The Chinese and the Karmapas: Historical survey from the 2nd to 19th Karmapas

 “Marvellous indeed is the play which comes to its end before a large audience. The duty of a monk is to go wherever a peaceful place is to be found and to help spread the doctrines through compassion to all beings.”

 –4th Karmapa, Rolpe Dorje to Chinese Emperor and Ministers

Tibet has always had a strong historical ties and connections to China (and Nepal) particularly since the Dharma King, Songtsen Gampo  (srong btsan sgam po, 569–649?) [1], married foreign queens from both China and Nepal who helped to establish Buddhism as the main religion in Tibet[2]. It is debated as to whether or not China can claim sovereignty over Tibet since the 13th Century. However, most non-Chinese scholars, assert that the vice royalty of the Sakya regime installed by the Mongols established a patron and priest relationship between Tibetans and Mongol converts to Tibetan Buddhism  and that although agreements were made between Tibetan leaders and Mongol khans, Ming and Qing emperors, it was the Republic of China and its Communist successors that assumed Tibetan areas as integral parts of the Chinese nation-state.

What is clear is that there were religious ties to Tibet with the Tibetan Buddhist masters of that time. The Mongol and Chinese emperors often sought connections with these great practitioners, not just for political clout and influence, but also for spiritual advice, guidance and pacifying conflict and obstructing forces. The Karmapas, in particular, have had a deep spiritual (and at times, troubled) connection with the Monglian and Chinese rulers for many centuries. The first several Karmapas all had important status at the Yuan and Ming courts of China where they served as the guides to princes and emperors. Their influence also extended to the court of the Tangut Xia Kingdom. The connection was particularly notable ever since the 11th Century and the time of the 2nd Karmapa, Karma Pakshi, who spent around six years teaching in China and is said to have defeated military forces with a powerful hand mudra.. This was then followed by the 3rd Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje, whose connection to the Chinese emperors was a remarkably close one. He not only predicted the death of the Mongolian Emperor who was ruling all of China at that time, but also ceremonially enthroned the new one. He also passed away in China. Good relations continued with the 4th and the 5th Karmapa.

Dezhin Shegpa, the 5th Karmapa, had a very close and productive relation with the renowned Buddhist Chinese Yongle Emperor (1403-1425), also known as Ch’eng Tsu. As I wrote about before here, Yongle was responsible for supporting the first edition of the Kangyur to be published in Tibetan and was also the person who created and gave the famed replica black dakini hair hat to the Karmapas, which was then used in the Black Hat Ceremony, for more on that see here. While teaching the Emperor, for one hundred days the 5th Karmapa performed wonderful miracles, one for each day and the Emperor was so impressed that he referred to Karmapa as the Tathagata. The Emperor instructed his finest artists to paint these events on a silk scroll, which was then sent to the Tsurphu monastery. Fifty metres long and painted on silk, the scroll depicts scenes of miraculous signs that took place over twenty-two days during the performance of the ritual. These are described in Chinese, Arabic, Uighur, Tibetan and Mongolian. An original of the scroll has been preserved in the Tibet Museum, Norbulingka Palace, and Lhasa.

After reviewing some of these biographical and historical accounts, they clearly attest that despite having very positive historical and religious connections with China, the Karmapas also often refused to visit the Chinese emperors (for one reason or another), and so could not be considered under their direct rule. For example, the story about the 8th Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje and the alleged use of violent (and deathly) force (on one side or another) to get Mikyo Dorje to visit the Emperor (after he declined his invitation) demonstrates how the Karmapas (and Tibetans) saw themselves (and acted) as distinct entities from China.

Up until the time of the 8th Karmapa, the Chinese connection appears to have been generally mutually beneficial and peaceful. However, the Mongolian takeover of Tibet headed up by Gelugpa and 5th Dalai Lama, during the period of the 10th Karmapa, put a dramatic and violent end to that, and relations between the Chinese and Karmapas did not become re-established to the same extent ever again. The 16th Karmapa visited China shortly before he escaped to India after the Communist forces invaded and took over Tibetan territory they claimed was part of historical China.

Even today, the connection with China and the Karmapas is an enduring one, for example, the current 17th Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje, was born and raised in Tibetan areas of what is now controlled by Chinese government. He was recognized not only by the 14th Dalai Lama and the main Karma Kagyu teachers as the official Karmapa, but also by the Chinese Communist government officials. He speaks fluent Chinese and has given Dharma teachings in Chinese too, and is also an expert in Chinese painting and calligraphy. Not only that but the special ‘Chinese deity’ Protector of Tsurphu Monastery (one of the main seats of the Karmapas in Tibet) Sangharama (Guan Gong) is actually of Chinese origin descent too. The 17th Karmapa has recently done much work on re-establishing the practice of this protector ( see below).

The Karmapas’ Chinese connection has also been prophesised by Guru Padmasambhava to continue with the 18th and 19th Karmapa incarnations, as revealed by Chogyur Lingpa (see here and below).

This brief survey article pulls together and reviews some of the currently available English-language historical sources (see Further Reading/Bibliography for main sources) on the Chinese connection from the 2nd until the 17th Karmapas, together with my translation of the prophecy made by Guru Rinpoche on the 18th and 19th Karmapa’s activities in ‘Eastern’ lands, as revealed by Chogyur Lingpa.


2nd Karmapa, Karma Pakshi
2nd Karmapa

At the time of the 2nd Karmapa, Karma Pakshi (Kar+ma pak+shi, (1204-1283)) , China was partially under Mongolian rule:

“The Emperor of Mongolia was called Mongkor Gen (Mongka) and his brother Kublai (Garbe La) was ruler of the Sino-Tibetan border regions on his behalf. From Kublai an envoy was sent bearing an invitation for Karmapa to visit China. At the age of forty-seven he set out on the long journey. Travelling for a period of three years he spread the Kargyudpa teachings widely and reached the great Wuk Tok palace in the female wood rabbit year (1255).  The Sakya Pandita, Kunga Gyaltsen, had been staying in the palace for some years previously, but had passed away before the arrival of the Kagyupa party. Karmapa was highly honoured and there were many fine celebrations, culminating in his blessings being bestowed on Kublai and his court. By this time the Sakya sect was firmly established in China, through the influence of the Sakya Pandita, who expounded the Buddhist teachings to the Mongolians. Unfortunately political factions resented the arrival of the Gyalwa Karmapa, and threatened inter-sectarian schisms. Karmapa decided to return to Tibet, despite repeated requests from Kublai, who demanded that he must remain. He left the palace and travelled to the Mi Nya province, there establishing a large temple and many smaller ones. Thousands were converted to the way of Kagyupa Buddhism.

In the second month of the male fire dragon year ( 1256) he reached Amdo Tsang Kha region of North Eastern Tibet. In the meantime there had been disputes between the Mongolian rulers: Kublai had been ousted by Mongkor Gen, who now ruled over Mongolia and a large part of China. Hearing of the wondrous deeds of the Karmapa, the Emperor invited him back to China. The invitation was accepted and upon his return Karmapa was very royally received at the new Emperor’s palace. He bestowed many teachings and initiations. On the nineteenth day of the eighth month of that year ( 1256) he visited Sen Shing, Tao Si and Er Kaow, where in a debate he defeated many non-Buddhist Sages and converted them all to Kagyu Buddhism. On the twelfth day of the ninth month he performed the miracle of stopping the snow and the wind, even though it was the middle of winter. He also arranged for all prisoners in the region to be set free. On another occasion, Karmapa recited Mantras to drive away hordes of insects which had attacked the crops. Other pests were likewise dispelled by casting a single handful of soil at them. He then returned to Tibet, on the way establishing a new monastery at Tao Hu Chu Makha, where he stayed for several months.” (Douglas, pp.42-43).

It is said that over the next ten years the Karmapa travelled widely in China, Mongolia, and Tibet and became famous as a teacher. After Mongkor’s death, Kublai became the Khan. He established the city of Cambalu, the site of present-day Beijing, from which he ruled a vast empire stretching as far as Burma, Korea, and Tibet. However, he bore a grudge against the Karmapa, who had refused his invitation to remain in China some years before and had been so close to his brother and ordered his arrest. Accounts state that each attempt to capture, or even kill, the Karmapa was thwarted by the latter’s miracles. At one point the Karmapa ‘froze’ a battalion of 37,000 soldiers on the spot, by using the power of mudra, yet all the time showing compassion. He eventually let himself be captured and put in exile, knowing that his miracles and compassion would eventually lead to Kublai Khan having a change of heart which did in fact happen (for more detail, see footnote[3]).

“Karmapa then spent six years in China giving teachings, blessings and initiations. He built many monasteries and temples. His grateful disciples honoured him with many gifts, which he threw into a spring near Shang Tu before leaving the country. Upon his return to the Tsurphu monastery, some two years later, the presents were all miraculously recovered from a pool nearby.” (Douglas and White, p.44).

3rd Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje

The 3rd Karmapa (Rang ‘byung rdo rje, 1284–1339)’s connection to the Chinese emperors was a remarkably close one. He not only predicted the death of the Mongolian Emperor who was ruling all of China at that time, but also ceremonially enthroned the new one:

“[In 1326] The Mongolian Emperor Tokh Temur, Emperor of China from 1329-1332 who was ruling all China , invited Karmapa to visit him and this he accepted, travelling via Tsurphu. Continuing the journey he reached Dam Shung in the Khams province. There it suddenly started to thunder and snow in a most unseasonal way. Karmapa meditated on the portents of this strange occurrence and found that it indicated the imminent death of the Emperor, so he turned back to Tsurphu and passed the winter there. During this period he sent all the Chinese representatives, who had been with him to organise his journey, on pilgrimage to various parts of Tibet.

On the first day of the second month of the water monkey year ( 1332), at the beginning of spring, Karmapa again set out for China. When he reached Khams he decided to speed up the journey, in the hope of meeting Emperor Tokh Temur before his death. But on arriving at Chin Chow On, in China, sudden flashes in the sky informed him that he was too late, so he set up camp and perframed the death-rites. The journey was continued and the party arrived at the Tai-ya Tu palace on the eighteenth day of the tenth month of the monkey year (1332), where it was confirmed that the Emperor had indeed died on the day of the sudden lightning flashes. Rinchen Pal, who was in charge of the palace, officially welcomed Karmapa, as did all the members of the Royal family, the Ministers and the monks and laymen. All honoured him highly and received his blessings. He made a prophecy about an accident which would befall Rinchen Pal. After one month Karmapa Rangjung Dorje performed great ceremonies and rites in memory of the deceased Emperor. His brother, Toghon Temur (: 妥懽貼睦爾;1320 –1370, Emperor from 1333 to 1368 – the last Mongol emperor of the Yuan dynasty)[4]   was to succeed, but the astrologers had advised a six-month wait, and E-le Temur was temporarily acting as Regent.

Toghon Temur, Chinese Emperor

Then, on the fifteenth day of the first month of the female water bird year (1333) the new Emperor was ceremonially enthroned by Karmapa, who bestowed blessings and initiations on him and his family. In return the Emperor gave him the honorific title “All-knower of Religion, the Buddha Karmapa”. Hundreds of thousands of people were witness to the highly auspicious events.

On the fifteenth day of the fifth month of the male wood dog year (1334), Karmapa returned to Tibet, establishing many new monasteries on the journey. He visited Riwo Tse Nga, the great mountain pilgrimage place of the Bodhisattva Manjusri, in Western China, where he performed many rites and had an auspicious vision of the Bodhisattva himself. He reached Tsurphu in the ninth month of the female wood pig year (1335).”

The Karmapa’s vision of a thousand-armed Manjusrhi was recently spoken about by the 17th Karmapa (although he states it was the 2nd Karmapa who had this vision).  After that the 3rd Karmapa returned again to China and founded a new monastery for the Karma Kagyu, called the Mandala of Chakrasamavara:

“After receiving another invitation to visit China, on the twenty-fifth day of the eighth month of the female Wood pig year (1335), one year later, on  the eighth month of the male fire rat year (1336) Karmapa set out for China once more, visiting Tsurphu on the way. He performed many rites and ceremonies on the long journey and eventually arrived at the Tai-ya Tu palace. The Chinese Emperor was waiting for him at the gates and welcomed him warmly. There were great celebrations. Karmapa spent eleven days in each of the palaces of Tai-ya Tu, Tai-ya Tsi and Tai-ya Sri imparting teachings and bestowing initiations. In the great Tai-ya Tu palace he founded a new monastery especially for the Karmapa sect, in which the Mandala of red four-armed Avalokiteshwara was constructed and painted; in addition several beautiful statues of the great Kagyupa teachers were installed in the new monastery. The palace Mandala of Chakrasamvara was presented to Karmapa by the Emperor.”

Sadly, the positive relation soured after the Karmapa was accused by politicians of having political ambitions, which he denied:

“Some influential Ministers became anxious at the presence of Karmapa, feeling that the influence of his new Buddhism might interfere with their political ambitions. They arranged for some temples to be de’stroyed in China and Mongolia and demanded that there should be an immediate inquiry. This was duly arranged and both the Emperor and Karmapa were called to speak. In answer to charges that he was furthering his own political interests Karmapa replied that he had come to China at the request of the Supreme Emperor and that if there was any embarrassment about his presence then he would leave. He was much saddened by this turn of events, particularly since his sole motive for coming to China was that he hoped the Buddhist Dharma would be of help to the people; he had no political ambitions. The Chinese Emperor was very upset and begged Karmapa to remain. After performing ceremonies to put to an end a severe drought, which had for some time been affecting certain parts of China, Karmapa let it be known that the time was approaching when he would leave his body. The Emperor fervently requested that he remain alive longer and continue his work in China, but Karmapa told him that the moment had come for his departure, that he would be reborn in the- region of Kongpo and that he would return to China and see him again in his next incarnation.”

3rd Karmapa with face in the moon, that was seen by people in China when he passed away

The 3rd Karmapa, passed away in China and it is said that people saw his face clearly in the full moon:

“To his personal secretary, Kunchok Rinchen, he gave precise details of where and how to find his next incarnation, adding that he would declare himself at the appropriate time. Then, on the fourteenth day of the sixth month of the female earth rabbit year (1339), while in front of the great Chakrasamvara Mandala, having just completed the full rites and distributed the sacramental pills to all the participants, he passed away. There was great lamentation. However, very early in the morning of the next day, the sentries of the palace looked up in the sky and there in the full moon they could clearly see Karmapa. Immediately the bells were rung to awaken the Emperor and Empress, who looked out of the palace window and saw their Precious Teacher clearly visible in the Mandala of the moon. The very next day a fine craftsman was summoned and instructed to carve carefully a likeness of the Gyalwa Karmapa as he had appeared in the moon. This image when completed was most beautiful and remained one of the most precious possessions of the Emperor. ”(Douglas and White (1976), pp.50-51).

This vision is said to have inspired the tradition called “Karku Dazhalma” in which the Karmapa’s face is painted in the moon.

4th Karmapa, Rolpe Dorje

The 4th Karmapa, Rolpe Dorje (rol pa’i rdo rje, 1340–1383) who was also the master who recognized Je Tsongkhapa – founder of the Gelugpa lineage) had strong memories of his prior life in China and made new connections with them in his own life. Shortly after he had been ordained:

“Once, at Dechen, he gave full description of the Imperial palace of Tai-ya Tu [Khanbalik: Beijing], in China, stating the number of inhabitants and the names of some of the officials there. He said “Keep it in mind, and later when we reach there you will find it to be true!” Shortly afterwards an invitation was received to visit China[5]. On the twentieth day of the fifth month of the male earth dog year (1358), at the age of nineteen, the journey was started. Lightning suddenly struck at places on the way, without doing any harm at all, so Karmapa took this to be a favourable omen[6]

Karmapa reached the Tai-ya Tu palace on the eighteenth day of the eleventh month of the male iron rat year (1360) and was warmly welcomed by Emperor Toghon Temur, who was especially delighted since he had been a devoted disciple of the previous Karmapa. He bestowed the initiations of Vajrayogini and Chakrasamvara and preached extensively to the people[7]. To the Emperor he gave the special teachings of Mahamudra and composed a number of treatises for his benefit. Karmapa spent several years in China and established many monasteries[8].

Karmapa foresaw a great change of events in China, and said “Harm will come to the Imperial throne. And soon I must myself leave for Tibet.” Those Ministers who heard him say this were very upset and refused to allow him to leave. Then he said:

 “Marvellous indeed is the play which comes to its end before a large audience. The duty of a monk is to go wherever a peaceful place is to be found and to help spread the doctrines through compassion to all beings.”

These words were written down by the officials and were preserved as a sacred relic. He was granted permission to leave.”

In the male earth monkey year (1368) the Yuan dynasty of the Mongol Emperors fell and the first Chinese Emperor of the Ming dynasty, named Tai Tsung, sent messages to all the most highly revered Lamas of Tibet at that time, requesting them to visit him. Karmapa was among those who were invited, but being unable to go personally he sent an envoy of learned monks and Lamas to represent him.  Before the Karmapa passed away he also chose a spot to be cremated and predicted that it would ensure China not invading Tibet:

“Karmapa Rolpe Dorje journeyed towards a solitary mountain in the far North, preaching extensively on the way. He set up camp on the barren mountainside and said “Should the remains of a good monk be cremated on the summit of this mountain, then Chinese troops will not invade Tibet!” There, at the age of forty-four, beginning on the fourth day of the seventh month of the female water pig year (1383) he showed signs of being indisposed. On the night of the fifteenth of that month he performed a ceremony, packed up all his personal books and ritual items, explaining that they should be carefully preserved for his future incarnation who would be reborn in Nyang Dam, circumambulated the Holy Objects fifty-five times and passed away.” (Douglas and White (1976).

5th Karmapa, Dezhin Shegpa
5th Karmapa pictured with Yongle Emperor

The 5th Karmapa (1384–1415) had a very close and productive relation with the renowned Buddhist Chinese Yongle Emperor (1403-1425), also known as Ch’eng Tsu[9].  As I wrote about here, Yongle was responsible for the first edition of the Kangyur to be published in Tibetan and was also the person who created and gave the famed replica black dakini hair hat to the Karmapas, that was then used in the Black Hat Ceremony. A Khatvanga in the British Museum was one of the objects given to the Karmapa by the Yongle Emperor .

Chinese Emperor Yongle

In the renowned historical text, Scholars’ Banquet by the First Pawo Rinpoche, the text also speaks about the bravery of the 5th Karmapa and his influence on the Chinese Ming emperor. The Karmapa’s visit to China began in 1405, when at the age of twenty-two, Karmapa Dezhin Shegpa received an invitation to visit China:

“The letter from the Emperor Tai Ming Chen,  was written in gold letters and it requested that he make the journey as it could be of great benefit to the Chinese people. A Tibetan translation in the 16th century preserves the letter of the Yongle Emperor The letter of invitation reads:

“My father and both parents of the queen are now dead. You are my only hope, essence of buddhahood. Please come quickly. I am sending as offering a large ingot of silver, one hundred fifty silver coins, twenty rolls of silk, a block of sandalwood, one hundred fifty bricks of tea and ten pounds of incense.”

In order to seek out the Karmapa, the Yongle Emperor dispatched his eunuch Hou Xian and the Buddhist monk Zhi Guang (d. 1435) to Tibet. Traveling to Lhasa either through Qinghai or via the Silk Road to Khotan, Hou Xian and Zhi Guang did not return to Nanjing until 1407. Karmapa accepted the invitation and set out on the journey, travelling via the Karma Gon and Lha Ten Gon monasteries, accompanied by Situ Choskyi Gyaltsen and many monks and Lamas.

“On the twenty-first day of the first month of the fire pig year ( 1407) the party reached the outskirts of Nanking, where they were warmly welcomed and Karmapa was placed on an elephant. At the gates of the city the Emperor himself received Karmapa, who presented him with a golden ‘Wheel of Dharma’ and received an auspicious white conch-shell in return[10]. Many thousands of monks gathered to pay their homage, and all received his blessings. Karmapa bestowed the empowerments and initiations of the red Avalokitesbwara and Hevajra. The sixteenth Arhat, the Protector of the Dharma in China, appeared before him whilst the Emperor was present. For the next hundred days Karmapa performed wonderful miracles, one for each day and the Emperor was so impressed that he referred to Karmapa as the Tathagata[11]“.

The Karmapa Scroll given to 5th Karmapa by Emperor Yongle and recent painting by 17th Karmapa

The Emperor instructed his finest artists to paint these events on a silk scroll, which was then sent to the Tsurphu monastery[12]. Fifty metres long and painted on silk, the scroll depicts scenes of miraculous signs that took place over twenty-two days during the performance of the ritual. These are described in Chinese, Arabic, Uighur, Tibetan and Mongolian. An original of the scroll has been preserved in the Tibet Museum, Norbulingka Palace, and Lhasa.

Based on photographs of this scroll, an elderly Taiwanese monk, who tutored the 17th Karmapa in classical Chinese drawing and painting, was able to reproduce the original in collaboration with him.  His Holiness himself painstakingly completed the Tibetan calligraphy on each panel. The reproduction does not include other languages in the original. This recreation of the scroll was then put on display in the Monlam Pavilion, but people commented that it was difficult to see the details. His Holiness responded by commissioning a high-quality photographic enlargement.  It was made in Taiwan and was displayed at the 34th Kagyu Monlam (2017).  For more details and images see here:

One of the paintings by 17th Karmapa of the ‘Karmapa scroll’ given to the 5th Karmapa by the Chinese Emperor, Yongle

Here is a video of 17th Karmapa being tutored in Chinese painting:

5th Karmapa rejects political power and alliance with Emperor

Elliot Sperling asserts that the Yongle Emperor, in bestowing Deshin Shekpa with the title of “King” and praising his mystical abilities and miracles, was trying to build an alliance with the Karmapa as the Mongols had with the Sakya lamas. However,  Dezhin Shekpa rejected the Yongle Emperor’s offer. Thinley writes that before the Karmapa returned to Tibet, the Yongle Emperor began planning to send a military force into Tibet to forcibly give the Karmapa authority over all the Tibetan Buddhist schools but Deshin Shekpa dissuaded him:

“The Emperor presented the 5th Karmapa with seven hundred measures of silver objects, and bestowed upon him the honorific title ‘Precious Religious King, Great Loving One of the West, Mighty Buddha of Peace’. He told Karmapa that there were too many different sects of Buddhism and that it would be much better if there was only one, the Karma-Karyudpa, offering to bring this about by force. Karmapa explained to him that this was not his desire, nor could it be beneficial to humanity, since mankind requires varying methods of teaching and that in reality all sects are but one great family of Buddhism. Despite pressures from his Ministers the Emperor Ming Chen understood the advice Karmapa had given him and withdrew his forces from the borders of Tibet, even though they were in a great position of strength and could easily have overrun the country. The Emperor took teachings and initiations from Karmapa, eventually becoming a great Bodhisattva himself.” (Douglas and White (1976))

It is reported online that the Information Office of the State Council of the PRC preserves an edict of the Zhengtong Emperor (r. 1435–1449) addressed to the Karmapa in 1445, written after the latter’s agent had brought holy relics to the Ming court[13]. Despite this glowing message by the Emperor, Chan writes that a year later in 1446, the Ming court cut off all relations with the Karmapa hierarchs. Until then, the court was unaware that Deshin Shekpa had died in 1415. The Ming court had believed that the representatives of the Karma Kagyu who continued to visit the Ming capital were sent by the Karmapa.

The Dakini Hair Black Hat Replica given to 5th Karmapa by Chinese Emperor

One day, during a ceremony, the Emperor saw a mystic Vajra-hat, made from the hairs of one hundred thousand Dakinis, hovering over the 5th Karmapa’s head. Realising that it was visible only on account of advanced spiritual attainments, he decided to make a hat that would be visible to all. When it was finished he presented it to Karmapa and this same Black Hat has been worn by successive Karmapa incarnations since that time. It is said that this Hat has the power of conferring deliverance-on-sight to all living beings who behold it. For more on that, see here.

Tibetan historian, Dawa Norbu states that the example of the Ming court’s relationship with the 5th Karmapa and other Tibetan leaders, shows that Chinese Communist historians have failed to realize the significance of the religious aspect of the Ming-Tibetan relationship (Norbu, China’s Tibet Policy, 52)[14].

The ‘Chinese deity’, special Protector of Tsurphu, Sangharāma (Karma Gyalha)
Painting of special protector deity of Tsurphu by 17th Karmapa

Replying to a question about the link between the special protector deity and Tsurphu, the 17th Karmapa answered, “The historical record states that the 5th Karmapa, Deshin Shekpa was invited by the Emperor Yongle to spend three years at his capital. It was during this time that the protector Sangharāma came to Tsurphu, and from then onward, the sadhana was performed at the monastery. In Tibet, the protector was called Karma (related to the Karmapa) Gyalha (Gya means ‘Chinese’ and lha means ‘deity’). The Karmapa added that when he was reading the collected works of the Fifteenth Karmapa, Khakhyab Dorje (1871-1922), he found a short sadhana of this protector and also that the Sixteenth Karmapa, Rigpe Dorje (1924-1981), had recited the sadhana once in India.

17th Karmapa at Kagyu Monlam doing ritual for Sangharama protector of Tsurphu

For more on this protector deity and the 17th Karmapa’s recent activity in relation to it, see below.

6th Karmapa, Thongwa Donden

The 6th Karmapa also passed away at a young age, 38 years old, and according to biographical accounts, did not visit China or have any strong connection to the Emperors there.

7th Karmapa, Chodrag Gyatso

Even though some say that the Ming Emperor Chenghua (成化, r. 1464-1487) gave a black hat to the 7th Karmapa, (1454-1506) there is no mention of his visiting China or meeting a Chinese emperor in the biographical accounts.

8th Karmapa. Mikyo Dorje
8th Karmapa (Image from Rumtek Monastery, India)

According to various autobiographical accounts, the 8th Karmapa (mi bskyod rdo rje, 1507–1554) was invited on several occasions to come to China. One biography even states that a Ming army came to force the Karmapa to leave and that the Karmapa was responsible for a counter-attack that wounded and killed half of them. One online account states that:

“The Zhengde Emperor (r. 1505–1521), [also known as Wu-Tsung] who enjoyed the company of lamas at court despite protests from the censorate, had heard tales of a “living Buddha” which he desired to host at the Ming capital; this was none other than the Rinpung-supported Mikyö Dorje, 8th Karmapa Lama then occupying Lhasa. Zhengde’s top advisors made every attempt to dissuade him from inviting this lama to court, arguing that Tibetan Buddhism was wildly heterodox and unorthodox.  Despite protests by the Grand Secretary Liang Chu, in 1515, the Zhengde Emperor sent his eunuch official Liu Yun of the Palace Chancellery on a mission to invite this Karmapa to Beijing.  Liu commanded a fleet of hundreds of ships requisitioned along the Yangtze, consuming 2,835 g (100 oz) of silver a day in food expenses while stationed for a year in Chengdu of Sichuan. After procuring necessary gifts for the mission, he departed with a cavalry force of about 1,000 troops. When the request was delivered, the Karmapa lama refused to leave Tibet despite the Ming force brought to coerce him. The Karmapa launched a surprise ambush on Liu Yun’s camp, seizing all the goods and valuables while killing or wounding half of Liu Yun’s entire escort. After this fiasco, Liu fled for his life, but only returned to Chengdu several years later to find that the Zhengde Emperor had died.”

Zhengde Emperor (1505-1521)

In the main English language autobiography of 8th Karmapa’s life (Rheingans, 2017: 91: fn. 105), citing an article by Hugh Richardson on the topic, says that:

“According to Richardson (1980: 348), the party carried an invitation-letter by Wu-tsung authored in 1516. According to Khepai Gaton (mKhas pa’i dga’ ston, p. 1234), the Eighth Karmapa was again invited to China upon returning to Byang chub gling and to Karma dgon. This time a large army is mentioned, which must have raised Tibetan anxieties (Richardson 1980: 349). The story goes that, when sitting in front of the statue of the First Karmapa, it told him not to go to China this time (mKhas pa’i dga’ ston, p. 1234). Tucci (1949: 255, n. 95) had noted with Chinese sources that it was the Fourth Dalai Lama (1475–1543) who had been invited; but Khepai Gaton is clearly indicating the Eighth Karmapa. Chinese and Tibetan sources are also at variance when it comes to the supposed attack on the inviting party, which each ascribe to Tibetans or the Chinese envoys, respectively (Richardson 1980: 348–349).”

Rheingans’ biography states that Karmapa’s refusal was connected to the previous 7th Karmapa having predicted that he would manifest in both the form of the Chinese King and his own form:

“In 1519, messengers arrived from the Ming king Wu-tsung the Eighth Karmapa declined the invitation and continued to travel to Li thang where he composed a praise of Nāgārjuna. (p91). During that time the envoys from China probably attempted to summon the Karmapa for the last time, although sources contain slightly conflicting explanations[15]. A spiritual memoir offers insight into the young Karmapa’s most likely motives for his refusal to journey to the Chinese court. The passage at first recounts the belief that the Seventh Karmapa had prophesied that he had—in order to protect the doctrine—manifested in his own form and that of the king of China. When the king urgently wished to receive teachings from the rebirth of the Karmapa, the spiritual memoir states:

“At that time [I] was still a child, [and] even if I had not been one, I did not have in my mind even partially the qualities needed for going to serve as a spiritual teacher of a magically emanated [Chinese] emperor. Therefore, feeling intimidated, I was fed up with my own past deeds. [And I wondered] about my being called ‘Karmapa’, asking, for what [action] is it the punishment (nyes pa)? “(Rheingans, 2017: 93).

Although the 8th Karmapa did not visit China, he foresaw the passing away of the Chinese Emperor at the time he was invited to China:

“At this time, Karmapa had a vision of two suns in the sky, one of which he saw suddenly fall to the earth. He took this as a sign that the Emperor had just died and sent the envoy of officers back to China, where they found that Karmapa had indeed been correct in his divination.” (Douglas and White, 1976).

9th, 10th and 11th Karmapas

I did not find any information regarding these Karmapas visiting China from the English-language biographical accounts.

12th Karmapa, Jangchub Dorje

The 12th Karmapa (1703-1732) tried to visited China on being invited there, but before reaching there it is said that they felt it was ‘more favourable’ to pass away, than continue on:

“Retracing the route through Nepal the pilgrims returned to Tibet, reaching the Tsurphu monastery safely. Karmapa and Shamar Tulku left Tsurphu on the thirteenth day of the third month of the female wood snake year (1725) and travelled through Khams and North Eastern Tibet, visiting many temples and monasteries on the way to China. Passing through numerous provinces they reached Sing Chi-ew, where they visited the temples of Avalokiteshwara and the Goddess Tara. They performed many rites, giving special instructions to their disciples, saying that they should try their utmost to propagate the Dharma in the difficult times. This was a period of great religious discrimination. Karmapa and Shamar Tulku considered it more favourable for them to leave their bodies and reincarnate.”

13th, 14th and 15th Karmapas

There is no account that mentions these Karmapas having visited China.

16th Karmapa, Rigpe Dorje

The 16th Karmapa had a connection with China during his lifetime, and travelled there once. That relation ended when the Chinese invaded Tibet and he escaped to Sikkim, India.  His autobiography states that the Ruler of China, General Chang-Kai-Shek, invited Karmapa to visit, but he did not accept the invitation (p113). After that:

“The [14th] Dalai Lama accepted his [16th Karmapa’s] invitation to visit Tsurphu, during which visit the Black Hat ceremony was performed for him, and in return he gave the empowerment of the compassionate Avalokiteshwara. At this time fighting broke out in Eastern Tibet, between the Khampas and the Chinese. The Chinese sent a request for Karmapa to visit the area of Chamdo and he travelled there and advised both sides to refrain from any further hostilities. He made them promise to keep a five-year truce, but the Chinese were now trying to convert everyone to communism and people were feeling very uneasy. While in Chamdo Karmapa had numerous visitors and bestowed many empowerments and blessings to create stability in the area. Then he travelled to Lhasa, where he explained the situation to the Dalai Lama before returning to his monastery at Tsurphu.”

17th Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje

Even today, the Karmapas’ spiritual connection with China endures. The current 17th Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje (1985-present) was born and raised in Tibetan areas of what is now called part of China. He was recognized not only by the 14th Dalai Lama and the main Karma Kagyu teachers as the official Karmapa, but also the first Tibetan Buddhist master to recognized by the Chinese Communist government as such. Here is a video about the Karmapa’s return to Tsurphu Monastery in 1992:

and his subsequent escape from Tibet (and Chinese rule):

The 17th Karmapa speaks fluent Chinese and has given Dharma teachings in Chinese too, including this recent one on the Heart Sutra. As mentioned above, he is also an expert in Chinese painting and calligraphy, having recently painted the scroll given to the 5th Karmapa by the Chinese Yongle Emperor (see image below).

Painting by 17th Karmapa of the scroll given to 5th Karmapa by Dezhin Shegpa

The Karmapa has even been accused of being a spy for China, something that the Karmapa and China both deny.

Revival of Sangharāma, special protector of Tsurphu Monastery

Recently, the 17th Karmapa revived the practice of Sangharāma (known as Guan Gong).[16]. For reports about it see here and here.

A drawing of Sangarama (Guan Gong) by the 17th Karmapa.
In a report it states that:

“After the Karmapa came to India, he composed in Tibetan and Chinese a practice for this protector, which has been performed on an annual basis for many years. During an interview on 2005, he explained why he wrote the sadhana. “Recently, there was a wave of national disasters, so I wrote this sadhana of Sangharāma to pacify all obstacles and unfavorable conditions and to increase auspiciousness, peace, and happiness in the world. I also aspired that it would encourage virtue and bodhichitta in beings and enhance the harmony among countries and people.

“When I was young, my teacher for Chinese grammar was very interested the Sanghuo dynasty (220-280 CE) and often told stories from that time, which the I enjoyed hearing. The teacher mentioned that in the past at Tsurphu, offerings were made to this protector, but after the Cultural Revolution, they had stopped. He told me that I should revive this ritual. So when I was fourteen years old, I wrote a short sadhana without thinking very carefully about the words. My teacher was also not satisfied with it, saying that it was too short and that I should write a longer one. Nevertheless, when we performed this short ritual for the first time at Tsurphu, it felt as if the entire area became pure. The sangha played a variety of musical instruments and everyone felt quite happy.

“After I went to India, for a period of time, there were a lot of difficulties, so I did not have time to work further on the sadhana. When I was young, I had seen a lot of dramas about the Sanghuo dynasty, which were produced in China. One night I had a dream that seemed to take place during the Sanghuo period. In the darkness, many soldiers were riding horses, holding high their torches, and shouting as if going to war. Amidst a cluster of tents was a bonfire and I was sitting next to it warming myself. When I looked up, I saw that sitting on a rock in front was Sangharāma. He slowly turned around to look at me and was unbelievably magnificent—much more splendid than what I had seen in books, paintings, or statues.

After this dream, whenever I would see images of Sangharāma, I always felt that they did not look like what I had seen in the dream. Then for various reasons, I began to rewrite the sadhana, intending to complete it in three days, but it ended up taking five. I finished the writing in Varanasi and gave it the title Shenchou Zhongming, “The Sound of the Bell in the Land of the Gods.” Some of my attendants said that the verses were beautiful, so we performed the sadhana right after its completion. As part of the puja, we lit fireworks and everybody enjoyed the show. Friends in Taiwan and China learned that I had written this sadhana, and so I asked everyone to practice it. I have written it to fulfill the wishes of many.”

In response to questions, the Karmapa clarified that he wrote the sadhana so that the practice of Sangharāma could resume at Tsurphu and also for the Chinese people who have faith in this protector. In explaining the meaning of the title, he said. “When I was very young, I had seen a film produced in China called ‘Journey to the West.’ One of the main figures was a monk named Tang San Zang (based on the famous seventh century scholar and traveler, Xuanzang). When he and his entourage returned to China, riding on clouds from India, it is said, they realized they were already in China when they heard the sound of a temple bell, giving them the warm feeling of being at home. I was impressed by that scene and therefore named the sadhana, ‘Sound of the Bell in the Land of the Gods’ with the hope that when Sangharāma hears this practice, that same feeling of warmth would come to him and he would remember his promise to protect Tsurphu.”

18th and 19th Karmapas – prophesies
Tibetan text of Guru Rinpoche’s prophesies about the Karmapas, written down and revealed by Chogyur Lingpa

There are also prophesies that state this Chinese connection will become stronger and vaster at the time of the 18th and 19th Karmapas.  

In a teaching give in 2016, see video below, HH 17th Karmapa spoke about the ‘pure vision’ of Karma Pakshi of a thousand armed Manjushri with an alms bowl in each hand. In the vision, he said in the future your activity will spread all the way to the Eastern Ocean, and all the way to the areas of China. So when he received that prophecy, Karma Pakshi made the aspiration that ‘may it be so.’

Also, in the prophecy of Guru Rinpoche, revealed by Chogyur Lingpa (for more information about that see here) regarding the incarnations of the Karmapa, it states that the 18th and 19th Karmapas would have an especially great and wide activity, particularly in Eastern/Chinese areas.  The Tibetan text reads that:

“On the left side, Karmapa sitting in a ship on the ocean, symbolizes that the activities of the 18th will spread in the Eastern ocean.  On that occasion, the multi-coloured crocodile of the ocean is a symbol of the army from extremes, and to repel it one needs Guru Rinpoche as the tamer of demons.”

HH 17th Karmapa concluded his teaching (see video below) that as a result of these prophesies, it was especially good that teachings were being organized in Hong Kong and made the aspiration that the Dharma may spread throughout Hong Kong.

I hope that this article on the Chinese and the Karmapas helps to promote that connection, and transform it again into a positive force for Tibet, India and China. As previous Karmapas have helped resolve conflict and fighting, may the Karmapas bring peace and happiness to the people of both Tibet and China and to all beings. May it also be of benefit to the Dharma teachings and activities of the Karmapas in ‘Eastern’ lands, now and in the future.

Written and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 16th November 2020.

Further Reading/Bibliography

  • Blue Annals Chapter 6 – First incarnation series (vii): rol pa’i rdo rje (Karmapa IV).
  • Berger, Patricia Ann (2003) Empire of Emptiness: Buddhist Art and Political Authority in Qing China (Manoa: University of Hawaii Press).
  • Chan, Hok-Lam. (1988). “The Chien-wen, Yung-lo, Hung-shi, and Hsuan-te reigns”, in The Cambridge History of China: Volume 7, The Ming Dynasty, 1368–1644, Part 1, 182–384, edited by Denis Twitchett and John K. Fairbank. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Douglas, Nik and White, Meryl (1976) Karmapa the Black Hat Lama of Tibet, (Luzac & Company Ltd).
  • Ken Holmes, (1995) Karmapa, Altea Publishing, Author’s website.
  • Lama Kunsang, Lama Pemo, Marie Aubèle (2012). History of the Karmapas: The Odyssey of the Tibetan Masters with the Black Crown. Snow Lion Publications, Ithaca, New York.
  • Norbu, Dawa. (2001). China’s Tibet Policy. Richmond: Curzon.
  • Richardson, Hugh (1980). ‘The Karma-pa Sect: A Historical Note.’ In Aris, Michael and Aung San Suu Kyi (eds.), Tibetan Studies in Honour of Hugh Richardson. Warminster: Aris and Philips, 337–378. (Reprint of Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 1959, parts 1 and 2.)
  • Rheingans, Jim (2017), The Eighth Karmapa’s Life and his Interpretation of the Great Seal. A Religious Life and Instructional Texts.
  • Sperling, Elliot (1980). ‘The 5th Karmapa and Some Aspects of the Sino-Tibetan Relationship between Tibet and the Early Ming.’ In Aris, Michael and Aung San Suu Kyi (eds.), Tibetan Studies in Honour of Hugh Richardson. Warminster: Aris and Philips, 280–89. —— 2004. ‘Karmapa Rol-pa’i rdo-rje and the Re-Establishment of Karma-pa Political Influence in the 14th Century.’ In Cüppers, Christoph (ed.) 2004. The Relationship Between Religion and State (chos srid zung ’brel) in Traditional Tibet: Proceedings of a Seminar held in Lumbini, Nepal, March 2000. Lumbini: Lumbini International Research Institute, 229–243.
  • Thinley, Karma (2008). The History of Sixteen Karmapas of Tibet. USA: Prajna Press.


[1] Well-known even today are his two ‘foreign’ wives: the Nepali princess Bhrikuti (“the great lady, the Nepalese wife”, Wylie: bal mo bza’ khri btsun ma) as well as the Chinese Princess Wencheng (“Chinese Wife”, Wylie: rgya mo bza’). These two wives are credited in Tibetan tradition in playing crucial roles in the adoption of Buddhism in Tibet and held to explain the two great influences on Tibetan Buddhism, Indo-Nepali and Chinese.

[2] According to some Tibetan historical sources, such as the Scholars’ Feast, most of the Buddhist texts and practices that came into Tibet came from Nepal.

[3] “After four years Karmapa reached the Sino-Tibetan border region of Ila, where he was informed that the Emperor Mongkor had died, to be succeeded by his son Ariq Boga, who had subsequently lost a war with Kublai. Thus Kublai established himself as Supreme Khan and Emperor of both Mongolia and China (in 1260). Karmapa was much grieved to hear of all the fighting and bloodshed and spent seven days in the region, meditating and saying prayers for the future peace of China. On the last day of his meditation he had a vision of Lord Buddha standing before him. In this vision he was instructed to arrange for the building of a large statue of the Buddha, twenty-six arm-spans in height, in order to establish a lasting peace and for the salvation of the thousands killed in the war. The Emperor Kublai Khan, hearing that Karmapa was in Ila and remembering how seven years earlier he had refused Kublai’s request to prolong his stay in the palace, sent thirty thousand soldiers to arrest him. When they confronted Karmapa they were immediately paralysed by his two-finger Mudra,  but feeling compassion for them he restored their movements and freely allowed them to seize him. They wrapped him in a cloth and tried to tie him up, but his body was like a rainbow, with no substance and they found the task impossible. Then they forced him to drink poison, but far from having any effect blinding rays of light began to stream from his body instead and the soldiers were very afraid. They took him to a high mountain and pushed him off, but he glided down, landed on a lake and travelled across the surface like a duck. Unsuccessfully they tried to burn him, throwing him with two of his disciples 94 into a blazing fire. Streams of water came out of their bodies and soon put out the flames. The Emperor Kublai Khan heard of the events and ordered that Karmapa should be locked up without any provisions. For a period of seven days people could observe heavenly beings providing him with food and drink. The Emperor relented and became his disciple. For some time he remained in the great palace and was highly honoured. Karmapa recalled the vision with the instruction for the building of a large statue of Lord Buddha. The task was soon to be undertaken, seven large loads of gold being sent to Tsurphu monastery, accompanied by a message that a smith from Tsang who was living there was one of Karmapa’s manifestations and should be put in charge of the work. His disciple Den Gom, having been sent back from China to Tsurphu, supervised details of the construction of the great statue. Materials and funds were continually sent from China so that the work could be successfully undertaken. After three years it was completed, but the image curiously appeared to be leaning over to the left.

[4] Toghon Temür (妥懽貼睦爾; 25 May 1320 – 23 May 1370), also known by the temple name Huizong (Chinese: 惠宗) bestowed by the Northern Yuan dynasty in Mongolia and by the posthumous name Emperor Shun (Chinese: 順帝; Wade–Giles: Shun-ti) bestowed by the Hongwu Emperor of the Ming dynasty China, was a son of Khutughtu Khan Kusala who ruled as emperor of the Yuan dynasty. Apart from Emperor of China, he is also considered the last Khagan of the Mongol Empire. During the last years of his reign, the Yuan dynasty was overthrown by the Red Turban Rebellion, which established the Ming dynasty, although the Mongols remained in control of the Mongolian Plateau. As such, he was the final monarch of the Yuan dynasty and the first ruler of the Northern Yuan dynasty.

[5] The Blue Annals Chapter 6 – First incarnation series (vii): rol pa’i rdo rje (Karmapa IV) states that:

“Then the great Emperor tho gan the mur (Toyon Temür, d. 1370 A.D.) and his son having heard of the fame of the Dharmasvāmin, sent many Mongol and Tibetan envoys to him, such as the ding hu dben dpon and the sde dpon dkon mchog rgyal mtshan and others, with an Imperial command and great presents from the royal prince ‘i li ji inviting him to visit (the Imperial Court). Mindful of the great benefit for living beings, the Dharmasvāmin left ‘tshur phu on the 20th day of the fifth month of the year Earth-Male-Dog (sa pho khyi 1358 A.D.), aged 19. When a lightning struck at gnam, snying drung and other places, without doing harm to either the inhabitants, or their cattle, he understood it to be an auspicious omen. At the court of the Emperor and in the countries of the North he laboured extensively for the benefit of others, as well as composed numberless treatises. After that he returned to kar ma, where he showed that his usual preoccupations were not disturbed (by such journeys), etc. The regional chiefs of khams received him well and attended on him. They begged him to remove the threat of locusts (cha ga ba) and immediately he removed it. After that he proceeded to tre and composed a treatise named the chos kyi gtam dam pa dges pa’i sgron ma.When he visited kam chu gling (Kanchou in Kan-su), there appeared near the preacher’s chair (chos khri) a flower unseen previously in that region, with a hundred stalks springing up from one root, each stalk having a hundred flowers, each flower having a thousand golden leaves with a red centre and yellow stamen. All onlookers on seeing it became filled with amazement. The region was afflicted by plague. He subdued the disease for many years. When he had reached ga chu he received another invitation from the Emperor, but thought that a change (gyur bzlog) of events was imminent. Journeying through the country of tsha ‘phrang nag po, he reached the mi nyag rab sgang. He arranged for a twenty five years’ truce in the war between sgo and ldong. When he was residing on the mountain of ‘an ‘ga bo, many officials came to him with an invitation from the Emperor, among them shes rab gu shrI and others, who brought with them large presents. He then proceeded towards Amdo (mdo smad).

[6] “Throughout the journey he preached and bestowed blessings on the people. At one place, near China, he met five Indian Holy Men who presented him with three precious statues; one being of Lord Buddha in meditation, and two others made by Nagarjuna depicting miracles of Buddha’s life.”

[7] In the Blue Annals, it says that after the 4th Karmapa met Sakya Pandita: “in the year Iron-Male-Mouse (rags pho byi ba 1360 A.D.) he proceeded to ta’i tu (Tai-tu). On the mere seeing of his face and hearing of his voice, the Emperor and his retinue were filled with faith. In particular, he bestowed on the Emperor and his son the initiation into the Vajravārahī (Yoginī, rnal ‘byor ma) Cycle, the upāya marga of the “Six Doctrines” of nA ro and other texts. To the eldest Imperial Prince (rgyal bu chen po), he expounded the skyes rabs brgya rtsa, the basic text of the Uttaratantra and its commentary the basic text of the Sūtrālaṃkāra, together with its commentary, the basic text of the Kālacakra,and its commentary, and all the Indian basic texts which form part of the Kālacakra Cycle. He also bestowed the initiation of rgyal ba rgya mtsho (Avalokiteśvara). Further, he established on the Path of the highest Enlightenment (bodhi) numerous district officials and important personalities from China, Mongolia, Uighuria, mi nyag (Hsi-hsia), ka’u li (Korea) and other countries, headed by members of the Imperial House and governors of provinces.”

[8] “Visiting Amdo Tsong Kha, in the North-East, he composed a treatise, which was a great help to the community. Once he visited Kam Chu Ling, and near the throne in the monastery there appeared a flower unseen previously in that region. It had one hundred stalks springing up from one root, each stalk having one hundred flowers and each flower having one thousand golden petals, with a red centre and a yellow stamen. Everyone was amazed. At this time there was a plague in the region, but he effectively subdued it. At another place in China he delivered a sermon before a great multitude of people, many of whom spoke different languages. On the right side of his throne stood Mongol and Uighur translators, and to the left were Mi Nya and Chinese translators. Thus his disciples were clearly able to understand his words. He set numerous district officials and important personalities of China, Mongolia, Uighuria, and Mi Nya on the path of highest Enlightenment. He pacified revolts, stopped famines and eased droughts.”

[9] “Arriving at the Ming Imperial Court in 1406, and staying until 1408, the 5th Karmapa has considerable interaction with the emperor, persuading him not to be too harsh on other Buddhist sects. At one meeting, the Karmapa sits to the left of the emperor, in the place of honour, with three monastic 25 dignitaries to his left, the State Preceptor (go’i shri), a learned ritual master (slob dpon) and a great scholar. Then the three lamas were entrusted [by the emperor] with the work of the great go’i shri (State Preceptor), with a golden seal and a crystal document of authorization. About one thousand Chinese monks, who had committed crimes, had been put in prison and were in danger of dying. On the advice [of the Karmapa], they were rescued. On another occasion, he made forceful petitions on behalf of the criminals in prison in the great kingdom. On a third occasion, a widespread pronouncement was made known, that all the doctrinal traditions, such as Buddhists, Bonpos, and astrologers (zin shing), should each act according to their own traditions, and that none of their offering practices should harm anyone. When that was done, each headman said, ‘I understand that I will enact whatever the law (khrims lugs) is, as soon as it arrives’, and pronouncements and edicts (lung ’ja’ sa) to enhance the teachings were distributed throughout the whole kingdom.”

[10] Dawa Norbu (2001) writes that the Yongle Emperor, following the tradition of Mongol emperors and their reverence for the Sakya lamas, showed an enormous amount of deference towards Deshin Shekpa. The Yongle Emperor came out of the palace in Nanjing to greet the Karmapa and did not require him to bow down to him.

[11] It is reported that: “On the first day there appeared an iridescent cloud of five colours of most beautiful hue, expanding and contracting in various ways and as brilliant as the Wish-granting Gem. Then a ray of light, like the full moon, shone out above and around a Stupa containing Holy relics and two bands of golden rays rose up above the place where Karmapa was staying. On the sixth day there were seen a large number of iridescent clouds shaped like begging bowls, which filled the whole sky and in the South-Western sky there appeared many figures of Arhats, each followed by a large retinue. On another occasion flowers fell from the sky, some fully open and others in bud; their.stems and upper parts were like crystal and they floated everywhere, both high and low. After that a five-coloured rainbow appeared above the temple where Karmapa had prepared the Mandala of initiation. Then more Heavenly Beings appeared, carrying begging-bowls and pilgrim staffs; some were Wfaring hats and others held Yak-tail whisks, and moved about among the clouds. On the eighteenth night there appeared two heavenly lamps of a very intense red colour, as well as other lights (‘{ different kinds and they lit up the whole sky. In the distance Gods could be seen adorned with precious jewels, riding on blue lions and white elephants.”

[12] H. E. Richardson saw, in Tsurphu monastery in 1949, “a silk-backed scroll measuring 5Oft by 20 ft, beautifully illustrated and recounting in five languages – Chinese, Tibetan, Arabic, Mongol and Uighur – miracles performed by the Karmapa Lama on twenty-two days during his stay in the Cheng Tsu’ Emperor’s court”.

[13] “Out of compassion, Buddha taught people to be good and persuaded them to embrace his doctrines. You, who live in the remote Western Region, have inherited the true Buddhist doctrines. I am deeply impressed not only by the compassion with which you preach among the people in your region for their enlightenment, but also by your respect for the wishes of Heaven and your devotion to the Court. I am very pleased that you have sent bSod-nams-nyi-ma and other Tibetan monks here bringing with them statues of Buddha, horses and other specialties as tributes to the court.”

[14] “The Fourth Karmapa (1340–1383) had established ties with Ming Taizu (reigned 1368–1398); and the Fifth Karmapa, too, visited the court of Ch’eng-tsu, who at first tried to emulate the former Sa skya-Mongol relations (Sperling 1980: 186–189). From then on, successive Karmapas had loose ties to the Ming kings (Kapstein 2006b: 123–124). When shortly afterwards invited to Mongolia (Kaṃ tshang, p. 316.), the Karmapa declined the invitation; the contact to Mongolia under Dayan Khan (1465–1543) seems to have been rather formal (Richardson 1980: 349)”.

[15] In the footnote to this Rheingans (2017) explains that:

In mKhas pa’i dga’ ston, p. 1236, mentions that in the fourth month of the dragon year, ‘it seems’ (snang) he went to Ra ti dGa’ ldan gling, met bDud mo ba, and met the messengers of the Chinese emperor (gser yig pas). The spiritual memoir Mi bskyod rdo rje, Karmapa VIII, Pha mi bskyod rdo rje’i rnam thar, fol. 4a (p. 336), mentions only the Karmapa’s fourteenth year, which would be around 1520. The succession of events in mKhas pa’i dga’ ston (p. 1233f.) and Kaṃ tshang, p. 318, however, suggests that at least two visits had taken place before 1519, when Sangs rgyas mnyan pa passed away. Only after the last futile attempt to invite the young lama, the king passed away in 1521 (1520 according to Kaṃ tshang), which is in turn viewed as an indication of the Karmapa’s clairvoyance. The spiritual memoir discussed below, however, offers a more ‘personal’ explanation.

[16] “The story is told that Guan Gong was a famous general in China, renown for his loyalty, courage, and integrity. But he had killed many people in battle, so when he passed away, the general became a ghost wandering on Mt. Yuquan. Master Puching took pity on him and gave him teachings, and some three hundred years later, the founder of the Tian Tai school, Zhi Zhe Dahi (538-597), also came to Mt. Yuquan and gave Guan Gong’s spirit not only teachings but refuge vows as well. And so Guan Gong became the Dharma protector Sangharāma, and even now he can be found in Chinese monasteries as a red-faced deity on one side of the shrine.” Source Kagyu Office website.

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