27. 10th Karmapa 1604 – 1674
“As that same being, you reveal the array of the great nirmanakaya to supreme, middling and common disciples, insuring that all connections you make through being seen and heard are meaningful. Chöying Dorje, we supplicate at your feet.”
— “Supplication to the Karmapas”
The Tenth Gyalwa Karmapa, Chöying Dorje, was born in the year of the wood-dragon in the district of Golok, the farthest north-eastern region of Tibet, just as the Ninth Karmapa had predicted in his letter. Simhanada wrote that he “took seven steps in each of the cardinal directions at birth.” His father’s name was Khyethar, and his mother’s name was Atso. The boy was given the name Ogyen Khyab. Chökyi Wangchug recognized his former Root Guru, enthroned Ogyen Khyab with the Black Vajra Crown as the Tenth Gyalwa Karmapa, and gave him the entire Kagyü Lineage transmissions and teachings. He did not come to be known by the name Chöying Dorje until he was fully ordained at the age of 40.
By the time he was 6 years old, Ogyen Khyab was a much better painter than his teachers. He was also an extremely gifted sculptor. But, he saw the chaos of the times – he saw that political tension was growing and that his homeland would become entrenched in havoc and wars. He understood in advance that ambitious parties would call on the Mongolian armies to help them attain political supremacy on the peaceful plateau in the Land of the Snow.
At the age of 18, he spoke of his wish to visit the sacred sites of the great Kagyü Forefathers and told his disciples what he knew would happen in Tibet. A few of the verses from “The Songs of Chöying Dorje” (in “The Rain of Wisdom”) that he wrote while staying in the Valley of Yarlung where the first kings of Tibet once lived:
“From great Lord Vajradhara
Down to father Wangchuk Dorje,
These of the unbroken lineage of enlightenment
Have displayed miracles for the benefit of sentient beings.
These days, sentient beings are full of misfortune.
Please protect them with buddha activity of overwhelming kindness. (…)
“These days, what is the situation like?
Factions are formed by those who indulge in love and hate,
Yet these small-minded people feign politeness.
They hustle about with scheming minds,
Involved in many useless activities.
Whoever takes these people as their holy refuge is robbed of his happiness. (…)
“These days, the behaviour of the dark age is seen.
By offering to the demons as gods, one brings down Mara.
Since he descends, various undesirable things happen.
Not believing in the command protectors, yidams, and dharmapalas one despairs.
It is not that they have little compassion;
Rather, you have no devotion for them.
The blame is turned on you. (…)
“Especially, I contemplate you, Avalokiteshvara,
Whose body is amrita like the moon,
Whose speech pacifies the kleshas like the cool rays of the moon,
And whose mind is beyond conception like the sky.
At this time, I become free from the bias of friend and foe.
“Remembering unerring karma and its result,
I should look to see whether this is really true or not.
Remembering the refuge jewels, this song escaped from my mouth.
Since this escaped, I wrote it down on paper.
Since I have written it down, now my followers, take delight in it!”
While residing at Tsurphu Monastery, Jetsün Chöying Dorje again reflected the kindness of his deceased Guru. He was now 26 years old and wrote down the teachings that he gave his disciples after having offered praise to Chökyi Wangchug, his Root Guru. A few verses are:
“Impermanent, impermanent, conditioned things are impermanent.
Just like the illusion of a magician,
The impermanent illusory body is certain to come to an end.
With each passing day, death draws nearer.
“The many distinctions of good and bad,
The deceptions of hypocrisy and flattery,
The motivations which profane sacred outlook
All these discursive thoughts still deceive us.
Don’t wander, don’t wander, be careful!
“From today on, under a tree or amidst the mountains,
My sleeping place will always be in an unknown border country.
From today on, alms will be my food.
My clothes will just be functional, taken from a dust heap.
These necessities of contentment will be sufficient. (…)
“Sons, now is the time to give rise to devotion.
The time has come to make supplication.
You have been on the fringe now long enough.
The time is right to join together. (…)
“Ka ye! Like the sky in the sky,
Profound peace, marvellous simplicity, the secret amrita,
One’s mind is self-luminous That.
May we obtain mahamudra, coemergent great bliss.”
From “The Rain of Wisdom” we learn: “Desiring to see the tülku of his guru and to practice, he decided to go to Do Kham in the east. As a parting message of oral instruction for the dharma practitioners and his followers in Ü and Tsang, he bestowed the vajra song.” A few verses are:
“I supplicate the kind refuge.
Grant your blessing so that this lowly one may keep to retreat.
From now on, I shall stay on unknown mountains
And wander through unknown kingdoms.
Is like a child playing in the ashes.
All that you did before is futile.
If you act now, act virtuously.
“Formerly, you were subject to the confusion of dualistic fixation.
Having obtained this precious human body,
You threw it in the mud of futile samsara.
When you look for it in the future, you will not find it.
Therefore, now is the right time to accomplish the great objective. (…)
“During this autumn season, changing and impermanent,
Fields of varied flowers, bright and splendid,
Existed yesterday, but today are withered.
This is a teacher of impermanence and illusion.
Think about this and pursue solitude.
“This body cannot bear one days’s hunger and thirst.
Though you cling to it fondly, you will lose it in the end.
The four elements change with the seasons.
This groundless consciousness
Is like a city created by a magician.
You have no leisure to live here for a long time.
If you understand this, practice the holy and divine dharma. (…)
“Even the birds that soar in the sky,
Although having great freedom to go where they please,
Must be careful when they seek food on the ground.
If they end up caught fast in a snare, what can they do?
“Although you have the great freedom to go wherever you please,
If you wander in the land of bias,
You must beware of the trap of entertainment,
The deception of childish people.
If caught by this, you will regret it in the future.
Thinking about this, dwell in mountain retreats.”
Concluding “The Songs of Chöying Dorje,” we learn: “This was sung at the supreme dwelling place of the dakinis, Miraculous Castle White Lake.”
Realizing that he had to leave Central Tibet due his allegiance to the King of Tsang (who was a Kagyüpa and was assassinated during the war that came (see the brief historical account below)), the Tenth Karmapa appointed a regent, the Fifth Goshir Gyaltsab, Dragpa Chöyang, gave most of his belongings to the poor and needy, and – disguised as a beggar – walked through Tibet with an attendant at his side. In his biography of the Tenth Karmapa, Ken Holmes wrote: “His followers saw Chöying Dorje flying off through space, holding the hand of his chief attendant. They ‘landed’ in the forests of Bhutan and spent more than three years living wild, helped by animals.”
After staying in Bhutan, the Tenth Karmapa and his attendant then travelled to northern Yunnan (present-day South-West China), Birma, and Nepal. Simhanada tells us that “the King of Yunnan proposed to invade Tibet and enthrone the Karmapa as its ruler, however the Karmapa refused such an unethical act.” Not wasting a moment in his life, the Karmapa bestowed sacred teachings to devoted disciples wherever he went and established thirteen Karma Kamtsang monasteries. Something like twenty years passed before he could return to Tsurphu Monastery, his seat in the Tölung Valley in Central Tibet.
Simhanada wrote: “The Karmapa returned secretly during this time to recognize Tulkus.” He recognized the Sixth Tai Situ Rinpoche, Mipham Trinley Chögyal Rabten (1658-1682), and the reincarnation of the past Goshir Gyaltsab as the Sixth Gyaltsab Rinpoche (1659-1698). He also recognized the reincarnations of the Fourth Pawo Rinpoche, Tsuglag Künzang (1633-1649), and the Fifth Pawo Rinpoche, Tsuglag Trinley Gyatso (1649-1699). Furthermore, he recognized the reincarnation of the Seventh Shamar, Yeshe Nyingpo (1631-1694). His Holiness the Tenth Gyalwa Karmapa unfailingly gave them the full transmissions and teachings of the Karma Kagyü Practice and Whispering Lineages. His other worthiest and closest disciples were: Karma Chagme, Ja-tson Nyingpo, Tashi Päldrub, Drubchog Wangpo, Karma Tsenrung, Natsog Rangdol, Shenpen Dorje, Tenzin Norbu, Karma Rinchen, Karma Phuntsok Wangchug, Karma Samdrub, Karma Tenkyong, Karma Chöpag, Dragpa Pälzang, Jigten Wangchug, Rinchen Nyingpo, Lodrö Norchang, Tenpa Namgyal, Dragpa Chogyang, Norbu Gyenpa, Lingpon Gyatso, Nering Chöje, Bamchen Bonpo, Tsang Khangpa, Tserlung Drungpa, Karma Chökyong, and Shamar Yeshe Nyingpo, who became his spiritual heir.
Having written a prediction letter and left instructions about the birth he would take at another time and under other circumstances and conditions in order to help those disciples who were weary of samsara, Chöying Dorje, the Tenth Gyalwa Karmapa, passed into Parinirvana when he was 70 or 71 years old. The Sixth Goshir Gyaltsab, Norbu Zangpo Kungdu Gawe Päl, became regent and took up the seat at Tsurphu Monastery during the short absence of His Holiness.
The Tenth Karmapa, Gyalchog Chöying Dorje, will be remembered and revered not only for his heart-felt devotion for his Guru and the Great Fathers of the Kagyü Golden Rosary but also for his profound realization, for his illuminating paintings of thangkas and religious murals, and for his humility.
“In every section of our world's land
may there thrive a fertile field of peace and joy,
rich with the leaves and fruits of happiness,
filled with the many sweet scents of freedom.
May we fulfill our countless and boundless wishes.”
— His Holiness the Seventeenth Gyalwa Karmapa, “Ah world!”
A Brief Historical Account
The website of His Holiness the Seventeenth Gyalwa Karmapa teaches that traditions can be named according to temporal classifications, such as “old” or “new,” but some are named after the major founders and monasteries that are associated with geographical locations, e.g., Sakya (Sa-skya meaning “grey earth”). In the case of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism, Nyingma (Nying-ma) is “the old lineage.” Kagyü (bKa’-brgyüd) is a generic description and means “precept transmission,” and Gelug (dGe-lugs) means “virtuous tradition.” The Kadam School (bKa’-gdams meaning “instructional precepts”) was established by Jowo Atisha’s prominent disciple, Dromton (‘Brom-ston) when he founded Reting Monastery in the Rongchu Valley of Central Tibet. The Kadam Tradition was the direct source of inspiration for the development of the Gelug School, which was founded by Je Tsongkapa (1357-1419).
In 1409, Tsongkapa established the first Gelug monastery at Ganden near Lhasa. The website of the His Holiness the Seventeenth Karmapa tells us: “Gyaltsap Dharma Rinchen, one of Tsongkapa’s main disciples, succeeded the throne in Ganden and this tradition of throne-holder continues to this day.” Gendün Drubpa (also one of Tsongkapa’s main disciples and designated as the First Dalai Lama) died in 1474 and Gendün Gyatso (1475-1542) was named his successor. After his death, Sönam Gyatso, the Third Dalai Lama (1543-1588, Abbot of Drepung Monastery at Ganden) was given the title “Dalai Lama” by the Mongol ruler Altan Khan, leader of the Tumed Mongols; he converted to Buddhism in 1577. Both events in the Mongolian court were crucial for the future of Tibet. Dalai (taa-la’i) means “ocean” in Mongolian and Lama (bla-ma) is the Tibetan term for “spiritual teacher.” The title Dalai Lama is best translated as “ Ocean of Wisdom.” After Yönten Gyatso (the great-grandson of Altan Khan) was recognized as the Fourth Dalai Lama, Mongol intervention increased drastically and war and struggle ruled the day in Tibet.
In 1617, the Fifth Dalai Lama, Nawang Lobzang Gyatso, was born to a Zahor family, who had been banned to the Tagtse Palace (which is situated in the Yarlung Valley, the ancient home of the first kings of Tibet). Samten G. Karmay wrote that another Gelug order sought to claim its child (who had also died in 1616) as the Dalai Lama. The rightful family resisted. In 1618, Dudul Rabten, the rightful child’s father, had been involved in a plot against the newly formed government at Ganden. As relations between the King in Tsang (who was supported by the Ninth and Tenth Gyalwa Karmapas) and the Gelug in Ü (who were supported by the Mongols) were tense, the King in Tsang suggested that the Zahor family leave their castle at Tagtse and live at Samdrubtse, their court in Shigatse, but the mother, suspicious of the king’s intentions, returned to her own family at Nakartse in Yardrog. Meanwhile, the rightful child’s father tried to escape to East Tibet but was caught by government envoys and was kept under arrest until he died, without ever seeing his son again. In 1622, the child referred to as “the Chongya boy” was brought from Nakartse to the Drepung Monastery at Ganden, where he was enthroned as the Fifth Dalai Lama.
In 1642, Gushri Khan dubbed the Fifth Dalai Lama temporal leader of Tibet. Who was Gushri Khan? He was of the Qushot tribe of the Dzungars, who had been actively supporting the Gelugpas in his own country. In 1636, Gushri Khan attacked the Mongol tribe of Chogtur, an ally of the King of Tsang. Originally from Khalkha, Chogtur’s tribe was expelled from Central Mongolia in 1634 and settled in the Kokonor region in Amdo, North-East Tibet. Having defeated Chogtur and his 40,000 men in Kokonor, Gushri Khan settled there and soon became the leader of the region’s Mongols. He and several of his men travelled to Central Tibet that year disguised as pilgrims in order not to raise suspicion of other Mongol factions. He received an audience with the Fifth Dalai Lama who, before the holy image of Jobo Buddha in the Jokhang in Lhasa (one of the most sacred temples in Tibet) bestowed on him the name Tendzin Chögyal, “King of Religion, Holder of the Doctrine,” for having defended Gelug interests in the Kokonor region. The Fifth Dalai Lama was free to rule Tibet under Gelug hierarchy while benefiting from his connection with Gushri Khan. For the first time in history an abbot of a monastery became leader of Tibet and established the present form of the Tibetan government, the Ganden Phodrang. Ganden became the Dalai Lama’s residence and (as we saw in the life-story of the Ninth Karmapa) was the name that the Gelugpas gave to the sacred Kagyü Jonang Monastery that they besieged more than a hundred years earlier. At that time, the Jonang masters, monks, and followers were forced to flee from Central Tibet; they found a new home far away in the mountains and valleys of Amdo. The Fifth Dalai Lama’s treasurer became his regent and political advisor. Gushri Khan became the new government’s defender and, in Samten G. Karmay’s words, “was always ready with his army if the need arose.” The Dalai Lama continued addressing Gushri Khan as “king” because he was the king of the Mongols of Kokonor and not because he was the king of Tibet. The Ganden Palace associated with the Drepung Monastery of the Gelugpas could no longer house the officials of the new state. This was equally true of Gongkar Castle, Gushri Khan’s residence in Tibet. So Kongchog Chöpel, one of the Fifth Dalai Lama’s teachers, suggested Potala as an ideal location for constructing a new palace that could be used as the seat of the government. Building of the Potala began in 1645 and the Fifth Dalai Lama and his government moved in to the White Palace of the Potala.
The Potala Palace became one of the most sacred architectural wonders of the world. It is erected on Marpo Ri, the “ Red Mountain.” Once, in the 7th century, King Songtsen Gampo of the first Tibetan Dynasty (who resided in his palace Tagtse in the Yarlung Valley and who helped establish Buddhism on the Tibetan Plateau) built a little resort for himself on Marpo Ri so that he could meditate in peace and quiet. The meditation cave was probably destroyed when the Chinese invaded Tibet after his death (around 650 C.E.). The White Palace of the Potala as we know it was completed in 1653, the Red Palace in 1694, twelve years after the Fifth Dalai Lama had passed away. The Potala served as the winter palace of successive Dalai Lamas and their monastic and secular staff ever since then. In 1674, the political landscape in Tibet had changed for the better, and the Tenth Gyalwa Karmapa and the Fifth Dalai Lama reconciled. The Fifth Dalai Lama died in 1682. The regent concealed his death for fifteen years while war with the larger provinces in West Tibet as well as neighbouring countries continued.
The present Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Jetsün Tenzin Gyatso, was forced to flee his country in the 1950s. As we have been able to witness, he is not only an ocean of wisdom – he is also an ocean of infinite compassion and, in all moments of his life, truly lives in accordance with “The Aspiration Prayer” that he wrote:
“May I become at all times, both now and forever, a protector for those without protection,
a guide for those who have lost their way, a ship for those with oceans to cross, a bridge for those with rivers to cross, a sanctuary for those in danger, a lamp for those without light, a place of refuge for those who lack shelter, a nd a servant to all in need.”
— His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama
Kagyu Office of His Holiness the 17 th Gyalwang Karmapa, “Buddhism in Tibet“ (2006), “The Gelug School” (2006), & “Kagyu Lineage histories” (2008).
“The Rain of Wisdom. The Vajra Songs of the Kagyü Gurus,” transl. under the direction of Chögyam Trungpa by the Nalanda Translation Com., Boston & London, 1980, pages 34-44 & 313.
Homepage of His Holiness the 14 th Dalai Lama, “Biography – The Dalai Lamas,” Dharamsala (2008).
Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center , “Biographical Data: The Karmapas,” N.Y. (2008).
Simhanada, “Kagyü Lineage – 10 th Gyalwa Karmapa” (2008).
Ken Holmes, “Karmapas,” Scotland, 1995; reprinted in: Karma Triyana Dharmachakra, “Lineage History – The Tenth Karmapa,” N.Y. (2008).
Samten G. Karmay, “The Great Fifth,” in: Newsletter 39, International Institute for Asian Studies, Leiden University, The Netherlands, Dec. 2005.
David Snellgrove & Hugh Richardson, “A Cultural History of Tibet,” Colorado, 1968.
(With sincerest gratitude to Khenpo Karma Namgyal for all that he is doing, compiled & written for English-speaking visitors of Karma Lekshey Ling Institute near the Great Stupa of Swayambunath in Nepal by Gaby Hollmann, apologizing for mistakes, Munich, 2008; copyright.)