NEW PUBLICATION: ‘Direct Instructions on the Great Compassionate One’ by 8th Karmapa and commentary by 17th Karmapa

Here is the first published English language edition of an instruction text by 8th Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje,  the Direct Instructions on the Great Compassionate One [1] (Avalokiteśvara) from the Tsembu lineage.  As I wrote about here [2], the Tsembu lineage is one of the five main traditions of Avalokiteśvara in Tibet, and came from the deity Vajrayogini herself. It is available here for free download here for those who have the empowerment of four-armed Avalokiteśvara.

In 2017, the 17th Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje gave an extensive oral teaching and transmission of the text, which can be viewed online here. The published English summary of the teachings does not include much of it (and some of it is not quite accurate either), so I have translated and transcribed it based on the original text and oral translation by Karma David Chophel, and included it as a commentary (for guidance and reference) after the 8th Karmapa text.

In his commentary, The 17th Karmapa occasionally refers to a text by the 5th Zharmapa, Konchog Yenlag (1525-1583), who was a student of the 8th Karmapa, and a direct lineage holder of the Tsembu tradition[3]. I may translate this text in the near future.

The Text

8th Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje

Mikyo Dorje’s text describes how to perform the ritual of the great compassionate one, with a unique and powerful refuge and bodhicitta section, written by the 8th Karmapa himself. With visualizations of Avalokiteśvara in four different colours and recitations of the name mantras of the 1st, 2nd and 8th Karmapas it is a precious and powerful practice for those with a strong feeling and connection to Avalokiteśvara  and the Karmapas. Like a guru yoga combined with meditating on the deity combined with a completion stage of mahāmudrā.

For example, Tsembupa and HH 17th Karmapa instruct us not to ‘accept and reject’ deities by seeing them as separate in essence and in the same way, not to reject teachers we have connections with merely based on our personal preferences. We should try and see them all as the same as one’s favourite guru, and as Buddha in essence:

“It is important to have faith and pure perception for all our teachers. Being human, however, we will have preferences, so we place our favorite guru in the center but do not think of this guru as a single entity; rather, we understand this lama to be the embodiment of all the lamas with whom we have a connection. They are in essence the same and the main guru contains all the others. This is the way we can have faith and devotion to them all.”

The completion stage of the text is a vividly poetic instruction on mahāmudrā, predominantly that of Sūtra mahāmudrā as no empowerment is required to practice it. The 8th Karmapa explains that:

“There are three focuses for mahāmudrā: practice in 1) remaining undistracted, like a sword-swirling warrior entering battle; 2) expertise in uncontrived noticing like an elephant caretaker; and 3) freely sustaining, like a bird taking off and returning to a ship.”

The 17th Karmapa explains these three in more detail in his commentary. In addition, the text gives brief instruction on four the Six Yogas of Flowing River (chu bo rgyun gyi rnal ‘byor), which relate to practices that should be done continually between meditation sessions: the yoga of eating, of clothing, of residing, and of sleep. Then there are the yogas for phowa (transference) and bardo.  These are termed the Six Yogas of the Flowing River. The 17th Karmapa explained that the meaning of the term ‘flowing river’ is that we need to practice them continually, like the current of a river flows continually. In the Mikyö Dorje text, all six of these yogas are not clearly present, speaking only of the yogas of residing and sleep plus transference and bardo.

The text does not state when Mikyo Dorje composed it, but it is from the Tsembu lineage and he received it from one of his main teachers, 1st Sangye Nyenpa, Tashi Paljor (see below). The transcriber of the text, Yungja Dralwa (gyung bya bral ba), says that Mikyo Dorje himself wrote the preliminaries, refuge and bodhicitta and so forth. The field of accumulations, the main practice, and mahāmudrā, come from Thropu Gyatsa (khro phu brgya rtsa) the essence of which is based upon the mahasiddha Tsembupa’s instructions.

The Karma Kagyu lineage of the Tsembu tradition

8th Karmapa with one of his main teachers, 1st Sangye Nyenpa who were both holders of this Tsembu lineage

The lineage of Tsembupa, according to the text by 8th Karmapa[4], includes several great Jonang and Kalacakra masters from Kunpangpa onwards such as Jamsem Gyalwa Yeshe[5], Yonten Gyamsto and Dolpopa.  The lineage according to 8th Karmapa is:

Avalokiteshvara, Vajrayogini, Mahasiddha Tsembupa, Chilhepa,  Tagte Dragmar (stag ste brag dmar ba)[6], Lhatsun (lha btsun dgon gsar ba),Kunpangpa (1243-1313, kun spangs pa)[7], Gyalwa Yeshe (1247-1320, rgyal ba ye shes),  Khetsun Yonten Gyamtso (1260-1327, mkhas btsun yon tan rgya mtsho)[8], Choje Kunkhyen Chenpo [Dolpopa]  (1292-1361, chos rje kun mkhyen chen po),Ngagwon Kunga Pel (1285-1379, bsnyags dpon kun dga’ dpal), Ngagwon Sonam Zangpo[9] (1341-1433, bsnyags dbon bsod nams bzang po), Kunkhyen Jampel Zangpo[10] (kun mkhyen ‘jam dpal bzang po), Mahasiddha Tashi Paljor (grub chen bkra shis dpal ‘byor) [1st Sangye Nyenpa].”

Jampel Zangpo, teacher of 7th Karmapa

It was via Jampel Sangpo, who wrote the renowned mahāmudrā Lineage Prayer and was the teacher of the 7th Karmapa, Chodrak Gyatso, that the instructions entered the Karma Kamtsang lineage. The transmission then came to 8th Karmapa, from one of his teachers 1st Sangye Nyenpa (Tashi Paljor).  The 8th Karmapa wrote the preliminaries, refuge, bodhichitta, and so forth and the field of accumulations, the main practice, and mahāmudrā, come from Thropu Gyatsa (khro phu brgya rtsa) the essence of which is based upon the mahasiddha Tsembupa’s instructions. Prior to that the lineage was predominantly that of  several renowned Jonang Kālacakra masters and is one of the Jonang’s four main practices, and even considered to be one of the six vajra yogas of Kālacakra. HH 17th Karmapa explained that:

“There is a story that when Tsembu taught these pith instructions they asked him what is the lineage of these instructions? When they asked him, Tsembu scolded them a bit. He said, you’re only asking about the lineage because you want to teach that, the only reason you want to know is so you can teach it. So that when you teach something, if you can say this is the lineage, it looks good, doesn’t it? Lama Tsembupa said, my Dharma is not Dharma for teachings, my Dharma is Dharma for practising. This Dharma is what you need to practice.”

HH 17th Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje

I have not been able to find a short sadhana of the practice within the Karma Kagyu texts available online, but there is one by Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, which I will translate and publish here soon.

HH 14th Dalai Lama has given many empowerments of the great Compassionate One (that I have been fortunate to attend) here is the 14th Dalai Lama publicly recognising the 17th Karmapa on his recent arrival in India after escaping from Tibet.

May this new published translation enable all beings to practice the great compassionate one and attain the fully awakened state of the great compassionate one and may the lineage and activities of the Karmapas flourish and remain long!

Adele Tomlin, 16th October 2020.


[1]phags pa spyan ras gzigs dbang thugs rje chen po’i dmar khrid/. In gsung ‘bum/_mi bskyod rdo rje. TBRC W8039. 19: 529 – 540. [lha sa]: [s.n.], [2004].

[2]https://dakinitranslations.com/2020/10/12/vajrayoginis-instructions-on-great-compassionate-avalokitesvara-tsembupas-lineage/

[3] The 17th Karmapa does not specifically state what this text is called but I have located a text by 5th Zharmapa called, Instructions on the Tsembu Tradition of the Great Compassionate One (thugs chen spyan ras gzigs kyi smar khrid tshem bu lugs) in his Miscellaneous Writings (gsung thor bu/_dkon mchog yan lag) that includes writings on Mahamudra, several commentaries on works by Karmapa 03, and numerous liturgical writings. I may translate this in the near future. dkon mchog yan lag. “thugs chen spyan ras gzigs kyi smar khrid tshem bu lugs.” In gsung thor bu/_dkon mchog yan lag. TBRC W23927. 1: 159 – 184. gangtok: dzongsar khyentse labrang, 1974.

[4] These names were not written in the English summary of 17th Karmapa’s teachings on the text but they are in the 8th Karmapa text.

[5] The Second Throne Holder of Jonang monaster, Jangsem Gyelwa Yeshe (byang sem rgyal ba ye shes) was born in 1247 in Dokham (mdo khams). As a child he was a monk among the followers of the second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi (karma pa 02 karma pak shi, 1204-1283). According to his biography: “Karma Pakshi was a fierce man, and Gyelwa Yeshe was said to have been very frightened of him. According to legend, Gyelwa Yeshe was once out gathering firewood and suddenly ran into Karma Pakshi alone in the middle of the forest. Gyelwa Yeshe was terrified and fled, but the Karmapa called him back, telling him that if he fled from his master now he would do so in the intermediate state between lives.” See: https://treasuryoflives.org/biographies/view/Jangsem-Gyelwa-Yeshe-/P1511

[6] https://www.tbrc.org/#!rid=P10159  teacher from the zhu lineage; one of the students of sa chen kun dga’ snying po

[7]  Kunpangpa (kun spangs thugs rje brtson ‘grus) was one of the main Jonang masters and founders of the ‘Dro Kalacakra tradition and compiled the seventeen lineage of Kalacakra for reference. https://treasuryoflives.org/biographies/view/Kunpang-Tukje-Tsondru/TBRC_P858

[8] Yonten Gyatso was a major Jonang master in the ‘Dro Kalacakra tradition. See: https://treasuryoflives.org/biographies/view/Khetsun-Yonten-Gyatso/2790

[9] From the age of seventeen he served as Dolpopa Sherab Gyeltsen’s (dol po pa shes rab rgyal mtshan, 1292-1361) close attendant and practiced the teachings he received from him.He became the teacher of many of the great masters of the fifteenth century, such as the Sakya master Rongton Sheja Kunrik (rong ston shes bya kun rig, 1369-1449) and the Sixth Karmapa, Tongwa Donden (karma pa 06 mthong ba don ldan, 1416-1453). He was honored by the Pakmodru ruler of Tibet, Drakpa Gyeltsen (dbang grags pa rgyal mtshan, d.u.), and eulogized as the finest yogin in Tibet by the Indian paṇḍita Varnaratna. At the age of ninty-two he taught the great Vimalaprabhā commentary on the Kālacakra Tantra. See: https://treasuryoflives.org/biographies/view/Sonam-Zangpo/4164

[10] 15th Century Karma Kagyu master, he was the teacher of the 1st Gyaltsab Rinpoche and the 7th Karmapa. kun mkhyen ‘jam dpal bzang po He received teachings from Rongton Sheja Kunrik (rong ston shes bya kun rig, 1367-1449) and Lhapuwa (lha phu ba, d.u.). Je Donden Zhab (rje don ldan zhabs, d.u.) gave him teachings on the Naro Chodruk (na ro chos brug) over a period of four years. Jampel Zangpo was also a close disciple of Tongwa Donden, the Sixth Karmapa (karma pa 06 mthong ba don ldan, 1416-1453). See https://treasuryoflives.org/biographies/view/Jampel-Zangpo/P467

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