Arya Kshema Spring Dharma Teachings:
17th Gyalwang Karmapa on The Life of the Eighth Karmapa Mikyo Dorje
March 17, 2021
The last day of the 2021 Arya Kshema Spring Dharma Teachings began with the customary opening prayers. Then the Gyalwang Karmapa gave special greetings to all the monks and nuns in attendance and his Dharma friends listening to the webcast. On this the last day of the teachings, His Holiness noted that although he had not been able to cover the entire texts of the autobiographical “Good Deeds” and “He Searched Thoroughly . . .” as planned, he was glad for the opportunity to explain the beginning verses in some depth. Reiterating his intention to teach the rest of the verses next year, he said this would probably happen after the Tibetan New Year. His main purpose in presenting Mikyö Dorje’s teachings was to give lay and monastic students a deeper understanding of the 8th Karmapa’s activities of body, speech and mind. This has been his aim. He added that whether reading a great guru’s liberation story or a biography of an ordinary being, we shouldn’t do so just to learn about a particular individual. We should try to develop an understanding of that individual’s whole world at that time. His Holiness said that although he hasn’t investigated history in depth, he has studied Lord Mikyö Dorje’s life story and teachings quite deeply and therefore feels close to the world in which the 8th Karmapa travelled.
Throughout this year’s teaching, it appeared to His Holiness that the events he described were new to his students, but they have particular resonance in his own life. For him personally, studying Mikyö Dorje’s liberation story helped to develop greater faith in the Gyalwang Karmapas and in the 8th Karmapa in particular. Before Mikyö Dorje was enthroned, as we learned, a succession dispute arose between two candidates. Despite the amazing signs at the time of Mikyö Dorje’s birth, many in the Encampment still doubted that he was actually the Karmapa. Most supported the rival candidate, the Western tulku. Its leaders only enthroned him as a last resort, because they feared that the Khampas, the Eastern supporters of Mikyö Dorje, would attack them. Because of his karma, Mikyö Dorje in the end had to stay in a community that included those who doubted him. And shortly after Mikyö Dorje took the throne, his greatest supporter, Gyaltsap Rinpoche, passed away—we suspect by poisoning. Sangye Nyenpa and others offered teachings, but they couldn’t actually improve the conditions for Mikyö Dorje in the Encampment. He had to live with other people’s suspicions, threats and criticism. If he had been an ordinary individual, he would have become meek and faint-hearted, conforming to what people told him to do. This might have led to anxiety disorders or other psychological difficulties. But despite his difficult situation and environment, his unstoppable resolve was as firm as a mountain; it was as powerful as the flow of a river. In addition, he worked to tear down the iron walls of bias and cast off superfluous material things, always hoisting the banner of teachings and practice. He left a legacy that was as large and broad as any of the Gyalwang Karmapas. The traces of his deeds cannot be erased.
His Holiness clearly felt a parallel between his own personal history and that of the 8th Karmapa. Although he was recognized at a young age as the incarnation of Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, a huge controversy soon arose over who was the Karmapa’s true reincarnation. He explained:
I was put into a very difficult political situation and encountered many never-ending difficulties. If you wonder what I’ve learned from teaching this liberation story of Mikyö Dorje, . . . for me, what [it] teaches is that regardless of whatever someone says or what I think about whether I am—or am not—the Karmapa, if I have a lot of hopes and fears in my mind, then I should not become a slave to those hopes and fears. Instead, I don’t need to use up my entire life worrying about an empty title. . . . I need do what I can to arouse some pure motivations from my very heart. Even if all I can do is shoulder even a small portion of the burden of Buddhism and sentient beings, I think that I will not be mistaken in the path that I travel. And I think that Mikyö Dorje’s life story gives evidence of that.
Beyond teaching it to others, His Holiness’s study of Mikyö Dorje’s life story showed him a path forward for his life—to look inside himself in order to develop some experience and understanding. So for this reason, he feels extremely fortunate from the bottom of his heart for this teaching opportunity.
Then the Gyalwang Karmapa moved on to finish his discussion, started yesterday, of the Karma Gardri style. The two founders of the style were Namkha Tashi and Yartö Tulku Pende. These days, it’s said that Tulku Pende was the art teacher of Namkha Tashi, but his role in the development of the style is not well known. His Holiness’s research established that he was a very important figure. Light of the Great Sun by Rinchen Drupchok and other related histories give a clearer picture of his relevance. In the Golden Garland of Kagyu Biographies by Situ Chökyi Gyaltsen [the latter], there is a story:
Each storey of the Yermoche main temple [built by Situ Chökyi Gyaltsen] with 150 columns and a foyer with eight columns, took nine years to build. Tulku Pende and Tsebum Tende painted the murals that depicted the 100 deeds as described by Lord Chökyi Wangchuk.
Most of the paintings at the Yermoche (Karma Gön) Monastery are gone; His Holiness showed pictures of two existing lineage murals that are still in the main shrine room. Additional evidence from 1918 shows that when Kathok Situ stopped at Karma Gön on his way to Central Tibet, he saw murals there depicting the Jataka Tales in the Gardri style. His Holiness surmised that Tulku Pende probably painted them.
Further evidence of Tulku Pende’s importance exists in other texts. The 6th Gyaltsap Drakpa Döndrup’s liberation story of the 9th Karmapa says that after Mikyö Dorje passed away, Tulku Pende made a reliquary stupa for him. The Golden Garland of Kagyu Biographies records that there was no master artist during the time of the 9th Karmapa, and Tulku Pende criticized him for this. To demonstrate, His Holiness showed an illustrated representation of the Mahakala melodies made by the 9th Karmapa. It was charmingly naïve, like a child’s drawing. Since Tulku Pende was close to Wangchuk Dorje, he could be frank with him about his lack of artistic skills. (His Holiness feels that in response to this criticism, the 9th Karmapa’s successor—Chöying Dorje—became an accomplished artist.) Also, the autobiography of Situ Panchen mentions paintings of the eight close sons by Tulku Pende. He commissioned copies of Tulku Pende’s work; other artists applied color to these copies. His Holiness then showed one of these works, a beautiful and skilled depiction of Manjushri in the Karma Gardri style, originally conceived by Tulku Pende.
Tulku Pende may have initially painted in the earlier Mendri style, but he eventually became a Karma Gardri innovator. To compare his work to Namkha Tashi’s is difficult, until we can actually examine the paintings. It does seem clear that his technical skills were equal to Namkha Tashi’s.
Turning to Namkha Tashi, His Holiness established that this artist was considered an emanation of Mikyö Dorje, and therefore he developed his skills easily. He also was an innovator in establishing the Gardri style. The 9th Karmapa and his heart sons treated him very well, and he worked on many of their projects as an artist and a supervisor. If we look at the Golden Garland of Kagyu Biographies, and in particular, the story of the 5th Shamar Könchok Yenlak Rinpoche, we learn that Namkha Tashi was asked to make a copy of a work by Mentangpa depicting the amazing deeds of the Buddha. Shamar Rinpoche told the artist to draw one like that, and he did it very well. The artist also wrote the Twelve Deeds and the Qualities of Removal and Ripening of the Buddha in gold letters on silk, attaching them to the sides of the central thangka.
In fact, the 5th Shamarpa was the first person to patronize work in the Karma Gardri style, and Namkha Tashi appears to have been very close to him. Gyaltsap Drakpa Döndrup wrote in the 9th Karmapa’s namthar that in 1582, when Wangchuk Dorje went to Tsurphu Chökong Gön (which later became the residence of many of the Gyaltsap Rinpoches), Namkha Tashi painted the murals in that shrine. In 1583, when the 5th Sharmapa passed away, Namkha Tashi supervised the construction of his silver reliquary.
Likewise, when the 9th Karmapa was young and studying philosophical texts, many other intelligent students gathered around him, including Namkha Tashi. Because he was in the Karmapa’s entourage, he was called ku-kor, which means “near the Karmapa.” In 1591, the 9th Karmapa founded Kushok Okmin Ling Monastery (Yung Okmin Ling Monastery in modern day Shitse City, Rinpung District). There Namkha Tashi executed the thangkas of the lineage masters. It took him eight years; in 1599, he offered them to the 9th Karmapa. His Holiness showed us the remains of the monastery in the present day. Despite its ruinous state, the walls still stand and some of the murals remain. Because the monastery was built at the time of the original Gardri style, these murals are precious early examples of that style. They are in danger of being completely destroyed, so it is important that they are recorded and studied to determine the original characteristics of the style.
His Holiness then showed two murals in the Gadri style depicting the Kagyu lineage masters, including Wangchuk Dorje, from Lhalung Monastery in Lhodrak, Tibet. These also were painted in the original Gadri style so it is possible that Namkha Tashi, Tulku Pende, or one of their contemporaries painted them. A depiction of the 9th Karmapa is in the middle, surrounded by the Kagyu gurus. Hidden in a cave during the Cultural Revolution, the works got wet and were damaged, but the traits of the early Gardri style are evident.
His Holiness next discussed a recent discovery concerning Lhodrak Nyidey Monastery in Thimpu, Bhutan—now a branch of Thrangu Monastery, and once the seat of the 5th Sharmapa Könchok Yenlak. The monastery used to house old thangkas depicting the Kagyu lineage, but it now seems that they were among a collection of sacred objects taken to Tashi Gephel Gön monastery in Lhodrak. This is where Kathok Situ saw them in 1918. He described twenty-five paintings with silk brocade frames in the old Gardri style, painted during the time of Shamar Könchok Yenlak, Contemporaries felt that no other works could compare with them. Because these thangkas are associated with the 5th Sharmapa, there is a good chance that Namkha Tashi painted them. They are among the oldest remaining examples of the early Karma Gardri style—ancestral jewels that also deserve to be studied and researched.
With this, His Holiness concluded his discussion of the early masters of the Karma Gardri—Tulku Pende and Namkha Tashi.
The Gyalwang Karmapa then briefly turned to the work of the 10th Karmapa Chöying Dorje. In the Light of the Great Sun, Rinchen Drupchok says that the 10th Karmapa first studied the Mendri style, and later, Chinese and Kashmiri painting traditions. An unparalleled innovator, no one in Tibet was as skilled as he in poetry and art. Chöying Dorje felt that he had pleased Avalokiteshvara and declared that his life’s purpose was to make paintings. He also sculpted, creating a new image daily, not missing a single day. According to foreign scholars who have studied his work extensively, the 10th Karmapa ranks among the greatest of all Tibetan artists.
Many of Chöying Dorje’s works survive, but His Holiness only had time to show one example, The Deeds of the Buddha, which depicts Shakyamuni sitting under the Bodhi Tree subduing the maras. The Karmapa plans to continue speaking about the 10th Karmapa’s paintings next year.
Then His Holiness listed many of the important texts on Tibetan art. As already mentioned, Rinchen Drupchok (b. 1664) wrote the Light of the Great Sun, one of the oldest texts to discuss the Gardri style. It includes mention of how to determine the proportions of the deities. This was formulated by Drogön Chopak’s student, Sönam Öser—or Jamyang Drakpa—of Tsawa Rongpa. There are also other important texts concerning artistic practice: The Flower Motif, by Yonten Jungne and Rikpay Raldri; Mirror for Viewing Reflections, by Tsongkhapa’s student Tashi Tsultrim; Wish-fulfilling Jewel of Proportions by Menla Döndrup; Proportions of Deities: the Mirror that Shows the Sutras and Tantras, by Tsang Tanak Rikhar Tulku Palden Lodrö; and The Proportions by Taranatha, among many others. The Karmapa encouraged the study of these texts to determine their most important features.
The Gyalwang Karmapa continued his consideration of the Karma Gadri style by discussing a few more examples. There were several early thangkas in Gardri style depicting the Gyaltsap lineage. His Holiness chose to show one old thangka depicting the 6th Gyaltsap Rinpoche Norbu Sangpo by one of his students, probably Gelong Rinchen Sangpo. During the lifetime of the 3rd Khamtrul Kunga Tenzin [1680-1728], an artist named Chö Tashi—one of the three great artists named Tashi in the Karma Gardri school—painted thangkas depicting the Drukpa Kagyu Lineage, including Vajradhara. And in the 18th century, Situpa Panchen, a figure well versed in all fields of knowledge, studied painting thoroughly and sponsored a revival of the Karma Gardri style. With this, His Holiness concluded his consideration of a remarkable artistic tradition.
The Gyalwang Karmapa mused that in past times, the Karma Garchen didn’t stay in one area—it moved from place to place in order to reach as many people as possible in remote regions. These days, because of technological advances, it’s not necessary to go to different places. We can travel via a webcast and reach the entire world. The Karma Garchen is now the “Internet Encampment!” It doesn’t need horses and pack animals and tents, as before. All you need is a computer. “So from this year onward, I thought I shouldn’t hide all of my experiences and what I’ve understood. . . I should teach as much as I can to you,” he explained. Before, people had to come to him. Now, through the internet, he can teach all that he knows, and his students can receive his wisdom in their own homes.
Then the 2021 Arya Kshema Spring Dharma Teachings concluded with several beautiful and moving ceremonies. A representative from Palpung Yeshe Rabgyeling read a statement of gratitude, which began with an homage to the omniscient Mikyö Dorje and included heartfelt thanks to His Holiness for his clear, extensive teachings and sincere wishes for his long life and continued efforts to propagate the Buddha’s teachings.
His Holiness then instructed the Sangha to combine the ganachakra offering of the mandala with devotional songs taken from the Rain of Wisdom, a collection of dohas composed by the Kagyu masters. He added, “This teaching has been completed very well in the beginning, middle and end. So now I’d like to make an auspicious connection with all of you. I’m very grateful and feel thankful to all of you.”
As the nuns’ choir from Karma Drupdey Nunnery chanted verses of offering and dohas composed by Marpa, Milarepa, Gampopa and Düsum Khyenpa, heartfelt devotion pervaded the closing ceremonies. With eyes closed, His Holiness joined in, appearing to chant the complex verses from memory. Tibetan speakers could pick out Milarepa’s repeated refrain, “I remember the guru once again,” and Gampopa’s command, “Sons, don’t go any further down, come back up!” The monastics presented elaborate offerings to all the gurus, a fitting end to a precious month of teaching. The Gyalwang Karmapa’s final words were “Sarva Mangalam!”[May all be auspicious!]
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