EATING ONLY THE ESSENCE: Birthplace of 8th Karmapa and his first gurus, 2nd Goshri Gyaltsab Rinpoche and 1st Sangye Nyenpa, Siddha from Denma: ‘Good Deeds’ teaching by 17th Karmapa (Day 6)

On the sixth day of the ‘Good Deeds’ teachings, HH Gyalwang 17th Karmapa gave detailed teachings on the life of 8th Karmapa with an introduction to two of the 8th Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje’s important teachers, the 2nd Goshri Gyaltsab Rinpoche, Tashi Namgyal and the 1st Sangye Nyenpa, the siddha from Denma. Up until now, there is very little information available about these two teachers, in the English language. This transcript of the teaching will be of benefit  in making their histories wider known and, in the future, I will be using this transcript  (combined with other scholarship) to create specific biographies of the relevant individuals for public use.

First. the 17th Karmapa discussed an old thangka of 8th Karmapa depicting someone carrying a yellow hat, which confirmed that the Karmapas did also wear yellow hats. Then, he explained the birthplace of the 8th Karmapa, presenting recent photos of the area and a memorial stupa there. After that, the Karmapa then spoke about the second and third verses of the autobiographical praises about how the 8th Karmapa relied on spiritual friends and teachers.

This was a fascinating insight into the life of the first teacher of Mikyo Dorje, the 2nd Gyaltsab Rinpoche, explaining  the Chinese meaning and name of the Goshri Gyaltsab lineages, that started with the 1st Goshri Gyaltsab, and the suspicious circumstances of his 2nd incarnation’s sudden passing away at only, 29 years old.  Also, how the 2nd Gyaltsab was the first to give Mikyo Dorje major secret mantra empowerments such as Hevajra and Varahi, and how Mikyo Dorje viewed the 3rd Gyaltsab tulku as his guru still, even though the tulku was then younger than him.

In terms of the 8th Karmapa’s next teacher,  Denma Siddha [1st Sangye Nyenpa] the Karmapa explained the extraordinary levels of faith and devotion that Sangye Nyenpa had for the 7th Karmapa at a very young age, feeling it was like his own father when first meeting. Then later, travelling alone by foot for eighteen days to meet him (on a journey that normally would take two months on foot!).  How Sangye Nyenpa lived for many years on nothing but scraps of food and did the practice of Chulen [extracting the essence], refusing all other offerings and monetary allowance.  People called him ‘Nenpa Ngokhyog because of his bluish appearance and because his family were of the clan, Nyen.

The teaching was concluded with an explanation of the extraordinary way that 8th Karmapa followed and attended to the 1st Sangye Nyenpa, never losing bodhicitta at any time and with a devotion and dedication to study and serving him that was exceptional, even when he was going to sleep.

A full transcript is below (with additional footnotes) based on the original Tibetan and simultaneous oral translation. May it be of benefit and may all beings meet authentic and genuine teachers!

Transcribed, translated and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 24th February 2021.

Good Deeds Teaching by 17th Karmapa, Day 6

The actual people who asked me to give these teachings are the nunneries but together with them, the Kagyu shedras are also participating and so we have this opportunity to all enjoy the true Dharma together.

This year and last year, because of the pandemic it has been difficult to travel and meet together but because of technological advancement even though we are separated by great distances, it is as if we can speak to each other in our presence. So in the past, people in ancient times could not even dream of such an opportunity. But we have it. But we think this is easy or simple and don’t pay attention and don’t consider it important, it is not that I am important but the Dharma I am teaching which is the liberation-story of Mikyo Dorje the great being and he is important for all the students who study Kagyu philosophy and because  of studying that story we will have a better idea than before of what kind of a lama he was, what his character was, how he acted and taught, his conduct and then at that point we can feel real faith for him. Otherwise, if you say, ‘you should feel faith in Mikyo Dorje’ and insist on it, we need to think how does faith develop. If we are going to develop confidence in a teacher, we first have to know them quite well. We cannot do that if we don’t know them well. First, we have to know about Mikyo Dorje and then we can decide how much value we can place on him. That is why this teaching is different from others and more important than those we had in the past. So I will give a short introduction to his birthplace.

8th Karmapa’s yellow hat, birthplace and sacred spots

If you look at this drawing here:

If you look at this photo, the original for this thangka is kept in the Rubin museum in the USA [see image below]. It’s an old thangka of Mikyo Dorje, look at the left side, there is an attendant who is holding a yellow crested hat. In the past, we had a meeting and some people thought if we use a yellow hat that is the same. If we Kagyu wear gomsha, isn’t it better. However, I said the yellow hat was worn by the previous Karmapas and there is talk about it being a Vinaya hat, and I could have insisted on this. However, there is an explanation by Karma Kenchen Rinchen Dhargye I received, a commentary on the 4th Karmapa that explained the yellow hat. So we know there was an old tradition of the Kagyu wearing the yellow hat. So, we have factual evidence that Mikyo Dorje wore a yellow hat. This is a new drawing, but it takes the old one as a model.

The original 18th Century thangka of 8th Karmapa (Rubin Museum of Art) See Teacher (Lama) – Karmapa 8, Mikyo Dorje (Himalayan Art)
Close-up of the thangka with the yellow hat (see left)
8th Karmapa’s birthplace

This is Mikyo Dorje’s birthplace where he was born:

The name of this place is these days, Chengdu in gangzeng Dzong and you have to go up from Chengdu city, and it’s a two hour trip they say. As I said before, Mikyo Dorje’s father was Ajam or Serdral Jampa, but Mikyo Dorje says it is the latter, and it seems that Ajam was the father of the family. When you read the life stories, as I said before, the day Mikyo Dorje was born, he had a big argument with his mother for bringing all these dog puppies into the house and beat her. Whereas, Ajam treated him like a son and took care of him.

Information about the name, birthplace and dates of 8th Karmapa

Now the mother Lama Dron was the granddaughter of Kharchepa and Mikyo Dorje was born in 1507. However, we cannot say for sure it was in that year. In Tibetan we sometimes have extra months etc. but it probably was that year. His monastic name was Chokyab Pal Zangpo. These are the names recorded in the histories.

Sacred spots associated with the birthplace of 8th Karmapa

Next, is Mikyo Dorje’s birthplace. If you actually go there, the sites associated with Mikyo Dorje can still be seen. You can see a stupa built by his family, and in the upper right it is said, they planted a tree in the year of his birth. In the lower photo, this is the bark of the tree said to be wrapped around his mother’s body as a shroud, after she passed away. They hollowed out a tree and put her corpse inside of it, so the body decomposed but the bark remains.

The upper left, with the carved stones there is a house and a stupa which is built there in his mother’s memory. Then on upper left, there is the great footprint, which they say is in someone’s home. There are many rocks and these are footprints from when Mikyo Dorje was a child. This a region where they follow the Karma Kagyu and follow that tradition.

Second Verse – Praise ‘He Searched Thoroughly’, ‘Abandoning the Impediments to the teachings’

Next, now I have talked about his life story, I would like to talk about the second verse of the Praise He Searched Thoroughly. According to the annotations given by the 5th Zhamarpa Konchog Yanlag, the meaning of topic is ‘how he gave up the impediments to the teaching  himself and brought others into them’.

བཅས་དང་རང་བཞིིན་ཁ་ན་མ་ཐོོའིི་ཆོོས། །
ལྟར་སྣང་དམ་པའིི་ཆོོས་སུ་བཅོོས་པ་རྣམས། །
སྦུན་ལྟར་ཕྱིི་རོོལ་གྱུར་པ་ཉིིད་གཟིིགས་ནས། །
དོོན་བཟང་ལེེགས་བཤད་འདོོམས་དེེར་གསོོལ་བ་འདེེབས། །
(2) Seeing that those who try to make pseudodharma
Of the disobedient and naturally unwholesome
Into true dharma remain outside, like a husk,
He taught the fine meaning well — to him I pray

To explain in brief what this means, when we are practicing we need to know and ascertain the meaning between Dharma and non Dharma and what needs to be discarded and taken up. We should not then discard Dharma and leave it unheard. If we put it into practice, then we can be considered a Dharma practitioner. It’s not just about understanding the meaning but primarily depends on whether or not you have strong longing and fervent determination. For example, if we want to go along the path of Hearers and Listeners we absolutely have to want to be free from samsara and achieve Nirvana. But in this life, we are trying to get the fame, gain and status etc. Then, for the Mahayana we should only think of sentient beings and think of others as more important than ourselves. Yet, when something happens to the people we don’t like, we feel joy about it! Also, it is very difficult to be a Vajarayana practitioner and practice tantra, as we should have pure perception and see all beings as deities but for us everything appears as an adversary or like an enemy. At the very least, anything that appears that we don’t like, we get annoyed at them, so it’s very difficult to be practitioners who practice secret mantra. So, in brief, we don’t know how to practice. We don’t know the three vows well and that we should discard unwholesome acts. Thus, even though we look like practitioners outside, we are not. This husk outside Mikyo Dorje knew we had to discard it and could not keep it.

Therefore, when we recite this verse we shouldn’t think this is praises of Mikyo Dorje only.  As Tsongkhapa said in his Summary of the Stages of the Path:

‘I a yogi, practice like that. You who want liberation, need to do the same’.

Later, they changed it a little bit and said: ‘the Jetsun Gurus practice like that and you who want liberation should do the same’. So they changed the words a little bit. In the Collected Works of Tsongkhapa in his Minor Works it says, ‘I a yogi practice like that’. So that is the actual quote from Tsongkhapa. However, it’s the same as here. Just as Mikyo Dorje, or other great masters practiced, we need to follow and emulate that. We need to work to make that happen and this is extremely important. When you read these prayers, such as the Praise He Searched Thoroughly, we shouldn’t say ‘oh I’m praying please protect me’ burdening the lama with all our hopes and expectations. Instead we need to think about ourselves and what we are doing to ensure that, as we recite the prayers. 21.30 mins.

The meaning of this actually is that similar to the meaning of the second Good Deed we discussed yesterday. So now I want to discuss the 3rd verse from Good Deeds.

3rd Verse from ‘Good Deeds’ – following great spiritual friends

There is the commentary by Sangye Peldrub called the Lamp that Iluminates. The verse reads:

ཐེེག་ཆེེན་བཤེེས་ལ་འཁྲུལ་པ་མེེད་མཐོོང་ནས། །
ལེེགས་པའིི་ཡོོན་ཏན་ཀུན་ལ་ཡིིད་ཤོོར་ཏེེ། །
དམ་པའིི་རྣམ་ཐར་ཀུན་དང་མཐུན་བགྱིིས་པས། །
རྗེེ་བཙུན་རྣམས་ཀྱིིས་དགྱེེས་པར་བྱིིན་གྱིིས་བརླབས། །
འདིི་ཡང་བདག་གིི་ལེེགས་སྤྱད་ཡིིན་སྙམ་བགྱིིད། །
(3) When I saw that the Mahayana masters were unmistaken,
I became captivated by their excellent qualities
And acted in harmony with all of their august examples.
The great beings therefore granted me their blessings with delight.
I think of this as one of my good deeds.

What this verse teaches is how Mikyo Dorje  himself pleased his gurus and spiritual friends in ways in harmony with the true Dharma. There is a text called the Past Actions of Mikyo Dorje, which he wrote himself. Within that, he describes how he met spiritual friends and made connections, and saw them as objects for accumulation and purification:

‘I met the great being, the Nyewo Goshri Tulku Tashi Namgyal, an emanation of Milarepa’s disciple Shiwa Ö and of the bodhisattva Paljor Döndrup. He gave me the Mahayana fasting vows and empowerments, blessings, and pith instructions including Bhagavan Gyalwa Gyatso, Vajravarahi, Mahakala Bernakchen. I esteemed him highly with unbreakable respect and made him the object for gathering merit and confessing misdeeds.

So, if you ask who was the first guru in Mikyo Dorje’s lifetime? It was the 2nd Gyaltsab Rinpoche, Tashi Namgyal[1]. I will give a brief introduction to the life-story of the 2nd Gyaltsab Rinpoche.

8th Karmapa’s first teacher – 2nd Gyaltsab Rinpoche, Tashi Namgyal (1487-1518)
1st, 2nd and 3rd Goshri Gyaltsab Rinpoches (Ralang monastery, Sikkim)

The 2nd Gyaltsab Rinpoche’s birthplace was  in central Tibet, in a valley called Nyemo. He was born in the fire-sheep year of 8th cycle, probably 1487.  The 7th Karmapa, Chodrag Gyatso, recognized him as tulku of 1st Gyaltsab Rinpoche,  in the water-pig year, 1503. As Guru Rinpoche had prophesized, 7th Karmapa, Chodrag Gyatso gave him a red crown with golden emblem that had been blessed gave him a red crown with a golden blaze, consecrated with the essence of speech of the Vajra Amitabha Lama Gongdü practice. This is the origin of Gyaltsap Tashi Namgyal wearing the orange-colored crown.

During the time of the Seventh Karmapa, Gyaltsap Tashi Namgyal received empowerments, transmissions, and so forth from the Goshri tulku, Drung Situpa and his brother, Drongbu Goshri. Additionally, he received instructions and monastic ordination from the tradition of Je Kyasey.  So he had received many transmissions and empowerments. For example, if you read the list of Karma Trinleypa’s transmissions received, he said most of the oral transmissions were from the 1st Goshri Gyaltsab. Thus, the activities of the 2nd Gyaltsab were similar to the activity of 1st Goshri, Tashi Dondrub who had listened to many teachings and got all the teachings and empowerments for all the lineages in Tibet.

Meaning and Chinese origin of the word ‘Goshri’

So after the 7th Karmapa passed away, the Garchen great encampment needed a leader to take over and in that way, the 2nd Goshri became the regent  (or substitute). That was why he got the name regent incarnate, gyaltsab tulku. That is why we say Gyaltsab. ‘Goshri’ was the name given to the 1st Gyaltsab, Tashi Dondrub who was given the title of Goshri from his Chinese followers. There are different levels of Goshri,  Goshri Chenpo (great) and the Goshri that can give empowerments.. It is a Chinese word. Many people think it is an Indian word. In Tibetan society, they write the word like it is a Sanskrit word, ‘shri’ . For that reason, many people think the word is an Indian word and say ‘shri’. However it is not like that. ‘Go’ means ‘gyalkab’ and shri means master (‘lopbon’) so it is the master teacher of the country (gyalkabpai lobpon).

Suspicious circumstances of his death at 29 years old

When Gyaltsab Rinpoche went to Jang and Kham, he benefited sentient beings in many ways and then returned to Gonpa Tselhakhang and built many representations of the Buddha’s speech and mind. In particular, he built a golden stupa for the remains of the 7th Karmapa. Then he recognized and enthroned the 8th Karmapa. Finally, he passed away in wood-pig year of 1515, when he was only 29 years old. As I said before, the conditions and circumstances of his going to Jang and then passing were suspicious and horrible [suspected poisoning]. However, one doesn’t need to keep talking about such pitiful things. If every day we talk about such sad situations, then there is no point, right? So anyway, that is a brief introduction to the life-story of 2nd Gyaltsab Rinpoche.

So, when did Mikyo Dorje meet him and how, and what Dharma connection did they have? In the year of the bird, 1513, in the first lunar month of that year, Mikyo Dorje, who at that time was called the eastern tulku, went to the great encampment, before the sun set on that day, he met Gyaltsab Rinpoche for the first time. Later, on the 11th day of the 2nd lunar month, he was enthroned as the 8th Karmapa.

8th Karmapa predicted by treasure-revealers

Another thing at that point, Mikyo Dorje had been predicted by many tertons. However, in some of the prophecies they say that there would only be 7 Karmapas that are true, and following him they will be false, because they were not predicted by Guru Rinpoche, some said that. Yet, in other predictions they say from the 7th Karmapa onwards there would be 13 emanations. The first of these 13  would be Mikyo Dorje. The name Mikyo Dorje itself is given in the Guru Rinpoche prediction. I will speak about these predictions later if I have time. Now I don’t have time.

Western Tulku’s father imprisoned afterwards

When Mikyo Dorje was enthroned , the father of the western tulku Amdo lama had given all the wrong views to the encampment but that didn’t work out. So he said ‘The actual tulku of the Karmapa has not been recognized, so I am not going to stay here’ and I will go back home. But Gyaltsab Rinpoche said ‘if you want to stay in Garchen, then stay.  Even though your son is not the Karmapa, I can make sure your son will be given same respect as I have’. Even though they encouraged him to stay, the father didn’t believe him so then he left . After they left, we don’t know the reason, but someone else captured the father and son and they became imprisoned and all the monks in the retinue scattered and had no food or resources and they ended up in a very dire situation, as the texts describe.

Took vows of ordination from 2nd Gyaltsab

Then in the year of the Bird (1513) on the 3rd day of the 4th lunar month, Mikyo Dorje took the Mahayana fasting vows from Gyaltsab Rinpoche and was given the name Chokyab Dragpa Pal Zangpo. Then, gradually he was given the empowerments of Hayagriva and Varahi. Then on the 3rd day of the 8th Lunar month of the same year, at Ulung Yangon (?) retreat monastery, there is a place called Ulung with a monastery there, that is where Gyaltsab Rinpoche gave him the monastic vows. He discarded the signs of a layperson and took up the signs of the robes of a monastic. In brief, Mikyo Dorje considered Gyaltsab Rinpoche to be extremely kind to him.

Not only that he also treated Gyaltsab Rinpoche’s incarnation very respectfully. In Feast for Scholars by Pawo Rinpoche, it says:

‘He thought of Zhamar Konchok Yenlak, the nirmanakaya of the fourth holder of the Zhamar crown, and Drakpa Paljor, the tulku of Gyaltsap Rinpoche, as his actual lamas. He did not think of them otherwise, as students.’

So, he considered the incarnations of the 4th Zhamar and of 2nd Gyaltsab Rinpoche as his teachers. Mikyo Dorje also describes this very clearly in his autobiography:

‘After that I approached the nirmanakaya of the great Avadhūtīpa Drakpa Paljor himself. Though I did not actually make offerings of body and speech, mentally I thought him worthy of prostration and respect and did as much accumulation and purification as I could, that fit the mind’.

So the 3rd Gyaltsab Dragpa Paljor, was the 3rd Gyaltsab Rinpoche.  The 8th Karmapa did not physically make prostrations and so on to him because he was a younger guru, and if Mikyo Dorje had prostrated it would not have looked good. Yet, in his mind he had incredibly great respect. This is a brief introduction to 2nd Goshri Gyaltsab Rinpoche, the first main teacher of Mikyo Dorje and how and why he followed him.

8th Karmapa’s econd teacher – Sangye Nyenpa, the Siddha from Denma
Statue of 1st Sangye Nyenpa, said to be made by 8th Karmapa

The second, and we might say the most important guru, was Sangye Nyenpa Drubthob (sangs rgyas mnyan pa bkra shis dpal ‘byor), (1457-1525). How did the 8th Karmapa first meet him and follow him? The 1st Sangye Nyenpa was called Denma Drubthob, the Siddha from Denma. From the time he was 10 years old, the 8th Karmapa followed him as his main guru. Of all the gurus, the 8th Karmapa followed in his life, the most important, and the one he had the greatest faith in, was Sangye Nyenpa. Likewise, when you talk about the Kagyu lineage garland, the 1st Sangye Nyenpa is the only one listed in that [2], who was a guru of Mikyo Dorje [the other Sangye Nyenpas are not listed in that garland, nor of any of the other main teachers of Mikyo Dorje].

Meeting the 7th Karmapa and getting the name Tashi Paljor

Sangye Nyenpa was born in a place called Denma (‘dan ma), Kham. He was a descendant of the Lord of Denma. The year he was born is the wood-ox year (1440s) but it is difficult to say exactly what year in the 1440s, as there are varying accounts. From the time he was little, just hearing the name Karmapa, he got goose-bumps and shed tears. He had such  great desire to meet him, he couldn’t eat during the day or sleep at night and had massive devotion for the 7th Karmapa. When he was 15 years old, his parents brought him to meet the 7th Karmapa. As soon as he met the Karmapa, they say it was like a father and son meeting each other for the first time. They had a feeling for each other that was unlike any other. So at that time, the 7th Karmapa gave him the name Tashi Paljor.

18 day journey by foot alone to meet 7th Karmapa again

When he reached 8 years old, in the presence of under the guidance of both Bengar Jampal Sangpo (ban sgar ‘jam dpal bzang po), (15th-16th cent.)[3] and Geshe Paljor Döndrub (dge bshes dpal ‘byor don sgrub) (1427-1489),  and the 1st Gyaltsab Rinpoche. he became a monk. Then, from 9-16 years old,  in the region of Denma he studied the Nagarjuna’s Collection of Logic, and other teachings of sutra and tantra. Once he had studied philosophy to a certain degree, afterwards  he felt that studying alone was not of benefit and that practicing the teachings was of benefit. So in order to do that, it was necessary and important to follow a good guru and receive the profound pith instructions.  Thus, he left and went completely alone to see 7th Karmapa. At that time, the place where 7th Karmapa stayed was about two months journey on the road, However, Tashi Paljor went without stopping day and night and arrived after 18 days.  So he met the 7th Karmapa again at the age of 19. Then, from the age of 19 onwards, for seven years,  he followed him and spent time with him, Bengar Jampal Zangpo  and Goshri Paljor Dondrub, these three gurus, and was inseparable from them for 7 years

Nicknamed ‘Blueish Nyenpa’ and subsisted on the essence – no food or money

“Tashi Paljor made huge effort to practice and for that reason his body became extremely thin. He subsisted on food scraps and everyone called him ‘Nyenpa Ngokhyog’  the ‘gnarled blue Nyenpa’. The reason is because his family clan was Nyen, and his body had become bluish , so that was the nickname he was given. So when he was 23 years old, he had received instruction and now he needed to devote himself one-pointedly to practice and he went to the 7th Karmapa and asked him ‘if I do that is it OK’, and 7th Karmapa said’ yes, first, start off to Kham and then central Tibet and practice there and gradually  later I will come to central Tibet.’

Because of that Nyenpa Drubthob went down to Kampo Nenang for 3 years, then 2 years at Palpung, and then went up to central Tibet for two years practicing at Tsurphu, then he went to Nyenchen Thangla and spent 1 year practicing there. So probably 8 years in total. During this time, he didn’t make a fire or eat any cooked food and he lived on chulen (extracting the essence). So he didn’t make or eat any hot food for 8 years. Also, in the great encampment all the lamas and leaders had an allowance but SN didn’t take his allowance at all. He would take the scraps of leftover tormas and leftover tea leaves from making tea, boil those and eat those. He wouldn’t eat any provisions he was given. Also, he wouldn’t speak to anyone other than his gurus and practiced silence.”

Wish to go to Oddiyana and meet Varahi

“Then the 7th Karmapa sent him a helper, Ser Jadralwa Gendun Gyaltsen, and the two went off to practice Chulen in Jang Namtso in Northern Tibet. A very famous place.  They practiced there for 5 years. Then they went to Mon Domtsang, Mon these days is striding both India and Chinese-controlled  areas. Probably Mon Domtsang was in Chinese area. Likewise, DroLung, Tsamphug and Yenlag Shampo they spent a year there and practiced. So then when he was 40 years old, he thought I’ve got to many sacred sites in Tibet now I should go to India and Oddiyana in the west. Oddiyana is now in the current day Pakistan, the birthplace of Padmasambhava, so he wasn’t sure if his friend would so he wanted to test his friends mental resolve, metal, he said don’t joke around,  To do so, he asked him if he wanted to go to Shambhala in the north. His friend responded, “How can we go to places that Menlung Guru and Druptop Orgyenpa, teacher of the Third Karmapa, could not even reach?” If you have such confidence, let’s see if we can get to Oddiyana in the west,’

Thus Sangye Nyenpa got what he wanted and got ready to go to Oddiayana, but then his Dharma friend suddenly passed away. Due to that circumstance, he thought even though it would be great to meet Varahi,  though as the Guru is Buddha so is there anyone who could be better than the Guru Buddha?  It is often said that Kechari Vajrayogini was in Oddiyana and that she had taken the form of a prostitute[4] and he met her like that. So great practitioners said if you go there you would meet her . These days, you wouldn’t meet her there at all, and instead meet bearded Muslim people who am sure could finish us off and we would even be in danger. So when his friend passed, Sangye Nyenpa thought, ‘ I have lost him’ so now Karmapa knows all my joys and woes and put a hold on going there.’

Giving his mother Chakrasamvara empowerment after she passed away

Then, Sangye Nyenpa had a dream that someone came to him and said ‘you have not gone to see your actual mothers, aren’t you going to go there and make a  Dharma connection with her?’ So he decided to go and see his mother and he asked Karmapa who said ‘yes do that’. When he went back to his homeland his mother had passed away and he had a vision that she had been reborn as a dakini arisen from mantra. This dakini told him, ‘I am living in a terrestrial state and want to dwell in the sky so please give me the Chakrasamvara empowerment’. Through that vision he gave her that empowerment in his samadhi.

Ways in which Sangye Nyenpa benefited beings

When there was a war between Sangye Nyenpa’s homeland of Denma and Adro, someone from Amdo killed one of his brothers. This adversary also set out to Central Tibet to kill Sangye Nyenpa. At that time, Sangye Nyenpa was living as a yogi in a cave. When his enemies reached the cave they found that Sangye Nyenpa only had a bit of dry grass, he was emaciated, and his robes were in tatters. Upon seeing him, their hatred immediately subsided and they felt overcome with faith. Their hatred died down and nce they had felt faith, the people from both Denma and Adro requested his help in resolving their conflict. However, Sangye Nyenpa did not like engaging in such worldly activities. 

At that time, the Seventh Karmapa sent Sangye Nyenpa a letter asking him to build a monastery to benefit beings. Sangye Nyenpa, however, thought that he lacked the qualities to achieve this. He thought that maybe the Seventh Karmapa was trying to test the level of his realization. So, Sangye Nyenpa replied that he was unable to build a monastery. Once again, a letter arrived, ordering him to build a monastery. Sangye Nyenpa knew he had to follow the guru’s demands. He returned to his homeland, Denma and resolved the feud with Adro.  He then built a monastery at Urgyen Mountain Retreat and taught many of the people who had killed his brother and gave them many horses and material things. When these former adversaries realized his unbiased impartiality, they developed great faith in him. Not only did he build a monastery, but many students gained accomplishment from that. 

All the preexisting monasteries of Denma, however, became jealous and worried that everyone would become a Kagyupa. When these monasteries went to take up weapons against Sangye Nyenpa’s institution, the others in the region stopped them from fighting. As some disputes still continued, for that reason, Sangye Nyenpa’s monks mainly spent time in retreat. Not long after that, there was a huge earthquake that destroyed the monasteries of the people who had been fighting against him. During this time, the retreat quarters also collapsed but not entirely. The walls were standing up. Sangye Nyenpa’s quarters were on the fourth floor but he escaped unharmed when the building collapsed. Afterwards, he was seen sitting atop one of the remaining two walls. People concluded that he had been saved by his miraculous powers and that he had flown up to safety and must be a great siddha [drubthob]. That’s how he got the name Nyenpa Siddha.

After this, he moved to a new location at the base of the mountain and built a new monastery named Jangchup Ling . Not only that, in the area where there had been conflict, he collected donations, restored damaged and destroyed monasteries and promoted harmony among all the monasteries in the region. Then the 7th Karmapa said ‘don’t stay there and go and build a monastery in lower Dokham’. He went to many different places. If monasteries were in disrepair, he would restore them. He made many thousands of offerings to the 7th Karmapa. In particular, he became the8th Karmapa’s guru and offered him all the empowerments and pith instructions. When he was 65, he had completed all his activities according to his intentions and he passed away at Karma Gon monastery.  Even though he had many different students, in terms of his name and fame, he should have had a lot of students but instead he made the aspiration that all of his students would become Mikyo Dorje’s students. So that is why there weren’t many people who were considered to be Sangye Nyenpa’s students.

Meeting of 8th Karmapa and 1st Sangye Nyenpa and way he followed him from 10-12 years old

When the 8th Karmapa first met Sangye Nyenpa,  he was 9 years old.  At that time, Sangye Nyenpa and Drime Tashi Ozer, came to the Great Encampment. As for, Tashi Ozer, I will speak about him in the next few days. As soon as 8th Karmapa met Sangye Nyenpa and Tashi Ozer, he felt strong faith and longing for them and he thought ‘it would be great if I can follow gurus such as these.’ However, at that point, the people in the encampment were very strict and Mikyo Dorje didn’t have much power to say so and choose as he wished.

Generally, the most suitable to be the guru of Mikyo Dorje was the 4th Zharmapa. However, Mikyo Dorje was in Kham and 4th Zhamar was in Central Tibet and so they were far apart.  Another reason, as I mentioned yesterday, is some people there had painted the 4th Zhamarpa in a bad light, and so they were unable to meet. However,  Zhamar sent a letter or message that said among all the lamas in the encampment of that area the one worthy to be the guru of the tulku was 2nd Gyaltsab but as he has passed away, so as the other students of 7th Karmapa have also passed away, the other most suitable guru is Denma Drubthob [Sangye Nyenpa]. Also, there is  testament written down by the 7th Karmapa that gave a list of many teachers that might be appropriate, including Gyalse Thogden and others, but that Sangye Nyenpa would be the best person and most worthy for the position. For that reason, Sangye Nyenpa was invited to the encampment to be the 8th Karmapa’s guru. How long did he follow him as his student? Not very long. From the age of 10 until the year of the hare in the 2nd month, so if you count it, it is two full years, so not a very long time.

When we think about that, how could he have got all the teachings and empowerments from Sangye Nyenpa in such a short space of time? You have morning and breakfast, lunch and afternoon nap, then tea time and then dinner and so on, so it all takes a lot of time. So how could they do all that in such a short space of time? If we look at the stories, the way he followed his guru, the 8th Karmapa didn’t waste any time at all. When he was following Sangye Nyenpa, as soon as the sun rose until the evening, he spent the entire day with Sangye Nyenpa. He didn’t go elsewhere to have his lunch he had it right there with Sangye Nyenpa. Mikyö Dorje never missed a day of teachings and he never considered himself to be equal to his guru nor his guru being an ordinary individual. Even when he went to bed at night, he would think about his guru’s teachings. In the morning, he would offer the mandala and the Seven Branch Prayer, envision his guru as Vajrasattva, and take the empowerments. “He would not just go and sit down like we take dharma teachings these days,”  Mikyo Dorje wrote in his autobiography, Past Deeds of Mikyo Dorje:

‘Then I touched the feet of Sangye Nyenpa, mahasiddha, the nirmanakaya of Jowo Smṛtijñāna, I took the novice vows, he gave me the empowerments and blessings of the Kriya tantra, including the Trisamayavyuha, the blessings and empowerments of the Charya tantra, including Vajrapani; the blessings and empowerments of the Yoga Tantra including Vajra Dhatveshvari; the blessings and empowerments of the Unsurpassed Yoga Tantra, including Kalacakra. In particular, the blessings of the 9th Yana such as Strength of Awareness’. In brief, he gave me all the empowerments of Ancient and New transmissions. In particular, I received many instructions of what are known as the Nine Profound Cycles of Instructions of the Sa Kagyu, Joshal, Dakpo, Shangpa, Dzogchen, and so forth. I held him to be our highest object for accumulation and purification, and day and night, whenever I remembered, I took the four empowerments through the vajra yoga, never missing a day.

Then, from the bodhisattva on the eighth level and great lord known as Tashi Öser, I received his kindness from the Vinaya up through Glorious Samaja. I took his liberation and comportment as a yidam deity and prayed to accumulate and purify as much as possible through view and conduct that follows those manners. “

 Basically, he said that through all that time, as it is very difficult to get such a guru like Sangye Nyenpa, he never had any disrespect for him, or saw himself as being equal. Even when going to sleep at night, he would think about what his guru had done and what he had taught and he only thougjt about that. In the morning, he would offer the mandala and seven- branch prayer and visualize him as Vajrasattva, then take the four empowerments of Chakrasamvara and Vajrayogini. They didn’t just go and sit down and listen to Dharma teachings like we do these days.

During the teachings when eating the food, when having different questions, Mikyo Dorje would try and make sure he was never separate from bodhicitta and was very assiduous about that in his mind. He always thought may it bring benefit to protectorless and helpless sentient beings, and thought about it over and over again. When he was listening he tried hard to attain the words. When he was contemplating he tried to ascertain the meaning. When meditating he worked hard to develop experience. In brief, when he took teachings he had a strong interest and longing.


So, in the morning, Mikyo Dorje would get up really early and was unable to wait, and time was not an issue at all. When he went back to his quarters in the evening, he thought because am so young I cannot be his attendant, but if I were older I would want to do that. His eyes were filled with tears and he couldn’t bear to be apart from him. When it was a holiday, he wouldn’t think ‘oh great, now I can relax and enjoy myself’ Even went he went to bed he would put his head facing where the guru was and wouldn’t lie down like a dog or a pig. During the day, his attendants were so used to Sangye Nyenpa that they would ignore him and not pay attention to him, so he didn’t really have attendants. However, even though 8th Karmapa was very young then, he would do anything he could to help Sangye Nyenpa, get dressed, with his books, help him bathe and so on.

Sangye Nyenpa had a problem with his foot, and was unable to walk on it, so Mikyo Dorje he helped him walk  and  recover. So even though he was young, he served him in that extraordinary way, doing whatever was needed or requested.

Sangye Nyenpa said to him: “ Karmapa Kundun, your actions are really in accord with the dharma. Just your hearing my Dharma is enough, and I have been able to pass down to you the teachings from the great Kagyu forefathers which will be of great benefit to sentient beings. Continue to behave and perform the actions as you are doing now. If you do it will bring benefit to sentient beings.’

Seeing the guru as a Buddha

In brief, if you please a qualified lama with devotion and respect, then their blessings in entirety will automatically be transferred to you. This is a particular feature of Pandita Naropa’s tradition. So Pandita Naropa was an extremely well-known Pandita. He was the most well-known in Vikramashila. However, he was not satisfied with the great fame that comes from being a great Pandita, so he went to some penniless beggar, Tilopa and paid homage took refuge in him. Also, with Marpa the Translator, he completely disregarded the danger to his life to go to India and serve the guru Naropa. Milarepa was the same. No matter how badly Marpa treated him, somepeople even thought he had gone crazy sometimes and thought he was going to kill Milarepa. However, Mila never had any bad thoughts about it and saw him as a pure teacher, and thus became the most famous yogi in Tibet.

Seeing the guru as a Buddha is a profound and secret point of devotion. Similarly, the blessings of the previous Kagyu masters were able to take root in Mikyo Dorje’s being. In brief, because of his way of following Sangye Nyenpa as his guru, he was able to develop confidence in the Dharma, trust in the guru, disgust with samsara and to consider others as more important than himself.  This all happened because of Sangye Nyenpa Drubthob. The 8th Karmapa wrote this in his autobiography, Past Deeds:

the mindstream of someone like myself is not workable and I spend a lot of time with wrong views about Dharma and individuals, I don’t have any qualities.’ So, what he is saying here, is someone like me has a wild character and stubborn views. Whenever I see a person I think I have to scrutinize them and think’oh that is not OK, and doing that is OK’. I am that sort of a person and I don’t really see the qualities of other people.

But now, with the diligence and prajna of analyzing the scriptures and seeing that this life has no meaning, I had a bit of renunciation of wishing to be in an isolated place. Gaining this realization, is solely due to the great power of my guru, the great Jetsun.’

The 8th Karmapa is saying this ability to use his intelligence and examine the teachings of the scriptures and be diligent about it, that led to seeing the pointlessness of this life, and a tiny bit of conceptual understanding as all beings as his parents, was all completely due to the kindness of Jetsun Chenpo [Sangye Nyenpa].

Because his authentic guru had been pleased, all the blessings of body, speech, and mind in their entirety were transferred to him. This is common within the lineage from Tilopa teaching Naropa through Marpa to Milarepa. To actually see the guru as the Buddha is the profound point of devotion that was able to take root in Mikyö Dorje. Since Mikyö Dorje saw Sangye Nyenpa as his guru, he was able to consider others more important than himself. He developed faith in the guru and disgust for samsara. This is also from his autobiography: 

When I look at his ability to tame people with mistaken minds such as myself, I cannot express how it appears to be only in the sphere of those with great fortune. For that reason, most people these days do not recognize great qualities?’

So what he is saying here, is ‘for someone like myself, I always have wrong ways of thinking and am such a horrible person, so if someone such as myself can get his blessings, then of course beings who have good fortune will be able to do so. Yet, these days most people don’t know that people with great qualities have them. They put their faith in those who don’t have them and go for refuge to them’.

So this great guru doesn’t pretend he has qualities when he doesn’t have them and doesn’t care if others thinks he has them or not. Basically, his character as it is has these qualities. He doesn’t need to boast about it at all.

Sangye Nyenpa’s lifetime conduct – no alcohol, meat, nice food or clothing

Mikyo Dorje said about Sangye Nyenpa that  ‘he is a guru who has been consistent his entire lifetime. From the age of 7 onwards did not have any alcohol. From the age of 12 years onwards, he didn’t eat any meat. From ages 22 until 62, when I was able to attend him, he wore only tattered clothes and ate only food scraps and a tattered mat.’

Here, 8th Karmapa is expressing what Sangye Nyenpa was like from the age of 7 until he passed away, didn’t drink alcohol. From 12 years old, he didn’t eat any meat. That was very difficult in Tibet at that time. These days, many people in Tibet debate about whether to eat meat or not. Some tulkus say you should eat meat daily, some say you should not eat meat daily. Others say eat meat on this day but not on that day. Others come and say ‘you should eat meat’, they say if you don’t eat meat, you will become like the Mara Devadatta.

From time of 12 years old, Sangye Nyenpa did not eat any meat. From age of 22 until he met Mikyo Dorje, Sangye Nyenpa worse a tattered robe and tattered rags, until he was 24, his only possession was a single bowl. Not just him, even the people around and even the dogs did not eat meat at all, if there was any doubt it had been slaughtered for them. For that reason, Mikyo Dorje himself is expressing that, in his entire life, Sangye Nyenpa had spent his whole life doing Dharmic activites and set a great example for us. He had a very strong influence on him.

Mikyo Dorje developed  a lot of wisdom and power, incomparable to that of others in the lineage, and for this to occur is mainly due to Mikyo Dorje’s own efforts and intelligence. However, if there is no condition of the qualified spiritual friend this could not bloom at all. Thus it is because of the kindness of Sangye Nyenpa that 8th Karmapa became a great being, whose name and being were in accord.

The fact we are able to go to other lineages and speak about philosophy, is because of Mikyo Dorje’s kindness. Think about it like a spring of water and the source from which it came from. The fact that we enjoy such great fortune, whose kindness is it? This is something we really have to know. We have a Tibetan saying for this, ‘once you cross a river on a bridge, you don’t destroy the bridge’. So we do not think like that. We think: ‘oh things are going well for me now, so I am OK’ and don’t need to think about others having helped us previously and so on. Yet, the foundation for why we have turned out so well now, comes from the previous great masters.

In the past, In Tibet, in the 1980s, there were no great philosophical texts by the Karma Kagyu. So, the 16th Karmapa collected together the philosophical texts he had had printed in India, and sent them to Tibet. When they arrived there, many Khenpos when they first saw them were delighted to see them and when they spoke with their Dharma friends from other Dharma traditions, they said ‘wow, we never even thought that you Karma Kagyu had such philosophical texts like these. We never thought it was possible.’ That was because there were no texts. Without any texts, you cannot pretend that there are any. For that reason, we should appreciate that we have them and study them.

Transcribed, translated and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 24th February 2021.


[1] Goshri Gyaltsab Rinpoche (rgyal tshab), was the regent of the Karmapas at Tsurphu monastery, the seat of the Karmapas in central Tibet. An important lineage holder of the Karma Kagyu tradition. The 1st Gyaltsab Rinpoche was given the honorary title of Goshri by the Chinese emperor. The 2nd Gyaltsab Rinpoche received a red crown from the 7th Karmapa, both as recognition of his outstanding realisation and as a sign of the deep connection between the two.

[2] The 10th Sangye Nyenpa is based at Benchen monasteries, Nepal. Serious allegations of ethical and sexual misconduct have been made about him by women over the years, and my own experience of him and his enablers I attested to here. No meeting, investigation, apology, accountability or resolution has been offered by Sangye Nyenpa or his enablers. In fact I (and those who have openly supported me) have been attacked, defamed and bullied online. In the interest of truth and justice and to stop the invisibility and ignoring of women’s voices in the histories of these teachers, I state this for the record. All those who have remained silent, covered it up, or tried to scare, attack and defame myself (or any other women who spoke out) are also guilty of enabling serious misconduct of a teacher whom people look to as a source of refuge, love and compassion.

[2] Bengar Jampal Zangpo was born to the family of Nyemo Dzongpa, siddhas in Damshang (most likely located in eastern Tibet). He began study and practice at a very young age. At the age of twenty, he began studying Sutrayana and Vajrayana scriptures with the maha-pandita Rongton. Later, he received the Kagyu lineage transmissions and teachings such as the Six Dharmas of Naropa from the Sixth Karmapa, Thongwa Dhönden and followed his instructions one-pointedly. He became a highly realized master of the lineage. Bengar Jampal Sangpo became the principal teacher of the Seventh Karmapa.

[3] This meeting with a ‘nameless’ prostitute is another example of how in Tibetan Buddhist histories, as with many other histories in all cultures, women’s names have been ignored or made invisible. In the 21st Century that seems to be slowly changing with the increase of publications coming out of Tibet and the European and North American academies on important female figures in Buddhist history in India, China and Tibet.

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