TEENAGE 8TH KARMAPA’S ADAMANT REFUSAL TO MEET CHINESE EMPEROR: thousands of people, offerings and threats of force could not persuade him. ‘Good Deeds’ teaching by 17th Karmapa (Day 10: part 2)

In the second part of Day 10 of the 17th Karmapa’s teaching on Good Deeds, HH spoke about the remarkable integrity and foresight of a teenage 8th Karmapa who persistently refused to meet the Chinese Emperor; who was not swayed by thousands of people, precious offerings and even threats of force.

Below is a transcript, with annotations and references where suitable. May it be of benefit and may we all have the integrity and courage of the 8th Karmapa!

7th Karmapa’s prediction that there would be two Karmapa emanations – ‘the Emperor’ and the ‘revered one’

“As I said before, first the 8th Karmapa went to Jiang, then the year after that, he was invited by the 11th Emperor of the Ming Dynasty called Zhèngdé Dì正德帝; Zhu Houzhao (Emperor Wuzong 明武宗 (1491-1521, r. 1505-1521), personal name Zhu Houzhao 朱厚照. He was born in 1491 and lived until 1521.

Zhèngdé Dì (正德帝)

The 7th Karmapa, Chodrak Gyatso, said in one text that in his next life, if there were to be only one Karmapa, he would not bring great benefit to the teachings, and so he would manifest two Karmapas. Accordingly, some people in Tibet at that time said that the Ming Emperor Zhengde (Zhèngdé Dì 正德帝;) was an emanation of the Karmapa. 

7th Karmapa, Chodrag Gyatso

The 8th Karmapa spoke about this in the Autobiography Composed at Namtho Mountain[1]:

“Then the victorious Chodrak Gyatso said,
“To protect the teachings of the Buddha
In this world, emanated bodies
As both the ‘emperor’ and as the ‘one he revered’.

“If the teachings are not protected by power,
The unvirtuous actions of degenerate people will not be tamed.
In the future I will simultaneously emanate bodies 
As the sponsor and the one he reveres.

“And thus, sustain the activity,” he said.
Accordingly the Chinese emperor also Zhengde said
“I am also an emanation
Of the Karmapa.” 

Thus, the 7th Karmapa said there would be two emanations, ‘the emperor’ and the ‘one revered’. The Emperor himself declared he was the Karmapa.

In any case, it is said that Mikyo Dorje’s birth and the emperor’s accession to the golden throne occurred on the same day in 1505. The emperor had an interest in many different religions, including Islam, and a great interest in Tibetan Buddhism, too[2]. He gave himself the dharma name Dàqìng Fǎwáng (大慶法王), which translates to “Glorious Jewel”[3] and had a stamp of it made. Additionally, he learnt Tibetan, wore the robes of a Tibetan monk and a black crown, and said, “I am the Karmapa.” Whether or not he actually was the Karmapa is not important, but it was written in the histories that he had declared that.

As I mentioned before, from the time of 5th Karmapa Dezhin Shekpa, there was a tradition of the Karmapas and the Ming emperors sending messengers back and forth to each other and making offerings.

In particular, during the time of the 8th Karmapa, Emperor Zhengde said, “In the west, there is a nirmanakaya of Amitabha. He has come for my sake, so he must be invited to China.”

The Emperor sent a eunuch called Liu Yun (劉允) and four lower eunuchs with their ten generals, and each had two or three thousand soldiers, and ministers of lower ranks accompanied by two or three hundred monks; and porters, bearing over hundred crates of offerings: ritual objects made of gold, silver, and various kinds of jewels; robes; and seats; tea, silks, sandalwood and many other offerings, military to guard them, in total it is said over 70,000 people were sent to deliver the invitation. This is what was written in the Tibetan histories. The taijian (宦官 huànguān, or 太監 tàijiàn)[4]  were the eunuchs who served the Emperor[5].

This is also mentioned in Mikyo Dorje’s autobiography:

“Bring from the west 
Amitabha’s emanation to benefit me,
Who is known as the rebirth of the Karmapa,
Back to this great palace.”

This was the command he was given from the Emperor.

Differences between Chinese and Tibetan histories

The 17th Karmapa explained that it was important to compare both the Chinese and the Tibetan histories in order to establish what happened, as they sometimes differ. We have to look at both these histories to establish what was happening.

“One history of the early Ming dynasty which records that people in the Emperor’s quarters told him that a monk in the west knew the three times– past, present and future–and this was probably said to be Dusum Khyenpa’s incarnation. They reported that people from the backward regions said he was a nirmanakya or living buddha. Who said this? Among them, in the Tibetan histories, someone called Domtsa Goshri was the first one to inform the emperor about the Karmapas. He was given the title Goshri by the 7th Karmapa, Chodrak Gyatso and sent to China by the Karmapa, probably the 7th. At first, he wasn’t believed, and they put him in prison for several days.  Later, however, they believed him and released him and questioned him about the Karmapa and they developed some interest in the Karmapa.

The Chinese histories record that during the time of Yongle they sent envoys to request the Karmapa to come to China, and made extensive thangkas, gifts and offerings, so many that he pleaded with the treasury that he actually emptied the treasury. It is stated in the Chinese histories that they actually emptied the treasury of gold.  The emperor gave the envoy Liu Yun ten years in which to accomplish their mission and bring him back.

However, the Tibetan histories connected to Mikyo Dorje say that the envoy, Liu Yun, had very little faith in Dharma.  Even though Mikyo Dorje knew this, he felt he had no choice in the matter. He was given such a strong order from the emperor that was so forceful. He thought that if he refused to go, the emperor’s soldiers would use military force to abduct him anyway and take him to China, which does suggest, that the intention may have not been pure. They say there were  70,000 people and it was written by Mikyo Dorje and others Tibetans, so I will take it as accurate. “

Despite Emperor’s personal invitation, pure vision told 8th Karmapa not to go

“The huge retinue halted and set up camp at Rabgang, the reason they stopped there was because if they had gone straight into Tibet as there were so many soldiers, it would have caused some difficulties for them with the Tibetans. The other reason they did not go immediately into Tibet was because it is said the minister and retinue were having great  entertainment, dancing and singing and enjoyments at their camp. So rather than go in person, he sent his officials with an invitation letter to Mikyo Dorje, who did not accept it. He probably sent three or four parties to the encampment, but Mikyo Dorje did not accept the invitation.

Finally, in 1520, the minister himself went to deliver the invitation but without soldiers. On the first day, the minister himself saw Mikyo Dorje and offered him a khata and so forth. The next day, the emperor’s invitation itself arrived, and Mikyo Dorje, as was the custom that had been previously written down, went to receive the letter itself and accepted it. The custom of the great encampment was to make a written record of such invites and so on, and they wrote this in their records.”

The Ming letter which was written by the Chinese emperor
Wu-tsung to the eighth Karmapa Mikyod dorje (Mi-bskyod rdo-rje) in 1516. Richardson was shown this letter on a visit to Tsurphu monastery. It is unrolled to display the Tibetan text and supported on two chairs. Ming letter from Wu-tsung to the eighth Karmapa, 1516 (ox.ac.uk)
Hugh Richardson discusses the significance of this letter: “The letter consists of a silk-wrapped scroll some 5 feet broad by 2 feet high. The date is on the right, the Chinese on the left and the date in both languages, together with the imperial seal, are on the left of the Chinese text.” (p.364) The letter (dated 1516) was sent to invite the eighth Zhwa-nag Karmapa Mi-bskyod rdo-rje to the court of the Chinese emperor Wu-tsung “who after a hostile start, gradually became devoted to Buddhism and very indulgent towards Tibetan lamas.’ (p.348)

[ After doing a little research, I found a photo of the letter sent by the Ming Emperor, Zhengde to 8th Karmapa. Hugh Richardson discusses the significance of this letter and provides a translation of it in High Peaks, Pure Earth , London, Serindia Publications, 1998, pp. 348-9; 363-4. ‘The letter consists of a silk-wrapped scroll some 5 feet broad by 2 feet high. The date is on the right, the Chinese on the left and the date in both languages, together with the imperial seal, are on the left of the Chinese text.” (p.364) The letter (dated 1516) was sent to invite the eighth Zhwa-nag Karmapa Mi-bskyod rdo-rje to the court of the Chinese emperor Wu-tsung “who after a hostile start, gradually became devoted to Buddhism and very indulgent towards Tibetan lamas.’ (p.348)].

“The next day, the offerings from the queens, princes, ministers, and most of the other offerings arrived, which were to be later arranged as offerings to the encampment’s Gandola shrine.   However, when he first met the minister, Mikyo Dorje saw signs that the omens were not good. It is said that Avalokiteshvara appeared to him in a pure vision and told him that the emperor would soon pass away, so it was better not to go. Because of these visions, he declined the invitation[6].

Failure of bribery of Karmapa’s steward and abduction plot

However, the Chinese minister had very strict orders to bring the Karmapa back to the Emperor, and so he  started giving Karmapa’s steward gifts. At that time, 8th Karmapa was about 14 or 15 years old, The minister gave gifts to the steward promising him that if Mikyo Dorje were to go to China, the steward would also be given a high rank, like a duke.

These two became like noodles and meat, which go together very well. So when they were agreeing this, the steward said to him the Karmapa will not go. However, there have been all these offerings, over ten thousand people had carried them, so was a huge amount. Therefore, the two agreed that until Mikyo Dorje accepts the invite, the offerings would not be given to him. That he had to stay and keep insisting that the 8th Karmapa go.

At that time, in the great encampment there were a lot of people, great lamas and so on, all these important people had a meeting and discussed what they should do. They knew that Karmapa would not go but that they should say he will go on some particular date in the future. That he should accept the offerings and make some gift to them too. They should send a letter to the Emperor in the Karmapa’s name and then everyone will return and say we cannot go now. There wouldn’t be any harm to anyone if they went back after having done that. That most of the people in the party should leave but two of the eunuchs can remain. So, after having this discussion, they then spoke to 8th Karmapa.

Mikyo Dorje was adamant that he would not go because the omens were not good to go , but so that the envoys would not get punished by the emperor upon their return, he promised that he would go at a later date. The Chinese minister did not accept this at all though, and shook his head. As he had this secret agreement with the steward he had a lot of confidence. So he pretended to be angry , took back the offerings and left threatening to destroy Kham. He went to a place two station posts away, about a day’s travel from there.

The steward also went off with the minister to have some discussion with him.   He is said to have plotted with the steward about how they could abduct the Karmapa with some soldiers and force him to go to China. The great lamas in the great encampment in Tibet became aware of this plot, and Mikyo Dorje then immediately left to go  to Central Tibet..

Mikyo Dorje recounts this in the same autobiography:

Seventy thousand messengers of the great lord of humans
Came when I was fourteen years old.
They ordered that I go immediately
To be the Chinese emperor’s guru. 

At that time, I was not yet an adult,
And even if I were, I did not have in my being
Even a fraction of the qualities
To be the spiritual master of a nirmanakaya emperor. 

I was discouraged and despaired of my karma—
What is the fault whereby I had such a title
As being known as the Karmapa?

They supplicated me repeatedly,
Saying I do not have the power
To go above the emperor’s envoy. 
They planned to take me, and at that time, 
I refused very earnestly.

The retinue of the emperor’s envoy
Became haughty and departed[7]

The envoy and his retinue arrived when Mikyo Dorje was fourteen years old.  As he was so young, he is saying that he didn’t feel he had any qualities and so on to meet the Emperor and that having the title Karmapa has caused a lot of difficulties, so how did that happen? He felt he did not have the power or education to be the Emperor’s teacher[8]. That is why he told them earnestly that he would not go[9]

Chinese Envoy and retinue attacked by bandits on return, lost hundreds of lives and offerings

Thus, eventually the envoy had no choice but to leave. Yet, as they travelled back to China it did not go well for them. On the way, they were attacked by bandits, as everyone in Tibet knew about their valuable offerings. The bandits would kill hundreds of soldiers, and most of the offerings were lost. There was nothing they could do about it.

The steward was able to escape and get to current day Chengdu, and told them  not to tell the Emperor about it. Then, he went to Beijing, but at that time the emperor had passed away[10] . Afterwards, there was a new emperor who found out about what happened but had no faith in Buddhism, so Mikyo Dorje’s journey would have been pointless. The eunuch envoy was almost executed, but instead he was stripped of his rank, demoted and made a gardener.  

Thus, the Karmapa could not receive the great offerings as they were stolen by the bandits, and he couldn’t make his offerings either. All the soldiers died and the Emperor passed away, but later many natural disasters occurred in China. The general public said this all happened because the minister had not given the offerings as the emperor had decreed and because the Karmapa was displeased. Mikyo Dorje’s autobiography explains that:

At that time, the emperor, lord of humans,
The propulsion of his life exhausted, passed to a different realm.
At that time, even had I gone,
There would have been no point, other than becoming exhaisted 

It is not that I had the ability and power
To accomplish the great emperor’s wishes
But did not. Since I lacked the ability
To accomplish them, O emperor,
Whether you are an emanation or not,
If there is any wrong, I confess. Please forgive me.

So Mikyo Dorje knew that the Ming Emperor would pass away and that even if he had gone, the Emperor would not have been alive then. For that reason, he said he did not have any ability to accomplish the Emperor’s wishes and states that if the Emperor is an emanation of the Karmapa he offered his confession before him.

The steward also lost everything he had and later returned to the great encampment when it was in Kongpo. He had taken some of the offerings but he didn’t keep any of them. He went back to Kongpo very meekly and gave everything the minister had given to him to the Karmapa, as he hadn’t done his job well.  

Teenage Mikyo Dorje heavily criticised but stood his ground
8th Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje

People said that Mikyo Dorje had done a bad job and didn’t know what he was doing, that he should have gone and taken the offerings. Many people criticized the Karmapa, saying he has no merit and did it all wrong. However, the true meaning and pure meaning is that he had no attachment and did not just do things because the Emperor asked him or he got lots of offerings.  Those actions show the true character of Mikyo Dorje. Although he faced a lot of criticism for not going to China, not accepting the many offerings and so forth, in fact this is an example of his having no attachment to the eight worldly dharmas. He did what was in his heart and mind. He would not do something because someone made offerings to him or because, as in the case of the Ming emperor, they were important or famous. From the time he was young, he was different and self-determined. He really stood on his own two feet no matter what others said. He used his intelligence to examine a situation, and then act according to his own insight. Actually not going turned out very well because if he had gone, the emperor would have passed away and the following Emperor did not have faith in Buddhism.

When we look at the life stories of great beings, we might sometimes wonder why they did something they did and think that it would have been better for them to have done something else. Thus, when we look at people, we can only see what is in front of us and nothing else. When we consider the deeds of the gurus, we sometimes fail to understand them, questioning what they are doing. However, it is only later with these examples, that we realize that these great masters were good and did the right thing. Sometimes, it may even take a couple of centuries to understand the many situations and know that what they did was good. Many people in Tibet thought that Mikyo Dorje should do what they think and that he was wrong. We are so obscured by ignorance and cannot see the whole picture.

That is the explanation as to why Mikyo Dorje did not accept the Emperor’s invite and what happened afterwards.”


ENDNOTES

[1] This text is in the 8th Karmapa’s Collected Works (karma pa mi bskyod rdo rje’i rnam thar rje nyid kyis rnam thos kyi ri bor mdzad pa/) gsung ‘bum/_mi bskyod rdo rje Volume 1 Pages 333 – 34.

[2] Emperor Wuzong 明武宗 (1491-1521, r. 1505-1521), personal name Zhu Houzhao 朱厚照, was a ruler of the mid-Ming period 明 (1368-1644). In 1492, he was, as the oldest son of Emperor Xiaozong 明孝宗 (the Hongzhi Emperor 弘治, r. 1487-1505), made heir apparent. His reign motto was Zhengde 正德 “Correct Virtue”. The time of his reign was seen as a period of chaos and instability. Emperor Wuzong did not care for government affairs and preferred to dedicate his life to Buddhism, for which reason he adopted the title of “Dharma King of Great Blessing” (daqing fawang 大慶法王) and built many Buddhist shrines as well as entertainment pavilions like the Baofang 豹房 inside the Imperial Palace.

[3] Hugh Richardson refers to the name Daqing Fawang Rin-chen dPal ldan as being that of Zhengde, when identifying a sponsor of Ming period thangkas, by citing and producing a letter that the Ming emperor had sent to the 8th Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje, in which he signed himself with that name. See photo above. This is supported by Chinese historical evidence too and that the bi-lingual letter (in both Chinese and Tibetan) echoes the bilingual nature of the thangka inscriptions too. See also Chung-fang Yu. “Ming Buddhism” in the Cambridge History of China, vol.8, The ming Dynasty, 1568-1644.In ‘Tibetan Painting in China. A Postscript” 161-162 and “The Karma-pa Sect: A Historical Note.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1958) and (1959). The Karma-pa Sect. A Historical Note | Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society | Cambridge Core. Richardson discusses the significance of this letter and provides a translation of it in High Peaks, Pure Earth , London, Serindia Publications, 1998, pp. 348-9; 363-4. ‘The letter consists of a silk-wrapped scroll some 5 feet broad by 2 feet high. The date is on the right, the Chinese on the left and the date in both languages, together with the imperial seal, are on the left of the Chinese text.” (p.364) The letter (dated 1516) was sent to invite the eighth Zhwa-nag Karmapa Mi-bskyod rdo-rje to the court of the Chinese emperor Wu-tsung “who after a hostile start, gradually became devoted to Buddhism and very indulgent towards Tibetan lamas.’ (p.348). According to the biography of the Karmapa “[it] states the invitation was declined on account of inauspicious omens foreboding the death of the emperor, which occured shortly afterwards.” (p.349).

[4] At the end of the Ming dynasty, there were said to be about 70,000 eunuchs (宦官 huànguān, or 太監 tàijiàn) employed by the emperor with some serving inside the imperial palace. There were 100,000 eunuchs at the height of their numbers during the Ming.

[5] Another online account says that: “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 Beijng.  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.”

[6] In Rheingains (2017: 93): “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.”

[7] Rheingans (2017: 95) states that the 8th Karmapa’s autobiography “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 qualites 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)?114. Mi bskyod rdo rje, Karmapa VIII, Pha mi bskyod rdo rje’i rnam thar, fol. 3b–4b (p. 335– 338). 114 (Mi bskyod rdo rje, Karmapa VIII, Pha mi bskyod rdo rje’i rnam thar, fol. 4a (p. 336): de tshe bdag ni lang tsho ma rdzogs shing/ /lang tsho rdzogs kyang sprul pa’i rgyal po yi/ dge ba’i bshes su ‘gro ba’i yon tan bi/ /cha shas tsam yang rgyud la ma ‘tshal bas/ sems zhum rang gi las la yi chad de/ /bdag la karma pa zhes grags pa yi/ bla dwags ‘di ‘dra ci yi nyes pa yin/.) Pha mi bskyod rdo rje’i rnam thar rje nyid kyis rnam thos kyi ri bor mdzad pa (title variants: Pa mi bskyod rdo rje’i rnam thar rje nyid kyis rnam thos kyi ri bor mdzad pa and Karma pa mi bskyod rdo rje’i rnam thar rje nyid kyis rnam thos kyi ri bor mdzad pa). In Collected Works of the Eighth Karmapa, vol. 1, pp. 331– 343, 7 fols

[8] Rheingans’(2017: 93) 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 Emperor 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.  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)?”

[9] In Rheingans, (2017: 91: fn. 105), citing an article by Hugh Richardson on the topic, it 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).”

[10] “The Zhengde Emperor died in 1521 at the age of 31. It was said that he was drunk while boating on a lake one day in the fall of 1520. He fell off his boat and almost drowned. He died after contracting illnesses from the Grand Canal waters. Since none of his several children had survived childhood, he was succeeded by his cousin Zhu Houcong, who became known as the Jiajing Emperor. His tomb is located at Kangling of the Ming tombs. By the accounts of some historians, although bred to be a successful ruler, the Zhengde Emperor thoroughly neglected his duties, beginning a dangerous trend that would plague future Ming emperors. The abandonment of official duties to pursue personal gratification would slowly lead to the rise of powerful eunuchs that would dominate and eventually ruin the Ming dynasty.”

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