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The First Reincarnate Lama of Tibet - 6

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Who was the lama whom the Great Fifth Dalai Lama and his massive monasteries so feared nearly four centuries ago? What was the source of his power?

The Dalai Lama may be the best known incarnate lama in Tibetan Buddhism, but as we have seen, the Dalai Lamas did not initiate the tulku system, the unique custom of lamas returning life after life to teach their students. Instead, it was the Karmapas. The first Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa appeared at the dawn of the twelfth century, in 1110, nearly three hundred years before the first Dalai Laman Truppa, was born at the end of the fourteenth century, in 1391.

As the first of his line, Dusum Khyenpa (1l10-94) set the example for all Karmapas to follow. Buddhism teaches that the highest bodhisattvas can choose their own rebirth, and Tibetan legend says that Dusum Khyenpa chose to be born in a family that could support his spiritual activity. He was born in the Male Iron Tiger Year of the Tibetan calendar (1110) in the small village of Ratag, located in the Treshod mountain range in Kham. His parents were not ordinary Khampas, but advanced spiritual practitioners.

His father Gompa Dorje Gon was a devotee of the fearsome tantric deity Yamantaka, the Lord of Death, and his mother Gangcham Mingdren was a "natural yogini" -- a female adept who took up tantric practices without prior training. The boy received tantric initiations and instructions from both his mother and father. "Obtaining miraculous powers he made a clear imprint of his hand and foot on a rock," a classic sign of his spiritual attainment. [1]

Modern people can approach such stories simply as fairy tales, as revealing metaphors, or as occurrences that cannot be explained by the scientific laws of today but may reveal their truth to future investigations. Perhaps because they recognize a continuum between physical and ethereal phenomena; Tibetans have always found the existence of miracles uncontroversial, but still impressive. Apropos of the power of such stories, Picasso once said, "Art is the lie that tells the truth." Might myth or miracle work the same way?

Dusum Khyenpa was a remarkable and gifted child. At an early age he began studying with the greatest teachers of the day. Perhaps his most important teacher was Gampopa, the principal disciple of the cave yogi and poet Milarepa. After studying with dozens of teachers and mastering tantric rituals, at age thirty Dusum Khyenpa had an intuition that he should study with Gampopa, so he traveled to Gampopa's Oak Lha monastery to seek out the great master.

Originally a physician and a layman, Gampopa became a monk after his medical powers were unable to save the life of his wife and infant child. Gampopa took vows in the Kadampa school, the predecessor of the Gelug order of the Dalai Lamas (not to be confused with the New Kadampa Tradition of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso founded in England in 1977). There, Gampopa learned the graduated path to enlightenment, or Lam Rim, of the Kadampas. Later, Gampopa recorded the Kadampa approach in his book, The Jewel Ornament of Liberation, which became one of the most popular step-by-step guidebooks to the Buddhist path in Tibet.

At their first meeting, the new arrival presented his destined lama with a khata ceremonial scarf. In response, Gampopa jumped right into teachings on the graduated path to enlightenment. Thus began Dusum Khyenpa's training under Gampopa. Later, the lama gave his student tantric teachings and meditation instruction. For years, Dusum Khyenpa meditated under the guidance of Gampopa, and it soon became clear that, out of the master's hundreds of disciples, Dusum Khyenpa was the most accomplished.

Finally, after years of steady progress, Gampopa instructed his student to enter a period of intense meditation to push him along the last bit of the Buddhist path and into realization. For nine months he went into a shamatha, or mental-calming meditation, retreat. During his retreat, according to legend, "he never unfolded his hands long enough for the perspiration on them to dry."

Gampopa then recognized him as his most gifted student -- out of hundreds of disciples -- and started Dusum Khyenpa on his final stage to enlightenment, vipashyana, or insight meditation. After three years of insight meditation, Gampopa told him, "you have severed your bond with phenomenal existence. Now you will not return to samsara." [2] With his blessing, Gampopa sent his student to practice at Kampo Gangra in Kham and told him he would reach full enlightenment there.

But before he could carry out his lama's instructions, Dusum Khyenpa got involved in other projects, and was not able to return to Oak Lha monastery until he got news of his teacher's death years later. There, he met one of Gampopa's other main students, Pomdrakpa Sonam Dorje, from whom the eight "minor" lineages of the Kagyu school would derive. He begged Dusum Khyenpa not to go to Kham to meditate even though Gampopa had told him to do so, because it would shorten Dusum Khyenpa's life. The first Karmapa thanked Pomdrakpa for his advice, but replied that regardless of what he did, he would still live to age eighty-four, as a prophecy had foretold.

Accordingly, at age fifty, he made the trip to Kampo Gangra to practice Mahamudra -- the highest meditation of the Kagyu lineage -- and there he gained enlightenment. His liberation was celebrated by the dakinis, Buddhist angels, who made him a gift of a crown made from their hair. This Black Crown is said to always be present above the heads of all the Karmapas, though only visible to those with exceptional insight.

Dusum Khyenpa stayed at Kampo Gangra for eighteen years, and his reputation for spiritual realization spread around Tibet, earning him the title Knower of the Three Times for his ability to transcend time and grasp the reality behind events' in the past, present, and future. The Kashmiri pandit Sakyasri, traveling in Tibet, declared that Dusum Khyenpa was the Man of Buddha Activity or Karmapa prophesied in the Samadhi Raja Sutra, said to have been pronounced by Shakyamuni Buddha sixteen hundred years earlier.

The first Karmapa began setting up the infrastructure for future Karmapas. He founded three monasteries that would become important Karma Kagyu centers, including the seat of the Karmapas at Tsurphu near Lhasa. The abbot of the monastery at Bodh Gaya in India, the site of Shakyamuni Buddha's enlightenment, sent a conch shell to Tsurphu as recognition of the Karmapa's spiritual attainment.

In addition, Dusum Khyenpa established the pattern for the future activity of the Karmapas. He obtained the patronage of powerful regional kings and rulers. He made peace between warring regions. He healed the sick and helped the blind to see. He commissioned copies of Buddhist scriptures to be published and distributed. He cultivated a group of senior students to pass on the oral teachings he had received from his own teachers -- particularly the lineage of the Mahamudrae highest teaching of the Karma Kagyu school -- and to find the next Karmapa. Finally, Dusum Khyenpa even predicted his own death and rebirth.

On the morning of the third day of the new year, Dusum Khyenpa gave his students his last sermon. Then, sitting up, he gazed into the sky and entered into meditation. He died at noon. At his funeral, good omens appeared in the local area and relics charged with spiritual power emerged from his funeral pyre: his charred heart, representing his compassion; his tongue, standing for his teaching; and pieces of bone inscribed with letters of sacred syllables.

Like many high lamas, future Karmapas would also leave relics after their deaths. In the twentieth century, the sixteenth Karmapa's funeral pyre would yield up a charred-heart relic during his obsequies at Rumtek in 1981. The ownership of this relic would create tension between Tai Situ and the administration of the sixteenth Karmapa, as we will see in chapter 8.

Almost ten years after Dusum Khyenpa's death, his main student Pomdrakpa went on to recognize a boy prodigy born in 1204 at Chilay Tsakto in eastern Tibet as the second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi. Thus Pomdrakpa retroactively established Dusum Khyenpa as the first incarnation of the Karmapa line by making Karma Pakshi the first reincarnate master in Tibet. After this, tulkus followed in all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism.

The Karmapa and the Emperor

Dusum Khyenpa was followed by the second Karmapa Karma Pakshi (1204-83) and then by seven hundred years of Karmapas who lived in Tibet. Each of these Karmapas is revered by Karma Kagyu devotees, but a few of them particularly stand out in history. One of these is the fifth Karmapa Deshin Shegpa (1384-1415), who became at age twenty-three the guru of a Chinese emperor.

To ensure peace on the frontiers of the Chinese empire, since the Later Han dynasty (25-220 A.D.) successive emperors encouraged or compelled chieftains of neighboring states -- from Korea to Burma to Mongolia and Tibet -- to undertake "tribute" missions to the imperial court. The historical significance of these missions has been a matter of dispute between Chinese and Tibetan historians ever since the 1950s.

To the Chinese, when a representative of a neighboring nation made a tribute mission to the imperial capital, it signaled that the envoy was placing his people in submission to the will of the Son of Heaven. Modem Chinese historians say that' visits by lamas -- powerful secular rulers of Central Tibet or other Tibetan states, in addition to their religious roles -- effectively placed Tibet under the control of the emperors, and thus of their heirs, the Communist rulers of China. Tibetans reject this view. They say that visits by various lamas to the imperial court had no political significance. Instead, they were pilgrimages by a priest to his patron. In the Tibetan view, it was the lama, rather than the emperor, who was the superior. [3]

In any event, both Chinese and Tibetans agree that successive emperors hoped to gain political influence in Tibet and to take religious teachings from the most powerful lamas. After the fall of the Sakya rulers in Central Tibet in 1358 and of the Yuan dynasty in China ten years later, the Ming emperors (1368-1644) sought to establish relations with leading Tibetan lamas who might fill the power vacuum left by the Sakya Lamas. In particular, the emperors hoped the Tibetans would intercede with their patrons, the troublesome Mongols, to reduce their raids on Chinese imperial outposts in the northwest borderlands.

Hearing of the fifth Karmapa's great spiritual power and corresponding political influence in Central Tibet and in the kingdoms of the border areas in the east, in 1405 the third Ming ruler, Chengzu (1403-24, also known as Yongle) invited the fifth Karmapa to visit the imperial court. The twenty-one-year-old Karmapa accepted this invitation, and arrived at the Ming capital Nanjing after a two-year journey. At the gates of the city the emperor himself welcomed the Karmapa, and placed him on an elephant as a sign of respect. The Karmapa gave two weeks of teachings to Chengzu's court, and performed miracles that the emperor ordered to be recorded on large silk scrolls. When he returned to Tibet the Karmapa brought one of these scrolls back to Tsurphu, where it reportedly still remains, an invaluable resource for historians.

According to historical accounts, the emperor and his court developed great devotion for the Karmapa. Chengzu offered to make the Karmapa head of all Buddhists in Tibet -- the same offer that Kublai Khan had made to the Sakya Pandita's nephew Phagpa 150 years earlier. The emperor was ready to send his armies all over Tibet to compel monasteries of other sects to join the Karmapa's school. He explained that cavalry was already mobilized in the west, ready to move at his command.

How sincere was the emperor? Perhaps he had already planned to invade Tibet merely to extend imperial influence there and had just offered this explanation to the Karmapa as a pretext. In any event, Deshin Shegpa was not tempted by Chengzu's offer. Just as the Sakya ruler Phagpa had refused to let Kublai Khan subdue the other sects of Buddhism in favor of the Sakyas in the thirteenth century, so the Karmapa politely declined the emperor's offer to make the Karma Kagyu supreme by force of Chinese arms.

In his refusal, given hundreds of years before the concept of religious freedom would appear, the Karmapa gave his imperial patron a lesson in the value of spiritual diversity. The Karmapa explained that he had no ambition to rule all sects because this would block the spread of Buddhism: "One sect cannot bring order to the lives of all types of people. It is not beneficial to think of converting all sects into one. Each individual sect is especially constituted so as to accomplish a particular aspect of good activity." [4] The emperor was disappointed, but he understood that the Karmapa would not accept his gift or fall into his trap, whichever this offer was. Later, despite pressure from a council of ministers eager for war, Chengzu gave the order to withdraw the troops massed at the Tibetan frontier.

The Black Crown of Enlightened Action

The legend behind the Black Crown, known as the Vajra Mukut, shows its importance for the Karmapas. The fifth Karmapa Deshin Shegpa remained in China and, according to legend, emperor Chengzu attended the religious rituals he conducted with great enthusiasm. At one ceremony held at the imperial court, Chengzu observed the ethereal Black Crown over Karmapa's head. He realized that he was only able to see the crown through the power of his devotion and his fortunate karma, but that to others less blessed the crown was invisible.

Shamar had heard this story many times as a child at Rumtek, and he explained that "this Ming emperor was not any kind of bodhisattva. He was not even one of the best rulers of China. But he had the potential for awareness, which was realized only when he met the Karmapa. He said to Karmapa, 'Whenever you perform a ceremony of blessing, you always appear to me in an unusual way. Your body seems to be in the form ofVajradhara and you are wearing a kind of black turban or crown on your head. [5]

Vajradhara is a meditational deity who is the source of the Mahamudra. As we have seen, from the time of the first Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa all his successors were said to have an ethereal Black Crown hovering over their heads, visible only to those of high spiritual attainment. The first four Karmapas manifested this Black Crown only to those who had the spiritual potential to see it.

The Karmapa responded that when a great bodhisattva is teaching in human, or nirmanakaya form, his body can also be simultaneously manifested in sambhogakaya, or ethereal form. Deshin Shegpa explained that the first Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa was such an emanation of that ethereal Buddha for our physical world. Many eons in the past, in a previous life as a cave-meditator he himself attained the eighth bodhisattva level, or bhumi (out of ten levels total). Traditionally, miracles and auspicious signs follow such a feat. On that occasion, a hundred thousand dakinis cut their black hair and offered it to the cave yogi as a prize. The dakinis wove their black hair into a crown that they placed on the future Karmapa's head, in a kind of enthronement ceremony that made him the king of their realm.

Pleased by this story, Chengzu offered the Karmapa another gift. To allow others to witness the ethereal Black Crown, the emperor offered to make a replica in physical form. Again, it is likely that the emperor's motives were a mixture of the spiritual and the political, and that if the Karmapa accepted a costly gift from the emperor it would be a sign of fealty from vassal to lord, and from Tibet to China.

The emperor asked, "If I make a similar crown and offer it to you, can you give the blessing of the Buddhas of the ethereal realms to all beings in our physical world?"

Deshin Shegpa responded, "Yes,the bodhisattva's blessing depends on his having attained the wish paramita -- that whatever he wishes for the benefit of sentient beings will come true -- so this can be."

Pleased that he had found a gift the Karmapa would accept, the same day the emperor commissioned skilled craftsmen to make a crown woven of black brocade and lavished with gold. The crown was studded with sapphires surmounted by a unique ruby the size of a human finger tip. The eight-inch-high Vajra Mukut would become one of the most famous material objects in Tibetan Buddhism. When it was completed, the emperor presented the crown to Deshin Shegpa. Using this imperial .gift, Deshin Shegpa developed the Black Crown ceremony that ever since his time has become an integral part of the spiritual activity of the Karmapas.

In this ceremony, the Karmapa is seated on a throne in full lotus position. He begins to meditate and quickly enters a state of deep concentration or samadhi. An attendant hands him the Black Crown, and the Karmapa places it on his own head. Legend says that if the Karmapa does not hold the crown down with his hands, it will flyaway, so great is its spiritual power. Once wearing the crown, the Karmapa then manifests as an emanation of the Buddha in ethereal, sambhogakaya form, while still remaining in his current physical body.

From the fifteenth century through the seventeenth century, the Karmapas used emperor Chengzu's crown for the Black Crown ceremony. Then, in the seventeenth century, after the fifth Dalai Lama took over the government of Central Tibet from the Tsangpa king, the Karmapa took refuge with the king of Li Jiang, a vassal state of China bordering on Burma, as we have seen.

Since the Karmapa had left the original crown behind when he fled Tsurphu, the Li Jiang king offered a duplicate Vajra Mukut. From then until 1959, the Karmapas traveled with this less valuable crown, leaving the original at Tsurphu for safekeeping. When the sixteenth Karmapa fled Tsurphu in 1959 -- unlike in the seventeenth century -- he made sure to bring along the original crown, the one presented in the fifteenth century by Chengzu to the fifth Karmapa Deshin Shegpa. He had to leave the duplicate crown presented by the king of Li Jiang back at Tsurphu.

When Rumtek was completed in 1966, the Karmapa deposited Chengzu's crown, along with the other valuables he had brought from Tibet, into the reliquary there. Later, after Tai Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches took over management of Rumtek in 1993, some would claim that there was confusion over whether the crown at Rumtek was the original or the later duplicate. "No one is certain today which Black Crown was brought out" of Tibet, since most of the Karmapa's valuables had to be left at Tsurphu, Lea Terhune wrote in her 2004 book Karmapa: The Politics of Reincamation. [6] In his book The Dance of 17 Lives published later the same year, Mick Brown repeated much the same claim: "It is not known which crown the 16th Karmapa brought with him when he fled from Tibet into Sikkim in 1959." [7]

Despite doubts by Brown and Terhune, the Tsurphu officials who helped the Karmapa crate up his valuables for transport in 1959 say that they made sure to bring the older crown, given by the emperor Chengzu to Deshin Shegpa in the fifteenth century, leaving the newer one from the seventeenth century behind.

Lekshe Drayan was the younger brother of Rumtek's first general secretary, Damchoe Yongdu. Since their family had provided secretaries to the Karmapa's labrang for generations in Tibet, Lekshe and another brother followed Damchoe in entering the family business, and both served as assistant secretaries at Tsurphu. Lekshe related his experience with the Black Crown in an affidavit he planned to submit to the District Court in Sikkim in 2005. He provided me with an advance copy, written when he was seventy-eight years old.

    When the sixteenth Karmapa escaped from Tibet in 1959, along with my two brothers and other staff of the Karmapa, I helped pack his valuables at Tsurphu. This included the Vajra Crown as well as the most important movable statues, silks, paintings, and other ritual items of value that the sixteenth Karmapa wanted to take into exile. The newer crown was dark blue, while the older crown was much darker, a true black tone. The ruby on the older crown was much larger. Because he could not bring both crowns, and because the older crown was more precious, the sixteenth Karmapa decided to bring the older crown along in exile and leave the newer crown behind at Tsurphu.

The authenticity of the Black Crown at Rumtek has become another point of contention between followers of Ogyen Trinley, particularly Tai Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches, and Shamar. "I wonder where these writers Lea Terhune and Mick Brown could have heard that there is confusion about the crown," Shamar told me. "The Rumtek administration had no confusion; we knew for certain that the late Karmapa had brought the more valuable crown from Tibet. These writers' claims are suspicious. Maybe someone is spreading false rumors about the crown to confuse people. Did something happen to the Black Crown after Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches took over Rumtek in 1993?"

To determine the crown's status, Shamar has called on the Indian court system to conduct an inspection at Rumtek, over the objections of Situ, Gyaltsab, and their supporters. A later chapter deals with the dispute over the crown and the court battles to have it inspected.

Though the Vajra Mukut has been revered by Tibetans for six centuries, it was not known to the world until the sixteenth Karmapa began performing the Black Crown ceremony around Asia and in the West during the 1970s. We have seen how he packed the crown and left Tibet for exile in India, hoping to save the Karma Kagyu lineage from extinction at the hands of the Chinese Communists. We have also seen how Karma Kagyu supporters clashed with the government of Central Tibet for four hundred years before the Chinese invasion. Now, let us explore how sectarian politics followed the Karmapa into exile, posing a threat to the Karma Kagyu greater than any it had faced in the past, and even greater than the threat from Chinese Communism.