Gampopa Sönam Rinchen was born in Nyal in eastern Tibet. He was named Dharma Drak. From the age of seven, Dharma Drak studied medical sciences and received training as a physician. His extensive medical training resulted in him becoming known as one of the best doctors of the time.
As a householder and as a highly-trained physician, he received great respect from the community. However, at the age of twenty-ﬁve, his wife and two children died from an epidemic disease, and this caused him to fully turn his mind towards dharma and become a monk.
At first, he studied and practised under masters of the Kadampa tradition. Later, upon hearing of the fame of Milarepa, he decided to search for him. After a long and difficult journey, Gampopa arrived at Trode Tashigang, where it appeared that Milarepa already had been expecting him. His disciples received the monk, Gampopa, with great respect and hospitality. Because of Gampopa's pride, however, his audience with Milarepa was delayed for two weeks.
When Gampopa met Milarepa for the ﬁrst time, the latter offered this new disciple a bowl of chang (Tibetan beer). Although Gamapopa initially hesitated to drink it because it would be a violation of his monastic vows, he did so anyway, which demonstrated that he would receive the full lineage teachings of mahamudra and tantra from Milarepa. After this signiﬁcant meeting, Gampopa practiced with great diligence and endured many hardships under his guru; he had many experiences and ﬁnally attained great realization. He became the most important disciple and the lineage holder of Milarepa.
Gampopa would become the founder of the monastic order of the Kagyu School and the lineages that branch out from him are known as the Dhakpo Kagyu. He also founded the Dhaklha Gampo Monastery and authored three or four volumes worth of work, including the famous Jewel Ornament of Liberation.
Gampopa held both lineages of the Kadampa as well as the mahamudra and tantric traditions of Milarepa. Since his time, the Kagyu tradition has contained both lineages together and has become rich in methods for leading disciples to realization. Gampopa led his own students ﬁrst through the common mahayana path of the Kadampa lineage teachings, and then through the uncommon mahamudra and tantra path of the Kagyu lineage instructions of Milarepa.
Among many disciples of Gampopa, the most well-known and closest disciples were: Gampo Tsultrim Nyingpo, Karmapa Düsum Khyenpa, Phakmo Trupa, Saltong Shogam, Barom Dharma Wangchuk, and Zhang Drowae Gönpo. The Golden Rosary lineage heir of Gampopa was the First Karmapa, Düsum Khyenpa.