23. 8th Karmapa 1507 – 1554
The Eighth Gyalwa Karmapa, Mikyö Dorje , was born in the fire-rabbit year to a family of devoted yogis in a small village called Sa-tam in the region of Gomchu-Gyalung, East Tibet (according to the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center (abbr. tbrc) the name of his birthplace is Khams-nang-chen-ngom-chu-brgyüd-bar-khang). His father’s name was Ajam, and his mother’s name was Lama Dron. At his birth, Mikyö Dorje spoke the words, “I am the Karmapa.” Ajam looked up the Third Tai Situ Rinpoche, Tashi Päljor, and told him about his son. His Eminence immediately knew that the baby was the reincarnation of the Seventh Gyalwa Karmapa.
When Mikyö Dorje was 5 years old, a family from Amdo claimed that their child was the Karmapa. The Seventh Karmapa’s regent, the Second Gyaltsab Rinpoche, Tashi Namgyal, immediately set out from Tsurphu Monastery to investigate the matter. When he saw Mikyö Dorje, he spontaneously prostrated to him and – aware of the meaning of this intuitive act – realized that the young boy was the true Karmapa. Yet, he, the Third Tai Situpa, as well as close students of the Seventh Karmapa officially needed to carry out tests. Mikyö Dorje not only passed all tests but said to all further tests, “Emaho! How wonderful! Have no doubts. I am the Karmapa.” Both Crowned Princes as well as the witnesses testified that Mikyö Dorje was the Eighth Karmapa. The young Karmapa recognized that the other candidate was the reincarnation of Zurmang Chungtsang from Zurmang Monastery in East Tibet and saw to it that he was cared for. A year later, Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche gave Mikyö Dorje all possessions from his previous life and enthroned him with the Black Vajra Crown as the Eighth Gyalwa Karmapa at his main seat, Dechen Zong of Tsurphu Gon in the Tölung Valley.
After having studied with His Eminence Tai Situ Rinpoche at Tsurphu Gon, when he was 8 years old, Mikyo Dorje took up his studies with the First Sangye Nyenpa, Tashi Paljor, who had been appointed by the Seventh Karmapa to pass on the Karma Kagyü Practice and Whispering Lineage to his next incarnation. Mikyö Dorje received all essential empowerments and instructions from His Eminence Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche, who therefore became his Root Guru. Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche passed into Parinirvana when Mikyö Dorje was approximately 18 years old. The Eighth Karmapa’s other teachers, who were all brilliant scholars, were Dulmo Tashi Öser, Karma Trinlepa, and Dakpo Tashi Namgyal.
Taking the opportunity to introduce readers to another famous teacher of His Holiness, Dakpo Tashi Namgyal (1511-1587) was a Lineage-holder of the Drukpa Kagyu School and renowned as both a scholar and yogi. His most famous works, “ Moonbeams of Mahamudra” and “ Clarifying the Natural State,” became classic Mahamudra texts. Venerable Thrangu Rinpoche offered three seminars in Oxford on “Moonbeams of Mahamudra” and taught: “Dakpo Tashi Namgyal wrote: ‘Nowadays there are many scholars who do not have the experience of meditation and there are many good meditators who are not learned. Also, there are those who are learned, have good meditation, but do not have a good motivation.’ Dagpo Tashi Namgyal stated that he himself is neither learned nor has good meditation but has a good motivation. This is the reason why he listened to the teachings presented by the Kagyü Masters and compiled them in this book, hoping to benefit his pupils and practitioners throughout many generations.” Thrangu Rinpoche also said: “Mahamudra practice is very useful and beneficial. There are various systems and texts which present it, are available to us, and are being taught. There is ‘Mahamdura – The Ocean of Certainty’ and ‘Mahamudra which Eliminates the Darkness of Ignorance’ by the Ninth Gyalwa Karmapa and there is this text, ‘Moonbeams of Mahamudra’ by Dakpo Tashi Namgyal, who was an emanation of the great teacher Gampopa. In fact, it is very appropriate for our particular moment in history. When the Sixteenth Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, came to the West and taught, he was asked which text would be most useful and beneficial for western students and he particularly indicated this text. He said that to have it taught, translated, and printed would be of a great benefit at this time. When the first translation appeared in the English language, this big book did not take on very strongly. But, His Holiness the Sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa’s blessings are behind it. It contains the profound meaning of Mahamudra. We should meditate these teachings. We should read the text and tell others about it.” Thrangu Rinpoche added: “This is what we should tell people.”
In the short life-story of the Seventh Gyalwa Karmapa in this website, we learned that the Seventh to Tenth Karmapas lived during periods of constant battles. The Dharma Fellowship of His Holiness wrote: “When the Emperor Wu Tsung sent a mission to the young Eighth Karmapa, the mission was attacked en route by a band of one hundred armed monks loyal to the Second Dalai Lama, Ge-dün Gyam-tso. Mikyö Dorje had to be quickly whisked away from his seat in Kham and taken to Central Tibet under armed bodyguard, for fear of assassination. Mikyö Dorje’s position as a spiritual leader remained under constant attack throughout his life.” In contrast, the Official Website of His Holiness states: “The Karmapa received an invitation to China when quite young, but declined on the ground that the Emperor would pass away before he could arrive, a prediction that turned out to be true.”
His Holiness the Eighth Gyalwa Karmapa was one of the most universal masters of the Karmapas. He was also a visionary artist, and to this day we are indebted to him for having founded one of the major schools of thangka painting, the Karma Gadri Tradition. Karmapa Arts offers an introduction to the art styles prevalent in the Tibetan culture and wrote that there are three major styles of Tibetan paintings, the Mendri, the Mensar, and the Karma Gadri styles. The Mendri style, the oldest, was developed by Menla Döndrub, who studied under an expert in Nepalese-style painting. Through acquiring a thorough knowledge, he revised the proportions and composition of religious figures, developed new pigments, defined the religious requirements of both the artist and patron, demonstrated the need for accurate painting by showing the consequences of inaccurate work, and gave instructions in various methods of painting. It was these revisions that came to be known as the Mendri style. The Eighth Gyalwa Karmapa developed the Karma Gadri School. His Eminence Gyaltsab Rinpoche taught him how to paint in a distinctive style that was based upon such examples as the silk thangka given to the Fifth Gyalwa Karmapa by the Ming emperor, the masks that were made by artists who had witnessed the revelation of the Third Gyalwa Karmapa’s image in the full moon, and a Chinese thangka that depicted the Sixteen Arhats of early Buddhism. Thus, the Eighth Karmapa’s style incorporated components from three sources: Indian forms, traditional Tibetan composition, and Chinese colours.
His Holiness was not only an exemplary person, a great yogi, and meditation master, but he was also an eminent scholar and sage, author of twenty-eight volumes covering subjects of imagination, compassion, and practical application, e.g., linguistics, religious law, the arts, poetry and songs, and compelling commentaries on the Sutras, profound Tantras, and Mahamudra. He composed many Sadhanas (“liturgical texts”) for dedicated disciples of the Karma Kagyü Tradition, specifically “The Four-Session Guru-Yoga.”
From among the twenty-eight volumes of Mikyö Dorje’s collected works (tbrc reports that “13 volumes seem to be preserved”), the following treatises composed by the Eighth Gyalwa Karmapa are available to sincere students and disciples of His Holiness the Karmapa in the section “Buddhist Philosophy Texts” in this website:
“ Outline heading with root text of Madhyamaka (dvags brgyud grub shing gi sa bcad zur ‘khol nor gling bgrod pa’i lam yig)” by Acharya Chandrakirti & the 8th Karmapa, Mikyö Dorje;
“Dul Tik Nima’i Kyilkhor (‘dul t’ik nyi ma’i dkyil ‘khor)” by the 8th Karmapa;
“Sordo Rinchen Jungney (so so thar pa’i mdo’i ‘grel pa rin chen ‘byung gnas)” by the 8th Karmapa.
In the section entitled, “Puja Texts Collection” of this website, students will find the “ Kagyü Gurtso – The Ocean of the Yogic Songs of the Kagyü Lineage.”
The Vajradhatu Practice Manual states: “The actual title of The Rain of Wisdom is The Essence of the Ocean of True Meaning; the subtitle is Bringing the Rain of Wisdom, the Spontaneous Self-Liberation, the Blazing Great Bliss, theQuick Path to Realization of the Supreme Siddhi, the Vajra Songs of the Kagyü Gurus. These songs are the direct personal voices of the lineage-holders, sharing their experiences of the path, practice, and realization. In chanting them, we attune our minds to theirs, invoking the inspiration of their sanity and devotion. This collection was first compiled by Mikyö Dorje, the Eighth Karmapa.”
In “The Supplications and Offerings to the Kagyü Gurus” (in “The Rain of Wisdom”), Mikyö Dorje supplicated his Root Guru, Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche (who had passed away twelve years earlier) and – already a precious bead in the line of Glorious Lamas of the Kagyü Golden Rosary – he wrote: “In my thirty-second year, on the night of the eighteenth day of the eleventh month, I had a dream: in the idle of a clear sky, I saw the previous lord siddha Sanggye Nyenpa sitting on a white silk palanquin carried by many yoginis. Because of his rays of light and unparalleled splendour, I lost consciousness. A little while later, I awoke from my sleep. By the bright light of the moon in the sky, the mountain cast a deep black shadow, reminding me of the many sentient beings who suffer in this dark age. I then supplicated:
“The one lord possesses marvellous wonders;
When I think of these days, I realize
You, lord, are the supreme three jewels so difficult to find in the world.
I have met you before, and whoever encounters you is fulfilled.
“We without a protector are possessed by the madness of the kleshas.
So mad, we take or own lives.
Having taken our lives, we fall to the three lower realms.
Having fallen, there is no occasion for liberation.
Contemplating this now, my mind is overwhelmed.
Feeling this way, I am completely lost as to what to do.
So distraught in this empty valley,
Unable to pass the night, I wail and wail.
“I think, ‘The time of death comes without warning.’
So terrified, I resolve not to make meaningless
The rest of my life, which is a mere instant.
Even though the genuine holy Dharma has not arisen in me,
I shall not practice nondharmic activities.
Since this present human body lasts for a mere instant,
How could my tongue through confusion dare to lick
Desirable things, which are like honey on a razor blade?
Birth and death without end utterly depress me,
And I long with all my heart to flee this place of samsara.
Knowing samsara as a slaughter pen,
How could I perform the activities of this life?
“First comes the fruition of the karma of previous evil deeds;
Then, this conditioning is inherited in oneself;
Finally, it results in limitless suffering.
When I see them come together at the same time,
I am saddened by these meaningless activities,
And I call on the fathers who possess overwhelming compassion.
“First are those unfortunate disciples who rarely find the objects of refuge;
Second are their teachers who receive offerings but still intensely suffer;
Finally, together they build up love and hate.
When they all drown themselves together,
Even the king of maras deeply despairs.
“I have no power whatsoever,
‘What shall I do? What’s the best?’ swirls in my mind.
There is no happiness for men in their kingdoms.
Everyone from cattle to insects will die.
Seeing and hearing all this is hellish torment;
Everything is always lost, destroyed,
And all actions are full of hardship and without result.
“Now, endless depression wells up in me.
Now, although the divine and holy Dharma has not arisen in me,
I shall not practice the suicidal activities of this life.”
In the list offered by tbrc, the Eighth Karmapa’s main students were: Tsuglag Tengwa, Lodrö Gyalpo, Kongchog Yanglag, Dragpa Päljor, Ngawang Chökyi Gyatso, Lodrö Norden, Midrug Chökyi Gocha, Rinchen Namgyal Chödrag Gyatsen, Jamo Gelong, Shenyen Namgyal, Rinchen Gonpo, Namgyal Dragpa, Karma Dutsi, Karma Tenzin, Namka Tashi, Namka Gyaltsen, Karma Sritsen, Karma Sridral, Chime Khäpa, Ngodro Rabjam Shenyen Namgyal, Ngodro Chözä, Sangye Yeshe, Choglang Legpa, Nida Tashi, Sönam Zangpo, Karma Trinley Ledrub, Karma Döndam, Sangye Päldrub, Rinle, Agyen Ponpo, Kunzang, Döndrub Rinchen, Sangye Senge, Yeshe Pälzang, Pende Özer, Kunga Rinchen, Chatang Tharpee Kukye, Tapuwa, Jangpa Chözäd, Gyaltsen Zangpo, Dogyü Gyatso, Pälwar, Döndampag. His foremost disciples were Pawo Tsuglag Tengwa and Kongchog Yanglag.
Foreseeing that the time to pass away was imminent, Tshungme Mikyö Dorje wrote a letter of prediction and gave it to Kongchog Yanglag. He wrote: “In the life following this one, I will be born as the glorious, self-arisen lord (Wangchuk) of the world, in the upper regions of the snowy region of Treschö, to the east, in a place where there is the sound of water and the Dharma is heard. I have seen the signs that it will not be long before I am born there.” His
Holiness the Eighth Gyalwa Karmapa then entered Parinirvana. He was 47 years old.
“ The most excellent virtue is the brilliant and calm flow of culture: Those with fine minds play in a clear lotus lake; through this excellent path, a song line sweet like the pollen’s honey, may they sip the fragrant dew of glorious knowledge.”
— His Holiness the Seventeenth Gyalwa Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, “Aspiration for Culture and Knowledge”
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 18-20 & 310-313.
Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, “Instructions on ‘The Moon Rays of Mahamudra’ by Takpo Tashi Namgyal,” presented sequentially in Oxford in the years 1992, 1993, and 1995; transl. by Peter Roberts, manuscripts transcr. & edited for seminar participants by Gaby Hollmann, 1992/93/95.
For a profound introduction to Tantrayana, please see Venerable Chöje Lama Phuntsok, “Entering Tantrayana,” in: KLLI, “Teachings of Lamas from Lekshey Ling Institute,” Nepal, 2007. See especially Khenpo Karma Namgyal, “Finding and Following Our Lama” & “Instructions on ‘ The Summary of Mahamudra’ by Panchen Naropa” in the same link of KLLI, 2008.
Vajradhatu Practice Manual, “Annual Observances,“ Colorado, 1999.
Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center (tbrc), “Biographical Data: The Karmapas,” N.Y. (2008).
The Dharma Fellowship of H.H. the Gyalwa Karmapa, “A Brief History of the Kagyü Tradition” (2008).
Karmapa Arts, “Origin of Thangka Arts,” Boudanath, Nepal (2008).
May all living beings experience the blessings of Gyalwa Karmapa!
(With sincerest gratitude to Khenpo Karma Namgyal for his most generous help, 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.)