Day 4: A Historical Examination of the First Eight Karmapa Reincarnations

Day 4: A Historical Examination of the First Eight Karmapa Reincarnations

Arya Kshema Spring Dharma Teachings: 17th Gyalwang Karmapa on 

The Life of the Eighth Karmapa Mikyö Dorje

February 19, 2021

His Holiness opened the teachings by greeting everyone warmly. He then announced that today was Chamgön Vajradhara Tai Situpa’s birthday. He asked the audience to join him in reciting Long Life Prayers for Tai Situ Rinpoche, as written by the previous Drupön Dechen Rinpoche, and pray that Tai Situ Rinpoche accomplish his vast activity just as he wishes.

Researching the lives of the first eight Gyalwang Karmapas

His Holiness has conducted extensive research on the lives of the first eight Gyalwang Karmapa reincarnations, examining and comparing historical texts, documents, and chronologies of the Karma Kamtsang written by past Kagyu masters. In particular, the First Gyaltsap Rinpoche’s biography of the Seventh Karmapa titled The Liberation of Rangjung Kunkhyen Tsokye Dorje Mipham Chökyi Gyalpo, and a manuscript named The Dates of the Incarnations of the Karmapas were used as the bases for the first part of His Holiness’ teaching today. 

From these sources, His Holiness was able to collect biographical information on the first eight Gyalwang Karmapas. This information included the names of their family clans, birthplaces (as they are known today), birthdates, parents’ names, names when young and after ordination, and the dates of their passing. His Holiness presented tables for each Karmapa summarizing the essential information he has uncovered. He then thanked the many dharma friends who assisted him by travelling to the Karmapas’ various birthplaces in China to research old place names and to take pictures of the various regions as they appear now. 

The First Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa: His birthplace clarified

According to the table, His Holiness had made, Dusum Khyenpa was born to Gompa Dorje and Lhatok Sagang in the year of the Male Iron Tiger (1110 CE). He was named Chökyi Drakpa after taking ordination, and he lived until the age of 84 according to the Tibetan way of calculating one’s age.

There had previously been some confusion about the First Karmapa’s birthplace, which His Holiness now clarified. The First Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa, was born in Raktak (also Ratak, Rathak, and Ratsak) in Tre (also called Trewo, Krewo, and more recently Treho), located in the Kardze district of Kham. Later, the Ninth Karmapa and one or two Shamar Rinpoches were also born in Tre. For this reason, up until the 10th Karmapa, many Kagyu monasteries and teachings flourished in the region of Trewo. However, the Mongol invasion destroyed all but three Kamtsang monasteries and, as a result, as the years passed, fewer and fewer people took an interest in Karma Kagyu history. In addition, the stories of the Karmapas and Shamapas have been mixed up. His Holiness hoped that with today’s explanation, histories would become clearer.

These days, people often say Dusum Khyenpa was born in Bochok; some of his descendants continue to live there, there are many stories related to this, and there are many of Dusum Khyenpa’s artifacts that they can show. In 2010, for the 900th anniversary celebration of Dusum Khyenpa’s birth, his birthplace was listed as Bochok in His Holiness’ book and on the internet. However, His Holiness noted that in written texts, Dusum Khyenpa’s birthplace was said to be Raktak. As it happened, one or two years ago, His Holiness received an old document called the Vajra Splinter Travelogue, written by the Eighth Karmapa Mikyö Dorje’s personal physician and attendant, Gelong Shangkarwa Jikme Ngakgi Gyatso. His Holiness then showed on screen excerpts from the Travelogue, paired with modern photographs of the regions described. Among the descriptions of the various regions through which these attendants passed and among the details of the journey presented in the Travelogue, His Holiness was able to confirm that Dusum Khyenpa’s birthplace was Tre (called Trewo Rangtak in the Travelogue). An examination of another text, the Golden Garland of the Kamtsang, which quotes an autobiography of Karma Pakshi, also indicates that Kamkhyim in Tre was Dusum Khyenpa’s place of birth. His Holiness’ research suggests that Bochok was actually the birthplace of one of the Shamar incarnations, whereas Dusum Khyenpa was, in fact, born in Raktak in Tre. 

The First Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa: Establishing the Three Seats

According to His Holiness, one of Dusum Khyenpa’s most important deeds was founding several monasteries, including the three main monastic seats, and establishing the foundation for the teachings of the Karma Kamtsang. There are several ways in which the three monastic seats have been described and identified. For example, they have been called the Upper, Middle, and Lower seats (a classification scheme based on the monasteries’ geographic location) or the Places of the Three Chakras of Body, Speech, and Mind. 

For today’s teachings, His Holiness used the Sixth Shamar Rinpoche Chökyi Wangchuk’s Guidebook to Kampo Nenang in which he wrote:

Gampopa had students as numerous as stars in the sky, but [Gampopa} said to Dusum Khyenpa, “I have the highest hopes in you, white-haired Khampa”, and he entrusted the teachings of the Karma Kagyu to Dusum Khyenpa. He said to Dusum Khyenpa, “Go to Kampa Gangra in Kham and do retreat there,” and predicted, “Your benefit to beings will spread throughout Kham, Ü, and Tsang.” 

For that reason, Dusum Khyenpa went to Kampo Nenang in Kham, made a retreat, and realized the Dharma Nature. He then nurtured many students and founded the first monastic seat, Kampo Nenang. 

The three principal seats associated with the Karmapas were:

  • Kampo Nenang – the lower seat – the chakra of body (now a Gelug monastery)
  • Karma Gön – the middle seat – the chakra of speech
  • Okmin Tsurphu – the upper seat – the chakra of mind

The Sixth Shamar Rinpoche also wrote of Five Sacred Sites. In addition to the sites of Body, Speech, and Mind, he named Pongri in the east as the site of qualities and Dapba Pangpuk as the site of activity. Subsequent teachers, such as the 13th  Karmapa and Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye, had different classification systems. For example, Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye’s Nonsectarian Dharma History lists two places of qualities: Pungri in the east and Kamkhyim in Tre, near Dusum Khyenpa’s birthplace; and two sites of activities: Bara and Drama Drushi.

Many famous monasteries were founded by successive Karmapas and their heart sons, but in terms of history, there were three seats and five sacred sites of body, speech, and mind. His Holiness said it is better if we consider these to be the monasteries founded by Dusum Khyenpa. He reminded listeners that Dusum Khyenpa practiced at Karma Nenang, realized the truth of the dharmata, and established a monastery at that site. The people of Karma Nenang monastery became known as the Karma Nenangpas, or the Karma Kamtsang. 

The Second to Seventh Karmapas: Biographical overviews

His Holiness continued by briefly covering the biographical information he had collected about the Second to Seventh Karmapas. Generally, he stated, all incarnations of the Karmapa are the heads of the Karma Kamtsang teachings, and therefore the seats they established are the most sacred. Dusum Khyenpa’s monasteries in particular provide the foundation of Karma Kamtsang’s teachings. Many of these monasteries have now fallen into disrepair. Nevertheless, His Holiness urged listeners to respect them and recognize why those sites are important. 

The Second Karmapa, the mahasiddhi Karma Pakshi (1206-1283), restored Dusum Khyenpa’s three monasteries and preserved and spread the teachings. It was during his time or later that the name “Karma Kagyu” emerged. The year of Karma Pakshi’s birth is uncertain; there are differing accounts, perhaps because there were different traditions of counting years. Consequently, between the passing of the First Karmapa and the birth of the Second, there was a gap of at least ten years but possibly more. His Holiness noted that this is the longest gap between two successive Karmapa incarnations. 

His Holiness continued by presenting information on the Third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje (1284-1339), who passed away in Xanadu, one of the two capitals of the Mongol Empire. The day after his passing, many people saw Rangjung Dorje’s image in the moon, leading to the tradition of painting the Third Karmapa in a full moon. 

The information on the Fourth to Seventh Karmapas was similarly covered.  

The Eighth Karmapa Mikyö Dorje: Beginning The Praise “He Searched Thoroughly”

The first stanzas in the autobiographical praises the Good Deeds and He Searched Thoroughly are related. His Holiness noted that Mikyö Dorje initially offered  The Praise  “He Searched Thoroughly” to Karma Trinleypa, who felt he did not have the qualities to accept it. Therefore, he offered it back to Mikyö Dorje.

The Praise “He Searched Thoroughly” is taught in terms of nine different points. The first point explains how the Eighth Karmapa first entered the teachings and then brought others to them. The first two stanzas read:

He searched thoroughly for the unerring essence 
Of the teachings of the unrivaled Teacher,

Had the discipline that leads to the true ways,
And practiced the teachings in full—to him I pray.

Pawo Tsuglak Trengwa explained that when Mikyö Dorje entered the teachings of the Buddha, he was not satisfied with merely the names of teachers or with the saying that monasteries and representations of the body, speech, and mind were teachings. Instead, Mikyö Dorje felt compelled to understand the actual meanings of scriptures. Only at that point did he enter the teachings. Afterwards, he was able to introduce the teachings to others. 

His Holiness spoke of the stages by which Mikyö Dorje entered the teachings–  through the Vinaya. Primarily vows of individual liberation, the Vinaya includes novice vows that one may take upon entering the teachings and the bhikshu vows of ordination. His Holiness’ explanation included the vows Mikyö Dorje took from the age of seven to full bhikshu ordination. Additionally, His Holiness talked of the first two Gyaltsap Rinpoches, as the Second Gyaltsap Rinpoche, Tashi Namgyal, conferred lay and novice vows upon Mikyö Dorje.

His Holiness concluded by saying that the teaching would continue on Day Five with the second topic, the difficulties the Eighth Karmapa faced, especially regarding abandoning harmful friends, and how, because Mikyö Dorje did not have much power, he came under the control of attendants and stewards.


Click the photo to view photo album: 2021.02.19 A Historical Examination of the First Eight Karmapa Reincarnations