Introduction to the Shangpa Kagyu
The root verse:
"From one hundred and fifty masters, among which were awareness dakinis, scholars and realized adepts, Khyungpo Naljor, possessed of the five highest trainings, received the very treasure trove of their enlightened minds. Of the three avenues of teaching, debate and meditation practice, the essence of the last, is known to be the five cycles of teachings, of which the very root are the so-called Golden Doctrines."
Khyungpo Naljor, who was endowed with the five ultimate trainings, received the entire treasure of instructions, the very essence of their wisdom, from one hundred and fifty masters and realized adepts. Among these were thirteen especially accomplished masters, his four root teachers, and the two awareness dakinis, Niguma and Sukhasiddhi, who had received instructions directly from Buddha Vajradhara himself.
The learned and accomplished Khyungpo Naljor gradually underwent education (in his younger years) and attained realization of the teachings of both the Bon and the Nyingmapa. However, there came a time when aspirations which he had made previously (in earlier lifetimes) came to fruition, while he was engaged in the deeds of a bodhisattva. Accordingly he journeyed to India to search for teachings and discourses on the profound tantras. He accomplished the capability to visibly display the forms of the deities of the Five Tantras at the five centres of his physical body - Hevajra as the consumation of fierce inner heat; Cakrasamvara as the consumation of the action mudra; Guhyasamaja as the consumation of clear light and illusory form; Mahamaya as the consumation of the yoga of dream; and Vajrabhairava as the consumation of enlightened activity.
Khyungpo Naljor had achieved a level of realization that was in no way different from that of masters such as Saraha. He eventually established a monastery at Shang Shong, in the area known as Tshang Yeru Shang. Accordingly he became know as the Shangpa Lama, and those who continued his lineage were known as the Shangpa Kagyu. He lived for as long as one hundred and fifty years and displayed inconceivably amazing miraculous activity in order to turn limitless wheels of teachings.
If one were to summarize his particular system of the dharma path, one would have to speak of a threefold, gradual approach of teaching, debate and meditation training. This gradual path of his included the (sutra) teachings (of the Buddha) and their commentaries, as well as the tantras and their commentaries. He taught without error from the four main schools of philosophy, as well as from the four divisions of tantras of the vajrayana approach. Concerning the path of debate, he learned the seven treatises on logic of the masters of his day, but followed mainly the earlier systems of logic in order to define the three characteristics with the four proofs. He classified valid cognition as immediate perception, inference and belief through which a subject can be ascertained definitely by way of refuting objections.
Where the gradual path of meditation training is concerned, he taught every way of cultivating experience of the perfections which are based on causes, and the vajrayana way as expressed in pith instructions on how to gain experience through both general and specific crucial points of the thirty-seven-fold aspects of awakening, which are based on results. In this way, this single master who appeared in the snow land, provided innumerable avenues to the teachings and enlightened activities which were beyond compare. He was thus utterly inconceivable.
From among all of these teachings only the very essence of the gradual approach of meditation training survives to the present day. This is known as the five teaching cycles. Their root are the so-called Golden Doctrines of Niguma and Sukhasiddhi. The five cycles then, which Khyungpo Naljor obtained from his teachers, are those of Niguma, Sukhasiddhi, Vajrasanapa, Maitripa and Rahula. They are in turn acoompanied by various cycles of pith instructions.
Introducing the lineages of the Shangpa Kagyu, there are four topics: a) the distant transmission lineage, b) the close transmission lineage, c) the very close transmission lineage, and d) how the Shangpa Kagyu lineage is especially sublime.
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 only), 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."
A) The distant transmission lineage - 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 luminosity. Khyungpo's younger heir, Mokchokpa Rinchen Tsondrü, 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 Tsondrü 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 all of the 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. A disciple of Shangtön, Khyungpo Tsültrim Gönpo, and others then formed an outstanding line of masters known as the "Later Seven Jewels of the Shangpa Kagyu." Innumerable lineages of students came into being at the monastic seats of both Jagchen Gyaltsen Bum and Samdingpa Shönu Drub. What's more, 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 manifestation of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara would appear and labour 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.
B) The close transmission lineage - "On three earlier and later occasions, the transmission of Niguma's doctrines was received by Thangtong Gyalpo." 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 occured at Riwoche in Tshang. 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.
C) The very close transmission lineage - "Drubpe Pawo (Jetsün Kunga Drölchog) 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 (Taranatha) is unique." The Jamgön Drubpe Pawo Palden Kunga Drölchog received instructions from among twenty five lineages of Shangpa Kagyu 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 and include his "Profound Meaning Which Covers the Plains" (his instruction manual on the Six Doctrines of Niguma).
The root verse:
"This lineage is a line made up exclusively of bodhisattvas in their final lifetime. The dakini's vajra words are neither mistaken nor adulterated. The fruition of accomplishment ripens even in these final (degenerate) times."
D) How the Shangpa Kagyu lineage is especially sublime - This transmission lineage has three distinctive qualities which make it more sublime than other lineages. The upholders of this lineage are especially sublime because they are all bodhisattvas in their final lives (i.e. before attaining complete buddhahood). The profound meditation instructions of this lineage are especially sublime because their meaning is unmistaken and their words are unadulterated. This means to say that the very vajra words of the dakinis' have neither been made up nor altered by the imaginations or compositions of ordinary individuals. The blessings of this lineage are especially sublime, because even in these final degenerating times, persons with diligence and undamaged tantric commitments can visibly display the ripening of the fruits, beyond mere analysis and exposition.
"The enlightened activities of the Swift-Acting Awareness-Protector etc. are limitless." - For instance, if we were to look just at the cycle of teachings on the Swift-Acting Awareness-Protector alone, in times past it was the upper lineage transmission which was predominant. In later times, the lower tradition, the lineage of Rigongpa, spread far and wide. It was passed down from his lineage holders and suffused the Phagdru Kagyu, the Kamtshang Kagyu and the four congregations. From Samdingpa Shönu Drub it was disseminated to all the upholders of the southern Chod tradition. From Jagchen Gyaltsen Bum it spread further in three branches, called the upper, lower and middle. Especially the Lord Tsongkhapa received these transmissions from Jagchen Jampa Pal. The learned and accomplished Geleg Palzangpo received them from Müchen Namkhe Naljor. Eventually these teaching cycles spread throughout Tibet's east and west, as well as China and Mongolia.
As to the others which are referred to in the root text, there are contributions by later lineage masters such as the practices of Avalokiteshvara and the Secret Accomplishment Hayagriva by Kyergangpa; and Sangye Nyentön's exercises of immortality. All of these are accepted by most other lineages. Thus the enlightened activity of the Shangpa Kagyu lineage is truly limitless.