Biography and autobiography in Tibet are important sources for both education and inspiration. Tibetans have kept such meticulous records of their teachers that thousands of names are known and discussed in a wide range of biographical material. All these names, all these lives—it can be a little overwhelming. The authors involved in the Treasury of Lives are currently mining the primary sources to provide English-language biographies of every known religious teacher from Tibet and the Himalaya, all of which are organized for easy searching and browsing. Every Tuesday on the Tricycle blog, we will highlight and reflect on important, interesting, eccentric, surprising and beautiful stories found within this rich literary tradition.
Kagyu Founders Part 3: First Karmapa and Lama Zhang
The Kagyu tradition that began in Tibet with Marpa (1012-1097) and his disciple Milarepa (1040-1123) split into multiple traditions instituted by the disciples of Milarepa’s chief student Gampopa Sonam Rinchen (1079-1153). While some thrived, others were little more than the teaching lineage of a single monastery’s founder, and have since been absorbed into other traditions. Such was the case with the traditions initiated by Dusum Khyenpa (1110-1193), who was later known as the First Karmapa, and Lama Zhang Yudrakpa (1123-1193), who established the important monastery of Tsel Gungtang outside of Lhasa. Whereas Dusum Khyenpa initiated the Karma Kagyu tradition, which now has branches around the world, the Tselpa Kagyu fell into decline following the collapse of the Yuan Dynasty. Its teaching and practice lineages were absorbed into the Nyingma and other Kagyu traditions.
Dusum Khyenpa was born in Kham and took novice ordination with Kadam monks there at the age of sixteen. If the artistic record is to be believed, he was not a handsome man; almost all depictions of him feature a twisted nose and a serious underbite. According to legend, the year that he took ordination a dakini gave him a hat—maybe deep blue, maybe black—made from the hair of a thousand dakinis. Kagyu historians have offered various explanations as to the nature of this hat, which is said to have been invisible to most people, and of the hats worn by subsequent Karmapa incarnations. The Second, Fifth, and Seventh are all said to have been given the first visible hat, the one used in the famous black hat ceremony for which the Karmapas became known.
Around the age of twenty Dusum Khyenpa went to U-Tsang where he received full ordination. For ten years he studied with Kadam monks, and then, at the age of thirty, he met Gampopa at Daklha Gampo. Gampopa sent him, in the cotton-cloth garb worn by the early followers of Milarepa, to practice tummo, or heat yoga, for nine months, and to various caves for further meditation. He then returned and studied scripture and doctrine with Gampopa. From Gampopa and his disciples he received the complete transmission of the Kagyu tantric traditions— Mahamudra, Chakrasamvara and Hevajra, the Six Yogas of Naropa—in the monastic context that Gampopa had adopted from the Kadam tradition.
Dusum Khyenpa returned to Kham where he established the monastery of Karma Gon, in 1147. This institution, also known as Karma Densa, or “seat of the Karmapa,” remained an occasional residence of the Karmapa incarnations well into the twentieth century. He later returned to U-Tsang, under the command of Gampopa’s nephew and heir, Gomtsul (1116-1169), to establish monasteries there. In 1189, just three years before his death, in the Tolung Valley, he founded Tsurpu Monastery, which ever since has been the seat of the Karmapa incarnations.
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