The Lifestory of Düsum Khyenpa

Ringu Tulku Rinpoche
Teachings on the Dohas of Düsum Khyenpa
DK1_1 The Lifestory of Düsum Khyenpa

Recorded at Kagyu Samye Dzong Edinburgh, April 12, 2011
Published for the Bodhicharya Online Shedra in December 2011
Transcribed by Albert Harris

This year, we are celebrating the nine-hundredth anniversary of the birth of the first Karmapa, Düsum Khyenpa, and the nine-hundredth year of the existence of Karmapas as Karmapas because the first Karmapa, Düsum Khyenpa was born in 1110 in Tibet, in Kham, in a very kind of remote place – in fact, not very far from the place where I was born – and since then, 2010 was the nine hundredth year.  The Karmapa’s birth date is not recorded, it’s not known.  So, it was decided to start this celebration from the day of his passing away; and that happened in December, 2010.  And so in one year the Karmapa’s nine-hundredth anniversary will be celebrated.

The first Karmapa was called Düsum Khyenpa but he was not called Düsum Khyenpa from the beginning.  Later on, because of his clairvoyance, he happened to be called Düsum Khyenpa: Düsum Khyenpa means seer of the three times.  This quality he had right from the beginning, even when he was very young and he was just looking after yaks.  His friends, when they had kind of lost a yak, then they would go to him and say, “Where’s my yak?”  And he would kind of sit down and he would close his eyes and say, “You go in that village,” and they would go and find them.

Then around the age of twenty he became a monk.  He got renounced from the samsara.  Some say, because he was very much disappointed by a love affair.  He didn’t look that good  [laughter].  Some say that he looked a little bit like a monkey and he later told that it is because a long, long time back he used to insult a monk and call him “monkey” and because of that he had to take rebirth as a monkey for five hundred times.  Then, when he became a human being, he looked a little bit like a monkey. But he said, “This is the last time I’m looking like a monkey!  [Laughter] I’ve totally purified that karma.  So since now, I’m looking very good”, and since then all Karmapas looked very handsome.  [Laughter]
So, he went to central Tibet and he studied very much under many Kadampa masters,   the Madhyamika philosophy; all kinds of Abhidharma teachings; Buddhist logic. Some of those teachers [were the] main kind of lineage holders of these teachings he studied with.  He became a very learned and renowned scholar.  And then he met the Gampopa.  So you know all about Gampopa, the main lineage holder of Milarepa.  As you know, Milarepa was one of the main students of Marpa.  Marpa was the translator who brought teachings from India.  He studied at Nalanda University and studied under great masters like Naropa and Maitripa and many others, even Saraha – not Saraha, Saraha in his dreams – Shantipa and many others.   He translated lots of tantras into Tibetan.

So he had two – you can say – different lineages.  One was his academic or study lineage.  So he had some students like Ngok, to whom he passed on the studies of tantras, Guhyasamaja tantra and many other tantras and those tantric study lineages went another way, not through Milarepa.  Actually, it went very much to the Gelugpas.  Tsongkhapa, the founder of Gelugpa, is very much like the lineage holder of Marpa.  It is not very much well-known and I don’t think it’s very much talked about, but it is a fact that sometimes Marpa is studied more by Gelugpas than by the Kagyupas.

I recently met a monk, a Gelugpa geshe and he was saying that whenever he hears the name of Marpa he’s so inspired the tears come to his eyes.  It was true, we were talking about Marpa and he was shedding tears and “What’s wrong with you?”, you know.  [Laughter]  So that’s because he was very much studied in the Gelugpa tradition and Tsongkhapa loves him and talks so highly of him.  The pith instruction teachings of Marpa were given to Milarepa:  like Mahamudra, Six Yogas and Chakrasamvara and Vajrayogini.   These kind of pith instructions were given to him and then he became totally realised.  He actualised those teachings and became, as you know, one of the most renowned yogis of Tibet – the singing yogi sometimes people call him.

So this lineage was passed on to Gampopa and Gampopa also studied lots of Kadampa teachings.  So he combined these two:  the Mahayana and the Bodhisattvayana teachings, graded path teachings that he received from Kadampa masters, which comes from Atisha Dipankara and the pith instruction teachings of Mahamudra and Six Yogas which came from Milarepa.   These combined together he taught to his students. That made the main kind of course of his teachings, and that became quite later on called Kagyupa.  So sometimes Kagyu is called Dakpo Kagyu from Dakpo Lhaje, the name of Gampopa is sometimes called Dakpo Lhaje, the doctor of Dagpo. Dakpo is the name of the place.  Gampopa is also the name of the place, Gampo is the name of the mountains; so from the name of the place where he was meditating or where his monastery later came, he was known as Gampopa.

So Karmapa went to see him along with another two Khampas – monks – from around that region where he was, so they were known later on as the ”Three Men from Kham”.  The three men from Kham became the main students of the Gampopa and he was not only studying very hard but he was also practising, sometimes in very harsh conditions.  Once he was put into a cave where he couldn’t at all stand up or stretch his body, he just had only a place to sit and nothing else for several months.  Like this, he practised and he practised very hard.
And then, it is said, he was sometimes also hard tested.  Some of you know the story that once he thought that he had the realisation, he had some experience of the truth, the nature of the mind.  Then he went to tell this to his teacher and he told him, thinking that his teacher would be veryhappy, because he was making an offering of his experience which he thought would be very good.  But it was not like that.  His teacher was not happy at all.  Gampopa said, “You got it totally wrong.  I thought you were one of my best students and I had so much hope for you.  But what you have said, what you have understood is 100 % wrong.  So you just go back and change everything, revise everything, make it totally right and then only come back.”

So he went back and had full confidence in his teacher, really great devotion and reverence.  So he went back and revised everything, he tried to change everything and then came back and told him again.  And he was even more upset.  He said, “You know, this is nothing different from what you told me last time.  You just go back and change everything so that it’s 100 % opposite of it and then only come back.

So he went back and he tried to change and he couldn’t change anything.  He came back after a few months and he fell at his feet and said, “Now you can beat me, you can kill me if you want but there is nothing I can change, this is what I see.

Then Gampopa said, “You are right.  You are right.  [laughter]  You have been always right but I wanted to make sure that you were that confident.  That even your own teacher, in whom you have complete devotion, tells you that it’s wrong, still you cannot change it.  I want that kind of conviction and confidence.  Now we have got it.  Now you know how to practise.  Now you go away!  Go back to Kham!  Go to this mountainous place.”   Gampo Kangra.  You know Tibet has lots of snowy mountains, glaciers, at least used to have, now it’s all melting, but… ”So you go there!”  It’s a little bit to the border to almost Burma. ”You go there and then meditate and don’t come out till you get realisation.” 

So he went there and he meditated and practised for I don’t know how many years and there he got the realisation; and he got full realisation.  And it is said that when he got that kind of realisation then as a kind of acknowledgement or appreciation of his great achievement, a hundred thousand dakinis came and made a cap with their hair and put it on his head.  And that’s why the black hat, we call the Karmapa the Black Hat Lama, that’s coming from there. It is said that since that time all the Karmapas have a black hat made of… I don’t know whether all those one hundred thousand dakinis were all Asians [laughter] but you know the black hat.

And then, later on – it’s only later on during the Fifth Karmapa’s time – the Fifth Karmapa was invited by the Emperor of China, that time I think it was the Ming Dynasty, because the Emperor’s mother passed away who was devoted to the Tibetan lamas, and then, the Karmapa went there and he performed lots of miracles and things like that; and then the Emperor was kind of surprised because he saw that the Karmapa was wearing two hats, one upon another.  One day he came and said, “Why are you wearing two hats, one upon another?”  And the Karmapa said, “No, it’s not like that.  One hat is there all the time, and another one I’m just wearing for the other people, but they don’t see it so you must be seeing it, the original hat.”    Then he [the Emperor] said, “Can I make a kind of a hat which looks like what I see and make an offering to you so that you can show what kind of hat you have on all the time?”  So he said, “OK, if you want.”  So that’s why he made the hat, a little bit like this [pointing] but different, and that was offered to the Karmapa and that’s
what we call the “Karmapa’s Black Hat” that he'd use in the ceremonies – the black hat ceremony when the Karmapa does the black hat ceremony, he puts on that hat which was made by the Chinese Emperor because he saw the original kind of hat of the Karmapa.

So therefore, then Karmapa also, at a later age, I think, at a very later age when he was in his seventies, more than sixties, he went back to central Tibet and started to build the Tsurphu monastery.  Therefore he had three: he built three small monasteries, two in Kham and one in Tsurphu and that is how the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism started. Generally, from Gampopa’s students started what we call the four sub-schools of Kagyupa.

Then one of the three men from Kham, the Phagmo Drupa, from his students started the eight later sub-schools of kagyu.  Sometimes in the prayers it’s written, it’s translated as four great and eight lesser; that’s the wrong translation.  Chempo and Chungchung in Tibetan can mean greater and lesser or it can mean elder and younger.  So the schools that came from the direct students of Gampopa became the four senior or the elder sub-schools: and then the schools that came from the students of Gampopa’s student – Phagmo Drupa’s students – were called the eight later subschools of Kagyu.

So Karmapa became very important also because he was the first – I think most of you know – to start the tulku system in Tibet, recognising the reincarnate or the rebirth of the lamas.  As you know, Buddhism believes that everybody is a rebirth of somebody, everybody is reborn again and again and again, that’s the general understanding of Buddhism.  But in Tibet the Karmapa started a new system where the rebirth of a great lama was recognised and said that this is the rebirth of that lama.

So, first time the Karmapa wrote a letter before he died and gave it to his main student, I think Drogön Rechen, and said, “I will come back and this is where I will be born so that’s where I will be found, the second Karmapa.”  And in this way, this is something a little bit different for the Karmapas than the other tulkus. The Karmapas mostly recognised their own tulkus. The last Karmapa usually leaves a letter and then, through that letter, the next Karmapa is found.  Until this time, the Seventeenth Karmapa also was found with a letter left by the Sixteenth Karmapa with Situ Rinpoche.  He didn’t tell him that this was the letter; he just gave him a kind of protection amulet. 

Then everybody was searching for this letter all over the place and was asking everybody, “Do you have any letters?  Do you have a letters?  Anything the Karmapa gave you?”  So for many years they didn’t find anything.  Then one day, Situpa thought, “This was given to me by the Karmapa, maybe this is something.”  He always thought it was just a protection.  And then he opened it and he found an envelope there, I've seen the envelope, and on the top of the envelope it was written in red pen that “You must open this on horse year.”  It was written like that.  And then he opened and then he read the letter, a very clear letter, you have seen this letter.  So that was kind of the system which happened from that time onwards, and the Karmapas were kind of special, but he was the first tulku and since then many – His Holiness the Dalai Lama and many other lamas - and Tibet became full of tulkus [laughter].  Every monastery, almost, had a tulku; some had more than one tulku, so that’s like that.

There’s one special kind of thing which happened with Karmapas.  Although Karmapa was a very highly revered lama, head of a school for a long lineage, for nine hundred years of existence and sixteen or now seventeen Karmapas, and had lots of devotees not only among the Karma Kagyu people but all over Tibet.  But he never had any kind of political title; he never took any kind of temporary power or political assignment or role or anything.  He always remained a spiritual teacher.  And most parts of the Karmapa’s lineage even were not staying in the monasteries, I think it started around the Fourth Karmapa until very late until about tenth or even later.  It was a camp,a tent camp, and the camp was always moving throughout Tibet.  So therefore, the Karmapa’s main headquarters, you can say if you like, was called the Karma gar, gar meaning the camp, the Karmapa’s gar. Even now, when Karmapa writes a letter or something, it's from Karma gar. It’s a camp.  And I think because of that, maybe, because he traveled all over Tibet and [did not stay in] one place, all over Tibet there is lots of devotion and reverence to the Karmapa. There’s an open letter of the Karmapa where he says that I, Karmapa have no particular school, every Buddhism is my school.  So, if there is any conflict, if you make any conflict between the schools, you are not my follower.  So he wrote a letter like that.

©Ringu Tulku Rinpoche
This is a transcript of a recorded teaching by Ringu Tulku Rinpoche. The transcript has only been lightly edited and is meant to be used within the Bodhicharya Online Shedra study context.


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