The Karma Kagyu lineage traces itself back over two hundred years before the first Karmapa, to the Indian master Tilopa, one of the 84 Mahasiddhas, highly realised yogis. Tilopa is often to be seen at the top of the traditional paintings (Tib. thangkas) of Kagyu refuge trees, looking every inch the ascetic. A Brahmin, from East India, Tilopa was only a boy when he encountered the famous master Nagarjuna, whose supernatural abilities later caused a state oracle to select Tilopa as ruler of a small Indian kingdom.Some years later, disenchanted with worldly power, he became a monk at the Tantric Temple of Somapuri in Bengal. It is said that one day a dakini (a female wisdom-giver) came to him in a vision, and offered him her knowledge as a route to enlightenment. Seizing his opportunity, Tilopa requested her teachings, and received the initiation into the Chakrasamvara Tantra – which, such were his abilities, he was easily able to understand. For twelve years he practiced this teaching at Somapuri, but when the monastery saw him take a female consort for the practice of union yoga, he was forced to quit the community.

Tilopa profited from his expulsion by travelling throughout India, searching out many teachers, and learning their methods. He earned his living during this period by grinding sesame seeds (“Til” in Sanskrit) for oil – giving him the name by which we know him today. He was given direct transmission of the Mahamudra and other teachings, by the Buddha Vajradhara (Tib. Dorje Chang), who became his root guru. Although he chose to live his life in remote and inhospitable regions, his fame as a meditation master brought him excellent students, from whom he selected Naropa as the lineage holder.