Day 9: The Fifth Karmapa Deshin Shekpa and the Ming Emperor Yongle 

Day 9: The Fifth Karmapa Deshin Shekpa and the Ming Emperor Yongle 

Arya Kshema Spring Dharma Teachings:

Gyalwang Karmapa on The Life of the Eighth Karmapa Mikyö Dorje

February 26, 2021

His Holiness sent his auspicious greetings to today’s audience and extended a particularly warm and joyous welcome to the Kagyu Samye Dzong Lubumbashi community, which has joined the teachings every day from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Delighting in their practice of the Dharma, His Holiness has taken an interest in their community, noting their very good pronunciation of Tibetan while reciting the Twenty-One Praises of Tara. Additionally, many Tibetans, who, like him, have seen their videos online, have praised their effort and practice. 

Kagyu Samye Dzong Lumbumbashi is affiliated with Akong Rinpoche, whose sudden passing in 2013 saddened His Holiness and was a great blow to Akong Rinpoche’s students. His Holiness told listeners that, before his enthronement as Karmapa, he met Akong Rinpoche and so had known Akong Rinpoche well from the time he was young. Akong Rinpoche helped many poor and disadvantaged people as well as supporting over 300 schools in Tibet. His Holiness said it was his responsibility to locate Rinpoche’s tulku and that he would try his hardest to find him soon. He then offered his greetings again to Kagyu Samye Dzong Lubumbashi, assured them he is rejoicing in the work that they have done, and, as French rather than English is one of their languages, he concluded, “Merci beaucoup”. 

Part 1: The Root of our Problems Cannot be Found Outside Ourselves

Having reached the fourth stanza of The Praise “He Searched Thoroughly”, His Holiness read the root text:

He realized from his heart—not just in words—
How this life’s wealth and fame are devoid of meaning.
He exemplified revulsion and a lack of craving
And recalled the futility—to him I pray

According to the Fifth Shamar Könchok Yenlak’s annotated commentary, the meaning of this stanza is that Mikyö Dorje was not attached to this life. The Eighth Karmapa understood that all of the good things, such as happiness and friends, of the three realms of samsara are unnecessary and pointless. By remembering this, one does not crave or desire such things. Instead, His Holiness said, it is vital to be content with ordinary resources such as food and clothing. He then referred to the previous day’s teaching on the Fourth Great Deed, which has the same meaning as this stanza.

A story was then told of a person listening to a teaching about “good things”. During the teaching, it was said that the reason we are suffering in samsara is because we’re deceived by all of the good things within it. Because the good things in samsara are actually bad, we should be unattached to them. Now this person had a friend whose name happened to be “Good Things” (Sipay Phuntsok), so when he heard that all “good things” in samsara are bad, he began thinking, “My friend Good Things is giving me problems”. He confused the “good things” of samsara with his friend named “Good Things”. After the teaching, he went up to his friend Good Things and beat and punched him really hard! The friend had no idea what was going on! 

While we may laugh at this story, there is a serious point His Holiness asked listeners to consider. Similar to this person who believed the good things of samsara were outside of himself, we too tend to think that all of our problems and difficulties come from outside of ourselves. Looking outside is the same as looking for a guy named “Good Things” and beating him up, said His Holiness. However, the root of our problems cannot be found outside. Instead, we need to look inside ourselves. To do this, we need the eye of prajna. Just as we need a mirror to see our own face, we need the eye of prajna to see our faults, situations, and problems.

Part 2: The Ming Emperor Yongle invites the Fifth Karmapa Deshin Shekpa to China

Yesterday, His Holiness spoke about how MIkyö Dorje was invited to Jiang by the 13th King of LIjiang Mu Ding. Mikyö Dorje was also invited to China by the Ming Emperor, who sent an envoy when the Karmapa was but 14 years old. This history will be discussed later. For today’s teaching, His Holiness noted that Mikyö Dorje was not the first Karmapa to be invited to China. Instead, he highlighted the historical precedent of Ming Emperors issuing decrees and invitations to Karmapas prior to the Eighth. 

By examining Karma Kamtsang histories, His Holiness examined the dharma relationship formed between the third Ming Emperor, Yong le, and the Fifth Karmapa Deshin Shekpa. From a Ming Dynasty writing entitled the Tales of Four Brothers, When he was young, Yongle heard of a guru Karmapa in Ü-Tsang who was unlike any other. Therefore, in the first year of his reign and with his queen’s encouragement, Yongle sent his Inner Minister, the Tibetan eunuch Gönpo Sherap, with a decree inviting the Karmapa to China. 

Deshin Shekpa was born in the region of Niandang (present-day Gongbu Jiangda County, Linzhi) in the Male Wood Rat Year (1384). Khenchen Lodrö Gyaltsen recognized the young Deshin Shekpa as the reincarnation of the previous Karmapa Rolpay Dorje. Deshin Shekpa took his full ordination vows, probably when he was around 19 years old, with Khenchen Sönam Sangpo of Gendun Gang, who was said to be an emanation of one of the 16 Arhats. It is said that when he took vows, there were over 80 monks in the assembly. Tibetan history has named this ordination as the one with the largest and purest sangha. 

Deshin Shekpa’s many teachers included: Khenchen Sönam Sangpo; Kashipa Rinchen Pal; Gui Gungpa Rinchen Pal; Khenchen Gyaltsen Pal; Khenchen Yönten Lodrö; and Gya Sangye Wangchuk. Gui Gungpa Rinchen Pal had studied at the first Tibetan shedra, Sangpu, and because he had passed the debate exam in four different texts, he was known as kashipa (=a master of four texts or treatises). The Karmapa invited this kashipa to the encampment and studied the scriptures in-depth with him. The other teacher, Khenchen Sönam Sangpo, wrote praises about Deshin Shekpa and was said to have great faith in him. Deshin Shekpa passed away at the age of 32 in the Female Sheep Year (1415) at the Potala Palace in Lhasa; his collected works are no more than one slim volume but His Holiness said these works are very elegant, having been written in a charming style. 

In Pawo Tsuklag Trengwa’s Feast of Scholars, Yongle’s decree is recorded to have included words of invitation akin to this effect:

I heard of your name before when I was in the North and thought I should invite you then. Now that I have ascended to the throne as Emperor, I would like to bring peace to the kingdom and I have been thinking for a long time that we should together bring good fortune to all people…You are inseparable from the Buddha’s intentions, so you should come to China and spread the teachings in order to benefit the kingdom. Also, my mother and father have passed away. I thought I should do something to repay their kindness but have not found a way. As you are skilled in means and activity, please perform rituals to benefit the deceased. Please come quickly. 

The Karmapa arrived in the Chinese capital Nanjing five years later in the twelfth lunar month, when he was 22 years old. The Ming Emperor named the Fifth Karmapa Rúlái Dà Bǎo Fǎwáng, which translated into Tibetan is Deshin Shekpa Rinpoche Chökyi Gyalpo, the name by which the Fifth Karmapa is known today (in English, his name means “Precious King of Dharma”). His Holiness’ slide included an old painting of the Ming Emperor wearing a resplendent yellow-golden robe and black cap, and a modern 3D computer-generated image of the Emperor’s face. There are probably over 20,000 words recording the Ming Emperor Yongle and the Fifth Karmapa Deshin Shekpa’s meeting, which possibly makes it the most written about any Tibetan lama in Chinese historical records. 

Part 3: Yongle Greets the Fifth Karmapa Deshin Shekpa

Against his ministers' advice, the Ming Emperor Yongle received the Karmapa in-person upon his arrival in Nanjing, with his palms joined and with great respect. Thousands of people and monks gathered to witness the event, elaborate feasts were prepared, and gifts including 10,000 sang of gold, 2000 sang of silver, and ritual items were given in the Huakai Audience Hall. Amazing signs were said to have occurred. This meeting of the experienced, older political leader and the younger dharma leader was certainly impactful; 200 years later, a Chinese pilgrim referred to the event in one of his writings, indicating that even centuries later people were still learning about and recalling Yongle and Deshin Shekpa’s meeting. 

The Wondrous Decree “Tathagata Precious King of Dharma, Great Maitreya of the West, Peaceful Lord Buddha, and Master of All Buddhist Teachings on Earth” chronicled the events of Deshin Shekpa’s visit to Nanjing. Miracles such as rains of flowers were reported. On the eighteenth day of the second month, Deshin Shekpa performed a purification ritual for the Emperor’s deceased parents and for the soldiers who died in the war that established the Ming Dynasty. This and other grand rituals were held at Linggu temple, where Deshin Shekpa resided while in the capital. Because the Ming Emperor offered Linggu temple to Deshin Shekpa, the temple became a Karma Kagyu monastery for some time. The Wondrous Decree is now housed in the Library in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, and His Holiness, with the contribution of his painting master from Taiwan, has reproduced some of the text and a painting which were shown to today’s audience. His Holiness copied the Tibetan calligraphy while his painting master wrote the Chinese text.

Part 4: The Strength of Yongle and Deshin Shekpa’s Dharma Relationship 

In addition to giving the Fifth Karmapa the title “Master of All the Buddha’s Teachings on Earth With Excellent Prajna Who Has Reached Enlightenment and Is Victorious In the Ten Directions with Perfect Deeds”, Yongle also gifted him with a decree and a precious jade seal, now in a museum in the Tibetan Autonomous Region. His Holiness explained that jade was a precious material, valued more highly than gold and silver, which Tibetans usually prize greatly. 

Some ministers thought these events were auspicious, while others remained skeptical. One visitor said Deshin Shekpa looked like an ordinary person who liked to eat lamb, and was deceiving everyone with his illusions. The Emperor, however, gained even more faith in Deshin Shekpa. Twenty different letters written by Yongle to Deshin Shekpa are still extant and reveal the depth of their guru/student connection. 

Wanting to leave behind the busy-ness of the capital, on the 13th day of the third month, Deshin Shekpa travelled to Xiantong Temple on Wutai Mountain. Although the Emperor wished him to stay at Linggu monastery, he granted Deshin Shekpa the use of a carriage to bring him to Wutai Mountain and instructed a eunuch to renovate the temple as this was to be Deshin Shekpa’s living quarters while at Wutai. In the “Supplement of Great Buddhist Masters”, it was noted that the Fifth Karmapa was inclined to solitude and did not like distractions. His Holiness showed a photograph of Xiantong monastery as it currently stands.

The 17th day of the fourth month was the Emperor’s birthday; Deshin Shekpa sent relics of the Buddha and arhats to him. For the Karmapa’s birthday on the 18th day of the fifth month, the Emperor wrote a verse, which includes the line “When Deshin Shekpa arrived in the world / All was filled with light like the sun’s.” The Emperor also wrote other letters recalling ceremonies conducted at Linggu monastery. This shows that the Emperor continued to think of the Karmapa with respect and loving thoughts.

As was mentioned, the Ming Emperor Yongle and his queen had great faith in the Dharma. His Holiness told the audience that when the queen died, the Emperor wrote to Deshin Shekpa and asked him to perform the funerary rites. The queen had once had a dream in which Chenrezig was writing a sutra. Upon awakening, the queen wrote this sutra down and showed it to Deshin Shekpa to confirm its authenticity. After the queen died, the Emperor printed many copies of this sutra that the queen had seen in her dream. Likewise, the Emperor had a copy of the Kangyur printed using wood blocks and brought back to China. This became known as the Yongle Kangyur/Collected Words of the Buddha. Scholars say this was the first printing of the Kangyur in Tibet, and it occurred because of the Ming Emperor and Deshin Shekpa’s efforts. 

The Karmapa eventually asked to return to Tibet. The Emperor suggested he and Deshin Shekpa form an alliance similar to that of the Sakya and the Mongols, who had previously taken Tibet by force. Deshin Shekpa was not comfortable with the suggestion that they should wage war, and advised the Emperor that one needs to practice the dharma according to the Dharma. Yongle also suggested unifying all Tibetan Buddhist lineages into one, because having multiple lineages could lead to conflict. The Emperor offered to send his soldiers into Tibet to support Deshin Shekpa, so that Tibetans would then be forced to follow him and Deshin Shekpa would be able to meld all the lineages into one. Yongle thought they could then be governed from two seats in Tibet (an Eastern and a Western one). There could be a great Dharma festival and gathering every year. Deshin Shekpa rejected this idea as well, explaining that a single dharma lineage would not be able to tame all sentient beings. The different lineages arose from the Buddha’s great compassion, and are needed because of our very different capacities and interests. Deshin Shekpa continued to say that there is no reason to unite all lineages into one because if one practices his or her own lineage properly, that is very good. He then recommended to Yongle to give ranks, titles and gifts to all important people and great lamas in Tibet as this would ultimately be beneficial to everyone in the region. 

The Ming Emperor proceeded to send Deshin Shekpa gifts after he had returned to Tibet, and Deshin Shekpa continued to advise Yongle. Deshin Shekpa had great kindness in his heart and was not attached to fame or power. He was well-known throughout Tibet in his time, had great faith in the Dharma, and did not seek profit or fame. His intention was to bring happiness and peace to everyone. 

His Holiness promised to continue speaking about Deshin Shekpa the following session.


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2021.02.26 Day 9: The Fifth Karmapa Deshin Shekpa and the Ming Emperor Yongle