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
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 (zab.mo.nang.don), 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 A.ma.la (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
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
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
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.
.. Page maintained by
enquiries about the spiritual aspects of ROKPA's work to
your nearest Samye Ling or Samye Dzong
Last updated 4th February 1997
© All material on this web site is
and all rights reserved by
Rokpa Trust, Samye Ling Tibetan Centre, Scotland.