The First Fifteen Gyalwa Karmapas, Part 1

The following are extracts from Ken Holmes' book "Karmapa",
published by Altea 1996

The Karmapas are revered as being the manifestation of all the Buddhas' enlightened activity. Their presence in the world over the past eight centuries has been the most perfect example of three points quintessential to Buddhism, known generally as basis, path and fruition. The teachings on basis explain the good news that all beings have the essence of enlightenment within them, and the bad news that it is, for the most part, hidden away and unrecognised. How the various emotional and conceptual blockages hiding it can be removed is explained through the teachings on the path of Buddhist practice. Fruition describes the fully-exposed enlightened essence shining in all its qualities.

The notions of basis, path and fruition, which can be applied to all traditions of Buddhism, are extremely important in vajrayana. Although all Buddhas are the same in essence, when appearing as Karmapas they are particularly skilled in vividly demonstrating those three principles, by awakening beings to their inner potential, by teaching the profoundest of paths and by demonstrating their own qualities of fruition with great confidence. The following is but a brief glimpse of the lives of the first fifteen Karmapas. The reader is heartily commended to fuller accounts in Lama Karma Thinley's excellent book The History of the Sixteen Karmapas of Tibet. I am indebted to Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche for his explanations, upon which the following is based.

The 1st Gyalwa Karmapa, Dusum Chenpa

(1110-1193) was a gifted child who studied and practised dharma intently from as early age. Already quite learned by the age of twenty, he became a monk and studied the sutra and tantra intensively for a further ten years. At thirty, he went to Daklha Gampo—
Gampopa's monastery—to receive teachings from him. Although this was an historic meeting of two great Buddhist bodhisattvas emanating on Earth with a profound purpose, Gampopa nevertheless first made Dusum Chenpa train in the foundation practices of the Khadampa tradition and, following that, in the general philosophy of the sutras. This set a fine example for all future Kagyu followers and showed the need for the correct basis of knowledge even when—especially when—one does the most powerful of vajrayana practices.

The first Karmapa received empowerments and instruction in the Hevajra tantra and spent four years in strict retreat, training in the peaceful stability (samatha) and profound insight (vipasyana) aspects of meditation. He then received the full transmission of the inner instructions of the Kagyu tradition. In nine days, he absorbed what Naropa had received over twelve years from Tilopa. Rechungpa, the "moon-like" disciple of Milarepa, also instructed him, principally in the Six Yogas of Naropa. His attainment in one of these—tummo, inner-heat—was particularly boosted by his own natural compassion and produced rapid results. Following his teacher's instruction he then went away to meditate.

Gampopa eventually died and Dusum Chenpa returned to Daklha Gampo to honour his remains. He had a powerful vision of his teacher and knew that it was time to implement one of his final instructions; to go to the place where he would achieve enlightenment—Kampo Kangra—and there to practice mahamudra. He promised that he would live until the age of eighty-four, in order to benefit the dharma. He achieved enlightenment, while practising dream yoga, at the age of fifty. He had a vision at that time of the celestial beings (dakini) offering him a vajra crown woven from their hair. His name—Dusum Chenpa—means Knower of the Past, Present and Future, referring to the total lucidity he attained at enlightenment, giving him knowledge of the three modes of time, and the "timeless time" of enlightened awareness.

From that time onwards his teaching activity was intense. At the age of 58, he founded a monastery at Kampo Nénang. He later established an important seat at Karma Gön, in eastern Tibet, and, at the age of 74, another seat at Tsurphu, in the Tolung valley, which feeds into the Brahmaputra, in central Tibet. It is interesting to note, in the light of the Sixteenth Karmapa's prediction letter, that the abbot of the Buddhist monastery at Bodh Gaya, in India, the place of the Budha's enlightenment, sent a conch shell to Dusum Chenpa at Tsurphu, as a token of the latter's significance for buddhadharma. This conch shell symbolism is found in many stories of the sixteen Karmapas.

The first Karmapa, Dusum Chenpa, made predictions about future Karmapas. In particular, he was the first Karmapa to present a prediction letter, detailing his future incarnation. He gave it to his main disciple, Drogon Rechen, predecessor of the Tai Situ line (they were only called Tai Situ after this title was conferred by the Chinese Emperor in the early 15th century). He passed away at the age of eighty-four, as predicted. His heart was found intact in the funeral pyre and some of his remaining bones bore self-manifesting shapes of Buddhas. (The similarities with the passing of the Sixteenth Karmapa are remarkable.) Among his other main disciples were Tak-lungpa, founder of the Ta-lung Kagyu, Tsangpa Gyare, founder of the Drukpa Kagyu (widespread in Bhutan these days) and Lama Khadampa Deshek, founder of the Katok Nyingma lineage.

The 2nd Gyalwa Karmapa,Karma Pakshi

(1206-1283) was a child prodigy who had already acquired a broad understanding of dharma philosophy and meditation by the age of ten. His teacher, Pomdrakpa, had received the full Kagyu transmission from Drogön Rechen, the first Karmapa's spiritual heir. Pomdrakpa realised, through certain very clear visions, that the child in his charge was the reincarnation of Dusum Chenpa, as indicated in the letter given to Drogon Rechen. The young Karma Pakshi assimilated the deepest teachings effortlessly and only required one reading of a text to be familiar with it. He was already enlightened. Nevertheless, Pomdrakpa made a point of formally passing on all the teachings through the traditional empowerments, so that the stream of empowerment lineage would be unbroken. This has been the case ever since; despite their innate clarity, young Karmapas receive all the transmissions formally. The second Karmapa spent much of the first half of his life in meditation retreat. He also visited and restored the monasteries established by the first Karmapa and is famous for having introduced communal chanting of the Om Mani Padme Hung mantra of compassion to the Tibetan people.

At the age of 47 he set out on a three-year journey to China, in response to an invitation of Kublai, grandson of Ghengis Khan. While there, he performed many spectacular miracles and played an important role as a peacemaker. Although requested to reside there permanently, he declined, not wishing to be the cause of sectarian conflicts with the Sakyapas, whose influence was strong in China at that time. Over the next ten years the Karmapa travelled widely in China, Mongolia and Tibet and became famous as a teacher. He was particularly honoured by Munga Khan, Kublai's brother, who ruled at that time and whom the Karmapa recognised as a former disciple. After Munga's death, Kublai became the Khan. He established the city of Cambalu, the site of present-day Beijing, from which he ruled a vast empire stretching as far as Burma, Korea and Tibet. However, he bore a grudge against the Karmapa, who had refused his invitation years before and been so close to his brother. He ordered his arrest.

Each attempt to capture, or even kill, the Karmapa was thwarted by the latter's miracles. At one point the Karmapa "froze" on the spot a battalion of 37,000 soldiers, by using the power of mudra, yet all the time showing compassion. He eventually let himself be captured and put in exile, knowing that his miracles and compassion would eventually lead to Kublai Khan having a change of heart. This happened. Returning to Tibet towards the end of his life, he had an enormous (16m) statue of the Buddha built at Tsurphu, to fulfil a dream he had had long before. The finished work was slightly tilted and Karma Pakshi straightened it by sitting first in the same tilted posture as the statue and then righting himself. The statue moved as he moved. Before dying, he told his main disciple, Urgyenpa, details concerning the next Karmapa's birth.

The 3rd Gyalwa Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje

(1284-1339) produced a black crown from nowhere at the age of three and announced that he was the Karmapa, telling his young friends that they were indulging in worldliness. At five, he went to see Urgyenpa, who had dreamt of him the night before and was prepared for his visit. He grew up in Tsurphu receiving not only the full Kagyu transmission but also that of the Nyingma tradition. Having spent some time on the slopes of Mount Everest in retreat and then taken full ordination, he further broadened his studies at a great seat of Khadampa learning.

Rangjung Dorje had a tremendous thirst for learning from the greatest scholars and experts of his day. His approach embraced all traditions of knowledge and he had an intelligence and sensitivity which could assimilate and compare all that he studied. Through visions he received of the "Wheel of the Ages" (Kalacakra) teachings, he introduced a revised system of astrology. He studied and mastered medicine. In particular, his mastery of the profound Nyingmapa teachings of Vimalamitra meant that, in him, the Kagyu mahamudra and the Nyingma equivalent, dzog.chen, became as one. By the end of his studies, he had learnt and mastered nearly all of the Buddhist teachings brought to Tibet from India by all the various masters of both the ancient and restoration periods. In the light of that eclectic wisdom, he composed many significant texts, the most famous of which is perhaps the Profound Inner Meaning (, pin-pointing the very essence of vajrayana.

He visited China and there enthroned his disciple, the new emperor, Toghon Temur. Through long-life elixir received from the Karmapa, who returned to Samye especially to procure it, the emperor was the longest-lived of all the Mongol emperors of China. Rangjung Dorje established many monasteries in Tibet and China. He died in China and is famous for having appeared in the moon on the night of his passing.

The 4th Gyalwa Karmapa, Rolpe Dorje

(1340-1383) While pregnant, the fourth Karmapa's mother could hear the sound of the mantra Om Mani Padme Hung coming from her womb. The baby said the mantra as soon as it was born. His early life was full of miracles and manifested a total continuity of the teachings and qualities of his former incarnation. He could read books and receive many profound teachings in his dreams. While in his teens, he received the formal transmissions of both the Kagyu and Nyingma lineages from the great Nyingma guru Yungtönpa, the third Karmapa's spiritual heir, now very advanced in years. At the age of nineteen, he accepted Toghon Temur's passionate invitation to return to China. After a long and impressive journey, with many halts to give teachings, he arrived at the imperial palace. He gave teachings in China for three years and established many temples and monasteries there.

On his return to Tibet, while in the Tsongkha region, Rolpi Dorje gave lay ordination to a very special child, whom he predicted to be of great importance to Buddhism in Tibet. This was Kunga Nyingpo—"Tsong Khapa"—future founder of the Gelugpa school, famous for its Dalai Lamas. When Temur died, the Mongol dynasty ended and the Ming dynasty began. The new emperor invited Rolpi Dorje, who declined the invitation but sent a holy lama in his stead. Rolpi Dorje composed wonderful mystic songs throughout his life and was an accomplished poet, fond of Indian poetics. He is also remembered for creating a huge painting (thangka) following a vision of one of his students, who had imagined a Buddha image over a 100 metres tall. The Karmapa, on horseback, traced the Buddha's outline with hoofprints. The design was measured and traced on cloth. It took 500 workers more than a year to complete the thangka, which depicted the Buddha, Maitreya and Manjusri; the founders of mahayana.

The 5th Gyalwa Karmapa, Deshin Shekpa

(1384-1415) was also heard reciting mantras and the Sanskrit alphabet whilst in his mother's womb. He was the wonder child of yogin parents. He received the full transmissions of his lineage and soon completed his traditional training. At the age of 22, he received a moving invitation from Emperor Yung Lo (also known as Ch'eng-Tsu), who had had a vision of him as Avalokitesvara. It took three years for him to reach the imperial palace, where he was warmly received by ten thousand monks. The combination of Yung Lo's devotion and the Karmapa's spirituality produced some extraordinary events: a hundred days of miracles that the emperor had recorded for posterity, as silk paintings with a commentary in five languages. Following this Deshin Shekpa made a pilgrimage to the famous Wu-tai Shan holy mountains, as the previous two Karmapas had done, to visit his monasteries there.

The fifth Karmapa saved Tibet from bloody war on several occasions, by dissuading the emperor from imposing a single religious system there and by pointing out the value of alternative systems, suited to different mentalities. The emperor himself soon became an accomplished bodhisattva and one day, in purity of vision, saw the celestial vajra crown above his guru's head. So that all beings might benefit from seeing something of this transcendent aspect of the Karmapa, he had a physical replica of it made, presented it to his guru and requested him to wear it on special occasions to bring liberation to those who saw it. This was the beginning of the Vajra Crown ceremony.

In 1408, Deshin Shekpa set out for Tibet. There, he supervised the reconstruction of Tsurphu, damaged by an earthquake, and there stimulated the buddhadharma. He spent three years in contemplative retreat. Realising that he would die at a young age, he left indications of his future rebirth and died at 31. The bones left in the ashes of his funeral pyre had naturally-formed images of many Buddhas on them.

The 6th Gyalwa Karmapa, Tongwa Donden

(1416-1453) The miraculous birth, prodigious qualities and formal education of the sixth Karmapa echoed those of his predecessors. As a young man, he integrated the Shangpa Kagyu and the Shijay (the renowned practice of gcod - "cutting through egotism") lineages into the Kagyu mainstream. He was a visionary who had many significant insights into Avalokitesvara, Tara and other aspects of enlightenment. He composed many prayers for use in the traditional practises of his own lineage and thereby established a body of Kamtsang liturgy. Tongwa Donden's life was mainly dedicated to this literary work and to travelling within Tibet, founding and restoring monasteries, having sacred books printed and strengthening the sangha. Realising that he would die at an early age, he entered retreat, making Gyaltsab Rinpoche his regent and giving him indications of where he would next take birth. His main spiritual heir was Bengar Jampal Zangpo, composer of the famous "Short Prayer to Vajradhara", often used in Kagyu centres these days. The prayer represents his spontaneous utterance upon realising mahamudra and homes in on the very heart of the practice.

The 7th Gyalwa Karmapa, Chödrak Gyamtso

(1454-1506) was heard to say (mother) when born and to declare AH HUNG, there is nothing in the world but voidness at five months of age. At nine months his parents took him to Gyaltsab Rinpoche, who recognised the new Karmapa incarnation. Although only a child of some five years of age, he brought peace to the southernmost parts of the Tibetan plateau, where the people of Nagaland and Bhutan were at war. He worked hard for the protection of animals and instigated all sorts of projects, such as the construction of bridges. In particular, he encouraged individuals and groups of people to recite many millions of Mani mantras—"The best cure for anything".

Chodrak Gyamtso spent much of his life in retreat or half-retreat. He was also an extremely erudite scholar and author and it was he who founded the monastic university at Tsurphu. He also restored the large statue commissioned by Karma Pakshi. Often a peacemaker, he is remembered for his visions of Guru Rinpoche which led him to discover hidden valleys of refuge for people in times of war. He maintained contact with the remaining Buddhists of India and sent much gold to Bodh Gaya for the Buddha image there to be gilded. Knowing that he would pass away at the age of 52, he left details of his next incarnation and passed on the lineage to Tai Situ Tashi Paljor.

The 8th Gyalwa Karmapa, Michö Dorjé

(1507-1554) was heard to say Karmapa at birth.. This was reported to the Tai Situpa who confirmed the child to be the new Karmapa but asked the parents to keep this fact secret for three months, to protect the young incarnation. He devised a test, which the baby not only passed but to which was he heard to say E ma ho! Have no doubts, I am the Karmapa. He spent the next years at Karma Gön. When he was five, another postulant for the Karmapa title was put forward in Amdo. The Karmapa's regent, Gyaltsab Rinpoche, set out from Tsurphu to investigate the two children. However, on meeting Michö Dorjé, he found himself spontaneously prostrating and knew that he was the real Karmapa. He enthroned him the following year.

The eighth Karmapa had many visions during his life revealing the inseparability of his own emanations and those of Guru Rinpoche, both being the emanations of Buddhas to accomplish enlightened activity their teachings are extant. Thus he saw he had been the Guru Rinpoche of the former Buddha Dipamkara and, in general, the activity-aspect of all thousand Buddhas of our universe.

Michö Dorjé was one of the most renowned of the Karmapas, being a powerful meditation master, a prolific and erudite scholar, author of some thirty important works, including very significant texts on the profoundest philosophy known to Buddhism: the devoid of other (gzhan.stong) view. This represents the zenith of the Middle Way (madhyamika) school of mahayana Buddhism and is a valuable antidote for misunderstandings of voidness. He expounded this view at length and debated it with scholars of other Buddhist tendencies. Michö Dorjé was also a visionary artist, to whom we owe the Karma Gadri style of thangka painting— a very spacious, transparent and meditative style. He also composed one of the main devotional practices of the Kagyu school, known as the Four-Session Guru Yoga.

He had been invited to China when quite young, but declined, knowing that the Emperor would be dead by the time of his arrival. His refusal offended the envoys carrying the invitation, who returned to China only to find that his prescience was correct. The Emperor had died. Realising the imminence of his own passing, he entrusted a letter of prediction to the Sharmapa and passed away at the age of 47.

contd. ... The First Fifteen Karmapas - Part 2

These few words are but a glimpse of the lives of one of the greatest beings ever to grace this planet. A hunded times these words written by the finest of pens would not suffice to describe the wisdom, compassion, power, peace, grace and joy of that remarkable being known as Karmapa.

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