teaching of authentic enlightenment, complete and alive.
An authentic teaching necessarily draws its source from within the experience of ultimate reality, enlightenment. It also transcends the particularities of time and place. Those who become holders of the lineage join its uninterrupted spiritual continuity through the initiator. At each link of the chain of transmission, a disciple receives the teachings from his master who has knowledge born of practice. The disciple studies the teachings, practices, and realizes it fully. He or she then passes it on, in accordance with the blessing of the lineage and the texts, without making it “his or her” teaching. In this way, the transmission remains pure and unaltered, as it is not touched by ordinary beings and their individual egos, allowing for continuity in the teachings beyond the particularities of time and place.
Yet the authenticity of a teaching and the experience that it transmits are necessary yet insufficient criteria for a lineage of wisdom. The authenticity of the source is very important but a tradition may still be incomplete, deviate, or stop before reaching the ultimate experience. In order to lead one to harmony, peace, health and happiness at their deepest levels, a tradition needs not only to be authentic but also complete. The capacity to truly and completely transmit the enlightened experience is the ultimate criteria which determines the degree of perfection of a tradition. In this way, at the end of the learning process, one can realize authentic presence.
It is also important to mention that a healthy and complete tradition includes in its process the transcendence of its own formulations: all the names and forms that constitute it in time and place. Indeed, the formulations are like the finger pointing to the moon but should not be confused with the moon itself.
Names and forms are naturally relative, so clinging to them would veil the direct and immediate realization of our true nature, and risk mistaking the map for the territory itself. That is why the Buddha cautioned his disciples: “My teaching is a practical way that should not be venerated. It is a raft allowing the crossing of the river. Only a fool would burden himself with the boat once on the other side, the one of liberation.” This letting go of the vehicle itself is a measure of the aliveness of the tradition. It is its humor, its freshness, and its ability to relate to circumstances with skill and creativity.
In sum, it is necessary to follow a teaching that is authentic, complete, and alive. One’s guide on this path needs to be competent and knowledgeable about the path in order to help us progress step by step. The guide, living in the present and having realized the absolute, can then fully transmit the heart of the enlightened experience, keeping the tradition alive and functioning according to the lineage of its blessing and its texts.
The Particular Qualities of the Shangpa Yogic Lineage
The Shangpa lineage is unique in various ways. Throughout all of its history, it has never been converted into an institution, and at times has been held by masters from different lineages. It also finds its origins with two extraordinary enlightened women: Niguma and Sukhasiddhi.
The accomplished scholar Khyungpo Naljor was also extraordinary, although much less famous than his contemporaries Naropa, Marpa and Milarepa. Khyungpo Naljor was considered by Jamgön Kongtrul to be one of the greatest yogis ever to have existed in Tibet. He wrote of him in the Impartial History of the Sources of the Teachings (ris med chos ‘byung):
“His accomplishments are unequalled, except by the Indian masters Luhipa, Krishnacharya and Ghantapa. In Tibet, it appears that among the twenty-five disciples during the first wave and among the masters of the second wave, nobody appeared who could rival his erudition, his spiritual realization, his miraculous powers and his spiritual activity.”
The Shangpa lineage is considered exceptional for the profoundness of its teachings and for the spiritual attainment of its masters. Jetsun Taranatha wrote in the 17th century:
“Although the Shangpa lineage has been disseminated within countless other lineages, thanks to the adamantine seal constituted by the word of the dakinis, there has never been any divergence between the words and their meaning. Unblemished by any impurity originating in the ordinary production of concepts, the Shangpa lineage is found at the summit of all of the lineages of practice.”
In the Encyclopedia of Knowledge (shes bya kun khyab mdzod) Jamgön Kongtrül Lodrö Thayé wrote:
“This lineage of instruction is endowed with three unique qualities which makes it superior to any other:
The holders of the lineage have always been exceptional persons. The succession of the masters of the lineage only includes bodhisattvas living their final life (before perfect Buddhahood). This lineage has never been interrupted by the presence of ordinary beings.
The meditation instructions are themselves extraordinary. Their meaning is not deceptive and the words are free from all impurity. The vajra words of the verses sealed by the dakinis have never been changed by compositions or embellishments coming from the imagination of ordinary persons.
Its spiritual influence is particularly exceptional. Still today, in an era of degeneration, this influence is such that the fruit of accomplishment ripens in diligent individuals who (practice it) and keep their samayas.”
Because it retained a relatively intimate, if not “secret” status, the Shangpa lineage has been able to preserve, up until the present, all of its purity, power and spiritual influence.