Arya Kshema Spring Dharma Teachings:
17th Gyalwang Karmapa on The Life of the Eighth Karmapa Mikyö Dorje
February 25, 2021
At the very beginning of these teachings, the Karmapa emphasised how important it is to know the origins of the tradition to which you belong. As such, these current teachings are highly significant for the Kagyu tradition. Much of this extensive material is original research by His Holiness and being presented publicly for the very first time. He is correcting misinformation, establishing historical facts about the early Kagyu masters and their students, and detailing aspects that had been forgotten, such as the existence of renowned Kagyu scholars and flourishing shedras. Then came the catastrophe which struck the Kagyu after the destruction of the Garchen during the time of the 10th Karmapa. For the monks and nuns listening to His Holiness’ daily exposition, much of this material is new and exciting; it has never been taught before and it is helping them to appreciate their heritage.
On Day Eight, the Karmapa continued to share his extensive research into the history of the Kagyu lineage, bringing to life the story of the Eighth Karmapa and his teachers in extraordinary detail.
The Authentic Guru Karma Trinleypa
The opening slide showed Mikyö Dorje’s four principal teachers—Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche, Dülmo Tashi Öser, Chödrup Senge, and Karma Trinleypa — and the details, where known, of their births and deaths.
Karma Trinleypa was born in the Fire Bird Year, 1456 CE, so, when the Eighth Karmapa first summoned him, he was already quite old. When they finally met, after several invitations, on the 4th Day of the 11th month in the Year of the Fire Pig, (1527 CE) Karma Trinleypa would have been sixty-one years old.
It was Karma Trinleypa who advised Mikyö Dorje to receive his full ordination vows from Joden Khenchen Chödrup Senge, said to be an emanation of Arhat Angita. When the Eighth Karmapa sent a further invitation with an escort, explaining why Karma Trinleypa should come to him, Karma Trinleypa duly made his way towards the Garchen in Kongpo. On the way, he met up with Khenchen Chödrup Senge, and they travelled together.
Their first meeting with Mikyö Dorje was at Sampel Wangpo Upper Monastery at Nomtö Mountain Retreat Centre. Then, while the elderly Khenchen Chödrup Senge rested to recover from the journey, the Karmapa gave Karma Trinleypa the lung for the Six Yogas of Naropa. The astrological signs suggested that the teachings start on 22nd of the month, but the Karmapa insisted that they start earlier on the 17th, so Karma Trinleypa began teaching Mikyö Dorje Prajnaparamita on that day instead.
A week later, on 22nd, Mikyö Dorje took full ordination vows: Khenchen Chödrup Senge was the khenpo, Karma Trinleypa was the ritual master, Gampo Khenchen Shakya Sangpo was the private questioner, Sangpu Chöje Shakya Sangpo was the timekeeper, and the Chöje of Gendun Gang Deshong with the necessary number of bhikshus from the four monasteries completed the quorum.
Mikyö Dorje’s studies with Karma Trinleypa resumed on the 23rd; in the morning, he studied Prajnaparamita, and Abhidharma in the afternoon. As the study schedule progressed, Karma Trinleypa offered teachings on the Sublime Continuum, Differentiating the Middle from Extremes and Differentiating Dharmas and Dharmata, the Compendium of Validity, the Commentary on Validity, the Treasury of Valid Logic, the Pratimoksha Sutra, the Vinaya Sutra, the Compendium of Abhidharma, Entering the Middle Way, and other texts. He gave a detailed teaching on the precepts of the vinaya as explained by Nyakpuwa, including the Rituals of Motions [by which the sangha makes decisions and conducts its business] and the practice of the Three Foundational Rituals [sojong, yarney (the rainy season retreat), and gakye (the ritual which releases monastics from the bounds of the rainy season retreat)]
Karma Trinleypa gave Mikyö Dorje instruction in the three types of vow: the Bodhisattva Vow of aspirational and engaged bodhichitta according to Sakya Pandita’s Great Bodhichitta, the pratimoksha vows, and tantric vows.
Karma Trinleypa explained the precepts of the vinaya very clearly so that even today, the observation of the Three Foundation Rituals in monastic communities is based on his instructions, as are the lay vows and the eight fasting vows. The teachings he received on tantra mainly came from the Sublime Continuum.[Uttaratantra]. He gave him the complete four empowerments and tantric vows of the Nine Deities of Hevajra according to the Sixth Karmapa Tongwa Dönden’s ritual texts, and taught him the mandalas, mudras, and melodies. He taught Mikyö Dorje the Kalachakra tradition, the five types of sandhi (Sanskrit grammar), and all the profound dharma passed down from the Seventh Karmapa Chödrak Gyatso that Mikyö Dorje had not yet received. He gave him instructions on the yidam deities of Vajravarahi, initiations and sadhanas of Manjushri and White Tara, and the One Hundred Long Life Empowerments from the tradition of Machik Druppay Gyalmo, which is the version most frequently given in the Karma Kagyu tradition.
In this way, over the course of three years, Mikyö Dorje became a scholar. According to His Holiness’ calculations, the actual time spent studying was only 14 months. How was this vast curriculum covered in such a short time? Basically, through Mikyö Dorje’s exceptional diligence and single-mindedness towards his studies. The teachings lasted from sunrise to sunset, punctuated by audiences and meetings, and Mikyö Dorje took less sleep so that he could use the night hours for memorising the texts. Initially, there were three teaching sessions per day but Mikyö Dorje asked for it to be increased to six or seven sessions. Karma Trinleypa was reluctant to do this at first, but once it was obvious that Mikyö Dorje was able to retain both the words and the meaning without any difficulty, he increased the sessions to six a day.
They observed the usual protocols before each session; Mikyö Dorje, as the student, would rise when Karma Trinleypa entered the room, ask after his health, prostrate, and prepare his seat to show respect, but no time was wasted in small talk. Whenever Karma Trinleypa digressed, Mikyö Dorje would prompt him, “This is the point we got to. Please continue from there.”
During the six sessions, they studied the texts, the explanation of the text, and the explanation of the meaning. If Mikyö Dorje could not understand something, instead of pretending he did or thinking that he would learn it later, he would immediately try to resolve his doubt. He ate less food so as not to become lethargic, and drank less tea so that he didn’t need bathroom breaks. He also wore fewer clothes, in order to stay alert.
For one whole year, they studied continuously, without missing a single day, His Holiness commented. Later, people said that Mikyö Dorje must have recognised certain qualities in Karma Trinleypa.
Finally, the time came when Karma Trinleypa had to leave, but there were still a few texts left to be studied, so Mikyö Dorje accompanied him on his journey, and Karma Trinleypa continued to teach him as they travelled. Mikyö Dorje accompanied him as far as Drakchi. On the 3rd day of the first month of the Ox Year [1529 CE], Karma Trinleypa made vast offerings for Mikyö Dorje’s long life and also offered a new long-life prayer and a list of offerings that were read aloud in the gathering. However, Mikyö Dorje and Karma Trinleypa were so reluctant to part company that they postponed. Eventually, Karma Trinleypa departed on the 11th. Master and student prostrated in farewell, touched heads, and made aspirations. At that time, Mikyö Dorje said, “Please be my spiritual friend until I reach enlightenment.”
The histories relate how the attendants and entourage were amazed at the way the Karmapa praised, exalted, and respected Karma Trinleypa. The commentaries that Mikyö Dorje later wrote on the great texts of the Prajnaparamita, the Middle Way, and Abhidharma contain prayers, supplications and praises of Karma Trinleypa– the guru who had taught him the explanations of the texts. We need to remember and learn from this example of the authentic guru and student, His Holiness concluded.
The Eighth Karmapa’s Education Continues
From Mikyö Dorje’s viewpoint, there was no end to listening and contemplation. When he travelled, from Kham to Central Tibet, if he found an authentic guru, no matter which tradition they belonged to, whether they were Sakya, Geluk, Drikung, Jonang, Shalpa, or Nyingma, he sought teachings. In particular, he was looking for clarification on Kalachakra. Ja Jamyang Tashi Namgyal and Panchen Dorgyal, a student of Panchen Shakya Chokden, were said to be the most knowledgeable at that time, so Mikyö Dorje invited them. Panchen Dorgyal agreed to come, but Mikyö Dorje had a vision that the interdependent circumstances were not right and put a halt to the invitation.
Later, when Mikyö Dorje went to Drikung, Panchen Dorgyal was there, leading the discussions which were part of the welcome ceremony. Mikyö Dorje joined in the debate by proxy through Pawo Tsuglak.
His first question to Panchen Dorgyal asked about the differences between the eighteen schools cited in Sakya Pandita’s Treatise on the Three Vows. Panchen Dorgyal answered rather grandly in a loud voice, ”There are many different schools among the Exposition schools that we know from the Abidharma, Middle Way and texts on Validity.” When Mikyö Dorje contested his answer, and asked again for the differences between the eighteen different schools, which included both Exposition and Sutra schools, Panchen Dorgyal gave a very long answer but there was no main point to it. So Mikyö Dorje rechallenged him, and, in a quivering voice, Panchen Dorgyal admitted that he had nothing to say. Mikyö Dorje then succinctly answered his own question:
It is said that the Exposition does not accept self-awareness, the Sutra school does, the Mind Only assert that self-awareness exists ultimately, the Middle Way refutes self-awareness, and in tantra one is said to awaken because of self-awareness.
He then posed a second question, “What are the differences between these different schools’ positions on self-awareness?” Panchen Dorgyal attempted a reply, but floundered on, talking about “apprehended images” and “apprehending images”. Mikyö Dorje challenged him, “Well, are you saying you do not know the differences between those self-awarenesses?” And in a very subdued voice, Panchen Dorgyal admitted this.
Later, Panchen Dorgyal confessed to Pawo Tsuglak Trengwa that he had spent day and night studying and reviewing in preparation for the Karmapa’s arrival, but the Karmapa hadn not questioned him on any of those texts. “He must be clairvoyant,” he concluded.
Panchen Dorje Dorgyal submitted seven scrolls of very subtle questions to the Karmapa. The Karmapa successfully contested his views, but he maintained respect for Panchen Dorgyal.
Because he wanted to study Kalachakra, Mikyö Dorje invited the authority at that time, Jamyang Tashi Namgyal. He was unable to come but sent two hundred rare and well-edited texts for the Karmapa to study. Mikyö Dorje wanted to study with other scholars; however, he failed to find any equal to Karma Trinleypa.
At this point His Holiness reflected briefly on his own experience of trying to get an education equivalent to a shedra education.
Mikyö Dorje had a great interest in texts, and he was able to acquire many rare texts. He received innumerable volumes of commentaries on the sutras and tantras, and he would spend all night reading and memorising them. He would mark the outlines in red and the root text and citations in yellow. If there was a subtle point about the text that was not clear to him, he would write in small letters that he had not understood this point or that he needed to look at such-and-such a text. If a point was extremely difficult, he made annotations about different interpretations in different commentaries. He would ask other learned scholars about the meaning of the text. If there were a point he regarded as very important, he would make a special note of it and use this to resolve any doubts he might have.
When memorising important texts such as the Treasury of Valid Logic and its commentary or the commentaries on the higher and lower Abhidharma, he would recite them from 10.00 pm at night until 3.00 am. He continued this practice for many years.
In addition, he studied the grammars by Kalapa and Candragomi, metaphors, composition and the Sanskrit and Tibetan writing systems with Karma Lotsawa Rinchen Tashi. He studied Indian and Tibetan texts on validity with Kongtön Shakya Rinchen, Tsangtön Dorje Sangpo, Ngaripa Lekpay Gocha, and others. He received teachings from Pawo Tsuglak Trengwa on the Compendium of Astrology by Rangjung Dorje and Compositions that Please the Learned. He respected all scholars or people with qualities and spoke of them as more precious than gold, ‘the eyes of prajna”.
According to Pawo Tsuglak Trengwa, the Eighth Karmapa was able to defeat even scholars whose knowledge and understanding were said to be unrivalled. Nevertheless, he would say humbly, without any pretension, “I have little intelligence and little education, so I know nothing.”
The Karmapa concluded:
In summary, with love for deluded beings and great reverence for the precious teachings, Mikyö Dorje accepted great hardships and difficulties to study with his gurus. Whatever experience arose from his listening, contemplating, and meditation, without hiding any or being miserly, he would teach dharma appropriate to the abilities of those who sought it, without delay. This is one of the most important of Mikyö Dorje’s deeds.
Directly addressing the shedra students, the Karmapa emphasised that the practice of previous gurus should be an example so that we can benefit sentient beings and serve the teachings. We need to listen and contemplate in order to get experience. Our foremost thought should always be how to benefit suffering beings and never our own self-aggrandisement. This is the function of a shedra education.
The Fourth Good Deed : “Abandoning meaningless distractions.”
The first section of the Autobriographical Verses, on How to Enter the Dharma, has six points. This is the fourth:
When I developed certainty from the bottom of my heart
That ordinary distractions are merely ways to waste this life,
I cast away all commonplace diversions.
My awareness became clear; I found conviction in the Jewels.
I think of this as one of my good deeds. (4)
Mikyö Dorje’s Instructions on Training in Liberation Stories reads:
One must follow the guru without ever being separate from them. How long must one follow the guru? Until you achieve buddhahood. But to follow the guru in that way, you must have the fortune to be in a time and place similar to the gurus, the spiritual friends, and a body and mind of the same kind. Once you have achieved that superior basis, you must be free of obstacles and have the favourable conditions that permit following the guru and the dharma.
That depends on gathering virtuous karma for that sake, such as having faith in the guru and the true dharma, and then diligence, mindfulness, samadhi, and prajna. Therefore, you must eliminate the impediments to virtue—conditions that create afflictions, places and friends that are especially pleasant or unpleasant, and cognitions that want, crave for, or hate those. If you can eliminate ordinary distractions for such purposes and distractions of thinking about methods for greatness and wealth in this life and then find solitude of body, speech, and mind, your mind will become workable and your awareness clear. Prajna will ripen and you will remember the qualities of the Three Jewels. When you remember that, you will feel that if you use your body, speech, and mind for pointless acts for even an instant, it is more precious than your life. Practice one-pointedly with that feeling.
His Holiness commented that when we follow a guru, we need to follow them, without being separated, until we achieve buddhahood. In order to follow that guru, we need the merit and we need to receive dharma teachings. In order to do that we need the basis of a body and mind, and for that, we must gather the accumulations. The precious human life—human body with leisures and resources— is dependent on finding the teachings from an authentic spiritual friend and practising them. There are many impediments and obstructions, the worst of which are the afflictions in our own being–thoughts of greed and hatred. If we want to overcome obstacles, it’s not necessary to perform obstacle-removing rituals to remove an external problem. We have to work on our own mind and eliminate all the afflictive thoughts. We are constantly being fooled by the eight worldly concerns. With our body, we should see if we can stay in a solitary space. With our speech, we should avoid meaningless speech and remain silent. And instead of our mind being distracted continuously, we should see if it can rest peacefully. If we practice these, our minds will go in a virtuous direction. Our awareness will become clear, and our intelligence will increase. If we use our body, speech and mind for the eight worldly dharmas, we will waste our lives; we need to use them purposefully to give our human life meaning and to practise the true dharma.
Mikyö Dorje was never fooled by these distractions. What is the evidence? Although he could have extended his power and influence through his relationship with the King of Jiang or the Ming Emperor, Mikyö Dorje never sought to do this.
Mikyö Dorje was highly regarded and greatly respected. The Garchen [Great Encampment] was known as “The Ornament of the World” and was the most influential organisation in Tibet at that time. Karma Kagyu lamas, monasteries, and so forth filled all areas of Tibet, so the Karma Kagyu was very powerful in terms of both dharma and politics. Tibetans and other people considered the Karmapa to be the greatest lama. But he did not like being great and impressive, using his power, trying to increase the influence of his sect, and so forth. Not only that, he did whatever he could to prevent that from occurring.
The First Meeting Between the King of Jiang and the Karmapa
Jiang was a minor kingdom which arose in the border regions between Tibet and China. During the time of the Tibetan empire, the histories mention Jiang. It came under Tibetan rule several times, particularly during the time of King Düsong Mangpo. (Manuscripts from Dunhuang date the birth of Düsong Mangpo to 676 CE) He invaded Jiang and annexed it. During the time of the Mongol Emperor,Kublai Khan, it was part of Yunnan. In 1381, during the Ming dynasty, the Ming armies invaded Yunnan. The Jiang were given the clan name ‘Mu’ by the Ming emperor.
The King of Jiang had invited the Seventh Karmapa, Chödrak Gyatso, but he was unable to go. The 13thKing of Jiang, Aya Aqiu, invited the Eighth Karmapa shortly after his enthronement. At that time the king controlled many regions in Kham, and he sent Lama Tashi from Jiang with a letter of invitation to the seven-year old Karmapa. Travelling with the Garchen, Mikyö Dorje made his way across Kham, visiting Karma Gön and Kampo Nenang. He then went to Gyaltang [modern-day Shangri in Yunnan], and from there to Jiang, where the Garchen set up camp near the Satam Palace. An elephant, part of the military escort, broke free, went to the Karmapa’s tent, bowed his head, and raised his trunk in respect.
The palace of the King Of Jiang survives to this day and the Karmapa was able to show four slides of its central pagoda surrounded by other lower buildings.
At dawn, the King of Jiang himself came in a great procession to greet the Karmapa. The king was carried in a palanquin, accompanied by his uncle and younger brothers who rode elephants. The king got out of the palanquin at the Karmapa’s tent, prostrated. Another elephant appeared and bowed its head, and then began trumpeting very loudly. They asked the mahout why, and he replied, “He is really happy that the Buddha has come to see him.” There were other miraculous signs: rainbows and a rain of flowers.
Mikyö Dorje presented gifts of statues, sutras and sacred relics, and Tibetan horses.
Each evening traditional musicians played outside the encampment.
An escort and a palanquin arrived to take him to a reception in the palace. Out of respect, the King met him at the middle gate [the main entrance] and offered a khata. Chinese monks played music and they beat a huge drum which required sixteen people to beat it. Mikyö Dorje sat on a golden throne. Tea was served, offerings of silk brocades and so on were made. The three queens took off their jewellery and offered it to the Karmapa. Then Mikyö Dorje bestowed the Boddhisattva Vows. The next day he was invited to the palace again.
There were many good outcomes from this meeting. At that time, the King of Jiang was involved in various conflicts, but he agreed not to wage war with Tibet for fifteen years. The indigenous religion in Jiang was similar to the old form of Tibetan Bön and involved animal sacrifice. After Mikyö Dorje’s visit, the king gained an unshakeable faith in Buddhism. He promised to send 500 people to become monks and to build 100 monasteries. Finally, it was probably because the Eighth Karmapa had made the connection that the 10thKarmapa, Chöying Dorje, and other Kagyu lamas were able to seek refuge there.
The Jiang king hoped that Mikyö Dorje would remain in Jiang, but, after a week, he started on his way back to Tibet. The Karmapa promised that he would return after seven years, but for some reason was unable to. However, years later Jiang would become a place of refuge for the Karma Kagyu.
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