The Karmapas and Kālacakra

I have written previously here about the Kagyu and Kālacakra and the lineage masters that currently hold the lineage with the Kagyu tradition, as well as the two ‘lost’ Kagyu Kālacakra lineages of Tsami and Rechungpa. In this brief new post, I write about the 3rd Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje’s connection to Kālacakra, the 16th Karmapa’s connection to it via Khyentse Chokyi Lodro (the great Nyingma and Rime master)  and that of the current 17th Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje. See here about the Kagyu and Kālacakra and two ‘lost’ lineages of Tsami and Rechungpa that were passed down directly to the Karmapas, the 3rd and 8th. In this short post here, I write about the 3rd Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje’s connection to Kālacakra, the 16th Karmapa’s connection to it via Khyentse Chokyi Lodro (the great Nyingma and Rime master)  and that of the current 17th Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje.

Third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje – Kālacakra and the Tsurphu astrology
3rd Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje (karma pa 03 rang byung rdo rje, 1284-1339)

According to Ringu Tulku’s book, the Ri-me Philosophy of Jamgon Kongtrul the Great (Shambhala, 2007)  the Kālacakra lineage of the 3rd Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje (karma pa 03 rang byung rdo rje, 1284-1339) remains unbroken to this day and is considered to be the ‘essential teaching lineage’. The 3rd Karmapa wrote several texts on Kālacakra, which I have catalogued here below. In the Treasury of Lives it states that:

“Before his tenth birthday Rangjung Dorje is said to have had visions of protectors — in some tellings Mahākāla — who told him to go to Tsurpu (mtshur phu), the seat of the Dusum Khyenpa and Karma Pakshi. There he received teachings on various topics including Kālacakra and Chod from Sherab Pel (shes rab dpal, d.u.), Nyenre Gendun Bum (gnyan ras dge ‘dun ‘bum, d.u.), and Namtsowa Mikyo Dorje (gnam mtsho ba mi bskyod rdo rje, d.u.).

It also states that he received Kālacakra instructions at Tshurpu from from Nyedo Kunga Dondrub (snye mdo kun dga’ don grub, b. 1268), who is master of the Kālacakra transmission according to the kushang of nyedo.  Based on his studies of Kālacakra cosmology and astrology, The Third Karmapa Rangjung Dorje (1284-1339) composed a treatise on astrology called the The Compendium of Astrology [rtsis kun bsdus pa]. The seat of the Gyalwang Karmapa lineage is Tsurphu, Tibet. Thus, the tradition of astrology which developed from the Karmapas in Tsurphu is known as Tsurluk. According to Ringu Tulku this text was composed to explain the Kālacakra cosmology, and the 3rd Karmapa’s other famous text called The Profound Inner Meaning (zab mo nang don),  explained the chapter on ‘inner’ of Kālacakra. To exlplain the section on empowerments and practices, the 3rd Karmapa wrote ‘Empowerments and Practices’ and to explain the ‘wisdom’ chapter he wrote Clear Essence of the Three Yogas (rnal’byor gsum gyi snying po gsalba).”

On the Kagyu Office website it states that the 3rd Karmapa:

“At the age of 35 (1318), through visions he received of the “Wheel of Time” (Kālacakra) teachings, he introduced a revised system of astrology, which continues to this day called the “Tsur-tsi” or the Tsurphu Tradition of Astrology, and which forms the basis for the calculation of the Tibetan calendar in the Tsurphu system. He also studied and mastered medicine, which is in part related to astrological studies in the Tibetan system.

According to the world’s leading English language expert on the Tibetan astrological systems, Edward Henning:

“The original work on this [astrology] was started by the 3rd Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje (rang byung rdo rje), in the end of the 13th and beginning of the 14th centuries. The full system as we know it today was devised by Jamyang Dondrup Wozer (‘jam dbyangs don grub ‘od zer) just over a hundred years later – the official date given is 1447. Unfortunately, his original writings seem to have been lost, but the Tsurphu tradition, or Tsurlug (mtshur lugs), has been well documented by: Karma Ngelek Tendzin (karma nges legs bstan ‘dzin), the 14th Karmapa Thegchog Dorje (theg mchog rdo rje), Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye (kong sprul blo gros mtha’ yas), and, the Jonang writer Banda Gelek (‘ba’ mda’ dge legs).

In recent years, Tsurphu calendars have been published from Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim, the seat of the Karmapa in India. Unfortunately, the person responsible for doing this, Tsipa Gelek Dharge (rtsis pa dge legs dar rgyas), died a couple of years ago, and the smooth production of the calendar was interrupted as a result.

HH Karmapa wanted the calendar to continue publication, according to the specification given by Thegchog Dorje in his text (the gtsug lag rtsis kyi lag len gsal bar byed pa legs bshad nor bu’i phreng ba blo gsal mgrin rgyan). Software has been written to calculate this calendar, and this is made available on this page as open source. Also, the Tsurphu calendars that have been published on this web site for several years now have all been updated to be compatible with the full calendar.

Henning further explains the differences between the two astrological systems in his article here

Image from Henning’s page on astrology at
HH 16th Karmapa, Khyentse Chokyi Lodro Rinpoche and Kālacakra
16th Karmapa, Rigpe Dorje

One online source on the 16th Karmapa, states that he received the Kālacakra tantra empowerments and transmissions at Palpung monastery in Tibet from Tai Situ Rinpoche and Khyentse Chokyi Lodro Rinpoche ((1893-1959) of Dzongsar monastery), see here. Although another source, states that in 1955, as the situation for monasteries continued to worsen in Eastern Tibet, Khyentse Rinpoche traveled to Lhasa. ”While there, he was invited to Tsurphu to give teachings and empowerments to the 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje. In turn the Karmapa gave him an empowerment in the red form of Avalokiteshvara, a historic, personal yidam of the Karmapas.” So it may have been at Tsurphu that the 16th Karmapa received the transmission.

Khyentse Chokyi Lodro Rinpoche in Lhasa, 1955.

Who did Khyentse Chokyi Lodro himself get the transmission from? I wrote a short post about his connection with Kālacakra and Taranatha here, and the passage in the ‘Secret Autobiography of Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, Jamyang Chokyi Lodro’, where he mentions a dream vision he had in 1943 of the Jonang and Shangpa Kagyu master, Tāranātha who bestowed on him a Kālacakra empowerment in the dream. As a result of this experience he states that great faith in Tāranātha arose.

In Khyentse’s Treasury of Lives biography it states:

”Shar Lama Jamyang Khenrab Taye (shar bla ma ‘jam dbyangs mkhyen rab mtha’ yas, d.u.) gave him the Kālacakra in Buton’s (bu ston, 1290-1364) lineage, and Tartse Zhabdrung completed the transmission of the Compendium of Sadhana.

At Pelpung (dpal spungs) Chokyi Lodro received teachings in the Sakya, Kadam, and Shangpa Kagyu traditions from Lama Tashi Chopel (bla ma bkra shis chos ‘phel, d.u.), namely the Khon (‘khon) lineage of Vajrakila, the Kālacakra of Atiśa, and the entire corpus of the Shangpa Kagyu.”

Later, HH 16th Karmapa, Rigpe Dorje, also received the Kālacakra empowerment from HH 14th  Dalai Lama in India, see photo of him at that event below.

In November 2016, HH 17th Karmapa also recently spoke about the deep connections between the 16th Karmapa and Khyentse Lodro at Dzongsar Shedra, Bir, India with his Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche  (the current incarnation of Khyentse Lodro) in attendance.  A report of that speech and event can be read here. I will be writing more about that soon. HH remarked:

“The Karmapa and Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye had a connection, a Dharma samaya, so close that they were almost one person with the same heart. Something similar can be said about the connection between the Karmapa and Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo—they were like one being in whom beat the same heart.”

17th Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje and Kālacakra
HH 17th Karmapa with HH 14th Dalai Lama at the Kālacakra empowerment, USA 2011.
The current day 17th Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje has received the Kālacakra empowerment and transmission a few times now from the Karma Kagyu lineage holders and the 14th Dalai Lama.  Most recently, at the 34th Kālacakra empowerment in Bodh Gaya, 2017.  He also attended a previous Kālacakra empowerment in Bodh Gaya, 2012, at a previous Kālacakra empowerment by the 14th Dalai Lama in Washington DC in 2011.

Here is a photo of HE Tenga Rinpoche showing the 17th Karmapa the Kalacakra mandala.

The importance of the Karmapa for the Kālacakra lineage within Kagyu

With the recent departure of 4th Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche from monastic life and public teachings, there are fewer and fewer senior lamas within the Kagyu tradition alive today who hold the Kālacakra lineage, such as 12th Gyaltsab Rinpoche and 12th Tai Situ Rinpoche. It is not clear whether or not the current Kalu Rinpoche, head of Shangpa Kagyu, holds the Kālacakra lineage of his predecessor, who gave several Kālacakra empowerments and transmissions (see post about that here).

Certainly the current Bokar Rinpoche yangsi will hopefully receive the Kālacakra lineage empowerment and transmission (of both Kagyu and Jonang) from Khenpo Donyo Lodro Rinpoche of Bokar monastery.  I recently made a personal request to Tai Situ Rinpoche (via Lama Tenam of Sherab Ling) to bestow the Kālacakra empowerment and transmission.  I sincerely hope this request will come to fruition.  

Therefore, HH 17th Karmapa, is also an important key figure in keeping the Kālacakra practice and lineage alive and well in the Kagyu Kamtsang. May the obstacles facing HH 17th Karmapa be swiftly eliminated and may the Buddha Dharma flourish!

Catalogue of texts (in Wylie) written by the Karmapas on Kālacakra available on TBRC

3rd Karmapa Rangjung Dorje

dpal dus kyi ‘khor lo’i sgrub thabs mdor bsdus pa rin chen phreng ba/ W3PD27
rdo rje shugs kyi sgrub thabs/ W3PD27
dus kyi ‘khor lo’i gtor ma/ W3PD27
dpal dus kyi ‘khor lo las btus pa’i spos sbyor/ W3PD27
dpal dus kyi ‘khor lo’i bsdus don dri med ‘od kyi tshul gsal bar byed pa’i rgyan W3PD27
dus kyi ‘khor lo’i mngon par rtogs pa rnam dag snang ba/ W3PD27
dus kyi ‘khor lo’i sgrub thabs bsdus pa/ W3PD27

8th Karmapa Mikyo Dorje

bcom ldan ‘das dus kyi ‘khor lo’i ye shes btsan thabs su dbab pa’i cho ga rje btsun mar rngog nas brgyud pa/ W8039
sbyor ba yan lag drug gi snying po bsdus pa/ W8039
bcom ldan ‘das dpal dus kyi ‘khor lo’i sgub dkyil phan bde kun stsol/W8039
bcom ldan ‘das dang po’i sangs rgyas ‘gro ba dang mi ‘gro ba’i ‘jig rten la dus bzhi bgrod tshul gyi ‘khor lo yid mtshor bzhad gad kyi ‘grel chen/
dpal dus kyi ‘khor lo’i rim gnyis ‘bro lugs kyi brgyud pa’i gsol ‘debs rdo rje ‘babs pa chen po/ W21808

Written and published by Adele Tomlin/Dakini Publications, 2019.

2 thoughts on “The Karmapas and Kālacakra

  1. hi, im your fan. if my master has an opportunity in future to give kalachakra initiations in u.s., could i invite you to be his interpreter? thanks in advance.

    1. Hello Henry, thanks for your kind message and interest. Actually, I don’t have much experience of oral interpreting at all, I am mainly doing written translation and research. However, if the conditions, teachings and teacher are auspicious and there is a good connection then I would do it. What lineage is your master and what is her or his name? Generally speaking I do think that an interpreter should also have a good connection with (and ideally) devotion for the teacher. Am sure you will agree that booking an interpreter is not like booking a room and flower arrangements 🙂

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