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The Nature of the Karmapa 

The Karma denomination of Tibetan Buddhism originates with a disciple of Milarepa. It reaches us today in the form of a chain of word-of-mouth teachings that comes by means of the activity of Karmapa, who is sometimes called the Black Hat Lama.

In 1999, just before H.H the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa left Tsurphu in Tibet to undertake the trek over the Himalayas to India, both H. E. Tai Situ and Khenpo Karthar carefully  explained the role of the Karmapa.   Unless otherwise indicated, in the first section the explanations are Tai Situ's. 

The Qualities of the Gyalwa Karmapa                                       
The qualities of the Gyalwa Karmapa are limitless and immeasurable, but they have been  expressed in 15 particulars:

1. He is not merely a bodhisattva nor even a buddha, but the Gyalwa Karmapa is the embodiment of all the activities of all past, present and future Buddhas of all the directions and times. 

All the qualities of all buddhas are complete in his body, speech, mind, virtue and activity.

2. The Gyalwa Karmapa is the source of all 84,000 heaps of dharmas which also manifest as part and parcel of the enlightenment of Buddha Shakyamuni. 

He is the embodiment of all its qualities.

3. The Gyalwa Karmapa is the supreme master, the supreme lord of all the Sangha, which includes the ordinary Sangha as well as the extraordinary Sangha.

Kh. Karthar:  Displaying as samboghakaya and nirmanakaya, he is head, lord and teacher of bodhisattvas and humans.   That is, he directs the extraordinary Sangha -- the company of "heavenly" bodhisattvas such as Avalokiteshvara, and also the disciples of Shakyamuni. 

Avalokiteshvara (Chenrezi,) whose manifestation is the Gyalwa Karmapa, is called "father of all Bodhisattvas and the father of all Buddhas" because without his compassion directed at the liberation of all sentient beings without exception, neither Buddha, Dharma nor  Sangha would be manifest.  

4. The Gyalwa Karmapa is the Lord Protector of all beings.

Kh. Karthar:  In his omniscience, he knows the nature of all sentient beings and "with great love, he constantly regards each" one, protecting them from all lower states.  

5. The Gyalwa Karmapa is the father and mother of all sentient beings, the parent of all sentient beings.

Khenpo Karthar: He has realized the equal nature of all beings and brings them to that realization. 

Tai Situ:  The parent nurtures the child and brings up the maturity of the child step by step, from a very helpless and innocent newborn to a fully matured, self-standing, capable adult.  That way the Gyalwa Karmapa, the embodiment of compassion, is the father and mother who matures all sentient being from ignorant sentient beings to enlightened sentient beings who are equal to him, equal to Avalokiteshvara, equal to Buddha.  So he will bring each and every one of the sentient beings to his own level of realization, the level of realization which is the Buddha's realization.

6. Karmapa is a guide.  

The Gyalwa Karmapa is the pilot directing the ship across the ocean of Samsara, liberating sentient beings from the sufferings of that ocean.   

Khenpo Karthar:  His every action is "the conduct of utter excellence."  He shows the causes of happiness and protects from suffering by showing virtue.  He indicates the way to the citadel of good conduct.

He guides them to the Ocean of the Dharmadhatu, by teaching them "the  ocean of things to be known/recognized."  And, "He displays the mandalas of all the Noble Ones."  

He is the source of all mandalas of all deities.  As such, he causes artistry [which can be an expression of these] to flourish. 

7. The Gyalwa Karmapa is the shepherd. 

Tai Situ:  Since Gyalwa Karmapa protects all sentient beings from the suffering of Samsara, so he is like the herder.  When the flock needs water, the shepherd will take it to the water; when it needs to be grazed, the shepherd will lead it to the grassland, and when it needs shade, he will take the flock or herd to a shady place.  When it needs sun, he will bring it to the sun; when it is threatened and endangered by predators, the shepherd will protect it.  

8. The Gyalwa Karmapa is the healer, the medicine man, the doctor. 

When all sentient beings are suffering with the sickness of the three poisons: ignorance, attachment and anger, the Gyalwa Karmapa with great, limitless compassion heals them of this suffering, these three poisons. 

9. The Gyalwa Karmapa is the moon. 

The moon is cooling.  When sentient beings are suffering and burning with defilements, the Gyalwa Karmapa is the moon that shines and leads them from the suffering of the heat of the defilements.

10. The Gyalwa Karmapa is like the sun. 

He illuminates, thus dispelling darkness.

Tai Situ:  When sentient beings are suffering from duality, the basic ignorance of all sentient beings --  the ego, the self, the duality ~ when sentient beings are suffering from this ignorance, they are blind, they cannot see ~ they cannot see what is good for them, they cannot see what is bad for them, they cannot see what is good for others and bad for others.  Therefore the Gyalwa Karmapa is the sun that shines and allows every sentient being to see what is right and what is wrong, and finally overcome the deep shadow of this ignorance, this duality, this self.

11. The Gyalwa Karmapa is the friend and companion who will help and assist anybody to do good, anybody who wishes to overcome their pain, their suffering and their shortcomings. 

He is the friend who assists and helps them. To those who wish to do good, and those who wish to progress, the Gyalwa Karmapa is the friend and companion who will assist and help them to achieve those wonderful, noble aspirations.

12. The Gyalwa Karmapa is the embodiment of the ocean of Gurus. 

Tai Situ:  Because the Gyalwa Karmapa is the embodiment of compassion of all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas,  that is what makes the master. The Master by definition is one who transmits the precious lineage of Lord Buddha's teaching, which is derived from limitless compassion. The Gyalwa Karmapa is the embodiment of the ocean of all the masters ~ the master of the lineage, the master of the enlightenment of Buddha Shakyamuni, as well as the master of the enlightenment itself, which includes the master of Buddha Shakyamuni himself.

13. The Gyalwa Karmapa is the crown deity of all the oceans of deities. The Gyalwa Karmapa is the activity of the Buddhas. 

Tai Situ: All of the deities are the activities of the Buddha, as the Sambogakaya of the Buddha.  Therefore the source of all the deities is the enlightenment of the Buddha. Enlightenment of the Buddha is the fulfillment of the Buddha's aspiration to attain Buddha hood for the benefit of all sentient beings. That is limitless compassion, therefore the Gyalwa Karmapa is the crown jewel of the ocean of deities.

14. The Gyalwa Karmapa is the lord of the ocean of protectors. 

All the protectors, the Dakas and Dakinis, all are there to fulfill the activities of the Buddha.  The Gyalwa Karmapa is the embodiment of the activities of all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. All the protectors, all the Dakas, all the Dakinis are there to fulfill the activity of the Buddha, and the Gyalwa Karmapa is the master,  the lord of all the protectors, the ocean of protectors.

These three above particulars (12-14) are known as the three oceans:  The ocean of the Guru, the ocean of the deities, the ocean of the protectors.

15. The Gyalwa Karmapa is the embodiment of the great Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. 

The great Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara has taken the vow to not attain Buddhahood until all sentient beings are liberated from the suffering of Samsara and have attained Buddhahood. Therefore, until the last sentient beings have attained Buddhahood, the Gyalwa Karmapa's activity will continue, and his manifestation, in the form of limitless compassion, will continue.

Tai Situ's Conclusion

This is a very simple way to describe the limitless immeasurable qualities and immeasurable definitions of the Gyalwa Karmapa. 

This is like trying to describe the limitless space by describing the space in our own hand, which is very limited, although it somehow describes, because space in our own hand is consistent of the qualities of the limitless space itself. So this simple way, in fifteen particulars of the Gyalwa Karmapa's limitless qualities are briefly and simply described.

We as individuals are very fortunate. We are tremendously fortunate to be part of the mandala of the Gyalwa Karmapa's activity, because through the activities of the Gyalwa Karmapa, which is the activity of all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, all sentient beings will be liberated from the suffering of Samsara and attain enlightenment. This fortunate situation will be truly meaningful if we can practise and implement what the Gyalwa Karmapa is, which is limitless compassion.

Try your best to sincerely generate limitless compassion for the benefit of all sentient beings.  There is only one way, as far as we are concerned, that we can generate the limitless compassion, and that is to sincerely vow: 

May I attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings to attain Buddhahood. 

There cannot be anything more limitless than that. Only one thing will be more limitless, and that is to vow: May I assist all sentient beings to attain Buddhahood, and may I be the last one to attain Buddhahood when all sentient beings have attained Buddhahood. That is what Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva vowed. So we try to follow in the footsteps of our master and of the aspiration of Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva.

All of these particular points which describe the Gyalwa Karmapa, for example when it says, he is the sun, he is the moon, he is the medicine, it does not mean literally that he is like the sun or the moon or the medicine.

It is the compassion of the Buddha, which manifests in the form of medicine that heals the suffering of the sentient beings. It is the compassion of Buddha  which manifests in the form of the sun that shines. So in that way the Gyalwa Karmapa is the sun, the moon, the medicine, etc. As a human being the Gyalwa Karmapa will manifest until the last sentient being attains Buddhahood.

In these particular incarnations that are manifesting one after the other and are according to prophecy of the Buddha Shakyamuni and of Guru Rinpoche,  according to these prophecies the last incarnation of  the Gyalwa Karmapa will predict and point out and direct us,  the disciples to the next incarnation. And this will continue, according to Guru Rinpoche's prophecy, until the last sentient being attains Buddhahood.

Particularly, twenty-one incarnations are prophesized one after another. Even the names and the descriptions were given by Guru Rinpoche. 

The present seventeenth Gyalwa Karmapa, according to the prophecy of Guru Rinpoche and according to the sacred letter and sacred prophecy, the relics of the Karma Kagyu lineage and also according to Buddhism at large,  His Holiness is right now* living at Tsurphu [also writtenTsuripu] Monastery, and his sacred name is Urgyen Trinley Dorje.  His name is long and the middle part of the name prophesized by Guru Rinpoche  is Urgyen Trinley Dorje

We are all very fortunate that we have this great connection and  are part of His Holiness the Gyalwa Karmapa.

This will continue until twenty-one Karmapas, which is in the prophecy of Guru Rinpoche by the name and by the description.  [But] We should never have the misunderstanding that Gyalwa Karmapa's incarnations will stop at twenty-one, the Gyalwa Karmapa's incarnations will continue until the last sentient being becomes enlightened. They will continue forever, in that sense.

Even the qualities of the dust, in which Karmapa's foot stepped, the blessing and quality of that dust, I will not be able to comprehend. But because of the lineage, some of his qualities can be presented and taught in these fifteen points.

The group recitation of the Gyalwa Karmapa guru yoga is very important and meaningful in the Buddhist lineage, because when you are in a group and you sincerely recite or do something good and positive, then everybody's merit and wisdom is common.

 In the Tibetan language, there is a particular vocabulary that describes this, which means that when all of us together, as one like-minded group are doing something positive together, then we are sharing the merit, the benefit and the wisdom together. So in that way, for one person to chant a lot of numbers of prayers will take a long time, but in a group, if we sincerely and happily pray together, then everybody shares everybody's merit. 

This is not a kind of excuse that each one of us cannot do a lot, but this is a quality in itself, it has its own merit, it has its quality.  Sincerely, one-minded, sincere to each other, happy with each other and pure together, we unite our force, and in that way, each and every one of us receives the merit of everybody. It is not only that each and every one of us shares our merit with everybody. So it is one of the traditional ways to pray, in a group this is very, very meaningful, there is so much quality and benefit in this. You are sharing your prayers with everyone so that everyone gets the merit and benefits of everyone.

~ A teaching by H. E. Tai Situ Rinpoche in Taipei, Taiwan on November 9, 1999

Khenpo Karthar: Highlights from Introduction to Lives of the Karmapas

Concluding Remarks

Gyalwa Karmapa is the root guru and the lineage guru.  He is lord of the ocean of yidams.  He is the essence of the 84 Mahasiddhas and such as Saraha. 

His influence is pervasive and effective.  Also, he is all dakas and dakinis.  

He is "Holder of the White Lotus" and the author of the text says, in this Introduction which is also a a supplication, "With great respect, I go for refuge to you.  Please protect me with Your great compassion and blessing!"

He is the Dharmakaya Guru -- the dharmakaya of two-fold purity.  He exists primordially; he removes obscurations from us.  He manifests in the experience of others in two ways:  In the Akanishtha that is unlimited in the display of Sambhogakaya. 

He emanates as Nirmanakaya not only as beings but as articles that benefit, and in such ways as are suitable to every realm.  For example, in the animal realm, he can manifest as a lion or a deer, or as a tame animal.  His activity is like a wheel that never stops --  through eons of time.  Therefore, to discuss his life [or lives] is a concession to our view.

His activity is pervasive and permanent.  He teaches whatever is necessary to lead to the attainment of ultimate freedom.

In every pore of his body, he gathers all pure and impure realms.  We cannot conceive of this.

The "Introduction" then gives the reason for the writing of the text:

"All beings who hear or read this, lead them with the hook of Karmapa's compassion."

Karmapa embodies all Buddhas and therefore, is the teacher of all bodhisattvas.  "The drumbeat of his name is renowned throughout all samsara and nirvana."  By hearing his name or his supplication (Karmapa chenno) he causes the beginning of that which brings beings to liberation. 

He is the Dharma King of the 3 Realms, therefore Karmapa is Buddha.  According to the Causal Vehicle as expressed in the Sutras, In the beginning, he is the product of the two accumulations, wisdom and merit.

For the Vajrayanaist, having fully recognized his own nature as Vajradhara, he entered these mandalas spontaneoulsy, having accumulated three accumulations -- of morality, stability in meditation, and wisdom. (All aspects bound as one.)   He conquered the 3 obscurations and the channels, winds and drops were purified and dissolved. 

He is a Buddha having the 7 features of a buddha.  Even bodhisattvas cannot understand his state, since they still have the cognitive obscuration.

As a Buddha, he displays form for the sake of others.  In every existence as such, his life contains the 12 Deeds.

For example, as the 6th Buddha, or again as Senge Namdrel (Lion's Display [or, Roar].)

Now he is active as Buddha Amitabha in Sukhavati, but also as Chenrezi.

He was Guru Padmasambhava, Saraha, and Acharya Nagarjuna, Padampa Sangye, and also the Kadmapa Geshe, the Shakya Pandit.  And he also appears as great kings, such as Songtsen Gampo [of Tibet,] and the Ming emperor, Yunglo.  He will appear in whatever way to benefit beings, in different forms to suit different beings, and we cannot understand how this is possible.

When the 16th Karmapa came to the US he was asked,  "Are there other bodhisattvas in the world?" and he answered, "They are all over but they will not necessarily look like me."

Guru Rinpoche gave predictions of the Black Hat and the names of the 21 Karmapas, and said there would be other emanations in other realms. 

We have merit just to be able to hear this.  There is also liberation by seeing, and by recollection of him and his deeds. And there is liberation by contact, for example, when Karmapa gives his blessing by means of touch.

[At this point in the 1999 video, the 76-year old Khenpo was visibly moved to tears.  No doubt by memories of the 16th Karmapa but also perhaps by intimations of the impending peril.]  

He continued:  Anyone who has had these 4 types of contact (and especially, with faith) could reach liberation in this lifetime.

This outcome is not limited by "teaching."  Consider, Tilopa's "abuse" of Naropa.  Certainly Marpa's treatment of Milarepa can be considered "abuse."  People are often moved to tears when they hear of the hardship he suffered.

His Holiness gave instructions for us to build this monastery and also, a residence. But KTD is not a distraction; it is the essence of the aspiration and it is like a container.  

The 17th Karmapa's birth in Tibet was the beginning of the dispelling of the misery of the the Tibetan people. 

The Karmapa particularly tames beings of the most degenerate age, and his lives are to bring beings into contact with his qualities.  His "inner" and "secret" aspects are inconceivable to humans.  Even his outer qualities are like the drop of a boundless ocean that is only the surface of his deeds.


Khenpo Karthar:  The abbot of KTD in Woodstock, NY, which is the seat of the Karmapa in the Americas, gave a moving commentary on the "Introduction" from Lives of the Karmapa, which is the namthar or sacred biography.   Great trans. by Lama Yeshe Gyamtso. Available on video, US$30.

Gyalwa:  Tibetan word meaning "lord who is like the ocean in his power and profundity."  The Mongol word Dalai has a similar connotation.

directions:  this is a convention meaning "omnipresent;" the 10 directions; that is, the 8 points of the compass plus up and down.

The moon is cooling:   Tradition partly attributes the lessening of the day's heat to the appearance of the moon. 

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