The Black Hat Eccentric: Tenth Karmapa, Choying Dorje, Supreme Artist and Visionary

10th Karmapa, Choying Dorje
(17th Century Statue, said to be a self-portrait by the 10th Karmapa. See:

Today, I was delighted to watch Himalaya Art website’s new video giving an overview the 10th Karmapa (1604-1674) (chos dbyings rdo rje)’s artistic works. This short blog post pulls together and condenses some of the information and images available on the 10th Karmapa’s life and art. The unusual, distinctive, at at times very playful and comical, style of the Karmapa’s visions and works are a joy to behold and convey the beauty (and almost child-like innocence) of the artist’s mind. I have also included a photo of a White Tara statue, currently owned by the 10th Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche (previously owned by the 9th Sangye Nyenpa), which shares a similar aesthetic.

As Jeff Watt states in the video, what is interesting about the 10th Karmapa’s art, is that it does not follow ‘normal Tibetan painting traditions or sculptures. He was both a painter and metal-caster, making sculptures and also carvings’.  Some of the works have inscriptions and those are agreed to be made by Choying Dorje. He made single sculptures and paintings but also sets of paintings, as are kept in the Lijang museum in Yunnan province in China, in Palpung monastery in Tibet. Watt explains that the reason that many of his works are not in the Karmapa’s seat Tsurphu is that many of these artworks were gifts to Situ Panchen by the high lamas of Tsurphu that were given to him as gifts in the 18th Century. The Tenth Karmapa copied many different styles of art such as Chinese, Swat and Kashmiri styles. At times, he would paint in a memory tradition and other times in a different tradition.

There is also an excellent online article The Sculpture of Chöying Dorjé, Tenth Karmapa by Ian Alsop,[1] with many high quality images of works by the 10th Karmapa that goes into detailed analysis of the origin and style of many of the works (and their copies) attributed to the 10th Karmapa. As Watts states a catalogue was put together of his art works by scholars in the Karma Kagyu tradition. Who wrote this inventory is not clear, Alsop explains:

”It is not surprising that an artist so attuned to these objects would desire to inventory those he made himself. If the inventory was not the Karmapa’s idea, one wonders if it might not have been Küntu Sangpo who was responsible for the inscriptions on the Tenth Karmapa sculptures. His devotion to the Karmapa is one of the overriding features of the biographies of Chöying Dorjé, especially his autobiographies. Küntu Sangpo was clearly very much involved with recording the events of the Tenth Karmapa’s life. It would seem plausible that it might have been Küntu Sangpo who initiated the inscribing of sculptures with this brief inscription ascribing them to the hand of Chöying Dorjé. No one knew his master and his master’s creations better than this learned lama, who was the recipient of many gifts of sculpture and painting from the Karmapa.”

Inscriptions and Copies

There is much debate as to whether or not all the works attributed to the 10th Karmapa are actually his own. Alsop notes:

”Did the Tenth Karmapa have an atelier or ateliers during his career as a sculptor and painter? There is evidence that he did employ groups of artisans. As head of the Karma Kagyü order, Chöying Dorjé exercised the patronage of that office in artistic endeavors from time to time, most notably when he called on Nepalese artists to spend three years building a seven-story, silver reliquary for his teacher the Sixth Shamar’s relics in Tsurphu, in 1630, when he was twenty-six years old. Von Schroeder cites an unpublished biography with accounts of two instances when the Karmapa set up workshops:

The Karmapa founded workshops (las grwa) and collaborated with other craftsmen at different places during his travels: in 1637 he went to Gamamo (dGa’ ma mo), and while there he founded a workshop with ten craftsmen. At rTselhagang, he painted the wonderful images of the sixteen arhats there and, with the help of ten craftsmen, created a pair of pillar banners (ka rgyan) with the eight auspicious signs, etc., carvings of the twelve offering goddesses on flat panels of bone, and so forth.

These references do not imply an atelier in the sense of standardized image production or reproduction of the Karmapa’s own work, which we might not associate with this reclusive hierarch. Perhaps further discoveries in the biographies of Chöying Dorjé will shed some more light on this possibility.”

The Silver Saraswati/Tara

Silver Saraswati/Tara by 10th Karmapa, Choying Dorje in the Potala Palace collection

An example of a copied statue is given here. Although this statue looks more like White Tara to me than Sarasvatī, according to Alsop:

”The silver Sarasvatī now in Potala Palace, with her extravagant retinue (see image above), has spawned a veritable crowd of copies. Perhaps the best known is the copper-alloy version preserved in Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim, the home in exile of the Sixteenth Karmapa after he fled Tibet (see image below). The Rumtek version is clearly based on the silver sculpture in the Potala collection. But whereas the silver sculpture exhibits the odd, elongated-oval face with small mouth and arched eyebrows of Chöying Dorjé, the face of the Rumtek sculpture has been noticeably “normalized” into a pleasing feminine visage, and the hands are no longer the plump mitts of the earlier sculptures and the paintings. This surely must be a somewhat later copy of the silver original now in the Potala. Von Schroeder identifies it as the work of Chöying Dorjé himself, a copy of what he considers the Yarlung original. But if we understand the silver sculpture in the Potala to be a work of Chöying Dorjé, then the Rumtek version must either be a later adaptation by Chöying Dorjé himself or the work of an atelier under his direction or an altogether later copy.”

Sarasvatī/Tara, copper alloy version at Rumtek monastery, Sikkim, India

Alsop concludes that:

”In this case, the visual evidence is quite clear. The original silver image, now in the Potala, shows many of the characteristics of the work of the Tenth Karmapa, most noticeably the ovoid face and arched eyebrows. This distinctive face has been changed and regularized in the Rumtek image and then in the numerous tiny modern amulet copies. Who made these miniature copies? Where were they made, and why? I imagine that at some point we may have answers to these questions, but for now they remain among the many unsolved mysteries surrounding the work of Chöying Dorjé.”

Tara statue said to be by 10th Karmapa (Rubin Museum of Art) see:
Tara statue said to be by 10th Karmapa (Potala Palace Collection) see:
10th Karmapa’s Life

As is detailed in the English language biography of his life on Treasury of Lives, the 10th Karmapa (1604-1674) (chos dbyings rdo rje) was a talented artist who produced many artistic works, painting, statues and so on.  This biography is based on an article adapted from Karl Debreczeny ‘s book “The Artist’s Life”, in The Black Hat Eccentric; Artistic Visions of the Tenth Karmapa, (2012) New York: Rubin Museum of Art, pp. 33-63.

Interestingly, the 10th Karmapa’s early life was dominated by a warlord of Golok, named Chakmo Gushri (lcags mo gushri)  who ‘owned’ him and his family for many years, preventing him from meeting his teacher, the 6th Zhamarpa Chokyi Wangchuk (zhwa dmar 06 chos kyi dbang phyug, 1584-1630) and going to Tsurphu. His two main teachers were the Third Pawo, Tsuklak Gyatso (dpa’ bo 03 gtsug lag rgya mtsho, 1567/8-1630) and the Sixth Zharmapa, who recognised him. On the death (that happened in close succession) of these two beloved teachers, it is reported that:

During their stay at Dingri the Zhamar fell ill, and the Karmapa nursed his master day and night. He helped him to properly rearrange his robes when they became twisted, brought him water to rinse his mouth, burned incense for him, and brought his bed pan when needed. Then he would serve the Zhamar yoghurt and milk. While the Karmapa was devotedly nursing his sick master, a monk arrived from Lhodrak bearing the sad news of the sudden death of his former teacher, the Third Pawo. In order not to worsen the Zhamar’s condition, the Karmapa kept the death of the Pawo secret.

One morning at daybreak, when the Karmapa asked his master how he had spent the night, the master answered happily that he had spent it without any pain and that his body was rested. The Karmapa offered him a cup of excellent tea, which he drank as his last beverage in order to fulfill his student’s wish. Not long after sunrise, the Zhamar passed away.

The Karmapa spent the next few days playing the lute, reflecting on the loss of his beloved teacher. According to the biography written by the Karmapa’s disciple and close attendant Tsang Khenchen, Pelden Gyatso (gtsang mkhan chen dpal ldan rgya mtsho, 1610-1684), whom he called “Kuntu Zangpo” (kun tu bzang po), his playing inspired several acts of extreme devotion. Thirty-five monks engaged in what is generally considered a Chinese Buddhist offering practice, the burning of a finger. After binding a finger tightly to cut off circulation, they wrapped it in cloth and soaked it in butter and set it on fire, letting it burn down to the bone. One monk named Yangdak (yang dag) went so far as to self-immolate, burning his entire body in sacrifice.Soon thereafter, the Karmapa set off on the long journey northeast, accompanying the Zhamar’s mortal remains to Tsurpu. There he supervised the construction of a seven-story silver reliquary on which artisans from Nepal spent three years building. He consecrated it with gold coins and butter lamps arranged in the shape of victory parasols and rosaries. The ground in front of the reliquary was covered with flowers and incense vessels. The Karmapa made a painting of the Sixteen Arhats and made statues of Hayagrīva, Mañjuśrī, Avalokiteśvara, and Vajrapāṇi. The temple around the reliquary was named Rabten Podrang (rab brtan pho brang); as an act of devotion, the Karmapa carried rocks and soil during its construction, and he crafted the golden relief of the ringed-doorknocker and the solid floor covering (sa lcags).”

After the death of his two brothers, Tibet descended into a civil war and the 10th Karmapa was banished from Tsurphu monastery:

”The Fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobzang Gyatso (tA la’i bla ma 05 ngag dbang blo bzang rgya mtsho, 1617-1682), reported Namkha’s death in his own autobiography, in which he also recorded that the Karmapa was “behaving like an unconventional yogi.” The phrase might suggest that the Karmapa was not observing his monastic vows, and was drinking and having intercourse with women. However there is nothing in the historical record to support this, and it is perhaps more likely that the Dalai Lama was referring to the Karmapa’s penchant for wearing the brown and gray robes of a Chinese monk, and walking on pilgrimage without a suitable retinue.

Soon after the death of his brothers, U and Tsang again erupted into war, one that resulted in the total destruction of the kingdom of Tsang and the ascendance of the Dalai Lama and Geluk power in Lhasa. 

In 1642 the Karmapa escaped the chaos of the fighting by going south to Lhodrak, where he took the opportunity to recognize the Fourth Pawo, Tsuklak Kuntu Zangpo (dpa’ bo 04 gtsug lag kun tu bzang po, 1633-1649), who was then about eight years old.”

However, before the 10th Karmapa passed away it says:

”In 1672 the Karmapa, now aged sixty-nine, finally left Gyeltang, where he had spent much of the past twenty-four years, from 1648 to 1672, and returned to U-Tsang. It is not known how his return was negotiated, since in the Ganden Podrang (dga ldan pho brang) the Dalai Lama’s government in Lhasa, continued its policy of harassment of Karma Kagyu monks and lamas, a policy that continued into the early eighteenth century. His main reason for returning was presumably to arrange the installment of Norbu Zangpo at Tsurpu. He left in a large entourage that included his wife, sons, and daughters.

After one year of travel, on the third day of the third lunar month of the year 1673 the Karmapa reached Lhasa, where he had an audience with the Fifth Dalai Lama, the first in forty years. Their conversation was said to be relaxed, covering topics such as the Karmapa’s recent journey. The Karmapa, already seventy years old at this point (the Dalai Lama was fifty-seven), had difficulties understanding and answering the Dalai Lama’s questions, since he was rather deaf and therefore asked Tsang Khenchen to answer on his behalf.

Toward the end of 1673, without having yet visited Tsurpu, the Karmapa was told by the Fifth Dalai Lama to go to Drak (sgrags), a somewhat inaccessible region south of Lhasa, on the north bank of the Yarlung Tsangpo River. The Karmapa followed the order. There, at Nagdrak Monastery (sngags grwa dgon pa), he produced one of his last works of art, a drawing of the Caṇḍa Vajrapāṇi for Norbu Zangpo and a white-sandalwood statue of Mārīcī riding a pig for Norbu Zangpo’s mother. Around the lunar New Year of 1674, not only was the Karmapa granted permission to return to Tsurpu, but the Dalai Lama gave him back the share of property from which he derived his sustenance, the main and subsidiary estates of Tsurpu. He never returned to Tsurpu, however, as he fell ill at Drak and passed away.

The Tenth Karmapa’s remains were brought to Tsurphu, with the permission of the Fifth Dalai Lama and a funeral ceremony was performed. Monks from Tsurpu, Yangri (yang ri), Ozer Ling (‘od zer gling), Samten Ling (bsam gtan gling), and others gathered in the assembly hall. Together with the Pawo and Gyeltsab lamas they created the Kālacakra and other maṇḍala and performed the cremation. Eight months later an elaborate silver reliquary was completed to house his relics. The Seventh Zhamar and the Sixth Gyeltsab supervised the consecration. Several of the Karmapa’s tools, including his hammer and pliers, that he had used to craft so many different types of art, were preserved as blessed objects besides the reliquary. A lifelike statue of the Karmapa was placed at its door.’

If anyone has seen, or has photos of this silver reliquary, please do send them.

Sculpture of 9th Karmapa created by 10th Karmapa
White Tara sculpture – 10th Sangye Nyenpa

The sculptures by 10th Karmapa, bear a similar style to the image of a statue, which the 10th Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche sent me last year, of a brass White Tara he owns, previously owned by the 9th Sangye Nyenpa (see image below).

White Tara owned by 10th Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche (previously owned by the 9th Sangye Nyenpa)
Further Reading

Karl Debreczeny, The Black Hat Eccentric: Artistic Visions of the Tenth Karmapa, Rubin Museum of Art (2012)

Himalayan Art Page on 10th Karmapa:

Mengele, Irmgard. 2011. New Discoveries About The Life Of Chos Dbyings Rdo Rje, The Tenth Karma Pa Of Tibet (1606-1674). In Art in Tibet: Issues in Traditional Tibetan Art from the Seventh to the Twentieth Century. Leiden: Brill.

Mengele, Irmgard. Forthcoming. Riding a Huge Wave of Karma: The Turbulent Life of the Tenth Karmapa. Nepal: Vajra Publications.

Richardson, Hugh. 1987. “Chos-dbying rdo rje: the Tenth Black Hat Karmapa.” Bulletin of Tibetology, vol. 23, no. 1, pp. 25-42.

Rinpoche, Zhamar 14th, A Golden Swan in Turbulent Waters: The Life and Times of the Tenth Karmapa Choying Dorje, Bird of Paradise Press, Inc. (2012).


[1] This article was originally published as Chapter 8 of the catalogue published by the Rubin Museum: Karl Debreczeny, (with contributions by Ian A. Alsop, David P. Jackson and Irmgard Mengele) The Black Hat Eccentric : Artistic Visions of the Tenth Karmapa, 2012, Rubin Museum of Art, NY. This online version is the same as that found in the printed version with the exception of a few minor corrections to the text and a few additions to footnotes, as well as addition of detail images. Any updated versions of this article will be clearly so described, and this original version will remain on these pages as is for the record.

Written and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 26th August 2020. Copyright.

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