Arya Kshema Spring Dharma Teachings:
17thGyalwang Karmapa on The Life of the Eighth Karmapa Mikyö Dorje
February 17, 2021
His Holiness began by offering welcome to the khenpos, teachers, nuns, shedra students, and all others listening to his teaching.
Aided by appealing graphics, he then began explaining the second of the three main sections of Mikyö Dorje’s autobiographical text, Good Deeds. This section, “The Nature of the Biography,” has two parts:
A. The preliminaries: how to enter the dharma
B. The main part: how he practiced the paths of the three types of individuals
Part A has six subsections:
- The meaningful deed of a supreme nirmanakaya
- Abandoning the impediment to dharma, negative friends
- The favorable condition: following great spiritual friends
- Abandoning meaningless distractions
- Giving up on this life because impermanence has taken root in his being
- Going for refuge to the undeceiving Three Jewels
The second stanza of Good Deeds demonstrates the first point, “the meaningful deed of a supreme nirmanakaya.”
Once I had gained a human life with leisures and resources,
I dared not squander it pointlessly. With single-minded focus,
I did all I could to practice dharma just as the Buddha taught.
I subjugated forcefully any wrong thought that arose.
I think of this as one of my good deeds. (1)
In this passage, Mikyö Dorje explains how he took on a human body, entered the gate of the Buddha’s teachings, made vows, and performed virtuous deeds to make his life meaningful. This is the first of the thirty-three good deeds given in the text.
His Holiness began illuminating this stanza by explaining a prophesy made by the 7th Karmapa, Chödrak Gyatso, based on his pure vision of gurus, yidams, dakinis, and especially Padmasambhava, who predicted that if he entered strict retreat for three years, he would live to the age of eighty-eight. Intending to follow this guidance, Chödrak Gyatso went to Kongpo and spent a few months in retreat. But the people of Kongpo had a great desire for an audience with the Karmapa, and the monks in the encampment asked him to grant this request because they were running out of food and needed offerings to support themselves. The 7thKarmapa granted their request but said, “Are you going to eat the meat without milking the cow?” He left retreat in 1506, dissolved his nirmanakaya and appeared in sambhogakaya form to a hundred thousand people who gathered to see him. He passed away the next morning with no illness, leaving a testament saying, “I have no birth but will display a birth.” Chödrak Gyatso specified where he would be born and the names of his parents. He left this on his table.
His successor, the Karmapa Mikyö Dorje, was born in Upper Dokham near the monastic seat of Karma Gön. This was the same region where the 6th Karmapa Tongwa Donden was born. There’s a debate about the identity of the 8th Karmapa’s father. According to Mikyö Dorje’s autobiographical Account of the Past Actions of Mikyö Dorje, his biological father was Ser Jadralwa Jampa Shennyen, but he was raised by Ajam. His mother was named Dongsa Lama Drön.
Mikyö Dorje’s conception and birth were miraculous. Spheres of light appeared inside his parents’ house, as if the sun was shining inside. He probably entered his mother’s womb at that time, and she had a wondrous dream about a plain filled with beautiful flowers. Inside a majestic tent were splendid offerings, texts, and statues; pieces of white conch shaped like stupas fell like rain. A turquoise-colored mist surrounded the scene. Boys and girls adorned with jewels danced and sang as they circumambulated the tent. The mother put on bone ornaments and also danced while picking up a golden vajra in her hands. Seeing another woman with a white conch, she took it and made a beautiful sound. Everyone heard the conch. There was a throne inside the tent, on which a monk sat. He said that everyone had heard the conch she blew. Ajam had a prayer wheel and began singing the mani melody while others joined in. Then the monk gave the mother a mala made of conch and told her to recite the mani mantra. She woke up to the sound of the mantra. Enveloped with feelings of pleasure, she experienced great joy. In general, parents of the Karmapas are often associated with white conch shells, His Holiness added.
From the time of conception until Mikyö Dorje was born, there were sounds of scriptural recitation around his house. Light surrounded his mother and his home. He also protected her when he was in her womb. When she went to collect wood for a fire, a voice told her there was going to be a great hail storm. She got back inside her house just before the storm began. The baby also chanted OM MANI PADME HUM within her belly. Once his father and mother got into a fight, and he hit her with a frying pan. The child within admonished him not to do that.
During this time, when his father was coming back from the fields, he saw a person with bone ornaments, who gave him a black crown made of rainbow light. Some thought he had seen a ghost, and they did repulsion rituals. Even the neighboring villagers had miraculous dreams during this time.
In 1507, his mother gave birth to Mikyö Dorje without discomfort. He immediately sat up, wiped his face and said, “I’m the Karmapa.” There was a rain of flowers, the scent of incense, and a rainbow-colored column of light that went up from the roof of his house into the sky. Significantly, the Ming Emperor Zhengde was enthroned on the same day in China. He said that he was an emanation of the Karmapa.
After he was born, Mikyö Dorje said OM MANI PADME HUM and made other holy utterances. Because of that, some people believed that he was the rebirth of Chödrak Gyatso. Many people came to see him in Ngom. At this time, Situ Tashi Paljor visited the area, learned about the baby, and consulted the 7thKarmapa’s prediction letter. Mikyö Dorje’s father confirmed the facts of the letter, except that the names of the parents were not one hundred percent the same. His birth year indicated that there would be an obstacle to his life. Situ Rinpoche gave instructions to overcome these obstacles and told the father that the child might say something significant. In fact, he did say, “E Ma Ho. Do not have any doubt in me. I am called the Karmapa.” Situ Rinpoche sent one of his patrons, Tsokye, who also examined him. Mikyö Dorje said the six-syllable mantra seven times. Another group from a local monastery visited him, and Mikyö Dorje spoke again, happy to see them. As a result, they felt a lot of faith.
The tulku had tiny teeth, the size of mustard seeds. His father touched them, and that night they disappeared. From that time onward, his tongue was somewhat inflexible, and his speech was a little bit uncomfortable.
From the time of his birth, Mikyö Dorje told stories about people he knew in previous lives and displayed other miraculous abilities. When he was only seven months old, he was invited to Riwoche Monastery, the major seat of the Taklung Kagyu lineage. The master of Riwoche was Jigten Wangchuk, and he was extremely kind to Mikyö Dorje. He gave him food and clothing and unconditional support during a succession dispute between the Eastern and Western candidates. But Jigten Wangchuk engaged in violent activities. He supported the military, and his faith in Mikyö Dorje did not get stronger. However, Mikyö Dorje had a dream about a house in which Jigten Wangchuk lived. The tulku saw Avalokiteshvara on a lotus seat inside the house. He felt faith in Jigten Wangchuk as if he were Avalokiteshvara. (The Karmapa had this dream much later when he 31.)
The early period of the 8th Karmapa’s life was somewhat unsettled. When he was nine months old, Mikyö Dorje was brought to Lhorong Dzong Monastery. Until he was six years old, he was shuttled between Dzongsar, Lhorong and Riwoche Monasteries.
The last part of His Holiness’s presentation concerned a succession dispute that complicated Mikyö Dorje’s recognition as the 8th Karmapa. He began this topic by noting:
So with the situation of the 16th Karmapa, there are two or three people recognized as the tulku. People think that this is unprecedented, and they can’t get their minds around it. This has actually happened before in history, so we should . . . understand this.
One difference between now and the time of Mikyö Dorje, however, is that the Karma Garchen [Great Encampment] still existed in Tibet, and it functioned as the main center of the Kagyu lineage. The tulku had to be recognized by the Karma Garchen before he could be enthroned as the Karmapa. Even though it was widely known throughout Kham that Mikyö Dorje was the reincarnation of the 7th Karmapa, he had to be recognized by the Karma Garchen.
The regent of the Karmapa at that time was the Second Gyaltsap Rinpoche, Tulku Tashi Namgyal. A lama named Sönam came to Gyaltsap Rinpoche and told him that the rebirth of the 7th Karmapa had occurred in Ngom. However, there was another lama from an area in Amdo called Kongpo who was a crafty fellow—a bit audacious. He had a child, and when this son was born, there were also miraculous appearances and auspicious dreams. The lama trained his son to act like a tulku. Because most of those in the Encampment were from Kongpo, and since the crafty lama bribed them with beer and other things, many were on his side. In addition, a student of Chödrak Gyatso also verified that the Kongpo candidate was the reincarnation of his teacher. Gyaltsap Rinpoche looked into the testament and was convinced that Mikyö Dorje was the Karmapa, but he was forced to examine the other candidate. When Gyaltsap Rinpoche presented the child a kata, the recipient inauspiciously gave it back three times. This was a bad sign. These days, the receiver immediately gives the kata back to the offerer; but in the old days, the offerer would give a kata and then the one being offered the kata would give a different one. To return the offered kata was a sign of disrespect, as if to say, “I don’t need this.” So Gyaltsap Rinpoche did not feel good about the Amdo candidate.
To resolve the matter, Gyaltsap Rinpoche and the head of the Encampment invited the Amdo candidate to an important monastery where all the treasuries of the first six Karmapas were kept. The Amdo tulku was asked to do a bit of a retreat there. When Gyaltsap Rinpoche examined his dreams during this time, all of the regions to the West were black and unpleasant looking, while the Eastern ones were filled with light and very beautiful. Likewise, he dreamed of a white lion in the West who could not roar, but in the East there was a grand dragon, and when it roared, the lion in the West turned into a white dog. In fact, most intelligent people believed that Mikyö Dorje was the true incarnation of the 7th Karmapa. The head discipline master recognized that the father of the Eastern candidate was very crafty. The father had even admitted, “It’s very easy to make a tulku. . . The child just needs to know a few sentences to become a tulku.” However, the majority of people in the Encampment still favored the Western candidate.
Few people in the Encampment took any interest in the parents of the real tulku. For that reason, food and clothing became very scarce for Mikyö Dorje’s parents during his early life. They had to live as beggars. The earlier Karmapas were recognized at a very young age, and their needs were always addressed. Mikyö Dorje wasn’t recognized until he was seven. He had illnesses that nearly caused him to die, but his parents didn’t have the resources to do anything about it. It was a very difficult situation. At that time, he thought to himself:
Once you are named as a rebirth or tulku, you can’t do anything for the sake of future lives. You have to spend all your time working for this lifetime. In this lifetime, you don’t even have control over your food and clothing. . . You are caught in the great mire of suffering. . . Let me be considered an ordinary person. If I’m not given the name Karmapa, in the future, I’ll go to a monastery in Ü Tsang in Central Tibet and practice listening and contemplating and meditation in the same way as the great masters of the past did. And in that way, I’ll do whatever I can to restore the teachings that have been lost and to benefit sentient beings.
His Holiness added jovially, “And so he thought about it, and he was kind of happy. I don’t have to be the Karmapa! It’s kind of nice.”
At that point, many students of the previous Karmapa did a divination and had Mahakala Bernakchen possess the Eastern candidate. A prophesy emerged that this boy would be recognized as the Karmapa by the emperor of China and all the people throughout the world. At the same time, masters with samadhi recognized Mikyö Dorje as the reincarnation of his predecessor. Simultaneously, those who examined the Western candidate could find no reason to affirm his status as the tulku. Other affirmations of the Eastern candidate were presented, and at that point, Gyaltsap Rinpoche invited Mikyö Dorje to the encampment. Those who came to welcome him decided not to prostrate to him or ask for blessings when he entered the compound. The situation was similar to that of the Buddha’s first five disciples when they first met him after his enlightenment. They were unhappy with Shakyamuni and made a rule not to venerate him when they saw him again. But when the Buddha approached, they were so overwhelmed by his magnificence that they prostrated to him without hesitation. Likewise, when the lamas and monks actually met Mikyö Dorje, their perception changed. They prostrated and offered katas—everything that they said they weren’t going to do. He recognized almost all those who had served the previous Karmapa and called them by name. They shed tears due to the power of faith, and everywhere there was a joyous noise.
Mikyö Dorje then met Gyaltsap Rinpoche, who asked many questions designed to determine if the boy was the actual tulku. Mikyö Dorje answered with confidence, but still the monks of the Encampment were uncertain and couldn’t decide. The tulku addressed Akhu Atra, a student of the previous Karmapa, and Jangchup Rinchen, the Secretary of the Encampment:
None of you teachers and students in the Encampment know how to make a discussion. You don’t know how to make any plans. I’ve shown so many signs that I actually remember past lives. . . and [there are] so many omens, but none of you understand anything, no matter how many signs I show. . . How are you actually going to recognize the Karmapa? Will anything good come of this? . . . You must decide the question with your mind.
In the end, members of the Encampment summoned both candidates—the one from the East and the one from the West—and asked them questions. They tested them with the previous Karmapa’s teacup. The Amdo tulku was seven (by Western calculations). He failed the tests and started crying. The boy’s father tried to scare the Eastern tulku. But Mikyö Dorje was not afraid; he was in fact a little bored. “There’s no point to this,” he thought.
Despite the clear outcome of these tests, the father of the Western candidate still had many under his thumb, and Gyaltsap Rinpoche couldn’t do anything about it. It was a difficult, sad situation. Those from Mikyö Dorje’s homeland were so incensed that they were about to attack the Kongpas. They wanted to kill the supporters of the Eastern tulku, so the Kongpas backed down and said to Gyaltsap Rinpoche that he could do what he wanted.
At last, Gyaltsap Rinpoche prayed to the deities to find out who was the real tulku, and he had a visionary dream. Mikyö Dorje came to him in this dream, offended. “You still have doubts about me. . . Do what you are going to do,” he said. Gyaltsap Rinpoche offered him the best cushion, but the tulku didn’t take it and left. A little later, a woman came before Gyaltsap Rinpoche with a huge white conch. She said, “I have blown this conch in every land. . . But you still aren’t taking care of the conch. So what’s that about?” She left in the direction that the tulku had gone. Then a woman with a wrathful appearance came to him, counseled him not to listen to lies and then went away. After this visionary dream, Gyaltsap Rinpoche developed faith that Mikyö Dorje was the unmistaken successor to the 7th Karmapa.
So finally, on an auspicious day, the Eastern tulku was enthroned and, at that point, everyone felt profound faith. They could not believe they had previously doubted Mikyö Dorje was the authentic Karmapa. Where did the Western tulku go? Mikyö Dorje proclaimed that he was a tulku from Surmang; the boy entered monastic life while his father, the Amdo lama, fled. After that, things didn’t go well for him.
With this, the Karmapa concluded his brief account of the dispute between the Eastern and Western candidates. He ended the session by announcing that in the next teaching, he would speak about the birth places and birth dates of the previous seven Karmapas.