21. 7th Karmapa 1454 – 1506
“You who achieved the siddhi of taste with the gaze of simplicity,
Lord Chödrag Gyatso, I supplicate you.”
— “Supplication to the Kagyü Gurus”
The Seventh Karmapa, Gyalwa Chödrag Gyatso, was born to a family of tantric practitioners in Treschöd, East Tibet, the same place where His Holiness the First Karmapa was born. According to the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center, Chödrag Gyatso was born in Göda Chinang, which is situated in Kham, East Tibet. His father’s name was Dragpa Päldrub, and his mother’s name was Lhamo Kyi. While still in the womb of his mother, he was heard saying “Ama-la,” which means “mother” in Tibetan. At birth, he spoke, “AH HUNG,” the Sanskrit mantra that symbolizes the indivisibility of emptiness and luminosity. When he was five months old, it is reported that he said, “There is nothing in the world but emptiness.” He then blessed ten thousand people at Arik Thang, where he had once taught during his life as the Sixth Karmapa.
Chödrag Gyatso’s parents were overwhelmed by the wonders their baby manifested and took their nine-month-old boy to His Eminence Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche, who was residing at Karma Gon Monastery. In accordance with the prediction letter written by the Sixth Gyalwa Karmapa, His Eminence recognized him as the reincarnation of Thongwa Dönden, the Sixth Karmapa. He immediately enthroned him as the Seventh Karmapa on the Lion Throne of Garchen Zamling Gyachen, the encampment of the Karmapa, and gave the 4-year-old boy the entire Kagyü Lineage transmissions. At the same age, the Karmapa ended a war that was waging among the people living along the border of southern Tibet and Bhutan. When he was 8 years old, Bengar Jampäl Zangpo also became a main Guru of the Seventh Gyalwa Karmapa and gave him the monk’s ordination vows, the initiations and practice instructions of Amitayas, Chöd, Mahamudra, and all transmissions that he had received from the Sixth Gyalwa Karmapa.
The Seventh Gyalwa Karmapa was a marvellous scholar and wrote many treatises, such as “The Lamp of the Three Worlds,” which is a commentary on “The Abhisamayalamkara” that was written by Vasubhandu, the great fourth century Indian Pandit who clarified the meaning of Lord Buddha’s teachings on the Third Turning of the Wheel of Dharma, which his older brother, Asanga, had also realized through practice in solitude. Venerable Thrangu Rinpoche tells us: “Sometimes the Buddha spoke in a very abbreviated way and it would be difficult to clearly understand the meaning given at that time. So the teachings in the treatises clarify such teachings. Some of the main commentators are called the ‘Six Ornaments.’ They were Nagarjuna, Asanga, Gunaprabha, Aryadeva, Vasubhandu, and Sakyabrabha, the Indian masters who taught at Nalanda University between the second and tenth century. If we add Dignana and Dharmakirti, there are the ‘Eight Ornaments.’ They gathered together the teachings of the Buddha that had been scattered throughout many different texts, some of which were very lengthy, and they abbreviated them to cover a main point. They clarified their meaning, which might be hidden, and arranged the teachings so that one could understand them. Having done this, it is now easy for a person to understand their meaning, easy to teach for those wishing to teach, and easy to train for those who wish to train in these teachings.” The most striking treatise that the Seventh Gyalwa Karmapa wrote is “The Ocean of Reasoning,” in which he elucidated pramana, the Sanskrit term for the very demanding philosophy of valid reasoning and logic. Entitled “ Tsädma Rigzhung Jamtso” in Tibetan ( ”Pramanavarttika” in Sanskrit), the Tibetan version is available as a download to interested students in the section “Buddhist Philosophy Texts” of this website.
The Seventh Gyalwa Karmapa established the Karma Dratsang Shedra, the monastic university associated with Tsurphu Monastery, and restored its large Buddha Shakyamuni statue that was commissioned by Khublai Khan and, since it was tilted a little bit upon completion, was miraculously straightened by Karma Pakshi, the Second Karmapa. The Seventh Karmapa also established the Drebochudo Namgyal Ling Gompa in Powo. He also rebuilt and expanded the Thrangu Monastery in Kham, East Tibet, and installed Sherab Gyaltsen (who was an emanation of one of the twenty-five illustrious disciples of Guru Rinpoche) as abbot. Sherab Gyaltsen was the First Venerable Thrangu Rinpoche. His present website in Qinghai tells us: “This very auspicious place where the Thrangu Monastery is situated, is indeed a pure land in this Saha world where emanations of Amitabha Buddha and Nagarjuna have manifested. Previous Karmapas, such as Düsum Khyenpa, Jigten Sumgon (founder of the Drikung Kagyü), Nyingma masters such as Mipham Rinpoche, the previous Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, the previous Tai Situ Rinpoche, and other highly realized masters have either meditated, performed retreats, or expounded Buddhist Dharma and philosophy in this place. At its peak, this monastery had more than 10,000 Lamas and was known as ‘the Monastery of the 10,000 Lamas.’ Due to the nature of impermanence and the passing of all conditioned things, this great centre of learning has deteriorated to its current state.”
The Seventh Gyalwa Karmapa also created the smön-lam-gyi-cho-ga-yan-lag-nyi-shu-pa, the “Great Gathering for Mönlam.” In “The Blazing splendour blogspot,” Erich Pema Kungtsang posted the note: ”Aside from the hermits and vast assemblage of monks and nuns living in the big monasteries, practitioners often stayed together in large encampments. For instance, the seventh Karmapa never stayed long in one place but moved from one camp to another throughout Tibet. Any offerings he received he would pass along on the spot to the local monasteries. The seventh Karmapa’s close entourage consisted of at least one thousand monks, who followed along wherever he went. The monks and attendants with their horses and yaks were so numerous that not everybody could fit in one place. So they staggered their movements in groups of one hundred, camping at seven or more different places a day’s travel apart, staying a day in each place. People camped in tiny meditation tents with a single pole, just big enough to sit in. The whole monastic community would stay in such tents, though the master’s tent was typically larger. They were all required to keep the Kagyu tradition of four practice sessions a day, even while travelling. At a designated time, a bell would be rung and they would eat their meal together. As soon as the meal was completed, according to the tradition, they would recite the Kangyur, the Buddhist canon in one hundred large volumes. As they travelled along, walking in a line across a vast plain, younger monks would distribute separate pages to each of the hundred monks, collecting the pages as they finished. All together they could easily complete all one hundred volumes by the time they reached the next mountain range, each monk reciting just two or three pages from each volume. The whole encampment was so large that, when everyone was together, the monks could recite the whole Kangyur in just an hour.” Erich Pema Kungtsang added: “The heap of their used tea leaves was often as tall as a man. The Karmapa’s caravan was known as ‘the great encampment that adorns the world,’ one of countless examples illustrating how deeply the Dharma was woven into the very existence of the Tibetan people.”
Something of an activist, the Seventh Gyalwa Karmapa settled disputes. He often had visions of Guru Rinpoche and brought people to secret caves and valleys for protection during times of conflict and war. He protected animals, initiated the construction of bridges, and sent gold to Bodhgaya for the gilding of the statue of Lord Buddha at the sacred site of his enlightenment. He had many students, the main ones being Chödrak Yeshe, Shakya Chogden, Karma Trinleypa, Chögyal Tenpa, Sangye Rinchen, Gawang Dragpa, Pälden Zangpo, Kyase Togden, Batshog Rangdröl, and Jamyang Tashi Namgyal. He was especially renowned for teaching about ‘Phagpa Chenrezig and inspired many devotees to recite millions of Mani-Mantras as a universal cure for all illnesses and diseases.
Having been in retreat for one half of his life and before entering Parinirvana at the age of 52 or 53, Chödrag Gyatso gave details of his next incarnation and passed on the sacred transmissions and instructions of the Kagyü Lineage to his main disciple, Tashi Päljor, the First Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche, who became the 22nd master in the line of realized saints and sages of the Glorious Kagyü Golden Rosary.
Turning our attention to the political landscape on the Tibetan Plateau, the Dharma Fellowship of H.H. the Gyalwa Karmapa wrote: “The seventh through to the tenth Karmapas lived during periods of constant political struggle in Tibet. First, the Emperor Yin Tsung was violently antagonistic toward Buddhism, then his successor was as fervently pro-Buddhist. The changing policies of the Chinese Empire flowed over into independent Tibet, causing social upheaval and opening the door for ambitious religious leaders to build temporal power bases. This led to a lot of troubles for the Karmapas, who – as truly religious leaders – wished not to be drawn into the conflicts of mundane politics.” Following the fall of the Yuan Dynasty of Greater Mongolia in 1368, Tibet became independent. As a result, Tibet was ruled by a succession of twenty ministers of Sakya and by a succession of nine Lamas of the Phagmo Drukpa Lineage, who, in turn, became overruled in 1481.
Gyantse, the area that lies in the southern region of Central Tibet, emerged as the capital of a lineage of princes from northeast Tibet who claimed to be descendants of the legendary Tibetan hero, King Gesar of Ling. Who was Gesar? He was a ruler of the legendary Kingdom of Ling that is supposed to be situated near the border between Tibet and Sichuan, presumably at the confluence of two rivers near Derge. “The Epic of Gesar of Ling” has become a treasury of Asian literary culture and exists in hundreds of volumes. Verses are still chanted and sung in the different languages that are spoken in Central Asia. The epic tells the story of an enlightened warrior named Gesar, who was a Buddhist deity named Good News and who lived peaceably in a Buddhist heaven. The epic narrates that Padmasambhava and Chenrezig tested Gesar by trying to involve him in worldly affairs, but he did not give in. These events are reported in the extremely metaphysical epic, the “ Lha gLing – The Divine Land of Ling.” In an interview in 1999, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche was asked to explain a little about the Gesar of Ling ceremony that was performed in his monastery. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche replied: “I’ve always thought that during this degenerate time we’re tormented by all kinds of suffering. Of course, we always have a lot of different kinds of suffering, different kinds of pain and anxiety. And one of the most difficult is mental conflict, mental confusion, especially depression, feeling down and all that. And sometimes when we feel that very strongly, both individually and in a group, it can actually harm the energy of the place, the energy of the country, the energy of the whole Staff. So Guru Rinpoche, out of his great compassion, has created many treasure teachings for the sake of degenerate times like this. And one of them is the treasure of Gesar of Ling, which has got a lot to do with cheering oneself up, strengthening one’s own way of looking at things, starting the day with joy. As guru-yoga is very much emphasized in the Vajrayana, I thought that having the play of Gesar of Ling performed would be very beneficial, since he is the manifestation of Guru Rinpoche. The play is not only the dharmapala or protector practice, but it is also guru-yoga in another form.”
The website of His Eminence Tai Situpa states that Rabten Kungzangpäl was a past incarnation of Tai Situ Rinpoche. In accordance with the Buddhist law, he ruled over the vast area of Gyantse, alleged home of the descendants of Gesar of Ling in Central Tibet. He founded the Great Stupa of 100,000 Buddhas at Gyantse. Octagonal shaped, the Stupa contains astounding frescoes and images inside and stands as one of Tibet’s most renowned works of art. King Rabten Kungzangpäl also began the Gyantse Horse Race Festival, which is one of the most important Tibetan folk events of the year.” In the articles on “The Lineage of the Tai Situpas” offered by Sherabling Monastery and that can be read in the essay on Drogon Rechen in the series of life-stories in this website, we learn that Chokyi Gyaltsen (1377-1448) was the first officially designated Tai Situ Tulku. In the essay on the Sixth Karmapa in this website, we also saw that the Second Tai Situpa (1450-1497), Tashi Namgyal, was recognized by the Sixth Gyalwa Karmapa, who enthroned him and bestowed to him the entire Kagyü Lineage transmissions and instructions. The Sixth Karmapa also gave Karma Gon Monastery to be under the complete guidance of the Second Tai Situpa. He became a tutor to the Seventh Gyalwa Karmapa. Later, during the times of the Third Dalai Lama, Sönam Gyatso (1543-1588), public attention shifted from the Tibetan provinces to Lhasa.
“Compassion is the ultimate source of a happy life and wisdom is the key .”
— His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso
“Inspiring festivals of merit in the Land of Snow, you are the Supreme One holding a pure white lotus. With the beauty of all good qualities, a treasure for eyes to behold, may your life be long, steadfast as a diamond vajra.”
— His Holiness the Seventeenth Gyalwa Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, “Aspiration Prayer for the Dalai Lama”
The Dharma Fellowship of H.H. the Gyalwa Karmapa, “A Brief History of the Kagyü Tradition,” Denman Island, B.C. (2008).
Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, “Lodrö Nyima Rinpoche,” Thrangu Tashi Chöling Monastery, Qinghai, 2006.
Thrangu Rinpoche, “The History of Buddhism in India,” Colorado & Auckland, 2008, pages 113 & 175.
“Biographies – Lineage of the Tai Situpas,” in: Sherab Ling, Himachal Pradesh, India (2008).
Simhanada, “The King of Gyantse – Rabten Kungzang Pal ” (2006).
Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center , “Biographical Data: The Karmapas,” N.Y. (2008).
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, “An Interview,” in: “ Gentle Voice,” March 1999.
Erik Pema Kunsang, „Blazing splendour blogspot,“ Erich Pema Kungtsang, 10/04/2005.
See Robin Kornman, “The Epic of Gesar of Ling,” in the website: Uwm.edu (2006).
(With sincerest gratitude to Khenpo Karma Namgyal for his most beneficial endeavours, compiled & written for English speaking students & visitors of Karma Lekshey Ling Institute, near the Great Stupa of Swayambunath in Nepal, by Gaby Hollmann, Munich, 2008; copyright.)