The Kagyu Tradition


Emptiness is not just an abstract idea or concept. It is not something like an empty bottle or empty house. It refers to a completely open state of mind, which is at the same time relaxed; it has a feeling of spaciousness and also a sense of great cherishing.
          —Karl Brunnholzl

You don't even have to call it “emptiness.”
          —Karl Brunnholzl


Emptiness in the Kagyu Tradition

By Tomas Sander

The Seventeenth Karmapa (head of the Kagyu lineage) with the Dalai Lama

The Kagyu school is one of the four major Tibetan Buddhist traditions (which include Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug). It is quite popular in the US, in part because it places emphasis on meditation. Meditation is well-liked by many Westerners who become attracted to Buddhism. However, in Tibet Kagyu monks will also go through a multi-year study program at their monasteries, which is comprised of all aspects of Buddhist philosophy, including, of course, teachings on emptiness.

Karl Brunnholzl

Karl Brunnholzl

Here I interview one of the major Western Kagyu teachers in the United States, Karl Brunnholzl, about his take on the emptiness teachings. Karl is one of the senior teachers in the Nalandabodhi Sangha, a branch of the Kagyu tradition. Nalanda was the famed Indian university which was home to the early formalizers of the Buddhist emptiness teachings, Nagarjuna and Chandrakirti. Karl grew up in Germany where he was trained and practiced as a physician, and now works full time as a translator and Buddhist teacher in Seattle. See Karl's Nalandabodhi bio.

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche

The Nalandabodhi Sangha is led by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, a Tibetan master who is a lineage holder in both the Kagyu and the Nyingma schools.
Karl is the author and translator of six books, among them the seminal The Center of the Sunlit Sky, the first comprehensive presentation of Kagyu-style emptiness teachings in the West.

One interesting aspect about the Kagyu approach is how it combines analysis with various meditations to gain insight into the empty (and as they say “luminous”) nature of mind and reality. This approach may appeal to students with a bent for meditation. In spring 2012 Karl's new book The Heart Attack Sutra will appear. It is a new commentary on the Heart Sutra, the most famous Buddhist sutra expounding the emptiness teachings. I can't wait to read it. The humorous title indicates one of the very qualities I like about Karl as an emptiness teacher, his great sense of humor and lightness. During the interview, I continued to misunderstand the title of Karl's book. Instead of The Heart Attack Sutra, I was hearing “The Heart-to-take Sutra.” I guess, this itself is a small (albeit unintended) demonstration of the emptiness of verbal communication, the lack of any solid meaning!

We will add more resources and information on emptiness in the Kagyu tradition over time.



Audio Interview with Karl Brunnholzl (60 minutes)
(Will open in a new window)


Milarepa: An Authentic Portrait of the Middle Way

(A Vajra Song of the Lord of Yogis, Milarepa)

From the standpoint of the truth that's genuine,
There are no ghosts, there are not even buddhas,
No meditator and no meditated,
No paths and levels traveled and no signs,
And no fruition bodies and no wisdoms,
And therefore there is no nirvana there,
Just designations using names and statements.

All animate, inanimate – the three realms,
Unborn and nonexistent from the outset,
No base to rest on, do not co-emerge.
There is no karmic act, no maturation,
So even the name “samsara” does not exist.

That's the way these are in the final picture,
But oh, if sentient beings did not exist,
What would the buddhas of three times all come from?
Since fruition with no cause – impossible!
So the standpoint of the truth that's superficial,
In samsara's wheel, nirvana past all grief,
It all exists, that is the Sage's teaching,

Then what exists appearing to be things,
And their nonexistence, reality that's empty,
Are essentially inseparable, one taste;
And therefore there is neither self-awareness,
Nor awareness of what's other anywhere.

All of this a union vast and spacious,
And all those skilled in realizing this
Do not see consciousness, they see pure wisdom,
Do not see sentient beings, they see buddhas,
Don't see phenomena, they see their essence,
And out of this compassion just emerges,
Retention, powers, fearlessness and all?
The qualities embodied by a buddha
Just come as if you had a wishing jewel --
This is what I, the yogi, have realized.

(Translated by Jim Scott, under the direction of Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche. This and other works are available on CD at Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche's website:


Recommended Resources and Books

  1. Andy Karr, Contemplating Reality, Shambhala Publications, 2007.

  2. Karl Brunnholzl, The Heart Attack Sutra: A New Commentary on the Heart Sutra, Snow Lion Publications, 2012.

  3. Karl Brunnholzl, The Center of the Sunlit Sky: Madhyamaka in the Kagyu Tradition. Snow Lion Publications, 2004.

  4. Karl Brunnholzl, Gone Beyond: The Prajnaparamita Sutras, The Ornament of Clear Realization, and Its Commentaries in the Tibetan Kagyu Tradition, Volume 1 and 2. (The Tsadra Foundation Series) Snow Lion Publications, 2011.

  5. Ninth Karmapa, Wangchuk Dorje, The Karmapa's Middle Way: Feast for the Fortunate, trans. by Tyler Dewar, Snow Lion Publications, 2008.

  6. Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, Progressive Stages of Meditation on Emptiness, trans. and arranged by Shenpen Hookham. c1994, Zhyisil Chokyi Publications; New edition, 2001.

  7. Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, The Sun of Wisdom: Teachings on the Noble Nagarjuna's Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, translated by Ari Goldfield. Shambhala Publications, 2003.

  8. Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, Rebel Buddha, Shambhala Publications, 2010.


Study opportunities

  1. Nalandabodhi offers a number of comprehensive study opportunities, both in their local centers and in online classes.

  2. The Nitartha Insitute is another excellent resource for studying Kagyu style Buddhist philosophy in the West. It offers summer schools. “The Nitartha Institute courses are modeled on the Tibetan shedra (monastic college) system.... Students combine the study of key texts and commentaries with thorough training in analytical meditation.” www.nitarthainstitute.org
Tomas Sander