The Golden Rosary
The forefathers in the Kagyu lineage are known as the “Golden Rosary.” The lineage of the Kagyu emphasizes the continuity of oral instructions passed on from master to student. This emphasis is reflected in the literal meaning of “Kagyu.” The first syllable “Ka” refers to the scriptures of the Buddha and the oral instructions of the guru. “Ka” has the sense both of the enlightened meaning conveyed by the words of the teacher, as well as the force that such words of insight carries. The second syllable “gyu” means lineage or tradition. Together, these syllables mean “the lineage of the oral instructions.”
The Kagyu Lineage traces its origin back to the historic Buddha, Shakyamuni through Marpa, the great translator and yogi, who brought the unbroken lineage from India to Tibet.
Marpa The Translator
Marpa first trained as a translator under Drogmi Yeshe (993-1050), and then traveled three times to India and four times to Nepal in search of buddhist teachings. He is said to have studied with a hundred and eight masters and yogis, but his principal teachers were Naropa and Maitripa.
Tilopa & Naropa
From Naropa, Marpa received the lineage of tantric teachings called the Four Special Transmissions (bK’a-babs-bzhi): the yogas of 1) illusory body and transference of consciousness, 2) dream, 3) luminosity, and 4) inner heat. Naropa obtained these teachings directly from Tilopa (988-1069), who in turn had received them from two original sources, called the direct and indirect lineage. The direct lineage and original source of the teachings was Buddha Vajradhara. The indirect lineage comes from four main teachers of Tilopa called the “four special transmission lineages.” Both Tilopa and Naropa are some of the greatest panditas, scholars, and siddhas, accomplished saints of Nalanda, the famous Buddhist university of ancient India.
Marpa brought these lineages to Tibet, passing them on to his primary disciple and lineage holder, Milarepa (1040-1123). The most renowned and accomplished of Tibet’s tantric yogis, he achieved enlightenment in one lifetime. Milarepa held the lineage and tradition of the Practice Lineage. Some of the other great students of Marpa were Ngog Choku Dorjey, Tsurton Wangey and Meton Chenpo, who held Marpa’s tradition of the Teaching Lineage. This is how the two great systems of the practice and teaching were founded in the Kagyu lineage.
The great master Gampopa (1084-1161), also known as Dakpo Lhaje, and Rechungpa (1084-1161) were the principal students of Milarepa. Gampopa was prophesized in the sutras by Buddha. He established the framework of the lineage by unifying Milarepa’s Mahamudra lineage with the stages of the path tradition of the Kadampa lineage. This lineage and tradition is known as the Dhakpo Kagyu.
Gampopa had three heart disciples: Düsum Khyenpa, Phakmo Drupa and Saltong Shogom. Düsum Khyenpa (1110-1193), also known as Khampa Usey (literally, the “white-haired Khampa”). He became known as the First Karmapa, who established the Karma Kagyu lineage.
Vajradhara is the primordial buddha, the dharmakaya buddha. Vajradhara, depicted as dark blue in color, expresses the quintessence of buddhahood itself. Vajradhara represents the essence of the historical Buddha’s realization of enlightenment.
Historically, Prince Siddhartha attained enlightenment under the bodhi tree in Bodhgaya over 2500 years ago and then manifested as the Buddha. According to Buddhist cosmology, he was the Fourth Historic Buddha of this fortunate eon. Prince Siddhartha’s achievement of enlightenment, the realization, or wisdom of enlightenment itself, is called the dharmakaya, the body of truth. When he expresses that realization through subtle symbols, his realization is called the sambhogakaya, the body of enjoyment. When such realization manifested in more accessible or physical form for all sentient beings as the historical Shakyamuni Buddha, it is called the nirmanakaya, the body of manifestation.
The dharmakaya, synonymous with Vajradhara Buddha, is the source of all the manifestations of enlightenment. Vajradhara is central to the Kagyu lineage because Tilopa received the vajrayana teachings directly from Vajradhara, the dharmakaya buddha. Thus, the Kagyu lineage originated from the very nature of buddhahood.
The realization of the nature was in turn transmitted within the Golden Rosary by Tilopa.
Naropa (1016-1100) is one of the most prominent and authoritative Indian mahasiddhas and masters of mahahudra and tantra. He received the mahamudra and tantra lineage teachings from his guru Tilopa and transmitted them to his disciple, Marpa, the Great Translator of Tibet.
Naropa, known as Abhayakirti (‘jig med grags pa) Jnanasiddhi, was born in Kashmir into the Brahmin caste. According to Taranatha and other sources, who say that he was born in a place called Jambu in the eastern part of India. His father was Shantivarman and mother, Shrimati.
According to Taranatha, from an early age, he began to receive a complete education and became a tirthika pandit (scholar of non-buddhist teachings), also practicing the tantras of Hindusim. During this time, Naropa went to the house of a woman who sold beer and encountered a junior Buddhist pandita. After the Buddhist pandita departed, Naropa found a volume of Sutras left behind by him and began to read them. He became very inspired by the teachings and his heart filled with devotion for the dharma.
Naropa then went to Madhyadesha where he became an ordained monk in the Buddhist order, becoming educated in the Buddhist teachings. Naropa, who had been a tirthika pandita became instead the most learned pandita in the Buddha-dharma. He was honored for this accomplishment by being made the “Northern Gatekeeper” of Nalanda and Vikramashila universities. He taught at the universities and became one of the most well-known abbots of the time. During this time, he practiced the vajrayana tantric meditation of Cakrasamvara every evening and had many sacred visions of the dakinis. At some point, some dakinis encouraged him to leave by saying, “In the east is Tilopa. Go before him and you will attain great siddhi!”
Searching for Tilopa
He traveled to the eastern regions and searched for Tilopa everywhere, but Tilopa was nowhere to be found. One day, Naropa was at a monastery in the eastern region. While in the monastery kitchen, a vile and filthy old man came in and roasted many live fish in the glowing fire. Naropa was unable to persuade him not to roast the fish alive, and the other monks jumped up and began to run towards the old man to stop him from killing. The old man responded: “If you don’t like it, just throw these roasted fish leftovers into the water!” Upon putting the roasted fish remains into water, they came to life and swam away in all directions.
Naropa then knew that the old man was a realized siddha. Following after him, he prostrated at his feet and begged him to teach. The old man became angry and struck Naropa without saying anything. When Naropa thought to himself, “Is this yogi Tilopa?” the old man answered: “Yes! Yes!” When Naropa thought “Is this yogi someone other than Tilopa?” the old man replied: “No! No!” At that point, he realized that this old man was Tilopa.
Tilopa sometimes manifested as a yogi by performing yogic deeds and sometimes just seemed to be a simple madman. During all these times Naropa had no conceptual thoughts or doubts about Tilopa’s realisation.
Developing Naropa's Devotion
Once Naropa received a lot of vegetables from a wedding celebration and he offered them to Tilopa. Tilopa asked for more and so Naropa went again to the wedding reception, thinking that it would please his Guru. In India, it is not the accepted custom to go to a banquet twice in one day, so Naropa stole the whole pot of vegetables and carried it off. The people at the wedding caught him stealing and beat him with sticks and rocks, but Naropa managed to hang onto the pot and bring the vegetables to his guru.
At another time, Tilopa and Naropa encountered a princess sitting in a palyanka (palanquin) on the road. Tilopa said, “Grab the princess and bring her here!” Naropa transformed himself into a Brahmin and, uttering auspicious words, he put flowers on the girl’s head. He then grabbed her and fled with her; the servants of the princess however caught up with him, and beat Naropa to the ground until he was like a corpse. Naropa subsequently recovered through the blessings and skillful means of his guru.
Once again, Tilopa and Naropa met someone’s wife, this time married to a minister. Tilopa wanted her as his wife and told Naropa to do as he had done previously. Naropa paid her parents the price for a high caste girl and took her off with him. He thought he would offer her to his guru in the morning, but Naropa became very ill and was sick for many days. During this time, his guru recited mantras and Naropa soon recovered fully. At that time, Naropa offered the girl to Tilopa. However, the girl was so attacted to Naropa that she made love-glances at Naropa. Seeing this, Tilopa got very mad and said to the girl: “You don’t like me but instead, you like him.” He then beat both Naropa and the girl.
Those and many similar deeds were done in order to develop Naropa’s faith. During all of these events that Naropa went through, his devotion and faith remained firm and was not shaken even slightly. Not only did it not diminish; in fact his faith and devotion expanded. In this way, Naropa served his guru Tilopa for twelve years and although he went through numerous hardships, Tilopa never even spoke a single good word to him.
Finally, when they were at an empty plain Tilopa said, “Now make a mandala offering so I can give you the upadesha (key instructions).” Naropa looked around and said: “There are no flowers nor any water here to make mandala offering.” Tilopa answered: “Does your body not have blood and fingers?” so Naropa cut himself and sprinkled the ground with his own blood; he then cut off his fingers and arrayed them as if they were flowers. Tilopa then struck him with a muddy sandal and knocked him unconscious. When he woke up he was able to see the reality of things as they are. Naropa was completely healed and was given all the upadeshas and further instructions. Naropa became one of the greatest yogins and Tilopa instructed him: “Now, don’t debate, don’t teach any students – if you act thus you will swiftly attain the highest state.”
When Naropa was abiding at Phullahari monastery, he engaged in non-conceptual meditation. However, events forced him into a debate with a Tirthika, at which time Tilopa appeared and helped Naropa. Thus he did not fully comply with the instructions, which caused him some obstacles in the path.
Naropa stayed mostly in Phullahari, near Nalanda and also he wandered around various places conducting abhishekas, teaching tantras, giving upadeshas, and also engaging in great activities for the benefit of many sentient beings. Naropa attained the realization of the Reality and became one of the most renowned mahasiddas of India.
Naropa had many students including, Shantipa, Atisha, and many other masters who where door-keeper panditas. Among his students, there were eight extraordinary disciples, four who were learned in the Father Tantras and four who where learned in Mother Tantras and held the Oral Instructions lineage. Foremost among his disciples was the Tibetan Marpa, the great translator, who brought the lineage of Naropa to Tibet and continued it through his great disciple, Milarepa. The principal student and lineage heir of Naropa was Marpa.
Tilopa (988-1069) is one of the most authoritative and renowned Indian mahasiddhas and masters of mahamudra and tantra. He received various tantric teachings and unified them and transmitted to his disciple, Naropa.
Tilopa, known as Prajnabhadra, was born in the town of Chativavo (Chittagong, which is now in Bangladesh), into the Brahmin caste. His birthplace is also recorded to be Jagora (in eastern Bengal). His father was Pranyasha and mother, Kashi.
When he grew up he learned all the doctrinal treatises of Brahminism. While he was wandering in various places asking for alms, he finally came to a temple and, seeing that the monks live a life of renunciation, he entered the monastic life and became a learner in the Tripitaka, the three collections of the teachings of the Buddha.
He was empowered into the tantric mandalas by his master, and learned acharyas, and engaged very diligently in meditation practices on those instructions at different places, such as Somapuri. After a short time, he had a unique experience and great wisdom was born within him from this realisation. He received further teachings from different persons and had many sacred visions and made great accomplishments over the years.
Tilopa received teachings and transmissions especially the “Four Special Transmission Lineages” from great tantric masters of India. Among his many masters, the Great Brahmin Saraha, Acharya Nagarjuna, and Matangi played very important roles in his development. For 12 years, Tilopa devoted himself totally to his practices and attained realisation.
It is also said that from ultimate point of view, Tilopa had no human teachers and he received the full mahamudra and vajrayana transmissions directly from Buddha Vajradhara.
According to Taranatha, Tilopa practised with a ksetra yogini, the daughter of a sesame seed pounder, and the monks expelled him from the monastery. Because he was a former Brahmin Pandita and Buddhist monk, he had lost all his opportunities for wealth and fame. He pursued the work of a sesame seed pounder in the town. He then came to be known as “Tillipa,” the sesame pounder. He received various teachings from dakinis in the land of Oddiyana. He then continued to pound sesame seeds in Oddiyana until the sesame became like a butter broth. Through the methods that he received from his Guru’s instructions, his body and mind was also pounded and synchronised through this process, until he realised the co-emergent wisdom.
He also worked at a brothel for Dharima (as instructed by his guru Matangi). He attained great mahamudra realisation through practicing in this situation. Through such diligence and skilful practice of mahamudra and tantra, he finally attained the complete siddhi or accomplishment.
Tilopa then started to teach and benefit sentient beings for many years. He started to pass on what he had realised to gatherings in towns. At first, everyone was usually full of doubt. When each person in the audience asked questions, Tilopa putting his experiences into song, answered each question in this way. It is said that many of those who understood the meaning of the songs attained siddhis. Thus he became renowned as the Siddha Tillipa, and is one of the eighty-four mahasiddhas of India. After many years of benefiting beings and guiding his disciples, he departed for the enlightened realms without leaving his physical body.
His two most well known students were Naropa and Lalitavajra. His Golden Rosary lineage heir was Naropa.
Marpa (1012-1097) travelled to India from Tibet at great personal peril across the Himalayas to study with his principal teachers, Naropa and Maitripa
Marpa Chökyi Lodrö, was born in Lhodrak Chukhyer to a well-to-do family. He began studying at a young age and was wild and untamed compared to other children. Marpa first received training for three years at Mangkhar with Drokmi Shakya Yeshe and mastered the Sanskrit language. He decided to travel to India to study dharma with renowned Indian buddhist masters. Marpa returned home to Lhodrak and converted his entire inheritance into gold for his travel expenses and to make offerings to his Indian gurus for requested teachings.
Journeys to India
Marpa set out on his journey to India. Arriving first in Nepal, he studied with Paindapa and Chitherpa, two famous students of Naropa.
Later, Paindapa accompanied Marpa to Pullahari, near Nalanda University, where Naropa taught. Marpa spent twelve years receiving abhishekas, instructions, and studying with Naropa and other great Indian gurus to whom Naropa sent him to study or receive instructions. At the end of twelve years, Marpa offered a ganachakra and sang his first song of realization to his guru, Naropa. Shortly after, he set forth on his journey back to Tibet, where he taught and continued his dharma activities.
Subsequently, Marpa traveled to India two more times and studied with Naropa and other great mahasiddhas of India. Of these, his main gurus were Naropa and Maitripa. In total, he traveled three times to India and four times to Nepal. On his third visit, Marpa went through an adventure in finding Naropa, because Naropa, having already entered into the tantric conduct, was nowhere to be found. However, with determination, trust, and devotion, Marpa managed to find Naropa and receive the final teachings and instructions from him. At that time, Naropa prophesied that a family lineage would not continue for Marpa, but that his lineage would be carried on by disciples—especially one with the appearance of a monk and the inner realization of Mahayana. This prophecy foretold of the arrival of Lord Gampopa.
Bringing the Complete Dharma to Tibet
Marpa now had received the full transmissions, so Naropa formally declared Marpa to be his dharma successor. Marpa brought the teachings and lineages of vajrayana and mahamudra back to Tibet.
Upon his return to Tibet, Marpa spent many years translating Buddhist scriptures and contributed to the effort to bring the complete buddhadharma to Tibet. Many of his translations are part of the Kagyur and Tangyur.
Marpa continued to practice and give teachings, abhishekas, and transmissions to many students in Tibet. After his third visit to India, Mila Thöpaga or Milarepa became his disciple, who inherited his lineage in full. Marpa along with his wife, Dakmema and their sons lived in Lhodrak in the southern part of Tibet.
Marpa had numerous disciples. The four most outstanding students were known as the “Four Pillars":
1) Ngok Chöku Dorje, who became the principal student to receive the transmissions and master the explanations of the Tantras;
2) Tsurtön Wanggi Dorje, who became the main student to receive the transmissions and master the practice of Phowa [transference of conciousness];
3) Meytön Chenpo, who became the primary student to receive the transmissions and master the practice of Ösal [luminosity]; and
4) Milarepa, who became the principal student to receive the full transmissions and master the view, meditation, and conduct.
Marpa gave the full transmission of his lineage to Milarepa, who became his spiritual heir and continued the lineage of Naropa. The principal student and lineage heir of Marpa was Milarepa.
The 1st Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa
The First Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa, (1110-1193) was born to a family of devoted Buddhist practitioners in Teshö in eastern Tibet. The boy who was to become known as the first Karmapa was called Gephel as a child. He first studied with his father, and became a knowledgeable and seasoned practitioner, even as a young child. He continued his education with other Buddhist teachers of the region.
Already quite learned by the age of 19 years, he moved to Central Tibet, became a monk and spent the next twelve years or so engaging in study and meditation practices. He studied with very well known masters of the time, such as Chapa Chokyi Senge (1109-1169), a great logician and the founder of the debate system in Tibet, and Patsab Lotsawa Nyima Drakpa (1055-1145), who translated many madhyamaka texts (one of the highest schools of Buddhist philosophy) into Tibetan and was a great master of the Prasangika Madhyamaka tradition.
Training Under Gampopa
At 30 years old, he received teachings from Gampopa, the heart son of the greatest yogi in Tibetan history, Milarepa. Düsum Khyenpa first trained in the foundation practices of the Kadampa tradition and, following that, in the general philosophy of the sutras. This training in the basis of all Buddhist traditions established a pattern for all future Kagyu followers. It demonstrated the importance of establishing a correct basis of knowledge. This is true even when engaging in the most powerful of advanced vajrayana practices. Düsum Khyenpa also received and unified the lineage teachings he received from Rechungpa and other students of Milarepa.
The Karmapa’s accomplishment in meditation and the practices transmitted to him by his teachers were greatly enhanced by his own natural compassion. His practice produced rapid results and great accomplishments, or siddhis. Such accomplishment is often perceived by followers as the ability to perform miraculous activity and in fact, the legends of the Karmapas through the ages speak of their ability, through the manifestation of this seemingly miraculous activity, to create a great sense of wonder and faith in their students. All the Karmapas have since been known for their ability to inspire, through their simple presence, this profound sense of wonder and faith in the reality of the accomplishment which is the fruition of the Buddhist path.
Establishing Monastic Seats
In 1164, at the age of 55, Düsum Khyenpa founded a monastery at Kampo Nénang; and at the age of 60 years, he started the Panphuk monastery in Lithang, in East Tibet. Later, at the age of 76 years, he established an important seat at Karma Gön, in eastern Tibet. And finally at the age of 80 years, he established his main seat at Tsurphu, in the Tolung valley, a river which feeds into the Brahmaputra, in central Tibet. The first Karmapa, Düsum Khyenpa, made predictions about future Karmapas. In particular, he prophesied detailing his future incarnation. Düsum Khyenpa passed away at the age of 84 years. Among his other main disciples were Tak-lungpa, founder of the Ta-lung Kagyu, Tsangpa Gyare, founder of the Drukpa Kagyu, and Lama Khadampa Deshek, founder of the Katok Nyingma lineage. The principal student who held the lineage of the Golden Rosary from the First Karmapa was Drogon Rechen.
Milarepa (1052-1135) was born in Gungthang. His father was Mila Sherap Gyaltsen and mother, Nyangtsa Kargyen. He had one younger sister, Peta Paldron. He was named Mila Thöpaga, which means “Mila who is a joy to hear.” At a young age, he lost his father and his family’s estate passed into the hands of his father’s brother, Mila Thöpaga’s uncle, who, with his wife, virtually enslaved Mila’s mother and family, making them work in the field. He, along with his mother and sister, went through tremendous suffering because of the ill treatment of his uncle and aunt.
A Foray into Magic
At his mother’s request, when Mila grew up, he studied magic from two different teachers in order to take revenge through the use of magical powers. Through a spell, he killed thirty-seven people, including his uncle’s family, and destroyed most of the crops of the village. After this was done, great remorse arose in him for the heavy karmic consequences he had caused himself, and his mind turned towards the sacred dharma.
Mila first went to the Tsang region and studied with the great master, Rongtön Lhaga. The latter eventually advised Mila to go and study with Marpa. At the age of thirty-eight, he went to Lhodrak to find Marpa. Before he arrived, Marpa had a dream in which a yidam prophesied the arrival of Milarepa.
Studies Under Marpa
Mila spent over six years studying with Marpa, who made Mila build the famous nine-story tower as part of his journey on the path. At the end, he received the abhisheka of Chakrasamvara from Marpa during which he received the secret name, Shepa Dorje, which means “Laughing Vajra.” Marpa also conferred on Milarepa the full transmissions, instructions, and abhishekas of Tantra, as well as the lineage of Mahamudra – all that Marpa had received from Indian mahasiddhas Naropa and Maitripa.
Enlightenment and Teaching through Poetic Songs
After practicing very diligently for twelve years under Lord Marpa, Milarepa attained the inseparable state of vajradhara (the complete state of enlightenment) in this very lifetime. He then became known as Milarepa, which means 'Mila, the cotton clad one'. ('Repa' is the designation given to many tantric yoginis since they wear a white robe). At the age of 45, he started to practice at Drakar Taso (White Rock Horse Tooth), and other well known caves and also began to wander and teach at various places.
Milarepa is most famous for his songs and poems, in which he expresses the profundity of his realisation of the dharma with extraordinary clarity and beauty. Many of Milarepa’s poetic compositions have been translated into numerous other languages.
Milarepa had countless disciples such as Rechung Dorje Drakpa, Gampopa, Dhakpo Lhaje, the eight-heart-sons, and many others. Among them, his spiritual successor who continued his lineage and became one of the main lineage masters in Milarepa’s tradition was Gampopa.
Gampopa Sönam Rinchen (1079-1153) was born in Nyal in central Tibet. His father was Nyiwa Sangye Gyalpo and mother was Shomo Zatse. He was named Dharma Drak.
His father started his son’s education at the age of five. From the age of seven he studied medical sciences and received training as a physician from Kyeme, an Indian doctor, Usil, a doctor from the Tsang region of central Tibet, and Viji, a Nepalese doctor over a period of more than eight years. For many subsequent years, he continued his medical training, studying under thirteen other doctors from China and Tibet. He became one of the best doctors of the time, and was known as Dakpo Lhaje, the physician from Dakpo. He also became interested in dharma and started to study in the Nyingma lineage from the master Bar-rey, and in the Kadam tradition with Sharpa Yonten Drak.
Stricken by an Epidemic
At the age of sixteen, Dharma Drak married the daughter of Chim Jose Dharma Ö. They had two children. He lived as a householder and as a highly-trained physician, he received great respect from the community. At the age of twenty-five, his wife and children died from an epidemic disease, and this caused him to fully turn his mind towards dharma. At the age of twenty-six, Gampopa received the fully monastic ordination from Geshe Loden Sherap of the Kadam order. At the age of twenty-eight, he met Nyukrumpa Tsöndru Gyaltsen and received many Kadampa teachings. He practiced their teachings for many years.
Historic Meeting with Milarepa
Hearing of the fame of the Lord of Yogins, 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. He and 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 vow, he did so anyway, which demonstrated that he would receive the full lineage teachings of mahamudra and tantra from Milarepa. This was an historic moment. After this significant meeting, Gampopa practiced with great diligence and endured many hardships under his guru; he had many experiences and finally attained great realisation. He became a most important disciple and the lineage holder of Milarepa.
Founding the Kagyu Order
Gampopa was 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 founded the Dhaklha Gampo Monastery where he continued his activities of teaching, meditation, and benefiting beings. Gampopa is the author of a most famous book, The Jewel Ornament Of Liberation, and many others. His collected works comprise three or four volumes. 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 realisation. 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.
Drogon Rechen (1148-1218) was born to an educated family in the Yarlung area of Tsang, part of Central Tibet. As a young child, he demonstrated his awakened potential in the gradual path of hinayana-mahayana. At the age of nine, he connected to the Kagyu master, Zangri Repa, and received many teachings, including ear-whispered teachings and dohas of the Mahamudra masters. He practiced meditation wearing only a cotton cloth and was therefore called “Rechen,” which means “great cotton-clad yogi.” He experienced many signs of meditative accomplishment.
Studying in Milarepa's Tradition
When he reached the age of fifteen, his teacher, Zangri Repa, passed into parinirvana. Before his passing away, Drogon Rechen was advised to find the disciples of Milarepa’s lineage, receive the full lineage transmission, and practice hard so that he could become a great master in this tradition. In accordance with this, he studied and practiced under many Kagyu masters as well as with Dzogchen masters. Although he attained great qualities of samadhi he still was not fully satisfied. Deciding to leave his home to develop his practice further, he started a journey to Kham, in eastern Tibet, through Kongpo. On his way, he met and received many teachings – from Thöpa Samdrup, he received the complete transmission of the Chöd lineage; from Ngari-pa, he received Vajrapani and Vajrasaddhu; from Nyalpa Josey, he received Peaceful and Wrathful Manjushri and Mahakala. He established eighteen Tantric seats and many great practitioners have been produced as a result.
Meeting the First Karmapa
Drogön Rechen mastered the prana and nadhi practices at this point, and a little bit of pride in his accomplishment developed. Upon hearing the fame of the First Karmapa Düsum Khyenpa, who was living at Kampo Nenang, Drogön Rechen decided to meet him. He simply wished to pay Düsum Khyenpa his respects, but had no intention of studying with the Karmapa. The First Karmapa told Drogon Rechen, when they first met, “O young tantric practitioner, you can go and study with my students.” Drogön Rechen asked “what kind of students do you have?” Karmapa replied “Deuchung Sangye, Baltsa Takdelwa, and so on.” Drogon Rechen first went to see Deuchung Sangye who directed him to Baltsa Takdelwa. When he went to the cave of Takdelwa, he saw a huge tiger sleeping there and he ran back with great fear. Deuchung told him to go back again and when he did, he saw a little pond in the cave. He circumambulated the water and threw some pebbles in it and left. When he was told to go back and went, he saw an old yogi who had those pebbles he threw on his lap.
At that time, he thought “if the students are like this, it is unnecessary to point out how great must be their teacher’s realization and achievement!” Making a strong commitment, he practiced under their direction for seven years and completely settled his practice and realization. Drogon Rechen became one of the most important heart disciples of the First Karmapa. He was fully ordained as a monastic at the age of thirty-seven and received the name Sönam Drakpa. He received the full Kagyu transmission from the First Karmapa for three more years, and became the lineage-holder. When Karmapa traveled back to Central Tibet, Drogön Rechen stayed behind in the Kham region and continued the activities of the Karmapa and the lineage at the seats of Karma Gön and Kampo Nenang. At the age of 70, he passed into parinirvana on the 25th day and many relics arose from the cremation.
His principal disciple and the Kagyu lineage holder was Pomdrakpa Sönam Dorje.
These details about Drogon Rechen are compiled from Pawo Tsuklak Trengwa’s Feast For Scholars (chos ‘byung mkhas pa’i dg’a ston), Beijing edition, vol. 2, pp. 873-877. May this be virtuous!
Pomdrakpa Sonam Dorje (1170-1249) was born Dri Dampa Chöchuk in Central Tibet. At the age of five, he started his education, and at the age of nine, he received the mother Tantra transmissions from Nyen Lhakhang Gangpo. When he was fourteen, he heard the fame of the great master, Drogön Rechen. Upon hearing his name, a special meditative experience arose within him and he had a vision of red dakinis who prophesized Drogon Rechen as his teacher. Within ten days, he went to visit Drogön Rechen and received the full monastic ordination and was named Sönam Dorje. From that moment, he followed Drogon Rechen as his principal teacher, from whom he received many abhishekas. He practiced with great diligence for many years. Pomdrakpa had many visions of the wisdom deities during abhishekas and practice sessions, as well as a vision of the First Karmapa who gave him important instructions. From Drogön Rechen, he received the full Kagyu transmission and became the lineage-holder.
Holding the Kagyu Lineage
Pomdrakpa received the full Kagyu teachings, and became a gifted master. Before the passing away, Drogon Rechen told Pomdrakpa and Lodrö Rinchen that they were the masters of the teachings, who could each hold this lineage. He also predicted that Pomdrakpa’s activities would flourish, and the lineage would prosper even more during the time of his disciples and afterwards in the future. During that time, Pomdrakpa saw his teacher as the Buddha Shakyamuni surrounded by countless buddhas. This is said to be the auspicious sign of becoming the main lineage holder.
Pomdrakpa Sönam Dorje’s activities of benefiting beings flourished as predicted, and he passed on the lineage transmission to the Second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi.
These details about Pomdrakpa are compiled from Pawo Tsuklak Trengwa’s Feast For Scholars (chos ‘byung mkhas pa’i dg’a ston), Beijing edition, vol. 2, pp. 877-880. May this be virtuous!
The 2nd Karmapa, Karma Pakshi
A Child Prodigy
The Second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi (1203-1283) was born in Kyil-le Tsakto in eastern Tibet to a noble family of yogins. The young boy was named Chözin by Khache Panchen. He was a child prodigy who already had a broad understanding of Buddhist philosophy and practice before the age of ten.
On his way to Central Tibet for further education, he encountered Pomdrakpa, who had received the full Kagyu transmission from Drogön Rechen, the first Karmapa’s spiritual heir. Pomdrakpa realized, through certain very clear visions, that the child he met was the reincarnation of Düsum Khyenpa. Pomdrakpa conferred on the young Karma Pakshi all the teachings through traditional empowerments and formally passed on the lineage in full. Ever since this time, each young Karmapa, despite his pre-existing knowledge and accomplishment of the teachings, formally receives all the transmissions of the teachings from a lineage holder.
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. He is famous for having introduced the melodious chanting of the Om Mani Padme Hung, the mantra of compassion, to the Tibetan people.
The Court of Kublai Khan
At the age of 47 (1252), he set out on a three-year journey, at the invitation of Kublai, grandson of Ghengis Khan. Chinese and Tibetan histories, record that the Karmapa was said to have performed many spectacular miracles at the court. He also played an important role as a peacemaker. However, the Karmapa declined to stay permanently in the court, which caused Kublai Khan’s displeasure.
Over the next ten years the Karmapa traveled widely in China, Mongolia and Tibet and became a teacher of the greatest renown. He was particularly honored by Möngke Khan, Kublai’s brother, the Mongol ruler at that time. The Karmapa was presented the Great Golden Seal of “Di shri.”
After Möngke’s death, Kublai became the Khan and ruled a vast empire. However, harboring resentment against the Karmapa for his refusal to stay in the court of Kublai and due to his perception that the Karmapa had paid more attention to the Munga Kahn many years before, Kublai Kahn ordered the apprehension of the Second Karmapa. The Karmapa thwarted each attempt to capture, or even kill him, despite the overwhelming forces sent against him. As the Karmapa continually responded to force with compassion, Kublai Khan eventually had a change of heart. As time passed, gradually Kublai Khan came to regret his actions against the Karmapa, and eventually approached him, confessing his misdeeds, and requesting Karma Pakshi to teach him.
Miracles of Meditation and Scholarship
In fulfillment of a long-standing vision, His Holiness returned to Tibet and directed the building of a Buddha statue at Tsurphu, well over fifty feet in height. The finished statue was slightly tilted. In one of the most well-known miraculous stories of the Karmapas, Karma Pakshi was said to have straightened the statue by assuming the same tilted posture as the statue, and straightening himself. The statue simultaneously righted itself.
The histories record that the Second Karmapa composed over one hundred volumes of texts, which once were enshrined at the monastic library of Tshurphu monastery in Central Tibet.
Before passing away into parinirvana, Karma Pakshi told details concerning the next Karmapa’s birth to his main disciple, Orgyenpa.
The 3rd Karmapa, Ranjung Dorje
The Third Karmapa, Ranjung Dorje (1284-1339) was born to a family of a tantric practitioners of the Nyingma lineage in Dingri Langkor, in the Tsang region of Central Tibet. He sat up straight at the age of three and proclaimed that he was the Karmapa. At the age of five, he went to see Orgyenpa, who had prepared for his visit on the basis of a prescient dream. Orgyenpa recognized the child as the reincarnation of Karma Pakshi, and gave him the Vajra Black Crown and all the possessions of the second Karmapa.
Master of all Buddhist Traditions of Knowledge
Rangjung Dorje grew up in Tsurphu, receiving the full transmissions of both the Kagyu and Nyingma tradition. At the age of 18 (1301), he received the preliminary monastic ordination. After a retreat on the slopes of Mt. Everest, he took full ordination, and further broadened his studies at a great seat of the Khadampa lineage. Not content with this, Rangjung Dorje sought out and studied with the greatest scholars and experts of different traditions of knowledge, learning from all Buddhist traditions of the time. By the end of his studies, he had learnt and mastered nearly all of the Buddhist teachings brought to Tibet from India.
Founder of the Karma Nyingthik
In particular, during a retreat in his early twenties he had the vision at sunrise of Vimalamitra and then Padmasambhava, who dissolved into him at a point between his eyebrows. At that moment, he realized and received all the teachings and transmissions of the dzogchen tantras of the Nyingma lineage. He wrote many volumes of teachings on dzogchen and founded the Karma Nyingtik lineage. Through his mastery of the profound Nyingmapa teachings of Vimalamitra, he unified the Kagyu mahamudra and the Nyingma dzogchen.
At the age of 35 (1318), through visions he received of the “Wheel of Time” (Kalacakra) teachings, he introduced a revised system of astrology, which continues to this day called the “Tsur-tsi” or the Tsurphu Tradition of Astrology, and which forms the basis for the calculation of the Tibetan calendar in the Tsurphu system. He also studied and mastered medicine, which is in part related to astrological studies in the Tibetan system.
Over the course of his life, Rangjung Dorje also wrote many treatises, including the universally renowned Profound Inner Meaning (Zab mo nang don), one of the most famous Tibetan treatises on Vajrayana.
The Karmapa established many monasteries in Tibet and China. He visited China in 1332, where he enthroned his disciple, the new emperor, Toghon Temur. Rangjung Dorje later passed away into parinirvana in China. It is said his image appeared in the moon on the night of his passing.
Among his many disciples, some of the main ones were Khedrup Drakpa Senge, Dolpopa, Yakde Panchen, and many others, and in particular the one who was to become the next lineage holder, Gyalwa Yungtonpa.
Gyalwa Yungton Dorje Pal (1296-1376), was born into a family of Nyingma tantric practitioners at Tsongdu Gurmo, in Southern Tibet, in the Wood Snake year. He was named Dorje Bûm. From an early age, he started to study the five sciences and developed incomparable knowledge in sutra and tantra. Most of his studies were at Shalu. He received the Do-gyu-sem-sum, teachings on Mahayoga, Anuyoga, and Atiyoga of Dzogchen from Zur Champa Senge. He then received the Yamantaka cycle of teachings and abhisheka from Shangpa Shakbum. He studied and practiced hard under many masters and became one of the most respected and renowned teachers of the time.
Gyalwa Yungtönpa made great contributions of material offerings to Sakya, Trophu, Shalu, and Sangphu. At the request of his mother, he accepted a consort and when the first child was born he asked permission from the family and received monastic ordination. He was named Dorje Pal. He then met the Third Karmapa Rangjung Dorje and received all the key instructions and transmissions of the lineage in full and attained highest realization. He practiced in Tibet and also in Paro, Bhutan for years.
He composed a text differentiating the views of buddhahood in Sutra and Tantra and impressed and outshined many great scholars of the time, such as Yakde Panchen, who became his students. He manifested as a hidden yogi and benefited many sentient beings. At the age of eighty-two, in the Wood Snake Year, he passed into parinirvana with many great signs of realization.
Among countless students, his main disciple and lineage holder was the Fourth Karmapa, Rolpe Dorje.
Orgyenpa (1230-1312) was born in Latö, in Northern Tibet, in the year of Earth Tiger, to a family of tantric practioners. At an early age, he mastered Vajrakilaya and other teachings and practices of his father’s lineage. He was naturally inclined to meditation practices but decided that he should first study philosophy before beginning serious meditation practice. He was ordained as upasaka by Lord Götsangpa. From the age of seven, he applied himself to basic studies. When he was sixteen, he started studying various philosophical texts such as Abhidharma, Madhyamaka, Vinaya, and other topics of sciences at a monastery in Tsang province, which was famous for the quality of its teaching.
He excelled among his contemporaries and mastered all subjects. He also received and practiced the Kalachakra tantra in full from Golungpa Namkha Gyaltsen and later clarified those teachings further with Lord Götsangpa. He traveled to Nepal, India, China, Pakistan, Tsari, Mount Kailash, Jalandara, and Odiyana to learn and practice further at these sacred places. He achieved great accomplishments in his practice and became a realized tantric master.
At fifty-three, he met the Second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi, and received the full Kagyu lineage teachings and transmissions. After he received the key instructions, he attained high realization and they became inseparable. Orgyenpa’s activities of benefiting beings flourished throughout Tibet and he focused mainly instructing disciples through Gampopa’s tradition of Mahamudra teachings.
Among countless students, he had four renowned sons — two brothers of Nyedowa, Chöje Kharchuwa of Yazang, and Jamyang Sönam Öser of Langkhor; as well as eight close sons, four supreme ones, and many other scholars and yogis of Tibet and India. However, his main disciple and lineage holder was the Third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje .
These details about are compiled from Pawo Tsuklak Trengwa’s Feast For Scholars (chos ‘byung mkhas pa’i dg’a ston), Beijing edition, vol. 2, pp. 913-918. May this be virtuous!
The 4th Karmapa, Rolpe Dorje
The fourth Karmapa (1340 - 1383) was born in Chamdo province, in eastern Tibet. It is said that while pregnant, his mother could hear the sound of the mantra Om Mani Padme Hung coming from her womb, and that the baby said the mantra as soon as he was born. At the age of three, he announced that he was the Karmapa.
At a young age, he manifested the ability of the Karmapas to perform extraordinary activities, as spontaneously reading books and receiving many profound teachings in his dreams. As a teenager, he received the formal transmissions of both the Kagyu and Nyingma lineages from the great Nyingma guru Yungtonpa, the third Karmapa’s spiritual heir. At age nineteen, Emporer Toghon Temur invited the Karmapa to return to China. He accepted and began an extended journey, stopping many places along the way to give teachings. He taught for three years in China, establishing many temples and monasteries there. Temur was the last Mongol emperor of China. The subsequent emperor of the Ming dynasty later invited the Karmapa to China, but Rolpe Dorje sent a lama in his place.
An Auspicious Meeting
During his return to Tibet from China, Rolpe Dorje gave upasaka, lay ordination, to a very special child whom he named Kunga Nyingpo. Rolpe Dorje predicted that this child, from the Tsongka region, would play an important role in the Buddhism of Tibet. The child was to become known as the great master Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelugpa school.
An accomplished poet, Rolpe Dorje was fond of Indian poetics, and composed many wonderful dohas, or songs of realization, a form of composition for which the Kagyü lineage is famous. After one of his students had a vision of a Buddha image over 300 feet tall, the fourth Karmapa engineered a huge painting (thangka) of the Buddha. It is said the Karmapa traced the design of the Buddha’s outline with the hoofprints of a horse he was riding. The design was measured and traced on cloth, and five hundred workers completed the cloth painting of the Buddha and founders of the mahayana after laboring for over a year.
He passed into parinirvana in eastern Tibet. Among many disciples, his main disciple who became the next lineage holder was the second Shamar Rinpoche, Khachö Wangpo.
Khachö Wangpo (1350 - 1405) was recognized as the reincarnation of Khaydrup Dragpa Senge, the first Shamar Rinpoche (1283-1349) by the fourth Karmapa.
He was born in Chema-lung of Namshung, northern Tibet, in the Iron Tiger year. From an early age, he had numerous visions. At the age of seven, he met the Fourth Karmapa Rolpe Dorje and received upasaka and bodhisattva vows. The Karmapa gave him the Authentic Vajrayana Empowerments, Mahamudra transmissions, The Six Dharmas of Naropa, and the ear-whispered lineage transmissions of the Kagyu Lineage. Khachö Wangpo also studied the sutras and the tantras with numerous great masters of Kagyu and Nyingma. The Fourth Karmapa, Rolpe Dorje, granted the ceremonial ruby Red Crown to the Second Shamar Khachö Wangpo. When the Fourth Karmapa passed into parinirvana, Khachö Wangpo continued the lineage activities and enthroned the 5th Karmapa.
Khachö Wangpo was one of the first lineage teachers to record some of the key instructions put into writing. His collected works were recorded as having eight volumes.
At the age of Fifty six, Wood Rooster Year, he passed away into parinirvana with many wondrous signs of realizations.
Among many students, Sokwön Rikpe Raldri became an important disciple who later became the principal teacher of the Sixth Karmapa Thongwa Dhönden. He transmitted the full Kagyu lineage to the Fifth Karmapa, Deshin Shekpa.
The 5th Karmapa, Deshin Shekpa
The Fifth Karmapa (1384 - 1415) was born in the Nyang Dam region of southern Tibet to yogin parents. During the pregnancy, they heard the recitation of the Sanskrit alphabet and the Om Ah Ham mantra. Soon after birth, the infant sat upright, wiped his face, and said: “I am the Karmapa – Om Mani Padme Hung Hri.”
When the child was brought to Tsawa Phu in Kongpo, Khacho Wangpo immediately recognized him as the incarnation of Rolpe Dorje, and presented him with the Black Hat and other possessions of the fourth Karmapa. He went on to give the Karmapa the full cycle of Kagyu teachings, and the Karmapa soon completed his traditional training.
During the lifetime of the fourth Karmapa, Emperor Zhu Yuan Zhang of China invited the fourth Karmapa to visit him in China. The visit had never took place; instead, Rolpe Dorje sent a lama as his emissary. Later, Emperor Yongle had a vision of the Karmapa as Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion; thus he invited the fifth Karmapa, at the age of 23 (1406), Karmapa made a three-year journey to reach the imperial palace. Young le became an extraordinarily devoted student of the Karmapa, whom he took as his guru. Chinese records speak of the Karmapa’s manifestation in response to such devotion as a hundred kinds of miracles. The emperor recorded these events for posterity in silk paintings with a multi-lingual commentary. Following in the footsteps of the two previous Karmapas, Deshin Shekpa subsequently made a pilgrimage to the famous Wu-tai Shan sacred mountains, to visit his monasteries there.
The emperor achieved some realization, and had a vision in which he saw the wisdom Vajra Crown above Karmapa’s head. So that all beings might benefit from seeing something of this transcendent aspect of the Karmapa, the emperor commissioned the creation of a physical replica of the wisdom Vajra Crown, which he saw as a black hat. He presented it to his guru, requesting him to liberate those who saw it by wearing the crown on special occasions. This was the beginning of the Vajra Crown (or Black Crown) ceremony. The emperor also offered Karmapa the highest-ranking title: “Ta Bao Fa Wang,” (Great Precious Dharma King) with a golden seal.
In 1410, Deshin Shekpa returned to Tsurphu to oversee the reconstruction of Tsurphu, which had been damaged by an earthquake. He recognized the Shamar reincarnation of Chopal Yeshe and spent three years in contemplative retreat. The next lineage holder, however, was the Karmapa’s student Ratnabhadra.
Realizing that he would die at a young age, he left indications of his future rebirth and passed away into parinirvana at the age of 31. In the ashes of his cremation fire were found relics, naturally-formed images of many Buddhas.
Ratnabadra was born into the well-known family of Soksam-khar Drongbu Goshir, in Soksam. From a young age, he was ordained as a monastic. He received the higher training in Buddhist philosophy, logic, and other fields of knowledge at Palden Sangphu. He then went on a tour to great monastic institutions in Tibet, engaging in debate and discussion on four main topics – Madhyamaka, Prajnaparamita, Vinaya, and Abhidharma-Kosha. He became one of the greatest scholars of sutra and tantra and thus was called “Rikpe Raltri” (sword of philosophy and logic). He received the full transmission of the Kagyu lineage from the Fifth Karmapa Deshin Shekpa, through which he attained complete realization of the absolute reality and became one of the supreme meditation masters of the time.
Ratnabhadra passed on the full transmission of the Kagyu lineage to the Sixth Karmapa, Thongwa Dhönden.
Pawo Rinpoche said that the Sixth Karmapa Thongwa Dhonden wrote Ratnabhadra’s biography but it was not available at the time of Pawo Rinpoche. So, here is the brief version as recorded by Pawo Rinpoche. These details about Ratnabhadra are compiled from Pawo Tsuklak Trengwa’s Feast For Scholars (chos ‘byung mkhas pa’i dg’a ston), Beijing edition, vol. 2, pp. 1022-03. May this be virtuous!
The 6th Karmapa, Thongwa Donden
The Sixth Karmapa (1416-1453) was born in Ngomtö Shakyam, near Karma Gön in eastern Tibet, to a family of devoted yogins. Shortly after his birth, while his mother was carrying the young child, he suddenly became very excited when their path crossed that of Ngompa Chadral, a student of the Fifth Karmapa. Ngompa Chadral asked the name of the child, who smiled and replied “I’m the Karmapa.” Ngompa Chadral cared for the infant for seven months and then took him to Karma Gön.
The young Thongwa Dönden immediately began to teach. Shamar Chopal Yeshe came to Karma Gön during this period to crown the Karmapa. Thongwa Dönden received teachings and Kagyu transmission from Shamar Chopal Yeshe, Jamyang Drakpa, and Khenchen Nyephuwa. In particular, he received the full lineage transmission from Ratnabhadra, who was his principal lineage teacher.
At a young age, he began to compose many tantric rituals, eventually establishing a body of liturgies for the Kamtsang lineage. He also joined the lineages of the Shangpa Kagyu and the Shijay (Chöd – “cutting through egotism”) into the main Kagyu lineage transmissions.
He dedicated his activity to composition, teaching, restoring many monasteries within Tibet, printing books and strengthening the sangha. He began to develop the shedra system, the monastic university, in the Karma Kagyu lineage.
Realizing that he would die at an early age, he entered retreat, and conferred a regency on the First Gyaltsab, Goshir Paljor Döndrup, indicating where he would next take birth. The sixth Karmapa’s main spiritual heir was Bengar Jampal Zangpo, author of the “Mahamudra Lineage Supplication.” This renowned prayer of the Kagyü lineage represents his spontaneous utterance upon realizing mahamudra. Thongwa Dönden passed into parinirvana at the age of thirty eight (1453).
Bengar Jampal Sangpo
Bengar Jampal Zangpo (1427-1489 ) was born to the family of Nyemo Dzongpa, siddhas in Damshang (most likely located in eastern Tibet). He began study and practice at a very young age. At the age of twenty, he began studying Sutrayana and Vajrayana scriptures with the maha-pandita Rongton. Later, he received the Kagyu lineage transmissions and teachings such as the Six Dharmas of Naropa from the Sixth Karmapa, Thongwa Dhönden and followed his instructions one-pointedly. He became a highly realized master of the lineage.
Bengar Jampal Sangpo became the principal teacher of the Seventh Karmapa. He gave the full transmission and training of the Kagyu lineage to the young Karmapa, who became learned, disciplined, and with noble heart, just like Bengarwa himself.
These details about Bengar Jampal Sangpo are compiled from Pawo Tsuklak Trengwa’s Feast For Scholars (chos ‘byung mkhas pa’i dg’a ston), Beijing edition, vol. 2, pp. 1032. May this be virtuous!
Goshir Paljor Dhondrup
The First Gyaltsab, Goshir Paljor Dhöndrup (1427-1489) was born at Nyemo in Central Tibet. Under the guidance of the Sixth Karmapa Thongwa Dhönden, he received transmissions of the Kagyur, Tengyur, and many others. He was fully trained in buddhist philosophy and meditation by Karmapa, as well as by Bengar Jampal Sangpo and other lineage masters. Later, he was appointed as the General Secretary of the Karmapa. He offered his service to the activities of Karmapa and the lineage. Paljor Dhöndrup is the first incarnation of Gyaltsab Rinpoche.
He passed into parinirvana when the Seventh Karmapa reached twenty-five-years, with many wondrous signs of accomplishments. He received the full lineage transmission from the Sixth Karmapa, which he fully passed on to the Seventh Karmapa, Chödrak Gyatso.
These details about Goshir Paljor Dhöndrup are compiled from Pawo Tsuklak Trengwa’s Feast For Scholars (chos ‘byung mkhas pa’i dg’a ston), Beijing edition, vol. 2, pp. 1031. May this be virtuous!
The 7th Karmapa, Chodrak Gyatso
Born (1454-1506) to a family of tantric practitioners in Chida in southern Tibet, the Seventh Karmapa, Chödrak Gyatso was heard to say Ama-la (mother), while he was being carried in the womb. At birth he spoke the Sanskrit mantra “AH HUNG,” a sanskrit mantra, which symbolizes the ultimate nature, emptiness-luminosity. At five months of age, he said “There is nothing in the world but emptiness.”
At nine months of age, Goshir Paljor Dhondup the first Gyaltsab Rinpoche recognized him as the seventh Karmapa, in accordance with the instruction letter of the Sixth Karmapa, Thongwa Dönden. At four, he was given a series of empowerments by Goshir Paljor Döndrub, and at eight, he was given the Kagyu teachings from Bengar Jampal Sangpo and Goshir Paljor Döndrub at Karma Gön.
Chödrak Gyatso dedicated much of his life to retreat. He was also an extremely accomplished scholar, who authored many texts, such as a commentary on Abhisamayalamkara called The Lamp Of The Three Worlds. His most famous text is The Ocean Of Reasoning, his commentary on pramana (logic and reasoning) literature.
The Karmapa formally established monastic universities at Tsurphu and other places. He also restored the large Buddha statue commissioned by Karma Pakshi at Tsurphu. Something of an activist, he settled disputes, worked to protect animals, initiated bridge construction, and sent gold to Bodhgaya for the gilding of the statue of the Buddha at the place of the Buddha’s enlightenment. He also convinced numerous people to recite millions of Om Mani Padme Hum mantras as a universal cure for all ills. Before passing into parinirvna at the age of 53, he provided details of his next incarnation to Tashi Namgyal the second Gyaltsab Rinpoche and Situ Tashi Paljor the third Tai Situ Rinpoche.
Denma Drubchen (1457-1525) was born in the Denma area of Derge, in eastern Tibet. When he was five, upon hearing only the name “Karmapa,” he showed great devotion. A year later, he met the Seventh Karmapa, who bestowed upon him the name Tashi Paljor. He studied in Denma with the scholar Sangye Pal. At sixteen, Tashi Paljor decided to follow the Karmapa, and for the next seven years he studied with the Karmapa and received the full transmission of the Kagyu lineage. Afterwards, under the guidance of the Karmapa, he went to the mountains of Kham and Central Tibet to practice, following the example of Milarepa’s life. After practicing twenty years in solitary retreat, he attained full realisation, and became known as the first Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche.
He became the principal teacher of, and passed on the full lineage transmissions to, the Eighth Karmapa, Mikyö Dorje.
These details about Tashi Paljor are compiled from Pawo Tsuklak Trengwa’s Feast For Scholars (chos ‘byung mkhas pa’i dg’a ston), Beijing edition, vol. 2, pp. 1200-1205. May this be virtuous!
The 8th Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje
Born (1507-1554) in a small village called Satam, in the region of Kartiphuk of Ngomchu, in eastern Tibet, to a family of devoted yogins, the Eighth Karmapa was said to have spoken the words “I am the Karmapa” at birth. Upon hearing this report, Tai Situpa confirmed the child to be the new Karmapa. He spent the next years at Karma Gön.
When he was five, a child in Amdo was put forward as the Karmapa. The Karmapa’s regent, Gyaltsab Rinpoche, set out from Tsurphu to investigate the two children. However, on meeting Mikyö Dorje, he found himself spontaneously prostrating and knew that he was the real Karmapa.
Gyaltsab Tashi Namgyal and other students of the previous Karmapa, devised a test, which the child not only passed but to which he was heard to say “E ma ho! Have no doubts, I am the Karmapa.” Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche enthroned him the following year when he was six.
Mikyo Dorje studied with Sangye Nyenpa Tashi Paljor, Dulmo Tashi Öser, Choedrup Senghe and Karma Trinleypa. He took the essential Kagyu teachings from Sangye Nyenpa, Tashi Paljor. The Karmapa received an invitation to China when quite young, but declined on the ground that the Emperor would pass away before he could arrive, a prediction that turned out to be true.
Mikyö Dorje was one of the most renowned of the Karmapas, a great meditation master as well as a prolific and learned scholar, author of over thirty volumes of work, including very significant commentaries on the sutrayana treatises and pithy instructions on tantras. The Eighth Karmapa was also a visionary artist, to whom we owe the Karma Gadri style of thangka painting - one of the major schools of thangka composition. Mikyo Dorje also composed many sadhanas, practice liturgies, and other devotional practices for the Karma Kagyu school.
The Eighth Karmapa had many visions of the inseparability of his own manifestations and those of Guru Rinpoche. Guru Rinpoche carries out the activity of the Buddha himself, and is considered one of the ways in which the Buddha accomplishes his enlightened activity. The Eighth Karmapa realized his prior manifestation was coincident with the Guru Rinpoche manifestation activity of another historical Buddha, Dipamkara, who according to Buddhist cosmology preceded Buddha Shakyamuni in an era prior to the history of the current era. In Buddhist cosmology, it is said there are to be 1000 such buddhas, and hence the Karmapa and Guru Rinpoche can both be said to be the activity-aspect of all thousand Buddhas of our universe.
Foreseeing his imminent passing, he appointed Shamar Konchok Yenlak as his regent and he wrote a prediction letter and ask his monks to read it as part of daily prayers. He entered parinirvana at the age of 47. Among his many disciples, the main ones were Shamar Konchok Yenlak and Pawo Tsuklak Trengwa. His prediction letter said: “In the life following this one, I will be born as the glorious, self-arisen lord (Wangchuk) of the world. In the upper regions of the snowy region of Tre-shö to the east, a place where there is the sound of water and the dharma is heard. I have seen the signs that it will not be long before I am born in there.”
Könchok Yenlak (1526-1583) was born in upper part of Kongpo called Kyen, in the Wood Rooster year. The Eighth Karmapa, Mikyö Dorje, recognized him as the fifth Shamar incarnation. He studied with the Eighth Karmapa as well as with his student, Pawo Tsuklak Trengwa, and became a great scholar and meditation master. He received the full transmission of the Kagyu lineage and the Karmapa empowered him as the lineage holder. Könchok Yenlak’s collected writings number many volumes. Shamar Könchok Yenlak recognized the Ninth Karmapa and became his principal teacher. At the age of fifty nine, he passed into parinirvana with many great signs of realization.
He passed on the full lineage transmission to the Ninth Karmapa, Wangchuk Dorje.
These details about Könchok Yenlak are compiled from Karma Gyaltsen’s book called kam tshang yab sras dang dpal spungs dgon pa, Szechwan edition, p. 134. May this be virtuous!
The 9th Karmapa, Wanchuk Dorje
As predicted by the Eight Karmapa, the Ninth was born (1555-1603) in the Tresho region of Eastern Tibet. He was heard reciting mantras in the womb during preganancy and he, too, sat cross legged for three days soon after birth and declared he was the Karmapa.
In accordance to the prediction letter left by the Eighth Karmapa, he was soon recognized by the Tai Situpa Chökyi Gocha, who was staying not far away, and by the Sharmapa Konchok Yenlak. A year later, Shamarpa enthroned him at the age of six and gave him extensive teachings.
Once Wangchuk Dorje had received the complete Kagyu transmission, he began to teach throughout Tibet, traveling in a monastic camp, which strictly emphasized meditation practice. Wangchuk Dorje did not visit China. He gave many teachings and restored monasteries and temples wherever he went.
Like the Eighth Karmapa, Wangchuk Dorje was also a creative author and wrote many condensed commentaries on sutras and tantras, including three mahamudra treatises: The Ocean Of Definitive Meaning, Dispelling The Darkness Of Ignorance, and Pointing Out The Dharmakaya. These treatises have played a major role in Tibet for the teaching and transmission of mahamudra.
At the age of 48 he passed into parinirvana, leaving his prediction letter along with instructions about the next incarnation to the Sixth Shamarpa Chökyi Wangchuk.
Chökyi Wangchuk (1584-1629) was born in Drikhung area of Central Tibet and the Ninth Karmapa enthroned him as the Sixth Shamar incarnation. From an early age, he followed and studied with the Ninth Karmapa and received the full transmission of the Kagyu lineage. He became one the most renowned Panditas of the time, in Sutra and Tantra, composing many commentaries.
He was the teacher of Desi Tsangpa, who ruled Central Tibet at that time. He rebuilt the monastery in Kampo Neynang. He also traveled extensively to China and Nepal. He taught Buddhism in the original Sanskrit to the king, Laxman Naran Singh, in Nepal and to other devotees. He eventually passed away in the mountains of Helambu, Nepal. He passed on the lineage teachings to the Tenth Karmapa.
He traveled to Kham, in eastern Tibet, and recognized and became the principal teacher of the Tenth Karmapa Chöying Dorje.
These details about Chökyi Wangchuk are compiled from Karma Gyaltsen’s book called kam tshang yab sras dang dpal spungs dgon pa, Szechwan edition, p. 135. May this be virtuous!
The 10th Karmapa, Choying Dorje
As predicted, the Tenth Karmapa, Chöying Dorje (1604-1674) was born in the Golok region, in the far northeast of Tibet. He was recognized and enthroned by Shamar Chokyi Wangchuk, from whom he received the full Kagyu transmission.
By the age of six, he was a better painter than his teachers, as well as a gifted sculptor. Chöying Dorje anticipated the wars and political strife that were soon to come, realizing that certain political interests in Tibet would enlist the Mongol armies in the Gelugpa cause. Knowing he would be forced out of central Tibet by the political strife, the Tenth Karmapa gave away most of his wealth to the poor and appointed Goshir Gyaltsab his regent.
Gushri Khan’s Mongol armies attacked Shigatse and then continued the attack through much of Tibet, causing considerable destruction throughout the land, and eventually overrunning the Karmapa’s camp. Chöying Dorje was forced to leave the area. With an attendant, he traveled throughout Tibet. They later traveled to what is today northern Yunnan. As always, wherever the Karmapa went, he fostered the dharma and he was able to establish some monasteries along his route.
Twenty some years passed before he could return to his homeland. He recognized the next incarnations of Shamar Yeshe Nyingpo, Goshir Gyaltsab, and Pawo Rinpoche, and gave the transmission of the Kagyu teachings. Shamarpa became his main spiritual heir. At the age of 71, Chöying Dorjé passed into parinirvana.
By this time the political landscape in Tibet had changed for good. Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, the fifth Dalai Lama, had become the official ruler of Tibet, and this role of the Dalai Lamas would continue to be filled by his successive incarnations.
Yeshe Nyingpo (1631-1694) was born in Golok region of east Tibet and the Tenth Karmapa recognized him as the Seventh Shamar incarnation. He was extremely devoted to and followed the instructions of the Tenth Karmapa Chöying Dorje. He received the full transmission of the Kagyu lineage and had many signs of accomplishment in both Mahamudra and Dzogchen meditation. Yeshe Nyingpo passed into parinirvana at the age of sixty-four, the Wood Dog year.
Yeshe Nyingpo recognize and became the principal teacher of the Eleventh Karmapa, Yeshe Dorje.
These details about Yeshe Nyingpo are compiled from Karma Gyaltsen’s book called kam tshang yab sras dang dpal spungs dgon pa, Szechwan edition, p. 136. May this be virtuous!
The 11th Karmapa, Yeshe Dorje
Yeshe Dorje (1676 - 1702) was born in the Mayshö region in east Tibet to a devoted buddhist family. Shamar Yeshe Nyingpo, Gyaltsab Norbu Sangpo and Terton Yong-ge Mingyur Dorje recognized him as the next Karmapa in accordance with the instructions of the previous Karmapa. Yeshe Dorje went to central Tibet and was enthroned at Tsurphu monastery.
Yeshe Dorje received teachings and the mahamudra lineage transmissions from Shamarpa. He also received the Terma teachings, which are the hidden teachings of Padmasambhava, from Yong-ge Mingur Dorje and Taksham Nüden Dorje. This fulfilled a prophecy of Padmasambhava that the Eleventh Karmapa would hold certain terma lineages. Yeshe Dorje was a great visionary who performed many miracles.
Yeshe Dorje also located and identified the Eighth Shamarpa, Palchen Chokyi Dondrub, who became his close student and next lineage holder. However, he was to be the shortest lived of the Karmapas. During his precious but brief existence, he blended both the Kagyu and Nyingma teachings. He passed into parinirvana, after appointing Shamar Palchen Chökyi Döndrup as his regent.
Palchen Chokyi Dhondrup
Chökyi Dhöndrup (1695-1732) was born to a Nepalese family in Yolmo (Helambu), in the Kingdom of Nepal. The Eleventh Karmapa Yeshe Dorje sent an envoy with precise instructions on how to find this boy. With the permission of his parents, he was taken to Tibet at the age of seven, and enthroned by the Karmapa as the Eighth Shamar incarnation. He received the full transmission of the lineage from the Karmapa and he also studied with the Third Treho Tendzin Dhargye, Goshir Dhönyö Nyingpo and other masters. He traveled to China and Nepal and benefited many beings through his teachings. He passed away at the age of thirty eight, in the Water Mouse year.
He passed on the full Kagyu lineage to the Twelfth Karmapa, Changchup Dorje.
These details about Palchen Chökyi Dhondrup are compiled from Karma Gyaltsen’s book called kam tshang yab sras dang dpal spungs dgon pa, Szechwan edition, p. 136-7. May this be virtuous!
The 12th Karmapa, Chanchup Dorje
The Twelfth Karmapa, Chanchup Dorje (1703-1732) was born at Kyile Tsaktor in Derge province of eastern Tibet. Chökyi Dhöndrup sent a search party and his envoys brought the child to Karma Gön where Shamarpa met with the young child and recognized him in accordance with the previous Karmapa’s prediction and instructions.
The young Karmapa studied under many illustrious masters. He gave profound Kagyu teachings to the famous Nyingma master of Katok monastery, who in turn shared his Nyingma teachings.
Changchup Dorje make pilgrimage to India and Nepal, accompanied by the Shamar, Situ, and Gyaltsap Rinpoches. Upon reaching Nepal, he was greatly honored by the King of Nepal, who credited him for stopping a raging epidemic and for making rain that ended a serious drought. In India, they visited the sacred places of Lord Buddha.
After the Karmapa returned to Tibet, he accepted an invitation to China, and set out accompanied by the Shamarpa. However, foreseeing difficult political times ahead and realizing the need to leave his body, the Karmapa succumbed to smallpox, as did the Sharmapa two days later. Eighth Situ incarnation, Chokyi Jungney became his spiritual heir.
The Eighth Situ incarnation, Chokyi Jungney, otherwise known as the Situ Panchen (1699-1774), was born in Derge, Kham, in the Earth Hare year. He studied and received the full transmissions from the 8th Shamar Chökyi Dhöndrup and the Twelfth Karmapa Changchup Dorje. He also studied extensively with many other teachers such as Rikdzin Tsewang Norbu. Chökyi Jungney went to see the Karmapa and Shamar Chökyi Dhöndrup when they were on the journey to China sometime around 1735. He was one of the most renowned scholars and meditation masters of Tibet. One of his major activities was editing and seeing to the printing of the woodblock editions of the Kagyur and Tengyur project of the King of Derge. This production is now well-known around the world as the Derge edition, which is considered as one of the best original prints of these central texts of the Tibetan tradition. The activities of Situ Panchen flourished widely and he restored or established monasteries, retreats, and study centers all over Tibet and Jang.
Situ Panchen recognized and enthroned the 13th Karmapa and the next incarnation of Shamar Rinpoche.
He gave the full transmission of the Kagyu lineage to the Thirteenth Karmapa, Düdul Dorje.
These details about Chokyi Jungney are compiled from Karma Gyaltsen’s book called kam tshang yab sras dang dpal spungs dgon pa, Szechwan edition, pp. 85 – 88 / 167 – 214. May this be virtuous!
The 13th Karmapa, Dudul Dorje
The 13th Karmapa, Dudul Dorje (1733-1797) was born in Nyen Chawatrong in southern Tibet. Found by Kathok Rigzin Tsewang Norbu, the child was brought to Tsurphu. He was recognized at the age of four and enthroned by 7th Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche and Kathog Rigdzin Tsewang Norbu.
From the age of eight, Karmapa received full transmission and teachings of the Kagyu lineage from his main guru, Tai Situpa Chokyi Jungney. He also studied with many great masters of the Nyingma and Kagyu lineages of the time, such as Kathok Rigdzin Tsewang Norbu, Kagyu Trinley Shingta, Pawo Tsuklak Gawa, and others.
At one point the famous Jo-kang temple, home of the Jo-wo image, was threatened by rising flood waters. A prophecy from Guru Rinpoche had foreseen this and predicted that only the Karmapa could do something to stop it. Aware of the prophecy, the Lhasa authorities requested him to come. Unable to leave Tsurphu immediately, he resolved the problem by writing a special letter of blessing and invoking the compassion of Avalokitesvara. Later, when he was able to come to Lhasa, the Thirteenth Karmapa offered a white scarf (kata) to the Jowo image, and it is said that the arms of the statue changed position to accept it and have been that way ever since. Dudul Dorjé was also asked to consecrate a distant monastery. Remaining at Tsurphu, he threw blessing grains in the air at the appropriate moment of the consecration ceremony. It is said that they were seen to shower down from the heavens at the monastery in question hundreds of kilometres away.
Düdul Dorje and Tai Situpa with Kathok Rigdzin Tsewang Norbu recognized the Shamarpa’s reincarnation, Chödrup Gyatso, the younger brother of the Fourth Panchen Lama, Palden Yeshe.
He passed into parinirvana and Situpa Pema Nyinchey became his spiritual heir. He left behind the detailed prediction letter and instructions on his next incarnation.
Mipham Chodrub Gyatso
Mipam Chödrub Gyatso (1742-1793) was born in Tashi Tse in Tsang region of Central Tibet as a younger brother of 6th Panchen Lama, Lobsang Palden Yeshe of Tashi Lhunpo. He was recognized and enthroned by the 13th Karmapa and the Situ Chökyi Jungne. He studied many years with Situ Chökyi Jungney as well as with Pawo Tsuklak Gawa and Rikdzin Tsewang Norbu and thus developed into a great scholar and meditation master. He went to Nepal in the 1780s, where he continued his bodhisattva activities of restoring the Swayambhu Stupa, a renowned pilgrimage site, and benefited many students in Nepal and Tibet. He passed away in Nepal, near the Boudhanath Stupa.
He gave the full transmission of the full Kagyu lineage to the Ninth Situ incarnation, Pema Nyinje Wangpo.
These details about Mipham Chödrup Gyatso are compiled from Karma Gyaltsen’s book called kam tshang yab sras dang dpal spungs dgon pa, Szechwan edition, pp. 137-40. May this be virtuous!
Pema Nyinje Wangpo
Pema Nyinche Wangpo (1774 - 1853) was born in Yilhung in east Tibet in the Wood Horse year. The Thirteenth Karmapa recognized him as the Ninth incarnation of Situ Rinpoche, with assistance of Shamar Chödrup Gyatso, and Pawo Tsuklak Gawa. The Indian master Padmasambhava predicted this incarnation of Situpa. He studied and practiced with many masters and especially with his two principal teachers, the 13th Karmapa and the 10th Shamar. He became a great scholar and meditation master and his dharma activities flourished throughout the land. He established many retreat centers, where he taught and greatly inspired many to practice and teach the Kagyu meditation practices. It is recorded that he his collected writings filled three volumes.
He became the principal guru of the Fourteenth Karmapa and also Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye and gave full lineage transmission to the Fourteenth Karmapa, Thekchok Dorje.
These details about Pema Nyinje Wangpo are compiled from Karma Gyaltsen’s book called kam tshang yab sras dang dpal spungs dgon pa, Szechwan edition, pp. 88-89. May this be virtuous!
The 14th Karmapa, Theckchok Dorje
Theckchok Dorje (1798 - 1868) was born in the village of Danang in the Kham region of eastern Tibet. He was born in mid-winter, and the histories say that flowers spontaneously blossomed and many rainbows appeared. The baby recited the Sanskrit alphabet. He was recognized by Drukchen Kunzig Chokyi Nangwa, the holder of the Thirteenth Karmapa’s letter giving the details of his forthcoming reincarnation. He was enthroned and later ordained by the Ninth Tai Situpa, Situ Pema Nyinche Wangpo. The Karmapa received teachings and the lineage transmissions from Situ Pema Nyinche Wangpo and Drukchen Kunzig Chokyi Nangwa.
Theckchok Dorje lived very simply and exemplified the ideal monk. He was gifted in poetry and dialectics and participated in the ri-me (non-sectarian) movement, whereby many noted scholars showed great interest in each others’ traditions and teachings. This exchange was particularly intense between the Kagyu and Nyingma traditions, with the Karmapa passing on teachings to Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche. Thekchok Dorje received some tantras from the Nyingma visionary treasure-revealer Chogyur Lingpa and those rituals were subsequently introduced into the Tsurphu calendar.
Chogyur Lingpa had important visions of future Karmapas, up to the twenty-first. These were noted down and memorialized in a thangka, a Tibetan form of sacred painting. The fourteenth Karmapa’s spiritual heir was the great ri-mé (nonsectarian) master and prolific author, Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye. Thekchok Dorje taught widely in Tibet and recognized the Tenth Situpa, Pema Kunzang. Thekchok Dorje passed into parinirvana at the age of 71, leaving detailed instructions on his next incarnation.
Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye
Jamgon Kongtrul the Great, Lodrö Thaye (1813 - 1899), was born in the village of Rong-gyap in Derge, in east Tibet. The coming of this great master was prophesized by the Buddha Shakyamuni, in the Samadhiraja-sutra, as well as by the Great Indian Vajra Master, Padmasambhava, in many of his termas (hidden teachings, for later revelation). He studied and mastered the teachings of the Buddha in general and tantrayana in specific including the Bön religion of Tibet. Among his many teachers, his primary teachers were the Fourteenth Karmapa, Situ Pema Nyinje Wangpo, the Great Khyentse, and many other masters of the time. He not only became one of the greatest masters and the lineage holder of Kagyu School but of all four Schools of Tibetan Buddhism as well as the Bön religion.
Lodrö Thaye co-founded the non-sectarian movement in Tibet with the Great Khyentse in 19th century. He became the teacher of the Fifteenth Karmapa Khakhyap Dorje, giving him the full Kagyu teachings. He is renowned as an accomplished master, scholar, writer, poet, and artist, and authored and compiled more than 100 volumes of scriptures. Among these, the best known is the Five Treasuries, made up of The Treasury of Kagyu Mantras, Treasury of Key Instructions, Treasury of Precious Termas, Treasury of Vast Teachings, and the Treasury of Knowledge.
He became the principal teacher of and gave the full transmission of the lineage to the Fifteenth Karmapa, Khakhyab Dorje.
These details about Lodrö Thaye are compiled from Karma Gyaltsen’s book called kam tshang yab sras dang dpal spungs dgon pa, Szechwan edition, pp. 100-118. May this be virtuous!
The 15th Karmapa, Kyakyab Dorje
The Fifteenth Karmapa, Khakyab Dorje (1871 - 1922) , was born with the very auspicious circle of hair between the eyebrows (found on the young Sakyamuni and known as one of the 32 marks of an enlightened being). Khakyab Dorje spoke the mantra of Avalokiteshvara at his birth in Sheikor village of the Tsang province in central Tibet. He was recognized by the Kyabgon Drukchen, Migyur Wanggi Gyalpo along with Jamgon Kongtrul, Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, Terchen Chokgyur Lingpa, and Pawo Tsuklak Nyinchey.
He grew up receiving a very thorough education from very famous scholars and eventually received the Kagyu transmission from Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye, who also passed on to him the essence of his hundred compositions embracing the profound teachings of all Tibetan Buddhist traditions, as well as the fields of medicine, art, linguistics and general Buddhist studies. He studied with many great masters such as Khenchen Tashi Ozer.
He continued his activities of teaching and giving empowerments throughout Tibet, and preserved many rare texts by having them reprinted. Khakyab Dorje is the first in the line of Karmapas to get married, and had three sons, one of whom was recognized as the second Jamgon Kongtrul Palden Khyentse Öser. His life was a brilliant example of the bodhisattva with an insatiable desire for learning in order to help other beings.
Among many disciples, his closest students were Tai Situ Pema Wangchok Gyalpo, Jamgon Kongtrul Palden Khyentse Öser, and Beru Khyentse Lodro Mize Jampe Gocha.
Some years before his passing into parinirvana, he entrusted a prediction letter to his closest attendant.
Pema Wangchog Gyalpo
Pema Wangchog Gyalpo (1886 - 1953) was born in Lithang, east Tibet. He was recognized as the Eleventh reincarnation of Situ Rinpoche and enthroned by the Fifteenth Karmapa. He studied with many great masters of the time including Jamgon Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye and Khenchen Shenga Rinpoche, and he became accomplished scholar of sutras and tantras. He received the extraordinary Kagyu lineage transmissions from the Fifteenth Karmapa and regarded him as the principal teacher.
Situ Pema Wangchog later found, enthroned, educated, and offered the full transmission of the Kagyu lineage to the Sixteenth Gyalwang Karmapa, Rangjung Rikpe Dorje.
These details about Pema Wangchok Gyalpo are compiled from Karma Gyaltsen’s book called kam tshang yab sras dang dpal spungs dgon pa, Szechwan edition, pp. 91-97. May this be virtuous!
Jamgon Kongtrul Palden Khyentse Öser
Jamgon Kongtrul, Palden Khyentse Öser (1904 - 1953) was born at Tsurphu as a son of the 15th Karmapa. At the age of twelve, he was recognized as the Second incarnation of Jamgon Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye and enthroned at Tsurphu by the 15th Karmapa. He spent many years at Tsadra Rinchen Trak, the seat of the First Jamgon Kongtrul and studied with excellent masters. He received the full education and lineage transmission from the Karmapa. He expanded his teaching activities throughout Tibet and benefited many beings in Tibet and China. Palden Khyentse Öser was one of the most renowned Mahamudra masters, and held the ultimate lineage.
He passed the innermost lineage of Mahamudra to the Sixteenth Karmapa, Rangjung Rikpe Dorje.
These details about Palden Khyentse Öser are compiled from Karma Gyaltsen’s book called kam tshang yab sras dang dpal spungs dgon pa, Szechwan edition, pp. 118-26.. May this be virtuous.
The 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje
The Sixteenth Gyalwang Karmapa, Rangjung Khyapdak Rigpe Dorje (1924-1981), was born in Denkhok of the Derge province in east Tibet, the son of a noble family called Athup. Having received instructions from different masters in Derge that she would bear a great bodhisattva son, his mother had gone to stay in a holy cave, once used by Guru Rinpoche, where she waited to give birth. She was accompanied by a Khenpo who instructed her on the cleansing ceremony. It is said that, at one point at the very end of the pregnancy, the future Karmapa disappeared entirely from his mother’s womb for a whole day. The day of his birth, his mother returned to normal pregnancy size and soon gave birth to this great bodhisattva. Those present heard him say to his mother that he would be leaving soon .
The details of the birth coincided precisely with those of a prediction letter given by the Fifteenth Karmapa to his attendant, Jampal Tsultrim, which set forth the circumstances of this new incarnation. Jampal Tsultrim handed the letter to the authorities at Tsurphu monastery, who then asked Tai Situpa, Beru Khyentse, and Jamgon Kongtrul to clarify certain points. A search party subsequently located the incarnation. The Eleventh Tai Situpa soon recognized the child as being the new reincarnation of the Gyalwang Karmapa and sought confirmation from HH the Dalai Lama.
The Karmapa received first ordination and then bodhisattva vows from the Tai Situpa and Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, the two foremost disciples of the Fifteenth Karmapa. Eventually, the Dalai Lama gave his acknowledgement.
While still residing in Derge, when he was eight years old he received the Vajra Crown and ceremonial robes of the Karmapa brought to him from Tsurphu. On the way to Palpupng Monastery, he stopped to visit and bless the Derge Monastic Publishing House, foreshadowing his publication of the Buddhist cannon in India. Tai Situ Rinpcohe enthroned him as the Sixteenth Karmapa, Rangjung Khyabdak Rigpe Dorje. Tai Situpa then accompanied him on the long journey to Tsurphu, the seat of the Karmapas in central Tibet, where the new incarnation was greeted by Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche, Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche and Nenang Pawo Rinpoche.
Soon after his arrival at Tsurphu, the Sixteenth Karmapa was received by the Thirteenth Dalai Lama who performed the “hair-cutting” ceremony. While so doing, the Dalai Lama had a vision of the ever-present wisdom-crown on the Karmapa’s head.
After this ceremony the Karmapa was officially enthroned at his main seat of Tsurphu, by Tai Situpa and the Head of the Drukpa Kagyu school. He received the full Kagyu lineage transmissions from Tai Situpa Pema Wangchok Gyalpo and Jamgon Kongtrul Palden Khyentse Öser. The Sixteenth Karmapa then studied many sutrayana texts with Gangkar Rinpoche and tantric teachings with Khyentse Rinpoche. He received the mahamudra transmission from Jamgon Kongtrul Palden Khyentse Öser, and many other great masters of the time.
Karmapa then visited the Lithang Pangphuk monastery, where, in the tradition of the Karmapas and their inconceivable activity, he is said to have left footprints in solid rock.
1941 – 1944
The 18-year old Karmapa returned to Tsurphu and between 1941 and 1944 spent much time in retreat. Tsurphu monastery was extended in size during this period.
Beginning in 1944, His Holiness began to strengthen relationships with neighboring Buddhist states in the Himalayan region, as well as with India. During a pilgrimage in southern Tibet, the Sixteenth Karmapa accepted an invitation from His Highness Jigme Dorje Wangchuk, the King of Bhutan. The Karmapa and his party then visited Bumthang (in northern Bhutan) and other areas in Bhutan, engaging in many spiritual activities.
The Karmapa and his party continued their pilgrimage to Nepal, India, and Sikkim (India), visiting the major places of the Buddha’s life: Lumbini, just inside Nepal where the Buddha was born, Benares (Varanasi) where he first taught, and Bodhgaya, the place of Buddha’s enlightenment.
After travelling through Kinnaur (Himachal Pradesh in northern India) and Purang to visit Mount Kailash, His Holiness returned to Tsurphu Monastery in Tibet.
With His Holiness the Dalai Lama, H.H. the Sixteenth Karmapa and other high lamas of Tibet visited China. The Sixteenth Karmapa subsequently returned to Tibet, stopping along the way at many monasteries in eastern Tibet.
The Karmapa and party traveled to Sikkim and from there continued on pilgrimage. H.H. the Dalai Lama, H.H. the Panchen Lama, and H.H. the Karmapa visited India, at the invitation of the Mahabodhi Society of India, to join in the celebration of the 2,500th anniversary of Buddhism. During this trip, the Karmapa and his party revisited the holy sites of India as pilgrims.
During this visit, the Karmapa strengthened his ties to his disciples Tashi Namgyal, the King of Sikkim, and Ashi Wangmo, the Bhutanese Buddhist princess. The King of Sikkim invited him to visit Rumtek, a monastery in Sikkim that the ninth Karmapa had founded at the end of the 16th century. His Holiness was unable to accept his invitation at that time but said that he would go there in the future, when it would be needed.
Foreseeing the communist Chinese invasion of Tibet, and the inevitable destruction of Buddhist institutions in Tibet, the Karmapa informed the Dalai Lama of his intention to leave his homeland in the spring of 1959. The Sixteenth Karmapa, accompanied by a large entourage, left Tsurphu, and fled Tibet. The escape was organized by Dhamchoe Yondu, the General Secretary for His Holiness. The party also carried with them the sacred statues, paintings, reliquaries, and other precious items of the lineage of the Karmapas. The timing and organization of the departure made for a relatively easy journey to Bhutan. After three weeks, the party arrived safely in northern Bhutan, where the most senior Bhutanese government officials received them.
The Choegyal (King) of Sikkim extended a formal invitation to His Holiness to set up his seat in Sikkim, and two months after entering Bhutan the party arrived in Gangtok, Sikkim. Of the several sites proposed by Choegyal Tashi Namgyal, the Karmapa chose to settle at Rumtek. The Karmapa stated that Rumtek could be his seat outside Tibet, although he hoped one day to return to Tibet.
The Karmapa and his party left Gangtok for Rumtek shortly after the Choegyal extended his offer to settle in Rumtek. Although Rumtek monastery had been established many centuries earlier by the ninth Karmapa, by 1959 it lay almost in ruins. The area around Rumtek was also undeveloped and had no facilities for supporting the Karmapa and his party. The Karmapa, teachers and community lived in temporary quarters for many years, while His Holiness gathered resources to begin construction of new facilities to support his monastic seat and the lay people surrounding the monastery.
Construction of a new monastery and other facilities for the Karmapa’s monastic seat in Rumtek began in earnest three years later. The foundation stone of the new monastic center was laid by the new King of Sikkim, who had assumed responsibility for the kingdom after the previous Choegyal had passed away. Construction was led by the General Secretary for His Holiness, Dhamchoe Yongdu. It was funded primarily through the generosity of the Sikkimese royal family and of the Indian government, the latter occurring after the Karmapa’s meeting with Pandit Nehru.
Construction of the monastery was completed in four years and the sacred items and relics brought out from Tsurphu were installed there. On Tibetan New Year’s day (losar) H.H. the Sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa officially inaugurated the new seat called “The Dharmachakra Center, a place of erudition and spiritual accomplishment, the seat of the glorious Karmapa.”
H.H. the Sixteenth Karmapa set out on his first world tour, visiting the United States, Canada, and Europe. Accompanied by other teachers, a full entourage of monks and other staff, he performed the Vajra Crown ceremony in the Western hemisphere for the first time, gave empowerments, and dispensed dharma advice.
In mid-January, H.H. the Sixteenth Karmapa flew to Rome and met with His Holiness the Pope Paul VI.
His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa again traveled to the West for a more extended visit, follwed by a wide-ranging world tour. He visited religious centers in four continents and met heads of state, heads of religion, elders of many traditions and people from the world of arts.
1960’S – 1970’S
The Karmapa was given a palace and a large piece of land upon which to establish a major monastery by the royal family of Bhutan. The Karmapa strengthened his ties with Bhutan over these early decades.
On November 28th, H.H. the Sixteenth Karmapa laid the ground for the construction of Karmae Dharma Chakra Centre southeast of New Delhi, at a ceremony attended by the President and Prime Minister of India. The Centre was envisioned as a study, meditation, and translation center .
In May 1980, His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa began his last world tour, travelling through Greece, England, the United States, and Southeast Asia. During this tour, H.H. gave teachings, Vajra Crown Ceremonies, empowerments, interviews, audiences, and engaged in many beneficent activities.
NOV. 5TH 1981
H.H. the Sixteenth Karmapa passed away into parinirvana at the American International Clinic in Zion, near Chicago, Illinois, USA. His Holiness’ kudung (body) was flown back to India.
DEC. 20, 1981
Karmapa’s cremation ceremony took place in Rumtek monastery. Indian dignitaries and several thousand of his disciples from all over the world attended the services.
DEC. 21, 1981
A general Karma Kagyu meeting was held in Rumtek at the request of Mr. Dhamchoe Yongdu, the General Secretary to the 16th Karmapa. He requested Shamar Rinpoche, Tai Situ Rinpoche, Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, and Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche to form a council of regents to take joint responsibility for the spiritual affairs of the Karma Kagyu lineage. He also asked them to locate Karmapa’s instructions concerning his next rebirth and thus bring forward his next incarnation. The four Rinpoches accepted the task and expressed their sincere desire to fulfil the wishes of the Sixteenth Karmapa