Karma pas

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KARMA PAS are among the most prominent lines of reincarnated Tibetan Buddhist masters, or tulkus. They are also often referred to as the Shanak pas, or "Black Hat" masters, after the black crown passed down from each incarnation to the next that has come to symbolize the lineage. The first Karma pa, Dus gsum mkhyen pa (Dusum Khyenpa, 11101193), was an important leader in twelfth-century Central and Eastern Tibet. As of 2004 the seventeenth Karma pa resided in the Tibetan diaspora community in Dharamsala, India. Throughout the centuries, the successive Karma pas have played a large role in the religious, cultural, and political life of Tibet.

The Karma Kamtshang school, of which the Karma pas are the leaders, is but part of a larger school of Tibetan Buddhism known as the Bka' Brgyud (Kagyu) school or "Oral Tradition" school. The Bka' Brgyud school is one of the principle traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, with a history that extends from the twelfth century to the present day. The names and dates of the successive Karma pas, as well as their allied lineage, the Shamar pas, are listed at the end of this entry.

Although the first two Karma pas were posthumously recognized as "Karma pas" only in the late thirteenth century at the time of the third Karma pa, Rang byung rdo rje (Rangjung Dorje, 12841339), they are nevertheless important figures in the tradition. The first Karma pa was born in the village of Treshö, situated in the eastern Tibetan region of Kham. At the age of thirty he became a student of Sgam po pa (Gampopa, 10791153), well-known disciple of Mi la ras pa (Milarepa, 1028/401111/23), wellspring of many strands of Bka' Brgyud tradition. Dus gsum mkhyen pa founded two monasteries. Karma Gon (or Karma Densa), founded in 1147 in Kham, gave the Karma pas their name ("those of Karma Gon"), though it did not play a central role in the tradition. Tsurphu, founded in 1189 in the Tolung Valley of Central Tibet, some fifty miles west of Lhasa, was to become the true seat of the lineage, a status that it has enjoyed up to the present day. The second Karma pa, Karma Pakshi (12041283), was a monk at Tsurphu when he traveled to Mongolia in 1154, a journey that marked the entry of the Karma pas into Central and East Asian politics. While he is remembered by tradition principally as a great magician who beguiled the Mongol leaders, he was also the author of a massive philosophical compendium known as the Limitless Ocean Cycle, in which he integrated doctrines from both the Bka' Brgyud and the Rnying ma (Nyingma) traditions of Tibetan Buddhism.

The third Karma pa, Rang byung rdo rje, was born in southwest Tibet in 1284. According to early stories of his life, at the age of five he received a blessing in the form of a white light striking his head from the famous statue of the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteśvara, in Kyirong on the southwest border of Tibet. This miraculous event led his parents to bring him before Master Orgyanpa Rinchenpal (12301309), who identified him as his deceased teacher, Karma pakshi. At the age of seven, Rang byung rdo rje took vows as a novice monk at Dusum Khyenpa's monastery of Tsurphu. At age twenty he took full monastic vows, again at Tsurphu. As an adult, while not studying at Tsurphu or maintaining solitary yogic practice in nearby hermitages, the third Karma pa traveled throughout Central and Eastern Tibet giving religious instruction, founding and renovating religious institutions, and acting as a political mediator in times of regional conflict. In 1331 the third Karma pa received an order from a Mongol leader of the Chinese Yuan dynasty (12061368) to join him at his capitol. Rang byung rdo rje grudgingly acquiesced to this long journey, and in 1332 arrived at the court. Rang byung rdo rje returned a second time to China in 1338, dying at the capitol a year later. His close relationship with the Yuan emperors gained Tsurphu Monastery tax-exempt status under Mongol sovereignty and ensured subsequent Karma pas favorable ties with later Chinese imperial leadership.

Rang byung rdo rje was a prolific writer on all aspects of Buddhist culture, authoring over a hundred works on Buddhist ritual practice, esoteric philosophy, medicine, astrology, and ethics. He is often credited with combining the contemplative precepts of the "great seal," or mahāmudrā, with the Great Perfection system of esoteric practice developed in the Rnying ma school. A verse from the Great Seal Prayer makes this identification clear: "Free from subjective activity, this is the Great Seal. Free from extremes, this is the Great Middle Way. This is also called the all-encompassing Great Perfection. May we attain certainty that the awareness of one is the realization of all." This inclusive approach to soteriological doctrine has earned Rang byung rdo rje a place in the canon of the nonsectarian movement of nineteenth-century Tibetan religious history. Indeed, Jamgön Kongtrul (18131899), the movement's most important proponent, wrote commentaries on all three of Rang 'byung rdo rje's most famous works. These three works are often considered by tradition as a trilogy on Buddhist theories of ontology, consciousness, and soteriology. The first of these is the Treatise on Buddha Nature. In this brief work of only 225 verse lines, the third Karma pa synthesizes ontological notions from exoteric and esoteric Buddhist scriptures, thereby presenting a comprehensive vision of buddha naturethe innate potential for enlightenment in all living beingsas seen in both its latent state and its fully revealed state. The Treatise is in many ways an elaboration on two famous quotes from Buddhist canonical literature, with which he begins his workalbeit without citing his sources.

The first is from the Mahāyāna Abhidharma Sūtra, a work oft quoted yet unknown in its entirety in Tibet. The popularity of this verse is no doubt due to its bold assertion that buddha nature existsand is in fact the very reason enlightenment is possible at all: "The beginningless essence is the support of all phenomena. Because it exists, so do all beings, as well as the attainment of liberation from suffering." The second quote is from the Hevajra Tantra : "Sentient beings are simply buddhas, save for being obscured by adventitious impurity. If just this [impurity] is removed, there is buddhahood." The rest of the work describes the nature of these impurities, which hide from human beings their true nature, as well as the nature of the fully awakened buddha that results from spiritual practice. Rang byung rdo rje leaves his presentation of the practices for removing these impurities to the third work in his trilogy. The second, Differentiating Consciousness and Wisdom, draws heavily on Yogācāra sources to detail the difference between ordinary human perception and the enlightened perception of buddhas, as well as the mechanism by which the former transforms into the latter through contemplative practice.

Finally, the third work of the trilogy, the Profound Inner Meaning, outlines the means by which one attains buddhahood according to esoteric Buddhist tradition, particularly the literary cycles of the Hevajra Tantra and the Kālacakra Tantra. This is perhaps Rang byung rdo rje's most important work, and it has formed the basis of esoteric praxis to the present day. Taking the notion of buddha nature as his starting point, he systematically presents the ontological foundations of human existence, the psycho-physical development of the human body and its physiology as seen from an esoteric Buddhist perspective, the nature of human ignorance and suffering, and finally the nature of enlightenment, as well as the esoteric practices leading to it.

Though neither the fourth or the fifth Karma pas were as prolific as Rang byung rdo rje or as influential in doctrinal matters, both had relations with the imperial court of Ming China (13681644), thus contributing substantially to both the prestige and the wealth of the lineage. Later Karma pas would each be remembered for particular aspects of their careers. The seventh authored the authoritative work on logic and epistemology (pramāa ) in the Karma pa scholastic tradition, and the ninth systematized the contemplative teachings of the great seal traditions in several influential works. The sixteenth Karma pa fled Tibet in 1959 under fear of Chinese rule, and in 1962 he founded Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim, an institution that was to become of seat of the Karma Bka' Brgyud in exile. He was also responsible for introducing the Karma Bka' Brgyud Buddhist tradition to an increasingly interested North American and European populace of Buddhist converts, first visiting the United States in 1974. He died in Chicago in 1981. Political battles surrounded the recognition of the seventeenth Karma pa, with opposing camps continuing to support their Karma pa as the authentic member of the lineage. O rgyan 'phrin las rdo rje (Orgyan Trinlay Dorje, b. 1985) has received the seal of authority by the fourteenth Dalai Lama, and after spending his youth at Tsurphu Monastery in Tibet, moved to the Dalai Lama's center in Dharamsala, India.

It is impossible to speak of the Karma pas without mentioning their Bka' Brgyud brethren, the Shamar pa incarnation lineage, which currently numbers twelve. Rang byung rdo rje himself recognized the first Shamar pa, despite the fact that Grags pa sengge (Drakpa Senge, 12831349) was his senior by one year. In subsequent centuries the Karma pa and Shamar pa incarnations would share religious authority in Central Tibet, the senior of the two assuming control of the Karma Kamtshang School. The fourth Shamar pa was intimately involved in the sectarian and political rivalries of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, most notably between the Karma Kamtshang and the Dge lugs (Geluk) schools. While the Karma pa lineage has continued uninterrupted to the present day, the Shamar pa lineage was disbanded by the central Tibetan government in 1792 due to the ninth Shamar pa's complicity in the Nepalese invasion of Tibet, to be reinstated a century later.

According to the Blue Annals of the famed Tibetan historian 'Gos Lo tsa ba Gzon nu dpal (Go Lotsawa, 13921481), the Karma pas and the Shamar pas were, respectively, the first and second incarnation lineages in Tibet. The situation proves to be more complicated than this, however, and 'Gos Lo tsa ba likely links the origins of reincarnated religious masters in Tibet to the Karma pas and Shamar pas because of his close relations with the Karma Bka' Brgyud pa leaders of fifteenth-century Tibet. Nevertheless, his assertion does emphasize the foundational role of these two lineages in making the phenomenon of incarnation an integral part of Tibetan religion and politics. For it is likely upon these two that the most powerful incarnation lineage to develop in Tibet was modeled, the succession of the Dalai Lamas, who would decisively wrest political and cultural hegemony from the Karma pas and Shamar pas in the seventeenth century, forever changing the face of rule by rebirth in Tibet.

The Karma pa Lineage

  1. Dus gsum mkhyen pa (Dusum Khyenpa): 11101193
  2. Karma pakshi (Karma Pakshi): 12041283
  3. Rang byung rdo rje (Rangjung Dorje): 12841339
  4. Rol pa'i rdo rje (Rolpay Dorje): 13401383
  5. Mthong ba don ldan (Tongwa Dondan): 14161453
  6. Chos grags rgya mtsho (Chodrak Gyatso): 1450/14541506
  7. Mi bskyod rdo rje (Mikyo Dorje): 15071554
  8. Dbang phyug rdo rje (Wangchuk Dorje): 15561603
  9. Chos dbyings rdo rje (Choying Dorje): 16041674
  10. Ye shes rdo rje (Yeshe Dorje): 16751702
  11. Byang chub rdo rje (Jangchup Dorje): 17031732
  12. Bdud 'dul rdo rje (Dudul Dorje): 1733/17341797/1798
  13. Theg mchog rdo rje (Tekchok Dorje): 17991869
  14. Mkha' khyab rdo rje (Khakyap Dorje): 1870/18711921/1922
  15. Rang byung rig pa'i rdo rje (Rangjung Rikpay Dorje): 19241981
  16. (1). O rgyan 'phrin las rdo rje (Orgyan Trinlay Dorje): 1985
  17. (2). 'Phrin las mtha' yas rdo rje (Trinlay Taye Dorje): 1983

The Shamar pa Lineage

  1. Grags pa sengge (Drakpa Senge): 12831349
  2. Mkha' spyod dbang po (Kacho Wangpo): 13501405
  3. Chos dpal ye shes (Chopal Yeshe): 14061452. Chos grags ye shes (Chodrak Yeshe): 14531524
  4. Dkon mchog yan lag (Konchok Yenlak): 152515836. Chos kyi dbang phyug (Chokyi Wangchuk): 15841630. Yeshe Nyingpo ye shes snying po: 16311694
  5. Dpal chen chos kyi don grub (Palchen Chokyi Dondrup): 16951732
  6. Dkon mchog dge ba'i 'byung gnas (Konchok Geway Jungnay): 17331740
  7. Chos grub rgya mtsho (Chodrup Gyatso): 1741/17421792
  8. 'Jam dbyangs rin po che (Jamyang Rinpoche): 18921946
  9. Mi pham chos kyi blo gros (Mipam Chokyi Lodro): 1952


Richardson, Hugh. "The Karma-pa Sect: A Historical Note." In High Peaks, Pure Earth: Collected Writings on Tibetan History and Culture, pp. 337378. London, 1998.

Roerich, George, trans. and ed. The Blue Annals. Calcutta, 19491953; reprint, New Delhi, 1976.

Kurtis R. Schaeffer (2005)