Arya Kshema Spring Dharma Teachings:
17th Gyalwang Karmapa on The Life of the Eighth Karmapa Mikyö Dorje
February 20, 2021
His Holiness the Karmapa started today’s teachings by sending his greetings to Bokhar Khen Rinpoche, whom he saw in the audience yesterday, as well as to the Khenpos and Geshes, the nuns of the shedras, foremost among the sangha, as well as all the Dharma friends who were watching over the webcast.
Referring to what he had mentioned the day before, he explained that although he had planned to speak about Mikyö Dorje’s birthplace and birth region, he decided that it would be much better to say as much as he could at the respective time rather than trying to push through, thinking, “I have to say this, I have to say that, I have to teach this today and that tomorrow”… Thus, although he had prepared a schedule accordingly, he found that to follow such a schedule did not really work.
Following his initial remarks, the Karmapa then turned towards the second verse of Mikyö Dorje’s autobiographical text, Good Deeds:
Without disdaining inauthentic gurus and companions
Or following them along the paths they taught,
I did all I could to overcome the thoughts of the three poisons—
Impediments to reaching the dharma’s culmination.
I think of this as one of my good deeds.
His Holiness explained that the topic of the second good deed is inauthentic gurus and companions and refraining from following the paths they taught. He reminded us briefly of the first of Mikyö Dorje’s good deeds, which describes how Mikyö Dorje entered the teachings and began to practice the dharma.Once we have entered the dharma, His Holiness commented, there are many impediments and harmful conditions, and if one were to follow negative friends, then many difficulties would arise. Mikyö Dorje’s second good deed, therefore, relates how he overcame impediments to practicing the dharma, such as negative friends.
However, Mikyö Dorje did so many amazing things that people could see; they immediately felt great faith and respect for him as the reincarnation of the Karmapa. Furthermore, Situ Tashi Paljor looked at the testament left by the Seventh Karmapa and, to a great degree, accepted that Mikyö Dorje was the Karmapa and instructed people to respect him as the tulku. Unfortunately, Situ Tashi Paljor passed away soon after the Karmapa was born and was unable to continue working towards his recognition as the tulku.
Then Mikyö Dorje went to Riwoche, where the master of Riwoche, Jigten Wangchuk, showed him great respect and said that there was no mistake in recognizing him as the reincarnation of the Karmapa. As Jigten Wangchuk was the leader of the Lhorong community there at that time, he told the people Mikyö Dorje was the reincarnation of the Karmapa and that they needed to take great care of him. The Lhorong community accepted this and agreed. They invited Mikyö Dorje to Lhorong monastery and promised that they would provide well for him in terms of food and clothing.
In an autobiographical liberation story of Mikyö Dorje’s, written when he was at Namtrö mountain, he related how the people of Lhorong failed to keep their promise. Instead, when he reached Lhorong, they treated him like a lowly herdsman, someone who looks after donkeys, horses or dogs. They did not give him more than to such a person. Also, the Garchen had supported the claim of the western tulku, and so there was doubt whether Mikyö Dorje was the true reincarnation of the Seventh Karmapa Chödrak Gyatso. Consequently, they failed to take care of him. Until he reached the age of seven, he and his entire family were reduced to living as beggars in the region of Lhorong. Thus, before he was recognized as the Karmapa, he faced great difficulties, lacking basic necessities such as food and clothing.
Even though Mikyö Dorje displayed so many wondrous signs, they did not recognize him but instead listened to the audacious Amdo lama and took care of the western tulku, and were about to recognize him as the reincarnation of Chödrak Gyatso.
His Holiness explained that these situations arose because the people in the Garchen did not listen to the regent Gyaltsap Tashi Namgyal, even though he had been appointed by the Seventh Karmapa and held the highest rank in the Garchen. During the time of the Seventh Karmapa very strict rules were enforced in the encampment; beer and meat were forbidden inside the encampment, and women could only enter during the daytime and were not allowed to stay overnight. However, after Chödrak Gyatso passed away, people began to disregard these rules. In addition, there was much criticism of Gyaltsap Rinpoche. He was even accused of causing the death by poisoning of a monk called Tashi Döndrup from Karma Gön Monastery. Finally, it was made too difficult for him to stay in the Garchen and he went to Jang.
The Seventh Karmapa had many great students but the Garchen monks had no respect for them. Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche, for example, who later become one of the most important teachers of Mikyö Dorje, was vilified as a bad person and a charlatan. He had no power or influence in the Garchen. The monks had a modicum of faith in Chöje Karma Trinleypa, who was well-versed in both dharma and politics, but they did not give him the chance to come to the encampment to give them his advice or guidance. As for appointing a tutor for Mikyö Dorje, it should have been someone suitable and worthy of being his tutor, such as Shamar Chökyi Drakpa, but the people in the encampment accused Chökyi Drakpa of breaking samaya with the previous Karmapa, and warned that if his shadow were to fall on anyone, they would go to hell. Even when Mikyö Dorje invited Shamar Chökyi Drakpa to the encampment, the people would not even allow them to meet. The main reason they thought so badly of Shamar Rinpoche was that he had become quite powerful politically and religiously, so the members of the encampment envied him.
The leaders of the encampment decided that Drom Tashi Döndrup would be the best tutor for Mikyö Dorje, but on his way to the encampment, just before he arrived, he vomited blood and died. He was the custodian of the Seventh Karmapa’s sacred objects, and when he died, his wife and servants appropriated them.
His Holiness reiterated that these problems were caused by the deterioration of conduct in the encampment. The monks didn’t keep the monastic rules and didn’t even wear robes.
After Chödrak Gyatso passed away, the Garchen should have erected a stupa for his relics. But when Chödrak Gyatso’s remains were cremated, a miracle happened and there was an image of Avalokiteshvara in each of his vertebrae. Eventually, they were placed in a stupa. However, as Mikyö Dorje remonstrated, from the start they should have been placed where everyone could see them, but they were not. Consequently, nobody was taking proper care of all the sacred objects and relics and nobody was making offerings; it was really a very bad situation.
Later, when Gyaltsap Rinpoche returned from Jang, he built a reliquary for the remains of Chödrak Gyatso and recognized Mikyö Dorje, the eastern tulku, as the Karmapa. This turned out well until Gyaltsap Rinpoche suddenly fell ill and passed away. Not only that, nobody took care of his remains properly; they were buried in sand. Later, there were many ringsel the size of mustard seeds. His Holiness suggested they might have buried him in sand because they thought that he had been poisoned.
Such really depressing, revolting situations, His Holiness continued, are not mentioned in many liberation stories. However, Mikyö Dorje later wrote a letter, criticizing and scolding the people in the encampment and explaining these events in great detail. This letter is no longer extant but we know of its existence from the namthar of Six Kamtsang Gurus and Students written by Ne Gowa Karma Shenpen Gyatso at the time of the 13th Karmapa. Likewise, the Fifth Dalai Lama’s autobiography briefly mentions that these events happened. Sangye Paldrup also describes many similar events in his commentary on the Good Deeds.
The Vajra Vidya library published an edition of the Good Deeds based on a manuscript from Drepung Monastery library. When the Good Deeds were being translated into English and Chinese and proofread [prior to this teaching], His Holiness fortuitously found another old manuscript of the Good Deeds. By comparing these two editions, in which sometimes a couple of lines or pages were different, it was possible to fill in missing sections. Sangye Paldrup’s commentary is particularly important because it was reviewed by Mikyö Dorje himself, who told him what should be deleted and what needed to be added.
Next, His Holiness described incidents that illustrate how Mikyö Dorje was not in the least influenced by negative friends. For example, in the recently discovered edition it says that when Mikyö Dorje was young, most of his attendants would use a ganachakra offering as an excuse to eat an entire sheep. Mikyö Dorje forbade them from doing this; he maintained that eating these weak animals while calling it a ganachakra had no benefit and was dangerous.
Another time a brick of tea went missing. The monks seized a suspect and put him in the encampment prison. The attendants then threatened Mikyö Dorje and pressurized him to pretend that his clairvoyance confirmed that this man was the thief. Knowing that the man was innocent, Mikyö Dorje refused to lie, whatever the attendants threatened to do to him.
Later, his attendants suggested that Mikyö Dorje act in certain ways in order to acquire things from people, but he refused because it constituted breaking the precepts; it was taking what is not given. If people had faith and offered things, that was fine. He was not influenced by the negative friends around him but stood on his own two feet.
People would tell him to wage war on others or to cast a spell on them. Mikyö Dorje said he did not know how to do it.
During the Mahakala puja, the monks would bring meat and beer, claiming that they were offerings to Bernakchen. They would then eat and drink as much as they could. In response, Mikyö Dorje explained that the important thing was to act in accord with faith and samaya. If one practiced in the correct manner, things would be fine, but if one were to engage in negative deeds while requesting the support of the dharma protectors, they would become misdeed protectors, and in the end, the ruin would fall on oneself. So Mikyö Dorje said it was better to stop the practices entirely rather than committing unvirtuous acts and harming sentient beings.
People advised him on how to behave, arguing it was the tradition of the Karmapas. Later Mikyö Dorje said that, from his childhood, many people had come to teach him the eight worldly concerns. He could have followed their advice, but because this human life is just momentary, he would rather spend his time practicing dharma. Thus, he chose to practice the dharma, gave up non-dharmic actions, and advised people to do likewise.
At the same time, he showed equanimity towards evil people and said that he had unbearable compassion for them. Mikyö Dorje’s character was such that when he actually saw or heard of people’s suffering or that they were doing non-virtuous actions, he could not bear it and it made him sick to merely think about it. Nor could he bear the way in which the attendants in his retinue would criticize each other, or the dharma practitioners would try to point out each other’s faults. People would criticize the great masters too.
In the twenty-one volumes of his collected works, Mikyö Dorje sometimes refutes scholars from other lineages, Karma Kagyu scholars, and even his tutors Karma Trinleypa and Tashi Öser. He used his own intelligence to get to the heart of the matter. It didn’t matter which tradition the scholar belonged to. He used logic to test everything. Irrespective of tradition, if it was logical, Mikyö Dorje would approve it. If it was illogical, he would refute it, even if it was from his own tradition. People did not understand this and he was criticized, in particular for refuting the secret mantra Nyingma tradition.
But this does not mean that he lacked faith in the masters of other traditions. For instance, he composed a praise of five great beings who had written the great treatizes: Sakya Pandita, Jonang Kunkhyen (Dolpo Sangye), Omniscient Butön, Bodong Panchen, and Je Tsongkhapa.
The Karmapa recounted how one time, when he had gone to see His Holiness the Dalai Lama, they had spoken about Mikyö Dorje’s praise of Tsongkhapa. In that praise Mikyö Dorje said it was very well-known and undisputed in Tibet that Tsongkhapa spread the teachings of the vinaya throughout Tibet. And although Mikyö Dorje occasionally made refutations of Tsongkhapa, he wrote praises of him too.
The Karmapa then shared the praise which he finds most evocative. It comes from the Collected Songs of Mikyö Dorje and is what is called in Tibetan a gur, a type of song which primarily describes feelings and experiences .
In the snow land of Tibet,
When people merely wear the robes of the vinaya,
The one called Lord Lobsang Drakpa
Took the ways of the Bhagavan Shakyamuni,
And innumerable monks, wearing the saffron colored banner,
With conduct like Shariputra
Filled the world.
If you do not have faith in this lord, who do you have faith in?
In this praise, Mikyö Dorje makes a supplication and confession to Je Tsongkhapa, Lobsang Drakpa. At a time when people did not heed the Vinaya teachings, Tsongkhapa was like Buddha Shakyamuni actually appearing in the world. He upheld the teachings of the Vinaya. Moreover, he had many students who were like Shariputra and Maudgalayana and they “filled the world” i.e. the land of Tibet. Then, Mikyö Dorje is asking, if one has no faith in someone like Lord Tsongkhapa, then whom does one have faith in?
People who had been partisan maligned him.
I had been caught by harmful friends
And confess my wrongs done from ignorance.
Please look after me in all my lives.
His Holiness filled in the background drawing on his own experience. There was a long-standing tradition of rivalry between the Kagyupas and Gelugpas, which was exacerbated when the armies of the Mongol Gushri Khan attacked the Karma Kagyu at the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama and the 10th Karmapa. The Karmapa recounted how, when he was young, a thangka of the thirty-five confession buddhas hung on the wall at the back of his room, and Je Tsongkhapa was depicted at the top of this thangka. His attendant said that this was not good, so he covered the part which showed Tsongkhapa. However, His Holiness continued, from the time he was young, he had had special faith in Je Tsongkhapa and also some affection for the Fifth Dalai Lama, as the latter had written a poetry text which the young Karmapa had studied. He appreciated the Fifth Dalai Lama’s writing but felt somewhat strange when the Fifth Dalai Lama criticized the Kagyu.
The next verses praise:
- Bodong Rinpoche, Chokle Namgyal, who was an incredible scholar. His collected works contain over a hundred volumes. They include works on how to read the alphabet all the way through to Kalachakra tantra. There are excellent works on sutra, tantra and other fields of knowledge. He had about fifteen secretaries, who could write a great amount of texts in a short time.
- Je Ngorchen, who was one of the three great tantric practitioners. At that time in Tibet, ganachakraswere used as an opportunity to kill animals in order to eat their flesh and to drink alcohol. Je Ngorchen asserted the moral conduct which accords with the practice of secret mantra, including abstention from killing.
- Je Rongchen Shakya Gyaltsenwho is very important in our philosophical tradition. His explanation of difficult texts ‘shone like the sun’ and he had a great influence on Mikyö Dorje when the latter was writing texts on sutra and tantra.
The summary at the end of this praise is very important. [What follows is a rough translation.]
Now innumerable beings uphold the precious teachings of the Buddha,
and the realm of the fortunate aeon flourishes.
The supreme refuge rare in the world, the jewel of the sangha covers the earth,
so joy is equal to space.
His Holiness explained that the “precious teachings of the Buddha” is inclusive of all traditions of Buddhism, not just Tibetan Buddhism, though here Mikyö Dorje is referring primarily to Tibetan traditions. The teachings spread and flourish because of the kindness of the masters from all lineages, as does “the jewel of the sangha”. This is a source of joy.
Instead of being envious
that other dharma lineages flourished in the path,
there is no way but to be caught up
by the horse of regret.
I feel such great regret that I dare be like this.
It is intolerable, so I confess.
In the past, Mikyö Dorje confesses he may have felt envious when he heard of the success of other lineages but now he deeply regrets that.
Though I feel intense regret now,
until my awareness is clear in an isolated place
and I am filled with the light of devotion
for the undisputed Kagyu mahasiddhas
such as Sangye Nyenpa, I will supplicate fervently.
I understand this is authentic blessing.
His mind had become clear while he was in retreat. Now he feels such intense regret that he is driven to confess. He feels great devotion for the Kagyu mahasiddhas and realizes that this strong regret is an authentic blessing.
If you think you follow me,
do not make dharma lineages into me and you.
It is fine for the Buddha’s teachings to spread.
Do not think with bias
that your own friends should flourish.
May the worry about teachings of all lineages
burn intolerably as the wind in the heart.
This advice is for those who consider themselves his students. Our concern should be for all lineages to flourish, not just for our own lineage. And this concern should burn intolerably in our hearts. His Holiness emphasized that we need to have a much wider perspective because the entire framework of the Buddha’s teachings needs to survive. If the teachings were to disappear, there would be no Tibetan Buddhism and no Kagyupa either. When Buddhism divides into factions, we see others’ teachings as a fault, they see our teachings as a fault, and this creates great danger to the teachings themselves.
Mikyö Dorje was a great lama of wisdom and power; however, he himself said he was just an ordinary person, and admitted to feeling anger and jealousy in the past. Subsequently he developed regret. Very few teachers mention in their autobiographies that in the past they had afflictions such as desire, hatred or envy. Or that they felt regret for doing so. In contrast, Mikyö Dorje spoke very clearly and forthrightly and made his intentions very clear; if we want to follow him, I, is in our hands.
In brief, Mikyö Dorje always thought about other sentient beings and worried about them; because of that, he became very thin and did not sleep well, due to which his body became very weak. When we look at paintings of Mikyö Dorje, we can see that his cheeks look very hollow. His attendants and others tried to persuade him to commit misdeeds but he maintained his equanimity towards them. He was also humble. Of his own experience, he commented that the times were degenerate. There were people who pretended to be monastics whose conduct was even worse than that of lay people. They were not tainted by even a whiff of the dharma, yet they enjoyed the offerings to the Three Jewels with abandon. He did not adopt their behaviour, neither did he criticize or scold them, but stayed in a state of equanimity and worked even harder for their sake. He was never apart from enjoying the true Dharma, which he considered one of the best things he had done.
He studied diligently and focused carefully on his work. If thoughts of the eight worldly dharmas occurred, he paid them no attention. Before he went to bed, he would pick up his mala and count all his good and bad thoughts that day. Then he would count the good and bad words, he had uttered; he happily dedicated all the virtue for the benefit of sentient beings and confessed the unvirtuous actions, promising never to repeat them again.
Mikyö Dorje was surrounded by many different types of people, not only monks but laypeople. Consequently, some were critical and opined that he should surround himself with scholars and meditators, increasing his status and bringing in more offerings.
One story tells of a visit from Lama Shab-Jenpa. He scolded Mikyö Dorje saying, “Of all the incarnations of the Karmapas, you are the one who has done the most harm to the Kagyu teachings.” Lama Shab-Jenpa claimed that if he were to take the Karmapa’s place, it would only take him a minute to gather 5000 bhikshus. In Kham, he boasted, he had 500 good monks who wore the dharma robes properly and abstained from drinking alcohol, whereas the Karmapa was surrounded by people who drank beer. Mikyö Dorje replied, “I prostrate to those who are able to gather a retinue of those who have the three robes and the three trainings, and gather as many sangha as Tsongkhapa.” Later, Mikyö Dorje said that Lama Shab-Jenpa was not an authentic spiritual teacher. It was reminiscent of the tale of the lion. Many people thought that they could kill the lion easily but they were unable to get close to him. However, the lion had a weak spot– it never hurt anyone wearing dharma robes, so they put on monastic robes.
Mikyö Dorje would never say that he was in meditative equipoise and should not be disturbed. Every day, he would memorize texts, make tsatsas, meditate, do yogic breathing exercises and practice as an authentic vajra master. Yet, being very humble, he never displayed this to others. Where he mainly put his effort was in teaching the Dharma and explaining philosophy to others. Many people at that time said that Mikyö Dorje was really lazy and, because they thought he was not doing practice or giving empowerments, they claimed that he was harming the teachings.
In any case, His Holiness concluded, Mikyö Dorje went through many difficulties in his life, particularly when he was young, which for people like us, would be really difficult to bear. It was important to realize how high a vision Mikyö Dorje had. Because of his efforts, he is one of the greatest among all the incarnations of the Karmapas, one who really stands out.
During the last part of the teachings His Holiness briefly related some of the difficulties he had faced in his life. The first seven years of his life were the happiest, because he had no responsibilities; he was with his parents and described his home as a very beautiful place. Then, from the age of seven, he was recognized as the Karmapa. People think of this as a very high position. They assume that as someone in such a position, he would get very good food and clothes, and that his attendants would obey his orders immediately. But that, His Holiness confirmed, is not how it is.
He gave some examples. After His Holiness was brought to Tshurpu monastery, people made offerings to him, which were then taken by the people behind him. For example, there were people he knew from Taiwan who came. They were aware that the steward would usually take any money they offered to the Karmapa. Thus, secretly, they would secrete offering envelopes under the carpet for His Holiness to retrieve and give to his parents later. But the steward found this out, and when His Holiness had to leave his quarters to attend a puja, the attendants would search his room and remove any gifts they found. If they were challenged, they would claim that they needed to check for poison. These items were never returned.
On another occasion, His Holiness was asked to recognize the reincarnation of Pawo Rinpoche, and the director of Nenang monastery made an offering to him of a chain with a large golden buddha. A day later, the same lama asked His Holiness why the steward was wearing the golden buddha round his neck. Not only that, the steward even told others to take a look at it, saying, “Doesn’t it look beautiful?”
His Holiness continued. The tradition was for the monastery of a tulku to offer his parents a house but they failed to do this, and the young Karmapa was hardly able to see his family because his mother and sisters were not permitted to visit him at Tshurpu monastery. Finally, his father reached the end of his tether, and confronted the labrang officials: “We do not need many offerings; we just want to see our child when we want to and that his siblings can meet him. If you do not like that, then I will take my son with me and go!” Upon which the officials became worried. They agreed to family visits and gave His Holiness’s parents lots of new clothes.
When he was a little boy, the steward bullied him too, hurt him physically and reduced him to tears.
Approaching the end of the teachings, His Holiness reminded us of the difficulties the Eighth Karmapa Mikyö Dorje faced, particularly when he was young. To begin with, there was the controversy over the western and eastern tulku, and not only did he have to live in that environment, but he also had to perform the activities of the Karmapa.
For that reason, what we need to think is —though Mikyö Dorje was probably an emanation of a buddha or bodhisattva, though we cannot know for sure— as an ordinary human being he faced a lot of difficulties. We should remember what he did for the benefit of sentient beings and the teachings. That is why we should consider him so important and identify that really clearly. Only then will we ourselves get some real confidence in this lifetime and feel that we can do something on behalf of the teachings and sentient beings.
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