18. 6th Karmapa 1416 – 1453
“Through receiving prophecies from great siddhas, yidams and Dakinis, you display numerous miraculous abilities in yogic conduct. Protector of gods and humans, your power vanquishes arrogance. Thongwa Dönden, we supplicate at your feet.”
– – Ven. Mikyö, “Supplication to the Karmapas”
The Sixth Gyalwa Karmapa, Tulku Thongwa Dönden, was born to a family of devoted yogis in Gomtö Shakyam in East Tibet. His father’s name was Samdrub Dorje, and his mother’s name was Pematso. One day, at the age of one month and while in his mother’s arms, Thongwa Dönden became very excited when they met Nompa Chadral, who was a disciple of Deshin Shegpa, the Fifth Gyalwa Karmapa. Nompa Chadral asked the newly-born his name. Thongwa Dönden smiled and replied, “I’m the Karmapa.” Nompa Chadral cared for the infant for seven months and then took him to Karma Gon Monastery. When he was 3 years old, Jetsün Ratnabhadra, his spiritual heir during his former life, imparted the entire Kagyü Oral Instruction Lineage of the Karmapas to him. He received ordination from Khenchen Sönam Zangpo at Ökar Tashi Monastery and was enthroned with the Vajra Black Crown as the Sixth Gyalwa Karmapa at Karma Gon Monastery by Chöpäl Yeshe.
Still quite young, the Sixth Gyalwa Karmapa started to teach. At the same time, he also started composing tantric rituals and eventually established a body of liturgies for the Kamtsang Kagyü Lineage. The Karma Kagyü is also referred to as Kamtsang Kagyü after Gampo Kangra in East Tibet, where the First Gyalwa Karmapa spent six years in meditation and attained complete enlightenment. Thongwa Dönden joined and integrated the Shangpa Kagyü (the Pacifying of Suffering Tradition that came from Padampa Sanggye, who lived in the 12th century) and the Shije Lineage (the Golden Doctrine of Pacification that came from Mahasiddha Khyungpo Näljor, approx. 909-1130) into the main Kamtsang Kagyü Transmissions.
Tulku Thongwa Dönden dedicated his activities to writing, teaching, restoring many monasteries in Tibet, printing books, and strengthening the Sangha, the religious community of lay and fully ordained devotees and practitioners. He even appeased many conflicts that had arisen in the districts of Minyak and Rongpo. He developed plans for the Shedra (“monastic universities”) in the Kagyü School that have become the basis for an educational system of schools and universities in all countries of the Himalayas ever since. He had many students and pupils. Tashi Namgyal, Goshir Päljor Döndrub, and Bengar Jampäl Zangpo were his main disciples and his heart-sons.
The Sixth Karmapa recognized Tashi Namgyal (1450-1497) as the reincarnation of the First Tai Situ Rinpoche, Chökyi Gyaltsen (1377-1448), and enthroned him as the Second Tai Situ Rinpoche. He gave Karma Gon Monastery to be under his complete guidance. Karma Gon Monastery is the sacred ground formerly unveiled by Lha-je Gampopa and that became known as Gyantse. Situated slightly south-west of Lhasa in Central Tibet, Gyantse was known as Nyangpa’i Sershong Ringmo, meaning “the golden basin of the upper part (of the Nyangchu River).” Karma Gon Monastery was one of the most famous monastic universities and renowned for its collection of Sanskrit texts, artwork, and scholarship. King Päljor Tsangpo (1426-1476) took up residence in the fortress on Dzong Hill in Gyantse and consecrated the Great Stupa of Kumbum in 1474, i.e., during the time of the Seventh Karmapa.
Realizing that he would die soon, the Sixth Gyalwa Karmapa decided to go into retreat and, before doing so, he designated a regent, the First Gyaltsab Rinpoche, Goshir Päljor Döndrub, indicating to him where he would take birth again. He passed into Parinirvana at the young age of 36 or 37.
One of the Sixth Gyalwa Karmapa’s heart-sons, Bengar Jampäl Zangpo, became the next Lineage-holder of the sacred Kagyü Golden Rosary. He wrote a supplication prayer of longing when he saw the signs that his Root Guru, Tulku Thongwa Dönden, had passed away. A few verses that describe the Sixth Gyalwa Karmapa in Bengar Jampäl Zangpo’s words, printed in “The Rain of Wisdom”:
Although there are hundreds of authentic gurus,
There is only one guru who is kind to me.
The Karmapa whose name is difficult to utter
Honors the top of my head inseparably.
“You are Lokeshvara, Saraha,
Glorious Hayagriva, Padmakara, and others.
You are the sugatas of the three times.
You came to protect the beings of the dark age.
It is good that you also benefit me.
“You are Vajradhara, endowed with kindness.
The realm of your mind, which is as vast as space,
Your body, which is ornamented with the major marks that blaze with a thousand lights,
And your speech, with its warm rays of profound melody,
Guide all of us son-disciples who feel devotion
On the path to the realm of great bliss in the future.
“I supplicate wholeheartedly with one-pointed mind.
Now, whatever I do, it is up to the guru, the three jewels.
Lord, when I remembered your genuine kindness,
I became so sad
That when the situation gave rise to a little renunciation,
This babbling supplication was written down in words.”
Kagyu Office of His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, “The Golden Rosary” (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 123-124.
Tibetan Buddhist Resource, “Biographical Data: The Karmapas,” N.Y. (2008).
Simhanada, “Lineages – The Sixth Karmapa” (2008).
May all living beings experience closeness to the Gyalwa Karmapa!
(Compiled & written for English speaking students & visitors of Karma Lekshey Ling Institute in Nepal by Gaby Hollmann, solely responsible for all mistakes, August, 2008, copyright.)