Monastic Buddhism in the Medieval Period - The Kagyu Monastics

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The Kagyu Monastics

So now, in a sense, we come full circle. The Kagyu monastic tradition began with Dagpo Lhaje Gampopa, a direct disciple of Milarepa. Gampopa was born in 1074 A.D., the second of three brothers. At the age of twenty two he married a beautiful woman with whom he was very much in love. From their union there came a son and a daughter. Gampopa's profession was that of a physician, and he was very good in that field, in fact, one of the best.
Although a very good medical doctor, both his son and daughter succumbed to an outbreak of the plague. Some time afterwards his wife was discovered to have cancer, and after suffering a long illness, she too died, leaving him utterly bereft. While his wife was dying, she had said to Gampopa, "Happiness is not to be found in this world. After my death, dear husband, please take to the spiritual life for both our sakes."
The death of his children and wife caused Gampopa to develop a very strong sense of renunciation. He received ordination as a Kadampa monk from the preceptor Loden Sherab of Mangyul, assisted by the two Açarya Masters, Sherab Nyingpo and Changchub Sempah. He was given the name Sonam Rinchen. He was twenty six years old.


It is said that Gampopa was very diligent in keeping his monastic vows. He developed meditation according to the instructions of Kamalashila and the school of Atisha. He attained the ability to dwell in the trance of Samadhi for hours at a time, enjoying states of interior calm, bliss and clarity. However, this in and out of itself did not result in the Enlightenment that he was seeking. He felt that he needed to find a teacher of the Secret Tantric Way, and it was that quest which eventually caused him to become a disciple of the white robed Yogi, Milarepa.
Gampopa first met Milarepa at Tashi Gang, where he made offerings of tea, gold, and other things, prostrating himself to the master many times. Joining his hands at the heart, he said, "I came from a long distance, enduring many hardships as a seeker of the precious Secret Doctrine of the Tantra. Please accept me as a disciple."
To test him, and knowing that Gampopa was a monk whose vows precluded the drinking of alcohol, Milarepa offered him a drink from his Kapala. At first Gampopa hesitated, but then he accepted the bowl and drank its whole contents. Milarepa considered that an auspicious sign, demonstrating that Gampopa was truly ready and sufficiently amenable to receive the secret teachings.
Milarepa clarified all of Gampopa's doubts and questions. "You, teacher physician, henceforth put aside your study of philosophical views," he said. "Instead, dedicate yourself to contemplative practice!" Thus speaking, Milarepa gave him all the complete empowerments, the full teaching on the practice of Çandali, the pith instruction in Mahamudra, even the Balim empowerment of the Dakinis and Dharmapalas. Then he sent him to the East, to the mountain called Gampo, and told him to devote himself to meditation in the wilderness.
"Generally speaking, you are going to be an excellent meditator," explained Milarepa. "Cut off attachment to family and friends, and sever involvement in all of life's activities. Become a son of the mountains. Bring all Dharma into a single practice. Adhere to the Lama, even when you realize the mind as the Buddha. If you simply follow these instructions with diligence, then certainly you shall attain realization." With these words of encouragement, the monk Gampopa was directed to pursue the highest path of spirituality. And it was in this way that he quickly won through to Enlightenment.
Gampopa introduced monasticism back into the yogi tradition of the Kagyu Linage (9). Thus meditation and the way of the Mahasiddhas was again brought back into the monasteries and spread throughout the whole of Tibet. This melding together again of the yogi's contemplative path with the way of the monk, returned Buddhism to the practice of the Buddha himself. Ever since then the Kagyu Linage has existed as a shining beacon to all seekers of Truth. It stands today as an unexcelled example of what can be accomplished in the spiritual domain by men and women intent on winning full realization.